Clickbait: the Copernicus Law, the Boots of Truth, and Malignant Memanomas
Hang onto your hats, dear readers, because this is a long one. I started this essay almost a year ago, got bogged down, started again, stopped again... got discouraged, is anyone even interested, etc. Then I read a very convergent piece by Nicky Woolf … and that inspired me to quit tweaking and just get the darned thing out there. Because clearly, we are thinking along similar lines. And imnsho this is a conversation we (all of us) need to have, right now. So I raise my glass to Nicky, and propose a name for the phenomenon we are both trying to describe and wrestle with: malignant memanomas.
This essay is a work in progress. But so is our culture, always. So maybe that’s OK.
- Does Bad Information Drive Out Good?
“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
— C. H. Spurgeon, Gems from Spurgeon (1859).
The Copernicus Law, also known as Gresham’s Law, is pithily summarised as “bad money drives out good.” This adage has nothing to do with the morality of the money in question, but with debased vs intact coin of the realm. What many astute observers have noticed is that if both debased and intact coinage (of precious metal, like silver and gold) are in circulation, the intact coinage (being of higher real value) tends to get withdrawn and hoarded, while the debased coinage expands its presence over time until the entire currency is debased.
My subject is not currency, but information. So I take Gresham’s Law as an interesting metaphor (rather than a close analogy) for some unfortunately persistent dynamics of human communities and information exchange. Bad information does seem to drive out good; that is, lies, disinformation, gossip, scandal, libel, sensationalism, etc. tend to spread more rapidly and get more attention than solid, attested factual information. Hence the quote by Spurgeon, above. (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, and various other authors… becoming an ironic and self-referential example of the curious appeal and persistence of dis/misinformation. It more or less originates with Jonathan Swift, but the real story — like most real stories — is complicated and involves, of course, the passage of a catchy meme through time and space.)
Among thinking persons of various political persuasions today — though admittedly more strongly among the “slightly left of self-centred” because progressivism appears to be on the ropes as of this writing — there is a general sense of alarm at the advent of what has been called the “post-truth era.” A quick survey of scientific, scholarly, and political magazines and journals will find a growing concern (it is more than just academic interest) in the related phenomena of anti-intellectualism, conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” an anti-science backlash, etc. Many fear that the grand project of the Enlightenment has failed, is being rolled back. And given all the tangible advances delivered by that project, it can be hard to understand why anyone would want to roll it back.
On the face of it, a human preference for disinformation does seem counter-intuitive — even nonsensical. Surely the survival of human communities has always been dependent on the accurate sharing of information; if someone in your village tells you that the well water tastes odd today, or that a tiger has been seen in the vicinity, it makes more sense to believe and accurately pass on that eyewitness information than to ignore it or replace it with Wishful Thinking (the well is full of delicious wine today! a holy man in orange robes is approaching the village to confer blessings on us!) or Panicky Exaggeration (the well water is cursed and will kill you instantly if you touch it! dozens of tigers have the village surrounded and have already eaten six children!). And yet that is often exactly what human communities do; staunch denial, ditzy optimism, and disproportionate panic are quite common reactions to new information.
You would think that human groups who showed a strong preference for disinformation would have been out-evolved by those who preferred facts and substantiated reports. But nothing is that simple, and there are many influences at play here. Let’s consider just a few.
2. What Makes Information Tasty
“The Universe is made up of stories, not atoms.”
— Muriel Reykeser
We inherit a lot of brain wiring from our deep family tree, much of it precognitive or subconscious. Every new revelation from contemporary neuroscientists seems to cast more and more doubt on our vaunted status as “rational” creatures. Much of our brain activity occurs before, between, or below the cognitive process we consciously recognize as “thinking.” So our responses to information (whether new or familiar) are weighted by much more than sober considerations like “is it true” or “is it important”.
We are attracted by novelty and difference. We are hard-wired to pay attention, immediately, to whatever is surprising or different. Therefore, stories that contain unusual, unexpected, colourful, bizarre or grotesque events get our attention more immediately than boring stories about business as usual. Our attention is also attracted by rule-breaking, for similar reasons: a story about our neighbour cheating on her husband is far more interesting (being transgressive) than some tedious description of how many weeds our other neighbour dug out of her garden patch this morning. Rules and conventions are the glue of human communities, so stories about rule-breaking have always been what we now would call click-bait. The outre, the scandalous, the ribald, is more likely to be relished and repeated to others.
We are attracted to narratives that are simple, by contrast with the messy complexity of reality. Although e.g. conspiracy theories often seem byzantine and complicated, they are actually far less complicated than the real workings of power in a hyperconnected world. Although far more was involved in the run-up to WWI than the shooting of an Archduke, the story of an assassin at Sarajevo is a convenient shorthand and far easier to comprehend. So it sticks with us. Our brains vary, from individual to individual, in how much ambiguity we will tolerate; but all of us regardless of our intellectual sophistication must, every day, filter the overwhelming sensory input from the real world and simplify it into a coherent narrative, or we could not function.
Combining these first two attractions, we can at least partially explain the longevity of The National Enquirer.
We are attracted to patterns. Pattern recognition is a very strong function in the average brain, and false pattern recognition is an inevitable consequence. We are attracted to narratives that find patterns in the complex chaos of daily life; patterns and generalizations help us to navigate the chaos, and they are inherently appealing. The converse is also true: we really don’t like randomness. Our instinct is to find some pattern even in random data. False pattern recognition is well attested (Rorschach tests, for a start); thinkers attempting to impose some intellectual rigour on themselves and others have come up with a number of adages and guidelines to help us resist the temptation, such as “post hoc non est propter hoc” (just because B follows A, don’t assume that A caused B, or “correlation is not causation”) and “never attribute to malice what can be explained by simple incompetence”. Our hypertrophied pattern recognition skills render narratives dangerously tasty when they claim to reveal a pattern (often a sinister pattern, or a Grand Pattern) in events. Hence the enduring appeal of conspiracy theories, cosmogonies, myths, legends, scapegoating, etc.
We are attracted to hard category boundaries (aka the taxonomic urge) — “there are just two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are just two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” — and also to small integers. The durable appeal of headlines like “6 types of people to watch out for” illustrates the attraction, as do famous short lists like the Seven Deadly Sins or the Ten Commandments. So, unfortunately, do tidy racial and ethnic classification systems (blankes/nieblankes, quadroon, octoroon, etc). A lot of ideological rigidity has to do with fierce defence of taxonomic boundaries. A case in point is the anger stirred up among ultra-conservatives by any ambiguity in the gender binary. The peas and the mashed potatoes simply must not be allowed to mix — for some people, anyway.
But perhaps most alarmingly, we are attracted to stories that have explanatory, justificatory, or consolatory power. if a faithless partner comes up with a darn good yarn that explains his absence last weekend — even if it doesn’t jibe well with the previous yarns that explained his absence on previous occasions — we are all too often ready to put aside our doubts and accept the story that keeps our illusions (and our relationship) intact. Third parties (family members, divorce lawyer) easily see through the excuses and lies; but someone who is emotionally invested in maintaining the status quo finds them convincing. His narrative explains away unease, anxiety, profound emotional pain. It is consolatory and justificatory (it justifies our inertia and inaction, postpones the necessity of confrontation).
Given a choice between
(a) a story that tells us that the land we are living on was invaded and conquered by our ancestors by brute force, with much violence and cruelty and injustice inflicted on the original inhabitants, or
(b) a story that tells us that the land we are living on was destined for us since Creation, given to us by God because we are so very special to Him (and no one else has any right to it at all)
we naturally prefer Option B. Who wouldn’t? Some historians have noted that racist and dehumanizing narratives about First Nations in North America did not become prevalent until after conquest was well under way. At first, First Nations were treated as peers, as autonomous nations with sovereigns and rightful borders, meriting respectful, formal diplomatic overtures and trade agreements. It was only after the Anglos began to see the relative military weakness of their new trading partners (and after mass die-off from introduced European diseases weakened those nations even further) that narratives about the inferiority and savagery of the “Indians” really took a hold. By that point, such narratives were justificatory and consolatory. They eased the consciences of those who were doing the conquering. See also mission civilisatrice. And Manifest Destiny.
Similarly, if the reigning elite of our country tell us that our poverty and precarity are not actually due to their incompetence or malfeasance, but to the evil influence of foreigners and immigrants — well, it’s much more comfortable to believe that our leaders are honest and capable than to doubt them, and to express our hostility horizontally or downward (especially if we can combine it with xenophobia and other deep-seated prejudices that play well together). Expressing our hostility upward would not only be disillusioning, but potentially dangerous. Intellectual laziness and personal cowardice both encourage us to accept their narrative.
Once having adopted a narrative (or several), often more due to their emotional rewards than their verifiability, we are attracted to information which supports those narratives and repelled by information which undermines them. When we run across information that seems to substantiate existing beliefs, we get a nice little hit of endorphins and reassurance. When we run across information that challenges our beliefs, we tend to respond to it in much the same way as a territorial challenge or threat — that is, with alarm, anxiety, anger, and a desire to shove it away somehow.
In science, we often refer to this appetite for reassuring information as “confirmation bias” — the intellectual laziness that tempts even sincere empiricists to pay more attention to data which bolster our pet theories than to data which challenge or refute them. In news reporting and in research we call it “cherry picking” — selectively highlighting and overemphasising some facts, to support a narrative which is challenged by a broader or more inclusive picture. (I feel compelled to note here that unconscious intellectual laziness blends seamlessly into deliberate manipulation: strategic lies of omission can be as dishonest in intent as outright fabrications.) Essentially, we are all confirming our biases and picking our cherries, all the time. It takes a strong conscious effort (and that is easier said than done) to approach information mindfully.
