Thursday, August 3, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11a

‘[He] who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.’ - Media scientist George Gerbner

Somebody once wrote on the idea of innate aggressiveness and war in humans, “you can’t kill a bad idea.” He was probably right. The common public perception of Darwinian evolution is as a process that is always “red in tooth and claw”. This view is often promoted by mass media hype which concentrates on our battles and the negativity. Occasional reports about our goodness and kindness usually comes at the end of news broadcasts. Watching the news regularly will give you the impression that humans were born to be destructive, violent, and antagonistic. 

Aggression and violence are emotions that easily attract attention and stay in the brain. Positive experiences and emotions rarely stick to the brain to the same extent nor do they receive the same attention in the popular media. We should remember, however, that cheating, corruption, and murder make the news because they are relatively rare. As the phrase “common decency,” suggests, prosocial behaviour is so common we tend not to notice it. We should not forget that Adam Smith argued that just as important as self-interest is the human passion of sympathy, what he called “fellow-feeling.”

Many think that an engaged citizen should follow the news closely. They think that keeping a close eye on diverse  news outlets and following the tweets and Facebook posts of many political figures is a sign of intelligence. I think it is the opposite. The news, according to many studies, is a mental health hazard. Too much of the news is filled with PR-inserted nonsense. Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant makes us less trusting people. People who follow the news regularly are more likely to agree with statements such as ‘Most people care only about themselves.’ Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day makes us less reflective thinkers. 

We overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought. In most areas of life, we necessarily rely on others for the presentation of facts and ultimately choose between manufactured alternatives. The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher,  argued that it is only the disconnected — rural dwellers or the urban poor — who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate. He wrote of the individual: 

If he is a propagandee, it is because he wants to be, for he is ready to buy a paper, go to the movies, pay for a radio or TV set. Of course, he does not buy these in order to be propagandized — his motivations are more complex. But in doing these things he must know that he opens the door to propaganda. 

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. But, contrary to what we normally see in the movies, there’s never total mayhem when a disaster hits a city.  Whether it is cities being bombed or struck by natural disasters, people don’t go into shock, they stay calm and spring into action. There is often a marked fall in crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes. Rutger Bregman writes in Humankind: A Hopeful History:

‘My own impression,’ writes Rebecca Solnit, whose book A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) gives a masterful account of Katrina’s aftermath, ‘is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.’ Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.

We tend to think that when people take decisions after discussing an issue in a group, an 'average' of the group view emerges. But this is not what happens. People take more extreme views when in a group rather than when they are alone, a phenomenon known as group polarization. Many studies from different parts of the world have shown the phenomenon of group polarization in action. For example, after a group discussion, people already supportive of a war become more supportive, people with an initial tendency towards racism become more racist. 

This phenomenon also occurs in online discussion. Algorithm driven programs popularize more extreme views. People with more extreme views are more likely to express their feelings through clicks, likes and postings than moderates. Over time, the algorithm figures out which box you fit into and tailors suitable results towards you. (It will be called 'enhancing user experience'.) Moderates will give a lot fewer data points for the algorithm to work with and so the targeting will be less precise.

The people behind Facebook, Twitter and Google know what shocks and horrifies you and that this is what makes you click. They know how to grab your attention and hold it so they can serve you the most lucrative helping of personalised ads. ‘Nice’ doesn’t sell ads. And so they keep offering us ever more sensational clickbait, knowing full well, as a Swiss novelist once quipped, that ‘News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.’ Umberto Eco criticised social networks, saying for example that 

"Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community ... but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It's the invasion of the idiots."

Google ranks pages according to the number of links they get and they proclaim that their search results show that ‘democracy on the web works’. But some have the resources to generate more links, perhaps by paying influential sites  to link to them. As Google learns more about our search histories, and customizes the search results through its estimation of our interests, we will increasingly find ourselves in a bubble. You will never encounter the unexpected, the different, the ‘Other’. You will only get information that fits your prior beliefs. So although information has been made available to everyone in theory, walls get built up in practice.

We need to be extremely vigilant about the influence of the media,  Most of us have very little idea how easily the words and images of television, film, and popular music drop into the depths of the mind. We have grown so accustomed to the illusions of film and television that we forget just how powerful they are. They hold us spellbound in a kind of willing suspension of the world in which we really live.

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