Some fascinating stories in circulation on the web today.
- Earth is flat.
- ‘Moon landing’ was a conspiracy, it never happened.
- Herbs cure COVID19.
- Homosexuality is a disorder and it can be cured by Yoga.
- Our ‘race’ is the best.
- ‘Motivation and passion’ that is all that one needs to succeed in life.
All of the above is just plain untrue, misleading and utter bullshit; but you know what? You can find ‘information’, ‘social media posts’ and ‘opinions’ masquerading as facts – supporting each of these bizarre theories on the internet. Not one, not two but millions upon millions of carefully crafted digital stories backing each of these salacious claims, not only exist but are only a recommendation away. Planted delicately in the way of your attention to make you stop, scroll, consume and click. The currency of your attention is what the spreaders of the misinformation are gunning for. These exist because vested interests are willing to pay for them from their endless pool of resources.
The economy of misinformation is HUGE, estimated at 250 billion USD, globally!
Misinformation, slander and scandals; sell like hotcakes.
Take a moment to imagine a group of people, who were born and brought up on these posts. Consider that they have lived their entire life surrounded by these details, would they ever accept contrasting information worthy of their attention? When they go on to the world wide web and search, they find millions who hold the same beliefs; what do they take away from it? That they are not alone and that there is no way, so many people can be wrong about something, which they believe to be true. So it must be true, the earth is indeed flat and to support that they have emphatic evidence right in front of their eyes, the ground below their feet is indeed flat; so how can the claim that earth is flat be untrue?
While you process that, let me present a thought exercise: look at all the things that you may have acquired in the last 2 years or so. List everything down, every item and then try to trace back, to the original instinct that got you to buy them. What was it? Did any form of advertisement, play a part?
Let me bring the third case into the mix; list down the last ten digital altercation that you may have had with others on various internet-based mediums – social media, messengers, video chat forums and others. What caused those brawls actually? What formed the basis of your opinions, the cause that you stood for? Was it in any way bolstered by what others expressed in solidarity with your views on the matter on the digital platform, that you frequent?
If yes, then you’ve been played with.
You’ve been manipulated by someone who devilishly weaponised the weaknesses of your mind, your ignorance; to further their own cause. They have benefited from the blind spots of your psychology, your behavioural glitches to make money out of your attention. How do you like the idea?
The illusion of knowledge, a false feeling of confidence and sense of community and belonging that these digital excursions (Social media) offer in exchange for time spend on the medium- draws people to them, irresistibly.
Let’s take another case.
Imagine an ignorant but decent soul playing a silent spectator in an argumentative exchange going wild on a Whatsapp group that he is a part of, in which he found the group proposing ‘earth is flat’ presenting colourful reasons for it being the truth. In all honesty, with the sole objective of finding facts he launches youtube and types, “Earth is flat”. Youtube returns the man, a ton of videos on that topic. He watches to one, and then moves on to the other and then to the next. After 2 hours of viewing different people eloquently presenting to an HD camera the fact that ‘earth is flat’ in a well-lit frame, he is confident. In his mind, he has the ‘Knowledge’ that he needs. He rages back to the group with his newly acquired ‘intel and confidence’ adds weight on to the side of the argument that purposed that ‘earth is flat’. A few of these debates later the man now is a convert, an activist of the cause of dispelling every other version of the earth, circulating faster than earth is rotating on its axis. He considers it his responsibility to put things to record now.
A bubble of sorts is created in which he is trapped for eternity, an expansive universe in which he magically finds different people from different parts of the world who think exactly as he does? It is nothing but smart algorithms pushing on the side of conformance bias.
The principle to note in internet-based knowledge gathering and socialising exercises is that when you find people echoing your thoughts it does not always mean that what you are thinking is the right thing to think, it only means that like you the other people have also been subjected to the same stimulus and therefore they are reacting in a predictable way.
Confirmation is not the same as corroboration, more people saying the same thing does not make it right.
Consider this, let’s say your name is “Lav Kush” and a million people start calling you “Rohan” all of them addressing you by the wrong name at the same time and in a continuous and consistent manner; imagine 10 more people get added to that group of a million people who are calling you by a wrong name. What is the most likely name they are going to think you have? Lav Kush or Rohan? You know they would inadvertently add their voice to the building chorus of “Rohan”. “Rohan” is a fictitious name for you but it is a fact for those million others. Except that the million people, in this case, are simply wrong, but they are united in their misinformation and that makes the cumulative choristers appear much stronger than what is actually the right information – “Lav Kush”.
