trump

Trump's Master Class In Media Manipulation, False News, And The Hadith That Predicted It All #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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First, A History Lesson

If you study Hitler's rise to power, in retrospect, there are a number of troubling red flags that should give us pause. Here are a few quotes that lay the groundwork for the remainder of this article.

"Yet you had Americans meeting Hitler and saying, "This guy is a clown. He's like a caricature of himself." And a lot of them went through this whole litany about how even if Hitler got into a position of power, other German politicians would somehow be able to control him. A lot of German politicians believed this themselves. ... But some of the Americans were much more prescient -- for instance, Edgar Mowrer ... kept frantically trying to warn readers and the world, "What he's saying about the Jews is serious. Don't underestimate him" (The Atlantic).

"Some journalists and diplomats took those kinds of risks and really pushed to get everything. Others held back -- after all, Germany really was a very prestigious reporting assignment. They felt constrained and didn't want to jeopardize their situation"  (The Atlantic).

"In World War I, American newspapers had published a lot of stories about German atrocities -- about how they were bayoneting babies in Belgium -- and those proved to be fabrications. So I think the editors were open to some of these first reports about the Nazis, but they were wary. ...Hans Kaltenborn, a famous radio broadcaster of that era. He was of German descent, but had grown up in the United States. Right after Hitler took power, there were attacks on Americans who failed to give the Hitler salute. Kaltenborn went over with the attitude that these reports were greatly exaggerated. Then his teenage son got beaten up for exactly the same reason. The Nazis apologized profusely and said, "I hope you won't write about this." And Kaltenborn replied, "No, I don't insert anything personal in my stories." Even after this happened to his own son, he was reluctant to write about it  (The Atlantic).

He didn't spell out exactly what would happen in the Holocaust, but he gave a pretty good indication of its overall thrust. When someone lobs those kinds of rhetorical bombs, it's sort of a natural human tendency to say, "Oh, that's just a figure of speech. They don't really mean it. It's just a way to whip up supporters" (The Atlantic).

Hitler, in their eyes, was not a serious man, unfit to govern, a classless buffoon. His appeal, the German elite believed, came from his outsider status, which allowed him to posture against the political system and make extravagant promises to his followers that would never be tested against reality. What’s more, Hitler’s explicit contempt for democracy made even the authoritarian German right nervous about entrusting him with power (New York Magazine).

“The 1930s marked the rise of celebrity culture, in the era of talking movies, radio and new lifestyle magazines,” Stratigakos said. “People developed a strong desire to know what the private person was like behind the public facade. Hitler’s propagandists took advantage of the new celebrity culture and even helped to shape it.” ... “Journalists seek out these behind-the-scenes stories because people demand it,” she said. “This still holds true today, and I believe that we need to be much more critical of the industries that focus on home or lifestyle news. They really do have influence” (Univ. of Buffalo).

Watch this Ted Ed video for a quick summary:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFICRFKtAc4

 

Quick, Create A Diversion!

I remember my stomach being in knots when I saw Trump as a guest on the Jimmy Fallon Show, the one where Jimmy famously messes up Trump's hair. People were rightfully upset at this seemingly bizarre display of playfully joking around with a demagogue. The next morning I saw a tweet from someone I respect saying something along the lines of, "If only people were this upset when Chris Brown was on the Fallon Show."

This is a false equivalency. Chris Brown was not running for president. Chris Brown wasn't galvanizing people around a platform of hate and bigotry. These types of statements are a quick way to divert attention from the issue at hand, and it is a tactic done to perfection by the Trump team.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0BYqzdiuJc

*Notice that this video has almost 10 million views

What we choose to discuss plays a large role in shaping the narrative around someone. We saw examples of this recently with all the tweets about Hamilton and Saturday Night Live. They distracted from the more substantive issues of his cabinet picks and massive conflicts of interest in entering office.

The old way of diverting the public was through entertainment [as I wrote about in a previous article, Bread & Circuses]. Now, Trump is able to mask the diversions as newsworthy by manipulating the media.

Judd Legum (who is a great follow on Twitter), lays out these tactics in a detailed article in ThinkProgress (complete with screenshots from various newspapers showing which headlines they are focusing on):

One of the guiding principles for the media in covering the President of the United States is that the things the president says and does are, by definition, newsworthy. This is why there is a White House press corps and a “protective pool” that follows the president around everywhere. ....

But major media outlets continue to treat Trump’s business conflicts as a secondary issue. The main course is, per tradition, driven by Trump. But Trump is not talking about conflicts-of-interest. He is talking about Hamilton. ... 

Trump also staged a photo-op with Mitt Romney, a much more moderate figure than the people that have joined his administration.

Trump nominated Jeff Sessions, a man the Senate decided was too racist to be a federal judge, to be Attorney General. He named Steve Bannon, the proprietor of a white nationalist website, to be his “chief strategist.” Michael Flynn, a conspiracy theorist and Islamophobe, will be National Security Adviser.

Romney has not been offered any position yet, but dominates the headlines because Trump steered the media that way.

