Today’s Internet Is a Toxic Wasteland

August 18, 2016, 5:58 PM UTC
Illustration by Chris Gash for Fortune

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Once upon a URL, the World Wide Web was a place of fantastic possibility. ­People went online to meet and befriend total strangers. They could share their passions and opinions on LiveJournal or GeoCities or even Myspace. The democratization of information, no longer controlled and distributed exclusively by the mainstream media, was liberating.

Today the web is far more sophisticated—the idea of blogging seems quaint, a handful of ­giant companies (mostly Facebook) controls what we discover, and teenagers all have their own “personal brands.” More notably the innocent, collegial, summer-camp feeling of the early web has been replaced by a cesspool of attention mongering and outrage. Peruse the Twitter (TWTR) mentions of any public figure, and you’ll find a trove of racist and sexist attacks and threats.

What’s worse, those threats now come in the form of push notifications to our smartphones. Author Jessica Valenti, for example, recently quit social media after an Instagram user sent a rape and death threat directed at her 5-year-old daughter. “I should not have to wade through horror to get through the day,” she tweeted in July.

Web services like Twitter had long hoped that the vibrant online communities they created would police themselves. Trolls and bullies would be shamed into playing nice.

But mob mentality and the impersonal way screens dehumanize digital communication have allowed hatred and venom to flourish online. Somewhere along the way to the web’s starry-eyed promise of a connected world, we lost track of common de­cency. Online harassment of women is becoming an “established norm,” according to a recent study by cyber­security company Norton, which found that 76% of the women under 30 surveyed had experienced abuse or harassment online.

Hosting a pit of vitriol is not good for business (users and advertisers will flee), so what’s a popular Internet service to do? For Facebook (FB), it’s building tools for the targets of harassment. The company’s subsidiary Instagram recently allowed Taylor Swift and other celebrities to filter out certain words and phrases from the comments below their photos.

Twitter, which doesn’t require people to use their real names and once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” is moving in that direction. CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision to prioritize curbing abuse marked a major shift. Fellow members of the “free speech party” balked when the company permanently banned a bully who directed his followers to attack actress Leslie Jones, prompting her to publicly quit the service. But those free speech defenders are misguided. The promise of an open, decent, self-­policing web that people actually want to spend time on is dead. The sooner the platforms that control today’s web understand that, the safer—and saner—we’ll all be.

A version of this article appears in the September 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Bullies and Trolls.”

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