Us versus the internet

Robin McAlpine

An acquaintance comes round to pick something up. I ask if he wants a cup of tea so we sit and chat for a little while. He’s an interesting guy, not someone I know through politics but someone who it turns out takes a significant interest in public affairs and politics.

For a few minutes the chat is all going just fine and is interesting. Then the fateful words are dropped; “well, I was on YouTube and…”. It is my observation that unless someone is doing something skills-based, discovering someone has done their learning on YouTube is seldom a good sign about what is coming next.

And in this case it wasn’t; it was the prelude to a definitely not-true conspiracy theory. With care I was able to more or less disprove the theory, and yet at the end of the conversation, belief in the theory had restored itself. He left still believing this thing which definitely wasn’t true.

I have been getting increasingly concerned about this trend for a while and I’m most certainly not on my own. People alone, online, absorbing bad information that is algorithmically targetted at them specifically, is concerning a lot of people just now. It’s not just conspiracy theories, its self harm, high-risk behaviour, addictions, debt accumulation and far-right radicalisation among many other things.

But what I want to argue here is not that this is something to worry about (it definitely is) but rather that the bulk of what we are currently trying to do about it is greatly insufficient. Not for the first time in human history we are facing a social problem caused by technology but we are trying to fix it using technological solutions rather that social ones.

Let me go back for a second to why this dynamic (person alone in front of screen) is so prone to these big changes in attitude and behaviour based on what they see in a video. To understand this it is worth thinking about a foot-in-the-door salesman as an analogy.

There are things the salesman will do. First he will butter you up and make you feel really, individually, personally important (‘just from your lovely house and great car I have a feeling you may be my first customer today!’). Then he’ll create a problem, usually artificial (‘the reason I think you may be my customer is that your windows are clean – but they’re not really clean’).

Then he’ll play on your insecurity, because nothing makes us do things like our insecurities (‘and with a lovely house like this you don’t want the neighbours talking behind their hands about your grimy windows’). He will obviously have a solution for you which is new, unprecedented (‘what you need is window cleaner engineered on the molecular level to not leave streaks’).

Then he’ll deal with the objections you are raising in your head (‘and I bet you’re saying to yourself that that sounds expensive’). He’ll make you feel your view is important (‘so first, do you have any questions about how it works?’). And if he gets that far he’ll create a specific reason why you have to do this now (‘but because this is so new and stocks are limited, I’m not sure I’ll have any left by this afternoon’).

This is much the same dynamic as a con artist, as a social media influencer – and as a conspiracy video on YouTube. Make the viewer feel important (‘only a few people are really in on this big secret’), create a problem (‘this is having a terrible effect on you’), play on insecurity (‘because they hate you and they’re out to get you’), offer a solution (‘your only chance is to get informed’), tackle objections (‘and of course you’ve not heard about this because they…’), make you feel valued (‘but don’t take my word for it, do your research’) and then motivate action (‘but this is happening now and if you don’t…’)

But there is something important a salesman, con artists and conspiracist on YouTube also have in common – they rely on you not talking to anyone about this until after you are sold. One of the oldest tricks in sales (and a fundamental element of the con trick) is isolating the mark. Get the wife away from the husband or the husband away from the wife, or the individual away from the group.

This is really important because ‘community knowledge’ (the things that are believed by a group of people) are socially negotiated. When we gain information we instinctively test it with others, discuss it, see what they think, and adapt our views accordingly. The whole sales pitch collapses if a friend or partner says ‘what streaks on your window? I can’t see any streaks’.

It’s not just community scepticism, its community knowledge. The whole thing also falls apart if your neighbour says ‘hold on, I’m a chemist, give me a look at these molecular claims’. Collective madness is definitely a real phenomenon, but on the whole a group of people are much better at sniffing out bad arguments than any one of us individually.