Of course, the same strategy has been used with other major items such as Trump defrauding thousands of students through his sham university.

https://twitter.com/asabenn/status/800021161262321664

In the social media age, he can create the news.

Eventually these distortions add up. Things that should not be normal (like this type of media coverage) end up becoming normal.

Make the Craziness Look Normal

The most obvious example of this is the usage of the term "alt-right" as a mask for white supremacy.

https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/839915112816664/

The language used to describe things is incredibly important, moreso than most people realize. Notice the usage of certain words in this video - 'governing', 'gravity', 'root for him', and so on.

https://twitter.com/AJEnglish/status/799054473045807104

Language is a core focus of the infamous 'Hasbara Handbook' which outlines talking points for addressing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict from an Israeli perspective. They emphasize understanding that Americans need a "team to cheer for" and how to craft a message accordingly.

The point being, rhetoric plays a huge role in creating perception, shaping attitudes, and "winning hearts and minds." It is no surprise that there is a Prophetic tradition which states:

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, "Some eloquent speech is as effective as magic [e.g.some people refuse to do something and then a good eloquent speaker addresses them and then they agree to do that very thing after his speech]" (Bukhari).

The way we frame a discussion has the effect of mainstreaming talking points. For example,

https://twitter.com/longwall26/status/798543513436692480

At the time of writing this article, "Are Jews People" was a trending topic.

https://twitter.com/Delo_Taylor/status/800875958492430336

Instead of detailing the ramifications of an issue, we throw everything up for discussion as if it is somehow actually a debate.

https://twitter.com/zhandlen/status/798515914178183168

Or even:

https://twitter.com/imraansiddiqi/status/800528345377095680

It becomes another way of making the abnormal normal, as Keith Olbermann breaks down in a video for GQ (a men's fashion magazine) of all platforms.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hxnbC_11Cg

To understand this bias, simply rewind to 2008. Imagine if Obama sought security clearances for his children, had been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, ran on a platform of registering all white male gun owners into a national database, and settled a fraud lawsuit for $25 million weeks before taking office. How would the media and public have treated him?

Obama reflected on his presidency and Trump's election in a long profile in the New Yorker. This passage in particular caught my eye:

Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”

That day, as they travelled, Obama and Simas talked almost obsessively about an article in BuzzFeed that described how the Macedonian town of Veles had experienced a “digital gold rush” when a small group of young people there published more than a hundred pro-Trump Web sites, with hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers. The sites had names like TrumpVision365.com and WorldPoliticus.com, and most of the posts were wildly sensationalist, recycled from American alt-right sites. If you read such sites, you learned that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and that Clinton had actually encouraged Trump to run, because he “can’t be bought.”

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.

That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.

This is why people can openly and explicitly spout Nazi propaganda, and the media will hide behind labels like alt-right.

Jeremy Stahl writes in Slate, "But others have twisted themselves in pretzels attempting not to explicitly label Bannon or his brand of agitprop as racist. This involves reporters and headline writers attributing descriptions of Bannon’s views to “critics,” or framing the issue as “one side says this and the other says that,” or letting others characterize Bannon rather than taking the evidence available and drawing conclusions themselves. Also, there are those great euphemisms we mentioned (he’s not racist, he’s controversial).

Then he goes on to list some of the euphemisms he has come across in mainstream media, including: Nod to Anti-Washington Base, Provocateur From the Fringe, hard-right nationalist, conspiracy-tinged outlet, far-right conservatism, nationalist media mogul, and other such phrases. Think about the visceral anger the mere mention of the name 'Hitler' evokes. Now imagine if people simply referred to him as a "small-mustachioed provocateur" - it sounds more like a slightly lovable bad guy in a James Bond movie than someone who actually committed genocide in real life.

This normalization is much easier to achieve in the age of online filter bubbles. I wrote about this phenomenon in great detail in a previous article - How Filter Bubbles Shape Your Social, Political, and Religious Views. One of the consequences of this is people becoming more and more polarized in their views, creating fertile ground for 'fake news' to take off.

https://twitter.com/mmfa/status/799998171996966912

Fear and Fake News

There are a few ingredients that create a perfect storm for fake news:

  • The power of the emotion of fear
  • The speed of online communication and desire to share things quickly
  • Social media sites that are designed to get you to engage in debates (i.e. comments)
  • Revenue models that significantly incentivize traffic over objectivity

This is why the news usually looks something like this.

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I wrote previously about the infamous Qur'an burning story from a few years ago that was covered irresponsibly, and ended up causing over 25 deaths in ensuing riots. We see the same blueprint playing out now.

The Washington Post gives a behind the scenes look at the fake news industry during this election:

Fewer than 2,000 readers are on his website when Paris Wade, 26, awakens from a nap, reaches for his laptop and thinks he needs to, as he puts it, “feed” his audience. “Man, no one is covering this TPP thing,” he says ... Wade, a modern-day digital opportunist, sees an opportunity. He begins typing a story.

“CAN’T TRUST OBAMA,” he writes as the headline, then pauses. His audience hates Obama and loves President-elect Donald Trump, and he wants to capture that disgust and cast it as a drama between good and evil. He resumes typing: “Look At Sick Thing He Just Did To STAB Trump In The Back… .”

