Asymmetric power in the information age
How an infodemic is reshaping the world
This investigative article will require some patience. It is a deep exploration of how a (largely) social media-driven epistemic crisis interferes with democratic processes, arguably one of the most important topics to understand in today’s world. Using a complexity science framework, this article will provide systemic insights using available scientific research, well-documented case examples, and expert opinions to map drivers of democratic backsliding all around the world.
The ubiquity of digital & social media has disrupted how democratic societies function. Journalists, politicians, and citizens often frame the problems of social media in the context of misinformation, about how lies spread faster than the truth, and how people seek information that comforts their beliefs. My personal interests were always more concerned about how the interactions of humans with algorithmic online systems at scale create emergent meta-phenomena.
Meta-phenomena are difficult to conceptualize, but their effects are often very visible.
I have previously outlined my systematic understanding of how social media dynamics reliably distort our perception of reality and cause us to make bad decisions, collectively:
Information has been commodified into a special product in the attention economy. We have created an online environment where addictive software is directing us toward the most engaging content, often produced and manipulated by the most capable human attention-stealers. Influencers are financially incentivized and algorithmically empowered to provide the psychologically most salient, emotional, or outrageous narratives on any topic for engagements, with zero regards for evidence, accuracy, context, or truth. Online, we find ourselves nudged, pulled, or pushed into echo chambers or isolated bubbles by algorithmic curation and personalized addictive content. We are engulfed by selective and unrepresentative information that is prompting us to commit systematic thinking errors on a societal scale.
The opposite of wisdom of the crowds, so to speak. A crowd folly. It is worth stressing that it is our collective actions, psychological predispositions, and behaviors within these online environments, not just algorithms or choice architectures alone, that create these distortions.
It’s a meta-phenomena where we all find ourselves as unwitting participants. We are part of a crowdsourced global misinformation project and share responsibility for the current state of affairs.
This does not mean we are powerless. Becoming aware of the prevalence of cognitive biases, echo chambers, and online grifters leading to widespread distortions in the current information ecosystem is a critical tool of media literacy in the information age, and I am happy to see that many people I talk to have evolved some understanding of these mechanisms. These problems also have reached some sort of wider public and political recognition, a recent example would be Jonathan Haidt’s popular Atlantic article or a much-needed study from the joint research center of the European Commission.
I do have hope that we collectively grow wiser to the folly of our current online systems, albeit I fear we are still missing the bigger picture.
A meta-phenomena that directly impacts democratic processes and every issue we should care about. I am talking about the breakdown of our collective ability to make sense of the world (epistemology), sometimes known as epistemic crisis.
A crisis where we collectively lose the ability to assess what is real or true.
This epistemic crisis leads to a fragmentation of the realities we inhabit, it shapes our worldview and our understanding of ourselves and others. Even worse, the fragmentation of our shared reality has created a vulnerable information environment that many asymmetric actors try to entrench permanently to our detriment.
This epistemic crisis might be difficult to conceptualize, but its effects are easily visible as well. I am talking about the success of conspiratorial political movements, a breakdown in trust in institutions, skepticism toward science, and overall democratic backsliding.
Often, things have to get worse before we start acting, and despite democratic forces in the US midterms and Brazil elections seemingly holding their ground against conspiratorial movements for now, I seriously doubt we have reached the peak of our epistemic crisis yet.
Democratic citizens have to start turning the tide on conspiratorial thinking that has been weaponized by political actors in societies all around the world, from the Philippines to Nigeria, Brazil to Hungary, Italy to the US. No democracy is currently safe.
Conspiracy theories are an interesting and popular research topic, but despite all the interesting social and psychological mechanisms leading people into believing false, magical, or conspiratorial worldviews, this article aims to address a different part of the total equation:
The systematic impact of technologically-enforced bad epistemology on democratic societies and processes
We are always talking about multiple interacting causal layers contributing to the problem; social, behavioral, cognitive, technological, and individual.
Using available scientific research, well-documented case examples, and expert opinions, I want to shed a light on our epistemic crisis. How the high prevalence of misinformation, algorithmic amplification, and especially conspiratorial thinking are toxic for any democratic society and play into the hands of the powerful in unexpected and asymmetric ways. When the public loses, somebody else is winning.
I believe we now have reached a point where have good evidence to suggest that our online information architecture makes us incredibly vulnerable to crowd-sourced distortions and to targeted manipulation by information combatants. This likely poses an existential threat to democracies and sabotages efforts to deal with other cooperative problems like climate change, public health, or preventing war.
In short, this article will attempt to give a comprehensive explanation of how all our current information systems, especially social media platforms, are fundamentally corrupting democracies all around the globe and are causing a backslide into a world all of us had hoped we left behind.
When nothing is true, everything becomes possible.
Sit back, take your time, and make yourself a cup of tea. This is not going to be an easy read.
(free version of the full article will be on medium, and individual chapters on my free substack: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, chapter 4)
Start here: Chapter 1: Democratic backsliding
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