I’m not a huge fan of the EU but I have a mostly positive opinion about it.
This morning my stance on this matter was about to change, dramatically.
I had found in my email a link towards a newspaper article, in Romanian, which said ‘the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg had ordered that starting with March 1 2016 people in Europe are no longer allowed to baptize their under-aged children‘.
Hard to believe something like that, isn’t it?
Are you really sure about that?
Now try to read articles like this – which are reasonably ‘well’ written, using the right lingo and having enough details thrown in to make them sound credible – through the eyes of a guy already worried by the so much hipped ‘migrant invasion’. Who was already pissed off by the various rules and regulations handed over from Brussels and acquiesced by the local, and supposedly sovereign, governments without any fuss.
Most people do not have the exercise of doubting everything they read, specially if the message comes from somebody they trust – a friend, for instance, or if the site where they read it seems legit.
OK, a certain proportion of them – not all, will exert some discretion if money is involved. That’s why phishing has a limited, yet certain, impact.
But when a particular piece of information apparently confirms an already entrenched stereotype – the bossiness of the EU, for instance – quite a large number of readers will fall for it.
Yesterday evening I was reading a comment added by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on his own Facebook wall: “What social media finally did: destroy the press. It is more organic to get information from word-of-mouth, which it accelerated.”
Corroborate that comment with a quote from an excellent article published by the same guy on Wired.com: “I am not saying here that there is no information in big data. There is plenty of information. The problem — the central issue — is that the needle comes in an increasingly larger haystack.” (Nassim N. Taleb, Beware the Big Errors of ‘Big Data’, Wired.com, 08.02.2013) and things start to gain some perspective.
What we’re dealing here is the famous lack of symmetry that currently bothers the strategic planners who presumably shape the future of the humankind.
In the ‘good ole’ days’ – when we had writers, publishing houses (newspapers, magazines, you name it) and ‘specialized’ readers, things were a lot simpler.
The writers had a certain notoriety and most of them didn’t want to jeopardize it by publishing bullshit.
Publishing houses didn’t dare to publish bullshit – except for those that did it on purpose, because most of their readers would no longer have bought their papers.
The specialized readers – those who usually bought a certain kind of magazines or books – were able to recognize most bullshit when they saw it, simply because they had some experience in the fields that used to elicit their interest.
Bullshit was being pushed in those days too, for sure. But it was a specialized job, that had to be done carefully.
And in that era, for bullshit to be effective, you had to have very ‘favorable’ circumstances.
Communism didn’t take hold but in very poor countries and fascism only in war torn Italy, Germany and Spain.
Nowadays, “…any simpleminded partisan with a political ax to grind can find an online community of like-minded whack-jobs who’ll be happy to provide him with plenty of ideological ammunition (e.g., bogus stats, pre-fab arguments, etc.). Before long, what was once a more-or-less harmless, single-issue troll has morphed into something far more monstrous and formidable: a veritable Swiss-army knife of bullshit, a perfect storm of bad ideas, a walking Wikipedia of stupid.” (John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016) )
And since it’s very hard to police the Internet – even harder if we are determined to preserve the ‘freedom of expression’, we are in a very delicate position.
Is there anything to be done about this? Considering that there will never be a real shortage of ‘simpleminded partisans with political axes to grind’?
I think there is.
I started this post by mentioning three related concepts.
Freedom, responsibility and discretion.
We should not tamper with Freedom. Basically this is everything we’ve got, our most precious achievement.
So, we are left with ‘responsibility’ and ‘discretion’.
How is it that most sites manage to stay on line?
They are either sponsored by somebody or they sell advertising space, right?
Who provides that money? Who buys those advertised products? Who spreads around the news about those sites?
Who reads those bullshit laden articles and swallow them hook, line and sinker, simply because some of the (seemingly legit) arguments presented there happen to be consistent with our previously held convictions?
So, if you wish that your kids will be able to live in a better world, stop distributing bullshit through social media, stop buying things advertised on bullshit peddling sites – or, even better, stop going there altogether, and, above all, learn your kids to think with their own heads.
Even if that means they’ll end up contradicting us. As long as they’ll do it in a respectful enough manner – the second most important thing we’ll have to teach them about, all will be OK.
Update. A friend of mine, thanks Lucian, has done some digging over the Internet and found out where all this has started from: