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.

2020 – Closing Thoughts – Looking Ahead

I don’t recall any other year comparable to 2020. If I go back in my memory, at the time of events even years like 1989 appear to have felt less intense with regards to the global revolutionary impact. But that’s just me comparing on a very subjective level. In any case, the changes, the tectonic shifts that we have witnessed in 2020 are beyond anything that we might have imagined. And there is one experience from events such as those unfolding in 1989 which will be true for 2000, too: In many ways I only understood the local, regional, and global consequences of the end of the Cold War only gradually, throughout many subsequent years. Like when I analysed the development of peacekeeping since its beginning in 1946. You can read about it here. When I analysed facts and figures related to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, a new dimension of my understanding of how deeply 1989 had influenced global development opened up. I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of it before. Neither that analysing aspects of peacekeeping completed my understanding of what happened in 1989. It just opened my eyes about the complexity of the impact of that year. Studying it as comprehensive as possible takes a lifetime of historians, sociologists, political analysists, and so on. And on Peacekeeping, 2020 had a huge impact, whilst the entire topic itself literally went on the backburner of public perception. As always, when things get us out of our comfort zone into fear, we tend to neglect, or forget, those who really suffer.

On a similar impact level like 1989, I also do not forget 2001, with its September 11th. The same tectonic shifting is true here.

And it will be true for 2020. Yet, we feel the impact in ways very much different to those events 36 years ago, and may be also compared to 19 years ago, except those who suffered from the terror attack directly in New York City. 2020, the foundations of what we have become used to, they are shattered in their core on a global level. The measures implemented to fight the pandemic, the lockdowns, the social distancing, the constant news about ups and downs in the fight, hope, despair, the experience of depression and helplessness, it creates one huge yarnball of fear in our stomachs all over the world. The dimension of change in private lives, economics, and societies, they are endless. I guess “Home Office” is the topic which comes to most minds in high-tech countries. But that is just for starters.

Of course, the pandemic and its impact does not stand on its own. The crisis of democracy which we see continuing to unfold in menacing ways, it adds to confusion, polarization, and fear. But still, this is just the surface of the entire development. The crisis response that we could witness with all its faults and all its successes cannot be looked at in isolation. The pandemic has an impact on everything else which is ongoing. Which at times gives space to discussions such as: Would we have done the same under different circumstances, when it comes to fighting Covid-19? And this is tricky, because I do not want to contribute to any speculation that the crisis response has been used as a pretext for something that has been motivated differently, perhaps mischieveously. This is a pathway quickly leading into the most horrible type of discourse where people begin to de-legitimize any crisis response and also attempt to minimize the threat that is stemming from this global pandemic. A taxi-driver in Belgrade who brought me to the airport told me: “Covid is a machination of the pharma-industry. It has been created as a myth in order to sell vaccines. Wait for it, in April Covid is gone.” The insanity of this simple circular logic is almost ridiculous, but how do regular people feel when historians, sociologists, politicians, epidemiologists, and all else, struggle with giving an answer on something which is only beginning to be understood, whilst the explosive and utterly pervasive impact of it affects the lives of billions of people in life-threatening ways? How to mentally deal with explaining circumstances when you are loosing your job because an economy is melting down? Add the conspiracy-theorists, the fearmongers, the deniers, the liars, whatever. It just increases the desire of many people to find an explanation and to re-direct their fear.

A surgical analysis of what happened as the crisis unfolded will require years. As history is not an exact science, the conclusions will be expressed in untold and diverse, certainly at times contradicting assessments. We will see heated discussions for decades to come.

But what is it what we can see right now? It is very clear that the Covid pandemic did not happen as an isolated crisis but it did unfold at a time when other tectonic tensions were there, or materializing, at the same time. The development has become so interdependent that effects of various crises had a chaotic and hardly predictable impact on other crises. It is all a huge, a gigantic mess. Which reinforces fear. Nobody understands. The wish to blame someone, or something, it is a consequence of rage and fear towards something invisible. People feeling the pain from depression and helplessnes, they want to “smash”, but what?

Some other crises unfolding before and throughout 2020 that have not gone away, and which require more attention than we may have been able to give to them, are:

The Covid pandemic has not just made global warming going away. It has superseded any discussion about it, and it has helped radical deniers of global warming to get away with chopping off previous achievements on environmental protection.

