Let’s get this out of the way right at the start. How we, as humans, react to the world around us is driven in large part by the cognitive tools and biases shaped by our evolutionary needs. Cognitive biases that are absolutely tuned to evaluating a much different world than this one that was full of social groupings that looked almost nothing like the ones we now form. In short…
YOUR BRAIN GETS IT WRONG A LOT OF THE TIME
This is a long and complicated topic but let’s boil it down to the bare minimum for this post. For almost all of human existence we needed to perform a small series of cognitive actions to survive.
1: Notice patterns, make predictions.
The ability to quickly detect patterns and make predictions from fragmentary evidence about comparatively simple correlations was crucial. Things like…
- Wolves are more active at night
- When it rains a lot, the river floods
- When someone waves a stick at you, the probably mean to hit you with it
- The very brightly colored lizards will kill you
It was NOT absolutely crucial that these predictions be accurate. They were almost entirely prescriptive, and an error was not very costly. For instance, if you were wrong and it turned out some brightly colored lizards were safe to eat? Not a huge deal. However, if you erred on the side of uncertainty and some were poisonous.
The result is that humans are quick to draw correlations and assign caution, fear, and avoidance.
2: Be good in small Groups, trust information from others to accelerate learning.
Humans are social animals and for most of our existence we dealt with groups around 150 people and were very close with families numbering about a dozen. At that group size social pressure is enormous and tends to push people to a certain form of public honestly in fear of ridicule and being an outcast. While there will be machinations within that dynamic, a large falsehood about events was hard to sustain. For the most part you could trust the assertions of others with respect to physical events. if someone says they saw a large group of deer nearby you had reasonable expectations that it was there. If they lied often, then eventually the community would simply discount their words.
ENTER SOCIAL MEDIA…
Of course there is much for us to examine in later writings but for now, let’s focus on the minimum needed to start forming our tool-set. Social media takes advantage of our natural wiring to deliver content that we find “viral” and compelling. How?
- Because it feels intimate and personal, we tend to assign trust to information we get from social media.
- We use social media as input to our natural drive to find patterns and correlation, even though the information is fragmentary and often biased.
- The patterns we find usually express themselves as fears, cautions or concerns about a threat
See how that all comes together? Social media slips perfectly into the cognitive tendency humans have for trusting the information we receive from those in our close circle… particularly when those messages appear to warn of danger.
SOME TACTICS USED TO MANIPULATE PERCEPTION
Thanks to these tendencies, humans are incredibly easy to manipulate via social media. We will in the future examine the ones below and others in great detail but for this introduction let’s keep it simple and look at the drip-feed and it’s prerequisites.
For this discussion let us imagine that we wish to create the impression in the public that pet turtles are inherently more violent than pet frogs. We wish to do so in order to push through our anti-turtle legislation because frogs totally rule.
Tactic: The Drip Feed
The principle behind the drip-feed is easy…
- Every single morning you wake up and Facebook has another story about “Turtle Bites Human!”
- Others in your social feed share and amplify the same initial story and each other’s reactions. Each time you encounter it this feels like a new data point. For the entire day the story of a turtle being violent is constantly being re-introduced to your mind.
- Still others chime in and begin drawing comparisons. They talk about how frogs never bite things even under the “same circumstances!”.
- Repeat every day for a week, then a month.
Since you are now hearing about turtle bites all the time and a few weeks ago you didn’t hear about them at all your brain will imagine that there is an INCREASE in turtles biting things. The end result? An overwhelming feeling that turtle violence is on the rise. Everyone else is all freaked out, so it isn’t just you being silly right?
Tactic: Cherry Picking
The problem with the drip feed? It’s a hungry tactic. I need a lot of stories about killer turtles. I need them for social media, different ones to feed to news networks, some to plant on twitter…
Fortunately, in a world of millions of turtles, I can ALWAYS pick stories that involve Turtles biting things. There is a never-ending supply of them. The problem is that almost all of them involve some situation or context that explains why the turtle bit someone… and I need to put forth my narrative that this behavior is intrinsic to turtles independent of circumstances.
Tactic: False Reduction
False reduction to the rescue! I simply leave out, downplay or outright deny any circumstance or fact that might explain why that particular turtle bit that particular person. Strip away anything that might be relevant other than “turtle”, “frog” and “bites”. Nothing else really matters anyway right? By doing so I can much more easily supply the items needed for a potential cherry-pick.
Tactic: False Trend Citation
Once I have the pump primed on the drip feed I am almost done. After a little while my audience will no longer even need my help to cherry pick or perform the false reduction. Every new incident will be seen as part of a growing trend and even if they do realize that any specific incident doesn’t support my narrative? The will not consider that as a contradiction… worst case the simply discard it.
If I am caught actually falsifying or hiding facts during my reporting at this stage I can simply blame the turtles saying “well, with all these turtles biting people, you can see why I jumped to that conclusion!”
THESE TACTICS EASILY LEAD TO INCORRECT CONCLUSIONS
In short, everything you would come to believe about the violence of turtles and pacifistic nature of frogs would feel correct yet be absolutely wrong. The feeling (your intuition) will be so powerful that even when presented with statistical evidence that showed turtles do not, in fact, bite more often than frogs you will still believe it to be true. That statistical study is not wrapped up in a way that slides past your mental hygiene filters the way the false reality was – so it is simply not as sticky.
INSTANT EPIDEMIC OF INCREASINGLY VIOLENT TURTLES!
To deal with a complicated and often unknown world the human mind has evolved certain tenancies in how we look for patterns, how we reduce complexity. This is how racism is born by the way…. this same impulse to generalize from a fragmentary understanding and draw a conclusion that there is a common element between events that probably had none. Social media exists to engage us, and it turns out the way humans engage most strongly is exactly this pattern.
So as long as people are more than willing to take their fragmentary, wrong understanding of the world from social media and let it and reinforce their outrage by echoing it back and forth to each other idiotic violence will happen. It will radicalize terrorists. It will create riots. It will make people fearful. It will divide us. It will do that by taking otherwise good people and simply feeding them wrong information over and over. It will lead them to wrong conclusions, and false beliefs. And then they will ACT on those beliefs.
HOW TO STRENGTHEN YOUR DEFENSES
- Discipline your thinking… rationality is not born of emotion.
- Find primary sources for the things you read about. Look for the exact transcripts, read eyewitness reports and so on.
- Look for the details in every situation.
- Do not assume your friends / family / co-workers have done any of these things because often they have not. No one’s judgment should be substituted for your own.
As an exercise pick one social media story you see every day for a week and dive into it deeply. Go as far back as you can, find every detail available to you. When you have a complete understanding you can then look at the headlines from all across the media spectrum. You will start to see the narratives at work, how they push against each other and compete to define your view of the world around you.
Once you can evaluate the bias associated with how your information is presented you can then more get much more useful data from every source and use both that information and your knowledge of the bias to your advantage.