My latest piece for the New York Times returns to a key question: how should we grapple with the current historic transformation of the public sphere? I focus on the Alex Jones trial and verdict, but my question is about the future: what can we do, what should we do, to prevent future cases?
Zeynep -- One obvious thing that can be done, not mentioned in your article: when popular media figures mislead millions in their audience, it should be reported as front-page news in papers like the NY Times, Washington Post, etc. I don't mean marginal "fact check" articles that no one reads, I mean big headlines. The failure of mainstream media publications to address failures and breakdowns in their own realm -- which admittedly would require them to hold to standards people who probably travel in their own circles, eat at the same restaurants, go to the same parties -- is a big part of the problem.
Great article as always. Interesting reference to the possible causal relationship between the invention of printing press and thirty-year wars. One might argue that the printing press enabled more people to disseminate written word, which used to be a church monopoly (monks hand-duplicating church-approved texts).
Popularity of charlatans like Alex Jones and some Fox News announcers might be being helped by misinformation peddled elsewhere by others to enhance their political and business interests. Misinformation produces a confidence crisis exploited by those who can. I am afraid there is no quick fix. In the long run (when unfortunately we all are dead), the situation is bound to improve as people become better critical thinkers. In the meantime, disinterested intellectuals on all sides can help by trying to be more objective and truthful in their contributions to the discourse. It will also help if we try to form platforms where sane and substantive discussion can take place between different viewpoints.
Finally, in my view, you are one of the disinterested public intellectuals (unfortunately they are quite rare) who are trying to do the right thing and that is why your voice is so important. I read everything you write with great interest. Please keep it up.
Zeynep makes a very good point as always.. Two cases: Zeynep pulled alarm bell on the AIRBORNE nature of the SARS-Cov2 virus, we read her and reported on it & and all scientific petitions / articles in our publications (AMR ThinkDoTank, Geneva, The AMR/COVID19 Brief). As the Lancet COVID19 Commission reports highlighted, Zeynep was right, we were right, but WHO, CDC, national authorities were /and many still are, in error, assuming transmission within one meter or 2, and many useless SCREENS in shops... Then there is a debate on moldupiravir (read W. Haseltine in Forbes). So, it is a thorny issue !!
Thank you for attention to this essential problem. Friction is very good as one start. Also a modified version of the Fairness Doctrine as you say. The misinformation for profit (and importantly, for political gain) underlies many critical problems facing democracy, I hope you can turn your impressive capabilities to this for a while. Have you considered advising or teaming up with an advocacy organization that will work for several years to get such laws passed?
Zeynep - I was just part of a group event a few weeks back that focused on coming together to solve societal leadership issues . It was on the heels in the UN Assembly. So a timely intersection of individuals thinking about our moment in time, discussing far reaching issues and listening to global observations.
One of the comments that stuck with me is - “we are in a crisis of trust”. There is ample evidence all around us. The Edelman Trust Index shows our historical sources of truth - religion, government, institutions, organizations, media, and individuals have or are failing us. Couple that with the invention of the World Wide Web and we have created the worlds largest amplifier and megaphone to fuel the unintended consequences of its makers.
Given their are 17 UN SDG’s each with a visionary goal to solve by 2030, it seems like need a new one and with a sense of urgency - #18 Source of Truth.
I submit we need a new social contract on the magnitude of the Magna Carta for mankind in the 21st century. The Genie is out of the bottle.
One thing most of these articles (including this one) miss is that misinformation is not a "push" phenomenon, where people are getting tricked by Alex Jones' lies, but rather a "pull" situation, where people are searching out the stuff they want to hear and then using it to justify the positions they already had. It will always be lucrative to lie to audiences, because the audiences are searching out the people who will tell them this stuff. Right now, the online headline for this piece is "We Should Try to Prevent Another Alex Jones." But even if Alex Jones had never existed, someone else would have filled the void.
Most of these articles also assume that people have fixed opinions based on evidence, but in my experience most people (particularly on the conservative fringe) have very general ideas of what is going on. Their narrative is not so much "This is what is happening" as "This is the kind of thing that happens". So was the Sandy Hook shooting fake? Well, probably; that is the sort of thing that happens. It doesn't matter how much evidence you throw out there because while the big picture ideas are real (in this case, "Gun Control Is Bad"), the actual evidence in always intangible and nebulous.
One final point: do intelligent people like Tucker Carlson or JD Vance truly believe the stuff they say? Probably not. But is the hatred real? I think that is not faked at all. I don't know if Tucker Carlson really believed that the US actually physically sabotaged the Nord Stream pipeline, but I think he sincerely thinks that his enemies are morally guilty of doing so, even if they didn't actually literally do it.
