The beginning of the internet envisioned a mind-expanding paradise in which we could freely communicate fresh ideas and consider alternative viewpoints. But today's internet is filled with a mess of misinformation going viral. How did we get here?

Another day and another WhatsApp forward in my family group that claims that Modiji is the tenth incarnation of Bhagwaan Vishnu. Chachaji from Ramnagar replies with a thumbs up followed by a gif of Modiji morphed with Vishnu’s statue. I’m trying to think how we got here.

The beginning of the internet envisioned a mind-expanding paradise in which we could freely communicate fresh ideas and consider alternative viewpoints. Even in those heydays of optimism, a few academics were concerned that this vision was based on an overly lofty view of human nature. The knowledge that the internet although a step into infinite possibilities included opportunities to abuse the platform and create new knowledge that can make or break systems.

With the advent of social media, connectivity was at the touch of our fingertips. It was crazy to make an account on Facebook and then chat with my friends from school. Back then, chat stickers became a rage. There was still the annoying sweetness of poking a friend on Facebook, the sharing of simple stick figure memes, and playing ‘pick a number and I’ll tell you what I feel about you'.

Soon enough our feeds became cherry-picked content piles, WhatsApp became a giant fake news factory and social media became a news source. The worst nightmare started when the baby boomers started employing Gen Z and millennials to plan their social media calendars. The already apolitical privileged that were on the internet now surfed political waters, grabbing onto what made sense. Now, unfamiliar things never make sense, do they?

When the corporates got to our data from these ‘safe’ websites, we were bombarded with advertisements and offers and ‘content’. Now everything looks familiar on social media. The carousel posts have a lingering familiarity, the reels all look the same, the news feels copy-pasted from one source to another and we seem to be finding ways to be ‘part’ of this joker show. Except we never seem to fit in and we never seem to be good enough.

As individual worths take big hits, so have democracies. The ease with which the internet algorithms make fake news trends, allow misinformation to spread, and the public debate gets washed by propaganda is wrong, except no one seems to be able to do anything about it. Our lives are now in the hands of Zuckerberg and the other big men playing dice with our data. All this while we try to fight a deadly pandemic in the face of massive unemployment and uncertainty, growing communal tension, and threat to media.

In the 1960s media theorist Marshall Mc. Luhan said that he can envision a global village that is going to be an international interconnected world. He predicted the internet and what it would mean to exist in a virtual space where cultures can be made and shared. In 1966 two researchers from MIT Marshall Van Alystyne and Erik Brynjolfsson warned about the possibilities of what Mc. Luhan called a global village.

Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases. Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.”

In fact, they called this fragmentation of internet communities ‘cyber balkanization'. The separation of these smaller fragments would be based on what they believed in. Today we see these groups as people supporting the political right, left, or what is claimed as ‘center’. Even within these political leanings lie several sections of people. However, the interconnection and debate have turned into pathetic name-calling, abusive and violent episodes.

There is a lack of shared experiences because our browsing and social media feeds to look the same every day. The echo chambers we are fed every day have altered our perspectives, turning us into brainwashed individuals with opinions echoing one another’s. This is harming us every day. Conspiracy theories like the QAnon Conspiracy that opposers of Trump’s rule were running an underground child-trafficking ring had massive followers. Echo chambers are harming our collective conscience, feeding us what we want to hear.

The 2020 Delhi riots were linked to misinformation uploaded on social media. Rampant posting of Islamophobic posts, riling up viewers against Muslims, and calling upon ‘action’ brought about what is a horrific riot in recent times. During the riots, several videos were uploaded. Among the uploaders was one Sudesh Thakur who made several islamophobic posts on Facebook. According to the Wire’s report on his posts, he posted videos where he is calling people out while violence takes place and inciting them to come down. Thakur had also posted bragging about sending a ‘jihadi’ to heaven. His quote in Wire’s article reads

“I personally believe that anyone who speaks against the nation should be shot dead.”

Not only this but 22-year-old climate activist’s arrest following her sharing a protest ‘toolkit’ that was shared by Greta Thunberg. Social media pounced on their arrest without understanding that sharing toolkits while protesting are common and used by many protestors and activist to help organize and sustain movements. Echo chambers screamed how she was part of something that was to hurt the nation- all because she was helping sustain a farmer’s movement amid growing sentiments against farmers in the country associating them with pro-Khalistan movement.

On the internet, everyone seems to know what they are talking about expecting they don’t. Echo chambers have spoon-fed us opinions even though we might not belong to the social identity that has the opinion. This also explains why the ‘wokeness' movement has gained traction. Suddenly everyone wants to be ‘inclusive’ despite being casteist in their everyday lives. This is hurting movements of dissent in India as well as climate conservation movements. At the end of the day, reposting a post about climate change will not save the planet while you sit on a plastic chair in an air-conditioned room.

The only way out of this mess is to actively check news sources and cross-check facts with multiple sources. We need to take media literacy seriously and teach it in schools and colleges. However in a country with a gaping digital divide, it seems like a long road. But you, dear, reader, have the privilege to fact-check and bust fake news. I’ll go collate a list of articles about the Gujarat riots to send to whoever forwarded the Modi-Vishnu message.