Aside from the tangle of our individual emotional needs and phobias, there are certain Ur-narratives that seem to have particular resonance for humans generally, and we tend to be attracted to variations on them. They often incorporate several of the attractions listed above. We find such narratives recurring in many cultures, over many historical periods. One such story is about xenophobia and disease; we have deeply rooted cautions about strangers and contamination, and we express them in stories. A repeating motif in human myth-making is the conviction that disease comes from foreigners; a classic and amusing example is the nomenclature for syphilis, which at one time was called “The French Disease” in England, and “The Spanish Pox” in France; Russians called it the “Polish Disease” and Persians called it “Turkish”. This popular story easily morphs into a belief that foreigners themselves are like a disease in the body politic, that national health is best achieved by expelling all that is foreign. Evil, like disease, is often ascribed to the foreign or the different among us. “Purity” and “purification” (and its opposite, contamination or Taint) are narratives of deceptive simplicity with enduring appeal (and recurring, appalling costs). Purity narratives range from the obvious racialist dogmata to a belief, say, that eating only a very specific kind of food will protect a person from all diseases. (Note the various “tasty” factors in each: simplicity, pattern, taxonomic imperative, consolatory narrative, etc).
I offer the above as a far from exhaustive, yet suggestive, list of reasons why a counter-factual story might often be more attractive than a factual one, might sweep through a community like a virus; why urban legends have such long lifetimes; why Snopes and other debunksters are kept so busy; why it may not be so mysterious that humans show a consistent preference for a good story over the messy and often boring truth, still struggling with her bootlaces.
3. The Internet: Village Gossip on Steroids (and Crack)
The Internet connects millions of curious, gossipy people near-instantaneously; it enriches, complicates, distorts, and mutates our information ecosystem by its speed, its scale, and its anonymity. The Internet-connected world is functionally a village in which gossip reaches more people faster than it ever has in our long history. Our preferences for the the novel, the bizarre, the consolatory, the explanatory, the simple, and the bias-confirming are all reflected in the patterns of Internet memes “going viral”.
Aside from sheer speed and reach, another potentially troubling feature is anonymity. Anonymity is in many cases a major benefit of the technology (protecting the identity of whistleblowers, concealing bigot-bait attributes like gender and nationality, etc), but it also presents a serious threat to the health of the information ecosystem.
In a village or other small community, the emergence of a “poison pen” is very bad news: this is a person who leaves or sends anonymous, scurrilous, abusive, insulting, threatening, often obscene notes or letters to others. A poison pen outbreak can destabilise the social life of an entire village by betraying confidences, sowing disinformation to cause trouble, intimidating those with fragile egos, enraging those with robust egos, and (due to anonymity) creating an atmosphere of general and mutual suspicion. Until the perpetrator is identified and exposed, the life of the community is disrupted and abraded.
The Internet of our time often resembles a massive poison pen outbreak. Consistent and repeated reports of online abuse add up to a relentless daily torrent of insult, harassment and intimidation (even death threats) directed at various people targeted for their gender, their sexual identity, their opinions, their race, etc. Usually the person targeted is identifiable, i.e. does not enjoy anonymity, but the harassment comes from anonymised sources. This anonymity also encourages overstatement, sloppy research, outright lying, etc, because the individual is protected from the social consequences of his or her speech.
Anonymity makes it very difficult to assess the trustworthiness of sources, and encourages nastiness and untruthfulness. But even more disruptive is mass artificial persona construction (i.e. troll farming). For those who have not yet encountered this novel form of fraud, a troll farm is a facility (distributed or co-located) that coordinates the efforts of multiple computer-literate individuals to create bogus identities on various social media. Having created, say, several thousand bogus accounts, the troll farm proceeds to use those accounts, en masse, to seed gossip (disinformation) and to upvote and downvote threads created by real people. Facebook and Twitter are notable recent targets.
The technique works as well as it does to sway public opinion because of a once-valid, now outdated psychological trait of humans: evolving as a social and communicating animal, we evaluate information at least partly by head count. This is sometimes called “social proof”. If one person out of our village tells us that the river is rising, then perhaps that person is just the village alarmist and we don’t get too worried. But if in the course of the day we are told directly by several people that the river is rising, and overhear yet more conversations in which people are expressing their concern about flooding of their fields, we become convinced that it is really happening. In the case of the local river, we also have the option to take a hike over there and look for ourselves; but generally we can take our neighbours’ word for it. And the more neighbours we hear agreeing about this, the more likely we are to take their word for it. It makes perfect sense.
Consider the age-old prank (or experiment) of standing on a street corner looking fixedly upwards at a particular point in space. It is very hard for any passerby not to cast at least a quick glance in the same direction; and if a group of pranksters (or experimenters) all stand there staring at the same point in space, they are very likely to collect a large crowd. The crowd inevitably grows; as its size increases, so does the gravitational attraction of the point of interest. When we see other people paying attention to something, in numbers, we tend to pay attention also. This has significant implications in the internet world of up and down ratings, hit counters, etc.
If our fellow villagers are real people who share some cultural context with us, expressing their genuine thoughts and feelings, this method of sampling for credibility serves us pretty well. But the Internet changes the playing field. We have limited capability to verify the actual facts (we can’t just hike over to the river and have a look for ourselves); we have no idea who we’re talking or listening to because “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog”; the author of the text we are reading may not even be a real person (it could be a bot); and the actions of masses of pseudo-people may be coordinated from a central location with a specific agenda in mind. In other words, the trollfarmer may fool our primate brain into thinking that a story is true, or that a strong consensus exists or does not exist, simply by spamming the social media we habitually use.