Ten minutes and nearly 200 words later, he is done with a story that is all opinion, innuendo and rumor. He types at the bottom, “Comment ‘DOWN WITH THE GLOBALISTS!’ below if you love this country,” publishes the story to his website, LibertyWritersNews.com, and then pulls up the Facebook page he uses to promote the site, which in six months has collected 805,000 followers and brought in tens of millions of page views. “WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN!” he writes, posting the article. “#SHARE this 1 million times, patriots!” Then he looks at a nearby monitor that shows the site’s analytics, and watches as the readers pour in.

“We’re the new yellow journalists,” Wade will say ... “We’re the people on the side of the street yelling that the world is about to end.” ... 

Between June and August, they say, when they had fewer than 150,000 Facebook followers, they made between $10,000 and $40,000 every month running advertisements that, among other things, promised acne solutions, Viagra alternatives, ways to remove lip lines, cracked feet, “deep fat,” and “the 13 sexiest and most naked celebrity selfies.” Then the political drama deepened, and their audience expanded fivefold, and now Goldman sometimes thinks that what he made in the last six months would have taken him 20 years waiting tables at his old job. ... 

Neither of them is particularly religious, but their readers are, so in their writing they ask God to bless the president-elect, and that works, too. So does exaggeration: “OBAMA BIRTH SECRETS REVEALED! The Letters From His Dad Reveal Something Sinister... .” And stoking fear: “Terrorists Have Infiltrated the US Government! Look Who They Want to ASSASSINATE!!” And inflaming racial and gender tension: “BREAKING: Michelle Obama holds Feminist Rally At HER SLAVE HOUSE!” And conspiracy theories: “BREAKING: Top Official Set to Testify Against Hillary Clinton Found DEAD!”

“All successful journalism has shock value,” Goldman says as he and Wade sit at their computers later that day.

There are times when Wade wonders what it would be like to write an article he truly believes in. “In a perfect world,” he says, it would have nuance and balance and long paragraphs and take longer than 10 minutes to compose. It would make people think. But he never writes it, he says, because no one would click on it, so what would be the point?

The New York Times has a fantastic break down of how a person made up a story about paid protestors against Trump, saw it traded up the Media chain (similar to the Qur'an burning story), and culminated in Trump tweeting about it. In the end, the story had over 44,000 shares. The correction posted the next day talking about it being fake had only 29 retweets, and a Snopes story debunking it had less than 6,000 shares.

Here's another example of such a story in action.

James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) detailed the step-by-step on Twitter about Trump taking credit for keeping a Ford plant from moving to Mexico.

  1. New reality for the press: the president-elect's Twitter account is a competing media outlet spreading fake news
  2. Starts out when Trump tweets the claim that he saved a factory that, in fact, wasn't going to close. Text of the Trump tweet: "Just got a call from my friend Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford, who advised me that he will be keeping the Lincoln plant in Kentucky - no Mexico"
  3. Reuters then runs a story reporting "Trump says Ford not moving U.S. plant to Mexico," with no corroboration [link to headline]
  4. Detroit Free Press reports it as Ford keeping MKC production (true) w/o correcting false claim a factory was saved [link to article]
  5. By morning, several news outlets have debunked Trump's claim (e.g. Washington Post article)
  6. But by this point, people are happily spreading "Trump saved a factory!" on social media
  7. Oh, and as of 8:24 a.m., that weak USAT/Detroit FP story leads the Google News section on the topic [screenshot]
  8. The Reuters story is there, updated & with headline "Ford tells Trump no Lincoln SUV production going to Mexico" [Reuters link]
  9. But the fact that jobs that weren't going to be lost *still aren't going to be lost* is not the story. It's the fake news from PEOTUS.
  10. Pushing back on fake news - some spread by the president - is going to become a bigger part of the media's job.
  11. I have no great answer. But at least news organizations could refrain from "helping" the fake news.
  12. A lie goes around the world while the truth is tying its shoes. At least don't give the lie a ride to the airport. /end

A larger problem is that we tend to think only dumb people fall for fake news. I can't count how many times I've seen my own friends share links on Facebook without realizing they were sharing satire. It's not surprising either, as the online filter bubble tricks people into thinking they are more informed and have the facts.

Internet sites know that they can drive traffic by inflaming the biases of their readers. It's manipulative, but profitable. This passage below was written in 2015, and in hindsight seems prescient.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

...But Quattrociocchi has found (and this is perhaps intuitive) that the sort of readers who would unskeptically share such a far-fetched story site are exactly the readers who will not be convinced by The Washington Post’s debunking.

Todd Zwillich gives a great example of this recounting an exchange he had with his dentist (an obviously well-educated person).

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-11-07-46-pm

Ultimately, this just creates confusion. There's fake news everywhere. Talking heads are spouting all kinds of nonsense. The internet algorithms are going wild. How do we even know what to believe?