The crisis of legitimacy of the Western system of peace and security, which is in existence since more than 75 years, it has been building up for quite some time, was becoming scarily visible and menacing from 2016 onwards, and further unfolded during the same time when we were hit by the pandemic. Even more: The requirements necessary fighting a pandemic, and even the assessment of the dangers stemming from Covid-19, that all was taken hostage in ways still numbing my mind. The casualties of instrumentalising a pandemic for political fights, including ripping down institutions, they are real. At the time of this writing the United States is going through an unprecendetend challenge of the electoral system, with protagonists of this attack entirely neglecting the pandemic. I don’t want to speculate about numbers, but saying that many thousands, or tens of thousands of people could have been rescued, it is a given. Who will hold those accountable who have, with a clear and insane mind, done that, whilst they swore an oath to protect their citizens, rather than themselves, their riches, their families, and servile friends?

The global economic competition like between China and the United States, or Europe, was in existence before the pandemic. Economic consequences of the pandemic are affecting individual citizens, households, communities, societies. How do we cooperate in a world with limited resources, in which 2020 witnessed an impact which could be partially mitigated in rich countries, but not at all in poor countries? What does the pandemic mean in terms of fueling selfishness of economy? How did the economies send shockwaves into governing the pandemic, and how did the pandemic influence global competition? What will we see in 2021 and beyond? In essence, all these questions create uncertainty and fear. Which create selfishness.

The migration crisis was there, and has not gone away. Not only because of the global warming, or previoulsy existing instability and war. The shockwaves of the pandemic do add. Attempts to curb illegal migration, efforts to influence migration by means of supporting capacity development and economic and security perspectives for populations in threatened regions or on entire continents, it was there before. But how will this play out as we move on through the pandemic and it’s consequences? Will we continue with helping, or have we become used to locking down things, because we are experiencing this even by ourselves. Will this be used for building visible or invisible walls?

Autocratic governments controlling the population were in existence before and it did not stop because of the Covid pandemic. How will selfishness, fueled by the fearmongers of nationalism and xenophobia, influence policy on jointness, with some nations perhaps continuing to be willing to share, and others not? Will we be able to find strength for an new attempt to act collectively, instead of dividing and putting “My Country First”? Which, by the way, is a perfect example for lying straight into the faces of people, because in reality all these actors mean “Me First”.

I sometimes feel like the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Obviously the Covid pandemic created interdependent effects in other major lines of global or regional political and societal development. Tectonic shifts happen only after a long building up of tension between tectonic plates which is mostly not seen and measurable only by using sophisticated technology. But the event triggering the cascade of effects that we feel in a gigantic earthquake, it can be comparatively small. A rupture in a small area can stand on its own when there is no build-up of larger tension. But beware: The tension may be there. In that case, hell is breaking loose once the weakest part of the chain is breaking and the chain reaction of events is unfolding in explosive succession. That is also how I look at the pandemic. It set off something way larger, and perhaps way more catastrophic.

Amongst many effects that came as a consequence of Covid-crisis-management I am also looking at two:

(1) The reoccurrence of borders in the European Union and the erosion of something that could be considered a core achievement inside the European Union, meaning the so-called Schengen Space. Millions of travellers in Europe have witnessed something that was always part of contingency planning in case of crisis management: The temporary re-instating of border control inside the Schengen Area. I believe it was never anticipated to happen on the scale as it did in spring 2020. When finally road travel under severe restrictions was possible again, I traveled devoid highways from South-East-Europe to Germany, with border control and temporary police checkpoints becoming semi-permanent. We all remember the eerily absence of the noise of aircrafts. For people like me, travel is the only way connecting me with my friends and family all over the world. Others felt it during holidays, some behaved, others didn’t. But once we got through the first lockdown and had to handle the first wave of anger about the possibility of new lockdowns springing up again, we also got used to it. So, with this Christmas bringing new lockdown measures, what will be the future of an interconnected world where the border-free Schengen Zone once was a hallmark achievement of the European Union? I am not sure the situation will go back to something called a “status quo ante“, the status like it was before. People who are critical to the vast arranging of border checks are already using an argument that the crisis has been used to erode achievements long held in the EU, and taking rights away, in order to control more. These opinions are inevitable, and may be at this moment is is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. But it will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us ourselves, to participate in this discourse. The silence of the lambs always has led to catastrophes, and more recently we saw this in well-established democracies who considered themselves to be the bedrock of the modern Western world.

