Sunday, October 27, 2013

Suggested realities

The things that Google suggests when you start typing words to search can be helpful or hilarious—but they can also show humanity’s darker side by revealing what people are searching for. This can be very depressing.

The image at left (click to embiggen) is from Free & Equal, an initiative of the United Nations Human Rights Office and their global public education campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality. It’s from their ad campaign, “This is what Google suggests when you type ‘gays’”.

The campaign was inspired by a similar “women should” campaign by UN Women. I think both are quite effective.

I tried the same Google searches to see what the suggestions were, and got basically the same results. Then, in addition to the words need, should and shouldn’t that Free & Equal used, I also tried “Gays want…” and the top two results were, “gays want to destroy marriage” and “gays want special rights”. I tried “gays deserve…” and the top suggestions were, “gays deserve to die”, “gays deserve to be bullied”, “gays deserve aids [sic]”, but there was also the positive “gays deserve equal rights.” That much is encouraging

The anonymity of the Internet provides cover for people to say and explore what they really think, without the filters or restraint they use when their identity is publicly known. We’ve all seen truly vile anonymous comments left on various sites by people who, probably more often than not, would never say such things out loud in a crowd of strangers. The Google searches about gays and women show what many people in the world actually think about (Google’s suggestions are based on the most common searches using those words).

I think it’s important to note that while the anonymity of the Internet has certainly fed the rising incivility in public discourse, the underlying negative attitudes wouldn’t go away if the anonymity did. However, I do wonder: If people had to take personal ownership of their words and comments, would negative people (or, maybe, could they) avoid falling into the whirlpool of negativity in which they normally dwell? They exist in a realm of half-baked ideas, crackpot conspiracy theories and mean-spirited personal attacks that echo around and around and permeate everything that comes in contact with them. Would the end of anonymity make people less likely to be sucked in? Would it make them less asshole-ish?

I’m sceptical that reducing anonymity can make people be better people. Still, the possibility that it could increase civility could be reason enough to try, and it’s why many websites are now insisting that commenters use their real names, which the sites try to verify. Perhaps it’s a first step.

There are no simple solutions or easy answers—if there were, we’d have fixed the problem of uncivil discussions of public policy issues, and we wouldn’t have people searching Google using hate-filled language. However, this little exercise shows us that the nice person we’re talking with might, hiding in the anonymity of the Internet, say truly vile and disgusting things. Maybe we all need to strongly condemn such hate speech to the real people we know. If enough of us do this, maybe social disapproval will make people less likely to spread hatred using the cloak of anonymity. Maybe, but I doubt that would be enough.

Somehow we have to reignite the old notion of people treating others with the respect they themselves expect—what Christians used to call “The Golden Rule”, back before the politicisation of their religion killed off that idea. We can't control what others do or say, on the Internet or elsewhere, but we can be an example. Right now, maybe that's the best we can do.

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