Brian Phillips comments about this in his article, "Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten":

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It's telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn't really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

This is what Orwell meant when he wrote that the goal of totalitarianism is to destroy our "common basis of agreement," ....

It is also frighteningly essential, because democracy depends on a public forum, and ours is upside down.

And thus we arrive at the Trump campaign, with its annihilating virtuosity in falsehood; and thus at the Breitbart right, which loves small government so much it will settle for a little tyranny. Thus, too, we enter the context in which your Aunt Margaret clicks a link from her college boyfriend and learns from the Philadelphia Post-Intelligencer that Black Lives Matter protesters have been chanting their allegiance to ISIS. There has always been a heavy dose of unreality mixed into American reality. But so many of the checks against unreality have fallen away, and reality — the thing outside your windows — is paying the price for it.

And if our president-elect has taught us anything, it's that you don't have to believe in your own convictions to let other people suffer for them.

The Hadith That Predicted It All

The Prophet (s) said,

“There will come to the people years of treachery, when the liar will be regarded as honest, and the honest man will be regarded as a liar; the traitor will be regarded as faithful, and the faithful man will be regarded as a traitor; and the Ruwaibidah will decide matters / speak out about public affairs.’ It was said: ‘Who are the Ruwaibidah?’ He said: ‘Vile and base men who control the affairs of the people / speak out about public affairs’” (Ibn Mājah).

Sh. Abu 'Aaliyah gives a beautiful explanation of this narration. In it he details the importance that Islam puts on the blessing of security (amn).

If any matter comes to them concerning security or fear, they spread it around. But if they had only referred it to the Messenger or to those charged with authority, those among them who are able to investigate and think out the matter would indeed know [what to do with] it (4:83).

Abu Aaliyah shares an explanation of this verse from Imam Al-Sa'di:

‘This is a counsel from God, to His servants, about their unbefitting conduct. And that it is imperative for them, when there comes to them news about important affairs of public benefit – such as those related to the security and welfare of the believers, or to breaches of security and [impending] calamities striking them – that they should first verify such matters and not be hasty in spreading such news. Instead, they must refer such affairs to the Messenger and to those in authority among them – those possessed of sound judgement, learning, intelligence, sincere advice, calmness and composure; those who understand such issues and have knowledge of the associated benefits and harms. If, after that, they see that in broadcasting such news there is benefit for the believers and a cause of joy for them, or a means to protect them from their enemy’s harm, they should do so. But if they see there to be no benefit, or that there is benefit but the harm in it is greater, they should not do so. This is why God said: those among them who are able to investigate and think out the matter; meaning, they will evaluate it with their well-grounded thinking and sound knowledge. So in this is an evidence for a principle of [correct] conduct, which is that: When there arises a need to investigate a particular matter, it is essential that it be left to those qualified to do so and that they are not to be preceded in this by others.’

It seems impossible at first - how could people of virtue and morality be subdued, while vile and ignorant people rise to the top? It happens when morality and virtue are themselves subdued. When we reward vile and ignorant stories with traffic, comments, and shares, we get more of it (and normalize it).

The Qur'anic Injunction to Fact-Check

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-11-18-39-am

O you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful (49:6).

Harith ibn Dinar, leader of the tribe of Banu Mustaliq accepted Islam and pledged to pay the zakat (obligatory charity). He was going to his tribe to have them pledge the same and requested the Prophet (s) to appoint someone to come and collect the zakat on a specified date.

When the day arrived, no one was there. Harith feared that the Prophet (s) was upset with them for some reason, so he gathered some of the leaders from his tribe and set out to meet the Prophet (s).

The Prophet (s) had actually dispatched Walid ibn 'Uqbah to go and collect the zakat. On the way, Walid became nervous because the Banu Mustaliq were old tribal enemies, and he feared they might kill him. So he went back and told the Prophet (s) that the Banu Mustaliq refused to pay the zakat and threatened to kill him.

In response, the Prophet (s) sent a delegation to go and meet them. The two groups met en route to one another and realized what had happened. It was upon this incident that the ayah of Qur'an above was revealed.

The core lesson from this is always verify the information you have before acting on it. This is difficult in the age of social media and 24 hour news cycles, but it is a necessary step. Especially when you consider that most people share articles without actually reading them. A person must be firm, and not swayed by every piece of information that floats across their screen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ryjpu-NWYm8

Caitlin Dewey from the Washington Post profiles an individual who had this fantastic idea: Create fake news about Trump so people would share it, and then look stupid when everyone found out it was fake.

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it. ... 

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager [Corey Lewandowski who later went to work for CNN] posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.' ... 

I thought they’d fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse. I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters — they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything! Now he’s in the White House. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad]. ... 

I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it. I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff — like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line — and people went along with it! ... Right now I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.

So What's the Gameplan?

This is a lot to take on.

In fact, there is a seductive nature to feeling powerless, as Seth Godin explains:

Where do conspiracy theories come from?

More than 10% of the population still believes that the moon landings were faked. (Even though we can see the landing modules with a telescope).

People make up inane theories about various cabals that are secretly controlling this or that.

