Divided we fall

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Divided we fall

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 06:22
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Taxation is theft! Punch a Nazi! You need a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun! Communism has never been tried properly! That's triggering! 911 was an inside job! Lock her up! - <div>Ided

Social media is the perfect platform for turning important discussions into shallow memes. A place where we all live in echo chambers, the cliquiest of all cliques.

In November 2017 Sean Parker, co-founder of Facebook, admitted:

...we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while. It's a social-validation feedback loop...exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology

To Facebook it doesn't matter what is true or what is just Fake News, all that matters is what makes you feel good in the moment. Social media is the perfect tool to stoke tribalism - short shallow messages designed for instant gratification, both for reader and writer.

Is it any wonder the political climate has been so toxic for the last few years?

Don't get me wrong, there were always divisions. The right wing always thought the left wing was a rabble, and the left wing always thought the right wing were cruel masters - but that's just two political camps, and now we have a dozen. Social factions are now more connected between countries than within countries, and that is destabilizing.

And yet, everyone has a point in these memetic arguments. Take the Brexit debate for example - it's true that a larger political group (the EU) is going to have a higher chance of corruption - and it's also true that close trade relations are essential and what has made every Western nation powerful (from the empires, to the colonies, to modern consensual relationships between democracies). Trade unions enable diverse economies of scale. Trade unions also can hurt the working class, as the economic gains tend to go to those higher up in society. These are complex issues that need to be discussed in intelligent and nuanced ways, with carefully considered policies, and floods of rhetoric in 280 (previously 140) characters just doesn't help.

The Control of Truth

Determining what is and is not true is a lot harder than you might think.

We are all inextricably in bed with narratives that present a version of the truth. We see things through archetypes (you could say, stereotypes). There's a good side, and there's a bad side. There's an evil villain, and there's an innocent victim. But what if the evil villain grew up in social deprivation and wants to address an imbalance, and the innocent victim is the wealthy and privileged descendant of slave traders? Then it's almost the story of Robin Hood or of countless other revolutionaries.

Was Winston Churchill a great war leader, or an imperialist who was happy to talk down Africans and starve Indians? Maybe he was both, but saying that won't get you retweeted. Was Mahatma Gandhi the peaceful man who freed India from the colonial British, or was he a man tainted by racism (against Africans) and who liked to sleep naked with his grandniece? Again, there is truth to both sides. Yet in the second half of the 20th century Britain and India were able to agree on the narratives (perspectives) that made themselves stable and peaceful with each other.

It is rarely possible to get to the real truth when it comes to society and politics. The real truth is as complex as our combined minds and history.

At one time (in the West) Church priests would provide strong guidance to communities. That guidance might not have been the best guidance, but it was unifying: in some sense providing a common cause and common leadership. Of course, I am romanticizing, but there's some truth to it. Then along came the Gutenberg press (~1480) and people could read Bible's themselves, and within a couple of generations Christianity started to fracture (~1517).

I think few would deny the wonderful revolution that the printing press provided us, but it also fractured us. You could make a strong case that many of the events of the last 500 years were closely tied to that (e.g. many of the European wars, the European pilgrims moving to the USA, leading up to the current Christian-conservative power block in US politics).

Social media is just the same. In many ways it is a wonderful unifier, a great way to keep up with friends and family (no more sending Christmas cards is an epic win), and a way to expose yourself to many diverse viewpoints. It also is a seed for the worst kind of social fractionation.

This is a situation Russia exploited in the 2016 election. Alex Stamos, Chief Security Officer for Facebook said in September 2017:

...the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.

This particular Russia campaign was not right-wing or left-wing, it was a campaign to divide, pulling people apart in opposite directions.

At some level, people in a society need to share the same "truth" for harmony and progress to happen within that society. Otherwise you just get a cycle of attack and counter-attack and no progress. For this reason the US congress has had a precipitous drop in the number of bills passed in recent years.

I'm sure there are people deep in the government of every country on Earth (stable and unstable) thinking about how they can create or sustain a stable positive narrative for the majority of the citizens in their country. The puppet masters have a point, as disheartening as that is to admit.

We never have lived in a Democracy. For example, each US state is a Representative Democracy and the US is a Republic. In a true Democracy the people can vote on any individual issue, i.e. everything is a referendum. This is how it was in ancient Athens - except it wasn't, only native-born adult male non-slaves could vote - i.e. the patriarchal elite. Unfortunately harmonizing and filtering is necessary for any society, all we can hope is it's done in a fair and thoughtful way.

The Social Media response

After the Russian Fake News scandal Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg finally admitted there was a problem (September 2017):

After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea [that] misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive.

YouTube is scrambling like mad trying to bring down hateful voices. This has also led to what is called the "adpocalypse", with many YouTube creators putting out great work losing most of their ad revenue for no fault of their own.

BuzzFeed (notorious for divisive articles) is declining in popularity, with layoffs in November 2017, and a notable decline in users over the last two years.

The end result will probably be an intentional campaign to dampen the social divisions we have, which will have an unfortunate collateral (or perhaps necessary) effect of dampening out a lot of the people making enlightening but hyper-partisan arguments. That is, people in camps that can't get close enough to a mainstream narrative will lose most of their influence.

The new Thought Leaders?

Society is already reorganizing in response to what we've observed from social media.

People are starting to Blog again, so they can organize their thoughts in a more coherent way.

There are many thought leaders on YouTube having multi-hour discussions about complex issues, with huge viewing figures and overwhelming multi-partisan popularity. These people include Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Phil DeFranco, and Dan Rather (an old news guy who has recently returned on The Young Turks channel). This is reshaping the intellectual landscape, with a more well-rounded view of the issues rather than only easy answers. There are still more viewpoints to be properly brought together here though, the aforementioned list is entirely white males.

Maybe, just maybe, we are moving toward a renewed era of sanity. We'll have our long-form discussion of complex issues on blogs and YouTube and reach fresh political consensus among influencers, but keep decorum in our personal interactions on social media. With social media the world took 2-steps-forward and 1-step-backward, but perhaps now we are moving forward again. Or maybe it will all go to hell.

What do you think? Is it good for the broad public to be active political players on something as accessible but reactionary as Facebook; or, should politics be reserved only for the longer form discussions? Am I on the wrong side here, arguing for a bland centrist establishment in a time where we need change? Maybe there is a space in between the extremes? Certainly these are complex issues and I'd love to know your thoughts. Also, where do you think things are heading?

About the Author: I am the lead developer for Composr CMS. Composr is a feature-rich website engine, optimized for ambitious folks who fall somewhere between newbie and coder.