January 29, 2017

WANG | The Deep Web

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About a year ago, a story ran by the Daily Mirror caught my interest. It talked about a “Dark Web”, a sort of black market on the internet that was relatively difficult to access but provided a venue for illegal activity to thrive. This article  illustrated in particular how two British computer sleuths uncovered a Dark Web website that scammed people into paying money for hitmen to assassinate the person of their choice. It sounds ridiculous – like the plot of a movie Liam Neeson would be interested in – but it was true. And perhaps more stunning, it worked: By the time they were caught, the two men had raised over 50,000 pounds in a year, without actually carrying out the work. They just sat back, relaxed and let their fake website cash out.

Unfortunately, this article isn’t about the Dark Web. To access it,one must install  questionable software that leads to even more questionable links, and quite frankly, I’m not sure how kindly Cornell’s IT Service would take to that. But the Dark Web, and  the entire web in general, is a good analogy for how the bulk of society works. There’s the mainstream and the underground, the known and less known. But let’s start with the mainstream, where there are the websites that generate massive amounts of unique views per month – think CNN, Buzzfeed, Deadspin, ESPN and Fox News. These sites not only have massive popularity, but also  sway. When they report or debate, there is a certain credibility factor they can promote.

Let me give an example: earlier this year, Buzzfeed published  an unverified, bombshell dossier that was gathered by a former MI6 agent. The dossier contained tales of depravity and decadence indulged in by President Trump while in Russia that I don’t have the stomach to retell here. While it seemed like the classic scoop in journalism, Buzzfeed’s publication of the dossier and the following backlash show the complex nature of the media. The problems began when the dossier was proven to be unprovable – while there was no evidence to suggest it was false, there was also no evidence to suggest it had any merit. As it turns out, the dossier had been common knowledge in the media for months, but without any evidence to support it, no one has stepped up to report on it. But when word spread of Buzzfeed’s impending decision to publish the document, other organizations such as CNN shot off their own reports of the dossier, though, in line with journalistic standards, they refused to publish the unverified text. But the fact they had to respond to Buzzfeed shows the national pull Buzzfeed has (or had) in the industry. This is the power of being a media titan. This is the (generally) politically correct sphere.

And then there’s Reddit and 4chan.

Both are notorious forums not for the fainthearted. The members who post are allowed to run amok and are constantly ignored by the mainstream media. When Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit, tried to curtail the Wild West of regions of the site, the members lashed back in form of harassment and bad press, ultimately forcing her resignation. Look up anything you want on reddit – you’ll find it. Interested in pictures of dead horses? You got it. Looking for brazen anti-PC culture in the form of appalling language? Gotcha. Both websites have recently risen to political prominence with the ascension of Donald Trump. It’s hard not see to why they love him so much – his outsider views mirrors the outsider stance on Reddit and 4chan, where anonymous posters toil away from the limelight of mainstream media. His caustic language is the linguistic offspring of the words bubbling from the mouths of redditors and 4channers. The appeal of this whole schadenfreude is their outsider status, the intentional counterpoint to the liberal dominated media. Unsettlingly, their identity doesn’t just embrace the anger their rise has caused – they need it to stay relevant.

And of course, I can’t forget Twitter.

There’s perhaps no website/social media that I’ve spent more time on for the past 7 years. In the beginning, I just used it for sport updates. I cheered with my fellow Pats fans when the Patriots won, groaned when they lost and scoured the search engine for rumors and by-the-minute updates. Amidst all the hand-wringing and corporate coup d’états, Twitter has proven to be a revolutionary tool for journalism and interaction. It’s the only site where seconds matter – when a story breaks, a flood of tweets splurge onto the internet, forever permanent. Unlike Facebook, it allows for strangers to interact, and its lax regulation allows for thriving subsets of communities that, although differing in view or pedigree,  can reach out across the world and communicate among each other.

For instance, as a huge Boston sports fan who’s lived in Dallas and New York for most of my life, I’ve struggled to get along with other sports fans in my area. Twitter solves this problem, because I can instantly follow the Red Sox and Patriots and their beat writers, and then have Twitter suggest to me similar accounts to follow. With a few swipes, I can expand my network into hundreds of people on Twitter who cheer for the same team.

But there’s something ominous growing  about Twitter in recent years. The ability to connect with complete strangers has proven toxic. You don’t really understand the person behind the account, and in this polarized political climate, things can get testy when they start spouting their opinions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked the unfollow button on someone who started spewing their alt-right opinion. Look under any political tweet from any moderately popular Twitter account and you’ll see comments that range from snarky to vicious, and then a huge backlash of comments that eviscerate the original tweet. The “Trending Topics” menu has also proven poisonous on Twitter. Click on a trending topic – say, “Donald Trump” or “#Syria” – and you can view a host of tweets on that matter that you might disagree with vehemently. Interject angrily and watch 10 other people respond with to you with daggers. The freedom of navigation and lack of an intimate community on Twitter exposes users to tweets that might upset them and feed their anger. I’ve stumbled multiple times on the “Deep Web” of Twitter, where bot accounts or accounts with less than 10 followers spew an extremist view with offensive language. This is essentially the “Reddit/4chan” section of Twitter, where accounts roam unabated, unbothered and unchecked as they migrate from topic to topic, burning bridges as they argue against strangers.

And that’s what so disturbing and at the same time illuminating about the internet ecosystem. The mainstream channels like CNN and Deadspin represent the more liberal, millennial view of the world, but at the same offer a view that is softer and more politically correct; meanwhile, 4Chan and Reddit provide the no fucks given, unabashed view that’s propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. The mainstream and far alt-right, conspiracy based sites aren’t living in the same country; they’re not even living in the same spheres of the web. But Twitter is different. It where the battlelines are drawn, where the two sides meet. And there’s no sugarcoating that fact that half of the site is bound to disagree with you; unlike Facebook or Snapchat, there isn’t a community of likeminded individuals and friends we can run to. Twitter is desolate and unforgiving. Send a tweet with #DonaldTrump, and expect something nasty in reply, whether you support him or not.

So Twitter, along with the Mafia riddled Dark web, the members in 4Chan and the benign moderators in mainstream media, serve as a parallel to America today.  Just as no one could have foreseen the victory of Donald Trump on the back of populism, the Deep Web that is cluttered with his supporters rarely breaks into the daylight. Just as CNN has come under fire from the right for being out of touch, so have the elite liberals that live in the cities; and finally, just as America is divided along lines that seem now impossible to mend, Twitter is where the nastiest revolts and fights break out as accounts argue past each other with no end in sight. It’s disheartening, but maybe not that surprising.

And frankly, it’s going to be a long 4 years.