The Internet, the Other Horrible Disillusionment

The hope of people of reason was immense: The internet was going to make knowledge accessible to all. It’s actually the opposite. Because of the populists, the California dream of an enlightened humanity has become a nightmare.

The people of reason have major disillusions these days. To their surprise, populism overtook small countries to win big. To their surprise, the benefits of globalization do not flow from the elite class to the people. Larry Summers, a former adviser to Bill Clinton and one of the economic theorists who came up with the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” and with the rallying of the Democratic left behind pro-business policies (supply-side economics), has known since before the crisis of 2008 that “a rising tide does not lift all boats, only the yachts.”*

The comfortable feeling that growth would naturally end up solving all the problems is in decline. The underdogs, enraged, aren’t waiting any longer. They are quickly taking the erroneous economic optimism and overturning it in the political arena. No country escapes it anymore; the elections are now about defeats. The next ones are in Italy, the Netherlands, and France. Even in Germany, a country reasonable people thought was vaccinated forever, the main question has become the power of the populists in the AFD.**

Contrary to the plan of reasonable people, not everyone will be satisfied. This first disillusionment comes with another of greater importance, that of saying that all heads would be well filled. The hope of reasonable people was immense: The internet was going to make knowledge accessible to all, given that the best courses from the best professors can be reached by just one click. All studies, all of the science available for free. The “small thumb” of Michel Serres, offering all information to man, was going to free him and enable him to devote his time and his brain to inventions, art, and intelligence. Blissful anthropological transformation, nothing less.

Boom. To their surprise, reasonable people discover that this is not the case, or rather the opposite is happening: Lies beat truths. The internet amplifies and legitimizes anything. The United States kick-started the debate on the role of the social networks in the presidential election but the almost unanimous conclusion of the political scientists is clear: Facebook did not win the election for Donald Trump, but heavily contributed to it. Founder Mark Zuckerberg immediately rejected that claim, finding it “crazy.” But many of his collaborators and leaders do not share his opinion. The California dream of a humanity enlightened by the exchange of ideas, by the confrontation of different points of view, and by the aggregate construction of truth has become a nightmare because of the populists.

Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, explains that before Facebook, the racist or homophobic individual was restrained by the force of social prohibitions; he kept his remarks to himself, his family, at his friends’ table, and his shooting club. He wasn’t aware of others with the same opinion; he grumbled but was restrained in his corner. All of a sudden, the network helps him discover a bunch of racist “friends” like himself. The word is freed and, restrained for so long, is shouted. We know that there’s legitimacy in numbers.

In the beginning, the internet was used to spread good ideas, from the left in general. The alter-globalists, the indignant, and all the current progressives used its force and its international, universal character. One could say that the internet made the Arab revolutions and the election of the first black president in the United States possible. Today, it’s the complete opposite. The internet is exploited by the opposing forces and the alt-right (radical right). They mainly spread their propaganda on the internet, which favors short messages, exploits people’s emotions, and spreads so fast that nothing is fact-checked. Fake news is launched on obscure sites often from abroad (Hillary Clinton mingled in a network of pedophiles in a pizzeria, an investigator of her emails was found dead, etc.) and they went viral on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others in a second. The fact-checking by serious media was useless and arrived too late. Worse, it only confirmed the commitment of the press to opposing Trump. The most widely spread news stories online during the campaign were fake. “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have a problem,” Obama warned during his visit to Berlin.

Emptied bellies, heads filled with garbage – then the nerves flare up. Reason loses to emotion. What to do? Take the measure of this defeat. The world is not doing well; it’s doing badly. Then refuse the populist answer, which is to turn backward, to reject globalization, against the freedoms of the Web. It will be difficult since the temptation of a light, protectionist populism is spreading on the right and on the left in the traditional parties. Go toward new illusions, of a reindustrialization, of the return to the school of yesteryear, of the possible survival of the old media. It will be necessary to radically invent something else, a massive displacement of the welfare state onto the middle class and an educational and media policy that restores a free mind to the people. There is much, much work to be done.

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

**Editor’s note: The AFD is the Alternative for Germany Party, a right-wing populist party that has made gains in Germany’s recent elections.

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