The Internet, therefore, presents an environment where trust may be more easily manipulated than in real life, and where disinformation (malicious gossip) has opportunities to flourish in new ways. A spicy, tasty new meme that lies through its teeth may very well fly all the way around the world in less than 24 hours — while poor old Truth has not even dug her boots out from under the bed. And liars disseminating bogus memes may easily avoid the traditional social consequences of lying: being found out, and losing reputation as a result.
People have lied and got away with it, of course, throughout human history. Most of human history seems to be founded on lies and credulity. But the Internet presents new and improved opportunities for lying — turbocharged lying, as we might say — and turbocharged credulity to go with it.
4. More than a virus: Malignant Memanomas
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.
No one could credibly claim that all viral memes are by definition bad. The viral spread of cute pictures of cats seems fairly harmless. Even if the cute picture of a cat has been Photoshopped (i.e. faked, pulling it into the realm of disinformation and fraud) it’s still pretty harmless… except perhaps to other cats whose owners may try to replicate some pose or activity that really should not be attempted with a living cat.
But other forms of gossip and disinformation are not harmless. Consider just a few historical cases: the Blood Libel, the European witch-hunting mania, the HUAC years, fantasies of racial superiority and inferiority, engineered events used to stir up popular support for war, lynch mobs… the history books are full of examples. So are the media. I don’t find the word “viral” (scary though that may sometimes be) adequate as a metaphor for these memes. So I invented memanoma, a word that invokes some of the frightening complexity of cancer: its unpredictability, its ability to lurk undetected and then flare up suddenly, to pop up again where one thought it had been eradicated, to strike at one person but not another, to be inherited in families.
History texts are chock-full of accounts of curious beliefs, legends, and manias that spread like wildfire through (e.g.) the illiterate peasantry of Europe. Often, the history is written in a dangerously complacent tone that assumes the quaintness and historical distance of such viral memes; since we now enjoy near-universal literacy and at least a basic level of free public education (the authors seem to say between the lines) such foolish fads and fancies can no longer affect us. We are safely in remission. Those poor peasants, isolated and ignorant, were easy marks for any bizarre story; but we modern people can read and write, and we have communications technology to keep us well-informed. We need not fear superstition, blind prejudice, legend-mongering and ignorance.
This seems to me a dangerous and unwarranted assumption. Despite every advance in communications and information technology, despite the Internet, despite universal literacy (which is not what it used to be, if we compare middle-school textbooks from a century ago with those of today), despite all the intellectual toolkit of modernity and the Enlightenment, a quick survey of popular web sites suggests that we are still a village of gossiping, credulous, and intellectually dishonest peasants. How can this be?
One issue often emphasized in accounts of pre-Enlightenment fads and fancies is the isolation of rural communities and the parochialism and ignorance that result from isolation. The Internet, offering a staggering wealth of reliable information at our fingertips and newsfeeds from every part of the planet, seems like the perfect antidote — even better than letter post, radio, or TV.
But on the Internet, we can easily and effectively sequester ourselves into voluntary isolation. We can suffer from self-induced parochialism by reading only opinions harmonious with our own, choosing to live in an echo chamber. This in turn feeds that “social proof” reflex, making our opinions seem more and more unquestionable and right; and alas, it blows away all Utopian assumptions about free access to information necessarily broadening one’s mind. It only broadens your mind if you actually pay any attention to it. The Internet enables us to wallow in confirmation bias and hand-picked cherries, aided by search engines which adaptively tailor our search results and click-throughs to conform to our “information preferences.”
The Internet, then, has the potential to expose people to a wide variety of information, to enable them to do their own research, fact-check information, and benefit from the diligent fact-checking of others. But it also offers the opportunity for self-induced isolation as profound as any mediaeval peasant’s, echo-chamber building, illusions of consensus: ideal conditions for malignant memanomas.
The Internet also extends enormously the “shouting distance” of cranks. If in my village there is a cranky old fellow who’s convinced that (let’s say) Hitler had the right idea and the Gypsies who camp down by the river should be shot — well, he’s a crank. A lone crank. When he starts ranting in the pub, people turn away with a sigh. The local copper keeps an eye on him. It’s clear to him that he’s alone in his opinion. But on the Internet, our crank has a potential audience of billions; and he will probably find an online community of at least a few thousand who agree with him, giving him the illusion of a consensus (social proof) and reinforcing his hateful belief. There are people with “popular” (more on that next) YouTube channels who, frankly, in my youth would have been wandering around bus stations or standing on a box at Hyde Park Corner, haranguing random passers-by.
Just how popular is popular, in this new and strange village? Because the human brain is not well adapted to very large numbers — recall that Dunbar’s number is only about 150 — we can be fooled into thinking that a hit rate or upvote rate in the tens of thousands is large, or that a discussion forum of a few hundred members is “the public.” There are over seven billion of us on this planet, and the odds are that the vast majority of us disagree with me on most issues; but if I get just a few positive comments and upvotes on an essay I’ve written, I get a cosy confirming feeling that my village approves and agrees. I mention this because getting that warm confirming feeling for opinions that are hateful, or tend towards violence and murder, can be dangerous. When I see that some crazy ranter has 10,000 followers and over half a million hits, I feel a bit of a chill, even a tendency to despair or panic; but those who enjoy his hate speech feel warm confirming fuzzies. We all need to preserve and improve our sense of scale.
