Outsourcing Deliberation: Political Misinformation Online

04/02/2021

Through the rambling redundant sections, forced jokes (except the one that sounded like something straight out of a Discworld novel*), and seemingly irrelevant personal anecdotes, the book The Knowledge Illusion: The myth of individual thought and the power of collective wisdom has (thankfully) offered up a few worthwhile points as I read it. In particular, the discussion on intuition and deliberation was interesting. Intuition is your immediate response to something, whereas deliberation is taking a moment to properly consider and reflect on it beforehand (or in hindsight). With social media today however, especially in political circles, many people do “deliberate” – they just get someone else to do it for them.

The internet is one of the greatest tools in the world, an inconceivably large space full of information. Like most technology and tools, it can be of incredible benefit to the users, or it can be a dangerous weapon abused to take advantage of others. Social media is undoubtedly the most prescient example of this, allowing people to connect, collaborate, assist, entertain, etc. with others. It’s how grassroots movements can start and spread (like during the Arab Spring uprisings), how we can keep up to date on news (even in places we don’t get much coverage on, like the military coup in Myanmar), and how people can get aid from people (GoFundMe pages and similar services are everywhere).

On the flip side, it was also where Donald Trump rose to mainstream popularity in the 2016 election, and where conspiracy theories, blatant falsehoods, and various discriminations run rampant. The most successful of these are “political commentators”, usually the “right-wing” ones whose entire career boils down to an excellent marketed grift. Sure, there are some “left-wing” grifters, but that usually comes in the form of the “left” devouring itself over strategic differences and whether you think Lenin was a dick or Christ take two.

People like Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Steven Crowder, Candace Owens (a black woman who followed the money from a “left-wing” grift to the “right”), PragerU, etc. are in a very different arena. Shapiro thinks Arabs enjoy bombing Israel and living in sewage; Rubin just wants free speech to promote borderline fascists; Crowder makes fun of rape victims (surprise – he is actually a failed comedian); Owens has written a book about how the Democrats are creating new plantations for black people, and Prager “University” gets oil money to make pro-slavery videos.

And they collectively have audiences of millions of people. Which is terrifying when you consider that most of them legitimately have no clue what they are talking about and that the vast majority of their content is either vague accusations and assertions or outright lies. Or just abhorrent mask-off moments, like Dennis Prager himself basically saying the only reason he doesn’t rape women is because God says so, because of his religion.

Their audiences, however, see them as the vanguard of “truth”, “free speech”, “freedom”, and all those other words that get thrown around by sycophants who worshipped Donald Trump without a hint of irony or self-awareness. And this attitude is soaked up by these audiences, who are meticulously primed to receive a series of falsehoods without question as a result.

They also believe that they themselves have come to the conclusions they adopt and espouse elsewhere.

Why is that?

For starters, many of the above mentioned “commentators” encourage their viewers to “do their own research” beyond the “liberal” mainstream media narrative. As alternatives to said media, this tends to lead people to follow and listen to them instead, and are implicitly – or sometimes not so subtly – told they are the intelligent ones for doing so. The complementary tactic is to imply or straight up state that terms like “leftist”, “woke”, and certain groups or movements, are synonymous with “stupid” or “ignorant”.

All those woke Antifa thugs rioting for BLM!

So while they receive little no information of value, and quite a lot of misinformation, those audiences leave feeling smart for “knowing” what has been told to them. Having been praised for “breaking away” from the mainstream “narrative” (whatever that is at any given moment), they intuitively look to figures like Shapiro or Crowder as credible sources or information and analysis. They don’t think much more beyond that, usually because they’ve been told they already have by consuming that media.

The deliberation has already been done by someone else, someone they believe is capable and truthful in this deliberation. They have outsourced their ability to critically think about the information they are given and reflect on the arguments presented. In reality, so many of the arguments put forward by these people are simply false or riddled with contradictions, but it is done so well, the rhetorical skill is so great, that people unaware of them can easily get swept up in a web of propaganda. On occasion, despite being able to easily pick the factual errors or general bias in the framing of a video I’ve watched, even I can overlook some deeply engrained contradiction or rhetorical tactic.

Big money is poured into these “alternative outlets” because the willing empty vessels who are the faces on the screen are good at what they do. I often find it disheartening to see people insult or disregard those who are the victims of propaganda. How can we confidently discuss how clever and insidious propaganda can be and then proceed to belittle people who fall for it? Isn’t that the point? Our work shouldn’t be to create a divide between us and the “fools”, but to reach out to them. Ironically, despite the infamous “facts don’t care about your feelings”, the best way to do that is to appeal to their intuition, their feelings, first. Rational arguments won’t sway people who are intuitively biased towards (mis)information that backs up their perceived reality.

What anyone with a platform or audience with a decently loyal following should do is encourage their viewers or readers to – in good faith – challenge and question what has been said. It’s fine if you watch online commentators for information or analysis – I do. It can be incredibly insightful and engaging. But you should be able to deliberate the talking points and conclusions on your own too. On an issue like climate change, such deliberation will, if done properly, reach the same conclusion – it is real, and it is dangerous. In other cases, you may agree with some parts of an idea but not all of it, or even disagree entirely.

Rather than outsourcing deliberation, it is more important than ever to ensure that you can articulate and reflect on your own positions truthfully, and preferably without misinformation guiding your rationality. That means questioning your intuition – more often than not, the human mind intuitively creates a position and then attempts to rationalise it as true. Instead, we should be rationalising it against what is true, not what we think is true.

Consume content responsibly!

Liked this? Read YouTube Is A Double-Edged Sword

Previous piece: Communities of Knowledge: The Power of Networks

*The authors explain plants cannot carry out “sophisticated actions” as animals can. The line that made me laugh was this: “Plants can be marvellously complex and fascinating… but they are not capable of sophisticated actions. That’s why it’s so easy to cut down a tree or pick a flower; they can’t do anything about it.”

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