January 1, 1983 – the day the world and our idea of how to be kind changed. For many of us, myself included, the day was New Year’s Day. A day to recover from a late night or to sit in front of the TV glued to bowl games and wonder how long your commitment to the hastily vowed resolution of the night before would truly last, but for the world, it was so much more.
Development of the internet as a global communication and transaction tool changed everything. Financial transactions were completed before you left the store; people you hadn’t seen or heard from in decades now were just a click away; the hard cover encyclopedia so many of us grew up with began its descent into oblivion; we could communicate with people around the globe without having to worry about international long distance charges putting us in the poor house; and, much to the chagrin of people in the television and newspaper business, the way we shared news began to change.
Along with this great invention came warnings. With their noses in an electronic device, people would lose the ability to talk to each other and the art of diplomacy and compromise would become a thing of the past. Those who believe the world is ending were happy to share doom and gloom predictions to a much bigger audience while most of us just laughed it off. Yet, when you stop and think about it, they were right; maybe not to the extreme of the world ending, but much of it is happening today as people have learned that hiding behind the computer screen allows them to say and do most anything they want. People are becoming meaner and generally unkind and even though it seems trivial, the entire world seems to be following suit. If it was just someone spouting off that would be one thing, but people are being hurt by the acts of others that without the internet would have been easy to stop and even easier to condemn.
This weekend I watched a documentary about Notre Dame football sensation Manti Te’o. If you’re a football fan, you know that this young man captured the world’s collective sympathy when his grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day. Te’o had talked often in the press of his girlfriend and he was crushed by the two deaths, but with Notre Dame in the midst of a championship season, he soldiered on and earned the respect of the country and accolades from politicians to hard-nosed journalists.
But here is the thing. The girlfriend never existed. He had been catfished and the world immediately began to condemn him. Some believed he had made the whole thing up. Some believed the “fake” girlfriend was a means to hide something else. Some even blamed him for being naive enough to let himself be catfished.
In reality he was nothing more than a victim. He had given his heart to someone he thought he had developed a relationship with. But that someone was playing a game and in the end Te’o, the victim in the whole bizarre story, was looked on with scorn, laughter and suspicion. Few if anyone outside of his immediate family offered him the sympathy and support he should have received.
When the whole sordid and sad affair was revealed, the fake girlfriend was exposed as a man and Te’o’s personal and professional integrity was left in tatters and he suffered emotional and psychological damage that would last a lifetime. The man who perpetuated the fraud? Well let’s just say that in this case, justice was lacking.
Catfishing and Te’o’s experience are extreme examples, but they are an unintended consequence of the internet. When bad people can sit behind a keyboard in anonymity and post things that are damaging to others, the internet becomes a weapon and not the beneficial invention it was intended to be. Memes, harmful language and posts can spread unchecked to thousands of people in seconds and by the time the internet police realize that something so harmful has been spread, it is too late. The damage has been done.
The internet will never be like old fashioned journalism with unbiased reporters who double and triple checked their facts; where publishers were too afraid of being sued for publishing something that was untrue that didn’t publish until they were sure they had all the facts. The internet is a free for all with few people held accountable for causing pain or sorrow for others. Posting a bald faced lie with no consequence is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Freedom of speech allows me to post these thoughts and for that, I am grateful. However, our government realizes that the freedom to express our beliefs is tempered by the need to protect the innocent with laws against slander and libel. It’s unfortunate that as the internet has propagated along with the unkind and downright mean people who use it, it’s becoming nearly impossible to police and punish those who have chosen to be hurtful and deceptive.
If I am going to complain about something I strive to offer a solution to the problem, but on this topic, I can only pray that parents will teach their children to be kind and that spreading hate and vitriol through the internet is never okay. We need to teach those who are growing up with the internet that they must not live in the bubble of the faceless internet. It’s okay to come out from behind the blue light and learn to interact with others face to face, to learn the art of compromise and to learn how to be kind to everyone.
Today and every day you wake up with the choice on the type of person you want to be. Please choose to be kind.
Have a wonderful day my friends…