One of the less mentioned by-products of the printing press was the spread of what today would be called fake news. In particular, a previously uninformed population began learning about the supposed satanic misdeeds of the elites; and that witches dwelt among us. This was especially true in the areas marred by the Thirty-Years War, during which Catholics and Protestants accused one another of heresy, witchcraft, devil worship and child sacrifices. It didn’t take long for accusations to morph into physical violence. And once blood was shed, the demand for revenge grew ever louder.
The British Isles succumbed soon after. The English elites were accused of supporting and encouraging the outrages on the continent. Protestants whose recent ancestors had lived through the religious intolerance and bloodletting under Bloody Mary grew suspicious of the Catholic King and his even more devout Catholic consort. Soon enough, pamphlets began to circulate alleging Catholic plots to return England to the Roman fold. Meanwhile, the Catholic minority had seen many of its rights and much of its culture removed as England moved from the relatively tolerant Protestantism that emerged from the ashes of the Tudor years toward a more militant puritanism that reached its height under Cromwell.
No single factor, of course, can explain the outbreak of civil wars which rapidly set friends, relatives and neighbours at each other’s throats. Clearly though, the ability to spread lurid conspiracy theories, fake news and exaggerated tales of excess to a wide population with relative ease should never be overlooked. The parallel with the age of social media should be obvious enough. The process is the same. The only difference is the rapidity – due in large part to the use of machine learning – with which the process has spiralled out of control.
As with the period before the printing press, the years before social media were hardly an information idyll. For the most part we were “informed” by a small group of establishment media outlets operating within a relatively narrow Overton Window. Nevertheless, the events which constituted “the news” were shared by all of us. Even prior to the internet it had been possible to purchase newspapers, magazines and books which fell well outside the mainstream. But these were only purchased by a tiny minority who sought to challenge the prevailing view. County libraries also contained more than enough information for a dedicated researcher to build a critique of the prevailing orthodoxies; but very few such researchers ever appeared. And so, we had a shared – albeit often flawed – understanding of the world around us.
The early internet didn’t have much of an impact simply because it was more an extension of the county library than a new printing press. Digging up the skeletons from society’s closet still required months of diligent study. And even when the inconvenient truth was revealed, the establishment media simply ignored it. All that remained to the diligent researcher was to seek publication in one of those fringe publications or to publish on a home-made internet page visited by no more than a handful of people.
The change created by social media was that anyone could become a publisher and potentially reach a large audience. If this had happened during the post-war boom years or even during the debt-fuelled bubble of the 1990s, the impact might not have been so devastating. But social media arrived in the mid-2000s and took off just in time for the financial crash of 2008. In previous crises, the “too big to fail” narrative regurgitated by the establishment media would have become unchallengeable fact. In the age of social media though, alternative narratives such as those emerging from the Occupy Wall Street movement joined with the contrarian modelling of economists like Steve Keen to tell a very different story. The banks did not have a “liquidity” crisis, and there was no law of nature which demanded governments (i.e. ordinary people) bail them out. In fact, the banks were bust; and governments should have nationalised their assets prior to recapitalising them (protecting ordinary depositors, but allowing speculators, shareholders and senior managers to go broke).
The alliance of the establishment media with the parties of neoliberalism during the years which followed the crash served to drive the latest losers in the Ponzi scheme into alliance with older discontents in the ex-industrial wastelands beyond the walls of the metropolises. While the self-appointed neoliberal spokespeople of ordinary people continued to enjoy the high life in their SW1 townhouses and mansions in the Hamptons, the same ordinary people turned to social media for a narrative which better fitted with their post-crash material circumstances. And so the “Alt-Right” and the “Alt-Left” were born.
It is at this point that the algorithms began to work their magic. In the new “attention economy” fortunes could be made from mass advertising. But mass advertising requires an appeal to the lowest common denominator. Like the Sun on steroids, people’s social media newsfeeds began to fill up with the most lurid and implausible tabloid stories. Clickbait became the order of the day. So much so that actual stories bore little resemblance to the headlines used to sell them. And imperceptibly, day by day and year by year, social media platforms led people toward an ever more extreme version of the news narrative which they had chosen.
Go down the social media rabbit hole on the left, and you discover that Donald Trump is literally Hitler and the people who voted for him are literally Nazis, in the same way that the wafer is literally the body of Christ to a devote Catholic. Take the rabbit hole on the Right, and you discover that the Clintons literally worship the Devil and drink the blood of sacrificed children. In less than a decade we have gone from at least some agreement that events happened, to one in which events claimed to have happened by one side of the divide are dismissed as fake news by the other. Worse still, like the allegations of witchcraft that followed the printing press, we have gone from viewing the other side as people with bad ideas to viewing them as bad – nay evil – people; beyond redemption and no longer even belonging to the same polity.
In the days when information was limited and managed by various “gatekeepers” it was thought that access to ever more information could only be a good thing. One reason why nobody attempted to regulate the embryonic internet was that most people assumed that free speech and more access to information could only lead to a more enlightened society. This view though, overlooked the fact that what passes for education has more to do with teaching children what to think than with teaching them how to think. And that generates huge problems when the new reams of information garnered from the internet demonstrates that, all too often, what we were taught to think was wrong… or at least not the whole truth.
Lacking the mindset to weigh the evidence for one narrative versus another, far too many of us fall into the trap of adopting a narrative and then rejecting any evidence to the contrary. Ironically, as the amount of information available to us has grown exponentially, our tendency to reject contradictory evidence is amplified. Since there is too much information to possibly sift through, it is easier to limit our intake to sources which we already broadly agree with. And since even these are too numerous, it is simpler just to go with the clickbait headline and the thought-stopping meme. Far from making us more civilised, information overload makes us more stupid and more determined to follow the path to civil war.
Might it have turned out differently?
Probably not – those algorithms are truly devilish; and they will continue to drive people to the extremes. But what we might have done – and might still do – is spend more time trying to understand alternative viewpoints. There are reasons why 17.5 million British voters chose to leave the European Union in 2016, and there are reasons why a majority of voters in America’s rust belt rejected Hillary Clinton later that year. Casually dismissing those reasons as racism or fascism – terms which equate to seventeenth century accusations of witchcraft – or referencing conspiracy theories about Russian trolls serves only to further divide people. There are three – broad – things that we might do if our aim is to restore civility to an increasingly uncivil conflict:
- Always look at the source material – that is, do not take any media source at face value; always read, watch or listen to the item which is being reported on
- Triangulate – don’t just watch, listen and read media which broadly agree with your existing views; make a point – no matter how unpleasant you find it – of seeing how media which you disagree with are covering the same story
- Seek out people from all sides of the debate who have changed their minds – the reasons why people change their minds are often far more enlightening than the reasons why people continue to hold existing prejudices.
In short, learn to embrace doubt and eschew certainty; for the latter paves the road to fanaticism. As Bertrand Russell said during a similarly fractured age:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
And the biggest fools of all are those who ignore the the fanatics in their own camp.
As you made it to the end…
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