Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Let's give everyone a pocket supercomputer, then allow them to view the world through social media feedback loops. Not the greatest idea. All this instant access to news, videos, comments and opinions hasn’t made us savvier. In fact, the opposite is true.
Fringe elements and nutters can get their message out in the mainstream unfiltered by any debate. Add to that fake news, hate speech and internet bullying. The whole medium is toxic. Reason and principled discussion falls away in favour of instant opinion sharing.
As an example, and he’s not alone, Trump understands this well. He exploited it during his election campaign to distract and gas-light us en masse. In office, he continues to distract by putting out misinformation. On 20th March 2017 Trump tweeted ... "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process.” This is false. A complete lie. Yet, he achieved his aim of sidetracking the news agenda.
If you’re a Trump supporter, who feeds off the noise from his echo chamber, this is what you want to hear. Confirmation bias, the tendency to see things as affirming an existing worldview, is fed by this process. The nexus of our mini supercomputers, social media and human behaviour has profound consequences. Layered on top of that is the human trait of not wanting to be wrong. Thus debate is not possible when the only intention is to destroy the other guy's stance.
This leads to polarisation, plus a degree of anti-intellectualism. At one extreme is a worship of one’s own ignorance. In a recent discussion with friends, I asserted “We all came from Africa, the evidence is in our DNA”. The swift response from one lady was “Prove it”. I suggested several books she could read. “I don’t have time for that, is there something short on YouTube I can watch”. Well, yes there is. But none has the depth of facts offered in the books.
Of course, the ultimate danger lies in the radicalization of individuals online. Terrorists and extremists have successfully weaponised social media. It provides global reach at no cost for a hateful agenda. Images are powerful drivers for humans. With social media as the perfect delivery system. The lone wolf operates outside visible groups, remaining off the radar of the security services. Thus disruption needs new tools against terrorist activity.
There is hope, although the civil libertarians may not like it. Algorithms helped defeat the spread of child-porn images. Each image has a unique digital signature. Once identified, a database is built. This helps prevent the spread through duplication, splicing or other methods of change. These techniques led to the deletion of millions of illegal images, audio and video. Silicon Valley adopted these automatic systems to offset liability issues. The same processes can be applied to extremists.
A delicate line will need walking between freedom of speech and promoting terrorism. On occasions that line may be crossed, but if in the process lives are saved the cost is worth paying.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.