Robert Fisk: Our addiction to the internet is as harmful as any drug – and what passes for comment these days is often simply foul abuse

The focus on ‘surfing’ rather than proper reading has impoverished literature

Share

Something is rotten in the state of technology. I only realised the extent of this when I wrote last year about an Irish government minister who had committed suicide just before Christmas 2012, partly because – according to his brother at the graveside – he had received so many abusive messages on the internet. The response from those claiming to be “readers” of this newspaper was 1) to suggest that the brother was lying; 2) that the minister deserved to die because of his policies (which included cuts in care homes); and 3) to condemn the dead minister for not being thoughtful enough to postpone his suicide until after Christmas.

Was it always like this? Did these hateful anonymous messages arrive when “Letters to the Editor” was the only way to express feelings – in print, of course – about other human beings? “Name and address supplied” was the last straw in anonymity that any editor permitted. But now anonymity must be protected, cosseted, guarded, because privacy, even privacy to abuse, is more important than responsibility. “Online comment” – and the “comment” bit definitely deserves a “sic” – takes precedence over criminal threats.

As I travel around the world to lecture on the Middle East, I am finding that an increasing number of journals are suspending or restricting online comment. Among the latest to do so was the National Catholic Register, whose editor, Dennis Coday, decided that the malicious, abusive and vile comments received – far from remarks on the substance of an article – were “pure vandalism”. Coday suggested it was everyone’s responsibility to make the internet a civil place by making contributors identifiable, just as they were in the days when editors (and lawyers) decided whose letters may or may not be published.

The Irish columnist Breda O’Brien wrote in February that, while she had to adhere to strict guidelines in her work as a print journalist, it was “bizarre” that “people can comment on my articles with impunity and say anything they like about me or about others. The sheer level of nastiness is difficult to describe”. O’Brien wrote of the “dark” experience of those who – online – wish her to “be badly beaten, or die from painful diseases, or that my children be taken away from me… One person has repeatedly expressed the wish that I be burned to death”. Much of this material is intended to “take down” individuals. “The savagery of online commentary,” O’Brien wrote, “is beginning to bleed into everyday discussions.”

She is right. I have written before of the foul, racist abuse I receive – passed on in hard copy by friends who say they sometimes fear for my safety – and of the ambivalent, slovenly way in which those who are involved in “chat rooms” and “platforms” run away from their own responsibility by claiming that they’ve no money for a “mediator” (by which they mean editor) or that “the internet is here to stay, whether you like it or not”. Journalists around the world have noticed this phenomenon, whether it be the “preening nastiness of online comment” in Brazilian media about the need for street vigilantes, or the outright ethnic hatred that you can find on the websites of quite respectable publications, often remarks which should result in prosecution for racial hatred.

Some of the material I read about Muslims – sent to me on paper by internet users who are even more shocked than I have become – are the product of psychopaths, demanding the rape of Muslim women. Equally venomous, and just as dangerous, is the anti-Semitic filth aimed at journalists, politicians, historians and activists who are Jewish. One European Jewish government minister wrote of how “racist and prejudiced online commentary … all too frequently results on occasions when I am personally in the public eye”. I should add that both those claiming to loathe Israel and those claiming to support it are also on the front line of dishing out abuse.

Perhaps my own fury and frustration with this state of affairs makes my response all the more direct. But the dirt, racism, foul abuse, the lies and innuendo and slanders and bullying on the web, in blogs and text messages and chat rooms, has become a sickness. “Trolls”, we call these psychologically disturbed people, and even that is indicative of our craven addiction to technology. So awed are we – so “taken over” by the new science of communication – that we have to liken these poison-pen writers and abusers to creatures of Scandinavian mythology rather than to the fantasists and racial bullies whom they really are.

It leaches, this language, into the shock-jock radio shows and to right-wing cable news channels, and it deadens the soul; not in the religious sense, but in the way in which the internet itself – the experience of “social media” – has indeed become an addiction as fearsome as drugs or cigarettes. We must be “computer literate” rather than “literate”; some of the hard copy e-mails I receive are not only ungrammatical – the spelling is also appalling – but virtually incomprehensible. Who were the first addicts? The young who gulped down these new “freedoms” – or their peers who told them that this was the way forward?

I’m still stunned by a moment several years ago when I was asked by a student, after giving a lecture at a US university, if I “could name any good websites on the Middle East”. I replied with four words: what’s wrong with books? The students cheered. Their academic tutors in the front row glowered at me reproachfully.

The internet catastrophe – perhaps I should say tragedy – grows tentacles. We have become, as one psychologist has said, “seduced by distraction”. We no longer reflect. We react. We don’t read books – always supposing we buy them – we “surf” them. Take Spritz. According to its own pap advertising, it’s a “Boston-based start-up focused on text-streaming technology”, whose founders are “serial entrepreneurs with extensive experience in developing and commercialising innovative technologies”. And you’ll not be surprised to learn that the crackpots running Spritz, after inviting fans to read up to 600 words a minute, claim that you’ll soon be able to read Tolstoy’s War And Peace in less than 10 hours.

 Is that not part of the problem? When you delete thought, impoverish literature and worship technology – not as a wonderful scientific achievement but as a god – then there are no rules. You can drink Tolstoy, smoke books, and breathe in hatred. Something rotten? What does rotten mean?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence