Tag Archives: media

People are becoming less well-informed

The Cambridge Analytica story has exposed a great deal about our modern society. They allegedly obtained access to 50M Facebook records to enable Trump’s team to target users with personalised messages.

One of the most interesting aspects is that unless they only employ extremely incompetent journalists, the news outlets making the biggest fuss about it must be perfectly aware of reports that Obama appears to have done much the same but on a much larger scale back in 2012, but are keeping very quiet about it. According to Carol Davidsen, a senior Obama campaign staffer, they allowed Obama’s team to suck out the whole social graph – because they were on our side – before closing it to prevent Republican access to the same techniques. Trump’s campaign’s 50M looks almost amateur. I don’t like Trump, and I did like Obama before the halo slipped, but it seems clear to anyone who checks media across the political spectrum that both sides try their best to use social media to target users with personalised messages, and both sides are willing to bend rules if they think they can get away with it.

Of course all competent news media are aware of it. The reason some are not talking about earlier Democrat misuse but some others are is that they too all have their own political biases. Media today is very strongly polarised left or right, and each side will ignore, play down or ludicrously spin stories that don’t align with their own politics. It has become the norm to ignore the log in your own eye but make a big deal of the speck in your opponent’s, but we know that tendency goes back millennia. I watch Channel 4 News (which broke the Cambridge Analytica story) every day but although I enjoy it, it has a quite shameless lefty bias.

So it isn’t just the parties themselves that will try to target people with politically massaged messages, it is quite the norm for most media too. All sides of politics since Machiavelli have done everything they can to tilt the playing field in their favour, whether it’s use of media and social media, changing constituency boundaries or adjusting the size of the public sector. But there is a third group to explore here.

Facebook of course has full access to all of their 2.2Bn users’ records and social graph and is not squeaky clean neutral in its handling of them. Facebook has often been in the headlines over the last year or two thanks to its own political biases, with strongly weighted algorithms filtering or prioritising stories according to their political alignment. Like most IT companies Facebook has a left lean. (I don’t quite know why IT skills should correlate with political alignment unless it’s that most IT staff tend to be young, so lefty views implanted at school and university have had less time to be tempered by real world experience.) It isn’t just Facebook of course either. While Google has pretty much failed in its attempt at social media, it also has comprehensive records on most of us from search, browsing and android, and via control of the algorithms that determine what appears in the first pages of a search, is also able to tailor those results to what it knows of our personalities. Twitter has unintentionally created a whole world of mob rule politics and justice, but in format is rapidly evolving into a wannabe Facebook. So, the IT companies have themselves become major players in politics.

A fourth player is now emerging – artificial intelligence, and it will grow rapidly in importance into the far future. Simple algorithms have already been upgraded to assorted neural network variants and already this is causing problems with accusations of bias from all directions. I blogged recently about Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/, concerned that when AI analyses large datasets and comes up with politically incorrect insights, this is now being interpreted as something that needs to be fixed – a case not of shooting the messenger, but forcing the messenger to wear tinted spectacles. I would argue that AI should be allowed to reach whatever insights it can from a dataset, and it is then our responsibility to decide what to do with those insights. If that involves introducing a bias into implementation, that can be debated, but it should at least be transparent, and not hidden inside the AI itself. I am now concerned that by trying to ‘re-educate’ the AI, we may instead be indoctrinating it, locking today’s politics and values into future AI and all the systems that use it. Our values will change, but some foundation level AI may be too opaque to repair fully.

What worries me most though isn’t that these groups try their best to influence us. It could be argued that in free countries, with free speech, anybody should be able to use whatever means they can to try to influence us. No, the real problem is that recent (last 25 years, but especially the last 5) evolution of media and social media has produced a world where most people only ever see one part of a story, and even though many are aware of that, they don’t even try to find the rest and won’t look at it if it is put before them, because they don’t want to see things that don’t align with their existing mindset. We are building a world full of people who only see and consider part of the picture. Social media and its ‘bubbles’ reinforce that trend, but other media are equally guilty.

