Antisocial Media

I got caught up in food waste this morning and completely forgot what I was going to blog about. It was this; last night I finished watching a deeply disturbing but thoroughly convincing documentary about the negative effects of social media and how its monetisation brings about a profound disharmony in society. We all know about echo chambers but I tended to think it was because birds of a feather flock together, because you’re more likely to have friends who agree with you and they suggest more friends who have the same world view, and so on. But it goes way beyond that; Facebook’s algorithms are like currents which push people together by suggesting products, stories, groups and people which are likely to reinforce your world view. All manner of things result from this, such as the manufacturing of outrage (I think it was the perpetual raising of my blood pressure which finally convinced me to stay off the pernicious blue pages) which has got so bad it’s become like the two minute hate. But unlike 1984 this all seems to be coming from the free and open dissemination of information by individual citizens. It ain’t. It’s coming from advertisers.

The effect on politics is devastating. There’s little or no nuance any more: TV and radio debates are basically boxing matches where people shout ‘boo’ words and ‘hurrah’ words and try to signal that they are on the right side and their opponents are villains. There’s always been some of this, especially in party politics, but it’s now far worse, since as the documentary says, ‘we don’t talk to each other any more.’ I’m as guilty of this as anyone, which is why I’m staying off Facebook.

Perhaps the most insidious thing that the endless blue pages do is to hook you back in. If you spend too much time away, it’ll wow you with notifications and suggestions; it’ll tell you someone has messaged you when they haven’t (see yesterday’s post) and when you look to check, there are all your other notifications, along with suggestions, friend requests, videos and – ‘oh, we care about you and your memories. Take a look at this photo from ten years ago.’ Aaaand – you’re back. I have found it extraordinarily difficult to stay off Facebook. Of course I could delete my account altogether but then I lose one of the platforms for this blog, I lose updates about local events – and most importantly, I lose a free and instantaneous way of communicating with my friends. So I’m hovering around the edges, dipping a toe in now and again and trying to stay clear. But I can testify that social media is very addictive. It appears to give you everything but in fact gives you nothing. So every time I’m tempted I keep repeating this mantra:

If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

And here’s the documentary.

Kirk out

What is Truth?

From time to time this blog will wax philosophical and grapple with the hard questions – and today we consider the question posed by Pontius Pilate to Jesus: What is Truth? I’ve always thought Pilate got a bad press; he didn’t after all want to condemn Jesus and like any politician he was just looking for a way out. In the end it was the Pharisees who killed Jesus; the Romans were merely the instrument, though god knows they were hardly pacifists.

It’s easier in a way to say what truth is not: or perhaps where it is not. It is not in government briefings, that’s for sure – these have not been so much economical with the truth as austere with it. It is not in any of Dominic Cummings’ ‘explanations’ of his recent outings (this episode of Have I Got News for You takes him apart brilliantly). There is a saying that truth will out, and sometimes it seems accurate. But it doesn’t always. Will we ever know who Jack the Ripper really was? Or why Dominic Cummings actually went to Barnard Castle?

Truth is like gold; it must be tested before being accepted as real. Truth can come from any source, though trust must count for something and those who lie for a living must expect to be routinely disbelieved even when they tell the truth (a stopped clock is right twice a day, it’s just that without another clock you can’t tell when.)

Is beauty truth, as Keats put it? And if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does that mean truth is there also? The trouble with where we are now is that truth is plural. There’s your truth and my truth, and they run on parallel lines or else go off at tangents. There may seem to be a consensus but as social media highlights, there are raging whirlwinds of opinion in all corners of society. Yes, everyone has a right to be heard; but not all opinions are equally valid, and without proper debate the truth of them can never be tested. We’ve moved from a situation where only the elite were purveyors of truth – like dealers in indigo in ancient Rome – to a situation where everyone has their opinion and the winner is the one who can shout – or shoot – the loudest. It may look like freedom but it’s actually a free-for-all: equality plus competition equals mayhem.

What then do we need? I would respectfully suggest the following list, which is far from exhaustive:

That no-one, not even scientists, has a monopoly on truth. Truth may come from anywhere but, like scientific theory, needs to be subjected to rigorous debate and testing.

That the polarisation of debate leads to a fragmented and chaotic society. I generally do not unfriend people I disagree with on Facebook (unless they become abusive) but the tendency of Facebook to become an echo chamber tends towards the maximum.* Unless we’re careful we can spend all our time talking to people who agree with us or abusing those who don’t.

That we need open, honest and above all respectful debate. Everyone, no matter who they are or what their position in society, has the right to an opinion. But like scientific data these opinions must be tested rigorously, by being subject to question and debate. It is not a denial of someone’s free speech to suggest that they are talking bollocks; nor is it abusive to demolish their argument. But all too quickly such debates end in abuse.

That we need more face-to-face contact. People are rarely as rude in real life as they are on social media; plus the extra-linguistic factors help to convey what mere printed words cannot. Tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, body language – these all help us to understand what the other person is saying, and emojis are no substitute.

This is not rocket science. So when lockdown ends, let’s get to it!

Kirk out

* The second law of socioodynamics, perhaps?

And guess what I found after posting this? I found this:

This Post Will Self-Destruct in Ten Seconds

When I was a child one of my favourite TV series was ‘Mission: Impossible’ (not the films – those came later.)

At the beginning of each programme a disembodied voice would say: ‘Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is…’ and I would be on tenterhooks lest they choose not to accept it and there would be no programme.  In fact one week they did choose not to accept it, though thankfully they changed their minds a moment later.  Phew!  The music was thrilling and there was a fuse burning down across the screen – very exciting:

I must have had a deep attachment to programmes back then (I know my life was ruined if I didn’t get to watch ‘Batman’) but somehow as you grow up the attachment wanes: and one programme I have never been tempted to watch is anything with Matey Popkins on it.  In fact I think as a media troll Matey should get as little publicity as possible, which is why I’ve given her a pseudonym, and why this post will self-destruct once it has been read.

The trouble with trolls is that they feed on attention, which is why it may have been a mistake for Theatr Clwyd to put on a play entitled ‘The Assassination of Matey Popkins’:

Of course Matey, impulsive little scamp that she is, didn’t trouble to find out what the play was actually about and turned up out of nowhere with a giant billboard saying something about free speech or whatever (yeah, yeah).  But the trouble with satire is that unless you know it’s satire, it can look exactly like the thing you’re satirising: so that if all you know is the title, ‘The Ass of Matey Popkins’, rather than coming across as an examination of social media, seems like something much more sinister and intolerant.

Which brings us back to the world of dear old Matey – who has had enough publicity for one day and needs to go back to bed.  Night, night Matey!

Please click the ‘like’ button, after which this post will self-destruct in ten seconds.  Please stand clear of your computer. 

Ten… nine… eight…

Kirk out