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Quality over Quantity

This article in the most recent Atlantic was perhaps the most disturbing article I have read in a long time. Mind you I am writing that when there is no shortage of extremely disturbing articles to read between acute topics like Corona and systemic topics like income inequality. McKay Coppins starts the article by describing a personal experiment, creating a fake Facebook account, following Donald Trump and then anything else that was recommended. A few weeks later they noted:

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.

This should be alarming to everyone that understands it. Here we have a person who was fully aware of what they were doing, most likely had oppositional (or at least neutral) political leanings and while not being convinced to “go to the other side” had their basic ideas about truth and reality fundamentally challenged. They lost touch with their sense making apparatus. This is what the strange combination of post-modern politics and social media technocracy is doing to us all.

Former Ethics chief at Google, Tristan Harris (who’s position remains unfilled AFAIK) is fond of saying that every time you go online you should know that you have an AI pointed at your brainstem. While there is much ink spilled over what the coming AI boom will mean to our humanity, we don’t need to imagine it. It’s happening in our politics right now.

This doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with direct foreign interference in our elections, but it seems to have at least a “genetic” relationship. Again from The Atlantic article:

 The Kremlin has long been an innovator in this area. (A 2011 manual for Russian civil servants favorably compared their methods of disinformation to “an invisible radiation” that takes effect while “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon.”) But with the technological advances of the past decade, and the global proliferation of smartphones, governments around the world have found success deploying Kremlin-honed techniques against their own people.

This mirrors what Gary Kasparov has said in numerous outlets, the most recent I heard being the Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein. The point of these activities is to achieve exactly what Coppins experienced: an inability to make sense or to figure out what is real. Rather than shutting down new media, political operatives have figured out how to create noise and confusion that they can take advantage of.

My initial reaction to all of this was to call for some sort of regulation and not the “sunlight” policies that Zuck is trying to pass off as transparency in a bid to avoid regulation:

To bolster his case, Zuckerberg pointed to the recently launched—and publicly accessible—“library” where Facebook archives every political ad it publishes. The project has a certain democratic appeal: Why censor false or toxic content when a little sunlight can have the same effect? But spend some time scrolling through the archive of Trump reelection ads, and you quickly see the limits of this transparency.

The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.

I think we need something with teeth, first amendment implications be damned. I recognize the hypocrisy is the previous statement given my firm and consistent support for the second amendment and the individual right to keep and bear arms. Why should I get to have as many guns as I want, but Facebook can’t run as many micro targeted ads the fundamentally change the nature of our democracy? I’ll be honest: this is one I am still working out, but it seems to me that if there is a difference it’s wrapped up in the coincident ideas that corporations aren’t people and force asymmetry.

I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with Facebook, going back to when I created my account in Oct of 2007 (which was the same day I established a presence on Twitter). There are lots of real friends that I am only connected to there. Much of the dates, places and pictures of the last 10+ years of my life with my family “lives” there. But I think I need a bit of space. I’m not deleting my account or anything, but I’m not going to “hang-out” there until at least the election is over. Three reasons:

  • I haven’t voted in the last few elections as a form of protest against the whole enterprise, but I am re-evaluating the maturity of that position and want to avoid as much manipulation as possible. Or at least subject myself only to manipulation that I can at least have a reasonable chance of seeing coming and understanding.
  • I find that liking things my friends post gives me a sense that I am doing the work of building relationship, without actually doing it. As a recovering introvert, I don’t need anything that keeps me away from this important work. Similarly, I find that sharing things (especially since they make it so easy) keeps me from doing any real thinking on my own. “I’ve said my piece by sharing that meme” leads to the lethargy of pretend thought and actionless action.
  • I find that scrolling through my feed, I put my friends (and those that are left are mostly people I have a relationship with outside of Facebook) too easily into neatly defined categoeries, thinking that the meme or post they shared completely expresses their view with no reason to explore further, closing off an opportunity to have an interesting discussion, learn something and/or deepen relationship that could happen in the real world. No, none of these thing are possible in Facebook comments ;-).

I’ll continue to write and share things here. I know it means that far fewer people will see me in their feeds. I’m going for quality rather than quantity.

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