We Are All Algorithms Now
Is that what's really destroying the legitimacy of our democracy?
I’ve never felt this way about an election before. For my entire adult life, campaigns could be exhilarating, tedious, crowded with incident or laden with foreboding, but you always felt that, at some point, there would be a resolution. The votes would be counted; the exit polls parsed; a decision made; and both sides would respect it. The one time that didn’t happen — in 2000 — I felt for the first time an inkling of what I feel in every part of my psyche now: a sense that the system itself was buckling.
The proximate and primary reason for this gut-churning anxiety in 2020 is Donald Trump. I hope I don’t need to repeat the man’s constant expressions of contempt for the stability and integrity of our liberal democracy, and his abdication of any responsibility for it. He dismissed the 2016 election as a massive fraud — even when he won! If he loses, he will do all he can to delegitimize the entire system, and his cult-like grip on his base means he will at least partially succeed. If a third of the country genuinely regards the election as a fraud, and the new president as a usurper, then we are indeed teetering toward democratic illegitimacy and the collapse of the system.
Could Trump incite violence or refuse to leave? Of course he could. He has said he will. These words, from more than a year ago now, should never be forgotten: “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
The second, lesser reason is the madness on the left. Most actual Democrats are sane, and they nominated a sane old centrist whom I will gladly vote for. But too many in left-media questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency from 2016 onwards, citing Russia and voter suppression. And the constant delegitimization of liberal democracy by left intellectuals has taken a toll almost as heavy as Trump’s. Every major corporation and cultural institution — from Google to the New York Times — now pays tribute to an extremist ideology, critical race theory, that despises liberal democracy as a mere mask for the brutal, unending oppression of non-whites.
An Electoral College victory for Trump, if he loses the popular vote again, would, in this new elite consensus, prove beyond doubt the centuries’ long grip of “white supremacy”. Some are already calling such a victory illegitimate, even though it would be completely constitutional, under the rules everyone has agreed to. The sickening street violence that the far left has downplayed, and permitted to run riot in major cities could be a mere taste of what is to come — along with ever-stronger white nationalist gangs instigating or responding in kind. (Trump’s toleration of this dangerous right-extremism in the past four years is as unforgivable as the left’s excuses for murderous violence.) But the upshot is the same: we will be lucky if the country doesn’t erupt in large-scale civil violence by the end of all this.
And the reason this dystopian scenario is so credible is not just the fault of these political actors. It’s ours too — thanks to the impact of social media. I think we’ve under-estimated just how deep the psychological damage has been in the Trump era — rewiring the minds of everyone, including your faithful correspondent, in ways that make democratic discourse harder and harder and harder to model. The new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, is, for that reason, a true must-watch. It doesn’t say anything shockingly new, but it persuasively weaves together a whole bunch of points to reveal just how deeply and thoroughly fucked we are. Seriously, take a look.
The doc effectively shows how the information system necessary for democratic deliberation has, in effect, been jerry-rigged in the last decade to prevent any reasoning at all. It’s all about the feels, and the irrationality, and the moment, which is why Trump is so perfectly attuned to his time. And what’s smart about the documentary is that it shows no evil genius behind this unspooling, no sinister plot deliberately to destroy our system of government. One of the more basic motives in American life — making money — is all you now need, the documentary shows, to detonate American democracy at its foundation.
For Facebook and Google and Instagram and Twitter, the business goal quickly became maximizing and monetizing human attention via addictive dopamine hits. Attention, they meticulously found, is correlated with emotional intensity, outrage, shock and provocation. Give artificial intelligence this simple knowledge about what distracts and compels humans, let the algorithms do their work, and the profits snowball. The cumulative effect — and it’s always in the same incendiary direction — is mass detachment from reality, and immersion in tribal fever.
With each passing second online, news stories, graphic videos, incendiary quotes, and outrages demonstrate their stunning utility to advertisers as attention seizers, are endlessly tweaked and finessed by AI to be even more effective, and thereby prime our brains for more of the same. They literally restructure our minds. They pickle us in propaganda. They use sophisticated psychological models to trap, beguile, outrage, and prompt us to seek more of the same.
Alternative views, unpleasant facts, discomforting arguments, contextualizing statistics, are, with ever-greater efficiency, filtered out of what our eyes can see and our minds absorb. And what we therefore believe becomes more fixed, axiomatic, self-reinforcing, and self-affirming. We become siloed into two affective tribes, with dehumanization of each other deepening with every news cycle. And we know what happens when dehumanization through social media is fully exploited. Ask the Rohingya of Burma, whose horrifying persecution was a function almost entirely of a Facebook disinformation campaign, seeded by a few in government and then unleashed by the masses in a spasm of genocidal violence. (Jamelle Bouie this morning notes a similar phenomenon right now in Ethiopia as well.)
