COVID-19 TIMES - The Dark Side of the Internet

Since the current pandemic hit the world, we have all discovered new ways of communicating and staying in touch with our loved ones living, sometimes, on the other side of the planet - or maybe just in the state next door. As a community, we have learned to keep people connected and to provide a lifeline to compensate for the very difficult situation of lockdowns. We managed, thank Zoom, to keep the business of community running. But what about the "other side" of the Internet?

In addition to all the positives aspects, interacting online provides people with a degree of anonimity they could not have in personal interactions. Even when you comment on an article online, you are given the option to choose a name. This is done to preserve the Internet as a safe environment - but it can also backfire.

For decades now, a new Internet culture has been developing. People "live" their lives on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or any of those other wonderful programs which enable us to better communicate with our friends. But this culture has also helped develop a sense of "zero accountability". If I can create an account "@whocares", I can post anything I want with no personal consequences, and without even having to acknowledge comments I don't like. I can post outrageous lies or offensive content without facing my audience. Or consequences.

Many of those people who, before the Internet and Social Media, expressed aggressive or hurtful or plain false opinions for their shock value in a social group, faced the censure of their peers. Today, that same behavior rewards them with traffic in their accounts (which is where the money is made). People are not only able to say whatever they want without consequences - the financial dynamics of the Internet rewards them!

Enter COVID-19: After so many months (over a year) of frustrations over lockdowns, losing jobs, political polarization, racial tensions and more, people need to find an outlet for their pentup energies, fears and rage. The internet is ideal for this purpose. We can blame anybody from the White House to the Easter Bunny for anything, and nobody has to be the wiser. Even more, if we do it right, we can even make money!! The result is a return to the law of the Wild West, where the fastest draw wins the day. Even news media that still operate in the real world of personal interactions (TV News, Newspapers, etc) are feeling more free to talk without corroborating facts or weighting the consequences of their actions. If I scream "FIRE" in a crowded theater, I can (technically) be taken to jail. If I spread the opinion that Jews, or Asians, are responsible for the mess we're in over the internet, I face no consequences.

While the Internet is an incredibly valuable tool to access information and comunicate with people, it is also the perfect tool to spread lies, hate and prejudice. My family comes from the Eastern European town of Radun, in today's Belarus, which housed the Yeshiva of Rabbi Meir Israel Kagan - known as the "Chofetz Chaim" after his main book. In that book he explores the implications and consequences of "Lashon Ha'Rah" (gossiping, spreading lies, etc). The book is a masterpiece on the need of boundaries between what is permissible and not permissible in our daily interaction with others, in order to keep society working. One way to summarize the analysis of Rabbi Kagan, would be with the lines of a poem by Omar Kayyam: "Once the words leave your mouth, they are not your words anymore". We may not have the intention of hurting others when we vent our rage on the internet, but words still have consequences beyond our control. And they are also those who count on those consequences to spread their message of hate.

Next time you respond to a posting, or next time you post something - remember to weight the consequences of your words and to evaluate the truth in what you say. It will humanize the Internet and take it closer to be what it is intended to be: a safe space.



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