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The Return of the Techno-Moral Panic

By JOHN HERRMAN
The New York Times Magazine
DEC. 5, 2017





Credit Illustration by Jon Han
____________________________________

The July 3, 1995, cover of Time Magazine featured, below the glowing face of an awe-struck child, a blaring, bold-type neologism that needed no explanation: “Cyberporn.” “A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is,” read the cover line. “Can we protect our kids — and free speech?” The story cited a new study that made eye-catching claims: that nearly a million pornographic files were available through online bulletin-board services; that 83.5 percent of images stored there — available to anyone, including minors — were pornographic.

The story was a sensation, inspiring a “Nightline” feature and drawing the attention of politicians. The full text of the Time article was entered into the Congressional Record by Senator Chuck Grassley, who urged his colleagues to act “to help parents who are under assault in this day and age.” With strong bipartisan support, Congress soon passed the Communications Decency Act, as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which broadly criminalized the transmission of “indecent” and “obscene” materials to underage internet users. (A Supreme Court ruling in 1997 essentially defanged it.)

Today the article has been disavowed by its writer, the veteran tech journalist Philip Elmer-DeWitt, as the worst of his career “by far.” The undergraduate engineering student who conducted the study, Marty Rimm, changed his name and went into hiding after his work was exposed by critics as profoundly flawed. It was, perhaps, the prototypical mainstream moral panic about the internet.

In the coming years, as most of America got online, some variation on the cyberporn cycle would repeat almost continuously: about chat-room child predators; about online games; about the emergence of social media; about sexting and the apps that seemed designed to make it easier. Anxieties about the internet began to feel more rote and less plausible, in no small part because the internet had disappeared as a distinct place. It wasn’t lurking over there, it was just everywhere — as was, for that matter, pornography — and the world turned.

As moral panics about danger and depravity lost traction, popular tech criticism became nebulous and fretful, concerned with vague themes and forecasts. (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.’?”) In the absence of coherent critiques, and in the context of a stunningly rapid adoption of smartphones, a righteously defensive posturing about the social consequences of tech went mainstream. Critics were easily dismissed as Luddites, unable to see the future through a misplaced nostalgia for the past. This assumption was frequently vindicated and started to feel a lot like wisdom. As the world truly moved online, abstract fears were repeatedly met with, and answered by, specific, irresistible and unthreatening products and experiences. We had learned our lesson.

Which makes 2017’s sudden fits of tech anxiety all the more notable. On YouTube, for example, parents are hearing of vulgar and violent content apparently aimed at — and sometimes featuring — children, in a story that has, at least superficially, the contours of a moral panic: user reports of disturbing or abusive content and failures to keep it from reaching kids; widespread appeals for action; snowballing attention suggesting a crisis, resulting in headlines like “ YouTube Is Addressing Its Massive Child Exploitation Problem.”

And then there’s the matter of “fake news” on Facebook, which predates the 2016 election but which took on panicky dimensions in the months after, as the scope of organic misinformation and foreign-sponsored disinformation was gradually revealed, summoning grave questions about the “post-truth” era and social media’s compatibility with democracy. The trajectory of these stories was familiar and so were the responses: from YouTube saying publicly that it was fixing the problem while also claiming the offensive videos were “ the extreme needle in the haystack”; or from Facebook, which claimed that, at most, news and politics were small detours in the service’s destiny to connect the world. Mark Zuckerberg, the most successful child of the besieged and defensive ’90s internet, has responded to criticism in a manner characteristic of his former peers and idols. His defense of the open network, deployed in the service of his company, rang hollow. It may appear that moral panics are back, but something has changed.

The internet of the 1990s was a perfect canvas for alarmism: hard to define, easy to misunderstand, growing rapidly but not yet vital or even familiar to those most inclined to worry about it. But the internet of 2017 is fundamentally different: both a dominant medium and a medium dominated by a few companies. Earlier worries about the reliability of information online — anyone can publish anything! — addressed the emergence of an entire new category of networked communication, evoking anti-populist fears about the spread of television, radio and the printed word; today’s concerns about, for example, state-sponsored disinformation double as criticism of the companies that have annexed our networks: primarily Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The flip side of these companies’ new dominance is that, not unlike the first industrialists, they turn progress from something that manifests inevitably with the passage of time into something that is being done to us, for reasons that are out of our control but seem unnervingly and suddenly within someone else’s. This is a profound reorientation, which might explain why current anxieties about the internet make for such unlikely bedfellows. Conservative parents with moral complaints about inappropriate videos surfacing in YouTube kids’ channels find themselves inadvertently agreeing with leftist critiques of corporate power. Facebook’s inability to deal in any meaningful way with misinformation on the platform has loosely aligned an elitist critique of democratized news with populist anger at a company led by Silicon Valley elites. There are right-wing anti-monopolists and left-wing anti-monopolists setting their sights on Google and Facebook, claiming dangerous censorship or lack of responsible moderation or, sometimes, both at once — people who want different things, and who have incompatible goals, but who have intuited the same core premise. In these instances, the only people left telling us not to worry — rhyming their responses with the vindicated defenders of the nascent internet — have suspiciously much to lose.

Our present panics tend to arrive just as new parts of our economy, culture and politics are reconstituted within platform marketplaces — shifts that have turned out to be bigger than anyone anticipated. Aggravation about “fake news” followed the realization that the business and consumption of online news had been substantially captured by Facebook, which had strenuously resisted categorization as a media company. Children’s entertainment has migrated to new and unexpected venues faster and more completely than either parents or YouTube expected or accounted for. Twitter is now the most effective way to keep up with breaking news, a singular direct line to the president, and a conspicuously mismanaged experiment in centralized public discourse.

In this way, these new moral panics do have something in common with Luddism, though not as it is now popularly and mistakenly understood. The original Luddites’ complaint was with the way industrialists were using new textile manufacturing technologies to circumvent labor conventions and to thin their ranks as quickly as possible, not with the technologies themselves. They didn’t so much propose solutions as much as they registered a loud and visceral complaint, smashing machines until they were put down by gunfire. Luddites have been reduced in the popular imagination to misguided fools obstructing the arrival of technologies that we now understand as both primitive and vital to the advance of civilization. Their message was inchoate but fueled by firsthand experience of material change rather than speculative, moralistic doomsaying or elite hand-wringing about what we might have lost.

As the internet of 2017 has changed, so has the internet user. We are now in the majority, and our experience is defined by plenitude and freedom, still, but also by a growing sense of exploitation. We find ourselves aware of the power and unaccountability of the new marketplaces in which we socialize, communicate and do business. To cast our recurring panics as technophobic reruns is to misidentify what animates them most: Not fear, but helplessness.

It would be a mistake to give credence to every noisy critique of a platform, and some of the inevitable panics about Facebook, Google and Twitter — not to mention Amazon — will be bolstered by sheer reactionary traditionalism. But in more cases, these panics will reveal themselves as concrete complaints, addressed to people and companies whose responsibility for the networks that connect us — for better and for worse — will finally start to catch up with their power.

John Herrman is a David Carr fellow at the magazine.

A version of this article appears in print on December 10, 2017, on Page MM18 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Moral panics about technology have returned — only this time, rather than being premature, they might have arrived too late.

nytimes.com
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