Belfast Telegraph

Tragedy of the internet bullies who delete thought

By Robert Fisk

Something is rotten in the state of technology. I only realised the extent of this when I wrote last year about a government minister who had committed suicide at Christmas 2012, partly because he had received so many abusive messages on the internet.

Was it always like this? Did these hateful anonymous messages arrive when Letters to the Editor was the only way to express feelings in print about other human beings?

As I travel around the world, I am finding that an increasing number of journals are suspending or restricting online comment. Among the latest to do so was the National Catholic Register, whose editor, Dennis Coday, decided that the malicious, abusive and vile comments received were "pure vandalism".

I have written before of the foul abuse I receive and of the ambivalent, slovenly way in which those who are involved in chatrooms and platforms run away from their own responsibility by claiming that they've no money for a "mediator", or that "the internet is here to stay, whether you like it or not".

Some of the material I read about Muslims, for example, is the product of psychopaths. Equally venomous, and just as dangerous, is the anti-Semitic filth aimed at journalists, politicians, historians and activists who are Jewish.

Perhaps my own fury and frustration with this state of affairs makes my response all the more direct. But the dirt, racism, foul abuse, the lies and innuendo and slanders and bullying on the web, in blogs and text messages and chat-rooms, has become a sickness.

"Trolls", we call these psychologically disturbed people, and even that is indicative of our craven addiction to technology. So awed are we – so taken over by the new science of communication – that we have to liken these poison-pen writers and abusers to creatures of Scandinavian mythology, rather than to the fantasists and bullies they really are.

It leaches, this language, into the shock-jock radio shows and to Right-wing cable news channels and it deadens the soul; not in the religious sense, but in the way in which the internet itself has, indeed, become an addiction as fearsome as drugs, or cigarettes.

We must be computer literate, rather than literate; some of the hard copy emails I receive are not only ungrammatical, but virtually incomprehensible. Who were the first addicts? The young who gulped down these new "freedoms" – or their peers who told them that this was the way forward?

I'm still stunned by a moment several years ago when I was asked by a student, after giving a lecture at a US university, if I "could name any good websites on the Middle East". I replied with four words: what's wrong with books? The students cheered. Their tutors glowered at me.

The internet catastrophe – perhaps I should say tragedy – grows tentacles. We have become, as one psychologist has said, "seduced by distraction".

We no longer reflect. We react. We don't read books – always supposing we buy them – we "surf" them. Take Spritz.

According to its own pap advertising, it's a "Boston-based start-up focused on text-streaming technology", whose founders are "serial entrepreneurs with extensive experience in developing and commercialising innovative technologies".

And you'll not be surprised to learn that the crackpots running Spritz, after inviting fans to read up to 600 words a minute, claim that you'll soon be able to read Tolstoy's War And Peace in less than 10 hours.

Is that not part of the problem? When you delete thought, impoverish literature and worship technology – not as a wonderful scientific achievement, but as a god – then there are no rules.

You can drink Tolstoy, smoke books and breathe in hatred. Something rotten? What does rotten mean?

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