I feel like the internet is screaming. Never have I known such polarisation. The most innocuous statement from a leading politician, and those who love the speaker react like he or she has walked on water. Those who support the other side, react like Hitler has come amongst us.
There is no compromise; no one is prepared to consider there might be an alternative and equally legitimate point of view. Everyone thinks they are right, and those who disagree are either morons or evil.
Of course, when you sit down with people of different political persuasion, face to face, maybe over a coffee, it is not like that, not usually, anyway. A perfectly reasonable conversation and exchange of ideas is entirely possible.
There was a time when we used to joke that people changed personalities once they got behind the wheel of a car. Out of their car, but surrounded by other pedestrians, it's 'excuse me,' 'thank you," and 'oh, I am sorry.' Put them behind the wheel on a busy road, and it's 'f**k you f*****g a***hole.' The highway becomes a place where expletives run free, on both sides of the road, without a p or q in sight.
But the internet is now like that but worse. Any sense of decorum is like an anathema in Twitter wars.
And irony or jokes are no good — everything (or almost everything) is taken literally. (Exclamation marks have become necessary for a writer to demonstrate irony, or a joke. But they shouldn't be required. Chaucer didn't pepper his writing with exclamation marks. Neither did Shakespeare.)
But it is hardly surprising.
The internet puts groups of people together, and that creates groupthink, which is charged by the various heuristics that affect us all — confirmation bias, recency bias, you name the bias, the internet supports it.
It is not a new phenomenon. Groupthink probably exists for sound evolutionary reasons — cementing group cohesion which was no doubt once essential to our survival.
And we — and by we I mean you, your next-door neighbour, your favourite teacher when you were at school, and me, believe any old rubbish if that is the prevailing view of the group we exist in.
Sure you get the old rebel, but the rebellious views of a group's iconoclast, are still formed by that group. No one really goes against the opinions they were brought up to believe.
It matters, not our intelligence or level of education. Well educated geniuses can be the most biased of the lot, so convinced are they of the superiority of their thoughts and the degree of bias amongst any who disagree with them.
In this way, we learn to hold absurd beliefs. The ancient Greeks believed Athena was born fully armoured from the head of Zeus. Vikings thought that if they died in battle, they went to Valhalla. In the 18th century, religious theologians sought to justify slavery. Most evil acts in history were no doubt committed by people who thought they were doing the right thing. The Spanish Inquisition thought they were doing god's work. Thanos believed he was acting for the greater good!
If you think you are immune, if you feel you are different; that the views you hold are objective and well reasoned — you are kidding yourself, unless your views coincide with mine, that is!
But the internet and social media divide. Take a phenomenon known as group-polarisation, in which crowds exaggerate the tendency of the average person within that group. Put a group of individuals together whose views are typically mildly right of centre and create the appropriate conditions and they move so far to the right they make Attila the Hun seem like an old softie.
Put a group of people together made up of individuals mildly to the left of centre and create the right conditions, and they soon shift so far to the left that socialism seems like a right-wing ideology, in comparison.
We looked at Group Polarisation in Living in the Age of the Jerk.
And the right conditions have been created. The economy tanked in 2008 — arguably it was already run on debt before then. Inequality, especially inequality of wealth, rose. Traditional, secure, well-paid jobs that offered dignity and money got swept up in a mix of trickle-down economics, hitting a blockage and creating a winner takes it all economy
It is not new — it has happened in the past, and ended in conflict. It happened in England before the civil war, in France and then Russia before their revolutions.
But then in 2020, while the legacy of 2008 still haunted us, Covid happened.
And opinion is divided on who is to blame for all the strife. Some blame austerity, combined with ultra-loose monetary policy, apparently only benefiting the rich. Some blame the ideology called neo-liberalism. Others blame globalisation, immigration and the rise of political correctness. They say wokeism and cancel culture are taking away freedom. Others, or maybe the same people see Covid related measures such as lockdowns and enforced mask-wearing as how 'they' control is.
The internet, or social media, takes these feelings and polarises groups.
The truth may be out there — to an extent — but truth counts for little in the court of public opinion, especially when that court is torn apart by identity politics amplified by social media.
You look across YouTube, and you see how great orators destroy their interviewer. Whether it is Ben Shapiro, Jordan Person, or some other darling of the left or right, the headlines never say 'they discuss,' 'they debate,' 'they swap ideas.' Instead 'they destroy', 'own' or even 'annihilate' their opponent. It is not the headline writers' fault — they obey the rules of search engine optimisation — SEO is the real tyrant of YouTube and digital media.
Politicians who play to the crowd and say what their respective supporters want to hear, get elected — it is not their fault they obey the instructions handed down to them by the greatest despot of all — the crowd.