In summary: the Internet offers new ways for propagandists to hack our hearts and minds. Paradoxically, it permits us to isolate ourselves into small communities of sectarian extremists, while simultaneously offering the illusion and reinforcement of social proof. Its impact is amplified by clever psycho-engineering (as practised by Facebook) for maximum “attention addiction”.
We shouldn’t be all that surprised: most communication technology is (inevitably?) a two-edged sword. To pull just two examples out of History’s hat: the printing press, and mag tape recording. No one could deny that the printing press was a revolutionary advance and a Good Thing, on the whole, in the long view. But one of the earliest books printed in any numbers in Europe (right after the Bible) was the Malleus Maleficarum, or witch-hunters’ handbook; it ran to 30 editions. Gutenberg’s invention enabled and encouraged the torture and murder of tens of thousands of European women (and some men too). Mag tape recording technology and all its offshoots have brought music into the daily lives of billions, made it possible to preserve living arts and oral histories for future generations to enjoy, and other great stuff. On the other hand, the technology was first invented during the Third Reich, to support unmanned, continuous propaganda broadcasting.
We should never assume that any given technology is inherently benign; rather than being shocked-I-tell-you-shocked by the news that our beloved Internet can offer leverage to obscurantists and hate mongers, perhaps we should start thinking more about how the human brain works and what its vulnerabilities are than about the defence or critique of the technology itself.
5. I Want To Believe: Why Malignant Memanomas are resistant to challenge
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
— Upton Sinclair
It is notoriously difficult to sway deeply held beliefs. A recent book on the subject, The Unpersuadables, offers an entertaining variety of anecdotes about encounters with people deeply attached to various “alternative facts” — such as Holocaust deniers, true believers in UFOs, etc. The author meditates frankly on the troubling nature of belief, on how we decide that we know what we think we know. The takeaway message is familiar by now: while we may try to apply reason to the process of understanding the world, our emotions are deeply entangled with our beliefs; beliefs offer rewards far beyond a simple understanding of facts, or predictive capacity, or physical survival value.
Consider the enduring popularity of classic hate speech, and the narratives that justify it. So many of these narratives seem to follow a similar pattern:
- We (me and my in-group) are virtuous and superior;
we are entitled to and deserving of XYZ;
- the reason We don’t have XYZ is betrayal/infiltration/conspiracy on the part of Those People (fill in the Other Du Jour);
- Those People are vile underhanded diseased dangerous criminals/traitors/invaders;
- something should be done about Them so that We can flourish as We deserve;
- it’s OK to hate and even to harm Them.
- We (me and my in-group) already have and deserve and are entitled to XYZ (various privileges and benefits denied to others of more lowly caste/class/gender/race);
- obviously those who do not enjoy XYZ themselves are envious of Us;
- envying us, They are conspiring to commit theft and/or violence to steal Our rightful privileges/property/wealth;
- therefore We are in grave danger and must defend ourselves from Their criminal intentions;
- it’s OK to hate and even to harm Them.
Some people manage to believe both of these at once, or at least in rapid alternation. The reward? The sense of being entitled and deserving, the sense of being on the Right Side, the sense of superiority to a despised Other. And more.
Both of these narratives I would describe as classic malignant memanomas. They are childishly simple (a basic story of good guys and bad guys). They are justificatory (I am fully entitled to all my privileges) and/or consolatory (if I am lacking in same, it’s all someone else’s fault and not due to any error or failure of my own). They lend a veneer of righteousness to the lazy habits of bigotry, incuriosity and reflexive hatred, allowing vice/weakness to appear as virtue/strength. They are grandiose: they provide a dramatic narrative that raises the individual’s self-pity or anxiety above the ordinary messiness of everyday life to the level of heroic mythology (the true believer becomes a warrior in a grand conflict of Good and Evil). Deconstructed, they seem (to my ear anyway) as flimsy and pathetic as a little boy’s excuses for cookies missing from the kitchen jar.
But what renders them truly malignant is not that they are self-serving, counterfactual, or foolish. It’s that last line that really qualifies them: the tendency to encourage faction and hatred and to justify violence. Even people who self-describe as Christians can, by belief in narratives of this kind, justify an habitual state of hatred and enmity quite contrary to the message of the Gospels. Of the two narratives, the one that short-circuits morality, shirks self-examination, and plays upon the selfish aspects of human nature tends to win… as bad information drives out good. Strangely, no one’s head explodes. Self-righteousness and hatred are easy, dramatic, ego-pleasing, and exciting; the hard work of intellectual honesty and moral self-criticism is by comparison dull, tedious, and unrewarding. And we are very good at tolerating cognitive dissonance.
Bobby McFerrin once remarked that what we put into our heads via our ears and eyes is just as important as what we put into our stomachs via our mouths: it can make us strong and healthy, or sickly and weak. Memes that appeal to and encourage the worst in human nature are my definition of malignant memanomas; their effect (whether accidental or engineered) is corrosive to the social fabric and to the conscience and social functionality of the individual who ingests them. We can call these memes by various names: we can call them “dehumanizing,” “Othering,” “bigotry,” and a stack of other labels. We can call them all kinds of “isms” and “phobias.” But the bottom line is that they promote and justify contempt, cruelty, and/or violence.
