At David Hill Elementary, our third and four grade teacher, Miss Wilkins, had a small library in the classroom which we were allowed to freely peruse on Thursdays during spelling tests, provided we had gotten 100% on Wednesday’s preliminary test. I generally did manage to get a perfect score on Wednesday and of all the books, I most liked one that had a very detailed picture of not one, but two Medieval castles. Movies about King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Prince Valiant further stoked my love of these fine days of knights and castles and kings and queens. Playing out fantasies with toy swords and shields seemed so much more satisfying than playing “cops and robbers” or even “army” which often devolved into shouting matches about who shot whom first. When someone got hit with a toy sword, they damned well knew it! That wasn’t the only reason for the attraction though. It seemed more honest and more “real” to battle someone with sword and spear than with guns. Even as a nine year old, it seemed clear that a much weaker person could kill a stronger one with a gun. All that was required was a fast draw or to shoot someone in an ambush.
For years, I made castles from cardboard boxes with the cardboard axles from paper towels as turrets. These allowed toy knights to be deployed in larger battles. One Christmas, I even received a “real” castle made of metal! This was one of the coolest presents ever. Now, decades later, it seems I, along with millions of other people may get to live out this childhood fantasy in a second “real” Dark Ages.
The thing is this; in the intervening years, I’ve been to real castles in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and France. They are cool. In fact, they are cold. And damp. They lack the basic comforts of today’s cheapest Motels. Falling from our intricate, inter-connected, inter-dependent computerized modernity into a new Dark Ages will not be as fun as you might think in case you are still harboring those childhood fantasies about Medieval Europe.
I hope people also realize that a descent into the brutality of the Dark Ages is not something that be easily undone either. Just as most of us have lost the skills to snare rabbits or find edible wild plants, the second generation of a new Dark Ages would not be able to program, let alone build, a computer. The third generation will be lucky to have a third grade “education” in terms of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Yes, there will hopefully be fragments of useful information scattered about, but without the social structures of public schools, universities, research institutions, private companies, markets, investment capital, etc., nothing will have enough context to succeed. Are people going to fund you to build a computer from scratch when they don’t even know what it is and they feel hungry right now? No. They will ask you to join the hunt or go hungry yourself when the goods are returned to the campfire, village, or tent.
By the way, this may be an extremely dangerous case of the “grass seeming greener on the other side of the pasture.” We are all quite familiar with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from our own modern world. But we woefully underestimate just how much less interesting, less healthy, less fun, less fulfilling, and less fair life would be in the dark ages. Most likely, you would die in childbirth. If you did live, you’d most likely be little more than a slave (yes, even if you’re “white”). You’d probably die around 30 or 40. If you’re lucky. You wouldn’t be playing video games or watching TV or listening to an iPod or texting on your iPhone. You probably wouldn’t even be reading a magazine or newspaper or book. If you get sick, you are very likely to die, unless of course you are staring in a movie about the Dark Ages and then you will be miraculously cured by your true love, or the magic ointment of a witch, or a vision of the Holy Grail. But in the real, Dark Ages, you’d die.
Even the kings and queens and bishops and knights of the “real” Dark Ages did not generally have life half so good as we have it. But your chances of being one of those pieces is pretty much nil. A chessboard may have 8 pawns a side and 8 “upper class” pieces, but in the real Dark Ages, it would be more like 10,000 pawns to one king or queen. You and I would be one of the pawns. Our basic job is to work from dawn to dusk until we die of illness or battle and give almost all of it to the noble who owned us. If we didn’t particularly enjoy farming or blacksmithing, too bad. We were stuck. If you worked extra hard and extra smart as a serf, your reward would be that you died younger. You would not “work your way up” to be King. No. You and your children would be serfs and so would all your grand-children. One thing to keep clearly in mind is that dictatorships, whether the dictator is called “Premier” or “Chairman” or “King” or “Tsar” are mainly for the people at the top.
I hope people do realize that even a modern country seldom gets the chance to “vote out” a dictatorship and say, “No, we liked it better as a democracy. We’ll take that again, please.” It doesn’t work like that. The view of someone who’s a dictator is that life is all about power and position — period. They are not going to give any of that, or the associated wealth, to other people. We may think the French Revolution might have considered “reasoning with” the aristocracy rather than beheading them. But after centuries of being tricked this way and that by the aristocracy, the aristocracy had no remaining credibility.
I bring this up, because if we collectively allow the continuing downward spiral of ill-informed shouting matches to continue, trust will continue to erode and society will unravel. We will find ourselves in another Dark Ages and it will be far less fun than my (and perhaps your) childhood fantasies of the Dark Ages might be.
This plague of divisiveness that is sweeping America as well as other democracies, is a truly vicious circle. It now seems crystal clear that this is precisely the effect that was intended by a foreign power (some Russians with ties to oligarchs and former KGB personnel). I call this a “vicious circle” not simply because it is mean-spirited in intent and execution (though it is) but because it constitutes a positive feedback loop. For example, the more we feel our own political party, value system, religion, or favorite candidates are under attack, the more anxious and angry we become. This makes us less discerning; when we do encounter “fake news,” we are so eager to validate our own positions and predilections that we fail to execute good judgement about whether the “news” is really fake or not.
The “good thing” about a vicious circle, aka “positive feedback loop” is that it can be run backwards to de-escalate bad feelings and reduce the effectiveness of fake news. In the earlier “cold war” between the USSR and the USA, you may recall or at least have read about an “arms race” to make more and more nuclear weapons aimed at each other. Every time the Russians increased their arms, it made the US leaders feel less secure so they increased their arms. But every time America added more nuclear missiles, it made the Russians feel less secure so they added more nuclear missiles. It seems like a runaway process. If either side can calm themselves enough to understand the system that they are a part of — and if they are brave enough, they can (and in fact did!) run the circle the other way. When the USA reduced the number of missiles aimed at the USSR, the USSR felt slightly more secure and felt okay to aim fewer missiles at America. That made American leaders feel more secure and they could further reduce atomic weapons.
Similarly, in the USA and other democracies today, if we can step back and understand that the increased divisiveness is not good for anyone, we can begin to “rewind” or “unwind” this ever escalating hate speech. Each “side” will feel a little more secure and a little more willing to take the time to exercise good judgement about what is best for America, for example, rather than simply “sharing” or “retweeting” the best zingers. It will take time to build confidence and to right the “ship of state.” But it can be done.
I believe that there are three major arenas for actions that democracies can take to reduce divisiveness. The first area is what individuals can do. That is what I will discuss today. To simplify writing, and because I am most familiar with it, I will pose these actions and arguments in terms of the USA, but the general strategies might work in any society that wants to increase cohesion and decrease divisiveness. In two future blog posts, I will examine: 1) how changes in social media algorithms and interfaces might contribute in a positive way to increasing social capital across constituencies and 2) how government regulations (or voluntary agreements in industry) may also help stamp out the worst of fake news.
But let’s begin with what you and I can do to stop this madness. Because right now, most of us are actually contributing to the divisiveness plague without really meaning to. Rather than suggesting specific news sources that are good or bad, I recommend a set of questions to ask yourself about on-line communications. When someone posts or tweets a link to a story, you might ask some of the following questions.
Who are the advertisers or funders of a purported piece of news? If you click on a link and you go to a site filled with pop-up ads, banner ads, and side bar ads, what are those ads about? Do the ads themselves have credibility? Is it really all that likely that some new oil of oregano will cure every disease known to humanity? Or, that there is “one trick” that will make everyone find you sexually irresistible? What is the relationship between the image and headline that got you to click on something and the actual substance? What is the source of the story clicked on? Is this something you’ve heard of for twenty years like CNN, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes, or even The National Enquirer? Or is it something that has sprung up recently? Naturally, a newspaper might sometimes get stories wrong too, but most of their revenue comes from subscriptions. By contrast, most on-line sources only gain revenue from ads. By the way, just because there is a website with a picture of a soldier or eagle or flag or Bible does not mean its stories are real. A fake Russian news article is not going to announce itself by saying, “We’re trying to destroy your country!” nor by having a site branded with a hammer and sickle.