In fact, the more information and leverage we each have, the more inclined the culture seems to embrace stories of puppetry, conspiracy and control.

Because it lets us off the hook.

How can you possibly be responsible if there are powerful shady forces working behind the scenes? If you're powerless, it also means you're not at fault if things don't get better.

[Of course, the world isn't fair, and there are people, powerful people, working against you. The best systems open doors, not close them. The best systems work for us, not against us. But that doesn't mean we're powerless, it only means that we have to work ever harder. Harder on the system and harder around it.]

She's been quoted a million times, but people don't really listen to the essence of Marianne Williamson's quote: "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

If we're actually powerful, if our voice, our effort and our contribution matter, it's time to get to work.

This is enervating. It would be so much more comforting if it were up to someone else. Whatever system we are living in or with, it would be nice if it were responsible for what happens next.

On the other hand, knowing that we can connect, publish, inspire, lead, build, describe, invent, encourage and (especially) teach, means that there's no one better than us and no time like right now.

And if it helps, go find, organize and connect with others who feel as committed as you do.

Of course it's frightening. But it's important and it's our turn.

1. Diversify your news sources

This is what Edward Snowden recommends:

If people consumed news from multiple sources, he argued, it would be much easier to tell the fake from the real. In other words, stop relying on Facebook for your news.

“To have one company that has enough power to reshape the way we think, I don’t think I need to describe how dangerous that is,” he said.

Snowden’s answer? Making sure that one, singular platform doesn’t play such a dominant role in people’s lives. When people rely on one source, it’s easy for misinformation to spread (since there’s nothing to back it up against). Instead, Snowden proposed a “federated system” of sorts, or a network of many Facebooks all connected. That way, one outlying bit of information would easily be lost in a sea of truthful information that’s repeated over and over.

One way I've done this is by creating a 'National News' Twitter list. On it I have roughly 50 people including journalists and policy analysts all from different organizations and backgrounds.

2. Cut Down on Information Consumption

The list function on Twitter helps here. It makes it so that the news is not always blasting you in the face, but it is there only for when you want to go check it.

There's a distinct line between being informed and being overwhelmed. Our focus should be on the actions we can control. The more we consume information that makes us feel helpless, the harder it becomes to take action.

Ryan Holiday writes in his article, "Want to Really Make America Great Again? Stop Reading the News" [btw, the entire article is a must read]:

One of the most powerful things we can do as a human being in our hyperconnected, 24/7 media world is say: “I don’t know.” Or, more provocatively: “I don’t care.” Not about everything of course—just most things.Because most things don’t matter, and most news stories aren’t worth tracking.

It’s a trade off of deliberate ignorance for the ability to prioritize and see with clarity. It’s a swap of generalized outrage for what will hopefully be effective opposition to trends that actually matter (bad policy versus political correctness). Whatever one thinks of a potential Trump administration—that it’s the beginning of real positive change or that it’s the beginning of the end—I would argue that you would think about it all more objectively if you followed the breathless news cycle about it less. ... 

There is plenty to do in this world, and plenty to be vigilant about. But let’s stop pretending that the ticker-tape of the news feed is anything other than what it is: addiction and manipulation masquerading as a social good. Then we wonder why we’re sapped of reason and willpower and perspective.

3. Donate to Good Media Outlets

John Oliver made the case for donating to good media outlets on his show. He suggests subscribing to papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, your local paper, and also contributing to organizations like ProPublica.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rSDUsMwakI

These first 3 action steps seem somewhat contradictory in nature. Diversify your news intake, cut down on your news intake, and then financially contribute to the better production of news. In reality, these 3 done together helps to trend us back toward a theme of 'quality over quantity'.

4. Local Action

The Facebook debates during the election season were exhausting to say the least. NPR profiled a few people who dealt with this issue. One interesting outcome was that the online debates motivated them to unfriend people and focus back on their family, friends, and community.

One of the traps of social media is that it tricks us into thinking we are being productive when we're really just fighting for meaningless internet points. Find ways to be productive locally. Engage with your community. Call your local representatives and hold them to account for their stances that affect you. Start voting in your local and midterm elections and get other community members to do the same.

5. Supplicate

The first 4 action items are the proverbial tying of the camel, and this step is the tawakkul (reliance in Allah) part.

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O Allah, the Lord of (angels) Jibril, Mika'il and Israfil, Creator of the heavens and earth and Knower of the seen and the unseen. You judge between Your servants regarding what they have disputed in, so guide me to what have been the subject of dispute of the truth by Your leave. Indeed, You guide whom You will to the straight path.

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O Allah! Show us the truth as truth, and bestow adherence to it on us. Show us the evil as evil, and make us stay away from it, and do not confuse us regarding the reality of evil so that we will not be led astray by it, and make us leaders for the believers.

Additional Reading

 

How Invisible Filter Bubbles Shape Your Social, Political, and Religious Views #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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During the 2008 election, a 'vicious rumor' was spread that Barack Obama was a Muslim. That's old news. What you may not know is that the number of Americans who hold that belief nearly doubled after the election. More surprisingly, that increase happened mostly among people who are college-educated. Why would supposedly smart people believe something so ludicrous?

