The fantasy of online privacy

The internet was always envisioned as a tool for surveillance, and the issues go well beyond any single platform or website

A computer.
(Image credit: Illustrated | vladwel/iStock, RuDVi/iStock, javarman3/iStock)

I am old enough to remember when the internet and social media in particular were unambiguously good things. Not long ago we were gushing about Barack Obama's digital team and their ability to convince teenagers that electing a first-term senator to the White House would usher America into a golden age of freedom and prosperity. It is almost impossible now to convey, especially to those who have come of age in a world in which these things were already ubiquitous, the mood of techno-optimism presented in public schools during the 1990s. Al Gore's Information Super Highway was going to make everything of value — the latest scientific research, classics of art, literature, and music, informed debates about public policy — freely accessible to billions.

Since then a kind of Spenglerian gloom has begun to pervade our attitude toward this technology. There is a great deal of concern-trolling these days about fake news and bots and Russian troll farms and so-called "deep-fakes," computerized simulation videos that to my eyes barely rise to the level of a Bad Lip Reading parody. It turns out that instead of turning all of us into Mozart-listening, Tolstoy-reading geniuses, having a 24-hour distraction engine has left us with short attention spans and an appetite for hardcore pornography and millions of words of Twilight fan fiction. Why is anyone surprised that the leveling of discourse has made it possible for the dumbest and loudest people to receive an outsized amount of attention? Thirty years ago if one of this country's enemies wanted to influence American politics it had to depend upon spies and useful idiots with established positions in our public life; now all they have to do is make a few Twitter accounts. The only really amazing thing about all this is that, contrary to what a thousand take merchants have suggested, the internet actually hurt Donald Trump in 2016.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.