24-hour news, smartphones, social media, Simon Speakman Cordall explores how the incessant and diverting streams of news and comment are radicalising us all
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Something remarkable happened on the 18th of April 1930. The BBC’s listening public dialled into the radio to hear “there is no news,” before switching to 15 minutes of piano music.
It seems farcical today. The news is everywhere. On television, different channels carrying different agendas each compete for our attention, whilst radio phone-in shows provide reassuring echoes of our own prejudices. All the while, our phones chirrup and vibrate, drawing our focus to the passage of every event, its worthiness designed according to the schedule we programmed.
Beyond the mainstream, there’s social media. Twitter and, to a degree, Facebook have allowed us to curate our sources to an unparalleled degree, ensuring that whatever comes out, broadly reflects what we put in. It’s relentless. It’s always on. Modernity hasn’t just made us high on our own supply. It’s left us permanently stoned. The sheer volume of news we are exposed to daily has never been greater.
Moreover, it’s not simply that we know more, we care more. A lot more.
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You can track the evidence in the passage of the UK’s previously obscure relationship with the EU, which went from a fringe issue for the Conservative Party to one that now encompasses all contemporary UK politics. In the US, conversations about guns and abortion have gone from being vital issues, but nonetheless subject to logical debate, to the markers that many now define their identities by.
Political diversity in how news is presented is hardly fresh. Newspapers have long pinned their colours to the mast of different political parties for almost as long as there have been political parties. However, that diversity, rather than colouring the debate, as it once did, has now become so prominent that it subsumes it.
Fox News, one of the largest news providers worldwide, recently conceded that it wilfully skewed its election coverage to reflect a position it knew to be untrue. View that from a distance. A news provider, charged with contributing towards a commonly shared reality, led its viewers to believe that Donald Trump’s election lies were, contrary to all evidence, true.
The reason given, we’re told, is that they recognised that to do otherwise would be to lose viewers to channels who wilfully peddled the former President’s lies.
Essentially, Fox conceded that its viewers were no longer coming to it to find out the truth. The reality was that they were tuning in for reassuring lies. It’s not just Fox. Think about pandemic lies, vaccine myths, and the endless conspiracy theories involving shadowy elites, which also gain online traction, before being picked up and parroted through the frothing mouths of satellite news presenters.
When the TV and radio present precise mirrors to the reality that their audiences selected on their phone, beliefs become facts and, any platform that differs, can only be presenting lies.
We’ve been here before. Some years ago, the Franco-American anthropology Professor Scott Atran carried out field research amongst Moroccans radicalised by Al Qaeda and their fellow travellers.
As part of that research, Professor Atran mapped recruits’ social interactions through a series of circles. In normal cases, you, for instance, a visit to your Mother might represent one circle, while half an hour talking to someone in a bar might be another. In the case that your Mum knew the person in the bar, the circles would overlap. In the case of these aspirant fighters, their circles overlapped to such a degree that the centre of the page became little but ink.
As Scott explained at the time, groups radicalise themselves. The idea is first introduced into the group, whereupon those within it repeat and exaggerate it, without challenge, much in the way feedback loops work. Before too long, fully signed up and wholly committed Jihadists were produced, ready to go and sacrifice themselves for the glory of the Caliphate.
To place that into a more immediate context. Consider the path that the otherwise nondescript IT graduate Mohammed Emwazi took from the suburbs of Maida Vale to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq and the very public beheading of US journalist, James Foley.
Emwazi and his friends didn’t undertake this in isolation. Social media and the news platforms of the Islamic State undoubtedly played a vital role, but, compared to the speed with which the rest of the planet consumes and shares news today, Emwazi’s radicalisation wasn’t just analogue, it was the Stone Age.
“It’s relentless,” Professor Atran says by phone today. “It’s 24/7 constant radicalisation. There’s no time to rest, no time to reflect. It encompasses everything, every aspect of our day,” he told Byline Times, “I look back on my own photographs, taken in Paris, Marseilles, New York. It’s just masses of people walking around and looking at their phones.
Social media pile-ons and tabloid hit pieces are not just highlighting the errors of others, they’re speaking to our darkest emotions, those of the mob. They’re stripping their victims’ lives of detail or nuance, applauding our rage and doing it all in real-time. This goes beyond our own debates over the EU, climate or abortion. It’s what leads Russian mercenaries into admitting no regrets after torturing and butchering injured Ukrainian POWs.
“We’re living in information bubbles, where everything we receive is intended to reinforce that bubble, and anything that challenges it is essentially dangerous,” Professor Atran says. “Anything that contradicts our beliefs about the world is rejected, framed as dangerous or attacked,” he stresses, “It’s dangerous.
“There are basically three stages to going viral,” Professor Atran says: “Firstly you have to connect to their core values, (family, religion, love of country, honour, etc.). Second, you need to frame your opponent in pure negatives, as a threat to whatever core values you’re protecting. Lastly, there needs to be some kind of causal narrative, a story that contains a tiny kernel of truth at its heart that you can point to and the claim is an unambiguous fact.”
Professor Atran designed a number of online messages, shaped to attract and be amplified by hostile bots. For the US audience, messages saying, for instance, that the election had been stolen, were subsequently held up as evidence that the bots had, “simply recognised the message’s inherent truth, rather than being in any way false” Atran says.
Increasingly, the commonly held truths that once bound societies together are coming under increasing strain and becoming fractured. Your phone will now tell you that fascism poses sincere questions for society, and that mankind’s role in climate change remains dubious. Scientific consensus, modernity’s dominant religion, is really just a series of prejudices indistinguishable from our own.
It’s not going anywhere. It’s getting faster and it’s getting more targeted. It’s working on us and at us around the clock. Our every prejudice, for better or worse, is being reinforced and amplified. What we think, is becoming what we know and how we feel, is becoming our new reality.
Ultimately, we’re all radicals now.
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