Researchers at North Carolina’s own Elon University remain deeply involved in some of the world’s best and widely published Internet research as a partner with the Pew Research Center. And the collaboration of the two has produced a disturbing view about the future of free speech on the net.

You may not have heard much about the Elon contribution.

In fact, Elon’s Imaging the Internet Center provided two of the three co-authors for “The future of free speech, trolls, anonymity and fake news online.”

Elon University’s professor Janna Anderson and assistant professor Jonathan Albright are co-authors along with Lee Rainie, director of internet, science and technology research at Pew Research Center.

The three sampled opinions of more than 1,500 tech thought leaders, futurists and scholars to gather an overview of what’s happening on the net, especially in the wake of the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign during which “fake news” became a common charge.

Unfortunately, the authors didn’t find much hope for a more civil discourse.

“The vast majority of these experts believe the online environment will continue to be shaped by trolling and other anti-social behaviors and struggles over phony or semi-phony information sometimes presented in ‘weaponized’ forms,” wrote Rainie.

The conclusions from Anderson and Albright were similar.

“They said messages of hate and discord and the political manipulation being accomplished via fake news and the fanning of flames of fear are magnified by the ease of replication and distribution of information online,” noted Anderson, whio is a Professor of Communications. “The impact of all of this, they say, is compounded by the fact that the firms that operate online platforms see audience attention and profits rise when they redistribute these negative or false messages.”

Added Albright, an Assistant Professor of Communications: “The experts point out that most of the likely solutions to solve these issues of uncivil discourse raise their own problems because they are likely to involve corporate or government controls over free speech that also raise the potential for surveillance and remove the opportunity for anonymity online.”

Perhaps the comments from one of the Internet’s “Godfathers” captures the worries best.

“People feel free to make unsupported claims, assertions, and accusations in online media… As things now stand, people are attracted to forums that align with their thinking, leading to an echo effect. This self-reinforcement has some of the elements of mob (flash-crowd) behavior. Bad behavior is somehow condoned because ‘everyone’ is doing it…,” said Vint Cerf, a Google Vice President.

“Social media bring every bad event to our attention, making us feel as if they all happened in our backyards—leading to an overall sense of unease. The combination of bias-reinforcing enclaves and global access to bad actions seems like a toxic mix. It is not clear whether there is a way to counter-balance their socially harmful effects.”

Read the full report at: