‘An epistemic crisis’

Today’s ‘The Interface’ at The Verge opened with a line that jumped out at me:

One result of a world in which everyone has more or less equal access to publishing tools has been what’s sometimes called an epistemic crisis: a scenario in which large groups of people muddle along with very different understandings of reality, undermining the ability of elected officials to govern.

I think this can be expanded to include many spheres of modern life. Entrenched ideas based on shaky foundations become more entrenched on social media, reinforced by powerful feedback mechanisms and amplification loops as a result of a business model that feeds on anxiety, parasitic engagement, and present shock. What do we end up with? From The Verge’s piece:

BuzzFeed is maintaining a list of debunked coronavirus claims, relating to its origin, potential treatments, and faked government communications about it. Some of the claims are highly susceptible to being shared by credulous parents. Canada keeps being falsely implicated. And Axios reported that “nearly 13,000 posts across Twitter, public Facebook pages, and Reddit between January 24 and January 27 have propagated conspiracy theories about the virus, including that it may be a bioweapon or a depopulation method.”

The coronavirus outbreak is a classic example. People are worried and frightened, but facts are in short supply. Fear creates engagement. The algorithm wants people to be more worried and frightened, because that creates more engagement. People become more like the machine when they spend time in an emotive, fact-sparse environment like that – they become part of the machine itself, often doing what it wants whether they are conscious of it or not. We’ve all been swept up in the drama of some collective event playing out online before, haven’t we? Sometimes it’s positive and this feeling of being part of a huge movement can feel good, but sometimes it’s a whirlpool of anxiety and FUD. We become less of an individual human being and more of a mob/machine component.

I suspect part of the answer is just to spend less time online. The more time you spend jacked in, the more it becomes your reality – and the more worried you probably feel about anything and everything.

If you visit the #coronavirus hashtag on Twitter right now, it’s an absolute shambles of made-up statistics, conspiracy theories, memes, and scaremongering. There are also genuine human expressions of fear and concern, and real news/facts to be found, but if it’s 75% bullshit to 25% reality then I think we are witnessing the point where trending hashtags have lost their usefulness. Maybe we passed that point a long time ago.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about the coronavirus outbreak, or that we should remain ignorant about it, but using social media to stay informed in times like this strikes me as counterproductive at best.

Author: Alex Roddie

Writer and editor.

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