This article is part of the series
The Disinformation Pandemic
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
COVID has been difficult. So have lockdowns, masks... social distancing.
But recently, I'm seeing a much more dangerous situation - a threat that has always been right under my nose, and yet I was never really aware of it before. It was like a dormant volcano... that is suddenly and violently erupting.
And man oh man... watch the people react.
This article will show you exactly what I'm seeing, why it's such a threat. and why it needs to change, fast.
To make sense I need to break this problem into three parts-
- An overview of this situation
- An in-depth look at the "infodemic," specifically the fake news problem
- An in-depth look at filter bubbles and the Facebook algorithm.
This was a fascinating article to research and write, because it just happens to be right at the intersection of two of my favorite things- human psychology, and Internet technology.
I hope you learn something here, and as always, I'm keen to hear your thoughts.
It's Nov 2021 and my Facebook feed has been in chaos lately.
“Trolls” have always been there, lurking. But we largely ignored their mumblings, and stayed well out of reach of their slimy fingers.
When they ranted, we covered our ears and clicked on better things, like;
- 10 ways to improve your relationship
- The best beaches to snorkel in Southeast Asia
- How to invest for your retirement
And, of course...
- The World’s best guacamole recipe
We ignored the trolls and their lunatic ravings, because they were easy to recognize, and because collectively we knew that trolls are full of shit.
You can smell it, every time they open their mouths.
Ah, Those were Good Times...
For the most part, the trolls stayed under the bridges because they were shunned by the people walking above. They were left to their squalor, and we just turned a blind eye.
Collectively, the socialized world said...
“Yeah, we know they exist. But they’re not invited to the party. They’d just double-dip the guacamole, and shit on everything.”
And so the trolls kept to their bridges, and we kept to our towns, and the world was mostly a peaceful place.
Until one day, they Escaped
How did it happen? Well, you see, a plague broke out.
Society was thrown into a bit of chaos and disarray.
The trolls watched this, and noticed that in our distraction, we’d forgotten to watch the bridges. We were no longer guarding the town, and we’d left the gates wide open.
They guffawed with their foul, toothy grins, rubbed their rumbling bellies, and said...
“Ha hah! This is our time now.”
And so they crawled forth, and the Age of Terror began.
Witness the Havoc
It’s already 2021. Can you believe it?
When I was a kid, I was certain we’d have flying cars, a city on Mars, and global utopia by now. I’d expected to be in space, headed to Alpha Centauri, or building a Dyson sphere, or exploring the outer rings of Saturn.
I may have been too optimistic.
We’re not near any of those things... most especially the utopia.
My Facebook news feed used to look like this-
It was a library of wonderful things. Fascinating articles and videos on psychology, relationships, and self-development.
Because that’s what my friends and I clicked on and shared.
Today, my feed looks more like this...
And right now, the trolls seem to be winning.
If you look at my Facebook feed today, you can see people everywhere re-posting clickbait “news articles,” that are anything-but real news.
For many, the anti-vax, anti-government propaganda they are seeing incites a lot of confusion and fear. It sparks fires of division and controversy.
How much exactly? Well, here's an interesting way to measure it...
"The US Capitol police reported earlier this year that the agency had seen a 107% increase in threats against members compared with 2020. The USCP chief, Tom Manger, has said he expects the total number of threats against members to surpass 9,000 this year, compared with 3,939 such threats in 2017." - The Guardian - 27 Nov 2021
It's rather like watching a volcano erupt- and while a few brave souls run around and try to douse the flames, others panic, and are pouring gasoline on them.
It’s worse than what I saw during the US elections,
Confronting the Disinformation Infodemic
Many of you have seen the same articles I have. They present a very worrying picture of our modern COVID world reality.
These are the types of "news" I'm seeing daily;
- "News" that COVID vaccines are dangerous, ineffective, and unnecessary.
- "News" that governments are clueless and demanding unreasonable restrictions on lockdowns, business closures, masks, social distancing, and vaccine passports.
- "News" that our elected politicians are raking in money, colluding with big pharma to sell and distribute vaccines.
- "News" that there are global-cartel plots to microchip us, track us, implement population controls, turn us into magnetic 5G antennae.
Some of these headlines concerned me enough, and seemed believable enough, that I've spent the past month digging in and researching for myself.
I needed to know.
In PART 2 of this series, I dig in deep an look at these articles, check facts, explore who is publishing them, and why. If you've ever bought into any of the above headlines... you'll want to read part 2 a few times, and look at the research I've done.
But interestingly, disinformation isn't new, and it's only part of the problem.
What's Facebook's Role?
Trolls have always been there, especially in times of social unrest. The difference now is social media.
Social media has often been compared to drug dealing.
However, Facebook isn’t making the drugs. They’re not even the dealer. They are more like the courier, or the delivery mechanism.
Their job is to make sure you get what you want. Frankly they don’t care what drug you like... as long as you keep using.