The answer is what Eli Pariser calls a 'Filter Bubble' (also the title of his book).

Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated. -New Republic

The filter bubble is why Netflix and Amazon know what to recommend to you. It's why Facebook seems to always show you updates that reinforce your existing viewpoints about issues like #BlackLivesMatter, Syria, Colin Kaepernick, or the Kardashians. It's why YouTube shows you ads for Muslim matrimonial sites after you watch an Islamic video, or your Netflix recommendations get messed up after your kids watch cartoons. It's why the trending topics that show on your Facebook feed can differ from your spouse's and create an uncomfortable conversation. And it's why the founder of Facebook famously said,

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa. -Mark Zuckerberg

In short, it explains why people develop more and more extreme opinions online, and no one seems to change their minds about any issue no matter how many articles, videos, memes, or clever status updates you share.

What Exactly Is a Filter Bubble?

It's essentially an algorithm that creates a profile of who you are based on your online activity. Companies like Google and Facebook then use that profile to serve up a personalized newsfeed, search results, advertisements, and other content.

They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you'll want to do next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us - what I've come to call a filter bubble - which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information. .... Your identity shapes your media, and your media then shapes what you believe and what you care about. You click on a link, which signals an interest in something, which means you're more likely to see articles about that topic in the future, which in turn prime the topic for you. You become trapped in a you loop, and if your identity is misrepresented, strange patterns begin to emerge, like reverb from an amplifier. -Eli Pariser

Pariser explains this in more detail in his famous Ted Talk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8ofWFx525s

The allure of the internet was that it removed the gatekeepers. Suddenly we could all be content creators and share our views. This should, theoretically, create a more empathetic and understanding society. You're no longer relying on a newspaper editor or a news producer to shape your opinions for you. In fact, this is the crux of democracy.

Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead, we're being offered parallel but separate universes. -Eli Pariser

The myth is that the gatekeepers are gone. The reality is that they've simply been replaced by invisible ones.

It's not hard to see how there are numerous consequences ranging issues like privacy, public health (e.g. researching whether to vaccinate your kids or not through a filter bubble), politics, financial problems, social issues, and seeking religious knowledge. In this post, we'll look at some of the broader effects that contribute to those issues.

What Shapes Your Filter Bubble?

One of the greatest criticism of these filtering algorithms is that it is not possible to go out somewhere and retrieve your own profile. In other words, you don't know what identity they have formed about you. There are signals though, that indicate what shapes your online profile.

via Tech Crunch

These algorithms have been the source of controversy as of late.

https://twitter.com/zeynep/status/770355317666418689

https://twitter.com/cshirky/status/770383020163465216

https://twitter.com/fredbenenson/status/729679839976919040

This quote from Gizmodo from earlier this year highlights the human element and one of the underlying problems.

In other instances, curators would inject a story—even if it wasn’t being widely discussed on Facebook—because it was deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news. “People stopped caring about Syria,” one former curator said. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.” That same curator said the Black Lives Matter movement was also injected into Facebook’s trending news module. “Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,” the individual said. “They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.” This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook, and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence. -Gizmodo

The data points that shape your profile number in the hundreds. It is about your location, what kind of computer, web browser, phone, what you search, what you click, what you watch, what you highlight on your Kindle, who your friends are, and so on.

Here's what it looks like in action. The image below shows posts about Barack Obama and it highlights what liberal and conservative outlets are showing. You can generate similar comparisons for topics like guns, abortion, ISIS, and Donald Drumpf by visiting the Wall Street Journal's Red Feed Blue Feed.

 

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Here's another example of the juxtaposition of two different filter bubbles.

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You might be wondering where the middle ground is in all of this? The answer is, the middle ground usually disappears.

Filter Bubbles and Friendships

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said a person can be judged by the religion of their closest friend. That concept takes on a whole new level of meaning beyond just keeping good company online.

We put our opinions on social media with the intent to engage (the magic word for all online interactions). Ideally, we should be sharing our opinions, and understanding others' viewpoints. Some evidence seems to suggest that most people do not change their views because of what they read on social media. Others take it a step further unfriending people because of their views. Many think social media isn't the appropriate place to talk about these issues, and to put it succinctly, there's just a lot of judgment being thrown around back and forth.

For somebody to get up there and run for president and say some of the things that Donald Trump has said, and to not only get media coverage but have people be enthusiastic about it, you couldn’t even imagine before. But we’re in such a divisive society now that people jump onboard these two extremes.

I remember when I was younger and worked with people in the Congress and Senate, I worked on both sides of the aisle with people I thought would make a difference—and always kept it private. But I’ll tell you, they used to get together like 15 years ago and fight like hell on the floor of the Senate and then they’d go have a beer together. They were still friends and felt their principles. Now, if you have lunch or even talk to anyone on the other side, you’re evil. How do you resolve anything when we’re that polarized? -Tony Robbins

The filter bubble creates an intellectual safe space where we retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with our own. This diminishes our ability to see things from someone else's point of view - i.e. it kills our ability to empathize.

