Algorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy

by Paul Braterman

Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.

The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump's emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author's UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.

Lying is lying; bullshit is different

Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.

Post-TruthThis book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson's chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world's largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions others who have helped spread bullshit, including his own readership. I had planned to write a piece simply based on the book, when the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story broke. I cannot claim to do that story justice, with new material surfacing daily, but will try to show how the separate themes involved relate to each other. Bullshit, fake news, targeted messages, and the manipulation of opinions, including yours and mine, are now inseparable, as recent disclosures show.

In which connection, let me urge all readers who have not yet done so to check and adjust their Facebook settings; you will find my own detailed instructions here, and CREDO's here. When I did this, I was horrified at how much information I was allowing to be harvested, and by whom, not only about my own preferences but about those of my friends.

I, too, have spread bullshit. As in the false claim, which I passed on unexamined,2 that a close family member of a senior Conservative politician had shareholdings in a scandal-ridden company that has been strangely successful in securing government contracts. Here we have the distinguishing features of bullshit. Highly emotive, tailored to appeal to a certain audience, effective clickbait, difficult to ignore, a plausible and indeed in this case well-warranted central concern, and an allegation so sticky that the very act of refuting helps spread it (which is why I have not named names here, although I am sure that many readers could supply them).

As a safeguard against such behaviour I have now taken the Pro-Truth pledge, which includes a commitment to fact-checking information before passing it on.

Indignantly calling out bullshit plays into the hands of its producers, but it is difficult to resist the temptation. We all enjoy drawing attention to the wickedness of our opponents. The added attention that bullshit brings makes it lucrative to give it coverage, and thereby help it spread. Hence the enormous amount of coverage given to the Trump campaign in 2016, when media deeply opposed to him gave him billions of dollars worth of free advertising.

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