Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 technologists and scholars about the forces shaping the way people interact with one another online. They asked: “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?”
The vast majority of those surveyed—81 percent of them—said they expect the tone of online discourse will either stay the same or get worse in the next decade.
Not only that, but some of the spaces that will inevitably crop up to protect people from trolls may contribute to a new kind of “Potemkin internet,” pretty façades that hide the true lack of civility across the web, says Susan Etlinger, a technology industry analyst at the Altimeter Group, a market research firm.
“Cyberattacks, doxing, and trolling will continue, while social platforms, security experts, ethicists, and others will wrangle over the best ways to balance security and privacy, freedom of speech, and user protections. A great deal of this will happen in public view,” Etlinger told Pew. “The more worrisome possibility is that privacy and safety advocates, in an effort to create a more safe and equal internet, will push bad actors into more-hidden channels such as Tor.”
Tor is software that enables people to browse and communicate online anonymously—so it’s used by people who want to cover their tracks from government surveillance, those who want to access the dark web, trolls, whistleblowers, and others.
“Of course, this is already happening, just out of sight of most of us,” Etlinger said, referring to the use of hidden channels online. “The worst outcome is that we end up with a kind of Potemkin internet in which everything looks reasonably bright and sunny, which hides a more troubling and less transparent reality.”
The uncomfortable truth is that humans like trolling. It’s easy for people to stay anonymous while they harass, pester, and bully other people online—and it’s hard for platforms to design systems to stop them. Hard for two reasons: One, because of the “ever-expanding scale of internet discourse and its accelerating complexity,” as Pew puts it. And, two, because technology companies seem to have little incentive to solve this problem for people.
“Very often, hate, anxiety, and anger drive participation with the platform,” said Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, in the report. “Whatever behavior increases ad revenue will not only be permitted, but encouraged, excepting of course some egregious cases.”
News organizations, which once set the tone for civic discourse, have less cultural importance than they once did. The rise of formats like cable news—where so much programming involves people shouting at one another—and talk radio are clear departures from a once-higher standard of discourse in professional media. Few news organizations are stewards for civilized discourse in their own comment sections, which sends mixed messages to people about what’s considered acceptable. And then, of course, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter serve as the new public square.