Another bottom line is that there will always be people among us who for whatever reasons (low self esteem, genetic variation in brain structures, early childhood traumas, who knows?) are predisposed to build up their own egos by insulting or injuring other people. Malice and anger we have always with us, though there are many ways to minimize its incidence. There’s a lot of truth to the modern adage that “Haters gonna hate.” Because that’s what haters do; some people almost seem to be looking for someone to project their anger and resentment onto, looking for a narrative that explains and justifies their own rage. The existence of people with this predisposition — which being a modern, I tend to classify as a borderline mental illness rather than as demonic possession or original sin — underscores the danger of spreading malignant memanomas around our world. Some people are more susceptible to them than others; telling terrifying stories to frightened children is irresponsible, and so is pouring flaming petrol (rather than oil) on troubled waters.
So it seems to me that the deliberate seeding of counterfactual and hateful beliefs into online communities (and other media) is analogous to the degradation of the food supply: that there is such a thing as “junk information,” like “junk food.” They have much in common: some people are more vulnerable to their appeal than others; they rely on superficial and exaggerated flavours masking a toxic or at least nutritionally worthless product; disseminated with sufficient enthusiasm, they can undermine the health of an entire body politic.
[All metaphors are capsule narratives, of course. I myself am telling a vivid and simplified story when I refer to the spread of memes as potentially cancerous (a disease metaphor), or as similar to junk food. The whole art of rhetoric and argument is, at heart, story-telling. My intent is, I hope, explanatory and connective rather than consolatory or vindictive. And I’m conscious (as are you, my intended reader) that these are metaphors, and not intended to be taken as fact: that there is an important distinction between parable and reality.]
6. What Is To Be Done? Or: can we help Truth on with those Boots?
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.
— Robert Susskind, 2004, NYT Magazine
The problem is undeniably tricky. I find myself navigating warily between my well-justified fear of a centralised authority permitting only one official narrative, and my equally well-justified fear of a poison-pen world where a flood of disinformation and manipulation may further fracture the body politic, promote civil and other wars, and undermine the value of the Internet itself. The recent disgrace of Facebook seems both instructive and worrying. The rise of rightwing ultranationalist and racist factions both in North America and Europe is also worrying, if not instructive. Along with many others I have believed or hoped that Internet connectivity might inoculate our species against a dreary replay of past atrocities. Now I ask myself whether it may actually be increasing the odds of a replay by turbocharging village gossip and putting unprecedented psy-ops tools into the hands of disturbed persons, monied influence, and enthroned power.
The only suggestions I can offer at present are (1) the “Ebay model” of reputation service, and (2) the “FDA model” of labelling, i.e. full disclosure.
Ebay relies on real user authentication: login accounts must be tied to a real user with a real bank account, credit card, etc. The financial sector takes identity theft seriously and hence makes a fairly good “gold standard” of identity verification. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Although I acknowledge again that Internet anonymity has been useful in protecting marginalised speech, I now fear that its costs are starting to outweigh its benefits. An online persona’s real identity need not be revealed to other online users (thus preserving apparent anonymity and flying under the radar of bigotry) but someone (the site maintainer) must take the responsibility for attaching that online persona confirmably to a real living person. When I write you a cheque, you don’t need to see my ID; but my bank has to have seen my ID, so that they can vouch for my existence as a real person. I believe — with some trepidation — that it is time for rigorous authentication of “real person” status for internet users. This has all kinds of implications, some of them a little troubling; but without it we remain forever in a village full of masked vandals and poison-pen letters, where intimidation and harassment flourish without penalty.
Ebay relies on evaluations and ratings from users, i.e. reputation. The “reputation server” aspect of Ebay is powerful in concept and works fairly well in practise. It is reputation that moderates most people’s behaviour in a village, and I suspect that we need a mechanism to carry that concept of reputation into the over-excited global village of the Internet. Bad behaviour needs to be ascribed to a real person, and that real person’s reputation needs to fall (in the consensus view) as a result, to close the loop of social feedback.
The next step is the FDA moment: meme labelling.
I would suggest that fora, social media, news outlets etc. could potentially subscribe to an independent reputation service that calculates a trust index for posts, articles, and comments. This reputation score would be founded on identity authentication: anonymous accounts would automatically have a negative trust score, just as most newspaper editors will not publish anonymous letters. Reputation scores would be diminished or enhanced via fact checking by crowd-sourced research sites such as Wikipedia, and links would automatically be appended to the post informing the reader (for example) that the “Wikisphere” finds this text controversial, or that this meme has been widely refuted by debunkers of good reputation, that this text is banned as hate speech in some number of countries, that this text is rated as reasonably accurate, etc.
The reputation score could also contain a public opinion element: surely the Cambridge Analytica team are capable of figuring out, in an unbiased way, approximately what percentage of internet posters agree or disagree with a given opinion or position! After all, Amazon is always telling me what percentage of people who looked at item A actually bought item B instead. It seems not unreasonable to me for some smaller print at the bottom of an opinion piece to say “as of [date], 70 percent of internet readers disagree with this opinion and 30 accept it.” Whether I personally then decide to support the “underdog” or to go with the consensus is my own decision; but at least I will not be fooled into thinking that the opinion represents a strong online consensus if it does not.
