It Takes More Than Regulation

Nov 10, 2017

As I watch and listen to tech-sector representatives answer questions from Senators about Russian trolls, Facebook advertising, and fake profiles, I am reminded of something from the early days of the Internet.

In 1993, Peter Steiner published a now-famous cartoon in The New Yorker. You probably have seen it. The cartoon depicts two dogs sitting in front of a computer. One of the dogs turns to his companion and says, rather smugly: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

What the cartoon demonstrates is simple: Things on the Internet often are not what they seem to be. It’s an idea that is as old as Plato, and many of us assumed it was well-established internet folk wisdom. But the joke is on us, and the dogs -- or perhaps more accurately stated, the Russians -- have duped us once again.

Don’t get me wrong; social-media providers like Facebook and Twitter should be held to account for their actions or lack of action. But, more importantly, we have a responsibility. We need to remember the simple wisdom that is portrayed in this cartoon from the ancient days of the Internet.

Online things rarely are what they seem to be, and the critical task for 21st century democracies is media literacy. We need to start teaching this subject from kindergarten forward in order to cultivate a sophisticated population of users who understand both the advantages and limitations of their digital devices.

The answer is not just regulation; it is also education.

I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.