(2) Connected to it is the velocity with which Covid crisis response mechanisms also severely affected individual rights of freedom of movement or freedom of expression of opinion and freedom to demonstrate. Even more, we are facing a holiday season where States regulate how many people from different households can meet inside their homes. I would, frankly, never had imagined that I am facing a situation where my brothers and I have to think about how to organise Christmas, because if the three of us including a few children and partners meet, we will exceed the permissible number of people gathering in one large house. These restrictions are new and subject to learning and regulation by legislators, but also by the courts. We have seen courts already doing what they have to do: Correcting measures of the executive, where excessive. Because we don’t have blueprints. We make mistakes, having the best intentions, but we make many. So it is a normal procedure that courts will contribute to acceptable application of law. At the same time, law is evolving as well. And like in the first example, the steering democratic discourse will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us, ourselves. A discourse ensuring that the rule of law prevails.

Taken together, for me the two case-studies are examples for potential regression. Signature achievements being taken away, hopefully only temporarily. But it happens during a time where the Covid-pandemic, as I mapped out, does not stand on its own. It happens during a time of newly incensed nationalism, conservatism, renewed right-wing extremism, fascism on the rise, autocratic attacks on democracy and the rule of law intensifying. It comes at a time of effects that go beyond re-emergence of borders, and infringements on human rights which require rigid scrutiny. Motivations mingle: We see governments (like mine) attempting to act as responsible as possible with temporary restrictions. We see tendencies of xenophobia, attacks on minority rights, erosion of inalienable human and individual rights, and efforts to reverse hard-fought achievements in domains such as the right of women, or the rigths to which the LGBTQ-community is entitled. It is a wild mix of “retro” banding together, and I am certainly not saying they are motivated by the crisis coming with the pandemic, but all these developments fuel each other, and not to the best of humankind.

I can not help but feeling afraid. Whilst I fully appreciate the necessity to infringe on basic rights under extraordinary circumstances of threats, I also fear that we may have opened pandora’s box. The other day I had a coffee with a friend over a long (and socially-distanced) walk in the park. We were reflecting on the fatigue which we all sometimes feel. Like, “What difference do we make with our work and our passion?”. We both agreed that much of this fatigue comes from the depression which holds many people in their grip after now almost one full and grueling year of how individual life has been affected.

I have no other answer than that we need to continue. Human perception is always attracted by everything scary and negative. My experience is that, at the same time, we can also see, and focus on, how the best human attitudes have been shaped: Kindness, respect, nurturing relationships with different means, intensifying communication with loved ones, taking care the best way possible for lonely people. I’m not rambling at the end, I am just arguing that there is a need to focus on positive developments. Not only because it protects our mental health. More importantly because it truly makes a difference without which we would become silent lambs in the face of fear, anger, rage, and fearmongering. These four lead to isolation. There is no need for being isolated, or feeling so. I have had more contacts with friends and loved ones than I ever had before. Much of it, of course, with modern means of communication. But it has, very clearly, grounded me in a circle of people who I support, and who support me.

Merry Christmas!

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

Happy Thanksgiving, America – Meanwhile, Over Here

Happy Thanksgiving, America. This year, you are celebrating one of your most sacrosanct holidays under the weirdest of possible circumstances. Millions of people traveling to re-unite with family in the midst of a pandemic descending into disaster. Desperate for a sense of normalcy, craving to celebrate traditional values of homecoming to family and being grateful, you gather on airports, get on planes, playing a game of denial in assuring yourselves that you won’t be the ones who are carrying or getting the virus. Because a significant portion of you will. Or you may be believing the virus is a hoax, or not as dangerous as science says it is.

But in this game of russian roulette you are not holding the gun to your own head, at least not only. In banking on that you will escape that round in the chamber, you include the most vulnerable in your families into this game. Your parents and others in your family have not only grown to old age. They may also carry pre-existing conditions. Experts like Dr Fauci warning in strongest terms. I find it absolutely horrible to think about the tragic scenes that will occur, a few weeks later. Will they be buried in the sea of statistics, will those who have fallen victim to this collective denial just become more anonymous numbers in this collective shrugging of shoulders? Since I have friends and family in America, and not only in Canada or over here, in Germany and in Europe, I do care personally.

