The events of the past few years have highlighted the power of social media. Specifically, the power of it to lead to greater levels of misinformation and manipulation when powerful interests utilize it in clever ways.
These have included micro-targeting campaigns that play on people’s fears or other interests in misleading ways. It has included messaging designed to increase conflicts between groups. The result of all this is more isolation and alienation between ‘tribes’ who misunderstand one another’s positions to a much greater degree and have severely distorted understandings of objective facts.
As Spiritual Naturalists, we value reason and humility in our claims. We value open discourse and seeking truth wherever that leads. We see critical thinking as a spiritual practice.
So my question here today is, what elements of our personal spiritual practice can we use to help inoculate us against these kinds of information manipulations and pierce through to some kind of reliable and shared basis for connecting with those of other views?
First, we have to decide that facts matter. We have to combat the cynicism that no real truth exists and that everyone has their angle. We have to care about finding the facts regardless of what that means to our ego or our ‘side’ or our agendas.
That also means we need to take numbers and statistics seriously and put that before anecdotal experience. We have to educate ourselves on why and how a poll works to give real information, and when it isn’t valid. We do not answer inconvenient facts with “whataboutism”, distracting from the topic or bringing up other such cases, or use other disingenuous tactics to “win” the argument.
The Sportification of Ideology
Recently when the Houston Astros were caught cheating, I witnessed a kind of dismissal of the deed and continued loyalty to the team by locals. It occurred to me this is the same kind of loyalty-based ethics we see in the political divide. The ‘sportification’ of social issues and politics has turned us all into screaming fans for one side or another. Looking inward, we must reject this kind of gangster/loyalty system.
Breaking Familiar Paradigms
Another thing that has happened has been these hard lines between labels and ideologies being drawn. Every kind of solution someone proposes is immediately categorized as this or that label, and all kinds of ills attached to it. We need to find a way to break these old familiar categories and start to focus in on solutions that are pragmatic and work. If there are concerns about side effects, these should be addressed individually anew.
Is Your Source Answerable to Anyone?
One of the features of online community and social media in particular, is the ability of voices to spread that have no accountability. When we get our information from something, we should ask, is the source known and someone or some entity that will bear a negative reputation if it is found to be false? Many times messages are posted by a commenter who posts and is gone, with nothing to track the reputation or reliability of this person. Even someone with a Facebook page has no ‘brand’ and can start a new page any time. Some of these Facebook accounts that seem to be real people but whose feeds are just a list of political memes are often fake accounts. In either case, these sources have no incentive to be honest or have any integrity.
Major news sources and publications, and even down to the individual blogger with a site one can return to, are examples of sources you can go back to. These are people with something to lose; people who you can talk to others about their past publications and word can propagate about their standards, which sticks with their ‘brand’. This, of course, is no guarantee that they will be truthful. We know many times some aren’t. Some of these brands even specialize in telling a certain demographic just what they want to hear, and so they never suffer a reputation hit outside their target audience. But by eliminating our exposure to (or being highly skeptical of) sources with no possible accountability, we do well as a first step.
When Memes Are Bad
The field of Memetics is a legitimate scientific endeavor, but what most people have come to call “memes” are those internet pictures that have one short message and get spread far on the internet. Many of these are harmless, and get spread because they are cute or funny. But when it comes to memes about politics, claims about candidates, or complex social issues, memes are an extraordinarily bad way to get your information, and it is proportionately bad to help spread them.
The first reason these kinds of memes should be ignored and avoided, is because of what was mentioned above – they are typically unaccountable to anyone. They rarely list an original source. They rarely give references for their claims. So, if the information in them is false, no one will ‘take a hit’ to their brand or reputation.
The next reason these kinds of memes are harmful is because they are often emotion based. Not just anything will ‘go viral’. It will typically be because the claim is extremely inflammatory, it stirs anger or righteous indignation, it summons us/them rage, because it gives the reader a thrill, or makes the reader take glee in an opponent’s failure, etc. These are unhealthy emotions to begin with, but all the more reason to take anything in them with big suspicion. When people have to use these tactics, they are not likely putting integrity and truth first.
Sometimes it may seem like “just a joke” but one can often find a message therein. If a source will lie about the little things, they will lie about the big things. So, even if you think it’s true or funny, and it seems like a good meme, avoid using memes as a political or social propaganda tool.
Notice Your Own Emotions
Learn to be mindful of what emotions are arising in you and driving your thoughts and actions (meditation can help with this). Notice when you are consuming information (or passing it along) because it has triggered an impulsive pleasure-seeking center, or because it makes you angry, or makes you gleeful over ‘poetic justice’ or comeuppance. These are all signs that you are being manipulated and should stop and question the veracity of the information you’re being fed.
Take efforts to education yourself on the pitfalls of conspiracy theories. Learn the techniques that conspiracy theorists use to mislead. Learn how people fall into conspiracy theory falsehoods.
Some people have a hard time figuring out who to trust or why. So, instead of learning how to discern good from bad information, they would rather distrust everyone and everything. It get you out of the work of discernment, and makes you feel superior and wise to anyone pulling the wool over your eyes. But this kind of lazy cynicism leads to nihilism, which is ineffective at doing anything good in the world.
Willingness to Reconsider
You don’t have to necessarily ‘switch sides’. But you should at least be willing to seriously examine what it is the other side is saying and try to understand why it is they believe it. Don’t settle for getting your information about “them” from those of “us”. That will almost always be a caricature of their actual positions and not what they really mean or say. Your goals should be to understand them so well, that you could pass as one of them were you to ever pretend. Incidentally, I’ve seen people try to do this as a way to manipulate others. They often do a very bad job of passing because they say things the other side would never say – because their understanding is based on a caricature. After you understand a side well, you can always reject it – but know exactly why it’s wrong and this will show realistic opportunities for reaching across where the branches in thinking or concerns overlap.
If we consider how we consume and share information to be a part of our spiritual practice, it can go a long way to fight against the pitfalls of such manipulations.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.