Whose truth? Why we are at war with ourselves

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There is only one truth. Of course there is. We are often left speechless with disbelief or find ourselves incredulous with rage at the stupidity of our fellow citizens when they don’t believe what we hold to be the truth. Why don’t they see the truth? Why do they believe fake news? Why do they live in a world of alternative facts? Why are they so dim? Why are they so gullible as to believe the propaganda that is so obviously flawed and criminally dangerous?

What we don’t realise is that they think exactly the same about us. To them the truth is just that – the truth. We are the stupid ones, the scaremongers, the ones who have fallen under some unpatriotic internationalist spell. We are the ones that have been manipulated.

These are dark times. We live in a post-truth world where multiple “truths” are allowed to flourish. This has corroded our sense of stability and order to the extent where many no longer really know how to filter fantasy from facts or truth from lies. It has created a world where lies are often more powerful than the truth, where lies are no longer seen as a problem and where the perpetrators are no longer punished, their reputations remaining unblemished.

This post truth world has led to unprecedented levels of polarisation in our society: be that over Brexit, politics in general, or views on appropriate ways to handle the Coronavirus outbreak. We seem to be tearing ourselves apart as a society and our differing views are becoming ever more entrenched. They have often morphed from what, in the past, would have been light-hearted disagreements or banter to deeply held animosity and sometimes even hatred.

Has this just happened by chance? The simple answer is a resounding NO.

Our ever-increasing use of social media mirrors the levels of polarisation in our society. Social media has driven this, and it has done so by design. We have all become victims of algorithms whose sole aim is to entice us to spend as much time on a particular social media platform as possible. Every extra minute spent scrolling through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds converts to increased revenue to bolster the truly massive reserves these colossal businesses have built up.

How best to encourage us to stay for just a little longer? There are lots of tricks at play. We are rewarded with likes or, better still, hearts from our friends when we post something, we are shown pictures of potential new friends, and when commenting we get to see that the other person is in the process of typing, compelling us to await their response. We are enticed and tempted by what we see in our feeds, and what we see is governed by the highly-sophisticated algorithms – the engines driving everything – the engines we feed with every click, every like, every view, by our location, by our proximity to others. Every action we take adds to the accuracy of our digital profile, and the algorithms serve us with more and more of what they have decided we desire.

The result – we are bundled into social media bubbles, we are cocooned with people just like us, and we see things that we WILL like, things that resonate with us and all the others in our bubble. This is all done to ensure we spend those extra few minutes generating yet more revenue for the platforms by consuming the offerings of their advertisers. Revenue is king – the consequences are irrelevant.

But these consequences are far from trivial. The bubbles we are bundled in are where the seeds of multiple truths are sown. Your bubble will be exposed to one truth while another bubble will see an alternative truth. When two individuals search for something on Wikipedia, they will both see identical results. When those same individuals search for something on social media or Google, it is unlikely they will be shown the same results; in fact, the content will almost certainly be completely different.  

Our society has been disrupted to an unprecedented degree. Our politics has been corrupted and we are on a path of transition from a wealthy outward-looking country to an insular, hate-filled tax haven in the making, benefitting only the super-rich.

So, what is the answer? Do we just boycott social media and decide that we will no longer play along? This would seem the obvious answer, but it is filled with danger. The populists around the world saw the power of social media well before the established political parties (even now, some don’t get it!). These populists are squeezing every last drop of power and ability to influence out of these platforms. They thrive in this largely unregulated universe and they are mining a rich seam with their propaganda and lies, presented using simple and emotive messaging.

They will not stop. They will continue to hone their skills. They will continue to deliver their potent concoctions to carefully selected and highly targeted audiences for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising and they will rely on the social media bubbles to spread the word organically.

There is just one truth. We need to harness the skills used by the populists to ensure that the actual truth is seen and that it is believed. Turning our backs will leave an open playing field for the alternative truth. History tells us that this is incredibly dangerous.

Social media platforms now have power that outstrips that of elected governments and wealth that exceeds the GDP of entire countries. There is only one way to control them: regulation through international cooperation, and this needs to happen now.