The internet may well be the root cause of today's problems… but not in the way you think
May's scapegoat and Trump's Twitter rants are damaging society
Comment In a predictable but still shocking pronouncement, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has put much of the blame of recent terror attacks in London and Manchester on the internet and internet companies like Google and Facebook.
"We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed," she argued in a speech following the deaths of seven people in central London at the weekend. "Yet that is precisely what the internet – and the big companies that provide internet-based services – provide."
At the same time, US president Donald Trump used his preferred method of communication – Twitter – to post a series of messages about the attacks that have sparked widespread anger over their selfish and callous nature.
Trump argued that the attacks were evidence that his Muslim travel ban should be enforced in the US and then misquoted London's mayor Sadiq Khan to personally attack him – an extraordinary thing to do at a time of crisis.
Asked about Trump's attacks and insults on Khan, May repeatedly sidestepped the question and refused to criticize the American president.
To May, the internet represents everything wrong and dangerous in her world: it is a largely uncontrollable meeting place of people, many of whom disagree wildly with what she believes. Anything that she cannot control is dangerous.
Trump, on the other hand, is an agent of chaos. He does not fear people or ideas in the abstract – in fact, he thrives on the kind of misinformation and fact-flipping that the internet makes all too easy. Trump fears people only in person.
Inevitably, and correctly, many commentators have lined up to criticize both leaders over their views. The internet is no more to blame for terrorism than mobile phones were to blame for football hooligans (but it didn't stop politicians calling for a ban on them because they were being used to arrange fights).
May's critics have pointed out that she was responsible, as home secretary, for slashing the police force's numbers and budget – surely that was a greater contributor to problems than the fact that Facebook takes more than a day to take down an offensive video?
Others have pointed out that May's growing attacks on encryption – under the assumption that if the government can read everything people send it won't be blindsided by terrorist attacks – are similarly wrong-headed.
The internet is a convenient scapegoat, and it is not the root cause of our problems.
Except that's not entirely true.
With one hand...
Without the internet and its unusual ability to find people that are difficult to reach otherwise, it is debatable that May and Trump would be prime minister and president. Both leaders are manifestations of the very things they claim to fear.
The same instant, one-to-one, unfiltered communication that has turned ordinary people into individuals willing to commit atrocities has been a factor in the election of both leaders.
The same force that drives young men to become estranged from a society in which they were raised is present in the voting patterns of people that are not addressed by the "mainstream" media.
You stop listening to what you are told to think. You find likeminded individuals. They become your peer group. And when the larger world tells you that your thoughts are wrong, your group assures you that it is them that are wrong.
That sense of power in a joint belief is very fortifying; strong enough to expand beyond small groups into larger groups. And when those larger groups are focused on specific goals, it can become extremely effective.
There are large groups of people in the United States who believe a range of views that are clearly and obviously wrong: dinosaurs existed at the same time as Jesus; there is no such thing as climate change; people's sexuality is some kind of deity-imposed punishment; anyone should be allowed to buy a gun.
But the big, dangerous beliefs incorporate the ability to both hate and get revenge on other human beings. If you win, they lose.
Trump repeatedly said and did things that should have seen him kicked out of the presidential race before he even started. Despite being exposed over and over again as an immoral, inconsistent, vain, heartless liar, he went on to win the most powerful seat in the United States.
Every time he was attacked and didn't fall down, it was a punch in the face of those in power who couldn't get their way. You were winning. And they, for once, were losing.
Another campaign that was defined by its populism and lies is what propelled May to power: the decision by the UK to leave the European Union despite the clear and obvious logic in staying. The more politicians and media outlets railed against Brexit, the more voters saw the issue as an opportunity to give the powerful and the prevailing bloody noses.