The algorithms on Facebook are not maliciously shoving lies down your throat. What they are doing is giving you more of what you and your Facebook friends ask for.
As you show interest in stuff, Facebook will give you more of it.
Facebook will sacrifice anything in the Colosseum that keeps butts in seats, and eyes glued to the field.
- Factual news.
- Real, actual science.
- Your Integrity.
- Your friendships.
- Your health & your safety.
- The officials you elected.
Because Facebook's goal is not to inform you, or to educate you...
It’s to entertain you.
Because your eyeballs & clicks are money. and because YOU are choosing what you throw into the pit.
How much money?
Facebook's Q3 2021 revenue was $29 billion USD.
That’s the third quarter, alone, and for Facebook, COVID has been a financial boon... this year saw a 35% increase over the same quarter just one year ago.
The colosseum is turning a nice profit.
Yet while we revel in that success, and applaud Facebook's technological acumen, we often forget the #1 rule of the Internet...
If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer.
You’re the product.
Not one bit of the Facebook experience was designed for our benefit. Every aspect was designed to draw us in, and to hold our attention for as long as possible.
It works... and perhaps it works too well.
In PART 3, we're going to go into depth on what the Facebook algorithm watches, how it tracks interest and assembles your feel. Without that basic understanding, you can't control it, and it will control you.
Taking Back the City
Right now, the city is on fire, and the trolls are loose.
But they will only hang around as long as we feed them.
Here are 10 things you can change to make your matrix a better place.
#1 - Learn to spot the trolls
Trolls feed off fear and conflict. Wherever you find them, you’ll find trolls too. They can hide well, so learn to spot them.
Trolls love to provoke fear, because it empowers them, and distracts people from the real threat- which is usually the trolls themselves. They’re a far worse threat than any plague, because they turn us against each other.
However trolls can’t handle truth. Shine some sun on them, and they turn to stone.
#2 - Stop feeding the trolls
Stop clicking on stupid shit.
Every time you do, you’re feeding the trolls. Not only that.. your clicks, your likes, and your shares, translate into what your friends get more of too...
This means that quite literally, you're feeding your friends and family to the trolls too.
When you see a questionable link that you want to explore, do not click it on Facebook.
Instead, open an incognito browser window, and type in the website name there. Yes it's more work, but it's the best way to prevent Facebook from tracking your interest, and translating that to “more, please.”
Sadly, even those measures are incomplete. Since Facebook tracks what you stop and look at, there no way to keep the algorithm completely unaware of your interest.
#3 - Choose your news, intentionally
Remember, on Facebook, YOU are your own news editor.
You have to choose, review, and fact-check 100% of what you see there.
If you see "news" that catches your attention, simply hop over to the trusted news sites to get the real scoop. If it's real and newsworthy, you'll find it.
And if it's BS, you won't.
Either way, you'll get a far more accurate view of the world.
#4 - Get the whole picture, not just a munted corner
Intentionally balance your news sources.
Aim for the "middle," places where healthy debate is taking place. This is the only place you’ll find unbiased facts.
Here’s a website called AllSides that seeks to present topical views from the Left, Right, and Center, in a way that you can compare them personally and make your own decisions.
For example, here are all the articles tagged “vaccine mandates.”
Probably looks pretty different from your Facebook feed, doesn’t it?
#5 - Know who is giving you advice
Who are you taking advice from?
If a homeless dude on the street said “Hey buy stock GASQ, it’s gonna explode!” Would you run to the bank, mortgage your house, and hand your money to them?
Probably not. He’s probably not a very successful stock trader.
Yet, we’re willing to take health & vaccine advice from random people, writing random articles, on the Internet.
How did that happen?
The people that write most of the articles you’re reading and upvoting and sharing, do you know them personally? What are their credentials? Are they vaccine specialists?
All good, go find some then, and read their stuff instead.
Your life, and the lives of those you love, might depend on it.
#6 - Know where the threat is
We’re tired. We’re stressed. We all want a haircut and a nice restaurant we're kind of sick of it all.
Most of us have friends or family who've been affected by COVID and we've lost a few loved ones. Maybe a job, too.
We’re all in a highly emotional state, and now we're feeling pressured to get the vaccine to make it go away. Many of us are not taking that advice well.
I’m being attacked! But... who’s the enemy?
So in that haze of fear and pain we begin searching for the enemy and we naturally pick the ones that we can see.
This is human nature. Even a wounded dog will attack its own owner, who is trying to help it- because when we’re scared and in pain, everyone seems like a threat.
Even the ones that care about us most.
You're smarter than that. Know who the enemy is before you unleash hell on the people who are trying to protect you.
#7 - Share information responsibly
Never share anything as “fact” that you have not personally verified.
Unless you’re a sociopath, you owe it to your friends and family to be part of a better world. Only share information you’ve personally verified, and include your links and findings.
Do your research well, you’re reputation depends on it.
That’s called education. Public duty. Responsible citizenship.
If you’re just throwing gasoline on a fire because... LOOK! A FIRE!... That’s called arson.
