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The advent of the Internet brought with it high hopes for the creation of a great “online community,” where everyone would be given an equal voice, and where informed political, religious, and cultural discourse would take place in a spirit of patient civility, careful consideration, and shared learning. Here at last the democratic dream would be realized, as elites—magazine editors, television presidents, newspaper reporters—who had heretofore filtered and controlled public conversation would be circumvented, and the opinions of Everyman would rule.
What we have gotten instead of a people’s paradise is largely a plague of online trollishness, a nightmare of cacophonous incivility, and a mobocracy beyond the worst fears of the highest Federalists among our Founding Fathers.
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One needs only to read the comments section on nearly any web journal, or on social media, to lose hope—at least in democracy, and perhaps even in one’s fellow man altogether. Suddenly on the Internet, every man is his own pope, his own political savant, his own environmental scientist, his own philosopher-king. Our, at best, semi-formed and semi-informed opinions are cast as absolutes, and we feel uninhibited in declaring to all mankind from our technological perch that global warming is an unassailable truth, that the Shroud of Turin was really the burial cloth of Christ, that Russia obviously colluded to help Donald Trump win the presidency, that the South was right… or whatever our view of the moment on the topic at hand may be. Convinced of our perfect knowledge and infallible righteousness, we feel entitled to deem others not only “wrong,” but “insane” or “evil.” We have convinced ourselves that in addition to being experts on every issue, we are perfect judges of the souls of people whom we have never met but whom we have merely seen on TV or read about on...
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