Thursday, April 20, 2017

Social Media, Religion and Post Truth

Fake news has been with mankind since people began gathering around the fire to past on tribal history and discuss recent events. It’s been with us since language began. “Propaganda” has been government policy for millennia. What the modern era has brought to us is the ability to disseminate any communication instantly and globally. Technology has amplified and powerfully manipulated this world of post-truth – “alternative facts.” And tons of people believe what they see and hear, often stubbornly clinging to such beliefs notwithstanding clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
The proclivity of people to believe fake news, unquestioningly, is disturbing: “A BuzzFeed analysis of the most-shared false election stories compared to the most-shared true election stories showed that fake outperformed real. Another survey found that fake news headlines fool American adults 75 percent of the time.
“Independent of partisanship, the idea that American political discourse centers more on falsehood than fact is concerning. In the age of the internet, information is supposed to be democratized — any adult can search independent fact-checking sites like PolitiFact or Snopes to see that the Sanders ballots and Pope endorsement stories have no basis in truth. But for some reason, a majority of us are still fooled. Why?
“In short, according to Northwestern psychology professor David Rapp, it’s how we’re wired. His research on memory and learning has shown that our minds quickly memorize information we learn, independent of its validity or source. If we later discover that it is false, that does not necessarily override the initial story.
“‘A lot of our research looks at what happens when people encounter information that’s not true, and when they know it’s not true,’ Rapp says. ‘We’ve shown that people will repeat that information and use it. We don’t know if they believe it, but we know they’re going to repeat it and we know they’re going to use it. That’s a real problem.’” Mind the Misinformation, Northwestern Magazine, Spring 2017.  What’s worse, the dissemination of fake news can be specifically targeted at those who would most want to believe those falsehoods.
Simply, technology is now being (and has been) deployed to plant stories, even to create the actual messages that are disseminated through some pretty scary automated processes specifically programmed to cater to the fears and prejudices of the American body politic, very effectively deployed by the Trump campaign. It can only get more manipulative as artificial intelligence becomes increasingly sophisticated and as tracking software gathers more personal information about each and every one of us. Here is just one example of how it’s done:
“By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.” The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine by Berit Anderson & Bret Horvath in Scout.AI.
But religious beliefs have challenged facts from the first moment humans recognized a deity. The unexplained was often “explained” by religious doctrine, and once embedded, that doctrine has often proven to be rather unshakeable even as science provided more logical results. As public education has flourished, it has frequently found itself in rather direct conflict with traditional religious teachings.
In modern history, religion and science have often traded places as to which force is more socially powerful. In the 1700s, the “Age of Reason” (including the “Age of Enlightenment”) – see my February 28th I Don’t Want Your Stickin’ Facts! for more – religious teachings were downgraded in a surge of political, technological, scientific and artistic growth. But with the violence of the class-leveling, anti-cleric French Revolution, the subsequent revulsion of that bloodshed soon returned religiosity to the fore and sent scientists scrambling for their lives.
That cycle has repeated itself, as evidenced in the United States in the battle between white Christian traditionalists – led by the religious right and Donald Trump – and younger, better-educated, culturally/ethnically/racially diverse voters whose heroes include neo-socialist Bernie Sanders. We’ve seen parallel movements all over the world as well. But now we have equally-power factions at odds with each other at the same time: religious fundamentalists vs. scientific realists. To understand how deep evangelical teachings have led to a massive social rejection of rather clear scientific fact, Molly Worthen, writing for the New York Times Sunday Review (April 13th),  explains how evangelicals are raised with beliefs defined in defiance of science:
“[To] to the Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, charges of ‘fake news’ are nothing new. ‘The deep distrust of the media, of scientific consensus — those were prevalent narratives growing up,’ she told me… Although Ms. Evans, 35, no longer calls herself an evangelical, she attended Bryan College, an evangelical school in Dayton, Tenn. She was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a ‘biblical worldview.’
“‘It was presented as a cohesive worldview that you could maintain if you studied the Bible,’ she told [Molly Worthen]. ‘Part of that was that climate change isn’t real, that evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God, and capitalism is God’s ideal for society.’
“Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.”
With too many staunch and hard-working Americans being marginalized by automation, economic polarization, and global competition, clearly lacking the skills necessary to prosper in an ultra-modern technologically-driven society, a rejection of that technology (and those who have pushed it forward) is understandable. Not fitting in or trusting these “modern changes,” there has been a resurgence in embracing evangelical Christianity, rejecting the principles underlying disruptive social and technical change. Unfortunately, history has never been kind to any nation that refuses to accept technological progress, since global competitors will always use cutting-edge technology to advance their own goals at the expense of societies that remain mired in traditional religiosity at the expense of such progressive change.
We are still trying to understand the impact of social media on the techno-political changes around us, to explain the extremes of polarization that seem to infect every aspect of our social fabric. It is conventional wisdom that the ability to filter out unwanted facts and affiliate with those of comparable beliefs is enabled by social media, hence fostering these polarized extremes.
“Many have argued that social media, where users can find their viewpoints reinforced with slanted news stories and the partisan commentary of friends, has played a role in reinforcing tribal political identities.
“That explanation has been percolating long enough and loud enough that it has even reached the Oval Office. In an interview he gave before leaving office, President Barack Obama gestured to the rise of social media as a key factor in the continuing political polarization of the United States, arguing that Americans were trapping themselves within filter bubbles, limiting their own perspectives…
“But a new working paper suggests that the demographic groups that have experienced the most political polarization in recent years are the ones least likely to be consuming media online… The paper, issued last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research and written by economics professors from Stanford and Brown Universities, found that the growth in political polarization was most significant among older Americans, who were least likely to use the internet between 1996 and 2012, the years for which data was available when the paper was written.
“Jesse M. Shapiro, an economics professor at Brown and one of the authors of the paper, detailed the paper’s findings in an interview on Wednesday [4/12]… ‘We found that basically, polarization is rising at least as fast for older Americans as it is for younger,’ he said. ‘So a simple story that says polarization is rising because people are consuming media online has some trouble explaining that fact.’” New York Times, April 13th.
In the end, looking at the rise of college education here in the United States, these traditional views – more heavily held by older and less-educated Americans – will fade and be replaced by… oh… that is the question. By what? How will we reconfigure our socio-political systems to deal with things like “jobs replaced by artificial intelligence” and rising ultra-violent religious groups intent on global conversion?
I’m Peter Dekom, and how humanity has dealt with continuous disruptive technology defines who we are… and what we are going to be.

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