Sunday News Blues

Here are a few clustered “pieces of news” which I found myself reading about, and following on various other media, throughout the past couple of days:

  • Afghanistan related news continued to show up on my newsfeeds with a somewhat toned down tendency. Whilst still being a main topic, the fierceness and rage of those weeks in August is lessening. We become used to information about women being deprived from education and from participating in forms of public life, we seem to begin to resign into facing a reality where two decades of successful promotion of women’s rights are being wiped out within weeks. We become used to news about journalists being deprived from the freedom to report. We hear from the humanitarian community warning about an imminent desaster, and we learn about a Taleban government comprising our worst previous enemies. Sometimes I feel that government is just sitting it out: “Don’t produce too bad news about violations of human rights, the international media train will move on after a while.”
  • New news capable to create attention by producing feelings of being upset, being angry, they moved on to Mali. Already being a country where military control replaced civilian governance, within a growing set of West African countries moving away from democratic rules of governance, we now see a potential engagement of the Russian “Wagner Group” mercenaries, on request of the Malian ruling military class, and certainly on basis of profound Russian geo-strategic interests, leading to that France, Germany, and others raise questions of conditionality related to the engagement of our own military capacities, within the United Nations peacekeeping Mission MINUSMA, within EU-led military training missions, and through a multilateral set of counterterrorism forces operating in Mali, and the wider region. Feels like another looming implosion.
  • The most recent clash is a different one: France recalling her Ambassadors to the United States and to Australia for “consultations” after being completely kept in the dark on discussions that led to what now is coined AUKUS. A new alliance being formed in secrecy between the U.S., Australia, and the UK, in a global undertaking confronting China in the Indo-Pacific. A multi-billion deal delivering French conventionally-powered submarines to Australia being scrapped with nothing else than shortest notice, in favor of nuclear-powered submarine technology provided by the U.S., assisted by the UK. These news somewhat also feel like the bookends to a discussion in between, a discourse about the future of the North-Atlantic alliance, and the parallel soul-searching of the European Union where we have a place in all this, including through own military capacities and capabilities. A French President and a French Foreign Minister asking as to which extent there is an extension of abandonment which some hoped to be only temporary during the Trump administration, into the Biden administration. Everyone who is reading this will grasp at least a sense of how profound global alliances and interests are changing. In a different piece, for other channels, I reflected on how much this also affects the work of the United Nations, within the field of peace&security, through political and peacekeeping efforts. Just mentioning that, here. And lastly, at least I begin to make an argument about the emergence of the big picture which explains also why the hard decisions on leaving Afghanistan may have been made: It is about re-organizing political and military might along new geo-strategic lines, and not being timid when implementing it.
  • On a sarcastic note, then there also is rapper Nicki Minaj. For many, here is what CBS graced us with: “The White House has offered Nicki Minaj a call with a doctor, according to an official, after she expressed concerns this week about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The rapper tweeted on Monday that she wants to do more research before getting vaccinated and claimed that a friend of her cousin’s had experienced adverse effects from it, which health officials have refuted. “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen,” Minaj tweetedMonday. “His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it & make sure you’re comfortable with ur decision, not bullied.” Well, sarcasm also reflecing on that this tweet provides a perfect example for how the media frenzy is providing opportunities for something which I am attempting to describe below.

The above almost arbitrary selection of newsbites which caught my attention yesterday and on this sunny and pleasantly chilly autumn morning in Belgrade, it made me thinking. Because, more often than not, my news selection leaves me with frustration, despair, worry. I know very well what these emotions do to me. If being allowed to go on the rampage, they make me restless and I find myself in a spiral of obsessive reading. My days may not be ending on a positive note then. Like in many other areas of my life, it is about emotional moderation, sometimes we call it emotional sobriety. There is a very thin line between compassion and obsession. If I don’t find a way into some form of loving non-attachment, I take everything personal.

I have to pick and choose amongst the thousands of pieces of information offered by my newsreader. The settings of this newsreader only subscribe to channels which I find interesting, acceptable, in line with my cultural and political belief system. So sorry, Fox News, Bild Zeitung, or alikes. Not subscribing. As a consequence, I have to accept a filtered view on the state of affairs because of my own choices. Solid journalism is not free from beliefs. A robotic emotionless and value-neutral set of information items does not exist. With every new reading, I am solidifying the neural pathways forming my own framework of how I see the world outside myself. With every piece of my writing here, I am doing the same.

The engineers and master-minds behind the advertising machinery and the machinery of political manipulation know about this. Walking in their shoes, I reckon they have at least two questions driving them when optimising their strategies:

  • How to keep people in an existing framework, sometimes also referred to as “ecosystem”? Cynical emphasis put on “eco”. I prefer “belief system” as being a bit more precise. If I go one step further, I would even question “belief” and replace it with “emotion”. Whether we talk about a preference to, say right-wing or left-wing political beliefs, or people using Android or iOS, or PCs or Macintoshs, or being a hard-core fan of BMW or Mercedes, it doesn’t matter. Examples are endless. It’s all about emotions, creating emotional attachment, and emotional dependency.
  • How to manage cross-overs, meaning, getting people moving over from one system to another? That, too, is all about emotions.

In a digital realm profoundly based on psychological knowledge how to manipulate, and how to exploit the neuroscience of addiction, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a blessing for those performing Black Magic. As a consequence, I navigate to the best of my education and ability to at least identify some of the manipulation efforts which are ferociously thrown at me every time I enter the Internet. Not only my computer needs a firewall, my brain needs a firewall as well, allowing me to stay clear from malicious forms of manipulation and from fake news. This goes so much deeper than only avoiding spam and malware attacks. “Social engineering” is a term which had been coined by the hacker scene. But AI takes social engineering to a quantum leap, and a new meaning: Very much like the hacker uses some fake personal credibility through phone calls in order to gain entry, social media perverts the personal meaning of “friends”. One click allows me to request somebody to be my “friend”. Nobody does this free from emotions: Whether I ask somebody in person to be my friend, or I push a button, the emotional reaction is very similar, may be except for sociopaths. With that person’s accepting click, we’re done! I have a new friend, and it is creating an emotional reaction again. If, then, a friend tells me a story, I tend to believe, or to support the attitude behind. That’s what friends do, right?

AI aiming at getting me to become a member of a group of friends, or a “follower” of another category of people, called “influencers”, that’s the wizardry of really smart social engineering. By the way, as perverted the digital meaning of “friend” may be, as cynically clear is the meaning of “influencer”. An “influencer” does what the name is suggesting: Influencing. Not “reasoning”, “informing”, or “entertaining”, but “influencing”. Stomach this. I don’t want to be a friend, nor a follower of, say, Nicki Minaj (see above). My son is dreaming of becoming an “influencer”. Because it’s all about status. But then the opposite to “being an influencer” is “being influenced”. There both is a benign meaning given to it by the new generations of smartphone kids, and a very malicious one, covertly applied by those who manipulate for reasons of profit, or ideological, religious, or political agenda. For those less benign, it is about that content only serves one purpose: Generating a click. There is no difference between somebody using that in order to catch followers adoring long and carefully draped blond hair sitting on top of a rosy face, and somebody who does this in order to catch attention to some specific upper torso specifics.

Nicki Minaj’s boobie-trapped testicle-reasoning against Covid-19-vaccines contributes to fueling the mistrust of millions, and of course because it just is a fancy way for Nicki to create attention for her media circus. No accountability, or sense of responsibility, Ms. Minaj, taking into account the Covid-deaths, suffering, and infringements on the rights of vaccinated people? People who can not pay themselves into privileged high-society realms, now including space, since this weekend’s SpaceX Inspiration4 spaceflight of a billionaire with his three friends?

One of the reasons why democratic values are so much challenged these days: Democracy works best when people make educated choices, and when there is at least some pretention of that all of us are equal. At least that was the idea. If we don’t find a way back into this understanding, democracy may be shown the way to the exit door.

My personal choices in this new world include that I stay almost entirely away from social media sites, like Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram, Tic Toc. I also am extremely concerned about their impact on emotional health issues of teenagers. Parenting two teenagers who struggle heavily with this, like millions of other teenagers too, I need to put this aside for another blog entry.

Yes, I have a select set of Youtube channels and I actively use Youtube to broaden my views on things I am interested in. Yes, I have a LinkedIn profile which I use only in a very restricted manner. But mainly, my own subjective worldview is based on choices I make when reading news in the Internet, using my Newsreader. I try to avoid the worst honeytraps of manipulation, and to mitigate the remainder through educated choices.

I consider myself being moderately good at this. I am aware of that I am blessed with sound education, a very broad experience, a non-local life-style, and broad cross-cultural and inter-cultural experiences. In this, I belong to a global minority. This summer allowed me, again, to see this. I traveled for many months and I stayed on campsites all over Europe, making many experiences meeting people from all walks of life. Sourcing my information from verified channels makes me part of a minority.