Meanwhile, over here, my father is hospitalized again in Bavaria. He is at old age, his health is deteriorating rapidly. And he is alone. Last time I was able to visit was this summer, when he was in another hospital. It was after the most intense lockdown in spring and I could only visit him under the strongest possible precautions. Distance. Desinfection. Masks. Time limitation. No hugs. Contact tracing. Like a little while later, when I quarantined for two weeks in Toronto in October in order to see my children after ten months of deprivation. Until I was released from quarantine, my children would visit me on the porch for a few minutes per day. Distance. Desinfection. Masks. Time limitation. No hugs. Contact tracing. It was almost unbearable for them, but we made it and the hugs thereafter, when I was allowed to enter their “bubble”, they felt a thousand times sweeter.

Winter is coming and I think that with the current Covid-19-situation I won’t be able to visit my lonely and scared father in the hospital. Meanwhile, my kids are in another lockdown in Toronto again. Also here, in Germany, the collective mechanism formed from Federal and State governments decided to double down on measures restricting us. Both in intensity, and in duration. The measures imposed in November do yield some success, we seem to be able to reverse the trend, but we are intensifying protective measures in order to protect the vulnerable and to make it until we have soaked ourselves in vaccines, collectively. And again, meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in America. Be mindful, and be careful, will you?

You are not alone with all the crazies defying anything even resembling a minimum degree of logic and reasonable behavior. We have ’em crazies over here as well. The craziness is global. The virus is global. The pre-existing conditions for this craziness are global. I know for a fact that this did not start with the virus, the craziness was happily blossoming long before. Yet, it is frightening to see mass demonstrations in my beloved Berlin or Leipzig or in other cities, with thousands of what could be considered to be moderate citizens, expressing their frustration and scare, and sure their discontent or disapproval with decisions being made by the governments. This, in itself, is not crazy. It is absolutely what we want to see in a living and prospering democracy. But societal mainstream appears to allow mixing themselves in the wildest ways imaginable with far-right and far-left extremists. Conspiracy theorists throwing themselves happily into the bunch. In late spring I saw the same thing happening in Belgrade, where I am spending significant time. People got angry when the government, after the elections, planned to reinforce limitations, fearing the advent of the second wave.

Demonstrations in Germany were getting out of control in fall, people not respecting decisions on distance and mask-wearing that would allow for their exercising the fundamental right to demonstrate, and the right to express their opinions. People showing up (on purpose, thoughtless, uneducated, malicious, or what?) carrying a badge on their upper arms, of yellow color, with the words “not vaccinated” on them. Clearly a reference to the way how Jews were forced to identify themselves before and during the Holocaust. It left the Federal Government’s Commissioner for fighting Anti-Semitism speechless and outraged (German link here).

This is a bit of a rambling blog entry, as you may have noticed. I struggle with collecting all my thoughts on what is happening these days. Because meanwhile, others engage in pardoning turkeys two days ago, leaving the media being ripe with speculations about who might benefit from a last-minute Presidential pardon in human life. And there it is, the pardoning did not stop with two turkeys, it was the prelude for pardoning Michael Flynn, just yesterday.

I am no stranger to self-centered thinking combined with denial. It leads to progressively distorted and then delusional perceptions. The ensuing action always isolates, harms oneself, and harms others. Understanding the impact of this goes way beyond my appreciation of my personal root causes (trauma) and consequences (masking pain, rather than acknowleding it) in my own life, which I began to address many years ago. I believe that self-centeredness plays an important role in many things we see unfolding. Two days ago, I noted to myself: “The core of anti-democratic sentiments is founded on [collective] selfishness.”

I will stop here, for the moment, with a few links (1), (2), (3), (4) in German which I collected over the past days. Because, believing this development is “elsewhere” would be hypocritical.

I always talk about that we have to share this World. I am just off a two-days video-conference addressing joint efforts of the six jurisdictions in the Western Balkans (in alphabetical order): Belgrade (Serbia), Podgorica (Montenegro), Pristina (Kosovo), Sarajevo (Bosnia & Hercegovina), Skopje (North-Macedonia), and Tirana (Albania). My country has, together with others, again put money to where the mouth is, and action to words. In a team effort, and a true spirit of partnership and assistance. The impact of the Covid-19-pandemic has affected everything, on levels of individual fate, in terms of operational work, strategic work, political work, and regional cooperation. But at the end it became clear: We all stayed safe because of adhering to principles allowing us to get through this situation. Despite the shortfalls coming from the use of electronic conferencing instead of real meetings, we have seen that we are able to stay together.

