Most of my attention this week has been focused on trying to send messages of calm instead of feeding what has become an increasingly disturbed and anxious America. My belief is that while we need to be aware of the ways we are being manipulated, we play into the hands of the manipulators if we take it too far and start to see manipulation everywhere.
And yes, I recognize that it’s very hard to be hopeful when Republicans are acting as deceitful and power hungry as they are in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. The way to confront the Machiavellianism and the evil is with factual resolve, not hysteria.
So, what is there to feel good about today? Well, I detailed last week in my piece about the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” how social media companies are serving us up misinformation without seeming to care a whit about the impact. YouTube and it’s recommendation system was an especially large target for that criticism.
But at least according to a new article in Wired, YouTube appears to have taken significant steps in the past two years to tweak its recommendations A.I. with very positive results. While the flat earthers seem to be the most obvious losers in this effort, it could be having a good impact across the board.
Taking down conspiracies of all types is important, even silly ones like flat earth, because believing one fantasy tends to prime people to believe more:
Scholars who study conspiracy theories were realizing the same thing. YouTube was a gateway drug. One academic who interviewed attendees of a flat-earth convention found that, almost to a person, they’d discovered the subculture via YouTube recommendations. And while one might shrug at this as marginal weirdness—They think the Earth is flat, who cares? Enjoy the crazy, folks—the scholarly literature finds that conspiratorial thinking often colonizes the mind. Start with flat earth, and you may soon believe Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation or that vaccines cause autism or that Q’s warnings about Democrat pedophiles are a serious matter. Once you convince yourself that well-documented facts about the solar system are a fraud, why believe well-documented facts about anything? Maybe the most trustworthy people are the outsiders, those who dare to challenge the conventions and who—as Sargent understood—would be far less powerful without YouTube’s algorithms amplifying them.
So, today the flat earthers, maybe tomorrow Qanon. In the meantime, we need to stay aware of the continued manipulation by actors foreign and domestic, call it out wherever we can, and keep up the pressure on the social media giants to get this under control as fast as possible or face new rounds of regulation in the future.
It won’t get us Ruth Bader Ginsburg back — and by the way, let’s please take serious time to honor and mourn her — but it could save us from entering a full blown autocracy in, oh, less than three months if we’re not vigilant.