Loonies, and teabags, and prayers…oh my!
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Since it is now true that most people in North America use the Internet as their primary source of news, I’ve been trying to take the pulse of the Internet surfing public. To that end, I’ve been following news commentary on Internet news providers like Yahoo; I’ve even posted a couple of comments on a sampling of news stories to get a sense of the level of news discussion in which the general public engages. I’m here to tell you that if I have seen the face of the future, we’re in for a rough ride.
A few weeks of using the most popular Internet portals for daily news and commentary is a sobering experience. In the first place, the editors at Yahoo, to use the most popular source as an example, don’t seem to draw a distinction between news and commentary; click on a headline and your chances of opening an opinion piece by one of Yahoo’s bloggers is about the same as getting a Canadian Press, or Reuters, or other newswire piece. I have no idea how Yahoo chooses who is to be one of their contract bloggers, but they certainly have strong opinions, with, it seems to me, a right leaning predisposition. This is fair enough, of course; unless of course it is run without clearly acknowledging that the opinions expressed are personal views and not news reporting. Imagine if my opinions in the posts on this site were run without being distinguished from news! Even I would object to an unbalanced, partisan op-ed – like most of my pieces – being run under a news headline on the news section of a news site.
I won’t even bother going on about the preponderance of celebrity gossip, gotcha photos of “celebrities” I have never heard of since I don’t watch reality shows, and intensive analysis of the wardrobe choices of virtually anyone who has ever had a picture taken. There is no need to click on those headlines, and to maintain one’s self respect, one simply doesn’t.
I’m not even going to spend time bemoaning the wretched quality of the reporting and writing of the actual news they run between their lists of “10 things Men Hate About Women” and “12 Foods That Will Reduce Stress”. Let us just say that the content of the news logs is supermarket tabloid level and the form is barely literate.
But for a glimpse into the heart of darkness that seems to be at the centre of the Internet surfing experience, you need to follow one of the interactive threads provided for readers’ commentary after each piece. Now that can be truly frightening. A casual or even a serious look into these threads reveals a subculture dominated by vicious, hate-spewing, intolerant, uneducated, right wing bigots. If you want to challenge this observation, just pick a Yahoo News story on any high profile issue. Make a mild comment that suggests tolerance, or compassion, or human decency, then sit back and watch the replies come flooding in.
I read a piece on Hilary Clinton’s release from the hospital after she was treated for the blood clot she incurred when she recently fell; I commented that I was happy she had recovered and hoped that she was in renewed good health. The very first comment that was posted was a carefully thought out discussion opener. I quote it verbatim: <<Pagun, your a scrotum sucking Liberal %$#@*& who needs to be frickin shot. You and every other *&^%@#$ dont understand freedom or democracy!!!>> (No, my interlocutor wasn’t sparing my sensibilities with that collection of symbols…Yahoo apparently runs an algorithm that censors unacceptable words. Perhaps to avoid racist comments it won’t let you post the word “white”. This led me to read one of my own posts after it was cleansed and I found that I had referred to the President’s dwelling as the @#$% House).
Apart from the clear stupidity in the response to my somewhat innocuous comment, there is a worrisome undercurrent that runs through the Internet news forums. The right wing violent rage is palpable and it manifests itself in outbursts of venom at the slightest hint that someone may hold a differing point of view on even the least contentious issue. For the right wing, it seems, it’s not enough to disagree with Hilary’s politics; it’s not enough to resent her bitterly; it’s not even enough to despise her; they have to wish violent death upon anyone who even treats her with a modicum of courtesy.
Imagine the fun if you comment favourably about the @#$% House’s proposals for gun controls. Since I post comments using my “Pagun” handle, it’s fairly easy for even the none-too-bright trailer trash to find this website; one mild comment supportive of the need to reign in the gun violence in the US and I was inundated with death threats apparently intended to persuade me that they were from responsible gun owners. I know they were responsible gun owners because they told me so, and then promised to use their assault weapons to <<*&^%#$ shoot (my) mother&^%$* Liberal &^%$ off and teach (me) about being a real man>> since I am <<a frickin fudgepacking %$#& hole>>.
Hand in hand with this extreme intolerance is an inclination to politicise virtually everything. A woman stabbed her husband and two children to death; the first response in the midst of the that tragedy and the overlapping mourning of the children who died in the Sandy Hook school massacre? <<Now Obammy’s gonna want to take away knives from law obiding citizen’s>>
Something I am learning is that there are two categories of people, according to the audience who chooses to engage in public news analysis on the Internet. If you say anything vaguely positive about environmental efforts you cannot escape your categorisation as: a gay, hippy, Marxist, unemployed, welfare sucking, intellectual, abortion pushing, gun-hating, deluded, atheistic, anarchist. And on the other side, if you are a fiscal conservative, you find it necessary to espouse unfettered civilian access to weapons of war, killing the poor, rejecting all science, Christian fundamentalism, life beginning at conception, eating the whales, drill and frack in Banff, pave the forests, torture prisoners, invade every annoying country, and arm teachers. No middle ground; compromise is failure; shout the others down and deny their right, not just to an opinion, but to live.
My journey through the muck of the lowest common denominator on the web was profoundly depressing. I know there is more out there; I also look at genuine sites with actual news and therefore actual discussion, and I am sometimes refreshed by the thoughtful comments and I’m occasionally inspired by the insights found there. What is depressing is that such reasonable discussion is hard to find whereas the easily accessed surface stuff would embarrass Jerry Springer. This seems to me to be a perfect example of what I used to call The Pagun principle when I taught critical thinking to first year university classes: Ninety percent of everything is crap.
And, judging by the level of stupidity of the content of the Internet news and those who weigh in on it, that principle needs to include people. Yes, as Leonard Cohen put it, I have seen the future and it is murder.