We think we are more media-savvy than the Burmese, unused to any real media for decades. And we probably are. But think for a second about the staggering popularity and increasing penetration of the QAnon conspiracy theory — so completely bonkers it defies belief. Remind yourself that hefty chunks of our society still insist that Covid19 is a hoax, perpetrated for the sake of social control. Re-read Richard Hofstadter. Remember how vast numbers of white liberals drastically shifted their view of America — almost overnight — from a flawed but vibrant multiracial democracy to a version of apartheid South Africa because of a single video of a brutal arrest and murder. This week, I watched videos of people literally burning Harry Potter books, like latter-day Nazis, in the cause of transgender liberation. It’s safe to say, I think, that many of these people have lost their minds — just by staying online. And they not only think they’re perfectly sane; they think they’re heroes.
And online is increasingly where people live. My average screen time this past week was close to ten hours a day. Yes, a lot of that is work-related. But the idea that I have any real conscious life outside this virtual portal is delusional. And if you live in such a madhouse all the time, you will become mad. You don’t go down a rabbit-hole; your mind increasingly is the rabbit hole — rewired that way by algorithmic practice. And you cannot get out, unless you fight the algorithms to a draw, or manage to exert superhuman discipline and end social media use altogether.
But the thing about algorithms and artificial intelligence is that they don’t rest, they have no human flaws, they exploit every weakness we have, and have already taken over. This is not a future dystopia in which some kind of AI robot takes power and kills us all. It is a dystopia already here — burrowed into our minds, literally disabling the basic mental tools required for democracy to work at all.
If you watch video after video of excessive police force against suspects, for example, and your viewing habits are then reinforced by algorithms so you see no countervailing examples, your view about the prevalence of such excessive force will change, regardless of objective reality. A new study shows how this happens. Watching the videos, even more than reading text about them, raises the percentage of white liberals who believe the cops frequently or always use excessive force by around 20 percentage points. The actual data are irrelevant. The BLM movement this summer was less a racial reckoning, as we’re constantly lectured, than a moment of web-induced mass hysteria.
This works both ways of course. I’m fully aware that my watching countless videos of BLM protestors attacking cops, or assaulting bystanders, or hurling racist abuse will equally distort my understanding of the ubiquity of such incidents, and their salience. I can easily become more upset by what is happening in my DC neighborhood when I’m over 500 miles away in Provincetown than if I were right there. And YouTube is literally and consciously designed to make sure I don’t see the other side, I don’t see the days and days of civic quiet and tedium that balance all this out. The key to web success is the extraction of context — down to shaving seconds off a video to remove crucial, complicating information. So we’re all algorithms now.
In the past, we might have turned to more reliable media for context and perspective. But the journalists and reporters and editors who are supposed to perform this function are human as well. And they are perhaps the ones most trapped in the social media hellscape. You can read them on Twitter, where they live and and posture and rank themselves, or on their Slack channels, where they gang up on and smear any waverers. They’ve created an insulated world where any small dissent from groupthink is professional death. Watch Fox, CNN or MSNBC, and it’s the same story.
Point out missing facts or context, exercise some independence of judgment, push back against the narrative — and you’ll be first subject to ostracism and denunciation by your newsroom peers, and then, if you persist, you’ll be fired. The press could have been the antidote to the social media trap. Instead they chose to become the profitable pusher of the poison. Or worse, perhaps they still haven’t realized that this is what they have become: purist, preening propagandists for their own tribe.
Maybe we’ll pull through this. Maybe enough normal people in America have saved themselves from social media madness that liberal democracy can stagger on. Or perhaps my own fears are themselves a function of the algorithms — and will dissipate in early November. The Social Dilemma suggests that the algorithms can be fixed in due course — so that they are no longer designed to maximize distortion, delusion and profit. And maybe the result November 3 will be decisive enough to give us a breathing space to rebuild a rational discourse.
But the epidemic has only intensified the isolation and idleness that social media thrives on; the financial interests behind social media’s predatory algorithms are the most formidable in global markets; and the race is tightening in some swing states, as the Biden campaign has effectively abandoned any door-to-door ground game. My bet on the extinction of liberal democracy in America therefore remains in place, and ahead of schedule. We may even at some point realize that it has already actually happened.
We just didn’t see it in our newsfeed.