For Whom The Whistle Blows: On polarization online and elsewhere
"As Canadians, we know that protecting and promoting fundamental human rights must be an imperative for government and individuals alike."
- Justin Trudeau, current Prime Minister of Canada, August 2015
"No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property."
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17:2
"As of today, a bank or other financial service provider will be able to immediately freeze or suspend an account without a court order. In doing so, they will be protected against civil liability for actions taken in good faith."
- Chrysta Freeland, Canadian Minister of Finance, February 2022
The pain of living in interesting times
At the time of writing, what could well be the biggest working class protest the western world has seen in decades looks to be coming to a close in Canada. Truckers have caused so much trouble for the Canadian government that the latter has basically declared martial law and instructed banks to seize the assets of ordinary citizens on mere whims. A spectacular measure, considering it comes from a bunch of people who ordinarily can't get enough of praising tolerance, democracy, human rights charters, due process and even long-running protests. Yet, despite the trucker protest having gone on peacefully (if loudly) for weeks with no signs of statue toppling, molotov cocktail tossing, wanton destruction of property or other black bloc tactics, riot police has now been deployed to disperse the protesters.
In many ways, the trucker protest serves as an amplified echo of mass resignations in the US, construction workers protesting in Australia and other similar events around the western world of late: A bona fide case of workers uniting has what's supposed to be the left wing of politics raging about fascists, and a confused right wing both belatedly and somewhat begrudgingly (and only partially) embracing it.
The world is topsy-turvy, there is plenty of mass hysteria to go around and cats and dogs are, reportedly, living together. Some readers of this text are probably already either disappointed or working up a frothing rage - even though I haven't even clearly articulated an opinion yet. That's polarization for you: seething political anger threatening to boil over at any time, the sinking feeling that every text may be an enemy tract, the ever present fear of being shunned by your group and perhaps even worrying about what that might lead to with regards to your personal income.
But whose fault is this polarization, why is it so rife in the west presently and can it be blamed for our troubles?
Protests and power
No matter my position on the Freedom Convoy, I will say this: I wouldn't have enjoyed living in downtown Ottawa during the peak of honking. In the unlikely event that I could've caught a few winks at night, I'd still have been unable to focus on programming during the day because of all the noise. But that's the point.
Anyone can make a sign, wave it around on high street and call it a protest, but the only thing they can possibly hope to achieve without some display of power is - at best - to sway the minds of a few passers-by. Plenty of sign waving happens around the world all the time and it leads to nothing in particular, because it poses no threat whatsoever to those with formal power. Nobody who's really calling the shots will ever listen to a hundred or even ten thousand people if the same people return home after a few hours of holding signs and quietly and obediently resume their lives as if nothing happened.
The ultimate effects of the current protest in Canada remains to be seen. That truckers have more leverage than just honking and blockades is probably clear to a lot of US citizens right now: The logistics crisis has caused very real effects on everyday life there and although that's not just because a lot of truckers quit their jobs recently, it certainly bares the fragility of the system and shows what kind of disruptive power even fairly small numbers of transportation workers have. Meanwhile, Trudeau's action plan frankly appears both haphazard and dangerous. The measures taken are unprecedented in modern western labor conflicts, even ones as extreme as the Winter of Discontent. A sweeping confiscation of private funds is likely to cause collateral damage, the effects of which can be severe.
Without drawing parallels between Canadian trucker protests and the looting, arson and deadly violence in the US during the summer of 2020, the US BLM riots were indeed highly successful as far as protests go. Some immediate political demands were met, such as the defunding of municipal police forces and various policy changes with regards to what kind of physical force police officers can use when apprehending a suspect. But, impressive as that may seem, that's not their crowning achievement.
No Silver Bullet
Anyone familiar with political television drama "The West Wing" will know that it's impossible to watch a few episodes without coming across the expression "education is the silver bullet". It seems to be one of Aaron Sorkin's staples - he's quite obsessed with book smart characters brazenly declaring how superior their intellects are - and mirrors, along with the rest of The West Wing, what was then and still is the strategy of the western ruling class: Globalization is going to be super great for everyone - except in a global competition, you honestly do need a college degree to stay ahead of the curve.
Sure - education is great. Not least because I, much like everyone else, like it best when both plumbers and surgeons know what the hell they're doing and I certainly enjoy many fruits of academic research. But when education becomes the only path to not a higher, but rather a maintained standard of living across generations (as opposed to wild ideas like ensuring decent wages and conditions for laborers), the inevitable result is an increasing number of graduates with crushing student debt and degrees decreasingly compatible with the needs of economic realities.
