A different approach to upsetting news – Take away their demolition power – The glass is half full, not half empty

This morning, a German news story popped up. The report informs about the plans of Hungary‘s right-wing political party „Fidesz“ to institutionalize further discrimination against members of the LGBTQI-community. Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary, a Member State of the European Union, has tabled a law prohibiting educational programs, and any program advertising topics related to people and communities identifying anything other than heterosexual. Homophobia enshrined into law, if successful. Chances are, it may be.

According to the „Tagesschau“-report behind the link https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/europa/ungarn-fidesz-homosexualitaet-101.html, educational programs at school that inform and sensibilisize for the rights and needs of minority groups identifying other than heterosexual shall be prohibited. Behind the acronym LGBTQI stand all who identify as lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and intersexual. One of my beloved children would, as a consequence, be ostracized if being educated in Hungary. I dare say I am proud of the exceptionally human educational system of the country where they are being educated. They grow up in a country where they are encouraged to freely identify as whoever they feel they are.

Not in Hungary, or elsewhere where xenophobia and chauvinism continue to take alarming roots, in the middle of the European Union. Let me be clear: We have this everywhere, including in Germany. But a draft law planning to prohibit books, films, and other „content“, aiming at children and juveniles with the intent to prohibit depicting any form of sexuality deviating from heterosexuality, that is entirely another level of erosion of values based on democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human and individual values. I hope that there will be a strong reaction from Brussels. But the mere fact that such an attempt is made is deeply alarming.

As often, this report falls into the category of news which deeply upset me, make me sad, angry, resentful. There are many bits and pieces of such news in my draft folder. They relate to what happens with Muslim minorities in Myanmar, ethnic and religious minority groups in China, including reports about Chinese authorities forcefully subjecting members of that minority group to training Artificial Intelligence software to identify emotions on their faces, with even Microsoft ringing the alarm bells of Orwell‘s „1984“ taken to the the power of 2. My draft folder includes reports about widespread sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and rape, on a broad basis, perpetrators being Afghan Police commanders, victims being female Afghan police officers.

I could go on and on. Of course, the world is chock full with news like these. And these stories need to be told, as this is one vital precondition to act. „AAA“ stands for Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. All three terms are equally relevant.

But from personal experience I know what these stories do: Some people get numb. Some people get cynical. Some people get into a constant spiral of being upset. On the other side of the aisle, these stories positively feed the xenophobia and hate and intolerance of those who have already been caught in the webs of those pied pipers who appear to be a staple of contemporary times.

I name them pied pipers. They thrive off antagonisation. Many of them for ideological reasons. Some of them, including Nr 45 in the U.S., taking this method to the ultimate extreme: They don‘t care about content at all, they only care for the principle of always raising the stakes of antagonisation. This I will try to analyse in a future blog entry, because this method is both simple and complex, and there are people around who have copied this from Nr. 45. Mechanically it is simple: Just respond to anything with radical antagonisation. Psychologically, it is complex: Systematic gaslighting is including that one gaslights oneself. I have written about it here.

But what to do when everything is aimed at making you angry, because this in itself is the aim of the exercise? Does it mean one either becomes a „useful idiot“, as Lenin put it, by angrily responding (and thus doing exactly what the other side intended), or shutting up and thus becoming a member of the group of „silent lambs“? Does it lead to ever more resignation and the feeling of helplessness, harboring deep-seated resentment?

I believe there could be another path: Every story told about the cold heartless business of eroding hard-fought-for values should be accompanied by a story of hope, a profoundly positive story.

So I try this here.

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Two days ago, I came back to Serbia after a stay in Germany and another stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina. I was timing my arrival, because my second Covid-19-vaccination was due this weekend.

Here is my story about how I got vaccinated in Serbia:

As a consequence of policy decisions, Serbia had secured considerable amounts of vaccines early on, whether Sinopharm, Sputnik, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, whatever. In difference to neighboring States in the region, and also in difference to, for example Germany, they had a large supply early on. Serbia‘s fast vaccination campaign got noticed internationally.

