Democracy Versus the Net - Summary Part 2, Chapter 2: Filter Bubbles and all that!
Here I just continue my current slow-read - Democracy Versus the Net. This is chapter two, for chapter 1 click here.
Information overload and connectivity have encouraged a new form of tribal politics, where emotion and immediacy trump reason and patience. A number of populist politicians have ridden this wave to increasing prominence. Bartlett worries that this might be a precursor to totalitarianism.
The chapter starts of with a reminder that Marshall McLuhan wasn’t an out and out optimist when it came to the ‘Global Village’ – he also believed that increased global connectivity could spark a mass identity crisis and ‘tremendous violence’.
The Silicon Valley techno-utopians tend to ignore this aspect of Mcluhan’s work, preferring to emphasise the positive side of ‘hyper connectivity’.
The nature of democratic politics has changed in recent years – it has gone tribal (Bartlett refers to ‘retribalisation’) characterised by hyper-partisanship, fierce group loyalties and a collective intra-group inability to see our flaws, as evidenced with the increasing support for people such as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.
The Founding Fathers of the US understood the terrifying emotive power of crowds, as elucidated by Charles McKay and Gustav Le Bon, and they build a carefully constructed system of checks and balances to resist this, to put rational checks on emotive force.
The internet has let tribalism out of the cage which modern democracy bought to contain it.
The great clustering: filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news
One of the consequences of there being information overload is that we need to filter most of it out, and one of the ways we do this is by seeking like-minded people.
Politics has gone from being based on membership of broad political parties and become splintered into smaller and smaller interest groups, and we can easily find those groups which we identify with.
Examples of such groups include Momentum, the alt-right and Black Lives Matter. Politics has become more tribal.
There is also the fact that it is easier to find others with who I share grievances – whether based on your blackness, your 'gayness', your 'womaness', or your class background.
Tribalism is potentially damaging to democracy because if emphasises the differences between us and turns these differences into wide gulfs.
McLuhan had a theory that the written word was calm, rational and logical, and that men brought up on the written word would be thus.
In contrast he believed visual media was a more complete sensory experienced and theories that those brought up on visual media would be more emotional, aural and tactile.
This distinction is broadly in line with Daniel Kahnman’s research on how me make decisions, especially irrational ones.
Kahnman believes there are basically two types of decision making:
System One thinking is Fast, instinctive, emotional
System Two thinking is Slow, deliberative, logical
Modern democracies aspire to run on system two thinking.
The internet encourages us to act according to system one thinking – the rapidity of the information, the constant distractedness, the feeding to us of information that confirms our already existing biases all have this affect.
The problem with tribes
Tribalism and system one thinking are the direct result of existential overload. These are the perfect conditions for disagreements to become existential oppositions where reason and argument give way to emotion and blind loyalty.
Bartlett now outlines how he spent a day with Tommy Robinson of the EDL, focussing on how he filters his news feed – he reads and shares only those stories which reinforce the EDL narrative of white Britain under threat from the immigrant hoard. EDL supporters also ‘frame’ their news feed in such a way, filtering out any positive stories about immigrants for example and view stories that challenge their frame as the work of bias and ideology – such as being a product of cultural Marxism.
He now cites evidence of the polarisation of views:
- 75% of younger people who voted remain think old people are prej, while a similar percentage of older people think young people are work shirkers.
- The number of people stating ‘strongly disagree’ with political views has doubled in opinion surveys in the last decade.
- Weak point about newspaper pundits getting more extreme.
Next section on how difficult it is to get people to change their minds – usually this happens with face to face contact where you can show a degree of sympathy with the opposing view and it’s a long laborious process. Internet communications do not generally allow for this kind of interaction.
Cyber psychologist John Suler talks of how the internet promotes ‘toxic disinhibition’ (p59) because:
- We don’t know or see the people we are talking to and vice versa
- Communication is instantaneous and apparently without rules
- It takes place in a seeming alternate reality…
This results in us filtering information so that we end up with echo chambers, and we find enemy tribes, ending up convincing ourselves that our tribe’s view is the only sane one and that everyone else are idiots.
These tribal tendencies have always existed, always been part of politics, but what’s new is that today the tech giants have turned these psychological weaknesses into a structural feature of news consumption and exploited them for profit.
Tech companies classify themselves as platforms, not publishers, and so try not to spend too much time cleaning up their feeds in case they appear to be acting like publishers and get regulated accordingly, thus being liable for content.
However, they still make decisions about what we see – their algorithms are designed to maximize watch time rather than truthfulness and so we get fed with information that other people like us like, whether or not they are factually accurate, which just enhances the echo chamber effect.
Algorithms give the impression of being neutral – but they are not – because they may well be creating a cycle of confirmation bias through their ‘non-decision’ making.
Trump the Tribal
Just as politicians since Kennedy have had to adapt themselves to the T.V. debate age, so successful politicians today have adapted themselves to the internet age – a whole host of recently populist politicians are masters of social media.
Trump offers swift, immediate total answers, and above all a sense of tribal loyalty.
Hannah Arendt suggested that totalitarianism can take hold when there is a mass of anchorless people who don’t know where they belong and then a leader comes along and offers them a sense of identity and simplistic solutions to their problems.
This is precisely what we have with Trump and the EDL, and they are coming to power because the internet brings together anchorless people and makes it easier for their simplistic emotive messages to reach this anchorless mass who can then reinforce their views and their shared sense of identity via the internet.
It’s a trend that can be challenged and reversed, but there is little sign of this happening!