How can we shake society out of this ongoing polarisation? It isn’t just that politics becomes more aggressive. It also becomes less effective. Almost all politicians claim they want to make the world ‘better’, but they disagree on what exactly that means and how best to do so. But if they only see part of the problem, and don’t see or understand the basic structure and mechanisms of the system in which that problem exists, then they are very poorly placed to identify a viable solution, let alone an optimal one.

Until we can fix this extreme blinkering that already exists, our world can not get as ‘better’ as it should.

 

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We need to reset society by bursting the bubbles

Looking at the state of democracy across the whole of The West right now, we are in deep poo.

I’ve written often about my concern that tribalism is increasing, that the live-and-let-live attitudes that used to prevail have been evaporation, that people are too quick and too willing to be aggressive against those with whom they disagree,  that common civility and manners are vanishing from politics, and that if we continue, we will end up with the Great Western War, essentially a civil war between an increasingly polarized Left and Right. Although I’ve never been sure about how fast the speed of change would get there, I’ve usually estimated mid-century or soon after.

Recent trends do not encourage optimism. In many cases, people are actually proud of their intolerance of the other side, proud to wear it as a badge. Even more ridiculously many of them call holding such a set of attitudes ‘love’, accusing the other side of being ‘haters’ even as they go out rioting against their existence and vowing never to live peacefully side by side with them because they stand for ‘hate’. It doesn’t bode well for peace, or for language. The love on display in the #lovetrumpshate demos is a doubleplusgood love, 1984 doublespeak for hatred and despising of ‘the other’, not the sort we used to understand. This new ‘love’ is love for those with who you share allegiance, and a deep hatred for everyone else. The very dangerous sort of love that wars are made from. The love I was brought up to understand is a love for others that doesn’t depend on who they are or what they believe. The sort that hates sin but loves the sinner. That’s actually a hard thing to understand and a tough principle to live by but many generations managed to do that. You may disagree with what someone says or does, but you can still love them as a person. That is love, not ‘intolerance of intolerance’, or ‘hating haters’. When you hate others for who they are, even if you rationalize that as being because they are evil, war is a short step away. In rare occasions, such as when it’s Hitler, doing what he did, then war is justified and we actually do take up arms.

If I only had friends I agreed with, I’d have none at all. I disagree often with many of the people who I follow or who follow me, but I am very happy to share the planet with them and to get on as best we can. Thankfully, almost all share that same view and accept me with all my differences. I hardly ever get trolled or called names. I sometimes tease, and sometimes get teased, sometimes I point out a few home truths and sometimes people point out a few of my faults too. And that’s about the limit for what should happen in civil society.

If you really do want a war and you’re prepared to kill others and die yourself for it, then fine, but have a good think about that first. If you’ve never lived through violent conflict first hand, and the nearest you’ve ever got is using a hashtag, waving a banner, emoting or virtue signalling, then grow up, get out of your playpen or safe space, and start behaving like a civilized adult. That involves discussion of tough ideas, it often involves looking at hard and unpleasant facts and it involves reaching very difficult compromises with other people, not just calling them names or sulking in a corner because you didn’t get your way. It’s the difference between being a kidult and an adult, the difference between a luvvie and a leader.

I don’t really need to labor that point, we all see this new intolerance and hatred every day now, whether it’s far right marches or far left ones, #lockherup or #lovetrumpshate, Brexiteers or Remainers, #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter. I’ve said this stuff many times before. We need to learnt to get along. Sure, by all means gently tease the other lot, but accept that while you may not agree with them, they have just as much right to their views as you do to yours.

We may reasonably ask how we got to this state. When Thatcher was the most disliked PM the UK has ever elected, or when Reagan was elected, those who voted the other way accepted the result peacefully. They grieved and moaned a bit for sure, and argued against policies all the time of course, as they indeed should, but democracy carried on peacefully. When Tony Blair was elected, or Bill Clinton, or even George W Bush, it was still peaceful. Even when Obama was voted in just 8 years ago, it was still peaceful. The people who didn’t like it accepted that the pendulum would eventually swing back and they’d get their way again.

