Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? Part 6
(read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)
My last post was on happiness, this is the exact opposite.
As you all know by now the US has elected a ultra right wing dictator wannabe who the only hope he gives to continued freedom in this country is that he has no idea what the hell he is doing.
This comes just months after the UK did something extremely stupid and voted to leave the European Union.
Both were campaigns built on lies, both were billed as “protest votes” of the status quo.
Both got their start as internet memes.
Nobody thought the UK would vote to leave Europe, the very idea was ludicrous. At the same time nobody thought an illiterate celebrity would become President of the United States.
And yet here we are. Both results created overnight economic recessions that we may never recover from. The desire to “stick it to the man” is a universal one, but sticking it to the man is not smart when “the man” signs your paychecks.
But don’t think this is isolated to just the US and UK. Awful people and policies are being voted on around the world for the same reasons.
The Role of the Internet Press
Old fashioned media is dying. News today is all about the click bait, paid advertising, and getting eyeballs and email subscribers. The internet is becoming filled with “humor” websites that just rehash lists and funny news stories from two or more years ago (so you forget if you already read it) and turn them into slideshows that slow your internet down with advertisement gifs and videos.
(Personally, if one of these sites publishes something I am interested in, I will just google the title and find the original story sans ads, or barring that, right click and view source and see all the slideshow text right there buried in the code. But I digress.)
The thing is, the news is driven by clicks and memes. If a story can’t generate clicks, it goes unreported.
Brexit generated clicks in the UK, people were fascinated by the idea of Britain without Europe. Eventually they lost site of the fact that it was a really bad idea, but less educated working class thought it might be fun to try something different.
Similarly, Donald Trump generated clicks in the US. For some reason, people have this myth that if we ran government like a business, it would work better, and therefore a businessman should run government. No one bothered to find out that it NEVER works! Every businessman elected to high government office has failed miserably. I give you Governor Evan Mecham as a typical historical example.
It is estimated that Trump got $4 Billion in free air time from the complicit American media. In a campaign season that cost $5 Billion, that is a lot of free advertising.
The media wouldn’t report on Trump so much if it didn’t bring in clicks. TV news got higher ratings with Trump, and internet based news got millions in new ad revenue.
The media is not going to turn that kind of money down in the interest of equal time.
For that reason, I blame the media — all of it, both “liberal” and “conservative” — for Trump’s victory.
Memes are Ruining Democracy
The term “meme” originated from the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. The meme is a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, and like a gene the best ones replicate themselves into human culture.
Memes have always been a part of US politics. From “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” to “Yes We Can” the meme has been a major factor in elections. And they are not always positive. “Daisy” was a negative meme that won Lyndon Johnson the White House in 1964.
With the internet, memes find a huge petri dish to replicate rather rapidly into millions, sometimes billions of minds.
In an article in the Guardian by Daniel Haddow, he makes the case that this petri dish has a major negative effect on intelligent discourse:
What’s novel here is an inversion of control – political memes are no longer rare flashes of uncensored personality or intensely manicured visual messages. They are now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up. They have grown into a form of anarchic folk propaganda, ranging from tolerable epigrams to glittering hate-soaked image macros akin to a million little rogue Pravdas.
Like me, you probably have more than a few Facebook friends who make it their life’s work to circulate political memes in hopes of influencing how you see the world. They are our deadbeat uncles, former co-workers and long-forgotten high school acquaintances. They are agents of nowhere, apparatchiks of nothing in particular. And through the raw power of mass replication, even their most insipid ideas are able to surface from below. By typing some text on an image and sharing it with friends, they too have a voice capable of reaching a critical mass.
The reason why it is now possible for Darryl from Accounting who hates “social justice warriors” to have the same communicative power as a television network is down to the DNA of the medium: speed and lack of gatekeepers. Memes thrive on a lack of information – the faster you can grasp the point, the higher the chance it will spread.
He then links to a Breitbart article written by propagandist Milo Yiannopoulos (a very pro-Trump web site) which explains the use of meme warfare, or as he calls it “Meme Magic” in getting Trump all that free publicity:
Trump’s supporters have treated the campaign as one long trollfest. First Jeb, then Marco and finally Lyin’ Ted all stumbled and fell before the chaotic power of Trump’s troll army. Facing a hilarious combination of in-jokes, YouTube remixes, and Photoshop mashups, Trump’s opponents were subjected to non-stop ridicule from the cultural powerhouses of the web.
The internet made them look stupid. The internet made them look weak. And what begins on /pol/ and leaks out into Twitter has a way of colouring media coverage and, ultimately, public perception, even among people who don’t frequent message boards.
The power of Trump’s branding is partly down to the media’s hunger for drama — but it’s also in large part due to his internet supporters, who have an uncanny ability to create and popularize cultural tropes. Or, as we on the internet have come to know them, memes.
At their most basic, meme warfare presented an opportunity for individuals to seize control of the means of media production from corporate interests. It was a viral and open-source medium that would allow individuals to compete for attention against the all-consuming hydra of advertising, marketing and public relations.
This line of thinking was, in retrospect, breathtakingly naive. It assumed that the act of meme generation by a non-corporate entity would be innately good. Like many instances of the tech-centric idealism, it would unravel in spectacular fashion. It’s not that anti-corporate activists were wrong about how the internet could be leveraged to change politics – it’s that they were terribly right.
To Meme or Not To Meme
The success of internet trolling in shaping the debate in this election will go down in history as a watershed moment.
Do we condemn it? Or do we create an actual meme war — debate social issues with nothing but memes devoid of intellectual honesty as long at it infects the viewers brains.
Science and rational, logical thought should be the tools of debate. Meme warfare has undermined rational though in favor of easy tag lines, which are often false (“England is better off without Europe”) or too simplistic and unrealistic (“Let’s build a wall”).
George Orwell was absolutely right! “Newspeak”, the language of propaganda and control, is now alive and well in internet memes.
Memes are a Symptom of Democracy Run Amok
Back in the 90’s I was big into philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s Republic parts 8 and 9, Plato describes the tendency for different forms of government to morph into others. History has proven Plato right time and time again. His most upsetting is the transformation from democracy to tyranny:
“Can liberty have any limit? Certainly not…By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses…The son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom…Citizens…chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority… they will have no one over them…Such…is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny…Liberty overmasters democracy…the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction…The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery…And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty… “
So what does this mean? I’ll explain shortly in more modern terms.
But first, Andrew Sullivan took this as a starting point in an excellent article written in May of this year, which turned out too prescient: Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic
Democracy to Tyranny in the Internet Age
The internet has democratized media, putting every poster, blogger, and vlogger in charge of the news to their followers. This ultimately created “bubbles” of followers who follow their favorite internet media stars to the exclusion of actual researched and vetted information.
These “bubbles” have their own version of reality often very at odds with actual reality: “Obama is a secret Muslim!”, “Immigration is killing our jobs!”, “The government is hiding space alien corpses at Groom Lake!”, “The “rapture” will happen soon so we don’t need to worry about the environment!”
The mainstream media no longer has control of public conscience, and as a result there is no common understanding of “facts”. Civilization requires a common understanding among its citizens.
Once lies become widespread among many bubbles, it becomes a substitute for the actual facts, thus a new fantasy reality is born.
We have self sorted ourselves into different groups who live in different realities and moralities. It is no longer possible for people living in one reality to communicate with members of another reality and convince them of anything.
Eventually, as Plato predicted, one “reality” will become tired of the belittling of its fantasy reality and will seek a tyrant to impose the “new reality” on the unenlightened.
Democracy becomes a dictatorship. Trump has all the qualities of a tyrant, if we let him become one.
The Internet is No Longer a Reliable Source of Anything
Since I wrote this a new chapter has arisen in this drama. “Fake News” is being blamed for Trump. Specifically, Facebook and Google’s complicity in spreading fake news reports without identifying them as fake.
At the start of this series, I mentioned that the internet as it currently stands is predominantly controlled by a handful of websites. Facebook, Google and Wikipedia are among them.
The problem with this consolidation is it reduces what it takes to control the truth. This TED talk explains “astroturfing” or fake grass roots movements to control “research” with marketing.
Google is trying to do its part by cutting off paid advertising on fake news sites, thus cutting off their main source of income. Considering how easy it is for fake news to bubble to the top of Google News, I am not sure it is enough.
Facebook is quietly figuring out what to do. Earlier this year it was revealed that Facebook adjusts their “trending” list based on the readers perceived biases. This caused a bit of a conservative backlash which halted moves to expand the program to keep “fake news” from trending. Due to their complicity in creating “President Elect Trump” they will no doubt do something eventually.
As the video above points out, Wikipedia has its own problems with what is truth and what is fake. They are supposed to have their own safeguards, but increasingly it is not working out that way.
And so we are left with a conundrum: Where can we get the truth? An even worse conundrum: How do we survive in a world where the “majority” believes the lies?