On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.
And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.
The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.
We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.
It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.
The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.
It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.
Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.
The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.
Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.
What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.
Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)
Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.
War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.
It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.
Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)
Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.
To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.
But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?
None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.
At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.
Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.
In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.
The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.
It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.
Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”
The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.
Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.
If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.
In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.
If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”
“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.
Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.
In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.
As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.
The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.
The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.
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