A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 8, 2018

What the Internet Does To Bad Ideas

Survival of the fittest. JL

Nicky Woolf reports in Medium:

Metaphors for information tend towards the biological. Ideas grow. They spread like viruses, or they take root like trees. This is not a coincidence: There is an observable similarity between the behavior of life, and the behavior of information. Information operates on Darwinian principles. Those ideas best fitted to their environment survive, spread, and evolve. Those which are not, die out.

This is a story: Germany has taken far more than its fair share of refugees. Recent data from Eurostat shows that the country is responsible for 60 percent of all accepted asylum applications in the European Union; in 2016 it took in far more refugees (433,905) than the United States, which only granted 84,989 asylum petitions in the same year.
This is also a story: A report came out in the German newspaper Bild in 2016 that seemed to validate those who’d claimed that taking in refugees brought rape and crime. The paper reported that a “sex mob” of fifty or more “Arab” men ran rampant in Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve, sexually assaulting dozens of women and causing havoc.
The first story is true, and the second is entirely false. But the second story went viral. As Newsweek’s Rossalyn Warren wrote, the story went global when it was aggregated by the far-right American news site Breitbart because it “played on some of Germany’s worst fears.” A police investigation soon found social media posts indicating that the original source of the story — a woman quoted by Bild only by her first name, Irina — wasn’t even in Frankfurt on the night in question.
Like a tiger’s stripes, stories have evolved to use the appearance of facts as a camouflage — and it has never been more difficult to tell one from the other.
But that has not settled the argument. The Frankfurt rape mob story and others like it, such as this hoax about refugees allegedly setting fire to a church in Dortmund, continue to spread. In January 2018, Trump tweeted: “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!” In fact, crime in Germany is down 10 percent and at its lowest level since 1992.
Fact is the name we give to the type of story that is rooted in evidence of truth. But it has never been easier for a story to pretend to have the attributes of fact when it actually does not. Like a tiger’s stripes, stories have evolved to use the appearance of facts as a camouflage — and it has never been more difficult to tell one from the other.
Human civilization is, in one sense, the sum of all of the stories we tell ourselves. Society is a vast and tangled collection of stories about manners, stories about morals, stories about democracy, stories about identity, and so on. This public commons is the Body Cultural; stories are its lifeblood.
In the Frankfurt mob story, Germany’s policy on welcoming refugees meant that it became a target for people who subscribe to a certain set of stories that add up to a xenophobic, racist worldview. It became the subject of two competing stories. But the fact that the truth is known — there was no “sex mob” in Frankfurt on New Year’s eve, no attempted arson in Dortmund that night — doesn’t seem to matter to the question of which of the competing stories will emerge victorious.
There is an old saying: a lie spreads around the world before the truth has even laced up its boots. The image of a New Year’s Eve “sex mob” of refugees did just that: it percolated through international debates around the resettlement of refugees. The story transmitted along new communication lines, on Facebook, on Twitter and it found an audience which was primed to integrate and promulgate stories that fit their right-wing narrative, stoking their fear, anger, and resentment. Despite being demonstrably untrue, it became powerful as any story.
The Frankfurt “sex mob” story is just one example of a much wider phenomenon. Something has grown sick in the way we as a species process and disseminate information. Something is broken in the way we triage our stories or, perhaps, there is suddenly no longer a stage of the process in which a story can be triaged.

Metaphors for information tend towards the biological. Ideas grow. They spread like viruses, or they take root like trees. This is not a coincidence: There is an observable similarity between the behavior of life, and the behavior of information.
This led Richard Dawkins to propose that, just as the gene was the basic reproductive unit of biological life, there was an equivalent for informational life: the meme. Colloquially, we have come to think of a meme as a particular sort of visual internet content, but it is much more than that.
Any idea that spreads is exercising memetic life. Nyan Cat is a meme, sure, but things like Christianity, Socialism, table manners, object permanence, and the book, War and Peace are memes, too. The foundational democratic idea of the intrinsic equality of mankind? That’s a meme. The feeling of threat from the sinister so-called other is a meme as well. Freedom, justice, and equality are memes, and so are racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. Our personality is the sum total of the memes and the stories that we have internalized over our lifetime.
Any idea can take hold in the public consciousness, to the point where it becomes doctrinaire, simply if it is a powerful story. A gene survives if it contains the instructions for a life-form which is well-suited to survive and reproduce in its environment; a meme survives if it contains the instructions for a story which is similarly well-suited to survive and reproduce in its environment. That environment is the Body Cultural, the public commons of our collective minds and media, and reproduction there means compelling the attention and belief of individual humans.
These stories range from the simple to the complex. Some experiences we feel as having an innate power because they conform to one of the narratives that are core to the instincts we evolved. As children, we are told stories of monsters in the dark in order to stop us from wandering too far from the firelight, because that was how to make sure we stay safe.
A David and Goliath underdog story or a last-minute Hail Mary comeback — these are all examples of powerful narrative archetypes, well-suited to survive and reproduce in the public commons of stories. These are foundational stories, simple, and monolithic. More complex stories are more complex narrative organisms; multicellular memetic life. Conspiracy theories are at their most potent when they tap into a core narrative archetype, that of fear of a sinister, behind-the-scenes coterie controlling our lives. But nations and religions are also both types of stories; stories that have evolved over centuries, even millennia, of being told and retold.
America is, at its heart, one such story. The country is built on the power of its own idea, a primal defining narrative. That story is itself composed of other stories, of individual aspiration and self-improvement, that add up to a sense of national uniqueness and historic destiny.
Core to democracy is the idea — the story — that all humans “are created equal,” as the Declaration of Independence put it. Conversely, core to totalitarianism is the opposite story, one which promotes the dehumanization of the other, the inculcation of hate towards those different from the in-group.
In the early days of the human race, our power to circulate such stories was limited. We developed language, but could only tell our stories individually, on a peer-to-peer basis; foundational myths that formed the basis of things like nations were encoded into lyrical ballads. Bards toured and performed these stories as narrative poems.
Information operates on Darwinian principles.
Later, with the invention of writing, those stories could be archived and their structures built upon. Religions standardized their dogma; nations anchored their mythos in histories and founded universities where scholars began to collate the first encyclopedia. The stories that made up our narrative worldview were controlled by gatekeepers: the church, the state, and the press.
The printing press allowed for the development of narratives that were an order of magnitude more complex than the environment could previously support and hard on the heels of its invention, came the scientific revolution and the enlightenment. There is a reason that the Nazis burned books: In order for totalitarianism to take hold, first the potential for the natural evolution of ideas within the Body Cultural needed to be cut off.
And then came the internet.