When it comes to evaluating a news story, sometimes it helps to consider whether it is likely based on what you know about reality. What people know about reality, of course, varies a lot from person to person. If you’ve never taken a biology course or forgotten everything, you might think a headline such as “New Hope for the Dead!” or “The Zombie Apocalypse is Real!” could be true. But even if you’ve forgotten almost everything from biology class, you do know that there are doctors who dedicate their lives to learning about medicine and practicing it. If there were really, “New Hope for the Dead,” your doctor probably would have heard about it long before your seeing it in an on-line tabloid. They might well have mentioned it to you at your last physical. “Yes, you have really high blood pressure and that is a bad thing. However, if you do die, we have a new procedure to bring back to life.” You might ask your insurance agent what they think. “Hey Joe. Hi, this is Frank. I just read this article entitled New Hope for the Dead. Do I still need life insurance?” You might ask someone else who knows a lot more about life science that you do. You might google “New Hope for the Dead” and see what other types of sites collaborate the original story. There is no single method for checking the validity of a story, but there are some general principles that are always good for problem solving. Think of alternatives and think of consequences.
Maybe there really is new hope for the dead. That’s one possibility. Or, maybe there isn’t and someone wants to make you believe there is. Why might they do that? To get you to spend money would be one reason. Another might be just to make you feel anxious or angry or jealous. Another might be to make your distrust your fellow human beings. In that latter case, the story would be slanted slightly differently; for instance, “AMA refuses to acknowledge life-restoring value of rhino horn!” This story is trying to get you to believe that rhino horn can bring you back to life and that the American Medical Association is intentionally hiding that fact from you.
How well do you keep secrets? If you’re like many people, your idea of “keeping a secret” is to tell only your closest friend or two and swear them to secrecy. They will likely do the same. Eventually, secrets tend to “come out.” The idea that among a quarter million AMA members, they are all going to successfully keep a secret from the public does not hold water. A more “reasonable” conspiracy theory would be that three doctors did something unethical and kept anyone from discovering their unethical behavior.
Aside from making judgements about the stories, links, shares, tweets that we see, we also need to make judgements about what we ourselves communicate. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else to consider four basic criteria:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind to everyone involved?
- Is it useful to the recipient?
- Is this story going to increase or decrease trust?
If you cannot discover the truth value of a story, you might pick for sharing something you are fairly certain is true instead. Or, you could ask others if the story is likely true. Or, you could preface it by saying that you are not sure whether it’s true and you wonder what other people think.
Think about whether what you are propagating is kind. Of course, there are times when a truth will make someone feel bad. For example, if you’re interested in baseball, you might report on a pitcher walking in the winning run. If that’s what he, in fact, did, he will not especially like being reminded. I wouldn’t personally call this “unkind” though. If on the other hand, you embellished the report, it could easily become unkind. “So-called relief pitcher Wiley Wrists should be relieved permanently from the Red Sox lineup.” Or, worse, “Wiley Wrists is too fat and ugly to walk to the mound without waddling, let along pitch!”
Will the information be useful? In the case of Wiley Wrists, most people are not going to find it useful. A few gamblers or baseball players might find it useful. The useful part, by the way, is simply the fact of his losing the game by walking in the winning run. Making fun of people generally adds no value, makes no friends, and increases bad feelings.
The criteria of truth, utility, and kindness are not my own inventions. I think they are pretty much inculcated into the face to face culture I was brought up in. I have seen these explicitly repeated in numerous forums. But the fourth one I think is also important and while related to the others, deserves its own consideration.
If we want to avoid another Dark Ages, (and I mean, the real ones, not the childhood fantasy version), we need to do what we can to restore trust among the very diverse people we have in our country, whatever country you live in. As I said before, because we have such different experiences and backgrounds, it will naturally take us longer to find common ground. Yet, at the same time, we are being driven to faster and faster schedules and timeframes. Our communications may be misinterpreted or clumsy, but at least strive to communicate in a way that tends to increase rather than decrease trust. There are actually very few people that I distrust intensely. So calling them out on being untrustworthy is true and useful. It’s impact on trust is complicated. I believe that the untrustworthy in government are intentionally destroying trust in the country. If those untrustworthy people are trusted? Then, we are collectively toast.
Similarly, some modern politicians are doing things that are genuinely unkind; in fact, they are downright nasty. It is not really kind to them for me to point this out. On the other hand, if we can get rid of politicians who pass legislation that tries to destroy America or make it a crueler, meaner place, then even though the message is unkind to some, it hopefully encourages people to prevent turning America into Amerikkka. And, that is the kind of kind that trumps nice words.