Should the internet win the Nobel peace prize?

hands on laptop

The internet is in the running for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Philosopher and author Julian Baggini looks at whether the world wide web can be a catalyst for peace.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to something that is neither a person nor an organisation of people makes perfect sense.

Marx would certainly have understood why automatically favouring people over processes is a mistake.

"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness," he wrote. In other words: it's the system, stupid.

He may have overstated the case, but it is certainly true that circumstances shape behaviour much more than we like to think.

Put people in the wrong environment - such as the unsupervised night shift at Abu Ghraib - and they behave terribly.

Put them in the an almost identical position - such as the day shift at the same prison, but with oversight - and they behave perfectly decently.

Psychologists have made a pretty overwhelming case that good systems really can promote better behaviour.

'Uncharitable nastiness'

But even if it does make sense to nominate a system for the Nobel Peace Prize, is the internet really the right candidate?

The nominators claim that "democracy has always flourished where there is dialogue, debate and consensus through communication."

True, but that does not sound like the internet I use almost every day.

Image caption Karl Marx might have approved of the award going to a "system"

Take a look at the comments on almost any online newspaper or blog and you will see a degree of vicious, uncharitable nastiness that in a face-to-face encounter would never be tolerated.

On the face of it, the internet seems better at creating the conditions for conflict than harmony.

The structural reason for this is that the internet facilitates the kind of depersonalisation that psychologists have for a long time seen as a prerequisite for real, nasty cruelty.

The more human another person seems, the more difficult it is to be horrible to them.

That's why Tutsis in Rwanda were described as cockroaches by the Hutus orchestrating their genocide: only by denying their full humanity did it become possible to treat them so inhumanely.

Similarly, Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments found that people were much more willing to inflict pain on another person if they couldn't actually see them, even if their howls of anguish were still audible.

Nominators of the web for the prize may be right when they say, "contact with others has always been the most effective antidote against hatred and conflict," but it has to be the right kind of contact.

Prison guards at Abu Ghraib were put right next to the people they abused, but not in such a way as to make them seem human.

Online, other people just become names, and as such, people seem to lose all sense of the need to treat them decently. The internet fosters an anonymity which magnifies animosity.

'Openness and acceptance'

You might think that the internet at least promotes the kind of increased mutual understanding that helps promote peace.

If I can see why you believe different things to me, it is harder for me to think of you as just evil or stupid.

And according to its nominators, the internet enables "openness, acceptance, discussion and participation."

But that fails to take account of how people actually use it to cluster in groups of the like-minded, not the open-minded.

In real life people do this too, of course.

For instance, if you join your local Conservative Club, you are surrounding yourself with like-minded people.

But such clubs contains at least some diversity: the Tory party is a broad church.

Online, with lots of Conservative websites to choose from, a socially-conservative economic liberal, for example, can hang out only with that subset of Conservatives that match their views.

Exposure to people with different views becomes optional, not unavoidable.

A similar dynamic plays out with information as well as individuals. We tend to pay much more attention to evidence that supports our view than that which goes against it, a phenomenon psychologists call confirmation bias.

Image caption US President Obama was an unexpected choice for the Nobel Peace Prize last year

And thanks to the internet, we can access almost unlimited evidence for whatever position we hold.

Just look at conspiracy theory web sites: they may be batty but you can't help but be impressed with the sheer volume of evidence they pile up on their side.

It's just a pity that they ignore the almost infinite amount of evidence on the other.

The web may make it hard to suppress the truth, but it makes it impossible to hold back the lies, falsehoods and distortions which can easily swamp it.

Despite all these reservations, it is undeniably true that the web opens up the flow of information in ways that make it harder for people to be deeply ignorant of what the rest of the world is really thinking.

That might, just might, make it more of a force for peace than the myriad ways in which it creates tensions.

But since when has might been the proper basis for awarding a peace prize?

Julian Baggini is the editor-in-chief of the Philosophers' Magazine.

Should the internet be a winner of Nobel peace prize?

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