As more than three billion people get online today, the Internet’s impact on the world is unprecedented. It has changed the way people entertain, communicate with each other, and even get new information. These are all subtle and long-term changes, though. On the other hand, the Internet, especially various social networks, has also caused short-term intense changes. The experience of Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese political cartoonist who has been taking active part in the Arab Spring, demonstrates this point. However, I think that social networks, in this sense, is double-edged. We have to look at itself and its impacts critically.
First, the authenticity of news has always been an issue concerning social networking. Prior to the age of the Internet, the ways by which people learn about the world, such as newspaper, television, and radio, are generally controlled by elites. At best, the public’s understanding of the world is influenced by trained journalists and editors; at worst, through extensive censorship government officials can present a biased world which they want the public to see. Because of a paucity of information, it is utterly impossible for the general public to determine the authenticity of any piece of news. This old paradigm of news has been revolutionized by social networks. Now every single person who has access to the Internet can post what he witnesses in no more than a few seconds. This definitely makes the true information available in real time. Moreover, the innate characteristics of social networks allow people all over the world to access the information. These all sound good. However, if we look at the issue from another angle, we will soon realize that the authentic information can easily be inundated by partial, and even bogus information. Thus a paradox appears: the true information is present, but almost impossible to discern.
Second, the considerable amount of information has shortened people’s attention span, causing those who post online to pursue eye-catching and rabble-rousing effects. This way of thinking is helpful in revolutions. For example, there is no stronger voices than “We are all Khalid Said” in the Egyptian Revolution. These viral posts not only raise the public’s awareness of a certain issue, but also help the public connect with each other. While noting this, we should also be mindful of the negative effects. Today’s social network is all about attention; radical opinions often draw attention; thus radical messages are often present in social networks. The simple syllogism can partly explain the rise of ISIS and the popularity of Donald Trump in this year’s election.
Finally, the anonymity of the Internet fosters free speech. At the beginning, this allows people to be open and discuss issues that they normally will not discuss, and thus bridge the gaps between people of different opinions and backgrounds. However, this inevitably leads to the irresponsible and even hateful messages that crowd today’s social network.
In conclusion, while social networks, and the Internet in general, have revolutionized the ways we look at the world, we should always try to stay critical of its effects.