I have no interest in shifting blame onto individuals. Personal decisions are rationalized at a personal level according to circumstances at any given time. To those not cut out for electrical engineering or medical school, gender studies might not look half bad. The problem is of course that the actual market demand for that kind of knowledge is slim to none.
A simple method for solving this problem and ensuring more jobs - from the graduates' perspective - is of course a display of power. One way could be controlling public debate until threats of cancellation become real and, indeed, scares people into compliance. Another could be prolonged rioting under a banner of beliefs that may well be sincerely held but also, as it happens, leads to gainful employment.
The both implicit and explicit demands for jobs set forth have, ultimately, been met - many of them even long before any riots took place. Universities, large corporations, governmental agencies and (often publicly funded) NGO:s have created a plethora of job openings with very little connection to the actual production of goods and services, but with flattering titles and even more flattering paychecks: diversity consultants, ethical advisors, inclusion strategists, and so on. This process has been commonplace in Sweden for quite some time, pre-empting the need for similar riots here.
More money spent on jobs like these usually means less money spent on jobs like, say, trucking. Furthermore, the "trickle down" from these jobs is at best negligible - for all the the money they cost, nothing is produced (many would argue this sentence could end here) that requires delivery, assembly, maintenance or wholesale. In short, we've got ourselves a good old class conflict brewing.
Essential and non-essential protests
Despite all of this, when push comes to shove, corporations care little about ethics. During the past few years, Google fired AI ethicists Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell for not upholding their end of the bargain struck when creating their sinecure jobs - which was, of course, to rock the boat just enough to make Google's commitment to ethics superficially plausible. Mitchell's employment was, according to Google, terminated because she'd breached the company's code of conduct - a document that has likely (and quite ironically) passed the hands and eyes of many others also hired to oversee various aspects of ethics, diversity and inclusion.
In response, thousands of Google employees protested by signing an open letter. Alphabet Inc. remained unfazed, because an open letter of protest constitutes no threat if it isn't also followed by a display of power. If instead all employees involved with keeping, say, Google Cloud Platform running had gone on strike, things may have played out differently. None of them did, though - because in their heart of hearts, they weren't looking for a fight. Their generous paychecks would keep coming, along with benefits and perks. They were content.
Content is king
What makes someone content? Safety from harm, a full belly, a decent job with a decent wage and future prospects for oneself and one's children surely helps. People thusly contented rarely stage meaningful protests of any kind. A few may, in youthful folly, go out and wreak havoc for a night or two and a handful of individuals may become radicalized for some reason, but by and large, this will be considered an unsound fringe activity by the vast majority of their peers.
If reasonable expectations are met and will remain so for the foreseeable future, people will not rise up in a display of power. During good times, it doesn't matter much if most politicians appear to be cut from the same cloth regardless of their supposed ideology and it doesn't even matter much if the one you voted for didn't win the election. Society will drone on, mostly as it was before, and voters will joke about the fact that presumably opposing politicians seem curiously chummy with each other, rather than scream opposing views at the top of their lungs.
Revolutions feed on uncertainty and discomfort and it's in the basic interest of anyone wishing to stay in power to ensure that no such uncertainty or discomfort arises. There's always going to be good and bad years, compromises, scandals, double standards, grifting and nepotism - but if people are generally satisfied with their lives, protests will stop at sign waving and the ruling class will mostly be left to their own devices and given enough leeway to sort out their internal conflicts and relations.
When times are bad or expectations aren't met, there's really no need for social media to create a polarized environment. The French, American and Russian revolutions are examples of highly polarizing events occuring well before any modern means of mass communication were available. There are plenty more, many of them not as violent but still highly divisive and, to be sure, defining moments in history: Women's suffrage and the Civil rights movement come to mind.
Content of contentedness
Propaganda can be efficient. Having control of the narrative is beneficial in the quest to remain in power. When things are good, the official narrative will be if not accepted then at least tolerated by a majority of the people. But when the same people start to worry about the things that really matter - the care of their children, job prospects, inflation, essential infrastructure, basic personal dignity - things are going to get serious. The only effective option for the ruling class in a situation like that is to make a noticeable shift in policy. One notable such shift is universal suffrage, another one is Roosevelt's New Deal.
