How The Internet Encourages Quick Opinions

Disclaimer of Irony: This is my opinion on how the internet encourages people to make quick opinions.

It seems that the Internet, along with the broader social environment, has encouraged us all to have an opinion on any issue, no matter how controversial or nuanced. For example, there is a growing attitude online that silence on an issue is inappropriate. Instead, companies, institutions, or just regular people must express solidarity with at least one side of a binary debate. Fail to post the correct statement or picture and you might be accused of all manner of nasty things.

I’ve noticed this trend at my school, which is a university in the U.S. Various student interest groups will send school-wide emails about their organization’s stance on unfolding events in the world, typically related to conflicts or injustices. I’ve seen this trend driving through my suburban neighborhood. Families will install signs in their yards’ expressing their political views. Now I’ve always seen signs in support of candidates, but only recently have I seen them in favor or against specific viewpoints.

I’m sure there are many reasons for this recent rise of reflexive position taking, but it seems the internet plays an important role. It gives people the opportunity to show how loyal they are to a particular team, whether that be in a political, economic, or cultural sense. It enables everyone to share an opinion, which, in many respects, is an amazing thing. But it also means any public opinion can be published at no cost. It allows information to travel quickly and be accessible by anyone with a smartphone, which perhaps gives the illusion that anyone can have an informed take on any issue. Features of the internet itself also encourage nonstop opinions; upvote or downvote this post, like or dislike that picture. Regardless of how this culture of abundant conviction came about, it strikes me as trouble for two reasons.

First, if I’ve come to learn anything in life, it is that the world, along with the human beings in it, are an inexhaustible source of mystery and complexity. Even something as simple as opening your browser and reading this post involves a chain of perfectly orchestrated events, from haptic sensors on the surface of your smartphone to radio waves received by your WiFi routers, that no single engineer could wrap their mind around it. In comparison, then, how complicated must global politics or economics be? What about feuds between two civilizations dating back millenia? To have an informed view about topics as subtle and complex as these require detailed study, not skimming the web for an article or two.

Second, having an incorrect opinion seems worse to me than having no opinion. In the former, we have a flawed internal representation of the world, therefore our beliefs, words, and actions will be misguided. We will likely spread this wrong opinion to others, when we share, retweet, or post something on the internet. But when we have no opinion, we know there is a gap in our understanding, so we can adjust accordingly.

Don’t misunderstand me. None of this is to say we should avoid opinions or fail to develop strong convictions. After all, this piece itself is an opinion. In order to make choices and act in the world we must believe certain things to be true and others false. But the problem arises when we make them hastily on issues we have little knowledge on and that we have no power to influence, which represents so many of opinions expressed online. 

I've only recently realized how many of my opinions I had no business holding. A few years ago, I had a particular view on Obamacare, the contentious piece of healthcare legislation passed over a decade ago. I had heard some points about it from my favorite political YouTuber and with the confidence only an ignoramus could muster, my mind was made. I was ready to defend my view, or rather, my YouTuber’s view, against the fools who had so foolishly arrived at a different conclusion.

It was only after I started medical school did I see the staggering complexity of the US healthcare system up close. And when I actually opened the 1,000 page policy document for the law, which was written in dense legal and political jargon, did I realize I was the fool. I knew next to nothing about Obamacare. I was merely parroting words I had heard.

After this debacle, I’ve started to incorporate more phrases like “I don’t have an opinion about it” or “I haven’t looked into it deeply enough” when someone asks for my opinion on something complex. I don’t think these are cop-outs from tackling difficult questions or for standing up for what I believe in. Instead, it's a reflection of respect for how complicated the world really is when we look up close, a reflection of how its okay to not pick a side for just any issue.