I’d like to quote Anne Applebaum from her book “Twilight of Democracy -The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”, pages 110-114. At the end of this quotation you will find the same statement in relation to addictive manipulation by the likes of FaceBook, Google, and YouTube as I have been explaining in my blog article “Add title – Start Writing“. And just for the record, I wrote that blog entry before reading the below part in Anne Applebaum’s very insightful and readable book. Not because I’m claiming to be smart, but just to assure you I am not just copying and repeating something I have read. However, Anne Applebaum is smart. She is an American journalist and historian, not only with a distinguished history of publications, but with a very deep knowledge about European history and contemporary political and societal development. She spent vast stretches of her professional and private life in East- and West-Europe.
“In the more open societies of the West, we have become smug about our tolerance for conflicting points of view. But for much of our recent history, the actual range of those views was limited. Since 1945, the most important arguments have usually unfolded between the center right and the center left. As a result, the range of possible outcomes was narrow, especially in democracies like those in Scandinavia that were most inclined toward consensus. But even in the more raucious democracies, the field of battle was relatively well defined. In the United States, the strictures of the Cold War created bipartisan agreement around U.S. foreign policy. In many European countries, a commitment to the EU was a given. Most of all, the dominance of national television broadcasters – the BBC in Britain, the three networks in the United States – and broad-based newspapers that relied on broad-based advertising revenues meant that in most Western countries, most of the time, there was a single, national debate. Opinions diferred, but at least most people were arguing within agreed parameters.
That world has vanished. We now are living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information – exactly the sort of communication revolution that has had profound political consequences in the past. All kinds of wonderful things flowed from the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century: mass literacy, the spread of reliable knowledge, the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on information. But those same things also contributed to new divisions, to polarization and political change. The new technology made it possible for ordinary people to read the Bible, a change that helped inspire the Protestant Reformation – and, in turn, many decades of bloody religious wars. Martyrs were hanged, churches and villages sacked in a furious, righteous maelstrom that subsided only with the Enlightenment and the broad acceptance of religious tolerance.
The end of religious conflict was the beginning of other kinds of conflicts, between secular ideologies and national groups. Some of these also intensified after another change in the nature of communication: The invention of radio at the end of the monopoly of the printed word. Hitler and Stalin were among the first political leaders to understand how powerful this new medium could be. Democratic governments struggled, at first, to find ways to counter the language of demagogues that now reached people inside their homes. Anticipating how divisive broadcasting might become, the United Kingdom in 1922 created the BBC, which was explicitly designed from the beginning to reach all parts of the country, not only to “inform, educate, entertain” but also to join people together, not in a single set of opinions but in a single national conversation, one that would make democratic debate possible. Different answers were found in the United States, we are journalists accepted a regulatory framework, libel laws, licensing rules for radio and television. President Franklin Roosevelt created the fireside chat, the form of communication better suited to the new medium.
Our new communications revolution has been far more rapid than anything we know from the fifteenth century, or even the twentieth. After the printing press was invented, it took many centuries for Europeans to become literate; after radio was invented, newspapers did not collapse. By contrast, the rapid shift in advertising money to Internet companies has, within a decade, severely damaged the ability of both newspapers and broadcasters to collect and present information. Many, though not all, have stopped reporting news altogether; many, though not all, will eventually cease to exist. The most common business model, based on advertising to the general public, meant that they were forced to serve general public interest and forced to maintain at least a theoretical commitment to objectivity. They could be biased, bland, and boring, but they filtered egregious conspiracy theories out of the debate. They were beholden to courts and regulators. Their journalists conformed to formal and informal ethical codes.
Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts. At the same time, in an information sphere without authorities – political, cultural, moral – and no trusted sources, there is no easy way to distinguish between conspiracy theories and true stories. False, partisan, and often deliberately misleading narratives snow spread in digital wildfires, cascades of falsehood that move too fast for fact checkers to keep up. And even if they could, it no longer matters: a part of the public will never read or see fact-checking websites, and if they do they won’t believe them. Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.
The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even the election campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube, and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favor, whether it is a certain brand of soap or a particular form of politics. The algorithms radicalize those who use them too. If you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites. Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear. And because the sites are addictive, they affect people in ways they don’t expect. Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal. Even with social media is not yet the primary news source for all Americans, it already helps shape how politicians and journalists interpret the world and portray it. Polarization has moved from the online world into reality.
