July 14, 2024

Taking Responsibility For Internet’s Dark Side

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!

There are a few rural economic development demands more pressing than expanding high-speed internet service. Efforts to meet those demands are highly promoted and financed by federal, state, and local officials.

High-speed internet services are critical in so many ways in today’s technology-driven world. It is essential to industry connected to worldwide markets, suppliers, and partners. It connects rural emergency rooms with stroke experts in regional healthcare facilities. Precision agriculture uses it to ensure just the right amount of fertilizer is spread based on detailed maps of field soil types and nutrient needs.

Students increasingly use Chromebooks or other electronic devices for their lessons and homework. They connect students to teachers even during a pandemic or a blizzard. Detailed weather forecasts, entertainment programs, cottage industries, and social media entrepreneurs rely on it.

Rural communities see it as a required economic development tool that allows workers to move out of metropolitan areas and work remotely.

In 2008, the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force said high-speed broadband internet was “an economic and social necessity for all citizens of the state no matter where they are located.” That was in the days of euphoric promises of how the internet was transforming America for the better in every way. We’ve learned since then there is also a dark side. 

In 2021, as the evidence of the internet’s damage to communities, community news, and individuals became more evident, the USDA offered $250,000 to communities to participate in its Rural Placemaking Innovation Challenge program.

Rural Placemaking was “a process of creating quality places where people want to live, work, and play. Ultimately, the goal is to create greater social and cultural vitality in rural communities to improve people’s social, physical, and economic well-being.” In 2020 and early 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for high-speed connections for students, medical providers, and businesses.

Another economic boost is being provided to states through the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill into law by President Joe Biden. Minnesota is getting $652 million for broadband expansion from it. 

Between 2020 and 2022, Congress approved $100 billion in subsidies for broadband expansion, failing to address the growing crisis its expanded reach is causing.

As federal, state, and local leaders consider the benefits of broadband access, they must also consider its dark side. 

It exposes our youth to online sexual predators. It is responsible for online bullying and isolation and is linked to higher rates of teen suicides.

Amazon preys on the dollars available in our communities to support local businesses as people order everyday basics online.

Facebook, Google, and the corporations they own decimate community newspapers while capitalizing on our reporting to earn money. We’ve lost nearly 2,900 newspapers since 2005, and we are losing additional newspapers at two per week. Around 1,800 communities and more than 200 counties no longer have a newspaper.

When newspapers disappear, fake news websites and print products show up pretending to be professional news but, in fact, are backed by political extremes or foreign countries.

Communities without local news aren’t informed about the challenges their communities face. Without that knowledge, infrastructure, quality of life, and community loyalty deteriorate. 

Voting rates drop, fewer races are contested, people are less informed about election issues, and may not know who is running for office. People know little about the records of those serving them.

Communities without newspapers see less civic engagement from their citizens. Citizens who aren’t connected by a common local news source feel less responsibility for their fellow citizens and community. Government becomes less responsive and more costly when citizens know little or nothing about those in charge. 

Rather than being more civically engaged through the internet, we are checking out of local participation and becoming more rigid in our political beliefs with our focus on national news. It tears communities and families apart.

It is no coincidence that falling participation in civic life and growing conflict coincide with the spread of broadband.

As the internet takes hold, more dollars flow out of a community, and fewer are available for advertising with local newspapers. This is particularly true when younger people are involved in decision-making roles about where advertising is placed – young people who know little about the critical value of a community newspaper.

Our local economic development organizations actively promote the internet to businesses that have traditionally advertised in local newspapers. They spend their dollars on Facebook or some other social media site. 

Facebook does nothing to support the community. It doesn’t report community news. It doesn’t tell the story of its economic development efforts, but it gets its dollars. When the newspaper is weakened or gone, these local economic development groups will find it harder to get their message out. They will find their community is less connected, the people they need to reach not paying attention, and it has become less attractive.

“If we only solve one part of this problem by providing affordable high-speed internet access, but fail to provide trustworthy local information, we will not be enabling residents to be full participants in civic society,” Christopher Ali and Steven Waldman wrote in comments to the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA.)

“Even worse, in information vacuums, residents may turn to social media or partisan news, increasing the likelihood that misinformation and polarization will spread. 

“Without also addressing the collapse of trustworthy local news, more broadband access may lead to what one expert called, ‘high-speed access to Internet garbage.’ What’s more, the arrival of broadband is a mixed blessing for many local news outlets,” they wrote.

Cigarette manufacturers paid a price for the damage they did to the health of Americans and the deaths they caused. Internet companies raking in billions of dollars should be responsible for ensuring we have news sources that give citizens local news. As federal, state, and local governments invest in broadband expansion, they should also be aware of the need to support community newspapers they have helped decimate.

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!