Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.
The Thing About the World Wide Web
I got my first laptop in middle school, a hand-me-down from my dad that didn’t connect to the internet and was essentially a glorified typewriter, but I used every day to write my first “book.” (I’m pretty sure not one good idea can be found in those pages.) A year or two later, when it became clear I needed the internet to complete school assignments, I got a computer that worked with 21st century Wi-Fi and all progress on my writing stopped as I discovered the wonders of YouTube. The rest is history.
The wilds of the internet are a wonderful and terrible place to grow up. Spending my early teens online served as a crash course in figuring out what websites were trustworthy, learning not to click on suspicious pop-ups, and avoiding creepy strangers in chat rooms. While it wasn’t taught in school, I became literate in the ways of the internet and developed what I still think is a good bullshit-meter.
Nowadays, most of our information is sourced online, a concept that would have sounded absurd 20 years ago but today feels so natural that going without immediate answers feels intolerable. Much of our socializing also now occurs online, for better or for worse. Social media provides communities otherwise inaccessible in “real life,” which can be especially important in some rural places where it can be harder to find other people who share your interests, background, or identity. The internet provides connection with like-minded people, and I do believe in this way it’s saved lives.
But the flip side of this is prominent, and pernicious. Certain corners of social media have become echo chambers created by algorithms that feed people similar types of content again and again, confirming or creating biases that can fester into hatred, hostility, and worse.
Recommendation algorithms were created by companies like Amazon and Netflix to help their users make decisions, but in the process, they seem to have taken away our ability to make decisions without the internet’s input at all. All social media platforms now use these recommendation algorithms to curate your feed, based on your previous online behavior. In the process, they trap you in an echo chamber.
The long-term effects of this are being seen now. According to research from Princeton University on “algorithmic confounding” – the result of these internet feedback loops – recommendation algorithms have shrunk the range of options people are given and homogenized user behavior.
“As users within these bubbles interact with the confounded algorithms, they are being encouraged to behave the way the algorithm thinks they will behave, which is similar to those who have behaved like them in the past,” said Allison Chaney, one of the Princeton researchers, in an article from The Conversation. Dangerous conspiracies about election denial, vaccinations, and great replacement theory proliferate in these spaces as people are fed information that confirms their biases.
There is a misconception that extremists live only in rural areas. Yet more insurrectionists who were arrested in connection with the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riot came from suburban and small-metro areas. Rural people were actually underrepresented in the data, according to a Daily Yonder analysis.
And the internet played a central part in the insurrection. In an NPR interview, reporter Drew Harwell said this about social media’s role that day:
“You don’t have to go that far from that central point to see how pivotal social media was in this entire episode not just in the weeks before January 6, when a huge amount of pro-Trump supporters were sort of rallying to descend on the Capitol, strategizing over where to bring guns and talking about how the election was stolen falsely, but on the day of the riots, when Donald Trump was effectively egging people on who were already sort of on the Capitol grounds, breaking windows, and when Twitter was consumed with these tweets saying, you know, #hangMikePence and the companies were doing very little.”
White supremacist groups like QAnon and the Proud Boys have organized on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, where recommendation algorithms drive the content they see. The more white supremacist content you consume, the more it’s recommended, creating that echo chamber. And technology companies have done almost nothing to stop it: Donald Trump was kicked off Twitter after January 6, but he’s back, thanks to Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk.
We are all vulnerable to these algorithms, no matter where we live. There’s very little governance over the companies that created these feedback loops and not enough weight is given to their long-term consequences. Media literacy is key to know what to trust online, and we absolutely need a widespread initiative to curb misinformation.
At the end of the day, we’re going to have to reckon with how we’ve let the internet center itself in our lives, even as we fight for equitable broadband access across the country and especially in rural areas. Conscientious choices around internet usage will be essential to protecting ourselves, our communities, and our democracy as we forge the ever-expanding territories of the internet.
Rural Reading List
Last year, the Daily Yonder published a piece from Kentucky writer Teri Carter about Facebook’s role in her estranged father’s life. I highly, highly recommend reading this.
Speaking of algorithms, Montana voted to ban TikTok last week (one of the most algorithmically driven platforms I’ve ever seen), and now the tech company is suing the state.
And one example of the benefit of the internet: the Interior Department and National Endowment for the Humanities is creating a digital history of the boarding schools that oppressed Indigenous people over the past three centuries. The project’s goal is to recognize the traumatizing legacy of these schools, and learn from it.
One More Thing: Go Touch Grass
In offline news, my garden is doing splendidly: I have broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, basil, peas, strawberries, lemon thyme, and rosemary thriving in my backyard. This is one of the few activities where I become so immersed I completely lose the urge to open a web browser.
What’s one activity that does the same for you?