At the same time when own citizens began to receive their first shots (and not after), the Serbian government started to provide vaccines to the international diplomatic community in Serbia, but they wouldn’t stop there: A week or so after they had opened the possibility to get vaccinated to diplomatic missions, my landlord called me and said she had just watched the announcement on TV that the government was offering vaccines to anyone, including foreigners, as long as one had a foreign ID card and a Serbian phone number.

Mid March, on a Saturday morning, I traveled to the largest vaccination site on the Belgrade Fair compound. I approached a security guard, politely asking whether the information that I could get a shot as a foreigner with no residence in Serbia, would be correct. The guard went in, and came out a minute later with a young staffer, who introduced himself as „Ivan“. In the most friendly manner I have come across, Ivan took me through all registration, helped me arrive at the cubicle with a sign „AstraZeneca“ on it, and fifteen minutes after arriving at the fair I got my first vaccine shot. Ivan accompanied me to the rest area, we had a blast of small talk, and brought me back to the exit of the fair. We parted not without having exchanged contact details before. Since then, Ivan and I exchanged a few mails and planned on having a coffee at the latest when my second shot would be due, after 12 weeks.

Of course, this extraordinary experience made me so grateful. And this gratitude for a most personal experience of kindness also remained throughout the following weeks, when Serbia got credited for this unbuerocratic handling, when many people from neighboring countries of the Western Balkans, and even „vaccine tourists“ form EU countries, arrived at the Belgrade Fair. The public discussion included comments that this also could be seen as a smart public relations move by the Government. All reasonable, but the personal kindness was not an exception and went way beyond what could be named „professional courtesy“, and I heard of it many times.

Now, 11 weeks later I was in Sarajevo, preparing to come back to Belgrade, anticipating an eMail notifying me about my second appointment. With precision, I got this mail, and a text message on my phone. But before that, I received a mail from Ivan.

Ivan had noted the second vaccination date. He offered to help me again. Which I found more than kind, it was „super considerate“. So, two days ago, I met Ivan again. At the Belgrade Fair. And like the first time, I was met with most friendly staff all over the vaccination site, taking me through the second round of vaccination. After which, Ivan and I had planned to have a coffee.

On the way to the coffee place, Ivan greeted a friend, Marco. Friendly and outgoing like Ivan, I got into a conversation with Marco. This led to literally two hours of intense and wonderful time over several coffees, with both Ivan and Marco. Because, as it turned out, Marco had a story to tell which I also wanted to hear in its entirety.

Both Ivan and Marco are youth workers, engaged in supporting meaningful activities for young people. Ivan in Belgrade, Marco as part of a regional non-governmental organization operating in all six jurisdictions of the Western Balkans. As an NGO, I learned, they had gotten international recognition for their work on helping young people all over the Western Balkans, including in reconciling with the divisions which form part of the legacy of conflict and war.

I need to keep it short here, because this blog entry is already one of the longer ones. The work of this NGO will be subject to future blog entries anyway, as soon as I have learned more. But I already know that young people here are fighters for the future of the values that we sometimes feel others are eroding. The point which I want to make here: By chance, and simply because I was curious and open-minded, I learned about what young people here in this region of the world do in order to overcome pre-occupations, divisive nationalist language, and hate. They promote tolerance. They operate truly regional, stay out of politics, and emphasize their pride of being truly multi-ethnic.

They are the present, and the future here, so their stories need to be told. These others, including some pied pipers, those who try to control the news cycle, they may be part of the past, and not knowing it, yet. Telling positive stories, sometimes small, sometimes large, always wonderful, that may help.

Ivan, Marco, and I, we plan a dinner next week. I am going to ask them what they do in terms of LGBTQI rights, and their promotion. I am sure we are going to have another blast of a good conversation.

Which helps me a lot when I see bad news, next time.

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.

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.