WHICH WORLD ARE YOU LIVING IN?
The Ongoing Problem of Two Separate Realities
A recent study, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, is cause for consternation. The study surveyed 10,000 people, ages 18–39, in the United States, 200 from each state. Among the findings are these nuggets of concern:
• One in 10 thinks that the Holocaust is a myth.
• One in 10 thinks that Jews caused the Holocaust.
• Nearly half of the respondents couldn’t name a single German concentration camp, though there were over 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust.
How do we explain this cluelessness? Who, other than these adults themselves, is to blame for this lack of knowledge and awareness?
The first culprit to interrogate is our education system. What are kids learning in world history? Are they even studying world history? European history? Certainly, we might think, American history should have at least a section on WWII and the Holocaust. No?
Fifteen states in the US currently require Holocaust education as part of their secondary-school curricula. Even so, claims Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference, there is no correlation between states that require such education and respondents who knew about the history of the Holocaust.
Perhaps education alone, both public and private, isn’t responsible for the lack of knowledge. The survey shows that nearly half of those polled had seen Holocaust denials and distortions posted online. This, to me, is the salient fact to draw from the study. You want to point fingers? Point them at the Internet.
We hear and read today that each of us lives within an information bubble, an echo chamber, a like-minded tribe, a form of group-think. For almost all of us that seems true. In the United States, the two political parties are emblematic of the echo-chamber/information-bubble divide. Consider:
• Republicans deny human-generated climate change, and the science behind it, as the seas continue to rise and as super-charged fires, floods, rainstorms, and hurricanes devastate the planet.
• Republicans often belittle advice from scientists and physicians to wear masks in light of the COVID pandemic sweeping across the globe; some even consider the pandemic to be a hoax.
• Republicans continue to spin fantasies about voter fraud occurring throughout the country, when no facts exist to support their assertions. They went so far as to create a presidential commission to investigate voter fraud. In 2018 the commission shut down without having confirmed a single case of voter fraud.
• Republicans have repeatedly tried to suppress the vote of minorities and the young by such practices as closing polling places, limiting voting times, requiring various forms of ID, discrediting mail-in ballots, disrupting the USPS, and questioning the integrity of our entire electoral system https://www.nytimes.com/article/mail-in-voting-explained.html.
• Republicans disregard the reports from our intelligence services, corroborating information from our allies and their own Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee report that Russia, not Ukraine, interfered in the 2016 election.
• Between 2014 and 2017, 15,000 Americans died because Republican governors refused to expand Medicaid through the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Does the portrait above include all Republicans? Surely not in every instance. But it includes enough of them that these views and practices reflect the Republican Party and constitute parts of its 2020 platform.
Perhaps some rare individuals living outside an info-bubble could generate as well such a list of falsehoods and stupidities from Democrats. But I have serious doubts about that, since one party, the Democratic Party, values accuracy, facts, evidence, data, science, and the rule of law. Meanwhile the Republican Party seems hell bent on gaining and maintaining power, on relying on “alternative facts,” on discrediting science, on a decades-long perpetuating of “voodoo economics” that pretends that tax-cuts stimulate economic growth, on denigrating and endangering minorities, and on adhering to a hierarchy of power with white men at the top.
However accurate the portrait of these two realities might be, at bottom we need to recognize that the structure of both realities is the same. Both rest on a continuous flood of information.
Granted, the information flowing into one reality is different from the information flowing into the other. But those two different floods of information emanate from the same sources. The sources are the roots of the straightforward problem of why so many Millenials and older members of Generation Z don’t understand or don’t know about the Holocaust.
The problem isn’t just our educational system, as weak as much of it is currently. The problem is social media and the Internet. We may think that we individually are immunized against this problem by being able to exercise our critical-thinking faculties. That is surely true for some small number of us, a group my friend Debi Campbell calls “contrarians” — those who are natural skeptics and question everything. Still, all of us are fed information that the Internet predicts we want to hear and see. That information for almost all Americans reinforces rather than challenges our interests, perspectives, and attitudes. Social-media platforms are built of and driven by algorithms designed to make and refine these predictions. The sirens pulling us toward the songs we love to hear are tough to resist.
Our realities are themselves built of and driven by these algorithmic predictions. In short, we need not wait for or fear the arrival of Terminator. Machines are already controlling our universe, our world of information. This is why disagreements seem insurmountable. They represent nearly impenetrable boundaries between different realities.
Of course, the boundaries of both realities aren’t physical. They are psychological, emotional, visceral. The walls of these realities derive efficacy from exploiting human vulnerability — the ease of addiction to dopamine hits.