Another important “product labelling” goal would be full disclosure of funding, i.e. following the money. Although it’s possible to do this for oneself, it takes time and effort. My feeling is that web sites should be required to provide a standard page which reveals their ultimate funding source (tracing the ownership chain all the way to the top), and that failing to provide this page, or being caught falsifying information on this page, should result in an automatic negative reputation score.
Why is this important? Well, here’s a simple narrative involving small integers :-) Suppose that I am looking up, for example, “climate change.” Say that I encounter 16 different web sites, all expensively produced and fairly well written, quite respectable looking and convincing, all assuring me that anthropogenic climate change is a highly debatable theory on which there is no real consensus, or perhaps even a propaganda campaign by subversive forces. If each of those web sites is compelled (to protect its reputation score) to reveal its funding sources; if a quick look reveals to me that despite all their various names and typefaces, they are all ultimately funded by the Koch brothers (who are heavily invested in the fossil fuel sector); then I might be less inclined to think that there is a broad and varied body of opinion on the subject, and more likely to think that someone was propagandising heavily to protect their quarterly returns. Suppose I discover a smaller number of less spiffy web sites warning me that climate change is anthropogenic and an urgent issue, and I find that their funding comes from government or from crowd-funding or NGOs; then I might conclude that the reason for their smaller numbers might be a relative scarcity of funding, rather than a relative weakness of argument. This is a simplified narrative of course, but I’m sure you get the point.
It can be hard to ID the fingerprints of the invisible hand of capital, but surely we have the tools in these days of bitcoin and blockchain, to eliminate the very concept of obfuscated transactions. We just have to want to.
Newspapers are required to reveal, in a standard location in each issue, the names of their staff and board and owners. Most of us don’t even bother reading that fine print; but that fine print is an attempt to give us some warning of the biases we may encounter in their coverage. The Internet has at present no such requirement. We are living in a vast grocery store full of completely unlabelled food; we have no idea what we’re eating; it might be finest-quality French cave-aged raw-milk Gruyere, or bar soap.
An instinctive response to my proposals (even for me) is alarm. What power would reside in the hands that assign the trust ratings! What agency, I ask myself, would I trust to provide a “Dun & Bradstreet Information Rating” for Internet memes? Quis custodet ipsos custodes? And my only answer is “Us.” The only way to ensure transparency and honesty in such a scheme would be to make the reputation server software open source, to rely on open source hash algorithms to verify the integrity of its data, and to make the whole effort an open-source project such as GitHub, GNU, Wikipedia and other projects. I can see no other way to protect the reputation server and rating system itself from being co-opted either by commercial interests or national governments. If any formal agency were to have custody of it, the UN would be the only candidate; but I doubt that any large bureaucratic institution, no matter how good its intentions, would have the nimbleness and technical savvy needed to succeed.
Afterword: How Can the Leopard Change His Shorts?
The worst are full of passionate intensity; the best lack all conviction.
— W. H Auden
The spate of recent literature on motivated reasoning and denialism (perhaps the shocked response of a science community faced with scorn and indifference rather than the near-worship it enjoyed for many decades) seems rather depressing, almost fatalistic in tone: people’s beliefs are seldom rational or accessible to reason; we are very resistant to having our minds changed; in fact we often respond to an attempt to challenge our beliefs by hardening them still further (this is known as the “backfire effect”). The resurgence of “old fashioned” ugliness — racist, sexist, homophobic, nationalist, classist, fanatic — based on beliefs we thought had long been debunked, is also discouraging. If you thought America had got over its racism by the turn of the new century then you were probably (a) Anglo and (b) not paying attention, but even a fairly observant realist could experience a shudder of disappointment at seeing horrible old memanomas coming back to life, when we thought that they had been at least shrunk considerably if not removed. The awful word “recurrence” is whispered by the bedside.
Slogans demonizing Gypsies and Jews are on billboards in Hungary. Millions of Americans not only don’t believe in the theory of evolution, they don’t want their children exposed to it and are determined that Bible literalism should be taught in school. An overt racist and misogynist is occupying the White House. White-power groups are attracting adherents. Anti-immigrant hysteria is being whipped up wherever you care to look. Thirty percent of Canadians don’t think climate change has anything to do with human activity. A substantial chunk of the right-wing chatterati assert that school shootings are faked. Everywhere the forces of hatred, ignorance, wilful denial and obscurantism seem to be on the rise… again. It appears that those of us with a “justice agenda” (or even a “reality agenda”) didn’t succeed nearly as well as we thought in winning hearts and minds over the last century.
There will always be cranks and contrarians; those who insist that Bacon was the real Shakespeare, or that the earth is really flat, may puzzle or amuse or irritate us, but are not scary. Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) the crank even turns out to be right and the consensus of the time erroneous — wonderful, glorious moments! I try to keep my mind somewhat open, recognizing that anyone can be wrong (including me) and that our world would be a poorer, more boring place without its eccentrics. We need our non-conformists. We need our challengers of the official story. But those who stir up hatred and fear by promoting malignant melanomas do scare me: we have ample historical evidence of the kinds of crime and suffering that can result from pernicious beliefs.
In this “post truth” era where people seem to feel free to pick and choose their “alternative facts” — how can we even have a discussion? It is difficult to debate a question about the behaviour of double star systems if your opponent insists that the stars are just holes in a black velvet curtain, allowing the light of Heaven to shine through. If you have no base assumptions in common, argument is almost impossible. That, unfortunately, is becoming the case with the body politic: political faction is turning into religious belief, partisanship is turning into sectarianism. My own feeling is that a majority of the counterfactual memes, urban legends, etc. are being generated by what we might loosely call “the right”: by the ultra-wealthy, by corporate spin doctors, by revanchists and haters. But it’s possible that some things I myself believe were fed to me by untrustworthy sources; we all know how it feels to be surprised and embarrassed when a long-held belief is suddenly debunked, or the latest outrage we’re spluttering over turns out to be a satire by The Onion.
As an empiricist, as a moderate fan of the Enlightenment, as a fan of moderation itself, I try to preserve a shred of doubt. There are certain facts I accept without question: that objects released in Earth’s gravitational field fall at 32 feet per second per second; that the bubbles in boiling water are expanding gasses and not little fairies; that mixing bleach and ammonia is not a good idea; that water doesn’t flow uphill; that, in short, a reasonably large core of the findings of experimental science over the last 500 years or so are well-tried, and safe to believe. I expect a lead-acid battery to behave in a certain way, and it does. But on most questions of society and politics, though my beliefs may be quite strong, I am always aware of the nagging possibility that the ragged pyramid of research, reading, discussion, half-remembered statistics and unattributed quotations on which I built those beliefs may have flaws. That shred of doubt puts me at a great disadvantage in debate with a true believer, who has no doubts whatsoever.
How can we promote moderation itself and the willingness to doubt, given that they are so much less ego-gratifying than zealotry and arrogance? By what means are people’s minds changed, and (I worry about this) is it even possible to change a mind that has no willingness to doubt? If my fanaticism is complete, if the brain’s reflexive defence mechanisms against challenging information are operating at full power and efficiency, if all of my beliefs are tightly coupled with my identity and self-image in a single package… it seems that I am fully armoured against persuasion of all forms, whether factual or philosophical.
And yet it moves. Minds do change. People convert passionately to a religion or political stance, and then become disenchanted with it. People relinquish, unexpectedly, a lifelong prejudice. It does happen. I know that my own mind has changed on various topics — some of which had great “gut significance” to me at times — but I am not sure exactly how this happened. Sometimes a pivotal reading experience, a certain book, a persuasive author, caused me to re-evaluate a chunk of my belief system. Sometimes the opinion of a personal acquaintance for whom I had great respect would weigh heavily enough with me to provoke the same re-evaluation. I suggest that once our neuroscientists have stopped shaking their heads in wonder over our imperviousness to new information and our talent for denial, they should commence a far more useful and fascinating line of inquiry: how is it that hearts and minds are changed, against the odds? How is it that violent offenders repent, that alcoholics get sober, that fanatics become tolerant, that cult members defect, that social change happens?
I leave the question open: (how) can we recover from the “post truth” era?
We do need to recover. Any society that loses contact with reality will fail spectacularly, of that I have no doubt. We are confronted by various problems and predicaments which can’t be resolved by wishful thinking or making up “facts” as we go along. To tackle the diminishing EROEI of fossil fuel extraction, the collapse of ecosystems, the resurgence of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia, the destabilization of climate, the alarming multiplication of our species’ numbers, the ridiculous and terrifying number of WMD lying about in our world, the increasingly grotesque inequality that poisons our economy… all of these and much more require (in my opinion anyway) the ability to gather, present, analyze, consider facts, in order to make sensible and humane decisions. Fantasy, wishful thinking and myth-making will not serve when faced with real problems. They only postpone the day of reckoning (while our predicament intensifies).
It’s been said (possibly by Jared Diamond or Joseph Tainter) that when one of the great Meso-American civilizations contaminated its water sources with saline incursion due to over-irrigation, the response of the ruling elite was to build bigger and finer temples. In other words, resistant to the reality of the situation, they doubled down on their defining mythology. It’s been said that the Easter Islanders likewise intensified their symbolic and mythically meaningful activities (moai building) in response to ecological collapse. Whether these particular examples are historically true or not I’m not in a position to say with any authority; but they represent an all-too-familiar face of human nature, a familiar story. Intensifying business as usual is a common human response to a crisis: when in doubt, ignore all disturbing data and do what you know how to do even harder. Gamblers do it — as a species, we are gamblers — and that is one of several reasons why the house always wins.
We are in a crisis of information chaos, among other things. Many people are doubling down on their cherished mythologies in response, becoming increasingly fact-resistant. All I know how to do is to be empirical: gather facts, try to find a pattern in the data, draw conclusions, rinse, repeat — the OODA loop. Am I just as foolish as the Meso-American elite, doubling down on my own habitual strategy? Is the Enlightenment over? Has the “reality based community” already lost game, match and set? If so, what the heck happens next? What do you think? Where do we go from here?