History may repeat itself, but never the same way twice. Mass media technologies have changed dramatically over the years, but a deeper look reveals a haunting similarity between past forms of domination and current platforms today. The belief that personal perception is reality, which is being amplified through social media, is rendering democracies ungovernable. Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter under the aegis of free speech is another win for social platforms of deception. Insisting that all media platforms contain a lie score openly available to the public is a step in the right direction.
Two decades into the 21st century and we are still plagued by war and polarization. Russia´s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves throughout the world. The view that the threat of nuclear war would deter large-scale war against nations openly fighting each other has been diminished. Russian President Vladimir Putin is now touting the near-term production of a missile designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads long-range. This new weapon puts New York in the crosshairs of destruction.
The polarization of populations within countries is wreaking havoc on democracies globally. It prepares the groundwork for emerging wars. This is the case in Ukraine where estimates of the percent of the population who identify with Russia is in the range of 15-20 percent. This means that approximately 80% of the population is being held hostage by a minority of Russian supporters.
The power of small populations to disrupt democratic processes is being amplified by social media. Democratic processes depend on accurate information of problems and opportunities for change to improve conditions. One can easily connect with like-minded people on the fringe, then promote misleading messages across channels and recruit others. Generating conspiracy theories, beliefs that vaccines cause autism or carry monitoring devices, or that insurrections against the U.S. government in Washington are patriotic has become normal. It’s the power of framing and organizing individuals over advanced platforms of communication.
Perception is all
A large part of what´s driving polarization and disruption is the belief that perception is “all”, and superior to reality. The claim that if “I” perceive something as real or true, it must so, is driving social fragmentation. Shared exchanges, based on informed data and compromises, which are so necessary for democracy, become virtually impossible in a perception-is-all based environment.
Former U.S President Donald Trump, for example, is a master of “if I perceive it and say it, it must be true.” He claimed that the Democrats stole the election by miscounting votes, in spite of evidence to the contrary; and polls indicated that 60% of Republican representatives in Congress supported his claim. Fox News also had no problem reiterating this fabrication of reality. Their viewers preferred the validity of personal perception over reality.
Putin, never one to be outdone on the perception is reality front, is claiming that he declared war on Ukraine to rid it of Nazis. Again, evidence to the contrary. His perceptions dominate reality, serving as justification for destroying an entire country and killing thousands of innocent people. He also claims, with verve, that the Russian army is not bombing civilians, which doesn´t square with video records as well as observations recorded by journalists. The belief that perception is “all” —-what I see and say is real as opposed to any semblance of empirical reality—-is collapsing any potential for a real solution that will work long term, as parties to the war have no shared perception of reality. The same can be said for multiple zones of conflict, like Israel versus the Palestinians.
Lessons from the Third Reich
The Third Reich, as a state power, perfected perception over reality. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Culture & Propaganda was, in my opinion, the most interesting of Adolf Hitler´s killers, and more powerful than recognized by historians. His task was to motivate large numbers of Germans to identify Jews as evil and kill them, without experiencing hesitation or guilt.
Doctor Goebbels earned a doctorate in philology from the University of Heidelberg, specializing in the historical development and relationships of languages. He published 14 books, some in his field of study, others just racist diatribes against Jews. Hitler named him as his successor in case of his death; even though he was never a military leader with fighting experience.
Goebbels, however, understood the power of communication and promoting individual perception over reality. He invented a communications platform for creating mass deception based on if “I say it is true, it must be so.” He ordered his staff, for example, to hand out tens of thousands of free transistor radios, the advanced technology of the time, to ordinary citizens. He gained control of the airwaves, providing specific guidelines for programming and content. He gave strict orders that 80 percent of content should be dedicated to entertainment and 20 percent to ideology. The lines between informative content and propaganda were eliminated; Jews were segmented from the population, vilified and killed. It was the German state and media that created the “Jew”; without a real countervailing force.
Musk´s free for all
Elon Musk recently is in the process of acquiring Twitter for over $40 billion dollars. Twitter produces nothing, but it is a communications platform for social and political content. Musk claims that he bought it to promote free speech, which he says is the cornerstone of democracy. Under his aegis, he is doing the public a favor because the former management was refusing to carry political and social claims that were patently false and destructive. Twitter, for example, blocked President Trump´s claim that the election was stolen by the Democrats.
Musk is no Goebbels, for sure, and Twitter is a private company – not a voice for government. However, Musk is an owner of a communications channel where anything goes under the cover of freedom. The danger here is that there is no governance nor adjudication between claims of perception as reality and empirical reality. Twitter, not unlike other forms of social media, enables communication of patently false claims and social fragmentation under the aegis of furthering free speech and democracy.
What appears as an argument for increased tolerance, opening communications for more divergent social and political views, actually ends up being more repressive. We have morphed from state control over communications, perfected by the Third Reich, to the power of private capital to control communications under a very fragile democracy. But the core of what´s at stake and unfolding rapidly is the same: the promotion of perception as “all” over empirical reality to the detriment of democracy. Fringe groups will increasingly use Twitter and other platforms to promote false information and outrageous claims. They will rationalize lying under the banner of “freedom of speech”. They must be monitored, and stopped, before the thin veil of democracy is destroyed.
What you can do
- Call out misleading or patently false claims on the web and Twitter specifically. Counter false claims with facts, even though this may seem futile at times due to the astounding number of false claims. Readers will see that empirical reality needs to be addressed.
- Write your elected representatives and push for more controls over web content and false claims, treating them as false advertising or liable under liable laws. Dis-information and patent lying must be addressed, sooner than later.
- Enlist groups of friends or more formal groups, such as MoveOn to counter false claims and develop a lie score meter that applies to social media channels. Individuals can be forewarned that specific channels are less trustworthy than others. A version of Rotten Tomatoes should be developed and adapted for social media channels. It would be a great social service to turn AI loose to generate lie scores on Twitter.
Perhaps Mr. Musk would pay as much for a veracity score as he would for a mouthpiece for social deception. He makes money either way. Stay tuned.