Information operates on Darwinian principles. Those ideas best fitted to their environment survive, spread, and evolve. Those which are not, die out. Except for the narrative power of the idea of truth — itself a type of story — there is not much that favors truth over lies in the process of memetic natural selection.
Silicon Valley provides us with a good example of the power of a compelling narrative: Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. Holmes claimed that she had developed a revolutionary new technique for running blood tests that would need only a finger prick, not a full draw of blood from a vein. It would later turn out, after some fearless and clear-sighted investigative reporting by the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, that it was all smoke and mirrors.
If we are given information that does not fit with the stories we have integrated into our worldview, our instinct is to reject it despite all proof.
But before that could happen, Holmes was able to leverage the power of her own personal narrative — that of an heroic visionary founder in the mold of Steve Jobs — to raise stunning amounts of money from investors. It was to the point where her company became a unicorn, the name given in the Valley to companies worth more than a billion dollars. She was even able to tempt luminaries like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz to join her board of directors.
With each progressive milestone, the narrative powering Holmes’ rise got stronger. When her downfall finally came, it was because it finally came up against an even more powerful narrative archetype: the Icarus story of hubris and comeuppance. But in Silicon Valley, the recurring myth of the lone genius founder persists.
Those stories can become more powerful than reality itself. If we are given information that does not fit with the stories we have integrated into our worldview, our instinct is to reject it despite all proof — because ultimately, as far as human understanding goes, proof is just another type of story.
The internet has sent this phenomenon into overdrive. Before everyone was potentially connected directly to everyone, the information ecosystem revolved around the library and the archive. There were high bars to publishing a work, and when it was published, it was a permanent and immutable part of the Body Cultural.
The importance of that ecosystem cannot be understated: record keeping was a key part of all pre-printing press societies; for an idea to spread it needed to be so powerful as to dominate, despite the inefficient systems of codification.
But in the age of the internet, there is now such a colossal amount of information being produced, often with little to no editorial control or judgement involved in the process, that the Body Cultural risks becoming overwhelmed. This is perhaps why this has been called a “post-truth” age: there is no longer any reliable way to tell which stories will be helpful to us and which will harm us if we incorporate them into our individual narrative understanding.

The power of the human narrative instinct was perfectly observed by the satirist and author Terry Pratchett, who described a substance called “narrativium” as one of the fundamental elements of Discworld, his magical fantasy universe. It is a particularly brilliant premise which gives the human instinct towards stories the form of a literal force: narrative gravity.
The point Pratchett understood perfectly is this: humans can only understand the universe by way of stories. To construct narratives out of life’s chaos of facts is the most basic of human instincts, because it is only by imposing narrative order in this way that we can begin to comprehend the world around us.
When we engage with that world, it is always as a part of that fundamental narrative framework; and as our informational infrastructure has increased in complexity, so has our ability to process and spread those stories.
But what happens if that process becomes so complex as to no longer be under our control? How does a bad idea form? What is its genesis? How did it grow, spread, take root, and reproduce in an age where the growth of information was limited by the written word or the printed page? In an age where the internet forces us into ideological silos of reality, how can truth compete with lies?
This has always been a part of the human experience. But it, too, has been greatly exacerbated by the internet.
Take the recurrent societal story of “national economy as home economy.” During the tenure of prime minister David Cameron, the British government instigated a policy of “austerity.” This was sold to the public, loosely, using a simple and compelling idea: that the national debt being high was just like being in debt as a household, as if bailiffs were going to come to the U.K. and start confiscating national monuments.
Of course, national debt is completely different from individual debt. The difference is that when the U.K. government borrows money to spend on domestic welfare and other programs, the money gives an injection of liquidity into the economy. But the narrative had a compelling power all of its own.
National economy as home economy was a rhetorical trick to force the politics of the right, which believes in a more limited government welfare state than the left does, onto a public that does not fully grasp its intention. In the U.K. case, austerity politics caused a contraction of the economy, forcing the government to actually borrow more.
Republicans in the U.S. have long used similar arguments to push for cuts to welfare programs; the fact that they don’t really care about reducing national debt was made stunningly clear after Trump and Paul Ryan passed the 2017 tax plan, which cut taxes on America’s wealthiest and in doing so blew a smoking great hole in the federal budget. So much for the party of fiscal responsibility.
It is demonstrably untrue, but the simplicity of the story — that being in debt as a nation is the same as being in debt as an individual or household — meant that it has spread more easily from person to person than the complex, more difficult to understand, truth.
The way that a bad idea can cascade through society in the age of the internet should deeply concern us all. But it is such a core part of human nature — Pratchett’s narrativium is a fundamental human element — that it is rarely considered directly. As the social media age progresses, however, we’re going to have to grapple with the fact that the structure of the environment in which our fundamental narratives are born and grow has changed.

