There is no denying that a large number of people on the internet have an “internet personality” that differs from their own. This difference can be as small as being outspoken on the internet while being shy in person, or as large as using a false name and phone number when registering with certain websites – if only to protect themselves. Lying on the internet is nothing new, of course, but as virtual reality continues to merge with “regular” reality, these lies are beginning to have larger repercussions. After all, we live in a time when an online petition can strike down a large-scale government legislation; when a large majority of job applications are filed online instead of in person; when stealing someone’s online identity is much more damaging than stealing their wallet.
Isn’t the next step, then, to start giving political power to online identities? Is it any more ridiculous to give them the ability to vote than it is to listen to their petitions?
Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to think it’s not too far off. In a letter addressed to investors, Zuckerberg stated: “We hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions . . . By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has been historically possible.” He continued: “These voices will increase in number and volume.”
The problem with Zuckerberg’s assessment is that the voices aren’t getting louder: the microphones are simply getting more sensitive. This means that the people aren’t more passionate about issues – they just have an easier way to broadcast their opinions. When people only need to click a button marked “like” to support a politician or movement, they’re going to be less inclined to do more to support that cause. Further, there’s less need to make an informed decision. What you end up with is a few hundred thousand people all “voicing their support” for something that, previously, was not important enough to them for the people to speak up, and you end up with false social movements whose supporters would never do anything more than show “online” support. For a premier example of this, look no further than Ron Pauls’ presidential campaign – according to a recent ranking by digital reputation-monitoring firm Garlik, Ron Paul is the most popular presidential candidate online. Despite overwhelming online support by a relatively young demographic, Paul has yet to win a single state caucus.
It’s easy to associate yourself with a movement, as long as it’s the movement that puts in all the work – not you. Until these internet movements start acting like they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is – and back up their cause with good arguments and real work – it would be extremely dangerous to give these “online voices” any credence. Further, the movements themselves should need to put their “supporters” through a strict registration process to ensure each voice is tied to a flesh-and-blood human, and not a line of code.