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July 18th , 2024

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MANIPULATED REALITY THREATENS DEMOCRACIES

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Democracy is a political system that, however imperfect, is all about the idea that the best way to govern is to facilitate the inclusion of the opinions of the governed in their own governance. In order for democracy to function optimally, not only is it important that its institutions apply equally to all within it, but also, crucially, that all participants have a shared understanding of reality.

 

Citizens in a democratic system don’t at all need to agree on all policy preferences, but they have to agree to debate the same reality and the facts and evidence that help us understand it leading to policy choices.

Disinformation has been taken to new heights with the assistance of modern technology. Algorithms amplify information that gets the most clicks, which means news that creates the most anger, fear and anxiety gets the most attention. Thoughtful, true, and nuanced information is not as successful in this environment.  

 

Propaganda is the dissemination of biased, misleading, or, often, outright untrue information for a political agenda which has been part of the manipulative, political toolset probably for as long as the quest for power throughout history. Propagandists seek to manipulate others’ experience of reality. In 2022, they have all the tools and conditions to take this manipulation using misinformation and disinformation to the extreme. 

 

Often it is easier to recognize what is wrong with others than with ourselves. Russia invaded Ukraine, while the Russian people were told that this was a humanitarian “special military operation.” Putin claimed they were protecting people subjected to bullying and genocide. The goal was described as "demilitarization and de-Nazification" of the Ukraine.  According to the government and national Russian media this is not a war or invasion. Dissenting voices are being strongly suppressed. 

 

The western world has a very different narrative. We describe this as an invasion and are bemused that “de-Nazification” is being claimed as a motivation when the President of the Ukraine is Jewish and his grandparents fought the Nazis in World War II. We agree that Russia is unequivocally an unprovoked aggressor entering the country with tanks and bombing innocent civilians. We are sharing the stories of attacks and the brave Ukrainian defense of their country. Likely, Russian civilians are not hearing this story. 

 

We know something about living in separate narratives in the U.S. with a cacophony of inconsistent information flow that is motivated by corporate interests, special interests, political interests and the government. And now our trust in our government, the media and each other is at an all-time low. The result has been an incapacity to act effectively on critical issues such as climate change, election integrity and public health. It is almost shocking that there was such broad agreement about sanctions against Russia.

 

Government citizens do not have shared facts, so the capacity to talk productively with each other is undermined.  This leaves them vulnerable to manipulators that have power and money. Understanding this is a step towards correcting this. A key part of the solution is relational-caring relationships because we don’t listen to understand and solve problems with people we have dismissed or distrust.   

The internet is, of course, one of the most important civilization-changing innovations in history. It enables us each to communicate almost anything to almost anyone. The innovation of social media on top of that platform has made it possible for people to filter out much of what they don’t want to hear and be targeted by those who want to give to them only what they want them to hear.

The modern convenience of those with nefarious goals to enter within the self-reinforcing, digital, information bubbles, and, in some sense, get into the hearts and minds of the individuals within those communities is the age-old dream of propagandists come true. 

It is no coincidence that political polarization in the world, has greatly grown during this age of manipulated reality. And, it is not surprising that this political disunion has gotten much worse in recent years as already influential, cynical players on the political stage (both foreign and domestic) use the tools of manipulated reality to create “alternative facts” to try to shape the arc of history in their favor at the expense of others. 

And, if we live in a time that anything can be faked, all it takes for the manipulator to win is to have the audience have their pre-existing trust betrayed one time by what they see and hear (albeit digitally) with their own eyes and ears. If you cannot trust one digital thing you trusted was real, then you no longer will entirely trust that anything digital is real in the future.

 

Sometimes, the propagandists don’t need to win by convincing you of their fantasized reality. They just have to convince you to doubt actual reality.


In this disturbing context, calm, reasonable political debate being the foundation of a healthy democracy made up of mutually-respectful citizens debating a shared reality, cannot easily occur in and/or return to America unless we do a few things. 

Over the longer term, we need to figure out how to manage and/or evolve to new forms of social media, given its role as an essential form of public utility and source of news. We must figure out how to accurately track and identify all manipulated content and/or disinformation/misinformation in real-time so that people can trust what they see and hear and debate from within a truthful, shared reality. As Mark Twain famously said, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”

In the middle term, we need to strengthen the institutional and legal structures that enable a fair, inclusive, and functioning democratic and electoral process.


And, finally, in the immediate term, we need to create innovative opportunities for citizens to meet with eachother to learn or regain the capacity to have calm and respectful political conversations where they can discuss the issues that matter most, including democracy itself.

 

But, even more crucially, we need to make sure that those who run for political office and those who are elected to serve as our political representatives buy in fully to the core principles of democracy rather than just cynically see democracy as one more bit of clay to manipulate into their golden idols of self-worship and insatiable desire for power.


As individuals, we should help support, protect, and strengthen democracy in the age of manipulated reality.

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Blair Phillips

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