Originally I called this piece - Why you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts…. And how this distinction is critical for the future of civilization itself, but my friend said it was a shit title- and he is usually always right. So yes, whilst what we are talking about today is large and somewhat nihilistic concepts of truth and existential angst, let’s try to keep it light and airy with the end goal of being zen in the face of glaring morons on social media.
Let’s start by stating the obvious, we all are allowed our opinions. The one-woman-show which is this blog is literally one big fat opinion reverberating in the echo chamber of its own virtual walls. I understand and am well aware that not everyone holds the same opinions as me, which is both ok and actually good. As society, we have grown and developed by learning to socialise and empathise with one another, to understand opinions which differ to our own, whether to sharpen our own ideas or to lay them down in service of something better.
However, a recent phenomenon, thanks mostly to the wonderfully devastating work of social media, is that you can now also have your own facts, your personal universe of scientific truth. The ability to talk about anything is no longer tied to the sturdy foundation of facts, to which everyone agrees, builds upon, and then gets to interpret their own perspective from. How we have developed as social creatures in the past years/decades of digitalisation has fostered a cherry picking truth bonanza. The now widespread acceptance of this form of communication as part of our daily lives - and the algorithms which guide it - has transformed the ways we interact with one another, and our (in)ability to come together… Let me explain.
The algorithms of social media giants have come under mass scrutiny of late, and for fair reason. These algorithms are programmed to prioritise and promote things which grab and keep our attention, however, without the obvious ability to make moral judgements. Thus, these platforms are geared with the sole aim and end goal to boost digital consumption, with little reflection as to why certain content seems to become viral, and if it should.
Outrage, rage and fear are some of the most powerful emotions we are governed by and are extremely easily tapped into. The algorithm has learnt that these more banal parts of our human psyche are the most easily exploitable in order to achieve goals of optimal engagement with the sites. By specifically targeting and curating content which relates to each of our personal senses of outrage and angst, they can keep our attention and more easily elicit our engagement (and in short = exact more revenue). The real life ramifications of this, as studies have shown, is how these platforms are linked to increasing bipartisanship, political violence, polarisation and cyber bullying, and have negative effects for mental health, including increasing levels of isolation, depression, anxiety, and self-absorption/narcissism (Arthur 2021).
Combine this with a faltering and flailing journalism sector, where quality journalism is often only available to the rich who can afford what are the actual costs for producing peer-reviewed and accountable news content. As well as the growing calls of capitalism to transform every platform, even sometimes these journalistic sites into outrage producing media machines- sowing more distrust. To this, stir in a large heaping of recklessness by these social media platforms as they fail to address any misinformation and harmful fake news which exploits - and manifests- people’s growing sense of mistrust for politics and ‘elitist’ expert opinions. And lastly, add a sprinkle of global corporate takeover, as facebook's offer of providing their ‘services’ in economically less developed regions has made data usage for their sites mostly free- thus essentially becoming the Internet and source of information for a large proportion of the world.
When placed in the pressure cooker of globalization, what we have as an end product is a large portion of the world finding their ‘news’, and in effect their truth, specifically curated for them by algorithms that are programmed to radicalise beliefs through slow social warming processes of outrage.
All in all, we have people who no longer fight about opinions on how best to solve and deal with climate change, but if climate change is really that real. On the extreme right end of the spectrum, we end up with people believing in Q’anon and other conspiracy theories. All of this tapping into a deep and very real anxiety of lack of control and existential angst. In a vastly complicated and sometimes random and unfair world, conspiracy theories work by helping us feel like we understand, we are in control, and we have agency in this complex and overwhelming mess that is human life.
It is little wonder we have ended up here, where something as seemingly scientific as a vaccine in the face of a global pandemic has turned political. Now, the responsibility to protect not only ourselves, but those immuno-compromised around us is no longer fueled by a narrative based on science and statistical analysis produced by experts in the field. But the argument shifts to being based on personally curated ‘facts’, and powerful yet vague and abstract notions of freedom, rights, justice and security.
We have slowly transformed the social conditions of society to accept that everyone’s facts are valid in the same way that everyone’s opinion is valid. This is dangerous territory as we live in a world teetering on human-made climate crisis- if not already there- a global pandemic and a visible crisis in democracy as seen in many populist election wins, coups, and genocidal state actions. Crises which can be overcome by the power we have seen time and time again thanks to the collective spirit of human endeavour and ingenuity. But unfortunately, not when this convenient rise in social media and subsequently, mistrust and mis-information causes the ever deepening wound of anger and outrage to fester, making any effort to combat these important struggles nie impossible.
Now comes the how-to we’ve all been waiting for. If you encounter someone whose actions and beliefs dumbfound you, first thing’s first: get the facts. If you can establish the necessary factual foundation for a lively debate then have at it. Offer to read whatever peer-reviewed academic work they are basing their claims upon. And if they fail to come up with something a respectable proportion of scientists or experts in that field would put their name to, then move on. It’s not worth the time and the energy. Leave it on read, and make it clear that an argument without a foundation of facts is as beneficial as a pissing competition on a windy day- it will be messy, there will be no clear winner in the process, and everyone will be leaving a little pissed off (or on) in the end.
Be aware of your triggers and know that being outraged is a convenient and sometimes satisfying past-time, but all in all not usually worth it. It’s better to become aware of our personal outrage triggers, to take a deep breath in and choose the zen of either fair debates based on facts, or log off, go have yourself a cute little cup of tea, and leave the rest of the world simmering in their own little outrage cocoons.