Following the recent rioting and looting in London and various other UK cities, politicians and other career pontificators have been quick to apportion blame to social networking sites for the part they supposedly played in organising the violence, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence that the internet had anything to do with it. One example is MP Louise Mensch, who has gone as far as to suggest that social networking should be “turned off” during times of trouble. Even if this were possible, it is a policy more readily associated with totalitarian states cracking down on popular uprisings than with relatively minor incidents of public disorder in Western cities. It seems that there is just something about the internet that causes even the most inoffensive authority figure to start channelling Gaddafi or Ahmadinejad as soon as it is mentioned.
Politicians making fatuous knee-jerk comments in response to high-profile public events is of course not news; as far as anyone can tell this seems to be their primary function. However, the breathtaking arrogance underpinning the belief that a supposedly free and democratic country should be able to arbitrarily decide whether, when and how its population can communicate, along with the abject ignorance of how the internet works — Facebook and Twitter are both based in the US, which is not subject to diktats from the British Home Office last I checked — does not inspire much confidence in the leadership’s ability to deal with future incidents in a reasonable manner, and makes its criticism of regimes such as Libya and Syria seem rather hollow.
The ridiculous over-reaction to anything technology-related doesn’t end with politicians either: two men in Chester have each been sentenced to four years in jail for “inciting violence” via Facebook, even though no actual violence resulted from their actions. To put that into perspective, footballer Marlon King was sentenced to less than half of that (18 months) for smashing in a girl’s face after she had the temerity to turn him down. In the eyes of the law, posting inconsequential words on the internet is apparently a more heinous crime than causing permanent injury and disfigurement to an innocent woman in a sexually-motivated attack.
Blaming technology for human failings is hardly a new phenomenon, these examples are just individual drops in a much larger cesspit of modern-day superstition and irrationality which seems to grow ever deeper and more malodorous by the day. If a murderer kills a victim he finds on Facebook, the media label him the “Facebook killer”, implicitly blaming a web site for the tragedy as if murders were not already happening thousands of years before computers existed. If the embittered gunman who massacres his classmates happened to play a video game at any point in his life, it must have been the game that turned him from a gentle peace-loving soul into a deranged lunatic. A disturbed individual kills his girlfriend — you guessed it, it was the internet! Gather up a few more hysterical nut-jobs and demand another worthless thought-crime law to honour her memory. And so the stupidity continues.
People have always needed somewhere to point the finger; a bogeyman hiding under the bed which is the cause of all of their problems. At the same time, wider access to knowledge, whether it’s from the printing press or the internet, threatens to undermine the authority of self-elected information gatekeepers who derive power from artificial ignorance. The solution for the savvy despot is therefore simple: demonise the disruptive technology, convince the populace that it is dangerous and not to be trusted, and let the scared idiots beg for their own enslavement. The small minority of people with reasoning abilities worthy of the name will object, but they can be easily ignored, outnumbered and out-voiced by the shrieking believer horde, and quite possibly branded as witches themselves for daring to question the inquisition’s divine purpose.
Yet somehow science marches on, struggling beneath the dead-weight of a society full of credulous, anti-intellectual parasites; forced to circumnavigate roadblocks dropped into its path at every turn by self-serving and dishonest professional fear-mongers. And eventually, like all witch hunts, this one will be over; just as we are no longer running scared from devil-worshippers or communists today, the time will come when it is clear to all but the most stubbornly pig-headed of ignoramuses that the unprecedented social catastrophe supposedly threatened by the internet has simply failed to materialise. Not to mention that this is a cycle, rather than an isolated occurrence, and there will soon be a new moral panic in progress. One can only guess at what the next one is likely to be, but my money is on either sex-bots or virtual reality porn. There’s nothing like easier access to sex to start those dogmatic moralists and student union feminists frothing at the mouth.