The news feed is designed, in Facebook’s public messaging, to “show people the stories most relevant to them” and ranks stories “so that what’s most important to each person shows up highest in their news feeds.” It is a framework built around personal connections and sharing, where value is both expressed and conferred through the concept of engagement. Of course, engagement, in one form or another, is what media businesses have always sought, and provocation has always sold news. But now the incentives are literalized in buttons and written into software. -New York Times

Part of the issue with social media is the focus on now. We scroll through our feeds quickly liking and commenting on the things we, well, like. This systematically makes us more and more entrenched into our existing viewpoints, and shapes what gets served up to us on our next visit. This is why pages focusing on spreading viral content have millions of fans. And it is why the news is no longer the news.

A great example of this is the Brexit vote. Many of the interviews with the day after the vote showed people in shock. They simply never believed this could happen. And why would they, when every time they opened their phone, it seemed like everyone was against it. Check out this tweet from someone in the "pro-remain" camp.

https://twitter.com/steiny/status/746352702284771329

This is the problem when our activism is reduced to re-sharing witty memes.

From a user’s point of view, every share, like or comment is both an act of speech and an accretive piece of a public identity. Maybe some people want to be identified among their networks as news junkies, news curators or as some sort of objective and well-informed reader. Many more people simply want to share specific beliefs, to tell people what they think or, just as important, what they don’t. A newspaper-style story or a dry, matter-of-fact headline is adequate for this purpose. But even better is a headline, or meme, that skips straight to an ideological conclusion or rebuts an argument. -New York Times

Filter Bubbles and The News

The echo chamber is not just reinforced by your friends and connections, but mass media in general. Just as individuals often do what they're incentivized to do, so do businesses (shocking). In the case of a business, it is to make money - not inform the public. Taking the example of Brexit above, it's much worse than an echo chamber - it is an alternate reality.

Because personalized filters usually have no Zoom Out function, it's easy to lose your bearings, to believe the world is a narrow island when in fact it's an immense, varied continent. -Eli Pariser

Issues important to you might not even register on anyone else's radar. The filter bubble makes it so they never have to see this issue in their feed. Take this from a different angle. What motivation would there be for a new organization to interrupt a Congresswoman speaking about personal privacy for news about Justin Bieber?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtcucHPkFkg

 

This creates a cycle in which our filter bubbles makes news organizations cover issues a certain way. That rhetoric and coverage then begins to inform the political process, and in short, you end up with what we have now. The news will provide whatever the people want to consume.

"If traffic ends up guiding coverage," The Washington Post's ombudsman writes, "will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they're 'dull?'" Will an article about, say, child poverty ever seem hugely personally relevant to many of us...? -Eli Pariser

There are a lot of things we want to consume, and a lot of things we should consume. That's the difference between what we binge watch on Netflix versus the documentaries that have been sitting in our queue for months on end. Our bias to the present influences our actions. Important issues will catch a rush of quick publicity, like #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls, and then quickly fade away.

Nuanced and deep thought cannot thrive in this environment. In his book The News: A User's Manual, Alain de Botton writes,

The financial needs of news companies mean that they cannot afford to advance ideas which wouldn't very quickly be able to find favour with enormous numbers of people. .... What levels of agreement, what suppression of idiosyncrasy and useful weirdness, will be required to render material sufficiently palatable to so many...

And when complex issues are covered, they are done so in a shallow manner.

The habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run though our societies. -Alain de Botton

For the news to help us tackle these issues, it has to help guide us to the problems, and find ways to develop a common ground to tackle them. The filter bubble, by creating that polarizing effect, instead incites rage. We jump from crisis to crisis. We mimic the same soundbites as the talking heads on TV without any principle.

We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt we cared so passionately about only hours ago. At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity, we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression. -Alain de Botton

To make money, you need to get people's attention. To get their attention, you have to simplify things into basic components. By taking complex issues and dumbing them down to the lowest common denominator (i.e. the most amount of traffic), people begin to expect the solutions will be at a congruent level of simplicity. Then when major problems cannot be solved, or others refuse to see things their way, it turns into frustration. Some people take out this aggression by trolling and shame grenades.

Others respond to this frustration by shunning the news and such issues altogether. Their intellect, thought, creativity, and energy goes into other pursuits such as entertainment, sports, and video games. It's simply easier to play fantasy football, watch the games, and track the stats, then it is to immerse yourself into understanding something like why we have issues of systemic racism and poverty. Or understanding the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

By design, it is difficult to grasp these subjects.

...confusing, boring, distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganized, fractured and intermittent way that a majority of the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.

A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colourful antics of murderers and film stars. .... The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news. -Alain de Botton

We change our profile pictures on Facebook to highlight the colors of a flag every few months to make it look like we're woke. It's letting  yourself get taken for a ride by the dictates of someone else and in the end accomplishing nothing at all. It is to retreat into a carefully crafted universe online made just for you, one that defines your own reality, without any context of a larger picture.