And you can’t regulate that. Making government pass regulations taking down very specifically dangerous material may reduce some of the worst of this problem but it doesn’t remove the problem. Flat earth stuff is just silly, not dangerous. We can’t regulate out daftness.

But another of the great tricks of sales is to get one modest sale made because it makes follow-up sales much easier. One conspiracy theory can act like a gateway to the next, and there is no kind of regulation which is going to prevent this. It is the failure of the age of technology to believe that it can solve the problems it created using the tools that created the problem.

Depressingly, the whole internet operates like this now. Those heady early days of the internet when I was sitting in Scotland’s first internet cafe discovering chat rooms and forums where the internet was creating exciting new communities is long gone. The internet is mostly not a social experience, it is an isolated, fragmented experience.

The great bulk of the internet is now one omnipresent, always aggressive salesperson with a permanent foot in your door. It is designed to get you to part with as much money as possible by making you act impulsively. The internet doesn’t want you to be with your friends or to discuss the implications of hitting that ‘buy it now’ button.

Tech writer Cory Doctrow calls this the ‘enshitification’ of the internet. To make you do what the internet wants you to do it makes things shit. This wasn’t done with the intention of promoting conspiracy theories, it was done to make you spend. But create the conditions for one shyster to flourish and all the others do too.

Saving the internet is a task beyond Scotland alone, but still we need to deal with its fall-out. The Scottish Government is clearly getting worried about the radicalisation of young people and boys/young men in particular. Young men are often caught in a horrible set of conditions which are almost designed for radicalisation. They are isolated, absorbing a lot of information alone in their bedrooms without mediation or even points of contact with others exposed to the same information.

(This hit me starkly a little while ago; my daughter and all her friends spend a lot of time watching online streamers, but not the same ones and not talking about the same things. Even she and her close friends share different reference points.)

And this isolation comes at a time when low self esteem among young people is rising. This is made worse by the stagnating quality of life so many experience. Poverty and alienation are all over our society now which combine very dangerously with someone offering ‘companionship’ online, a promise that you’re OK and the conclusion that the real problem is ‘the blacks’ or ‘the bitches’ or whatever enemy is to be manufactured.

The pattern seems to be that the low self esteem of boys is targetted by the far right with promises of respect and social standing while girls seem more targetted by people promoting harmful behaviour such as self-harm. So the conditions for it are mostly there as a result of wider economic and social failures.

Radicalisation, YouTube, conspiracy and neo-Nazism are only some of the most extreme of these problems. Gambling, mental health issues, overconsumption, debt, scams – the day to day experience of the bad side of the internet is all predicated on our isolation.

In seeking solutions to this we must never lose sight of the need to ensure community is a key path out of this. The internet (like the dodgy salesman) will always try engineer your isolation to make you more pliant. Our response to this must be to reengineer-in collectivism. We have spent so much time designing a society orientated around taking money out of our pocket we stopped designing society to bring us together.

Call this what you want – five minute neighbourhoods, localism, micro-communities, community building/development, neighbourliness. Hell, call it the Big Society if you must. But understand that everything in our society is now driving us apart, into isolation and loneliness. On the whole homeworking is a good thing, but for many people it has removed the last structured collectiveness in their lives.

We didn’t describe it in these terms, but this is a lot of what Sorted is about. If you look we come up with dozens and dozens of ways of getting people together. Sport, arts, culture, hobbies, community facilities, hubs, socialising, relaxing, co-working, easy walking distance to amenities, better public transport – it almost doesn’t matter what it is that brings us together, so long as we are together more.

There is clearly so much more to say about all of this. Tackle poverty, think about why people feel alienated and disenfranchised and address it, regulate online activity, enforce laws properly for online actions, ‘deprogramming’, everything has a role to play.

But at the heart of it, if we do not recognise that for the first time in human existence we are all deciding what and who we are, forming our opinions and deciding what we believe and care about while we are all alone at home, we will miss what this means. We need to reengineer-in, not a new algorithm, but our humanity.

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