It’s not only about the quality of the news sources. It also is about the depth and the width. In order to understand (or trying to) global events, I need to maintain a global perspective. In order to understand complexity and interdepedency of events, I need to inform myself about a large variety of topics. Otherwise, developments seem local, disconnected, and hard to understand. Many people who I have met don’t do that. They source their information from unverified sources, they show limited interest to what happens outside their neighborhood, they feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of complex bad news. But they all try to make meaning.

No surprise then how seductive the simplifications offered by pied pipers are. Threatening narratives sell on feeding grounds soaked with fear. This I have expressed in various pieces on my blog here, and I feel it is not enough. There is some more, but I struggle with how to describe it in a way that is making sense without becoming too lengthy in this piece.

But I would end with that people in democratic societies vote. We are one week away from German Federal elections. I keep fingers crossed. Until then, I’ll go for a forest walk now enjoying the beautiful Belgrade late summer.

The End Is Just The Beginning

On this blog entry I have been on and off. Processing so many experiences from this summer, personal, and professional, this piece of writing tries to find common issues in very different fields. Sometimes I am happy with progress expressing what wants to come out, sometimes I feel like wanting to throw it into the bin. When it pops up on my blog, a future version will have made me pushing the “Publish” button. The following is what you then will read. Hope you find it interesting.

Essentially, this is a personal reflection on change. Choosing the title “The End Is Just The Beginning”, I planned to continue writing on Afghanistan and the wider context of implications which I see. I wanted to reflect on my perception that the current development for many people appears to feel like a defeat, and an end. To me, the notion of the “end” just being a “beginning” reflects on the only eternal universal truth: Everything changes.

I arrived back in Belgrade at the same time when a long and hot summer heat wave is ending. The weather is changing. Since a few days the first signs of the fall can be sensed. Temperatures significantly down, the blue sky is often replaced with the darkish grey of rain clouds. The long summer days are now followed by shorter periods of daylight. For a while I will be switching to a more stationary routine in my apartment after three months of being a digital nomad. Well, we will see how long I can keep my itchy feet under an apartment table, mitigating the risk of restlessness and focusing on healthy aspects of constant, but somewhat moderated change.

On a larger scale, what kind of change will happen for me next? During the summer I thought about the many different places scattered around the world which form part of what I would call my “home”. Partly, “home” is about places. More importantly, “home” is about meaningful connection to the people in my life who matter to me, and to whom I matter. Everything, places, situations, relationships, everything changes over time. Like everyone else, I experience times where I embrace change, and times when I dread it, when I cling, when I try to control change. I have found during the pandemic that it is possible to nurture important relationships in my life, though they are long-distance. Using videoconferencing, voicemail, calls, texts I could find a way even deriving comfort from virtual contacts with children, loved ones, friends. But there needs to be physical contact, too. So, “home” is also about deciding where to live close to some of those who matter in my life. At the end of the summer, I could see a path forward, and change is coming up, and is being embraced by me.

Then there is a book on my reading list. Tiziano Terzani’s Book “Das Ende ist mein Anfang”, literally in English “The End Is My Beginning” (German description of the book here; English description of the movie based on it here). The book patiently waits for my being ready to read it. The subtitle reads “A Father, A Son, and the Big Journey of Life”. The son, Folco Terzano, interviews his father Tiziano, who is in his last days. The son and the father talk about the meaning of life, and about the father’s experiences as a widely traveled journalist. The book is not ready for me, yet. It patiently waits, there is no hurry, it will tell me when I am supposed to read it. It touches a nerve:

I had many talks with my father over the past months. I see his existential fear, his suffering from his ego feeling locked down in an ageing and frail body. There is a stubborn denial on his side, rejecting any notion that he might not be able to live without help at some unknown point in the future. There is despair about the meaninglessness of days now and in the future, and a strong attachment to memories of the past. Sometimes, he almost exclusively lives in his memories, when things still did have a future perceived as being meaningful. On other occasions, I saw some clarity about the inevitable deterioration, and some peaceful acceptance. Mostly though, I witnessed a heartbreaking fight against upcoming defeat, and a perceived end.

Being his son, by logic I am younger than my father. I feel healthy, which allows my vain thinking ego to tell me that I am significantly younger. My ego tells me that I can do more of the same. That my future includes further extension of external validation. That my career continues with growth of the same kind that was its hallmark for many decades.

Spending time with my father, I saw what happens when we miss a transition into a different kind of growth. A kind of inner growth that does make use of the vast accrued experience of many decades, and transforms it into learning about how I can be be useful to others. I saw, and I see in my own case, how the ego clings to control, discriminates between “me” and everything “non-me”. The Buddhists talk about the duality coming from this discrimination, Buddhism teaches non-duality. To those of us who do not get enlightened early on, working on giving up the duality view reflected in “us and them” is a lifetime assignment.

Some profound changes in my life are based on developments eight years ago. So I was able to be with my father, and at the same time to reflect on my own experiences with denial, control, and the importance of external validation for my inner own esteem. I feel great compassion for my father. And I know that I have plenty of time for learning to stop worrying about the future, any perceived “endings” and wasting time by regretting the past long gone: I have today, which is endless. It means that I accept change, that I embrace change, that I am happy with change. There have been really painful experiences in my life, including somewhat recently, on what happens when I cling, deny change, deny knowledge about how toxic a situation, a relationship, or an environment, may have become for me. The denial always sits with attempting to find external reasons for the toxidity. The acceptance of change only always came when I focused on my own contribution to the toxic situation, relationship, or environment. And always, this required to experience yet another “hitting rock bottom”.

In our individual lives we run through uncounted iterations of postponing to accept that everything composite has a beginning and an end. Through many decades of our lifetime we manage to postpone thinking about the inevitable, piling up more activities and goals giving meaning to the respective phase of life we are in. As if this could go on in eternity. So, instead of understanding also the final phase of an “individual” life as a means to achieve growth, we close our eyes, pile up more external things day after day, year after year, until we simply can not go on any longer.

Then we feel being defeated.

In the world of recovery from trauma and resulting compulsive-addictive pain-sedation, we call this process “reaching rock bottom”. It is an absolutely inevitable final point when one realizes that one has no control any longer. It is the starting point of change. When we realize that we do not have control, and only then, we are able to acknowledge that our circumstances have become unmanageable. It is the ensuing breakdown which sets the stage for the new beginning. When an individual realizes that the own self sits at the root of all misery, and not external circumstances, that is the point from when on positive change is possible. Never this happens one second before. It is what I experienced eight years ago, and I practice since then. I have seen this fundamental principle everywhere, and I am just realising that it is true for the situation we find ourselves collectively in, in Afghanistan and beyond, too.

Because, in a very similar way, I have perceived the phases of our two decades of intervention in Afghanistan. We had reasons for the beginning. We discovered reasons for why to continue. We came up with new meaning when growth wasn’t working any longer. We realized that it can not continue the same way in all eternity. At some point we did not know how to make further meaning of it, so we somehow soldiered on, without a real vision how to transform things into growth, beyond our international interventions. Means of control, and of denial, worked less and less. We blindsided ourselves in relation to the inevitable, and now we feel defeated. Very much the same way an individual “ego” feels defeated, our corporate consciousness feels the same.

How does it feel for Joe Biden having to make a decision ending a seemingly endless war, and not really having a blueprint that would best mitigate the ensuing paradigm changes? I prefer to say “paradigm change”, rather than talking about chaos, since this wrongly indicates we have no way forward. There is suffering in what was, and there is suffering in what is. Now he and his administration have to face the early, and very harsh, judgements which come in through uncounted articles, OpEds, interviews. All legit. But I sympathise a lot with the U.S. President’s decision to pull-out. Obviously, it is a chaotic, messy, dramatic, heart-breaking pull-out. There is all reason to believe that we could have done better, together. As if there only was this guy, Joe Biden, or as if there was only that messed-up negotation between Nr 45 and the Taleban. No, throughout twenty years we all carry our own share of responsibility adding to the mess, we all do good looking onto our own respective side of the street.

But at the end, I wanted to say what I began with: This needs to be understood containing the piled-up energies which explode into paradigm change. The mistakes we piled up for two decades, they did not allow for any less-explosive unfolding. That is why we need to embrace the change. Simply because it is not an end. It is a chance to do things differently, together, and in humility.

We tend to think in beginnings and endings. We think in activities, and blocks of activities. We categorize. We come up with goals, and we put them on timelines. It is a way to reduce complexity, and we attempt to give meaning to what we do. In doing so, we usually look into the future from a perspective of the past, and when we have reached a goal, it becomes part of the past, we move on, to the next goal. Often, it distracts us from seeing what there is right now, and that there is nothing else than the Now.

Zooming out, so to speak, a larger view reveals the process-nature of everything. Things don’t stop when we have done something, when we have achieved something. Or when we are defeated by something. Everything is part of processes, of constant change. Everything moves. Constantly.