The result is a hyper-partisanship that adds to the distrust of “normal” politics, “establishment” politicians, derided “experts”, and “mainstream” institutions – including courts, police, civil servants – and no wonder. As polarization increases, the employees of the state are invariably portrayed as having been “captured” by their opponents. It is not an accident that the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Brexiteers in Britain, and the Trump administration in the United States have launched verbal assaults on civil servants and professional diplomats. It is not an accident that judges and courts and now the object of criticism, scrutiny, and anger in so many other places too. There can be no neutrality in a polarized world because there can be no nonpartisan or apolitical institutions.”
Part of my writing these days relates to the changes that have come with how our lifes are continuing to be transformed by social media. In this, the dense run-down from the 15th to the 20th and into the 21st century in the quotation above is brilliant. What becomes obvious to me (as we all establish our own interpretations of reality, I should only stay on my own side of the street) is to which extent the cohesion of a society and the underlying norms depend on some degree of “value-based order” in how news and opinion pieces are being narrated in that society. I would compare today’s technological development with some form of anarchy that is being usurped, exploited, and used for manipulation by individuals and groups with a deeply un-democratic attitude. The founding motto of the United Nations and the reasons for why it was created come to my mind: “Never Again”. History, once more, is repeating itself. But some things are profoundly new.
Also, again, the use of “algorithms” shows up. AI is, after all, a very complex and very specific form of an algorithm. It is a self-learning computer-based code that constantly changes itself within the framework of what it is directed to do: To turn input into a desired outcome. That outcome, at least for now, is defined by humans. I am still preparing something like a blog entry titled “AI For Dummies”.
However, speaking of those human engineers and their bosses who create and improve these forms of “social media”: As far as I know, they are also not only perfectly aware of but also purposefully using what we know about how to create addictive patterns of behavior. With addiction being something I do know a lot about. Because when I started to address my own compulsive self-harming behavior, I also began to dig deeper into the science of addiction. There are quite a few articles in my blog which carry that tag.
Deeper explanations may be for another article, but there is a direct link between emotions such as fear, anger, rage, and addiction. Every practising health professional and every recovering trauma survivor will tell you about it, and every student beyond freshman status, in fields such as addiction medicine, neuroscience or related will happily explain the inner workings within the brain that sit behind this connection. Like for “AI 101”, “Neurophysiology of Addiction 101” is for later. But I will say that forms of addictive compulsive behavior go way beyond a discourse of commoners in a society, and the proportion of individuals in a society being affected by this is including a vast number of people who just simply do not even know.
My friend from Long Island, New York State, decided to quit watching Cable News and reading blogs on contemporary U.S. politics. Shortly after the networks called Joe Biden the winner of these elections, she realized to which extent her usually peaceful life had gotten into a turmoil of fear and anger. She continued to watch the onslaught which is still fueling the news of CNN and others. She could not bear it any longer, and when she stopped watching, she felt withdrawal. She felt the same void which I described when I temporarily went off YouTube, once I realized to which extent my evenings had become endless hours of watching videos that were presented to me in endless succession because I had watched only one of them. Most recently, I looked up a new mini-drone, and it happened again: My YouTube homepage is overboarding with videos from vloggers putting that little technological marvel through its paces. And the more I watched, the more I got offered.
Now, this is a mechanism in order to sell products. Such as cute drones. So, the longer I continue to watch, the more likely I will buy one, right? Thats what these sites intend to do: Sell me more stuff. Those algorithms, they don’t care about whether I watch a video about a drone, or about a conspiracy theory, or a hate-speech by a politician. They will just present more of those, mercilessly, because they are just bits of computer-code. But when it comes to conspiracy theories, or hate-speech, I get presented with hate, divisiveness, anger. The increasing polarization that I see in traditional networks, it adds. If I don’t fall victim to wrong memories, news presentations by CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, they also became more polarised, often angry, the longer the onslaught by authoritarian politicians and their increasingly louder sycophants became. But these social media sites operate by attempting to get more and more of my screen time. Meaning I have less and less time for news that, at least to some degree, attempt to follow rules of value-based journalism. So, even if I want (which many don’t), I see less and less curated news, and more and more unspecified information and, simply, propaganda.
May be you want to watch this one, on propaganda. Its horrible and disturbing. Like this one. Or this one. Or you look up the OpEd of the Editorial Board of the Washington Post on the entire thing. But don’t blame me when you’re getting angry. Rather, try not to. Because I wrote on an earlier occasion that once somebody has made you angry, he or she has won over you.
I wrote to my friend: “When I get too upset about things (though rightfully), my mind is bordering insanity. Turning this into a positive statement, we need to learn from it. It is not about neglecting news, but learning to consume healthily, and more importantly contribute with our experiences to explaining what needs to change.”
If we want to experience peace and love, we need to practice it.
The feature picture of this article has been taken from https://discover.hubpages.com/health/Anger-and-Traumatic-Brain-Injury