And the lie wasn't only supported by social media, more traditional style media promoted it too. And that is not new either. Traditional media has been feeding us lies to support the agenda of its owners for decades, maybe forever. We cast too much blame at the internet, as a consequence, we ignore the more profound lessons of history. The media has propagated fake news, doublespeak and spread messages of hatred and intolerance since the days we got our information from sitting around a fire and news presenters were the tribe's storytellers.
However, it is becoming more apparent that the result of today's toxic political divide could be nasty. Civil war or revolution will result...
We could all start being nice to one another again, of course. Follow the etiquette we comply with at dinner parties frequented by people of diverging beliefs. But in the toxic atmosphere created by social media that won't happen until the day the lion sits down and plays with lambs — or the fox cuddles up with chickens.
But there is always the media, social media and censorship.
Orwell warned against it, freedom lovers fear it; they long for a time when speech was free, propaganda was non-existent, and people like Mary Whitehorse tried to wrap us up in cotton wool, Monty Python's Life of Brian was banned from cinemas around the world, the Beatles' song A Day in the Life was banned by the BBC because it contained the line 'I would love to turn you on,' and propaganda said there were reds under the bed.
You see those who long for the return of the day when speech was free, and the media had free rein, might as well long for the return of unicorns and fairies. They long for the return of a time that only ever existed in fairy stories or their imagination.
Free speech has only ever existed up to a point. Those who read Orwell's 1984 when it was published and thought it depicted a nightmare vision, understood that. Censorship: an Orwellian world it does not make.
Neither would Orwell have frowned on those who wanted to cease the practice of honouring the villains of the past with statues. No one accused the oppressed people of Iraq who pulled down Saddam Husain's statue of being too woke.
Neither censorship nor changing how we recall history is new.
When I went to school. I was told that the world owes the British Empire a great debt, Richard the Lionheart led the English in a fight for what was is right called the Crusades and Sir Francis Drake represented all that was fine about Britain. Now we are told that the Empire was not always a force for good, the Crusades terrorised huge numbers of innocent people, and the Spanish think Drake was a pirate. This is not wokeism; neither is it re-writing history; it is merely re-telling history from a more objective perspective.
Now social media censors content and bans specific individuals. If you want to argue that certain media companies have too much power, I would agree with you. But prohibiting hate speech and stopping the spread of lies that could incite violence is precisely how it should be and how it was back in the 'golden days'.
But there is a balance. In a way, the men and women who marched on Capitol Hill were patriots. They had been told that democracy had been cheated, was in danger of dying and they tried to save it.
In 1989 others marched on the streets of Bucharest and Berlin and in the West we celebrated them. When the Arab spring began, most of us in the West cheered.
What is the difference between those who protested whom we celebrate and those we denigrate as criminals? Perhaps the main difference is that those who rioted and invaded Congress on January 6th were fed a lie.
I don't understand how some people believe the so-called 'Deep State' robbed the American people of the President they voted for and yet simultaneously condemn the rioters.
Democracy needs people to stand up for it. That is how the course of history changes.
It just needs its furious electorate to be furious because of truth not lies.
Saxo Bank has predicted that large media companies such as Verizon and tech companies such as IBM will apply a blockchain system to ensure the media only reports the truth.
I am horrified by the proposal — what is truth really? If blockchain and mass media had been around a few centuries ago would it have banned reporting the clearly 'false,' ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus?
What we really need is balance.
The BBC has its critics, but at least it tries to apply balance, and right now many in the US suggest that more Americans should watch the BBC for truthful reporting.
Journalists should be allowed to question politicians and encourage lively debate persistently — that's a good thing. If the person they interview, copes well, it does not mean the interviewer was owned.
If a journalist asks someone from the right or left difficult questions, it does not make the journalist a radical, even though some people seem to think that.
We don't need the press to be ordered always to tell the truth as defined by some arbitrator, but we do need the press to apply balance and cite sources, wherever possible.
AI can eventually play a role by providing us with balance. When a politician makes a controversial statement, AI will one day, maybe via our always-on augmented reality glasses, tell us that there are alternative views and cite the sources. It will be able to do that one day, and it should.
Censorship is not a bad thing per se, it is traditional to censor, but there needs to be balance; censorship needs to be light touch.
And maybe AI could apply a similar approach to user-generated content on social media, sooner rather than later.
It will have to, and a way must be found to provide responsible light touch censorship and require balance, or group polarisation will deepen, hatred will mount, democracy will be threatened, and frankly, some kind of civil war may follow.
Image credit for The Scream: Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo
PS: Not everyone agrees with the opinions expressed in this article!
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