Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. Hegel believed that we do not perceive the world or anything in it directly and all that our minds have access to is the ideas of the world – images, perceptions, and concepts. For Hegel, the only real reality we know is virtual reality. Hegel believed that the ideas we have of the world are social, which is to say, the ideas that we possess individually are for the most part shaped by the ideas that other people possess. Our minds have been shaped by the thoughts of other people through the language we speak, the traditions and mores of our society, and the cultural and religious institutions of which we are a part. Hegel notes, “When liberty is mentioned, we must always be careful to observe whether it is not really the assertion of private interests which is thereby designated.”
The media creates cognitive dissonance, the feeling of uncomfortable tension, which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The cult of individualism makes us particularly prone to cognitive dissonance because our personal identity is very important. We see ourselves as stable self-contained beings. However, advertising that we may be missing something, or not fitting in creates anxiety. Television tends to feed an information diet (of self-approval) similar to consuming too much sugar inducing short-term euphoria and happiness while distracting from reality. The weakness of the mass media remains an inability to transmit tacit knowledge and an inability to deal with complex issues, so they tend to focus on the unusual or sensational, and the promotion of anxiety and fear. Confirmation-bias draws us in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.
Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) developed a theory of cultural evolution intended to account for the development of free-market capitalism, and explained why it works so well. He believed that it had allowed him to achieve what no earlier economist had – to paint “what now seems to me a tolerably clear picture of the nature of the spontaneous order.” Hayek was closely exposed to ideas of colleagues that had allowed him to achieve understanding with respect to evolutionary theories, during his 12 years at the London School of Economics. One of these colleagues, Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886-1966), was an adherent of neo-Malthusian ideas and Galton’s eugenics. He was concerned about all kinds of social ills and problems – he saw a solution in eugenics for the engineering of society into a better condition. Another colleague with influence was Julian Huxley (1887-1975), an Oxford zoologist who wrote books, including The Vital Importance of Eugenics in 1933 which basically advocated a long-term goal that degenerate individuals were stopped from reproduction as quickly as possible.
Hayek explains to his enthusiastic supporter Antony Fisher: “Society’s course will be changed only by a change of ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and the writers, with reasoned arguments. It will be their influence on society that will prevail and the politicians will follow.” To empower these ideas corporate money supported think-tanks along with scholarship and intensive use of media. This think-tank network wasn’t for creating new ideas, but for being a gate keeper and disseminating the existing set of ideas around “the philosophy of freedom.” The conscious strategy of this global think-tank network was to take the idea of individual freedom and minimal government mainstream. The message: Freedom has nothing to do with democracy or speech or individual rights; for the economic elite it is about the freedom of the market and their proxies who control those markets. Today we now realize how much laissez-fare manipulates you.
Floyd Arthur Harper (1905–1973), a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, was present at the group’s first meeting in 1947 along with Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Karl Poppe. He helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. The unique thing that Harper brought to the table was a social Darwinian account of human progress. Harper believed that progress was generated by the “variation,” i.e. the bell curve distribution, which “seems to pervade the universe”. The ideas of the neoliberal thought collective led to a neglect of social goods not captured by economic indicators, an erosion of democracy, an unhealthy promotion of unbridled individualism and social Darwinism, along with economic inefficiency. Forces stimulating social change are stronger over time than barriers. So, change is inevitable in the long term. But most people resist change in the short term.
How does inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life? Laissez-faire supported by Hayek’s cultural evolution has no vision of the good society or the public good and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Under the cultural trope of ‘individual responsibility’ welfare for the poor is cut and restructured to make welfare recipients more responsible for their economic status. This takes the focus from the inherit inequality in the system and focuses on the distribution, specifically its disproportionate effect on the excluded – such as the unemployed, minorities and immigrants. Then, they define corporations as legal persons in order to facilitate the buying of elections. This allows them to repurpose the strong state to impose their vision of a society properly open to the dominance of the market as they conceive it. Social inequality actually describes the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in society.
Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to, observes Tom Rosenstiel. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. This bias is the tendency in all of us to believe stories that reinforce our convictions – and the stronger the convictions, the more powerfully the person feels the pull of the confirmation bias. The FTC has accused Facebook of breaking antitrust law by gobbling up many smaller social media start-ups and acquiring several large, well-established competitors, in what amounts to a concerted effort to build a social media monopoly.
Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it. The economic elite do not hesitate to present their ideology as interpretation of truth. The “truth” the market reveals is never in actuality some eternal, given fact. The market is never a neutral arbiter of truth, so the “truth” it reveals about government practice has always required interpretation. Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. The truth is that capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent the economic elite creates and normalizes a culture of lying to itself leading to its inherent instability.
The power elite control what you think through proxies who control information and communication, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. Social computing shows that you don’t necessarily have to read people’s brains to influence their choices. It is sufficient to collect and mine the data they regularly – and often unwittingly – share online. Therefore, we need to consider setting for the digital space a firm threshold for cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty highlights the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses. The EU data protection authority has underscored if recklessly applied to the electoral domain, these activities could even change or reduce “the space for debate and interchange of ideas,” a risk which urgently requires a democratic debate on the use and exploitation of data for political campaign and decision-making.
The concept of information manipulation has largely remained the same through time; however, the speed at which it spreads and the magnitude of influence it holds today makes it very different from its historical counterpart. Today established political parties are using social media to spread disinformation, suppress political participation, and undermine oppositional parties. With every click, like and follow, we leave our digital footprints all across social media and the web. This is a fertile ground for deception – technology that leverages your online activities combined with the power of big data, supercomputing and artificial intelligence. Lies are always coercive for the one being lied to: Lies seek to persuade not by appealing to our freedom to choose but by compelling us via deception to narrow our field of choice. As such, lies give power to the liar and take power away from the persons being lied to. In turn, this shift in power accumulates over the course of repeated lies.
Social media presents a number of dangers that require urgent and immediate regulation: While the online environment in the US remains generally free, it is troubled by a proliferation of fabricated news articles, divisive partisan vitriol, and aggressive harassment of many journalists, both during and after the presidential election campaign. What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and political advertising by foreign and domestic actors. Emerging technologies such as advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and fifth-generation mobile networks will provide new opportunities for human development, but they will also undoubtedly present a new array of human rights challenges. Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet does not become a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression. Today we realize the inadequacies of social media and its negative effect on democratic governance. The level of deception and (internet) freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.