Wanting and Liking

As I said in my blog entry on the depressive effects of the countermeasures fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, I have enough energy during the morning. So I finish this article which sat in my draft folder whilst I am freshly energized, and before running out of steam…

Every now and then some articles on the science of addiction hit the public realm. They attempt to make a very complex phenomenon understandable to the general public. But the underlying neurophysiological and biochemical aspects of cognitive science, they are not that easy to be appreciated. Because they challenge a fundamental way of how we perceive the unity of our “self”: What we perceive as “one thing”, “me” feeling emotions, “me” thinking, “me” deciding, “me” acting, “me” believing that I am in control of deciding. In reality this “me” is based on contributions from distinct sub-systems within our brain. This “me” appears to be a composite, and most of the time the “thinking part” of my brain wants to tell me a story about that this thinking part is the “real me”, everything else in my brain being an accessory to it. The evolutional achievement which appears to set humans apart from other living beings, the part of our brains being able to compute logic in dizzying complexity, it constantly attempts to tell me a story about that this is the seat of the “me”. This -scientifically wrong- understanding may also contribute to why we label behavior that contradicts a given intent to follow a norm as a moral failure, as weakness, setting apart those who “fail” from those who “succeed”.

Until cognitive science is proving it wrong. Which is the case. Still then, in common belief we like to think about that we are “in control”. Whilst the psychology of advertisement has already understood since many decades and in ever growing depth how people can be made believing that a buying decision, or a voting decision, or a choice about anything in life, can be influenced in ways invisible to the “rational” self. Individuals believing they are subjects in control of a decision not being aware that they have become objects of most subtle manipulation. Nowhere it is more obvious for me than within the science of understanding addiction.

To say that cognitive decisions, the ability to decide to do something, or the ability to decide to abstain from something, are not a consequence of an independent supreme mind that is attached to a physical structure called the brain, it challenges notions of how we may have been educated, and how we would like to see ourselves. It can challenge concepts of accountability, of ethical and moral behavior, it runs counter a common attitude to, for example, labeling an addict as a “weak” person. Somebody who is morally questionable. Somebody who has failed on basic requirements which are considered to be common individual and social skills.

In my law education at the beginning of my career, I learned about the three aspects being fundamental for having committed a crime: (1) I need to do something that is objectively considered a criminal act; (2) In order to establish a crime, there must be an absence of a cause of justification, like self-defence can justify harming another person who is attacking me; (3) For establishing individual accountability, I must be culpable, meaning that my physical capacity allows me to see that I am committing a crime and that I have no justification. A deeply insane person might not be able to have this mental facility. But those face being locked up as a danger to the public, if they commit severe crimes without being culpable.

My education included that, for example, I am usually considered to have the capacity to refrain from an act that I want to do. Like that, even if I use my car after having intoxitated myself through alcohol to an extent that I can not even remember what I did the following day, I still am considered culpable and can be convicted for DUI.

I find this not so easy. Take a person who has experienced that self-abusive behavior became compulsive, and then over time that person became addicted to this behavior. This person struggles with never-ending despair after doing what he or she did not want to do, all over again. Yet, this person also lives in the delusion that he or she is able “to fix it”. Only to discover, after the next drinking binge; the next shot of heroin; the next relapse into gambling; the next round of self-harming sexual behavior; the next over-eating binge, or bulimic action; the next time of cutting oneself with razors; or a myriad of other acts that initiate a kick of dopamine in the brain, that all intention to stop it failed. Over and over again.

Look at this BBC-article from December 12, 2020: “The science of addiction: Do you always like the things you want?“. David Edmonds has a go on explaining the role of a substance called dopamine. Dopamine is a so-called neuro-transmitter acting in the brain. In every brain, at least I’d say in brains of mammals. Its function and its effects are not entirely understood, neuroscience is cutting edge science and we are learning more by the day. Classically one of its effects led to giving dopamine the name “happiness hormone”. That is a simplification which is challenged with the findings as described in the article. There are many other effects and a considerable number of identified brain functions in which dopamine play an important role, and I am not a neuroscientist, I won’t venture into that. However:

The BBC article explains findings which challenge the notion that we always like what we want. This is not true, according to modern neuroscience. The sub-systems of the brain regulating a desire, or an irresistible want are distinct from those parts of the brain which are responsible for what we like. An early experiment quoted in the article refers to a person who, in 1970, was subjected to a specific electrostimulation by his psychiatrist. Amongst other issues this patient struggled with addiction. When he received electric stimulation of the pleasure-center in his brain, he felt a very strong arousal and he would act compulsively on it over and over again. But when he was asked whether he liked what he was doing, the answer was a decisive no.

Same with lab-rats. Rats will rapidly learn that an object in their cage gives them an electroshock. They will stay far away. Unless you do the same stimulation of their pleasure-center in the brain. Then they will touch the object over and over, despite the electric shock. It is possible to interpret their facial expressions: Experimenters can tell whether lab-rats like something, or not. And like the human patient in the experiment in the 1970’s, they don’t like the unpleasant experience of being electrocuted. Yet, they continue to do it.

The article goes on to modern neuroscience and efforts to understand the effect of dopamine. What now seems to be established is the mainstream knowledge that “wanting” and “liking” are attributable to different sub-systems of the cognitive system. Dopamine is only affecting the “wanting”, and not the “liking”. As the article says: “Dopamine increases temptation”.

These biochemical and neurophysiological functions of a brain exist since millions of years. I would not know about when they emerged, but they were in existence before humans walked the earth, otherwise rats and other mammals would not have them. They serve clear functions which made sense in an environment when primates were our ancestors. They made sense when Neanderthals walked the Earth, and they continue to be existentially necessary in our contemporary environment. They exist since long before the frontal lobe of our human brain began to develop, long before we gained what we would name our self-awareness, our thinking mind, our sophisticated way of communicating, of forming bonds between tribes, and they continue to exist and to fundamentally drive us whilst we have set up a world of highly organized complex societies. The neurophysiological setting of an agnostic and a believer in any religion is identical. You can be tied in the strongest ethically or moral ways to behavior that you like, and that is socially accepted, but if your dopamine-regulation systems runs amok, you will be tortured by an urge to do things that you do not like, and which are labeled morally harmful, or forbidden.

Substance abuse is one thing. Then there is behavioral self-abuse. If the compulsion sits with a neurotransmitter, or several, running out of balance, the urge to stimulate pleasure is also strongest where behavior is rewarded with huge kicks. From sexual behavior to gambling, from over-eating to bulimic, behavioral disorder is often more powerful than substances, and leaves you entirely powerless.

Another question is why the hormonal and neurological systems in the brain can loose their state of delicate balance. Why something becomes compulsive, until the damage to the neurophysiological setting has become permanent. There seem to be many reasons for it, including genetic predisposition, but one main driver is trauma, and early childhood-trauma sits front and center. Read my blog entries on trauma. They are tagged.

We find it so counterintuitive that our actions depend on the delicate balance of complex sub-systems in our brain. We feel like “one” entity. We do not feel the fact that our awareness, our cognitive setup, is a complex interaction between a large number of parts. Put a person who is heavily suffering from addiction into a MRI-scanner and you will see that parts of the brain which usually communicate, don’t. Those areas remain literally black whilst other parts of the brain are being displayed in vivid colors. And once that individual manages to abstain from this substance or behavioral self-abuse for, on average, ninety days, you will find that those parts of the brain which were silent do work, and communicate, again.

I have grown up with the notion that, whatever humans do, they are accountable for it. Only in case of severe causes affecting culpability, a human action can establish unaccountability. The subsequent mainstream thinking is: Those who can not control themselves, they are weak, or morally questionable beings, or both.

Of course, law, criminal law, and criminal procedural law gradually catch up with modern science. As is the case for penal management, at least to some degree, and at least in the country I live in. But when it comes to drug policies, to criminalisation of substance abuse, to law enforcement and prosecution of behavior which an individual has no control over, we are still a far-cry away from a full-fledged understanding of that we can not address a public health issue with criminal law. This debate is happening, though. At the same time, this debate is subject to the winds of change which come from the never-ending dispute between conservative or liberal politics, for example. Some say “Lock them up”. Others say “Help them, they are sick and suffering”.

What do I want to say? We need education about science. We can not govern ourselves the best way possible, if we base our beliefs on wrong predicaments. Of course we can govern ourselves without that. The result is societal control, and locking away those who “fail”. And sometimes, science might be in the way of just exerting control. So, even here, the question as to which extent we allow ourselves to put governance under the guidance of science (like with the Covid-pandemic) is based on whether we apply values to our governance, or use values as a pretext for control.

Concluding this:

Dopamine showers can be the result of many actions, as I have shown. However, one interesting fact remains: Dopamine showers in the brain can be the result of allowing myself to be angry. Many of us have experienced the results of a constant flow of angry news, of angry tweets, of angry antagonizing shares on social media. Many of us have experienced how the constant stream of anger flowing from news was making us continuing to engage with these angry posts. There are those who know how to manipulate us into this vicious cycle. Who feed the beast of anger. Who antagonize exactly because it makes people continue to follow these news. There are those who do it for reasons of manipulating people into a world of false beliefs. And there are those who benefit from it because creating followerships allows for placing advertisements into these highly emotionalised feeds. As I said, psychology of advertising knows exactly how to create compulsive and addictive patterns.

With the events surrounding the insurgency at the U.S. Capitol, January 06, something changed. Reaching a tipping point, things boiled over. And some of these raging feeds were cut off by social media. Then, January 20, a new U.S. administration reverted to a culture of educated discussion. In discussions with many friends, inside and outside of the U.S., we observe that the absence of this rage element in the realm of communication on social media appears to feel like a “cold turkey”. Strangely enough, we miss the rage, we feel a void.

Exactly. Because of dopamine. To be continued.

The Pandemic and its Impact on Domestic Abuse and Violence

This -slightly longer- article focuses on gender-related aspects of domestic violence. After some introductory comments, I will present a view on the general scope of an endemic problem. I will also look into the specific context of the role of weapons, especially firearms, in that context, and the significantly higher victimisation of women including through the use of firearms. After that, I will discuss the alarming rise of domestic violence which we observe as a consequence of various measures undertaken to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. I will advocate the protection of the most vulnerable first. In this, I will focus especially on women and children.

As an introduction:

I began this blog entry based on discussions with friends on the consequences of the pandemic for women through heightened levels of aggression, abuse, and violence. So I wanted to write about the impact of the restrictions and lockdowns on domestic abuse and violence experienced by women. Though this still is a major thread in my writing here, after some research and thinking my reflections on the topic of domestic abuse during the pandemic became broader.

Physical and emotional abuse including violence are a disturbing reality in intimate relationships and families. I will reference data published by the NCADV and other information a few paragraphs below, but for starters: Already before the pandemic, in the United States, 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner. At least once in their life, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. And according to statistical data just taken from the United States, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men has been raped during their lifetime. 1 in 10 women suffer from rape within what they would consider their own zone of safety and comfort: Within an intimate relationship. I don’t have to look for other data sources but can state due to heuristical and professional experience that the situation, for example in countries in Europe, will not reflect a significantly less disturbing picture. Exact numbers might vary, but we are not talking about a fringe problem. We are talking about a huge challenge.

However, there is an emerging body of data indicating that phenomena of domestic abuse and violence are on the increase throughout the pandemic. As the pandemic lasts, lockdowns are protracted and are getting more and more rigid throughout this winter. It is all but certain that the problem will continue to grow, perhaps exponentially, the longer and more severe these restrictions are. As the fight against the pandemic is now reaching a full year of implementation, and will continue, there is no reasonable doubt that these developments will have a medium and long term negative impact.

Why should this make all of us concerned? Like every parent I want to see my children experiencing only safe friendships, happy relationships, and I want to see them becoming capable of raising happy children of their own. The thought of witnessing a beloved child being on the receiving or giving end of an abusive relationship is a horror scenario for every loving and caring parent. It is only natural to push this thought aside, hoping that this may be something that my children, our children, won’t have to go through. Parents may engage in wishful thinking, and some denial, hoping that this may not happen to own daughters and sons, but may just be some distant risk, a risk more for other societies, other communities, may be for less privileged people, or just plain and simple for others. The reality is starkly different: Your daughter has a high chance to experience violence in sexual relationships, your son may be significantly at risk becoming a perpetrator, and to a lesser extent, a victim. Both your daughter and your son may experience helplessness and mutual abuse in toxic relationships. Both will experience the stress of raising children, many will experience single-parenting, and they will likely experience the crushing defeat when, despite best intentions, they yell at their own children, or slap them, or worse. It has happened to most of us in various shades of grey, let us be honest. We have been on the receiving side, and we have been on the giving side. And this prediction, based on time-tested statistical data, is one main reason why to focus not only on women, but equally pressing on the suffering of children experiencing violence and abuse in domestic environments, and their social neighborhood: Every statistical data will confirm that those who have been victimised in their childhood are way more likely to repeat this abuse, or to subject themselves to abuse, by way of what psychology calls re-enactment, once they have grown out of age. In addition, their proneness to alcohol, substance, and behavioral abuse leading to addiction is exponentially higher. What we do to our children, our children will carry this into their parenting and into their intimate relationships, and into their coping strategies.

That is why we need to be concerned about the widespread phenomenon of domestic violence and abuse. And that is why it’s increase throughout the pandemic is so much a concern for all of us.

So, on Covid-19: Statistical data and personal experience in a vast network of friends make it clear to me that this already existing problem is amplified by how we try to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus. We need to talk about how to protect the vulnerable, and how to capacitate people so that they are able to withstand the frustration, fear, and anger, instead of leashing out against the vulnerable. Of course, we need a sound combination of prevention together with deterring measures, we need education as much as vigilance in detecting abuse. We need zero-tolerance. But all of that starts with numbers, and with understanding the problem, and then the challenge.

As a consequence, an already serious problem is becoming even more dangerous, and especially so for vulnerable groups including women and children. This matters to all of us, because it can happen to ourselves, and to our loved ones. This is not a scenario one can stay distanced from. Like I, many readers will be able to reference situations within their own social circle where violence happened. We need to find solutions, and we need to collectively engage now. Shaming and fingerpointing is no option, people who we deeply care about may find themselves being victims, or perpetrators, tomorrow.

Some more detail on the general problem of domestic violence and violence in sexual and intimate relationships:

Throughout my international work violence against vulnerable community members and against women and children has been a constant experience I am faced with in literally every heart-numbing aspect. Of course this is especially visible in situations of conflict and war. I have written several times about the fundamental impact of trauma that victims of such horrible violence have to experience.

Letting war and conflict aside for a moment, domestic violence against vulnerable individuals, often women and children, is a tragic daily mass-occurence within all societies. It affects the fabric of families and communities and is often not allowed to be visible, because of taboo, denial, and shame. It is challenging to see in all its aspects for external observers because of this built-in hide-and-deny-mechanism. It requires active communication to see it. International humanitarian workers see it, of course. Social workers see it, directly or indirectly, of course. You have to be “within” to be able to see.

My national policing work before I entered into international work was riddled with experiences of this domestic violence against women and children, and violence against members of the LGBTQ-community. My understanding of the primary reasons for why it can be challenging to detect such abuse roots in this time. It also transcends into my international experiences, because this mechanism of how domestic violence is being kept away from visibility as much as perpetrators and victims can manage (and neighbors looking the other way), it appears to be pretty universal. It is the same in all societies I have been in.

When I talk about violence in domestic contexts, I do not mean physical violence only. As horrible as forms of physical violence are, they are a sub-set. There are forms of emotional abuse and violence which equal the severity of impact and consequences and in some cases create even more pain, suffering, and long-term damage. Victims of violence can also be men, and perpetrators can be women, even children. Statistical data exists aplenty. Here are a few reference points for a more general narrative: A Deutsche Welle article, and one in The Guardian. For an initial mapping of the scope of the problem, I will refer as an example to statistical data published by “The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)“, a U.S. NGO. Some excerpts:

“1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This includes a range of behaviors (e.g. slapping, shoving, pushing) and in some cases might not be considered “domestic violence.”

1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.” “1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner. Data is unavailable on male victims.“1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

“The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. … 19% of domestic violence involves a weapon.”

“1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.”

So, before focusing on aspects of violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, I needed to set the record straight by at least indicating that women and children form a majority of victims, but that violence against men, carried out by their female or male partners, is not the rare expection, but albeit smaller, a considerable case group.

On the role of weapons in cases of domestic violence:

For the United States, NCADV states that “The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. … 19 % of domestic violence involves a weapon.” This points directly towards the area of support by the German Federal Foreign Office assisting other countries in reducing the illicit impact of small arms and light weapons and effectively controlling the legal aspects around them. This support policy of the German government is very broad in its strategic motivations, it includes, for example, reducing stock and illicit possession of leftover weapons from war and conflict, support to harmonization of law, policy, enforcement and criminal justice aspects, curbing the illicit flow and criminal use of weapons by organised crime and terror inside and outside the European Union, and more. However, in this holistic undertaking the German government places strong emphasis on all gender related aspects. Germany has founded the “Gender Equality Network for Small Arms Control GENSAC” as a global initiative. On this website you find the following description: “The Gender Equality Network for Small Arms Control (GENSAC) aims to make Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) control more gender responsive and amplify international, regional, national and local best practices of those who have been doing “arms control behind the curtain”, including representatives from civil society organizations, women’s groups, conflict prevention and development communities.”

Like the scope of the problem of domestic violence and the significant over-representation of women becoming victims is huge, so is the role of firearms and other weapons in it. At the same time, practioners like myself stress that women are under-represented when it comes to policy-making in areas where they are much more affected by a problem than male members of a society. We want this to change, and it includes the dangerous role that weapons play in cases of domestic violence. I invite you to look into the very comprehensive material which has been made available by one main partner of the German government in my current line of work, the “South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC)“. On their very comprehensive website, gender in Security Sector Reform features high, and you will find various publications and research on domestic violence and the over-representation of female society members in the group of victims. The gemstones of gender related analysis which can be acccessed in SEESAC’s publication library are numerous. Scratching the surface, here some select fast facts, this time valid for South-East Europe (SEE):

97.2% of all legally owned firearms in SEE are owned by men. Men committed 98.4% of firearm-related criminal offenses in South-East Europe, 98.5% of all firearm-related incidents and 98% of all firearm- related homicides. Men account for 83.8% of victims of firearm-related homicide compared to 16.2% of women.

Most telling is SEESAC’s Fast Fact – collection on the misuse of firearms in domestic violence in South East Europe: Homicide committed by a family member is the most common form of femicide in SEE. 61% of all killed women were killed by a family member, compared to 12.4% of all killed men. 38.6% of all killed women and 1.2% of all killed men were killed by an intimate partner. 43.5% of all women killed by an intimate partner in SEE were killed with firearms. 68.9% of women killed with firearms were killed in their homes, apartments or yards. 37.4% of reported domestic violence incidents which involved firearms had a lethal outcome.

Interim conclusion: Because of it’s short-, medium, and long-term damaging consequences including for future generations, domestic violence must be considered a zero-tolerance-topic, and the highest investment into how to prevent and to tackle consequences must focus on violence against women and children.

On emerging data related to the Covid-19 pandemic:

November 25, 2020, German news media reported warnings issued by the United Nations and the European Union: Lockdowns in Europe cause a worrying increase of registered cases of domestic violence against women and girls. December 19, 2020, the magazine “The Economist” focused on this increase with the headline “Covid-19 threatens girls’ gigantic global gains“. December 21, 2020, “The Wall Street Journal”, in its article “Covid-19 Is Pushing Women Out of Work. Just Look at Italy.” focused on structural abuse harming gender equality. December 26, 2020, German news media reported about warnings issued by the German victims protection organisation “Der Weisse Ring”, a highly renowned NGO. According to their own data, approximately 10 % more victims of domestic violence called their helpline during the first ten months of 2020. December 28, 2020, German new media reported a warning issued by EUROPOL. According to EUROPOL, cases of sexual abuse of children during the pandemic are strongly on the rise and perpetrators of pedophile behavior do not only increasingly look for child pornography in the Internet, but also attempt to increasingly contact children for purposes of abusing them. And concluding a list of disturbing data reference points, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD, a global organisation, issued a report “Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis“, starting with the sentence “The COVID-19 pandemic is harming health, social and economic well-being worldwide, with women at the centre.”

Enough references. There is a ton more. However, whenever I make a statement, I try to provide evidence. Evidence still matters, truth still matters. And the truth is: An already existing worrying phenomenon with implications for all of us and for our children is becoming worse, the longer the pandemic lasts. In my prediction, this is not a linear deterioration, but will resemble exponential developments.

If I wanted to come up with a list of comprehensive action points, I think I would fail. And perhaps, nobody would continue reading this already long article.

However, a few points based on what I say at various points in my writing:

  • Domestic violence is a wide-spread phenomenon with very damaging short-, medium, and long-term, including generational, harming consequences.
  • With children being victims through witnessing this violence, or being subjected to it, long-term damage to their entire lifes is likely. For reference, I refer to my blog articles on trauma.
  • Prevention and deterrence has to focus on the most vulnerable groups first, and that includes especially women and children. Every prevented case of violence contributes to less domestic violence in future generations.
  • Women are under-represented when it comes to discussing, and implementing policy that affects, globally, their own well-being, economic, and security interests. This has to change.
  • The more relaxed the weapons policy of a country, the more likely is that women and children disproportionately suffer from severe forms of abuse, and violence, including through homicide and femicide. We have to continue to outlaw “male behavior” that equals masculinity with possessing and displaying weapons. Personally, I do encourage parents to even consider limiting the existence of toy-weapons in their households. Whilst I have professionally operated a large variety of small arms as a police officer, my children have not seen us parents encouraging, or condoning, the use of toy weapons.
  • Counter-measures curbing the spread of infections during the Covid-19 pandemic increase anger, frustration, fear, and aggression. At the same time the opportunities to “vent” these emotions in a healthy way have become unavailable. We have to increase a policy-discussion about this, and we have to do this now, instead of hoping that vaccinations may bring us to the end of the crisis quickly. We are, still, witnessing the darkest chapters of the pandemic, and this is not changing anytime soon enough.

Social Media Manipulation – An Example

So, here is a little story: STRATCOM is the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. Recently, they re-ran a test of “the ability of social media companies to identify and remove manipulation”. The result is published, the report can be viewed and downloaded here. It is titled “Social Media Manipulation 2020”.

What did they do, in a nutshell? The researchers used thirty-nine authentic posts on FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Tic Toc. As far as I see from related news, for this they cooperated with two U.S. politicians, one a Republican, the other one a Democrat. The German news about it can be found on the German tech-news-site HEISE. Using these thirty-nine posts on social media, STRATCOM bought fake engagement on these posts from three specialised Russian service providers. Providers like these offer manipulated engagement with existing posts, for example. I guess they also offer much more, but this is just an example in which authentic posts of legitimate and appropriate information content were used, since this is NATO. The researchers paid the ridiculously small amount of 300 Euro to these Russian providers.

What did they get in return? 1150 comments, 9690 likes, 323202 views, and 3726 shares! Meaning plain and simple: I can create content on social media, with good, questionable or malicious intentions, and instead of hoping that I will attract many comments, likes, and views on my own, I can buy fake ones. Comments, likes and views increase the “digital weight” of the post. The more of this “digital value”, the more likely other people will look on these pieces of information or disinformation, and the more likely also these posts will be ranked higher by Internet search engines, such as Google. Finally, I can also buy distribution, through shares, of these artificially boosted posts. The more “oomph” I have in getting these informations pieces out into the right target groups, the more I increase chances of further distribution. And I pay very little money for it.

So, let me use a hypothetical example, but one which is commonly being used for manipulation purposes: I create a story with specific target groups in mind. Examples are countless. Like fake news stories which were designed for target groups of color in the U.S. in 2016. They were designed to raise doubt within these groups that a contender, in that case the democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, would be really interested in matters of grave concern for those communities of color. The unauthentic or fake pieces of news were designed to reduce the willingness of people in these target groups to participate in the elections. Many of us, I guess and hope, know about this form of manipulation. It also happened 2020, and it is fair to say that both domestic actors and foreign forces all over the world use this tactic in order to influence the outcome of an electoral process. It happens everywhere, it is commonplace. And it is manipulation at least, and more often violating law in many jurisdictions. But what it chiefly does: It contributes to burning credibility of truth to ashes. It leads to so much confusion about which information I can trust, and which not, that people may give up, or they just decide to only believe what their “friends” say.

By the way, coming to think of it: When sites like FaceBook (I don’t remember who came up with it first) began to abuse the term “friend” for the process of clicking a button asking somebody to “be my friend” and the invited party just accepting this request, I had a revolting feeling in my stomach. It lasts until today and is one of the reasons why I only engage minimally on social media. The notion of reducing the term “friend” to a digital connection with no real deeper meaning feels like the strike of an evil genius to me. It leads to the craving of having as many friends as possible, it is part of the addictive design of social media sites. It hollows out any real understanding of what friendship means. Terms like “friend” and “follower” are almost equal in their meaning. I need these digital friends for status and validation. Having friends has become an online currency. It is like a material possession, not an internal value which gives me the comfort of a deeper emotional, intellectual and spiritual connection to another person in whose well-being I take an interest. It adds to real-world-isolation because it strips the notion of having friends from what the term means in real social life. May be that is for a deeper reflection in another blog article. But ultimately, this manipulation can be used in order to get people into a network of “friends” for purposes of influencing them, depriving them from other sources of information, making them pawns in a game they do not understand, but crave to be part of. Emotions like the wish to belong mix with emotions such as fear, and anger, fake information is being used as a narrative giving them a feeling of meaning.

Back to the STRATCOM report: The first remarkable fact in the results of this research for me was the price for this form of manipulation. 300 Euro is so cheap that this service can be used as a mass tool, whenever this suits own devious interests. 

Secondly, this is a shadowy grey and a criminal market. The methodology can be used by State actors with sophisticated technology and staff at hand. Or money, just hiding traces and buying a service from some groups like the above. Likewise, non-State actors can use it for political purposes, for ideological purposes, for religious purposes, or as a marketing tool. Which is a hint towards how wide the scope of potential manipulation is. The targets are you and I, and we may, very often, not ever know that we were manipulated. So, this is a profound ethical issue with consequences for whether, and how, we want to regulate it, how we want to deal with it.

Thirdly, STRATCOM re-ran the test because they did it before. They did that because the industry promised they would get better at identifying manipulation like this, better at identifying fake, or robot, accounts. Better at curbing influence. The conclusions of the report state that “platforms continue to vary in their ability to counter manipulation of their services”. Read the details, I’m not going to rank services here myself. But there are platforms where manipulation requires a small effort and where costs are one thenth of what is to be invested on other platforms.

Fourthly, the report makes it clear that these actors are not a few, they are an industry. One chapter is titled “The Social Media Manipulation Industry”. With market rules which survived efforts to fight this industry. Quoting the report: “Social media manipulation remains widely available, cheap, and efficient, and continues to be used by antagonists and spoilers seeking to influence elections, polarise public opinion, sidetrack legitimate political discussions, and manipulate commercial interests online.” 

Fifthly, the report states that this industry prospered during 2020. I finish with quoting the three core insights which the researchers came up with:

  1. “The scale of the industry is immense. The infrastructure for developing and maintaining social media manipulation software, generating ficticious accounts, and providing mobile proxies is vast. We have identified hundreds of providers. Several have many employees and generate significant revenues. It is clear that the problem of inauthentic activity is extensive and growing.
  2. During the past year the manipulation industry had become increasingly global and interconnected. A European service provider will likely depend on Russian manipulation software and infrastructure providers who, in turn, will use contractors from Asia for much of the manual labour required. Social media is now a global industry with global implications.
  3. The openness of this industry is striking. Rather than lurking a shadowy underworld, it is an easily accessible marketplace that most web users can reach with little effort through any search engine. In fact, manipulation service providers still advertise openly on major social media platforms and search engines.” 

What do do? Of course, we have a regulation debate. Part of the findings relate to that social media promised earlier to root out this phenomenon, but that they have not become good at it. To me it feels like the contrary, may be because of unwillingness, sloppiness, or the sheer size of the problem. Or any combination of these three. However, regulation always leads to an escalation, or attempts to evade, if the business model generates revenue. Which it clearly does.

My take is to focus on education. I am not a young nerd. I am a nerd in my early sixties. This world rapidly changes, and often I don’t like the course. But disengagement is, I feel, not an option. It is about giving people the knowledge and skills to make their own informed decisions. That is a core principle of open societies based on democratic rules. Truth matters, so we need to know about how truth is demolished in the digital invisible world of the Internet. We need to be able to learn, staying curious about learning, engaging in meaningful discussions, empower people to better identify manipulation when it occurs, giving them the skillset needed for quality decisions for their own lives.

When I talk to my youngest children about how much of their personal information is sucked from their smartphones, iPads, and computers without their knowledge, I am often presented with a sense of “why bother, I don’t feel it, I don’t feel harmed, or hurting”. May be we need to find ways how to reinforce the understanding as to which extent the digital and the real world are interconnected. People seem to discriminate between these two worlds. 

Education is more relevant than regulation. Which motivated me writing this article. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

Die Wahrheit bis zur Unkenntlichkeit verzerrt – Truth Distorted Beyond Recognition – On Gaslighting

Mary Trump, estranged niece of Donald Trump, daugther of Donald Trump’s late older brother Fred Trump jr, published a book this summer. One of these tell-alls, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man”. Mary Trump is a practicing psychologist. In this world where truth is what I tell you, and lies are what the others say, you will probably find references to her credibility widely represented in one side of the media, and scathing attacks on her personal and professional credibility on the other side of the aisle. In a widely published interview she was recently saying that she thinks her uncle genuinely believes he won the election and that he’s the only person she knows ‘who can gaslight himself’. The Internet is chock full with references to her statement, in all languages. So, look it up also for yourself.

One person and his sycophants are gaslighting half of the population of the United States. Why does this matter over here in Europe? Because it has not only a real impact here as well, it is also happening here on its own, and interconnected with what is happening on that other continent. The gaslighting is not limited to an individual victim, not to a community, a society, a political party, a State, or the continent of North America. The systematic imprisonment of individuals into a fake reality which is being established by the gaslighter, it happens all over the world. It has become viral, people being gaslighted who further spread the manipulative messages, mixing with people who may realize what is happening and who hook up to the viral development because it resonates with how they think and feel and how they want to influence things for their own motives. This is not a linear thing which can be traced back to one person, so to speak, at the top. There is no mastermind. There are people who are good at it, and certainly this includes Mary Trump’s uncle. But it happens so widely because there seem to be many conditions being met which allow for the relentless attack on truth and values that we have believed in for decades. Again, Anne Applebaum’s book which I quoted from in a previous entry provides many regional examples, whether from Poland, Hungary, The United Kingdom, or Spain. And my country, Germany, is a breeding space for the same thing as well. Unfortunately, again. History appears to repeat itself.

Gaslighting requires control over the victim and where the victim gets his or her information from. Ideally total control. I will explain in a second, after having said something on the Internet, related to the aspect of “control”: In principle, the Internet knows no geographical border. It has been designed to withstand control. It’s roots are deeply anarchic, allowing for the freedom to exchange anything that can be transmitted through it’s cables and wireless connections. That is why autocratic systems undertake every effort under the sun to control the Internet, including attempting to establish regional versions, or fighting encryption tooth and nail. Whether it is in China, or elsewhere. Shutting down the Internet, in times of a crisis with unrest, it sounds innocent. But it is always a matter of the motive behind: Why does one exert control? Because of a danger for, say individual lifes or the general public? Or because of the danger for an autocrat, his family, and the oligarchy on which’s back he can thrive? Think Belarus, just for example.

Control over what people see, hear, or are meant to believe, you can exert that control by means of physical, or technological deprivation. You do it by making sure that your victim does not communicate with anyone outside the realms of your control: The messaging includes that the other side is your enemy, and you don’t talk to your enemy. One of the oldest tricks under the sleeves of autocrats, dictators, but also terrorists. Gaslighting adds a most perfidious layer: It will lead to that people do not trust other sources of information any longer. They may have a nagging feeling in the back of their minds that something is not adding up. But since they don’t know a way out, they give in. Once you give in, you need to make yourself believing that you are not a victim. So you rationalize why you’re allowing yourself being part of the group you have been coerced into. The “Stockholm Syndrome” is based on the same mechanism.

Like the car dealer has sold the most expensive car to you and you make yourself believe that this was solely a calculation which you came up with yourself, you don’t need to take away access to news channels such as CNN or the NY Times anymore. The victim of gaslighting won’t trust them and won’t use them. Recently, Fox News began to experience this downfall, too.

So, what is “gaslighting”? Gaslighting is an expression being used for a form of psychological abuse and violence. Victims of gaslighting are being purposefully disoriented, manipulated and ripped off their self-confidence. Gaslighting means to gradually take away any ability to trust reality as it is. In individual psychology, gaslighting includes means to deform and eradicate any form of self-esteem of the victim. Here, for once, a German definition of it. The term “gaslighting” gradually appears to become a mainstream expression, including in other languages.

Unfortunately, gaslighting is a common and widely spread form of psychological and emotional abuse. I will use examples for explaining what it means. At the core of why I am writing this blog entry also sits my belief that Mary Trump is wrong by exclusively attributing the ability to gaslight oneself to her uncle. I believe that this is a common phenomenon. In case of need, I make myself believe my own lies, until I have reached the point where I have created a genuine alternate reality, and memory. The current incumbent of the Office of the President of the United States is anything but special in this, except that he may have become really very good at it.

Why is it useful to say that one can become victim of own gaslighting? Like so often, things are not black and white only. Gaslighters are as much perpetrators as they are victims. And the act of gaslighting happens on a scale that can include single-instances, perhaps beginning with negligent, thoughtless, selfish behavior. It can become a self-reinforcing habit, since one has embarked on a path leading to more of the same, and then ultimately to breakdown and severe damage. On its exteme end, gaslighting is pervasive, endemic, and monstrous in acts and damage. Monstrous gaslighters are sociopaths on the extreme side of the spectrum. Their behavior is deeply anti-social, anti-human, and often criminal in nature.

The sibling of gaslighting is denial. Which is, in terms of brain development through hundreds of thousands of years of humankind, a very ancient capability of our brains that allowed for survival. Like, in the stone-age. Denial is a mechanism which shields the brain from overwhelming events and situations posing a threat to physical survival and mental and emotional sanity. It is meant to be a temporary fix. But like many other human capabilities, it requires a balance of threatening events and peaceful times, and when this balance is absent, things get out of control, permanently. Neurophysiologically out of control. Denial alters the way how we perceive, and relate to, reality. And in that, the gaslighter is no better equipped than his or her victim.

The underlying motivation both for denial and gaslighting is fear. Strong fear. More often than not this fear may not even be acknowledged by the gaslighter him- or herself. It is about loosing control. Cold blooded sociopaths can do that without losing the knowledge about that they are creating a fake reality in which they imprison the victim. But most of us are not carrying such extreme sociopathic traits that would allow us to do that.

Like everything else above, sociopathy is a form of human behavior that happens on a scale. There are extreme ends of the scale but to some extent or the other sociopathic traits are common parts of the individual psychology of many people. But even if I say that there are sociopaths who are displaying extreme forms of this disorder, it does not mean that these people do not feel emotions. Severe forms of sociopathic conditions become a disorder entailing to be progressively unable feeling emotions of other people. Note: I say “of”, not “for”. But sociopaths are not machines. Whilst they struggle with understanding and acknowledging emotions of others, they do feel their own emotions. The combination of not feeling what others feel gives space for disproportionate and intensified feelings for oneself, and this is especially true for fear. It is creating extreme forms of selfishness and self-centeredness.

Let me bring the parts of the picture alive with a personal case study. Like I said, the world is not black and white, things can be on the less extreme end, or they can be serious, or, if allowed to, they can develop from less severe to monstrous.