That is what I am grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving. Stay healthy, safe, and grateful. Do not allow division and selfishness drive us into further madness. The best form of communication is listening to each other.

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.

The transactional death-threat to democracy

Here is a little cautionary tale. Entirely fictional. Any resemblance to existing persons unintentional. I just woke up with this dream and I quickly jotted it down.

I win. As a matter of fact, I told you that already: I told you I have won. I always tell you what is happening. Because I know how your minds work. I know that you can not see the real me, since I am masterminding you by controlling your emotions, by blinding you through your own fear, resentments, and hate, and your own hypocritical belief that you understand me. As if any non-sociopath would really be able to fully understand me. Well, there are some. I can’t bullshit other bullshitters.

It is so simple: (1) If I make you hate me, I have won over you. (2) If I make you hate those I want you to hate, I have won over you. I am a sociopath. I am an expert in this game, and most of you are my pawns. Some of you are helpful (Lenin named you guys the “useful idiots”), but as soon as you are not useful any longer, I will spit you out. By the way, I truly enjoy seeing you, along the ride, ripping your own spine out of your own body, and realizing too late how this has destroyed your lifes, and the lifes of those who love you. Because I am a sadist, too. And those who are my adversaries: I will smash you. Everyone else is entirely irrelevant for me. Just stay out of my way, except you have something I want. I am prepared to make a deal with you, but preferably I will take it away from you.

What I don’t want you to realize is that I give a damn about how you think a win is looking like. For me, winning is about getting the max of what is in for me. Because it is about me, not about democracy.

That is why things are simple for me, right now: I Just have to continue with what I have done all the time: Mounting more pressure, dumping more lies, firing more people, sowing more confusion and fear, answering any threat with just more escalation, never ever giving in, always responding to facts with yelling “Fake”. Making my adversaries feeling exasperated and their guts filled with the excruciating pain of helpless fury and anger.

Because, may be it works and I win and stay in office. But if I can’t, I will have made so many people angry with the mess I will have created that more and more people will blame my adversary (you know, the one who says he has won the elections). It is really easy! I smash and let people blame him. I just say “I fight for the will of the people”, whilst I really do nothing else than smashing things. I told you already, I am a sadist.

It will force my adversaries to make a deal with me. Do they really want to see 71 million voters being angry when prosecutors try to arrest me? And if I am lucky, I am going to be a double-winner: I am getting my deal, and I see my adversary being morally discredited because he had to give me the deal I forced him to hand over to me. Sadists love humiliating other people.

I will win by forcing people to make a deal with me. And until I get my deal, I will make 74 million people walk blind in their fear and hate, and I will make 71 million people walk blind in their triumph and hate.

So, I am doubling down. I fire people. I stack the levels underneath the top of departments with loyalists. I make sure that my adversary feels more and more pressure by wondering whether, and how much, of my doing can be undone. I don’t care about how much can be undone. I only care about my pokerface: Creating fear and anxiety, resentment, and hate on one side, and drunken triumph and hate on the other side. And by golly: There are so many things I can make difficult and smash. I don’t even need to plan it, they will come along my way and I just pick them, between twittlering, watching TV, flying on fancy aircrafts, having burgers, and playing golf.

So, I will push things to the melting point. And my adversary knows this already. Because he knows, he does something pretty smart. He deploys the best current weapon possible: Calmness, and showing he has a plan. I guess he knows that this weapon might loose it’s cutting edge soon. He might desperately need a cavalry coming in not too far from now.

But don’t forget, here is my secret, plain out in the open: In my world, I am better at smashing things than The Hulk is. I will never concede. And if you decide to smash me, chances are that this will turn against you. I will have divided you, and I will have conquered you. Because I incite your hate, instill your fears, make you blind with nervosity, so that I can feed off from your hate. It’s the oldest trick in the world.

I told you, I win. If only the nagging feeling would disappear that my adversaries understand this, that there are enough smart people understanding this as well, that they manage to keep things together, and that they have found my Achilles’ Heel.

Character matters

I’m writing this with tears in my eyes. Yes, it becomes easier now to say to our children: Character matters. Compassion matters. Love matters. Sharing this World matters. Humanity matters. The Rule of Law matters. Democracy matters.

It is easier to be a Dad…

Watch it yourself:

Van Jones fights back tears: Result shows character matters

This is the America that has our back. And thank you for reaching out to those who feel they lost. As a matter of fact, I hope that most of them will see that they won, too.