Trolls are most effective when they can convince you to re-publish their propaganda, because you can reach people they cannot- and they leverage the trust your friends and family have in you to their own ends.
Yeah, it might hurt those you love, and destroy your credibility in the process... but the trolls aren't doing this for you.
#8 - Fix your filter bubble
Is your bubble looking warped? You can fix it.
Start by choosing your friends wisely.
Let go of "friends" who are randomly spouting incoherent, unverified propaganda. You probably don’t even have to unfriend them- but definitely unfollow them.
Sit back and smile as the stormy skies clear, and the colosseum closes for business... at least until the next political election.
#9 - Develop perspective, before belief
If you see something on Facebook that provokes you, that’s fine... consider yourself entertained.
But never, ever consider yourself informed.
If it concerns you, go research it.
Exercise your doubt muscles, 1000%. Prove it’s real.
#10 - Cultivate a healthy level of doubt
Junk news is not news, in the same way that junk food is not food.
It might look like news. It might sound like news. It might have 1,000 likes. Your friends might like and share it.
It might even confirm what you already suspect is true.
Be suspicious anyway.
Doubt is your psychological immune system against bullshit.
“Don’t believe anything you read, and only half of what you see.”
Wise words, Mom. Now more than ever.
Be the Bull
In Stoicism, the bull is the symbol of leadership and strength.
The bull stands between the herd, and anything that threatens it.
Most of us want to protect the people we love, but living in environments such as social media means it’s very difficult to identify the threat.
We all like our conspiracy theories. I do too... but when we start hearing "news" that suggests-
- That democratically elected governments have suddenly turned against their own citizens, and are becoming authoritarian regimes.
- That this is happening Worldwide, in every Democracy on the planet, all at the same time.
- That every government leader - regardless of political party or ideology - has decided to work together to achieve some kind of global dominance.
Stop and think.
Does this make any sense? Is this even possible? Who is telling us this, and what makes them trustworthy? Is that really likely, or is it more likely that we’re being fed a serious load of bull?
I trust we're all wise enough to tell the difference, once we see the trolls.
The Perfect Storm
From where I’m standing, the intensity of emotion, and the level of social response, seems to be increasing in recent years.
Right now we’re seeing a perfect storm of three things;
- A unique global situation that is provoking one of our most primal emotions. Fear. It’s intense.
- The Troll problem. Clickbait and dis-information is everywhere, and trolls are cashing in. It looks like news, and scared, angry people are way too willing to believe it unquestioningly.
- The Filter bubble problem, which creates our echo chambers. You and everyone you talk to think they are seeing the same “reality.” Because you’re all in the same theatre, watching the same movie.
But what you're seeing is not the real world.
The Earth is round
Most of us chuckle a bit at Flat-earthers, because it’s just so clear that their thinking is warped, and that they just don’t check their facts.
But on some topics, how guilty are we of doing the same thing?
This article is part of the series
The Disinformation Pandemic
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
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Facebook brought in $27.2 billion in ad revenue in Q4 2020.
Ad revenue makes up nearly all (96.8 percent) of its $28.1 billion revenue for the entire quarter, it’s also a 31 percent year-over-year increase.
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The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
- Charles Baudelaire, Le Joueur Généreux (1864)
as paraphrased by Verbal Kint, in The Usual Suspects.
Some after thoughts, sparked by discussions with readers of this article...
Confirmation bias is powerful. In my case, prior to my research, I had some concerns about the vaccine - the rumors about it being "not safe," "not effective," "not necessary," "the cure is worse than the disease."
All it took was that tiny bit of fear, and my mind tried to justify it by pausing ever-so-briefly on "news" that confirmed those concerns. I'd pause a few seconds any time I saw a worrying chart or headline, just to "gather information" and evaluate what I was seeing.
What really shocked me to discover was how quickly Facebook's algorithm picked up on those subtle pauses, and amplified them to deafening levels. It was aware of my behavior change even though I wasn't consciously aware of it.
To me, it looked like the world had gone mad, and our governments had all gone insane, and we were on the brink of worldwide revolt. Meanwhile... I'd see completely contradictory evidence such as the hugely positive impact of vaxing on ICUs, reduced transmission rates & much-reduced mortality rates.
I felt a lot of cognitive dissonance about the situation, which sparked some deep reflection and multiple articles.
Eventually I just got pissed off at the dissonance and decided to devote a few days to researching it hard-out.
I'm so glad I did. Sanity restored 100%.
I see the mind's cost-benefit calculator like a scale. We collect information, and use it to form a worldview and make decisions.
The problem we're facing today is that Facebook is piling all the rocks on the side that is already heaviest- and that would warp anyone's worldview.
It makes me wonder what social media's role is today in fomenting extremist views such as racism, gun rights, and so on. We've seen bits- the Minneapolis riots, QAnon, the capitol riots, INCELS, and now anti-vax anti-government sentiment.
At least now I understand the problem I'm seeing, and I'm paying way more attention.