The hits come in the form of videos, websites, messages, pictures, and links, all designed to keep our attention on the screen. The hits come from the designer drug of social media.
In this environment, shared reality is manufactured by algorithms that connect us to others who like the same videos, pictures, articles, tweets, and other messages. Little penetrates from outside this reality. But we don’t notice, because we are immersed fully in this image-message reality.
But don’t people see the same information? If I Google “COVID-19,” do the same links appear for everyone? No, they do not. The results shown are based on your search history. In one reality, your search will bring up “pandemic”; in the other reality, you’ll see “hoax” and millions of websites and videos related to that. The results are different, but the processes are the same.
Consider crazy Uncle Harold, who spouts conspiracy theories, argues the Earth is flat, and refuses to accept Covid-19 as anything other than ”a hoax.” The world of Uncle Harold is constructed as formidably and densely as our own, even when we pride ourselves on building our views on accuracy, facts, and data.
Are we so sure that we are really getting the facts? Algorithms reinforce the views that we already hold, as Facebook and YouTube bombard us, and bombard us endlessly, with what these platforms predict we want and even need to see. Rabbits propagate rapidly, and so do rabbit holes.
It’s so easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists and flat-Earthers. But do we really know what is driving those views? Do we have any appreciation for the blocks used to build that worldview? Do we have any empathy for someone living in a virtual reality opposite our own? Or do we simply write them off as stupid or fearful or haters?
David French, Senior Editor @The Dispatch and a columnist for Time, put the point succinctly: “People always ask me to explain why friends, neighbors, and relatives support Trump so strongly, and my first response is usually, ‘If you consumed the same media they did, you’d be MAGA too.’”
We think that social media is bringing us together. It’s only bringing some of us together, those seeing and feeding on the same media. That isn’t community. It’s more like addicts living in a crack house, each caring about the next dopamine hit. We’re brought together through the ever-increasing need for “likes” and “hearts.”
In addition, each reality is reinforced outside the Internet by news agencies, cultural outlets, prominent persons, and like-minded members. Those sources that don’t coincide with the reality are largely ignored. This is the world that is real for us.
These social-media feeds not only build faux communities, but they also destroy other communities through messages about conspiracies, false flags, and misinformation. QAnon, for example, lures the innocent into its rabbit holes by proclaiming its mission to save and protect our children. Who doesn’t support that? Then, once down the hole, the viewer is flooded with information about the “plot” by prominent Democrats and Hollywood A-listers to capture children, traffic them for sex, sacrifice them, and harvest their blood to be used in Satanic rituals for attaining immortality.
Don’t get me wrong. The foundations of these realities may be the same, but one reality is better than the other. As I suggested, one reality functions on data, accuracy, facts, and a pursuit of truth, which must involve sojourns into the other reality to see what’s going on in there. So one reality declares a need to hear from the other side. The other reality screams “fake news” at what the other side proclaims and produces.
Polarization like this keeps people online and addicted to information. If algorithms had emotions, they’d love our current political polarization.
To combat political polarization and, simultaneously, our easy addiction to the dopamine hits from social media, we need to learn to search for truth. The truth of propositions rests on reason and evidence. Those can’t be found in one source or even in several sources. They are found by ardent searching of various sites and sources, including those with which you disagree. This is the terrain of Debi’s contrarians.
We all need a strain in us of this contrarianism, not just in questioning authorities, stories, reports, and videos, but also in a need to search for the truth. A search for truth requires valuing truth. You have to want it to search for it. Any opinion you hold is valuable to you, but unless you want to know whether that opinion is supported with reason and evidence, it is valuable and will remain valuable only to you.
John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century British philosopher, summarized this situation eloquently: “There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.”
So to value and to seek truth, we have to combat not just social media and those realities opposite our own. We also have to combat ourselves. We have to recognize the power of media to prey on our vulnerabilities. We have to be insightful into how and when we are being lured into informational cul-de-sacs and when and how we are being manipulated into the craving for more dopamine hits. In short, we must be vigilant in seeking out alternative views, opposite perspectives, contrary interpretations in order to know whether what we hold is true. Only in this way can we liberate ourselves from realities manufactured by algorithms.
In the 21st century that should be the mission of our schools and our culture: To develop the skills of critical thinking and to promote their use in the pursuit of truth. That pursuit, in turn, relies upon promoting the kind of character that values truth over falsehoods, reason over assertion, opinions based on facts and evidence, and a willingness to offer help to those who wish to learn and to offer compassion, but not acquiescence, to those who refuse to do so.
Our cultural and educational mission, then, going forward after the restoration on November 3rd of the rule of law, institutional norms, and democratic practices, is a reorientation toward justice, equality, and the truth.