Others have a long way ahead until they can be trusted again. Action speaks louder than words, in this regard. But, please, let us stay humble, free from resentment, and steer away from hypocrisy.

Congrats, America. Congrats, Joe and Kamala. And Kamala: We are soooo proud of you. My daughter sure is.

Finally

My boss is very clear. There is no diplomatic coating if Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, is calling out Donald Trump’s urging his supporters to vote twice as disturbing and unscrupulous behavior. Which it is.

I am glad we speak the truth, we do it with diplomatic language whereever we can, do not play into the antagonization game whereever possible, use moderate language instead of yelling, call on upholding human values including decency and truthfulness. I am also glad to see that we can be clear, crystal clear, saying “enough is enough”. Which it is.

https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/heiko-maas-wirft-donald-trump-ruchlosigkeit-im-wahlkampf-vor-a-b110069c-8888-4118-bb1c-f39cee51c59a

Or, for my English speaking friends:

https://www.newsweek.com/germanys-foreign-minister-calls-trump-urging-supporters-vote-twice-disturbing-unscrupulous-1529939

Never ever the Doomsday Clock was closer to twelve. Do not underestimate His Neediness and his minions.

Peace, democracy, safety and security, human rights, humanity, none of these come for free.

We have a responsibility to hold to the power of love that we know to be true, and to not allow the world around us to deaden that in ourselves. LUCAS JOHNSON

The summer of 2020

I will remember the summer of 2020 as that summer when COVID-19 wiped out large swaths of my plans to travel. I had planned to deepen friendships and was looking forward to my connection to family and loved ones. All live in different parts of this world. I imagined that I would regularly meet professional interlocutors by traveling all over the Western Balkans, I would travel to see friends, and I would contribute to nurturing the buds of a new relationship. I would form new memories, making it easier to live with the memories of those summers in the U.S. which I, until today, miss with excruciating pain. July 4th was a tough day for me.

So far, nothing like that has happened. Shortly after I arrived in my new center of working and living, Covid-19 struck. For a few weeks I had enjoyed meetings with new and old colleagues. Within a day or so in March, I saw them only in their home offices, on Zoom, and that is lasting until today. I found myself in an increasingly intense lockdown, organizing work from my own home office, structuring the day keeping me sane, in ways allowing me to get the basics done, including shopping, before the curfew hit, getting work done, staying in connection with friends and family, and not overdosing on Netflix during the evenings. A seemingly never ending string of weekend-long curfews culminated around christian and orthodox Easter, locking me into the routine of my apartment for days without end.

Everything happened on Zoom, WhatsApp, Signal, FaceTime, Skype, and using a myriad of other communication tools. There was a phase of enthusiasm at the beginning, both on the work side and the private side of things new forms of communication offered more intense opportunities to connect. But that began to wear out after a few weeks. People started to crave personal contacts. Everybody struggled with the fear of an economic downturn affecting the financial foundations of their lifes. I found myself increasingly dealing with mood swings, and planning when to travel to Germany was a nightmare of calculating when there would be the ideal slot, being able to travel, to self-quarantine on arrival, doing the things I needed to do in Germany, and traveling back to Belgrade hopefully with the least complications possible. My mind went into such a frantic mode that I began to be affected by not being able to decide, constantly worrying.

So, when the counter-measures to the pandemic which shut down the entire continent of Europe yielded success, the feeling of relief was incredible. I felt it personally, I was able to travel to a remote campsite in Croatia for two consecutive weekends, enjoying peace in nature on my own. Yet, my children in Toronto lived through extraordinary restrictions, and they do so until now. In Europe, temporary border control measures were lifted in the European Union, and here in the Western Balkans, people put their hope on being able to travel for holidays, and to travel into the EU by getting their regular visa again. I was hoping to travel to Bucharest in Romania, and until today this has not materialized. Like my children in Toronto, I saw my friend in Bucharest last time January this year. And once I travel to Germany again, with plans to see my father, I will have to be extremely vigilant taking his fragility at old age into account. His health is deteriorating.

Whilst hope kept me in limbo, I saw the figures of new infections rising again. We experience a second wave here in South-East Europe, almost everywhere registered new infections rise to the level where they were in spring. I worry again about when to travel for the summer time, which I plan to spend in Germany, and in Canada. Traveling just to neighboring Romania remains a distant dream. I have days where I feel overwhelmed by frustration, and only connection to my friends helps me accepting this new reality that is there to stay.

