Our Broken Realities

Can we mend our splintered reality?

Jillian Ada Burrows
Feb 10, 2020 · 17 min read
If you split this in half vertically, you will see two independent points of view looking at each other. The left side is looking towards the right side, and vice versa. Combined, the larger picture can be seen. Drawing by yours truly.

I believe we have a moral responsibility to fix the problems introduced by people determined to manipulate people or take advantage of people’s ignorance. This has always been a problem, but with the rise of social media it has become worse. People actually live in bubbles (Newton C, 2016; Jackson J, 2017; Pew Research Center, 2014; Bernard M, 2019). Truth has fragmented (boyd d, 2019, April 24). Go ahead, start talking to a diverse crowd about what kinds of things you see on Facebook versus what kinds of things they see on Facebook. Everyone will have different answers, especially if they belong to distinct social groups. In part, this is determined by the flow of information from person to person over the social connections they have in real life. The other part is how Facebook and other networks monetize their platforms and choose to amplify ideas.

For example, Facebook uses money as the main way of increasing the reach of ideas beyond about the first 110 people (your numbers might be smaller if you have a smaller friends list or number of followers on your page). If you feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle to get the word out about something, it’s because you don’t have the thousands of dollars per post needed to reach the people most likely to take action on it — and Facebook is really good at knowing who those people will be. It’s been studying our entire history on the platform and optimizing what it shows us against certain financial goals. In my case, that’s over 11 years of data where they can draw conclusions of how I’ve influenced or been influenced by the connections I have and how strong each of those connections are. Facebook can then figure out how it can take advantage of those connections to spread information around for a price. That is their entire revenue model.

To make that more clear, Facebook controls the flow of information via money and interest. If Facebook thinks someone is not interested in something, it will filter that something out of their experience. If Facebook believes someone is interested in seeing something it may show it to them to see if they will share it. If they share it and it was paid content, that will be included as paid organic reach and the algorithm will learn to share more things from that category with that person. This is how Facebook monetizes people while simultaneously controlling what they see as if it were the The Outer Limits broadcasting different shows to individual people.

Gaslighting/Rifts in Reality

Imagine you have a company that’s working to create cultural movements like the “Do So” campaign which helped create apathy among voters in Trinidad and Tobago. The made a campaign which made it look cool to do nothing and not get involved in politics. Then they pumped money into promoting these ideas in a very targeted way. It worked. The younger voters who could have made a difference didn’t turn out to vote. This is the power of a persuasive narrative and money to ensure the right people hear it (Stewart J ,2019).

Another example is the many Russian run social media accounts set up by the Internet Research Agency. Some people sensed the unauthentic nature around it, but others did not. It actively encouraged Black people to not vote (Jonsson & Bryant 2019, BBC News 2019). The accounts targeted both democratic and republican party members and tried to incite outrage as an alternative to voting (Shane & Frenkel 2018, Graham 2018, Lockhart 2018). This happened in addition to the voter registration laws which predominantly effected people of color (Williamson 2016). Overall, turnout of Black voters was down 7% (Jonsson & Bryant 2019). It is likely impossible to separate the causes of that turnout.

A new article shows that Cambridge Analytica was doing these kinds of things in lots of places (Cadwalladr C, 2020). There are likely other groups which are just as or even more effective in doing these sorts of things. Some of them use even more shady tactics (see: boyd d 2017–2019; Hilder P, 2019; and Sifry ML, 2019).

Social media sites are not the only way this happens. Social media makes it cheaper. Organizations are still using other methods: mail, magazine advertisements, TV ads, etc. Many of these channels along with social media are used in various combinations. The Trump Agenda Survey which asks heavily biased questions which lead the person being surveyed and asks for money (CNYCentral 2017). Recently, the same survey has been sent out in various places, but altered to look more official like a census form (Bellware & Shammas 2019, Hessedal 2020). On several occasions, Melania asked people to pledge their support to the president and Republican Party (Perriman 2019). The ACLJ has sent out letters which sow division and make issues about Christianity when it is not the case. ACLJ has raised millions of dollars, which the family has promptly distributed among themselves (Davis & Boburg 2017). It’s unclear if they actually do anything besides make propaganda.

The goals are to play into or create cultural biases, make people doubt what they believe, or spread disorder. It seems if we can get a group of people to feel like they are understood, that their way of life is valid and appreciated, or make them feel empowered — they’ll grow towards us and trust us and what we have to say. Depending on the kinds of behaviors and thoughts they nurture, each group grows further apart.

I can see a few rifts that have formed: The giant rift between everyone’s actions and what they believe, the rift between how parties actually govern and what they profess, and the rift between what we believe and what reality is. Unfortunately, people are being hurt through the polarization which has formed. Fixing this mess is not going to be easy. It’s going to be very messy. It’s going to require a lot of people to go through learning experiences that cause us to grow and come into as much alignment with reality as we can. We will all need to heal.

Healing

What does healing look like? It requires understanding that society and culture are fluid and flexible. We must recognize that society and culture are dynamic systems and haven’t crystallized and never will. It is the realization that “I am constantly choosing to recreate and reinforce this existing culture through my actions, but I can choose to create a new culture.” and that “I can be the example and not reflect the negativity or chaos around me.”

It also means that those of us who can start building back trust, need to be doing that work. It means we need to understand how cultural norms are changed even more deeply than just that personal decision. It means we need to understand how people make decisions and how they act. It also means creating places where people can be understood and valued and not attacked so people can grow and change.

I am like a vine growing through physical, mental, spiritual, relational, and digital space. If I don’t get the light I need or the right vine signals from other vines, I move somewhere else and grow towards the place where there is space for me to get the energy I need. In order to be convinced of this new belief or way of being, there needs to be space in order for to me to know that I can grow towards that belief and other culture. As soon as I get the signals that I’m not welcome or perceive that I’m being smothered out, I’m going to move somewhere else. Just like a vine or branch, I can’t be bent or pulled to quickly over to another point of view — or I might break or not be securely held in place. Typically, as a vine, I don’t like growing towards a completely different place unless absolutely necessary (for a less allegorical approach, read Bardon 2020).

That space for growing seems important. That space can change culture. It can establish order or it can seed disorder. When these social media campaigns try to establish new norms of behavior, they first create space. Then they use that space to set the new example — specifically, they provide descriptive norms by providing multiple examples of specific behaviors which may be counter to society’s current norms. As people enter the space, they pick up on these new norms and start behaving accordingly. Then the space and behaviors nurture further similar growth.

In the 2006 study by Keizer, Lindenberg, & Steg, the authors broke a few laws to see if they could sow more disorder by changing the environment (particularly, littering of an unwanted flyer). One of the examples included setting up a supermarket parking lot to have random carts left strewn about. They smeared petroleum jelly on the handles to discourage people from using, returning, or cleaning them up. Compared to the control situation, littering increased 28% percent when the environment was changed to increase disorder. In another situation, they illegally set off firecrackers out of sight in a shed in the Netherlands to see if it would increase littering. Compared to the control with no fireworks, the result was also a 28% increase in littering.

This means it is hard work making sure all the correct examples are set to clean up after people whom make a place for disorder. A partial example of the work is provided by the online streamer Destiny, known as Steven Bonnell in real life (Quirk 2020). Bonnell started out very anti social justice, but the sincerity of vitriol in his community didn’t occur to him until he met another streamer at a gaming competition in Poland. This fellow streamer voiced his hatred of gay people in a way that made Bonnell uncomfortable, because it wasn’t a joke — it was actual hatred. This precipitated a change for Bonnell as he recognized that online people cannot tell if your joking or not. Eventually he found himself fighting anti-intellectualism.

Bonnell is by no means perfect, but he is still an example. He creates a space that attracts people who have walked similar paths before. His dominance and example establish new descriptive norms among the communities with which he interacts. He points out logical fallacies. He points out weak arguments. He shows dishonest people for what they are. He does not discriminate between any political orientation. He shames people when it seems they need to be shamed (though sometimes gratuitously). He provides the tools to be self-critical and critical of others. Through providing these tools he provides a path of growth from disorder into order. I won’t go into all the specifics, because the article by Quirk that I reference does a great job of providing the narrative.

The context in which Bonnell operates brings up another interesting aspect of creating space and reinforcing new social norms. There are a growing number of online communities which create space for self-declared “involuntarily celibate”, or incels for short. The collection of these groups is known as the “Manoshpere” (Lewis 2019). This is confluence of thought ranging from fear of European culture dying out and being replaced by various other ethnic groups to selfishly thinking they are owed sex. The common thread is the belief that women are responsible for emasculating men — that men are owed something or their lives should have been a certain way, but feminism is getting in the way. As it is a confluence of many things, it needs to be treated as such and not as a monolith. Each of the spaces brings forth various aspects of disorder and each space needs to be recognized for what it specifically fosters.

Tanya Basu, writing in MIT Technology Review has brought up research by computer scientists who are studying these online communities and how the are evolving. The trend is migration from men’s rights group over to incel groups. The groups are also getting more violent and more toxic (where toxicity is defined by the amount of hate speech). A possibility for action is to create an early warning system that could alert people that someone is starting to grow towards those communities. These communities have come into existance and have created space for themselves. All the things I mentioned above apply. Any attacks or attempts to change minds without respecting where the person is can only cause more distance and move the person further away into the depths of the community with space for disorder. This may even explain the trend of increased violence and toxicity among the studied groups.

This kind of dynamic is happening adjacent to many communities. This is exactly what happened with all of the online accounts the Russian Internet Research Agency was behind. It’s the kind of dynamic happening around the various Republican factions around the country. Each of these approaches create a scaffold showing the ways the branching divisions should progress. They have many role models (some of which might not be real people) setting the norms for behavior. Many of these behaviors are modeled by Donald Trump.

This 2020 presidential election will be no different. Trump’s campaign is planning on spending over $1 billion dollars on the same sorts of tactics of “information warfare” that have been used in the past (Coppins 2020). For reference: the Trump campaign spent $44 million, nearly twice as much as the Clinton campaign; and ran 5.9 million ads compared to Clinton’s paltry 66,000 ads. They even have Breitbart and facades of local news outlets, such as “The Arizona Monitor” and “The Kalamazoo Times” to help shape these spaces and reinforce misinformation and behavior. These facades of local news are sprouting out specifically for spreading misinformation. I think it’s perfectly clear they know exactly what the are doing.

It may be that “pushing” back is a misnomer. In fact it might be more like holding back. To me, it seems must do a few things:

  1. Provide spaces for people who have grown apart in worldview to start growing back together and be nurtured in a way that encourages that growth and order.
  2. Provide positive cues for positive behavior and cultural norms which encourage order through example. These must out number the negative examples by a wide margin.
  3. Provide people with the tools to be critical of their beliefs and the benefit of those beliefs as early as possible — especially if they are starting to grow towards a space that helps nurture disorder.
  4. Remove the spaces which nurture disorder and block off the paths to those spaces.

I must note one more time that I’m fairly certain direct attacks are not conducive to convincing people. It would even seem that attacks only provide a negative behavioral example, unless the goal is to shame or scorn someone in order to prevent others from following the same path. My goal shouldn’t be to scare others away from my viewpoint, but to allow them to be nourished towards it. This goes hand in hand with creating a space for people to grow towards another worldview. This may even be implemented in stages with people moving through multiple spaces until they are mostly unified once more — after all, they likely didn’t get to where they are in one small step.

We will actually need to recruit people to exhibit the necessary positive traits to be positive behavioral examples while giving them the publicity required. We will need to promote the positive people and evidence of positive behaviors so much that it changes the cultural expectations. This will not be easy, because being that person is tiring and requires a lot of personal growth to have already occurred. Additionally, it may require a larger budget than those who are sowing discord. This is probably a more intensive step, since it requires mapping out all of the places people are growing and the ideologies nurtured there and mapping those to influential people who could do the job. These people need to be analogous to Steven Bonnell, discussed above and in Quirk’s article.

I won’t attempt to cover the tools required here. I will suggest the following reading, because they seem to outline some very potent tools. I think taking the time to read them over and practice the techniques inside would be well worth it for anyone who deals with people and wants to change things.

Removing the spaces which nurture disorder and removing the paths to them is very important. In Levine’s “‘Shit-Life Syndrome’ Trump Voters, and Clueless Dems,” he mentions something vaguely resembling cutting off the paths to the spaces. He suggests shaming Trump for not following through with promises which Ohio voters valued. The manufacturing jobs never materialized. In fact there is more despair and more grieving families from suicides and drug overdoses. I don’t think the way Levine communicates the idea would be the best way to follow through with it, but it’s the basis of an idea. It likely needs to be coupled with a method of helping those communities out and leading them away from more despair.

A big portion of cutting off the paths to the spaces which foster disorder is early intervention. This means we do need to have monitoring tools like those used by Ribeiro et al. in their research. Even without the tools, we need to have people watching out for other people in all sorts of places. We need people who can provide guidance and balance. We need people who can test how vested people are into these ideas and see if they can be swayed back by a multitude of arguments.

The best early intervention is to prevent the paths into disorder from forming in the first place, but this is much harder. This would include passing legislation to prevent tactics like this from being used in politics. The lowest hanging fruit would be to:

  • Eliminate any advertising relating to an election or government decision on any medium.
  • Creating a single unified platform for all campaigns at any level of government. This could also be used to hold representatives and officials accountable to the people they serve.

Unfortunately, there are still some problems which wouldn’t be solved by that. How would one prevent foreign actors from influencing a social network and punish them if they do? It’s nearly impossible. This means the focus has to be on guarding ourselves against corruption. As Jonsson & Bryant mentioned, there were local people in the community that noticed the artificiality of the outside influence. We need more people in communities aware of these changes.

Money was used as an incentive to draw real people into helping create some of these spaces. It would be impossible to magically wave away the influence of money, especially in disadvantaged and underserved communities. We should help knit communities together tightly by helping the elders and leaders in those communities meet the needs of their community members and build up the positive connections between people. The resulting loyalty would be a deterrent from accepting money to tear the community apart.

The other aspect, mentioned by Bonnell via Quirk’s interview, is that Bonnell cynically feels defeated and that people are not intelligent enough to make democracy work. This reminds me of listening to my Intro to Education teacher talk about the gravity of “A Nation at Risk” — a report which came out a year before I was born. Ever since I heard about it, I have always been fascinated how we still haven’t figured out how to teach people. I’ve done a lot of reading and everything points to socioeconomic status being the key determinant of academic success and IQ. What it really comes down to, is that our children are not being supported and nurtured enough because only rich families can provide everything kids need. We need programs to support families so we can have a well educated society that knows how to think. This (rightfully huge) endeavor will go a long way towards helping people be critical thinkers.

Once the paths are closed, those already in the space will start to atrophy. Eventually, the spaces which were created to increase disorder can be closed down and removed so they vanish into history. However, the vigilance of the community should never vanish.

Closing

When I was writing this, I was randomly cycling through music. I came across this song by Francis Bebey entitled Forest Nativity. The last verse has the following lyrics:

Come into the world
Don’t be afraid of the wicked
We have confined the wicked into a prison of scorn, of contempt
From where they’ll never escape
The wicked will never trouble you
Or make you unhappy
Because we are here
All of us
Awaiting you

Embedded within Francis Bebey’s words is wonderful knowledge and wisdom. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all had such a perspective to welcome and protect each life in such a way? What if we could welcome each stranger into our lives this way no matter what age they are? I may be an optimist, but I’d rather believe in creating unity in our human nature and fail trying than to wallow in disorder created by corrupt individuals who only care about themselves.

Citations/Additional Reading

  1. Newton C (2016) The author of The Filter Bubble on how fake news is eroding trust in journalism. The Verge. November 16.
  2. Jackson J (2017) Eli Pariser: activist whose filter bubble warnings presaged Trump and Brexit. The Guardian. January 8.
  3. Pew Research Center. (2014) Political Polarization in the American Public. Pew Research Center. June 12.
  4. Barnard M (2019) Why do liberals believe the things that they do? The Future is Electric. December 19. — Has graphs documenting the differences in ideologies between various parties around the world over time.
  5. boyd d (2019) The Fragmentation of Truth. Points. Data & Society. April 24.
  6. Stewart J (2019) Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ highlights Cambridge Analytica’s role in Trinidad & Tobago elections. Advox. August 6.
  7. Jonsson P, Bryant CC (2019) After Russian trolls target black Americans, one city fights back. The Christian Science Monitor. December 6.
  8. Shane S, Frenkel S (2018) Russian 2016 Influence Operation Targeted African-Americans on Social Media. The New York Times. December 17.
  9. Graham D (2018) Russian Trolls and the Trump Campaign Both Tried to Depress Black Turnout. The Atlantic. December 17.
  10. Lockhart PR (2018) How Russia exploited racial tensions in America during the 2016 elections. Vox. December 17.
  11. BBC News (2019) Russian trolls’ chief target was ‘black US voters’ in 2016. BBC News Technology. October 9.
  12. Williamson V (2016) Voter suppression, not fraud, looms large in U.S. elections. The Brookings Institution. November 8.
  13. Cadwalladr C (2020) Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’. The Guardian. January 4.
  14. boyd d (2017) Why America is Self-Segregating. apophenia. January 10.
  15. boyd d (2018) You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? Points. Data & Society. March 9.
  16. boyd d (2018) The Messy Fourth Estate. GEN. June 20.
  17. boyd d (2019) Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation. Points. Data & Society. April 26.
  18. Hilder P (2019) ‘They were planning on stealing the election’: Explosive new tapes reveal Cambridge Analytica CEO’s boasts of voter suppression, manipulation and bribery. openDemocracy. January 28. — This is more of the same information about social campaigns to manipulate outcomes.
  19. Sifry ML (2019) What Netflix’s ‘Great Hack’ Gets Wrong About Cambridge Analytica. The Nation. August 6. — This disputes the magic of the psychological profiling data. There plenty of reasons why this was effective without that data. And plenty of reasons why other groups can be more effective in certain cases. This may even be an example of media intent on gaslighting.
  20. CNYCentral. (2017) Syracuse residents react to new Trump agenda survey. CNYCentral. October 25.
  21. Bellware, K. & Shammas, B. (2019) RNC solicited money for Trump’s reelection with forms that look a lot like the official census. The Washington Post. October 1.
  22. Hessedal, K. (2020) Your Stories: RNC mailer looks like ‘imitation census’ form. CBS8. February 4.
  23. Perriman, L. (2019) I Got a Letter From ‘Melania’ Asking For Money And That’s Not Even The Weirdest Part. Political Dig. June 2.
  24. Davis, A. C., Boburg, S. (2017) Trump attorney Jay Sekulow’s family has been paid millions from charities they control. The Washington Post. June 27.
  25. Bardon A (2020) Humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don’t fit their worldview. The Conversation. January 31.
  26. Keizer K, Lindenberg S, Steg L (2008) The Spreading of Disorder. Science. 322(5908): 1681–1685. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1161405
  27. Quirk T (2020) Can This Notorious Troll Turn People Away From Extremism? Wired. January 15.
  28. Lewis H (2019) To Learn About the Far Right, Start With the ‘Manosphere’. The Atlantic. August 7.
  29. Basu T (2020) The “manosphere” is getting more toxic as angry men join the incels. MIT Technology Review. February 7.
  30. Ribeiro MH, et al. (2020) From Pick-Up Artists to Incels: A Data-Driven Sketch of the Manosphere. arXiv. arXiv:2001.07600
  31. Coppins M (2020) The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President. The Atlantic. February 6.
  32. Levine, B. E. (2020) “Shit-Life Syndrome,” Trump Voters, and Clueless Dems. Counterpunch. January 3.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer. From creative writing to more in-depth research, we seek to educate and fill the furtive gap of history’s connections to the present.

Jillian Ada Burrows

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I am very odd. One day, I’ll one-up myself and get even. If you like what I write, please share it. https://patreon.com/adaburrows

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer. From creative writing to more in-depth research, we seek to educate and fill the furtive gap of history’s connections to the present.

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