When I was nine years old, I went through a really difficult time at school. It was part of an overall development, I grew up with a raging father using physical punishment as a form of education. Because he had grown up under the same circumstances. Likewise, when he was not able to control his own rage, verbal, emotional and physical violence were something he had no control of. He had experienced the same with his father. As always, it hurt himself when it happened, but the result would not be an apology, but fierce denial. So I grew up with the distorted view that everything which happened to me was my own fault. Since this is not a blog entry for full personal disclosure, I will leave it with that, stressing that I love my father and that I reconciled, many decades later.

However, at the age of nine my difficult times at school fueled my low self-confidence. I had no friends. And getting bad grades wasn’t something that helped me building self-confidence. Rather, it established profound, existential fear. Fear from punishment at home. This fear grew so strong that I would not reveal the bad grade I once got. I simply could not. But the bad grade is in your exam book. And sure enough, the next test would be as bad as the previous one. What to do? Telling? No way. Soldiering on in denial that one day the story would break. But fear grew to panic levels. At one point I found myself physically removing pages from my exam book, just in case my parents would want to see and control it. I went to greatest length in this manipulation, again, with fear in my stomach going through the roof. There were two occasions when I ran away from home. I hated the days, escaped into my bed at night. It was horrible.

Then my teacher lost her patience. She gave me a note to be delivered to my parents, requesting a talk. And she asked me to bring this note back to her, signed by my father or mother. This was the worst development ever, but I was not capable to give up. What did I do? During a long afternoon session, I created a birthday card for my mother. In an insane story I had come up with, this birthday card for some reasons had to include a signature. But where the signature on this card was meant to show up, I cut a hole into that card. Underneath, the note from school. And finally, I used a blank paper as a third level, again with a hole where my mother was supposed to sign the card. I designed it in a way that the decorative elements of the fake birthday card were visible through the cover paper. And I went down to my mother, explaining in full panic mode that I was preparing something as a surprise for which I needed her signature, and that I could not tell her why. My mother was stunned, but she was also seeing me being upset, crying and begging. Whilst she had all reasons to suspect that something was wrong, I made her doubting herself, and trusting me. I gaslighted her. She finally signed.

Well, that signature was so small that my teacher immediately suspected a fake. Subsequently, my cover broke and armageddon came down on me. But why am I exposing myself here? Because this was the first, perhaps mild, form of gaslighting I did. And I never forgot it. I would refer to it for decades to come. But it would not prevent me from doing the same thing again, almost fourty-five years later, when the fear level in relation to my life breaking apart was reaching the same gigantic proportions.

People can grow apart for many reasons, but one chief reason is dishonesty. The bond between a mother and her child may forgive, but marriages and any relationship less likely do so. Dishonesty to oneself and to others is the chief reason for relationships breaking up. I believe the same is true for communities, societies, and States. If there is no honesty in communicating with each other, the catastrophe is inevitable. It may take a long time, but like with me at the age of nine, being a child, this is true because I believe it is a universal truth. And until this catastrophy happens, denial and also gaslighting are common features of an underlying condition of fear. Fear of losing control in a situation which increasingly is slipping out of one’s hands.

In my personal case, this happened roughly fourty-five years after the events of my childhood. I am so NOT proud of it. I’m sparing details, but it had to do with how my marriage had developed into a meaningless hull. Over those many years leading to the final stages, denial led me to believe that the reasons for this deterioration were not sitting with my own behavior. Rather, I victimised myself with an inner narrative with which I made myself believe I was the victim of sad circumstances, and that I deserve some relief. And means of relief, including alcohol, were just sedatives of which I needed more and more. This came with secrecy. I was dishonest to myself and my loved ones. Which wasn’t going unnoticed on the side of my loved ones. In a close relationship it is virtually impossible to entirely hide things, even with the best tricks possible.

But what happens in this case on the side of the partner? He or she will develop a feeling that something is not right. Controlling the other person may not be an option, including because it just doesn’t feel right. So, denial is kicking in on both sides in a relationship. But some things do not add up, and when this happens, gaslighting is coming into play.

I sometimes have the feeling that you want to make me believing that I have wrong perceptions.” Whenever my then wife would say this, after there was enough despair on her side to speak her truth, there was a little corner in myself mumbling that she is right. But overwhelmingly I was making myself and her believing that this wasn’t the case, that I did not establish a fake reality, that it was her who saw things in a distorted way. And again, though I learned a lot about the neurophysiology behind, I am NOT proud of it. I try not to be ashamed either. I just try to be honest, and hold myself accountable, and to do amends.

It was only after we broke up and my ex-wife had gone through enough recovery from her own pain, anger, grief, and also understanding of how the dance of two persons was based on wrong belief systems on both sides that she was able to repeat the above statement towards me with not too much own pain. And it was only because I went through my own recovery with intense work on myself that I was able to see, and to acknowledge, my own behavior. But it took years. When our relationship hit rock-bottom, and I hit rock-bottom, I found myself in so much pain and fear that I literally saw myself repeating my behavior that I had as a nine-year-old: I systematically trained the use of a lie in order to make myself believe the fake reality, so that I could use the narrative without blushing, stuttering, and with a heartbeat beyond 180 bpm.

Because my world broke into pieces, I had the chance to see it. If I would have succceeded in my fear-driven control, I would have progressively believed my own lies. It would have driven my then-wife into insanity. People who discover that they have been subjected to severe forms of gaslighting have a really hard time regaining mental sanity and the ability to trust other people. My ex-wife and I are friends today. Not only parents, good parents, but good friends. It is the gift of my lifetime. On my part, this is the consequence of a rigid decision to always remain honest to myself and others. And after many years of practicing this, my ex-wife saw enough reason to trust me, and to love me for my commitment, to myself, and to the people in my life who I love, and who love me.

Of course, this is only a personal case-study. It is not meant to establish an academic argument on gaslighting. It is meant to underpin why I believe that truth matters. Gaslighting is destroying truth, and the ability to trust. It leads to personal self-destruction, demolition of relationships, even criminal behavior. It leads to incredible suffering and pain. When it happens on a societal scale, it leads to societies running rock-bottom. And yes, like in personal cases, recovery of trust is possible on the level of communities and societies as well. But is doesn’t come as a Christmas present. It requires hard work. Better now than after the breaking-up. Because one way or the other, more often than not breaking up comes with violence. In my personal case, I am so grateful for the peaceful transition into healing and trust, and then love and friendship, through all the endless pain and discomfort. Thus, I believe, we can do it in larger contexts, too.

It requires profound honesty. Zero-tolerance to lies. Avoidance of anger, resentment, and rage. The ability to listen, rather than talking. Humility. Willingness to admit mistakes immediately. And the willingness to forgive. Oneself and others.

Anger, Rage, Fear – The Change of How We Consume News

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

Add title – Start Writing

When I open my blog editor with a fresh new page, WordPress exactly invites me to do that: Add a title – start writing. Once I put the cursor into the respective text field and I hit the first key, these suggestions disappear and I am presented with a blank space. Blogs, like their fanciful siblings called video blogs, or Vlogs, exactly do that: They invite people to produce a stream of conscienceness. Of course, one can easily get distracted in a discourse happening in real-life (I am notorius in that one), and the same works here in the blog universe. This is what is happening with this blog entry. I wanted to write about the effects of the Covid-pandemic on the fabric of our societies. Instead, I found myself distracted by the invitation “Add Title – Start Writing”. Reading these words, my mind went off into a different realm of issues I am grappling with. But okay, the initial idea for this blog entry is not lost, it is just for later. I decided this way, and within the ensuing creative process, the following product materialized.

Watch this movie: “The Social Dilemma“. It is on Netflix, and I should say, if you look it up, it has created a lot of controversial discussion itself. It left a huge impression on me. Judge for yourself. It is the main driver making me writing the following, and hopefully to continue with a series of more blog entries.

In my experience, blogging and vlogging platforms invite to produce a never ending stream of output. As a consequence of how human brains work, how the platform providers set up their business models, and most importantly, because of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) built in under the hood of these systems, more often than not this can create a binding spell not only for content consumers but also for content creators. They are being bound in ways which tend to hide the fact that there is a hidden intention on the side of platform providers, for which’s purpose they employ AI as a masterful tool. Consumers are encouraged to consume more, producers are encouraged to produce more, and limiting producers in admitting that partly or entirely they may do it for financial gain. Both groups being coerced into spending more and more of their lifetime in this digital relationship. For consumers it is true what they say: “If you are getting something for free, consider yourself being the object of other people’s choices and not the subject owning your own set of choices”.

I am an avid reader of news blogs, and for decades the use of RSS-feeds is hard-wired in how I choose reading my daily dose of news. These systems are working by allowing me to define the set of news sites I would like to subscribe to. I am the one who makes the choice. I choose the online editions of the “New York Times”, the “Washington Post”, the German magazine “Der Spiegel”, and so on. In effect I make a choice between sources of information, select these in my news reader application, and when I open up the news reader, I am getting stories from these sites, instead of having to visit them all. This is a more or less static undertaking. Sometimes I change the choice of sites, adding Buzzfeed, deleting a tech blog which just gave me annoying redundant news, stuff like that. But I am in the driver’s seat of choosing the source of my information. Mostly. Because whatever adblocker I use, it is a never ending race against the manipulative noise which comes together with my news through advertisements. Tapping at the wrong part of the screen when scrolling up or down, bang, something else is opening up. And more often than not, information about my choice is transmitted to some information crawlers in the background without my knowledge or consent, increasing chances that I will be presented with more of the stuff I tapped on, by mistake.