This is the regional picture, here in parts of Europe. Already this picture is overwhelmingly complex. In the United States the situation is much different, the pandemic is in full swing, currently out of control, and in the stranglehold of a cultural war. And though I believe that I pay attention to news on a global level, I see that my focus is on the developments in the so-called West. I see things being equally out of control in countries in Central and South America, and in Asia. In Africa, too: South Africa’s figures are going through the roof, whilst there are so many underdeveloped countries which I traveled and love where I doubt even the capacity to register new cases is there.

But the overhelming news I consume relate to Europe, and North America. Including obsessive paying attention to how one of the oldest democracies of this world is under attack from the inside, fighting for its life. It is mindblowing that even the person who is a main driver of this attack would agree with my statement. Because he says too that this attack is happening, but he, the attacker, brazenly blames the other side for everything. Madness. History is repeating itself, and with the legacy of what happened to my country ninety years ago, and with twenty years of personal experience with worst-case-scenarios all over the world, I have to be careful in not allowing my emotions taking over and coming up with Doomsday phantasies.

The anxieties and fear which I have described using my own personal example, they hold true for everyone on a global level. My example is the example of one within billions. The fear, the anxiety, the attempt to find entry points into understanding what is going on, the helplessness and the wish to control things, the anger and despair, the resentment, these are global commonalities. It creates a highly combustible mix, as we have seen on occasions of global movements against racism and police abuse of power. 

I also see that I am part of a privileged group of people who are educated, sticking to the guns of science and truth, and who have developed strong tools for not allowing irrational fear taking over. I am privileged through my global and longstanding experiences, and the knowledge how to carefully assess, and to contribute to complex situations. Many people do not enjoy these privileges, but they share the same fears, the same anger, the same resentment, and they crave to control the situation by being able to give meaning to what is happening.

This summer is presenting challenges for my fighting hard to separate my personal disappointments, fears and pain from my assessments on larger issues, like the pandemic, like global anxiety, or economic depression, like the global rise of authoritarians. Emotions can amplify each other: When pain, fear of the unknown, and the feeling of having no control hit, the result is more fear, and helplessness. The result is more anger and more anger fuels more resentment. Like everyone else, I want to make this unpleasant feeling go away.

When it comes to how emotions drive people, I use my personal example by saying that this is a summer when I found it increasingly challenging to turn anger into compassion. My personal experience helps me to understand how other fellow human beings struggle the same way during this summer: How hard it is to stay away from the ever more tempting wish to simplify things, to find explanations allowing for shifting the blame to others. How much the constant battle rhythm of indoctrination through lies, conspiracy theories, and manipulation establishes a fog meant to control people, by keeping them angry, and controlling the direction of their anger, and how to discharge it against an enemy being created by those who manipulate.

When someone defies the explosion of new cases in the U.S., rallying people for extremely divisive speech, some believe this is one of the last acts in this disgusting performance. But make no mistake, what is happening is cold-blooded calculation: It is about using the pent-up anger, locking people into a narrative that they are warriors for a higher cause, using the psychological effects of the Stockholm Syndrome in combination with the kick coming from openly defying social distancing and wearing masks, indulging into national pride and a false sense of freedom. National pride is being manipulated into nationalism, fascism is established by blaming the others for left-wing fascism. It is the oldest trick in history: Do something openly and claim that it is the other side doing it. Keep people in your walled garden (which is a mental prison) and shut down all channels of alternative explanations of the reality for them. One of the most cruel things, aside of open racism is the weaponization of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are those who let down their guards by believing this will be over soon. History shows the power of victimization, combined with a relentless narrative based on lies and manipulation. Even in a best-case-scenario this won’t be over for a decade to come.

In this war, real people are dying already. And from all predictive modeling and experience with what happens when social distancing is abolished, there will be thousands more. Having contracted the Covid-19-virus, they will deny themselves the acknowledgement that they got it because the pied piper called on them.

I will remember the summer of 2020 as that summer when I, a pacifist and idealist hoping for change to the better, for the first time ever in my long life accepted that resisting the global nomenclatura of greed and unbounded selfishness may require to accept that standing up for this fight includes being prepared for that the nomenclatura fights back and that retreat is not an option, at great personal cost. And that we may have to accept tears and sorrow.