The Internet and Empathy

Despite the extent to which it has become intertwined with our twenty-first century lives, the Internet is often regarded with caution. The recent election of Donald Trump and the notable rise of the alt right across Europe has only brought criticism against online culture into sharper relief. It is undeniable that the Internet can be a breeding ground for hate. Online chat forums lead angry young men to believe that white masculinity is under threat from those who don’t agree with them – feminists, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. – and a space such as the Internet naturally provides an echo chamber in which hateful subcultures fester and churn out trolls. On an individual level people worry that excessive use of social media can have an adverse effect on mental health, that genuine empathy is being replaced by the angry-face react button. Millenials, the world’s first ever Internet generation, are seen as ‘self-obsessed’ and unable to have decent conversations IRL.

But that’s the thing – we are the first ever Internet generation, the first to carry it around in our pockets, the first to be able to contact people on the other side of the world at a moment’s notice. As an everyday tool and an extension of our lives, the Internet highlights and exaggerates issues that already exist in the ‘real world’, something which is only going to increase as we become more connected. Online forums such as 4chan do not create fascists out of thin air, but they do provide a platform in which certain views are egged on, where racists, sexists and homophobes can pat each other on the back without being questioned or called out. Lax regulations on social media leads to relentless bullying, sexual harassment, and death threats. Those with extreme views can find a community who not only agree with them, but actively seek to radicalise them.

Nobody says that likes and shares are the answer to these problems, or that arguing with people who have ‘Praise Pepe’ in their bio will bring us closer to a socialist utopia. There’s a genuine concern that pictures of children caught up in a warzone become meaningless when they are placed between club photos from the night before and a video of kittens playing the piano on your news feed. At a time when bad news seems to be around every corner it’s incredibly tempting to shut it all off, and it can be exhausting not to. Does that make you an awful person?

Not necessarily. The debate over whether the Internet is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for society is ultimately redundant: online culture is here to stay. Not everyone will charge into action after watching a thirty second video on Facebook, but neither would everyone immediately attend a rally after seeing a poster for it in the street. What the Internet does offer though is its unique ability to transmit information – and likes and shares, no matter how ineffectual, are a tiny recognition of that. Once somebody is looking for ways to make a difference, access to the Internet becomes crucial. Rather than bemoaning the changes it has brought to social interactions, we need to spend time ensuring these changes are for the better. As a society we need to work towards harnessing the Internet for positive change, ensuring that ‘clicktivism’ can in fact translate into something meaningful.

The Internet is the best tool we have to educate ourselves and others in the fight to be better progressive, compassionate and empathetic individuals. Nothing matches its endless possibilities for sharing information and cultures, for starting new conversations and dialogues, and for interacting with people on your doorstep as well as those who are halfway across the world. Non-profit sites such as Freecycle enable locals to help others out in their community, while at the same time reducing waste. Social media sites allow political groups to organise, and enables those who may not be able to travel into a city centre for a meeting to keep up to date with movements and still participate in conversations. It can raise awareness and support for causes that are being fought thousands of miles away at the same time as uniting thousands of people across the globe in a common cause, like the Women’s Marches that took place earlier this year. Positive change in the twenty-first century will be enacted both online and in the physical present; the two are not mutually exclusive. The key to change is to use all resources that are available, especially one as crucial as the Internet.

Written by Louisa Burden.

Illustration by Charlotte Dean.

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