Burning Digital Books and the Fight over Online Ideology

Is social media ripping apart the fabric of society? Fears of the fringe and “the other” have prompted some to demand social platforms remove uncomfortable ideas, hoping that the very algorithms that entrap us will protect us from ourselves. The idea of uniting humanity through a global network is turning out to be more dystopian than utopic. At the center, a tribal battle has erupted online, and it’s just getting started.

The major western social platforms, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, have increasingly de-monetized, deleted or banned controversial users. These companies, of course, are not legally bound to uphold the free speech of their customers. But to stubbornly think that legal obligation is the end of a moral conversion is to totally miss the point. Should YouTube, Facebook and Twitter be the ultimate arbiters of truth? Wildly opposing viewpoints have created a confusing dichotomy of hyper-connected, yet opposing, tribes who are in constant battle with their opponents.

Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal

Humans are tribal beings at their core. For thousands of years, we lived in tribes with 150 others who looked, thought and acted within a narrow band of the locally accepted behavior. Each tribe worked together toward shared goals and survival. Then the world grew larger and more connected. New ideologies were formed to create cohesion in larger groups; Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, democracy, socialism and communism all sought to unify large groups of people. In an attempt to unify, these groups spilled the blood of millions of “others” in the process, arguing over whose perspective was “right”.

The physical separation of these tribes, by borders, geography and distance, served as a deterrent for never-ending war. Effort had to be expelled to attack in physical space. In the border-free digital landscape, however, there is no natural deterrent. Opposing viewpoints now share the same digital space across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with each side fighting for their truth be the official one.  

It’s MY world!

These opposing viewpoints were manageable when fringe groups gathered in their own corners of the Internet. But now thousands of these groups exist in the same space, with some groups that are outright dangerous and calling to question the very virtue of free speech. It’s discouraging to think that there are communities who believe the world is flat. It’s dangerous to suggest that vaccinating against the measles is harmful.

Anti-vaxxing practices are literally harming people, and even prompting a state of emergency in Washington State. But – stay with me here – the seeds of anti-vax may have started from a place of logic. There are countless examples of government harming its people, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and MK Ultra (a name so sinister sounding, and invoked in pop culture, that most think it didn’t actually happen, but it did). Groups of people really do conspire in non-theoretical ways, and sometimes they conspire to harm. But anti-vax and flat earth theories are something else entirely. Despite masks of faux-science, these are ideologies, closer to religion than the scientific method. Ultimately, people in these groups seek a tribe, and not necessarily the truth. These tribes, and all tribes, demand conformity to their truth.

Owners of a niche platforms may rightly have an obligation to banish users whose views oppose the majority, but thanks to network effects, and Metcalfe’s law specifically, social media platforms naturally consolidate. The more people who are on the platform, the more others will follow them there. That means such mega platforms are equally a town square and a private corporation. Banishing people and ideas sets a scary precedent for all voices that are other. Those cheering such platform bans are blind to the fact that they are just one wrong thought away from being next.

For many, understanding platform bans through tribes like flat earth and anti-vax is cognitively easy, because this thinking is so clearly wrong. But this is where it gets tricky; Every major scientific theory ends being wrong over time. That is a feature of the scientific method. It takes the courage of scientific leaders to break through, explore and reveal new theories that change the world forever. But up until the moment the theory is undeniable, many point to its sins and demand the proverbial books be burned. Galileo, Darwin and Einstein were all heretics, until proven right. But that doesn’t mean all heretics are right.  

If you accept that science is always “wrong”, in a somewhat perverse way, why not make up your own theory? Believe something enough, get others to do the same, and it’s as good as true. That’s part of our post-truth world. Anyone who invests their time in a theory, joins its tribe and forms their identity around it, will have a hard time being swayed otherwise. That makes social platforms a true breeding ground for cognitive dissonance

Photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s not hard to believe that, somewhere in the digital fringes, there may be a theory that will completely change our world for the better. In that sense, the Internet is the ultimate manifestation of a thousand monkeys at the typewriter who eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare (or solve the theory of the universe). Maybe the unearthed theory turns out to be the multiverse, simulation theory, holographic universe theory, or ancient aliens which populated earth thousands of years ago. Maybe time is not real (actually it probably isn’t). Maybe CERN opened up a black hole creating a fractured timeline, or maybe it’s something even stranger that will be ridiculed until it’s found to be true.

This leaves us in a strange place. Some think that freedom of speech bears a worthy cost and that platforms with billions of people are just as public squares as they are private companies. On the other hand, digital puritans want to reform the internet so it conforms to their truth. Every tribe continues to clash, fighting for their version of the truth. At the center are the private platforms which act no different than the clergy, burning the people and ideas it deems harmful.

Society can’t encourage new ideas without also ensuring the freedom and safety to express them (even if they turn out to be wrong). But these infinite monkey style fringe groups have, unknowingly, created a distributed denial of service attack against progress itself. By unleashing a never-ending stream of fiction, masked as truth, our global connection has been overloaded with a signal to noise ratio that is impossible to decipher. This information tsunami has created tribes of true believers, each able to choose their own belief and corresponding identity. And don’t forget, you may be one too. Such is the nature of this condition.

There is, however, a bright side of global communication. Look no further than niche web communities, from forums to GitHub, were people of all races, genders and nationalities come together to contribute and communicate. There is a unifier for the communities – be it beauty tips or working on Linux. Sure, petty fights arise, trolls move in and factions splinter off. But petty fights are easily solved. Trolls can be ignored (or banished, which of course loops us right back to where we started). Sub-factions can be a good thing in further defining your identity. The beauty of the internet is that which binds us is not restricted to race, religion or nationality.

But connecting billions of us in one place has turned into a mess. Communities require cohesion to function. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian recently said, “We’re seeing more and more people retreat back to smaller communities or groups, [like] a group chat of all your college friends…”. Retreating to the safety of smaller, pre-existing tribes, is exactly what’s expected in a hostile, uncertain environment. When confronted with stories of Russian hackers and YouTube pedophiles, fear kicks in and societal progress takes a back seat to blunt force regulation. But if you use the global network to broaden your tribe and unite around a shared outcome, you will be reminded of how good and amazing the internet can be.

The solution, then, is not banning and burning. It’s promoting diversity in its truest sense – a broad perspective on shared challenges. Never in history has that been as possible as it is today. To continue lowering ourselves and engaging in fringe tribal conflicts would spoil progress and be devastating to the potential of humanity. To let three online platforms decide what’s real and who gets to speak, will almost certainly result in nothing good, or new.

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