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Creating a healthy and good internet

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When the first computer network was invented in the 1960s, its core purpose was to allow us to communicate, share information and ultimately collaborate in ways that had never been possible before. Whilst initially this was limited to those working in scientific research and the military, this network has since ballooned into the internet – a tool available to a large proportion of the world’s population.

Some may argue that the internet’s purpose remains the same. We can use social media, video conferencing and live streams to connect with people from across the globe with relative ease. During the COVID pandemic, we relied on the internet more than ever to keep us in contact with friends and loved ones, and to help us work in remote teams. Without the internet, many of us would have been incredibly isolated.

But, as the internet has grown, we have paradoxically also seen an increase in reports of social isolation. Studies have shown that heavy users of the internet are more likely to have weaker social ties. The exact cause of this correlation is debated, but perhaps the internet is not the community it was designed to be nearly 60 years ago.

Social fragmentation

Communities, whether online or offline, form from a group of people sharing a common interest or idea. On the internet they can manifest as Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags or TikTok trends, just to name a few. While many form naturally with entirely innocent intentions, some are created with the sole purpose of disrupting the internet’s status quo, and this is most notably seen through the rising tide of misinformation.

Whether their agenda is political, financial or otherwise, the people in these groups are united by their goals, but ultimately seek to divide us as a society. We saw this heavily during the Coronavirus pandemic, which brought a new wave of misinformation or ‘fake news’, particularly around groups sharing supposed cures for the disease, many of which were at best not scientifically backed and at worst dangerous – leading to people’s lives being put at risk.

This is just one example of the power that misinformation can have on those who believe it. As the internet continues to grow at an accelerating rate, the speed at which new regulations can be introduced to help monitor harmful activity will help to decide whether we continue on this path of division or move towards one of cooperation and respect.

The digital divide

The advancement of the internet has brought with it advances in computing technology. Long gone are the days of dial-up and large, beige desktop computers. In the modern world, we can access almost any piece of information via a smartphone, tablet, laptop or even a watch.

But whilst the technology is there, the education and resources often aren’t. In 2018, 10 per cent of the UK’s adult population had never used the internet, or had not used it in the last three months. In addition, many people in developing countries don’t have the necessary skills needed to use the internet to their advantage. Over 80 per cent of illiterate adults live in developing countries, and so in the case where they have the ability to access the internet, they can’t make use of the information that is available. In the UK, a 2018 survey showed that 20 per cent of households said ‘lack of skills’ was the reason they didn’t have internet access.