This is the first time in a long time I felt I had something to say so here it is. I found 2021 was really just a continuation of 2020. More of the same. I am glad to see the back of it despite some goods things I have personally achieved this year. However, Covid and Brexit between them have really stopped progress for many and Covid, in particular, has masked some fundamental problems which are now holding back the British economy and society and still many people there have no idea really. Covid has caused European economies many issues too and Brexit has not been without costs for some EU based industries.
As bad as Brexit is and as bad as the global covid pandemic is, there is another epidemic which I have felt ever more gloomy about and which connects to these two things and may be around longer and with deeper and more harmful consequences. It is the web of misinformation which is rampant across all social media platforms across the world and in some of the national press even, and gleefully shared and promoted by far too many people.
I love popular science programmes on TV. There have been some fascinating ones about the world around us, about the universe, the stars etc. Presented by attractive, knowledgeable, engaging academics, at their best they fill us with a genuine desire to understand more and they certainly give me an appreciation of just how bloody hard this stuff is. Let’s say you watch the explanation of how a black hole forms, and whilst you are watching you feel like you understand what they are saying but only about 2 sentences actually stay in your head for more than 10 minutes. Try it, try watching an entire programme and then explain properly what you just saw in detail 10 minutes later to one of your friends. The fifty-minute show will be condensed down into the 2 or 3 points you can recall with any detail or comprehension. That’s not because we are stupid or poorly education, it is because most of us haven’t got the foundation of knowledge that these scientists have built working in science day after day, over a lifetime, nor do we have the time or inclination to get anywhere near building that foundation if we are not working in those areas and talking frequently to other knowledgeable people we can learn from. We have jobs, we have families, we have other commitments
So why on earth do people think they are suddenly pandemic experts because they read some blog by an ex weather forecaster who says it’s all a plot by Bill Gates. Why do they think someone whose credentials are related to psychotherapy is going to be absolutely right in direct contradiction to a scientific consensus of renowned virologists? How many peer-reviewed scientific papers has this person read? Do they understand them? Of course, they don’t, they have read a blog by someone who has picked out one or two things from a paper, removed all the context and presented a skewed and inaccurate or unevidenced conclusion. How is some Instagram celebrity more influential on medical matters than experts from WHO, people who have spent their careers dealing with epidemics around the world? Why should I, having spent years running a business and knowing every intricate detail of it, be cowed by a random on the internet who has never employed so much as a tea bag, telling me I am completely wrong over some detail on business, or some expected consequence of business-related government policies.
We have seen it again and again, one day the same accounts are supply chain experts, the next day the news shifts and they are experts on viruses, the next day they are experts on farming and fishing, the following day they are experts on 5g masts, wind farms, solar energy, racism and on and on and on. Really? These accounts claim to be ordinary people, it’s amazing they have time to do their ordinary job given the amount of reading they would have to do just to understand one of these things in depth. Of course, the suspicion is that many are not real and the accounts are created to bring fuel to the conversation, making it appear that some contentious idea is more popularly held than it is, the agenda being to therefore make it more popularly held. The public are being manipulated to the point that if the right celebrity stated that day was in fact night and the fact we can see the sun was a symptom of mass hysteria, there would be arguments breaking out all over the social media sites about this. The film “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix is a perfect satire of this alarming world we currently live in. I found it funny, because the people are so preposterous, and at the same time terrifying because I could actually imagine it happening for real and you could argue that it’s a very good allegory for the attitudes over climate change where there is still a minority unwilling to accept that there is anything wrong and behaviours must change in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus.
So, what can we do to battle this fake stuff? Well personally I try to ignore as many nonsense posts as I can. Life is too short to end up in bizarre circular unproductive Facebook arguments. We must all learn to scroll past more, me included. It’s the arguments which feed the algorithms which show us the nonsense even more.
Sometimes it’s hard to resist having a laugh at the more idiotic ideas though and I think humour and satire is probably a good tactic for debunking garbage, depending on who you are ridiculing. Best not to ridicule your uncle Albert directly if you want a reasonably peaceful socially distanced family get together but by all means share a satirical post which highlights the foolishness of the post he just shared. A couple of months ago some Q anon people turned up in Dallas claiming John F Kennedy was going to come back to life that day and take over the presidency then give it to Trump. I am not sure what they said once it became clear there was going to be nobody coming back from the dead that day. I wondered what their families said to them and did they not feel totally stupid? What was thanksgiving like in their house, pitying looks from Aunt Mabel whilst the teenage cousins sniggered at them in the corner? That’s the problem with false prophets, much like Boris Johnson’s government they rarely keep their promises and you are left high and dry trying to defend or reverse the position you had defended so staunchly.
We are not helped by leading politicians around the world, not so stupid fools who were underestimated at some point and therefore through complacency of sensible people, ended up leading entire countries and have embraced the idea of social media to peddle the false information and lies that feeds their followers. Populism has been thriving as these leaders have misused and manipulated the more direct connection that SM platforms give them along with the use of data to maximise this, to build rather dubious but lucrative power base. Let’s not forget the president of the United States even used Twitter and Facebook as, amongst other things, a means to question a democratic result and propagated the lie that the election was stolen through his fan base creating a violent fury amongst them. Here is the clearest example that the consequences of these things do not stop in the virtual world. If keyboard warriors remained just at their keyboard we wouldn’t have so much of a problem. The storming of the Capitol was beamed on TV screens everywhere and, to much of the world, was both terrifying and unfathomable. In the end US democracy was strong enough to hold despite the efforts which had been made and continue to be made by men and women of the far right to undermine it. In the UK and across Europe we most also hold back the attacks on our democracies and we cannot do that until we stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated by groundless unsourced online pulp fiction. We do have to take our voting responsibilities seriously. If you want sensible politicians who tell you the fundamental truth, that complex problems require complex solutions, you have to vote for them, you have to show support for them and vote for them and vote!
There have always been cults and small groups of people who believe crazy things but has there ever been more channels for them to spread their misinformation and has there ever been so many leaders of mainstream democracies willing to use these channels to further their own dodgy agendas. Media sites must stop paying lip service to all this and take responsibility for what is published on their channels just like any other magazine, newspaper, or book. Governments too must accept responsibility. There is a lot of political talk in Europe about how to deal with social media misuse, I sincerely hope it comes to something meaningful and look forward to seeing and thinking about the ideas that come through. Social Media, just like any other industry, will not regulate themselves effectively, they need some legislation of some kind to force them into behaving responsibly and mitigate against false information and maybe if the countries of the EU can get to grips with this successfully, other countries will follow the lead. Traditional press and TV media must play their part. In competition with online media sites, there is far too much clickbait used which feeds the Polarisation of Views Monster.
So, 2022, what do I want from you? Well like everyone else I want to see Covid going away for good. But just as much I want to see solutions to the social media paradox. There is so much good which comes from a digital world connecting people, so many benefits that we have all gained. Would we have got through the last 2 years without being able to connect remotely to each other for example? It would really be a massive negligence, criminal in fact, if our societies do not get to grips with the idea of mitigating against the misuse and abuse of social media perpetrated by powerful people with dubious agendas because in the end the rest of us will pay a very heavy price for their thirst for power.
Happy New Year.