You come up against a commonly recurring problem as an activist. Simplicity is often essential to motivate people to action, but simplicity can often do violence to the truth.
And by violence I don’t necessarily mean lying, or inaccuracy, but rather just painting a highly unfair picture. And this kind of unfairness can be highly deceiving. For example, the most common kind of propaganda and disinformation that we see in our society today is created through selection bias. This is a bias over which facts and perspectives and narratives you include and which you exclude. In the US for example, CNN and Fox News might not lie outright very much, but try finding a positive story about Donald Trump on CNN or a negative story about him on Fox. Or, if you take the same story, look at the difference in facts and perspectives that each outlet chooses to include to tell that story.
Part of the problem is that news media and social media algorithms have discovered what we activists have long known, which is that people are more emotional and motivated (I’m going to make up a new word here - “emotivated”) when presented with a simple and clear story of good and bad, right and wrong, ideally one that corresponds to their existing biases.
Emotivated people are more likely to click, read, share, buy, donate and act. An emotivating article can be actively pleasurable in a way, while an article that introduces complexity - portraying good and bad on both sides and nuanced and complicated issues in play - can not only be demotivating, but palpably unpleasant.
The problem with this is clear and increasingly well known. As all the content in our society - from the internet to social media to news to just conversation with friends - shifts to emotivating content, we get further divorced from complexity, truth, and each other. We become corralled into bubbles of righteous and outraged opinion. We become radicalized, and ever further unable to see the “other” side’s perspective, or even a perspective that just happens to be different from our own. We all see this happening between left and right, but it also happens between far left and far right, and between factions of the far left and far right, and between factions of factions.
This has long been a popularly recognized trait of passionate and radical political activists. Monty Python’s “people’s front of Judea” vs the “Judean people’s front” skit comes to mind. The problem is, as society as a whole becomes increasingly activated and activist by compelling and sophisticated emotivating content, we are all becoming more like this.
History teaches that the place this path leads to is often spiralling polarization, conflict, and even war. The more a shared and reasoned discourse founders, the more it’s replaced by power dynamics, and in the fear that can be created, tribalism tends to predominate - a subjugation of truth and fairness to the question of who is on who’s side.
At this point another powerful human bias kicks in - social conformity bias - our strong tendency to decide what we think and what is true based on what we think others in our “tribe” or on our side think is true. It’s been wild to watch how unattached liberals and conservatives can be to traditional liberal and conservative views when they’re told their tribe thinks differently now. This kind of tribalization of truth almost inevitably leads to conflict of some kind.
It’s a perennial human weakness, it’s always dogged us, but it’s on some technological steroids in the Information and internet Age.
So what do we do about it?
The traditional answer has been reason. Passions and emotions twist our perception and turn us on each other. That’s why we need dispassionate and evidence-based and reasonable and rational institutions like courts to decide highly charged matters. Journalists and academics sometimes used to think of themselves this way (a few still do) - as impartial arbiters of public battles.
That makes enormous sense to me, but I think it misses an important piece of the puzzle. It’s not just dispassionate and impartial voices and institutions we need, because in the fierce competition for clicks and views and dollars those voices will just die a quiet and unnoticed death as powerful emotions drive people elsewhere. We can’t make war on emotion per se.
We need a renewed sense of passion and emotion around the idea of truth, and fairness. From what I can see, these passions are very much alive - they’re continually invoked to appeal to why the “other” is lying or being unfair. But if we can channel that passion to a more authentic expression - a genuine passion for truth and fairness as virtues we seek to live by and hold others to - we might begin to become more resistant to, even turned off by, propaganda.
We might even recover the sense of pleasure we can experience in encountering diverse perspectives, and understanding complex situations. This orientation is essential to a liberal democracy, and has often been a chief goal of public education.
When I was growing up, people in general tended to experience dim populist activism as a bit off-putting. They knew there was more to the story and they appreciated news media and public intellectuals that gave it to them. We can get back there, but the path there is cultural. We need to rekindle our authentic passion for truth, and for fairness.
I see the powerful headwinds our culture is facing going in the other direction - radicalization and extremism is burning hot, driven by outrage algorithms on social media that discipline both individual speech and media coverage.
But I have hope based on the belief that we are not actually served by living a lie, or living without passion. A good life is one where we both root ourselves in truth as best we can assess it, and passionately engage from that place. Being someone else’s useful idiot or mindlessly manipulated ideologue, or just choosing to be apathetic and complacent, are not as deeply fulfilling. The arc of history bends away from darkness and conflict and towards reason and education for a reason. It’s among the deepest yearnings of our hearts.
I’m under no illusions that our media and public discourse will continue to simplify. Simplicity is essential to communication. But the path by which we reach the simplified understandings we hold and communicate - that’s the path that can either be informed by a genuine passion for truth and fairness, or not. In a more honest and fair society, our simplified understandings will be more honest and fair, and probably much more insightful.
Instead of someone being evil, we might see them as being inexperienced and scared and prone to mistakes. Instead of someone being an angel, we might see them as having done some good work on a particular issue.
But the path there will also take something else - a passion for integrity. Despite the flattening of power in our society there are still powerful brokers of our public life and information - politicians, tech Titans, media professionals, influential public intellectuals, YouTube influencers, and prominent activists. All of them will face potential benefits by leaning in the direction of sensationalized, emotivating, biased, propagandistic content.
A more honest and fairer culture among citizens will pose less rewards to opportunism, but ironically, the more honesty and fairness people are used to, the more scope there is to manipulate them with dishonest and unfair content. Fox News destroyed the American tradition of balanced journalism under the slogan of “fair and balanced”.
The reason this manipulation doesn’t happen, every time it doesn’t, is integrity. I faced it as an activist - there was a constant pressure to mislead for gain. People who are passionate about integrity choose not to do it - not to punch up the language, not to run the trumped up story, not to use the unjustified alarming headline, or the political scare tactic. The tech titans have particular responsibility here to adjust the algorithms that have heavily rewarded the liars and manipulators among us, even if it does cost them a few billion dollars.
But ultimately it will be us, the people, that will decide, determine and deserve the society we get. If we can rekindle our passion for genuine honesty and fairness and integrity, and particularly recognize it and reward it when it doesn’t benefit our “tribe” and point of view, and condemn dishonesty and unfairness even when it’s on “our side”, then we can powerfully and I believe even rapidly shift the prevailing norms in our culture.
Nakedly deceptive disinformation ran rampant in our societies for a few years from 2015 to 2019, and enormous progress has been made on that problem, driven in part by massive citizen demands for change across all tribes and political perspectives.
Now we face another kind of dishonest manipulation threatening our future, and we can counter that too, with the same kind of unity, because the truth is that almost all of us genuinely value truth, honesty, fairness and integrity, and most of us even have a passion for them. It’s time to put that passion to work.