Is the Internet making you more tolerant?

For those of us who work, shop, socialize, bank and even date online, it’s next to impossible to overestimate the effect the Internet has had on our lives. In the places it’s reached, the online revolution has transformed economies and enabled mass communication in ways that seemed inconceivable before.  Economists say that if the internet were a sector, it would be worth more than agriculture. But has the internet changed the way we view the world too?  In particular, has it made us more tolerant?cropped-blogpic.jpg

I checked out some research to find out what scientists have to say on the subject.

  • In 2003, the remote Pacific island of Niue became the first country in the world to offer nationwide free wi-fi.  Almost a decade later, Swedish business student Ludvig Foghammar traveled there to find out whether using the internet was making the islanders more or less tolerant. He monitored the hours inhabitants were spending online and gave them a questionnaire to assess their tolerance.He found that those who used the internet for more than an hour a day scored higher on overall measurements of tolerance. But the findings couldn’t establish a causal link between Internet use and tolerance. After all, people who spent longer online may have been more tolerant in the first place.
  •  In another study published last year, Japanese researchers controlled for a tolerant predisposition when measuring the relationship between internet use and tolerance of foreigners. Their findings supported the link between internet use and social tolerance, even when they controlled for other variables like existing contact with foreigners.
  • Exposure to and acceptance of other belief systems (a key feature of tolerance) on the Internet may also be causing us to abandon our own set of religious convictions. An analysis of two decades worth of data by computer scientist Allen B. Downey led him to conclude that “internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”

These findings might not strike many as particularly surprising.  After all, any repository of easily accessible information is likely to broaden the mind and turn us away from a prescriptive world view.

But is that really how we use the Internet? A cursory glance at the comments section beneath almost any YouTube video or news article shows little sign of tolerance flourishing online.

Many internet users have seized the opportunity of hiding behind an avatar to disseminate their own particular messages of hate. The phenomenon of cyber-bullying gained mainstream media coverage after the 2010 death of teenager Tyler Clementi who killed himself after his flatmate secretly filmed him kissing a man and then released the footage online.

Equally, hate groups made up of xenophobes, misogynists and even terrorists find like-minded company online, often using technology to gain new recruits.

After the Arab Spring, academics engaged in a fiery debate about which had come first: the medium or the message. While some credited social media with mobilizing protesters to come out in force, others argued that its use simply corresponded with a change in attitudes that was occurring offline.

In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, French author J. M. G. Le Clézio  presented a particularly optimistic view of the internet: “Who knows, if the internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded – ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.”

In a week that’s seen terrorist group Islamic State release a fifth video of a beheading online and an eminent astrophysicist publicly burst into tears after the shirt he was wearing during a historic moment in space history caused a #shirtstorm, that view may seem utopian.

I’m on the fence. Have we become more or less tolerant since going online? Post your thoughts below!

6 thoughts on “Is the Internet making you more tolerant?

  1. I’m just guessing, but based on your evidence, it seems like two contradictory forces are at work. Internet use makes the world more tolerant generally but brings out the hateful crazies also – perhaps the inevitable doubleness of open-air, anonymous freedom of expression. We probably need attend to both potentials, but the aggregate tide toward tolerance seems larger than the backwash pull of intolerant voices.


  2. I think you’ve really nailed it there with “anonymous freedom of expression” – the explosion of anonymous writing online means people are no longer held personally accountable for their utterances. While anonymity plays an important protective role, it also faciliates gratuitous attack. Thanks for weighing in 🙂


  3. I’m afraid I’m going to have to play my typical role here and – I’m sure you’ll be shocked to here this – put on my skeptic hat. From my wide ranging Internet experience what the internet can do and does do a lot is allow people to find a particular niche and stick to it. In regards to issues like politics and religion this means that people can easily stick to ground which is comfortable to them and where everyone agrees with everybody else and perhaps think that this is natural and those that disagree seem further away than ever, are crazy or misguided or etc. I’m not saying this is an inevitable consequence of the internet, only that it is part of its ecosystem, a trap into which one can (often willingly) fall. On the other hand, online if you genuinely seek out alternative sources of information and ideas then they can be find and can be enlightening (or horrifying). It depends on the will and the personality of the person.

    However, I don’t at all agree with the idea – and as a historian of sorts I think I can say something about this without feeling a fool – that the internet caused the Arab Spring (which has now mostly ‘failed’ anyway, outside of Tunisia). Sure, the events which transpired were formed and organized through social media and modern technologies but to say they caused the uprisings or caused their success is a bit much. There have been problems in that region for a long time, long predating the internet. In 1977 there were severe riots in Egypt that almost toppled the government (of the dictator who preceded Mubarrak, Anwar al-Sadat see: over the price of bread. The price of food and basic items was also an issue during the Arab Spring. 1977 was an immediate failure but are we to say that the difference between then and 2011 was the existence of Facebook? It seems a bit unlikely.

    Le Clézio’s suggestion is also mad. Hitler had a book published, which everyone could read, in which he outlined what was going to do. His anti-semitism, militarism and nationalism were obvious to anyone paying attention yet they did not stop him eventually but were rather part of his appeal (to simplify massively). I think Le Clezio is engaging in a fantasy here where the problems of human decision making is brought about by incomplete or inaccurate information rather than something springing from humans themselves.


  4. I think this is an interesting notion. Certainly it seems that globalization is making us more tolerant—especially young people. Exploring social justice Tumblr introduced me to concepts like privilige and trigger warnings. I think the Internet has made it much more difficult for people like the young or extremely open-minded that are not firmly entrenched in their cultural norms to accept new, cross-cultural possibilities.

    I also think the role of anonymity on the Internet contributing to bullying or hate is a bit overvalued. In the last few years we’ve seen comment platforms that require or make using your real name so easy that many people are no longer anonymous—yet they still say awful things to each other.

    Without exploring more data, I think have reached the same non-conclusion as you: I’m on the fence. Like the first commenter said, the Internet has allowed both the tolerant and intolerant to connect to each other. To me it seems that as the older generations leave the Internet, it (and maybe the world?) will become a more tolerant place. But that could just be optimism. After all, Islamic State is using the Internet to radicalize plenty of young people.


  5. The internet provides the isolated with a clan, I don’t think the paradigm inspires change as much as support, justification, arguments and legitimization and continuance. The racist or Islamist might find a group who fuel their fire and reassure them, equally the sexually confused or victims of abuse might find friends and help, but I’m skeptical about a change being wrought. Referring to the Hitler point, Germany would have still fallen to him, and with a great website and social media presence other countries may have seen grass-roots revolutions to Nazism. In a word then, Its good to have this body of knowledge accessible by all, but I fear as many people use it to overcome their unnatural constraints, a similar number use it to enchain themselves and others.


  6. Dear Kate,
    I don´t think that going online makes people more tolerant. My opinion. I just try to explain it.
    Just read comments on youtube for example posted by kurdish or turkish (rightwing nationalists) here in Germany. The comments (by turks or kurds) are often of poor quality but obviously very unsulting. Turks against kurds, kurds aigainst turks. It is annyoing but just one example.
    Another of just millions of examples is that our German Chancellor Andrea Merkel went to Israel to held a speech infront of Knesset. She spoke in German language. But her first sentence was in hebrew.. You must know, that one had to speak in arab, hebrew or english language in front of Knesset and that you had to be no. 1 in your state. Andrea Merkel decided to speak in German and she is after Joachim Gauck No. 2 in Germany. But israelis used to be clever enough to change their laws, so that Merkel had the right to speak infront of Knesset in German language.
    Guess what,…….on youtube you could read a houndreds of antisemitic comments, claiming Merkel used to betrey Germany. Just because of one simple sentence she spoke… hebrew.
    She just said in hebrew somethink like that” I thank the Knesset that I can speak in German”.
    I felt ashame by reading comments
    I don´t think, that going online makes people more tolerant.


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