Meditations on Social Media
n 1927, the National Socialist Worker’s Party had 72k members.
Just two years later, an awkward, outspoken intellectual named Heinrich Himmler would transform a small group of 300 radicals to a force known as the SS. Members were culled from the “cream of the crop” with German family trees that needed to go back to 1750. Himmler quickly recruited nearly two hundred thousand troops and began terrorizing intellectuals, artists, jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and immigrants. I assume the reader knows the rest.
If you were a journalist covering the rise of the National Socialist and knew what was coming in the next ten years — what would you do?
Zbigniew Brzeziński, political scientist, geostrategist, and former U.S. National Security Advisor wrote in 1972,
“In the technocratic society, the trend would seem to be towards the aggregation of the individual support of millions of uncoordinated citizens, easily within the reach of magnetic and attractive personalities exploiting the latest communications techniques to manipulate emotions and control reason.”
In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. In inverted totalitarianism, every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism.
You are shocked that I would make such extreme examples, but I can assure you that the average German felt the same when they saw the camps in 45' and said, “This could never happen here,” followed shortly thereafter by “How could we allow this to happen”?
We face the same challenges in history again and again because humans tend to behave like ‘sheep to the slaughter’, following one another in violence to power. Where and how does this begin? When the dominant discourse is subverted by hegemony and “sameness”.
My experience in business has taught that if there is an elephant on the boardroom table, offer it a seat and a salad. As evidenced by the questionable, and ongoing censorship of certain articles on this platform, and given recent praise by a kind reader, I must ask myself:
Would I continue to be contrarian, would I only go along, to stay out of trouble, and inevitably grow a bigger audience, maybe publish a few books and hit the speaking circuit?
Certainly, being “contrarian” is always easier than speaking truth to power — because people are actually interested in truth than they are in getting along to go along. However, given this recent praise, I have a responsibility to the small readership I have garnered here and to my fellow writers, at least those interested in educating the public and using their exposure for good reason. There is some importance to the notion that LinkedIn is where the vast majority of today’s “workers” congregate, and so, what responsibility does that impose on me, on my writing?
Creating follower-ship, and producing ‘safe’ content that grabs favorable page positioning and wider reach is not only a self-serving, masturbatory exercise, it does not improve the dialectic or help anyone, in fact to some degree it amounts to writing free propaganda which I will not do. In a culture that celebrates the individual so assiduously, the self-serving tactics of the ‘Top Voice’ (I am one), and the ‘Influencer’ are about becoming the digital Prom King or Queen. Self-censorship is a deplorable practice and taboo for any writer or journalist worth his or her salt.
If doing so for the sake of attention means that one veer into the irrational vacuum of self-serving egomania, well, then I would rather be considered conventional and boorish. I am alluding to the several social media writers who make it clear that if conformity is boring, and then surely inauthentic non-conformity is now positively cliché. This goes for the entire cadre of politicians, actors, pundits, celebrities and other notable blow-hards, (one who is now installed in the White House) who would have us leave our senses and get sucked into their vacuous world.
What this means is that the entire spectrum of public dialectic is becoming more and more irrational, and that, my friends, is problematic.
Let me give you an example. It was not long ago that most people (except Warren Buffet obviously) realized that eating the crap that Kraft and Proctor and Gamble produce is bad for you because it is loaded with saccharine and corn syrup. For the most part, as a nation, we’ve headed towards healthier eating. Mind you, this happened because of outspoken critics like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Pollan. The same issue now exists for information.
We are slowly but surely becoming informationally obese on processed points of view — most especially those of the corporate social media echo chamber that has become social media.
That Sean Parker should point this out now means we have all been sleeping. I’ve said this before, and there is plenty of actual evidence to support it.
As early as 2004, the Yankee Group in Boston alluded to the emergence of a global, interconnected system that would be “behaviorally adaptive and personally curative”, literally — an uninterruptible, adaptive network of networks designed to speak to conceivable human need and, and by extension control our consumption of information. We are now seeing the effects of that system of control.
“Digital misinformation is becoming pervasive in online social media to the extent that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum as one of the main threats to our society.”
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined data on topics people discussed on the social network between 2010 and 2014. Information is categorized into three groups: science news, conspiracy rumors, and trolling.
Despite having so much information literally at our fingertips, the study found that users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.”
This “boxing effect” comes at the expense of the quality of information and leads to the proliferation of biased narratives fomented by the most famous authors but also tends to support unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia. Consider the AI debate alone for evidence of this, wherein, anyone that wants to write about the topic and garner attention tends begins their piece with some version of robotic fear-mongering that is straight out of science fiction.
Researchers from Boston University, the University of Bologna in Italy and INSEAD refer to this phenomenon as an “echo chamber”. You can observe this here on LinkedIn where networks of like-minded people share both normative and controversial theories, biased views, and selective news. The information is then repeated back to them by various other commentators and the cycle continues, as is the case it the recent spat between Brene Brown and Adam Grant.
“Our findings show that users mostly tend to become fixated on palatable or controversial content related to a particular narrative and to ignore the rest, the authors write. Whether a news item, either substantiated or not, is accepted as true by a user may be strongly affected by how much it coheres with the user’s system of beliefs”.
The authors note the “echo chamber” effect may be the reason certain phenomena have become widespread, such as the rejection of global warming evidence, Trump’s recent wide-spread popularity, and even, pan-jihadism. ISIS is so effective at using social media that the JSOC, (Joint Special Operations Command), released a request for proposals a few weeks back from the private sector.
While scientific information can often be traced, the origins of conspiracy theories are difficult to identify. We do know that unreliable information going “viral” online has become so dangerous that it has been classed as one of the biggest socio-political threats in the world at Davos this year.
As we’ve come to find out, megalomaniacal billionaires, fringe spiritual groups, and half-baked theories ignite like brush-fire in social media. Social media empowers anyone with a keyboard and can give an enormous, unwarranted voice to the exact opposite of collective intelligence-conformed stupidity. Social media is capable of empowering the very natural entropic and violent forces of the repressed unconscious.
Is this the same unconscious that popular author Christopher Dessi (who says he had an epiphany about social media after 9/11) refers to when he tells us that social is “the first step of our humanity connecting in profound ways via our collective unconscious.”
I needn’t tell the reader how I feel about people that reference 9/11 for opportunistic purposes. Instead, let’s look at some of the ways social media is spiritual and tapping into the collective unconscious.
1. White, right-wing evangelicals love social media.
Total membership in Evangelical Christianity has nearly tripled. This is the famously spiritual arm of Christianity that gave us the KKK and voice to the rabid anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-gay right wing. It supported Bush Jr.’s characterization of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq as a (spiritual) crusade, pissing off every single Muslim on the planet. Social Media has provided a platform for people like Pastor Rick Warren and Kevin Swanson who want spirituality for all; except the gays and anyone who disagrees with their fundamentally ludicrous and literalist view of Christian teachings. To align them with the wisdom teachings of Jesus, in any way is beyond ignorance. I believe Jesus used the word hypocrites liberally when referring to the religious pundits of his day.
2. Radical Islam loves social media recruiting.
Speaking of which, ISIS — those uber-spiritual terrorists whose commitment to the re-establishment of the Muslim caliphate globally allows them to chop off people’s heads — does a good deal of its recruiting in social media. You may recall the Taliban instituting spiritual Sharia law that enslaves women and gives them no rights whatsoever, educationally, reproductively or otherwise. ISIS makes this look like child’s play.
3. Ugandan and Nigerian terrorists like Boko Haram love social media.
Here’s another group that picks on homosexuals. Their broad-minded spirituality made homosexuality punishable by and then broadcast it (guess where?) on social media. Guess who quoted, and endorsed these fanatics on social media? An Iowa preacher named Kevin Swanson who gave a talk the National Religious Liberties Conference in Des Moines, Iowa attended by three US presidential candidates where he called for the same death penalty in the United States.
4. Criminal insurgencies in Mexico.
Gangs in Juarez, Mexico are openly using social media to flout the law and recruit gang members with a toxic mix of peer pressure, psychoactive drug use, and bastardizations of indigenous, faux-religious initiation ceremonies. Where can you join up? Facebook.
I am fortunate enough to have traveled much of the world in my late twenties and since, and I have seen my fair share of powerful cultural ignorance and suffering. Once near the Pakistani border on the late 90’s, I witnessed a forced marriage where a thirteen-year-old bride was dragged from a car to her wedding ceremony and beaten by her brothers and father for resisting. My friends and I had to be rushed from the area by a kind-hearted driver who knew that if Westerners saw this, we’d be in big trouble. As a former journalist and writer, the first-hand acquaintance with poverty has convinced me that human pain and suffering is inevitable, and ignorance is the primary condition on this planet.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore it, and it certainly doesn’t mean as writers that we ought to play only to the chorus.
What I’ve come to realize as of late is that LinkedIn does not want to recognize or acknowledge is that if social media is to be truly collective, then it does nothing to allay this suffering or even address it by limiting viewpoints. Referencing the simple definition I provided earlier: Can we say that that majority of popular articles on LinkedIn give meaning to one’s life and encourage one to transcend limited points of view and possibly learn something?
Brene Brown and Adam Grant’s flirtation with semantics, Caitlin Jenner’s dress, Kim’s Kardashian’s butt or Kanye’s latest rant do anything for anyone, anywhere?
I do not think the readily apparent hypocrisy of LinkedIn lends itself to any transcendence or widening of viewpoints. When we reflect on the collective human and unconscious predicament, most of us are comfortable with the notion that reality is defined by information. You have heard your favorite authors and cohorts throw around the words authenticity and social engagement with equal frequency, but what they fail to offer is substantial evidence that social media is bringing us any closer as a species.
If this were the case, then why is there not a global outcry over the rise in elitism and ensuing wage inequity or the dire consequences of climate change? These issues affect every single human on the planet. If we were actually growing in consensus as some authors suggest, spiritually or otherwise, I think we’d have heard about it by now.