The real problem here is the lack of smooth interactions between the local tribe, regional and State entities and the international order. When humans were tribal, the policing function of deviant behavior at the tribal level was severe, because toxic personalities might mean the death of the tribe. Now, people with toxic personalities can link up electronically with others and create real mayhem based on all kinds of idiocy that tribal peoples would never have tolerated.
The other problem is that when living was subsistence, hunting and foraging skill and basic homebuilding and sustenance technologies were something everyone had to know. With advanced industrial civilizations, smart but lazy greedy people who don't want to work so hard look at these complex systems, figure out how to extract wealth from them at the points of most vulnerability, call this "work," and live lives a relative opulence.
Global civilization never really figured out how to scale appropriately in a just manner. Once we got conscious, we figured out how to make daggers and swords and have spent our cultural inheritences killing one another rather than improving our spirits and psyches. All over the world many large nations are essentially ruled by cliques of domineering males whose rule is ultimately grounded on physical threat of violence. While rule of Alpha in a pack of dogs or wolves is one way to establish social order, it hardly transfers to the national scale where we need more than growling, deviant adolescents.
I liked the piece and agree it's an important topic. I worry the NYT article didn't emphasize the downsides of censorship by state or monopoly actors enough, however. I keep hearing a strong desire for censorship in popular culture, and I think it's important to spend more time explaining why we need to find gentler alternatives that allow points of view to coexist (without letting things get completely skewed by an algorithm, so the nastiest content always comes up top or makes the most money). I'd love to see you write more about this, Zeynep! It definitely feels like a systems problem.
Wow. And also, How?
The work of civilization is not just discovering and unleashing new and powerful technologies, it is also regulating and shaping them, and crafting norms and values through education and awareness, that make societies healthier and function better. We are late to grapple with all of this, but late is better than never.
Swell. I'm looking forward to the 2024 TikTok presidential candidate.
Thank you Zeynep, for this excellent article. Yes indeed the obsession with amassing money is a malady that is nurtured by the ranking of financial importance in our lives. Thus far there is no cure for this. Best regards, Alex.
My suggestion is not to censor anyone, but give questionable posts a "black box" warning. The way I would do it is that if a post had a certain number of complaints, then the post would be flagged and the reason given for why it is questionable, based on the complaints. The writer of the post could then provide justification. If the complainer had too many cases of inappropriate complaints this would be flagged also. In this case, there is no censorship. Instead there is an exchange of information and a justification of questionable postings.
Its a vexed question indeed. All the motivation is there - money, kudos, excitement, fame - and none of the drawbacks. There isn't even a trail of red paint from the town square back to the perpetrators house. Fact checking is a nice idea that doesn't work. The bigoted and powerful have always bullied the majority with loudmouthed speech. Maybe someone smart can invent a gentle but impenetrable net with which to surround the perpetrators. Or a large set of mirrors. Im thinking Greek Myth here.
The key would seem to be: to metaphorically drown the malicious storyteller in their own lies before they get traction. Once the tide of public opinion buys into the falsehood the game is more or less over.
More thought required.
Thanks for writing this. We really need to grapple with it.
One thing that would be very helpful to me is for you to lay out who has the power to create friction right now. For instance, people in the Executive branch, but whom? The FCC perhaps, and how could they prioritize it? Who are the senators and congresspeople who would be most likely to make this happen? Could states get it rolling, especially California with its concentration of tech companies?
Surely a large scale grassroots movement that focused on nothing else could move the needle. But with so many other pressing issues, perhaps it would be useful to find some key stakeholders who already have the power to start fixing this.
The New GOP has taken a sharp turn into being openly antisemitic lately. I know way too many folks want to avert their eyes from it. I’m getting nervous at how much of an alternate epistemic reality is being constructed by the cult.
Great points overall. Though I'm dubious about "friction" as one of the solutions. Too often it tends to be an idea of not letting hoi polloi communicate, as they are deemed too ignorant, while preserving the power of those with large amounts of social capital, who are inversely considered to be guardians of rectitude. But that's a quibble. We have a system which currently rewards being popular over being accurate, to an extent that has arguably become much worse. It's not going to be fixed by minor tweaks around the edges. As I see it, some of the elites are getting very concerned now, particularly with Trump and Trumpism. Thus we're seeing some willingness to discuss the issue itself, even though there's heavy constraints on what can be proposed.