You’re never wrong on the Internet

Blair Hanley Frank

When it comes to heated debates, everyone thinks that they’re right. It’s only human: We want to think the best of our own arguments, so we’ll often stick to our guns. The difference between actually discussing something in person and on the Internet is that the Internet gives you a sense of anonymity that can further empower your own perception of just how right you are. Add to that the plethora of sites in reference to any conceivable topic, and it’s possible to come to any sort of conclusion.

Don’t think global warming exists? Well, to butcher a phrase from a certain computer manufacturer: There’s a site for that. Was the Holocaust just one big hoax? Sure, if you choose your search terms carefully. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (or a 40-year-old man or a super-intelligent chinchilla), and everybody other than you can be wrong, and you’ll have concrete proof! After all, you read it on the Internet.

For example, a simple Google search for the terms “9/11 hoax” returned over 1.1 million results. Some of them are Web sites devoted to proving that planes did crash into the Twin Towers. However, the vast majority (at least in the top few pages) are devoted to showing that the U.S. government planned and executed an elaborate conspiracy to make it look like a terrorist attack.

Okay, so there have always been conspiracy theorists (the term “grassy knoll” ring a bell?), but the difference in this age of instantaneous interconnectedness is that it is always possible for someone to e-mail your Aunt Jacqueline or Uncle Carl links to a few poorly designed Web sites chock full of evidence for any conspiracy imaginable. There are entire documentaries posted to YouTube that may not have received much play in the Internet-free past, but now have hundreds of thousands of views.

Loonies on the Internet are nothing new, though. Just take a look at Chatroulette, the average discussion on XBox Live or even comments on a ridiculously popular YouTube video. The thing is, never having to be wrong on the Internet is bleeding into how we conduct ourselves in public. If I wanted to, I could read my news from blogs that are completely in lock-step with what I believe, talking to people who believe exactly what I believe, and watch television at night where charismatic talk show hosts don’t think to contradict anything I hold dear.

Now that’s scary.

That’s what’s fueling America’s fire right now. Political candidates can find the perfect medium to parrot their message. Scientists no longer have to prove their experiments under peer review, but every new vaccine and drug comes under fire from sites blaming modern medicine for all number of ills and conspiracies. In a single-panel webcomic by Randall Munroe, the lone on-screen character tells his significant other that he cannot come to bed, because “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

To make another pop culture reference: We didn’t start the flame war. But we’re going to have to deal with it. Because being right is something nobody wants to give up. So the next time you are convinced in your heart of hearts that somebody else is Wrong, you are Right and by golly, you have the evidence to back it up, just remember, that’s what they think too.