Then there are sites that present a carefully curated choice of news. Apple News (and the paid sibling Apple News+) is an example for it. They offer me content based on my preferences, and they stick to a business model which appears to include some values, about pluralism, truthfulness, content limitation, and so on. Yet, I can make choices which appear to be based less on what I call subconscious manipulation. In addition to my RSS-based newsreader, I also like to visit providers like these. And since I pay for the +-Version, I feel like I am contributing to freedom of press not making journalists solely depending on advertisements.

In this way, I am getting my news from digital editions since more than twenty years at least. I don’t read paper newspapers. I don’t watch the evening news at 8pm. I choose the sources which I like, and which I trust. I make a choice about what I want to read and see, and what I don’t. Importantly, I choose when to read my news, and it is my responsibility to make sure that I am not consumed by my news. Opportunities for others to change my choice, and efforts to lure me in, are somewhat reduced and slowed down. In this model, there is plenty of space for real-life discussions, getting incentives about new and interesting things from friends over a coffee, and then looking it up.

I will say that I deliberately choose to go off FaceBook in 2016, I have an extremely reduced Twitter account, I maintain a LinkedIn-account mainly for putting my profile out, I am not using Instagram, Tic Toc, or any other social media site. And because I found myself in the same situation of some social media site creeping in and taking control over ever more of my daily time, flicking pictures and glancing on pieces of information, my experience with dating sites led to the same decision: I entirely went off. They are just specialized sites for dating, they operate in very much a similar way like Social Media does. Except that there are “benefits” if you decide to become a paying subscriber: The brakes are off, and you can flick through profiles of people offering themselves to your heart’s content, you can see when you’re being noticed, you can control ways how to be seen, or not, you can pay for being put on top of “suggestion lists”, and so on. Amongst the several reasons why I went off social media, my experience with how they take over more and more of my daily time compulsively spent on them stands out. I know more about compulsion and addiction than I have written about on this blog, and this knowledge is including deep personal experiences.

Then I “discovered” Netflix. My relationship with Netflix now includes several years. Interestingly, and I will come to it in a little moment, my relationship with Netflix cooled off when a new lover entered my life: Youtube. But Netflix first: I used to buy movies on DVD, and I have quite an archive on high-powered harddisks. I still archive my movies, even after buying them in Apple’s movie store, and despite the fact that internet bandwidth has become a staple allowing me to watch old purchases over and over again, just online. Netflix is different, like Amazon Prime, HBO or else, for me three reasons stand out: (1) I can’t archive; (2) movies come and go; (3) I am presented with an AI-driven interface suggesting more of the same, to an extent very different from, for example, Apple Movies.

My relationship with Netflix is a love/hate-relationship. It is nice to flick through recommendations put up for me, to pick something for the evening, even to download it for later, or a long-distance flight. It is extremely annoying over time to get presented only with “more of the same”. If I watch movies from my beloved Marvel Universe, I get related offerings. The interface is increasingly hiding other choices I could make. It learns from my choices, and my choices narrow down my future choices. If I want to break through that invisible barrier, I have to make an active search effort. When I choose enough new stuff, the choice which is presented to me is gradually changing. But it is not getting me to a less narrow choice, it is just a different form of a new narrow choice. And over time, the purpose of the AI worked out fine: Though I have a paid Netflix account and I am not getting presented with ads, I watched more and more stuff on Netflix. All of us know it: We name it binging. Compulsively spending afternoons and evenings watching movies or series. When I have a favorite Science Fiction series, I watch three or four episodes before going to sleep. As a child, I had to wait for the next Enterprise episode for ONE WEEK…

We all know that experience. Which brings me to Youtube. Let me talk about how it started, because I know Youtube since decades, but I never allowed myself to dive in. Until my 12-year-old son wanted to operate a Youtube channel. As a family, we are operating with 6.500 kilometer between us, so often my contribution to parenting includes being the IT-expert for our growing kids, attempting to mitigate the many risks that come from online exposure. So, in order to advise my son about the do’s and don’ts, I often have to create an account myself to understand. Otherwise I would just be “the old man” advising on something I have no clue about.

That’s how I got myself a Youtube-account, which is, by definition, a Google-account which I have to link to Youtube. After that, I could happily subscribe to the little channel of my son where he is posting Minecraft videos. Dad and some ten kids, friends of my son. I have to add that a few months earlier my son made an experience on another site where a small video he posted went viral within days. Which was, and is, his biggest motivation for running such a channel. He dreams of getting a huge amount of subscribers, because that is what will make the money coming in.

Back to my own love affairs: I discovered Youtube channels. And this entirely replaced the time I was spending on Netflix. I allowed this to happen, deciding to make myself the object of my own experiment.

When I was interested, for professional reasons, in some videos explaining functions of weapons, I progressively entered a little universe of craziness: People firing weapons of all sorts on things of all sorts in some U.S. desert areas. And soon I bordered videos where other content, like right-wing fascism content, would have flooded my menu if I would have made only one mistake, only tapping on one “wrong” video. If somebody would have seen my home screen on Youtube during that time, you would have thought I am a weapons fanatic. And for a short while it was entertaining watching people creating and firing sophisticated crossbows, penetrating safes with high-powered assault rifles, of driving tanks and firing their cannons in the desert. Then I changed it, watched some videos about how turbines work. Soon I submerged in a world of people building turbines and rocket engines into cars in some Russian workshops. Nice, for a time. I changed it again, looking up chemical science of explosives, getting into that , sometimes really informative, universe. Slowly, the weapons crazies disappeared from my menu, useful stuff, but also other crazies, showed up. Changing it again, I began to watch movies about van life. Ending up with a small bunch of really nice and useful bloggers living a lifestyle which I embrace as well, I also was confronted with vlogs of broken people living a van life, and I saw their attempts to create followerships by inviting people into their crazy lifes.

Over time, I curated my list. But this being the consequence of an educated decision, even entirely going off YouTube for a while, allowing myself to experience the void. Yes, a void. Because part of the mechanism has to do with supporting compulsive and addictive patterns which can form a disorder, and often do.

Quite a group of those vloggers which I watched for a while, they do whatever works in order to get followers. Because YouTube will take you a little bit more serious in case you have a followership larger than 10.000. Money may flow in. You dream of 100.000. You dream of the big money. Like in a lottery, you fail to see that only a few people make big money, AI working together with human intelligence in finding out how to create more followers, in order to make more money. Result being the creation of narrow universes of followers. Combine this with the endless creativity of young people, and their wish to make money. Or: Combine this with the endless creativity of manipulative political operatives, and today’s bunch of conspiracy theorists.

The difference to Netflix? Whilst Youtube also offers a paid premium (and is constantly nagging me to give in, which I will not), I can dive into this universe, with all its useful and all its crazy forms, including content providers on the conspiracy theory side of things, for free. I have to accept the fact that I am bombarded with advertisements, and I soon discovered that checking for equipment on Amazon would lead to specific ads on Youtube. Also, the use of Virtual Private Networks aiming at hiding my IP-address would have limited or no success in avoiding this cross-fertilisation of the likes of Amazon, Google, Youtube, and whatever, with my user-data.

Since I am not using Social Media sites like FaceBook, I can not, from own experience, say who is “better”, or “worse” in applying AI-technology. But I see the tremendous impact of this technology in my experience with Youtube.

Watch this movie: “The Social Dilemma“.

My dystopian comments at the end of this blog entry: A global peepshow… People watching the lives of other people through windows on smartphone or computer screens. Unlike a sophisticated discourse in a Viennoise coffeehouse where I would sit around with likeminded, this blog entry is the product of a wild mixture of sitting on my couch, or in front of a PC, interrupted by taking a shower, sitting there in my pajamas, cleaning the kitchen, coming back to the screen with another idea, doing other stuff, honing my writing, creating something where you don’t see the messy process any longer. The product always communicates an illusion about how it has come together. Like YouTubers sharing their stories selectively, only focusing on the beautiful parts. Or the parts which stick. Watch some lifestreams on YouTube and you see the interaction between these actors and a never-ending stream of contents running up the screen, reflecting on every mundane, or also gross way people think and talk. Because of the business model underneath and mostly invisible, this influences the influencer. Which is, in a way, how life works. Were there not the amplifying effects of AI.

I’ll try to read and think more about it. As may have become clear, I do not condemn this modern technology. However, there are really scary things going on that, I believe, we need to understand better. Meanwhile, in order to get a glimpse of what I am trying to understand better, read today’s OpEd in the NYT, written by one my favorite authors, Yuval Noah Harari, on “When The World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy“. There is a link between what I wrote about, and this one. And there is another link to psychological impacts of the Covid-pandemic. Which I had wanted to write about in the first place. I hope it will come in one of my next entries.