and what to do about them
My favourite new expression is weaponised narrative (thanks Cory Doctorow).
It’s used to describe a situation when outside actors manipulate cultural narratives to attack shared beliefs and values, sow discord, and create political and social schisms.
Disinformation is of course, nothing new. The difference is that the global digital reach and lightning quickness of mass media allows it to operate on a whole new scale. Technological evolution has paved the way for Propaganda 3.0, and we haven’t gotten our heads around it yet.
Advanced data analytics, combined with hyper connectivity and social media platforms with billions of users, make it easy to target people with messages crafted to shape their outlook on the world.
Algorithms determine what will catch your eye, in an attention economy that keeps users scrolling, clicking and sharing, again and again and again. Our information resources can be gamed, reinforcing existing prejudices and reducing the space for political common ground.
We’re sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, and lose sight of what matters for the society we share.
In the military this is a serious area of investigation. Researchers now consider ‘narrative’ to be a part of the new battlespace in modern information warfare. As Jon Hermann, a former Air Force intelligence officer points out, unlike physical weapons, information is self-propagating, has a global blast radius, and can’t be kept out by a concrete bunker. Successive bombardment overcomes whatever cognitive resistance we can muster and narratives are tailored to exploit our inbuilt biases. Digital technologies make disinformation attacks low cost. They can come from millions of individuals in infinite combinations, in a firehose of falsehood. Taken together, weaponised narratives:
Can now deploy in a rapid fire series of mutually reinforcing stories that are hard for people to disregard and reach a global audience in seconds at minimal cost.
The problem with this kind of manipulation isn’t that it’s creating a schism between the left and right, the yes’s and the no’s, or the millenials and the boomers. The problem is that the story we’re telling ourselves about human nature has been hacked.
Forget the Russians. Our media feeds have been conquered by a never-ending barrage of negativity. Instead of imparting wisdom, they dish out compulsive content that plays on our negativity bias. It’s totally addictive. And it spreads like a virus, which is great for business, but terrible for balance or perspective. Bad news is a killer product; good news doesn’t sell.
If the narrative has been weaponised, then our feeds need to be treated differently. They’re not reflective of the world around us, they’ve been hijacked by attention merchants, and that means we, as consumers, need to take active steps to protect ourselves.
Here are some things that have worked well for me.
1. Admit you’ve got a problem
As we all know, the first step to overcoming an addiction is to admit there’s a problem in the first place. Once you do that, then you can start thinking about what you’re consuming a little differently.
I’ve started treating my feeds, television, inboxes and favourite news websites as addictive products. I’m starting to think about them more like alcohol — great in small quantities, but unhealthy, toxic and damaging when consumed on a daily basis in large quantities. Handle with care.
2. Throw away the keys
You wouldn’t give an alcoholic 24/7 access to a liquor cabinet right? Well, the same applies to your digital life. One of the most powerful things I’ve done is delete what I call BLACK HOLE apps from my phone. These are the ones that are windows to the entire world, turning the firehose on full tap. You know the apps that you open for 5 minutes and find yourself still clicking an hour later? Those are black hole apps. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, anything that allows you to engage with the endless stream of information from the outside world.
I also deleted email from my phone. Think about it this way — your inbox is everyone else’s agenda for you, not your own agenda for what you want to do. It can wait until you get into the office or have access to your laptop. You’re also going to need to delete the internet itself. Safari, Chrome. I know, it seems extreme. But remember, the internet is the biggest black hole of all, and you can access it everywhere else anyway. Your phone should be the one place it doesn’t intrude.
You should now have only what I call MAGIC apps on your phone. Things that would have seemed like a miracle to someone 20 years ago. The ability to predict the weather, take great photos, summon a taxi, check your bank account, transfer money, call your family overseas, listen to podcasts, get personalised workouts or meditation sessions.
Turn your phone from an attention grabbing black hole vortex of anxiety into the magical pocket sized slab of genie glass it was originally meant to be.
3. Hack the algorithm
Your feed is not set in stone. It’s set by your behaviour. Every time you click on an article, or like someone’s rant, or retweet the latest political outrage, you tell the algorithm that you want to see more. It’s like Kaonashi (No-face), from Spirited Away. The more digital gold you feed it, the larger it grows, until eventually it consumes everything. Stop feeding the bad news bubble with clicks and likes.
You can also teach the algorithm to give you good content. There are thousands of wonderful digital media companies, research institutes, activist groups, and individuals who push out a steady stream of mind-blowing, life affirming, dazzling stories about humanity in the 21st century.
We highlight some of those stories on our Facebook feed for Future Crunch, and there’s also a regularly updated list of good news on our website. But that’s only the jumping off point. The next time you hear a story that inspires you, or find someone whose work you like, follow them on your social media platform of choice. Share their stories, click on their links, support them on Patreon, spread it around. Train your algorithm. Spend your money and attention on the world you want to see. We need more of it. Be a vector for the good not the bad.
4. Build a bunker
Take cover from information bombardment. One of my favourite tricks is to charge your phone outside your bedroom. Alarm clocks are cheap these days… get a nice one that wakes you up gently. Another good tip is to switch your phone onto aeroplane mode at dinner each evening, and only turn it off after you’ve finished your morning routine the next day.
If you’re a parent, create a technology free zone in your house. Get your children to give it a name (The Bunker?). Put up a sign. Start out small, a corner of the living room to begin with. Inside that zone, no phones or screens. Be religious about it. Same rules apply to everyone, adults included. No exceptions. Over time, perhaps it can expand until eventually it becomes a room, or possibly even an entire wing of the house.
In all of this, remember the advice you’ve received about habit forming. Small steps, regularly taken. You only need to be 1% better every day. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you slip.
5. Take responsibility
Finally and most importantly take responsibility for your own digital life. Regulators aren’t going to save us. They might be very good at putting on congressional hearings, and grilling tech lawyers for the cameras, but real action is going to take years. In the meantime, there are concrete actions all of us can take right now to get control back from the algorithms, protect ourselves against weaponised narratives, and to start to fight back.
Fostering intelligent, optimistic thinking for the future. We help people understand what’s on the frontiers of science, technology and human progress, and what it means for humanity.
Our fortnightly newsletter is filled with stories about people from around the planet who are using science and technology to make the world a better place.