Some time during the last decade, the foundations of civilized society have badly eroded and collapse of the walls has started. If we don’t do some much-needed repair, then the Great Western War will go from an idea in a blog to reality.

There are several contributing factors. Replacement of religion by political correctness harnesses the religious zeal of a new convert to PC causes. The energy-intense fuel of sanctimony powers new-found hatred of their own community, as we see manifested in the white protesters whining about #whiteprivilege, cultural appropriation or joining the increasingly anti-white racist #blacklivesmatter movement. This is similar to the rejection of background, friends and family so often seen in new religious converts over the ages. Religion has declined quickly in recent years so this force is an important contributing factor, becoming a secular Spanish Inquisition.

But while secular religion substitution is a powerful force lying behind some of this new divide, it is not the strongest force. For that we need to look at the self-reinforcing social , information and cultural bubbles caused by social networking, and these are what really lie behind this divide growing over the last decade.

Social media such as Facebook provide a strongly insulated protected world where nobody ever needs to see views that differ from what they find comfortable. They are a safe space, a play pen, full of friends and same-thinking celebrities, full of being stroked, and safe from being attacked. Mostly anyway. They are therefore very dangerous places where group think is seeded, germinates and quickly matures, and where alternative views are kept away. Outside social media, the real media is populated and run by those who have become more polarized by these bubbles themselves, so the real media has also become far more polarized. People then watch channels they feel comfortable with and read papers that share the same spin preferences. So the social media and real media become aligned and a superbubble arises that accounts for the entirety of information input.

When people spend so much of their time in these bubbles and when they even get their news from them, filtered and spun to reinforce their existing groupthink, they can build an extremely distorted view of the world that bears little resemblance to reality. They may be wholly unaware of some events because their news source completely filters them out, or they might be aware of some other events, but via such spun reporting and presentation of the facts that they have no real understanding of hat actually happened. On the other side, another group is seeing different sets of events, or very different interpretations of the same ones. I read several newspapers every day, from different parts of the political spectrum, and I am often shocked by just how much difference there is in how they are interpreted and presented to readers. It really is no surprise that each side thinks of the other so badly, when although they are probably actually not very different people, they are seeing extremely different information. Even from the same set of events, people will come to very different conclusion if they only see some of what’s going on, and only though very distorted lenses and filters.

I’d therefore suggest that the biggest problem we face is not that half of the population are nasty horrible people who we should rightly refuse to peacefully co-exist with. The problem is that although the other side is really only slightly different from us, and probably share most of the same desires and values, and really only differ a bit on how best to achieve pretty much the same fair and free society we want, where the poor and unfortunate are protected as much as possible, and people can get on with living free and happy lives as they see fit, but are seeing extremely different information about what is going on because they are locked into different media and social media bubbles.

The problem therefore is the bubbles, not the people. Republicans and Brexiteers are actually not all uneducated misogynist omniphobic bigots. Democrats and Remainers are not all antisemitic antiwhite snowflake commies. A few on either side actually are, but most aren’t. Actually, almost everyone is quite a nice person who just wants to get on with life and will cheerfully help anyone else they can along the way. The problem is that each half thinks the other half are a bunch of idiots and nasties hellbent on wiping them out and destroying the world.

Social media was never meant to be the cause of division. We all imagined that networking would make the world a nicer place. We would all get to know each other better, learn that we’re really not that different, and peace would result. Actually, it has become a force for the amplification of tribalism.

I could speculate further that the deeper problem is advertising. Maybe the polarization has arisen because of self-reinforcement caused by tapping into small differences in personal preferences and pandering to them via advertising for commercial gain, thereby feeding them and making hem bigger. I could, but I need to develop that line of argument and leave it for another blog.