It is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only way to neutralize the influence of the newspapers is to multiply their number. -Alexis de Tocqueville

Filter Bubbles and Learning

The biggest trap of the filter bubble is that the further we get into one, the more we think we are learning by depth. In other words, we have a sense of naive realism in that we think all the information is available to us, and therefore the conclusions we make are automatically the most informed ones.

It's like someone saying that just because they have access to all the hadith of the Prophet (s) via the internet, that they have a more informed understanding of the sunnah than scholars from the past. Access to information doesn't create understanding or insight.

Personalized filters can upset this cognitive balance between strengthening our existing ideas and acquiring new ones. First, the filter bubble surrounds us with ideas with which we're already familiar (and already agree), making us overconfident in our mental frameworks. Second, it removes from our environment some of the key prompts that make us want to learn. -Eli Pariser

The red feed blue feed example above highlights this. Consuming information built on a premise we agree with is easy and enjoyable. But consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways, Pariser notes, is frustrating and difficult. The partisan divide grows deeper and deeper. The ironic thing is, educated people tend to consume news more in an effort to stay informed. Thus, they become mis-educated - explaining why more and more college educated people believe Obama wasn't born in the US. The same is true of religious partisanship as well. We often tend to consume information that only comes from a certain school of thought, or only from certain speakers.

We not only form our opinions from the filter bubble, but we become invested in them. Take sports for example. On a close call, people can watch a replay in slow-motion 100 times, and still reach different conclusions about the right call. Everyone has a bias to make the call go in the favor of the team they support. It is even more so when a person is emotionally invested in the team they support.

The more we formulate our opinions out of these bubbles and biases, the more invested we become in them. That makes it that much harder to change.

Experts have a lot invested in the theories they've developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere. -Eli Pariser

A good example of this is stock analysts not being able to identify the oncoming housing crash. Or career Islamophobes who have literally no incentive to change their mind. Why would they sit down and try to talk and empathize with a Muslim when their filter bubble only exposes them to people who are getting more and more extreme in their hate?

When I was in high school, I took part in speech and debate. One of the greatest learning experiences of that was each year, we were given a topic, and had to learn both sides of it. This meant that you affirmed the topic one round, and went against it one round. The 'case' you ran in support of the topic was often the same for almost an entire year. Yet, if another team ran that same case, you had to be ready to tear it apart. You were forced to learn both sides of the issue in-depth.

Learning occurs when we are presented with an information gap. We have to come across something we don't know or understand. It could be engaging a co-worker on colleague on a topic and having to sit and hear what they have to say rather than shunning the conversation and seeking refuge with like-minded friends on Facebook.

To truly learn, you need what Pariser calls a 'radical encounter.' It's the same way we wish Islamophobes would sit and talk with a Muslim and get to know us. We fail to realize though, that we rarely do this from our end and try to empathize with people we disagree with, or don't like. If we don't have the motivation, why do we expect it from others?

Personalization is about building an environment that consists entirely of the adjacent unknown - the sports trivia or political punctuation marks that don't really shake our schemata but feel like new information. The personalized environment is very good at answering the questions we have but not suggesting questions or problems that are out of our sight altogether. -Eli Pariser

This isn't to say we should always be seeking out the contrarian opinion to everything, but we do need a healthy dose of alternative information to better ground ourselves.

How To Fix the Filter Bubble

The most essential step is simply identifying that you have your own filter bubble.

There are some tactical steps, like what developer BJ May suggests:

  • Find highly active accounts run by people who are wildly dissimilar from me, or who have had wildly dissimilar life experiences. These people must be talking frequently about the issues I hope to understand.
  • I will follow one of these people every day for thirty days, and I will keep following each of them for no less than thirty days, regardless of how much I dislike what they say.
  • I will not engage with the owners of any of these accounts. I will not debate them, I will not argue, I will not interact in any way apart from just reading.
  • I will engage in self-study when I encounter terms or concepts that are foreign to me.

There are also some bigger picture things that need to be done that may not be so systematic that you can put them in a checklist. We all need to seek out conversations with people who differ from us. Different upbringings, backgrounds, ethnicities, and so on. Those conversations need to be intentional about the intent of getting to know and understand someone. You can't empathize with someone if you don't understand their story.

Start making more intentional choices about what to consume. This doesn't mean that you suddenly start watching Fox News for an hour a day, but it might mean diversifying the outlets you follow online to such an extent that there is enough there to challenge you and make you think.

Lastly, we need to stop and reflect. We don't need to just diversify our consumption, but we need to lessen it as well so we can have more time for introspection.

It is never easy to be introspective. There are countless difficult truths lurking within us that investigation threatens to dislodge. It is when we are incubating particularly awkward but potentially vital ideas that we tend to feel most desperate to avoid looking inside. And that is when the news grabs us.

We should be aware of how jealous and adversary of inner examination it is - and how much further it wishes to go in this direction. Its purveyors want to put screens on our seat-backs, receivers in our watches and phones in our minds, so as to ensure that we will always be connected, always aware of what is happening; never alone.

But we will have nothing substantial to offer anyone else so long as we have not first mastered the art of being patient midwives to our own thoughts.  -Alain de Botton

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