Did you see “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix? It is a deeply revealing insight into how the “attention economy” works. My already significant skepticism about the nature of online communication was given a huge boost. In particular, I find the amplification of marginal perspectives through the “gaming” of algorithms by some pretty dark forces profoundly troubling.
One of the key figures behind the Netflix show is Tristan Harris who is a co-founder and President of the Centre for Humane Technology (humanetech.com) I checked them out the other evening and attended an event. Their mission is, “to drive a comprehensive shift toward humane technology that supports our well-being, democracy, and shared information environment”, which sounds good to me.
I should say that the reason I jumped over the activation barrier on a Friday evening is due to someone close to me sharing some anti-vax content, which I found totally horrifying for two reasons. Firstly, because it was transparently propogandist in its approach and, secondly, because it was, well, anti-vax which I don’t regard as an intellectually credible position.
The event started with a half hour interview/conversation with Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, who has authored “The Anti-Vax Playbook” f4d9b9_fddbfb2a0c05461cb4bdce2892f3cad0.pdf (filesusr.com) . He gathered his insights by attending a 3 day anti-vax conference, which he recorded and analysed. In so doing he discovered the patterns and methods commonly used to draw people in to the rhetoric.
A key finding was that anti-vax content is transparently propogandist in its approach, usually in broadcast only mode so that overt challenge is not possible, and often requires the viewer to connect to a main site so gaining lucrative visits, likes and shares. Ahmed was very clear about the financial motivation for the anti-vax agenda, "These are snake oil merchants".
I stayed for the virtual "meet up" afterwards. I was the only non-US citizen at the table and I ended up talking to; an exhausted maths teacher; a man who had spent his life at sea and had just walked the world for 3 years; a young man working at a tech start-up and a couple of other digital tech professionals. It was hard to stop talking once the group got to a manageable size!
My chief reflection so far, is that it would seem that some people had lost sight of the idea of trust in anything about which they do not have first-hand knowledge. For example, it is possible to say that 1 + 1 = 2, because you can follow the maths. It is not possible to accept that vaccines are the best way humans have to fight contagious disease, because anti-vaxers tell you they are not, and you have not read or understood the science, so who are you to judge? This loss of trust plus the effect of the "death scroll" of social media had left people not knowing which way was up.
As Imran Ahmed made clear in the early part of the evening, the key ingredient here is the sewing of doubt. Specifically, doubt based on a leap of faith. Once made, the void between fact and a fierce conviction is almost impossible to bridge.
A key feature of the approach he highlighted is drawing people in with shared narratives grounded in truth. This “works” the algorithm which equates attention with positive value to the individual (it was noted that people slow down to look at car crashes, but it does not make it a positive thing to do!). Commonly allusion to known events, such as the holocaust, is deliberately conflated with the subject at hand. Illusionary arguments are also deployed e.g. the vaccine contains pork so Muslims cannot take it, as is delusion e.g. "it", whatever it is, is all due to a murky conspiracy we cannot hope to penetrate.
Interestingly, in our discussion group, once we came up out of the weeds of confusion about the immediate issues related to social media (which can be summed up as, "I don't know what to believe") agreed that the big questions affected by the explosion of social media are the ones that really matter: What is education for? What matters in our society and what can we discard? In the end, we tore ourselves away having become, for that moment, a deeply connected group of strangers. I shall go again.