This is how ‘spread’ of misinformation works.
The other question now is; when people have such an effective and powerful tool in their reach why do they not spread the right information? Are they inherently evil people? Why does it always have to be the wrong use of the tech? What sense does it make to use the tool wrongfully for indecent purposes? Why would someone be so taken up by the cause of spreading misinformation? These are valid questions. The answer is that – the truth is always ‘mundane’ and uninteresting because it does not dress up to impress it just puts clothes on.
Let me present to you two flavours of the same story, to further the argument.
The First Version: Iqbal is a hardworking student. He commits himself to routine and follows it through. He studies 6 hours a day, every day and then sleeps 8 hours a day, every day. He eats home-cooked meals most of the times. With sustained preparation, he cleared the prestigious UPSC entrance examination.
The second version: Iqbal was a bad student, he used to get into fights and all sorts of funny stuff back in school. His teachers and family members were equally worried about the prospects of his future. One day, while strolling back from school he met a sage who gave him a miracle filled sweet, he ate it and from that day onwards he was transformed. He started studying 16 hours a day, he would not even need to sleep for more than 4 hours a day and he constantly just kept on working. As a result, he cracked the prestigious UPSC entrance examination.
Both versions of the story offer the same outcome “Iqbal cleared the prestigious UPSC entrance examination” but which one do you think will sell more? First or second? We know the answer is going to be second.
The second story, forces leading questions on to the readers. Has a hint of mystery in it, waiting to be unravelled, some like these.
•Are miracles possible?
•Sages have transformative capabilities.
•Who was this sage, could we also seek his blessing?
•16 hours of study is possible, can be tried out. All of those who do not put in those kinds of hours are stupid nincompoops and are bound to fail.
•Sleep is not important at all; 4 hours is just about fine.
The first one, will not get anyone excited, it is as boring as a bowl of khichri. It is not exciting and that is enough to drive people away from it. But we can’t say the same thing for the 2nd version, which appears straight from the movies.
That is how the business of fake news, conspiracy theories and propagandist narratives work.
It plants juicy connivance at the heart of an earthly event to get people interested, in the story. Constant and colourful reinforcement is supplied. Different people use this hunger (vulnerability of the human mind) for mystery in different forms.
Tech giants – Deploy powerful and pervasive algorithms to supply an abundance, the never-ending flow of content to satiated our senses by confirming to our beliefs, trapping us in our own bubble and yet keeping us hungry, at the same time by furnishing a variety of overproduced agenda-driven content, often for free. They grow audiences by popularising biases which they monetise for their economic gains. They sell our attention to corporations that are willing to place advertisements of their products somewhere in the content for us to consume and then get persuaded to buy.
Political parties use it to generate narratives that suit their politics. They create grand distractions to blind people of real issues/shield their failures. False enemies are erected so that people remain busy fighting them while they make the hay. Accountability is abdicated by confusing public consciences in an endless maze. News organisation and social media firms are paid to do the job. We are witnessing one right now in the country. We’ve become the 2nd most infected with COVID19 as a country, China is walking over our toes, the economy has plunged by 24%, and joblessness is at its peak and all we are being offered is scandalous collusion of an actor who died.
Corporations – They plug their products where the eyeballs are to boost growth prospects. You can’t buy a product that you have not seen or heard about. So wherever most people are listening becomes the essential place for organisations to advertise. They willingly pay the tech giants for creating these vast networks of disbelieves and misinformation appearing as reality and truth.
Regular people – They have a smartphone with a cheap data connection and nothing better to do with their time. So they hog on it, endlessly. Consumption becomes the easiest and effortless way to spend time.
Very few people have actually studied psychology and human behaviour well enough to avoid falling in these traps as a result they allow platforms to trade their attention for their profit. In the end, capital wins because these spaces are made available to the highest bidder; truth does not matter as much as confirmation bias does. Ordinary users unknowingly grow these monsters by feeding them with their attention. For short term pleasure, they lose long term control. Are you willing to squander your senses to the chorale around you? If not then, delete your social media accounts right now, limit your news consumption (preferably to print). Use your time productively in something useful, something constructive. You’ll be better served.
I’m linking my article on digital minimalism, here for you to see the ways in which you can shield yourself from the damage the internet can do to you.
Good luck and stay safe.