In the biological world, unchecked and uncontrolled cell growth, caused by a damaged gene, is called a cancer. There is no equivalent word for when a bad idea or damaged meme cascades through society, but they often have. Communism — the idea of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need” — metastasized into totalitarianism under Stalin. That this was out-evolved, eventually, by a collection of oppositionary ideas centered around freedom and democracy (and capitalism) is our great fortune as a society.
The Darwinian environment of the world of ideas has so far worked largely in our favor in that, on balance, so far, in history the good guys have mostly, and often only after great sorrow, won in the end. The narrative arc of the moral universe, to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr., may have been long, but it bent toward justice. In the age before the internet, lying carried an opportunity cost, because being caught in a lie was a powerfully damaging narrative.
That’s not to say that the true or good story always won. Politics is fundamentally based around the art and artifice of the crafting and broadcasting of stories which incentivizes the twisting and harnessing of narrative as a mechanism for taking and holding power. This goes all the way back to whoever first thought of protecting their monarchy from revolution by inventing and perpetuating the idea of the divine right of kings to rule.
One of the core narratives that make up the story we call America is “American exceptionalism.” Politicians on the left and right all strive to harness this idea: “this is the greatest country on earth” is a common refrain on the campaign trail. In fact, many, if not most, nations on earth have incorporated some variation of this kind of idea of manifest destiny into their national narrative DNA. It is useful as a trait which inculcates a sense of belonging. But if it is allowed to escalate unchecked it can also be dangerous, because it prevents any incentive to improve as a nation toward a global good. That is the flaw of all nationalism.
But in the age of the internet, nationalism — and especially ethnonationalism — is on the rise again.
At the core of Donald Trump’s message during the 2016 campaign, and on through his presidency, was a story. It is related to the manifest destiny narrative, but with the added hybrid of a primal story of nostalgia, too. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” encapsulated this story perfectly, and the campaign was powered by it. The innate feeling that life has not lived up to its promise — an inchoate feeling of unease perhaps even partly caused by the chaos of competing narratives — was harnessed by the evolving story. It found structure and form in Trump and Trumpism.
At the same time, the story Trump told us all about himself — that he was a self-made man — turned out to be entirely fictional. A bombshell New York Times story from October showed that he actually got his money from his father by a process of gargantuan tax fraud, meaning he effectively stole half a billion dollars from the U.S. treasury. But for the political right, the truth doesn’t fit with the story, so it was rejected.
Like when a transplant patient’s body rejects the new organ, a group of people in thrall to a particular underlying narrative simply refuse to register facts if they don’t fit the story. This is confirmation bias: the fact that when you’re inside one of these sectioned off areas — known as filter bubbles — where the stories are cherry-picked to include only those which confirm the preconceived and preconstructed worldview.
This has always been a part of the human experience. But it, too, has been greatly exacerbated by the internet. Especially by social media structures like Facebook, which not only use algorithms to try to show people only content that it thinks they want to see (which greatly strengthens the effect of the filter bubble) but also by visually standardizing every story, so that an investigation by the New York Times looks the same as a post from a conspiracy nut about chemtrails or the Illuminati putting fluoride in the water.
It is interesting to note that Facebook itself had a deeply flawed underlying story, encapsulated in the company’s original slogan, “move fast and break things.” The seductiveness of the “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” approach made it endemic to tech culture after Facebook’s success, and has led to endless and horrifying real-world repercussions.
Framing a story in terms of biological life is a useful story in and of itself. It helps explain how ideas can seem to spread of their own accord. When an idea grows, it doesn’t matter whether one of the human nodes in the network of minds across which it spreads knows themselves to be lying or believes themselves to be telling the truth. This is itself a story, a metaphor designed to help understand the spread of ideas across a network. And the point is that while it is still composed of individual humans, the structure of that network — of the Body Cultural — has drastically changed.
What that might mean for the future of mankind is still uncertain. Our story is still being told.


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