But what if the ruling class is incapable of performing such a shift? Stable, productive jobs outsourced to other nations can be very hard to bring back home. The effects of injecting pretend money into the economy for a couple of decades are very hard to reverse. Letting infrastructure decay to a fragile just-in-time chain with no safeguards will make it very hard to mend, should it fail. A whole new societal class of academics - whose income is completely dependant on a certain ideological narrative - will be very hard to cater to using reasoned debate in "the marketplace of ideas."
In short, the ruling class will now find themselves in a bit of a pickle. They've created problems they cannot solve, they've painted themselves into a rhetorical corner and they've made their own position of power completely reliant on the functioning of a system that's inherently untenable in the long term. Such impotence of formal power will of course lead to a crisis of legitimacy.
If problems can't be fixed, the only thing left that can legitimize the status quo is to tell stories with the purpose of explaining why the current rulers deserve their mandate and shouldn't be replaced - despite their inability to act.
Conspiracy to conspire
At first, such measures mostly go unnoticed: after all, hyperbole, hypocrisy and back-stabbing are all part and parcel of politics on any level. Then, things start to become more palpable. For example, constantly labeling oppositional voices as racist, fascist and communist - even when they're demonstrably not - will water the words down until they mean nothing. People will start realizing that those rhetorical spectres of conflicts past are capable only of insulting huge chunks of the population. Eventually, when a large enough basket of deplorables has been deemed persona non grata, the accusations won't stick anymore. In order to maintain a facade of legitimacy and keep control of the narrative, things are now likely to escalate into a spiral of precarious short-sightedness.
The examples are currently abundant: Suggesting that anything from a reasonable line of inquiry about the origins of a new virus to worrying about inflation are conspiracy theories will further serve to water concepts down. Repeated claims of massive, disruptive influence on elections - no matter if it's foreign or domestic - will erode popular confidence in one of the most important societal institutions, regardless of their veracity. Corona containment policies that are wildly inconsistent and contradictory will make the divide between the ruling class, their clientele, and the remaining hoi polloi even clearer. Outright denial of adverse effects of globalization, lax immigration policies or failing logistics chains will eventually make you seem completely out of touch with reality.
By now you've painted a substantial amount of citizens - the very people from whom you seek legitimacy - as fringe lunatics, backwards racists and even domestic terrorists. In this situation, open hostility between various groups in society is, quite frankly, nothing to be surprised about but rather something to be expected. It might serve to keep you in power for a while longer, but at great cost: the whole narrative, not to mention society itself, is now a house of cards that could collapse at any moment and controlling it grows ever harder. Anything is on the table and almost all of it will raise the temperature in a pressure cooker of your own creation, because the narrative must be kept spinning in order to explain away your policies' glaring lack of results.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that the policies designed to appease your base clientele has alienated large portions of the institutions you rely on to wield your formal power. Maybe you don't even fully trust the police or military to enforce your decisions anymore, because they're made up of people whose loyalty to the system is now unpredictable and frail - in no small amount due to your own rhetoric. Moreover, some parts of the population will have accepted even your more fanciful claims as irrefutable truth, which means it's going to be much harder for you to reverse your position, should you so desire: defusing the situation is getting more cumbersome by the minute. Congratulations - you've created another problem you can't readily solve!
At this point, cognitive dissonance is at peak levels, but you must double down and tighten the screws on the narrative even further. The most efficient method of narrative control is censorship. In theory, the Internet makes for an interesting tool when it comes to communicating oppositional ideas, but the escalating centralization of the last fifteen years has in reality made large scale censorship easier than ever. However - in countries where free speech is supposed to reign supreme, how can such a move be at least superficially rationalized?
The answer is of course to shift blame onto the communication platforms. Clearly they are creating all of this polarization. Because, you know, algorithms. And stuff.
Far be it from me to defend Facebook, Google, Twitter or any of the other tech giants. I don't use them and I've discussed my distaste for their business models at length elsewhere. However, their part in the current polarization of the western world is grossly overstated.
A 2018 paper on polarization reached the conclusion that "Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative posttreatment" (My emphasis: an interesting choice of words!). Democrats, meanwhile, "exhibited slight increases in liberal attitudes after following a conservative Twitter bot" - but "these effects are not statistically significant". Breaking out of "filter bubbles" may not lead to the mutual understanding proponents of such activities seem to expect.
Another document of interest is a 2021 NYU report, the long and short of which is that "social media platforms are not the main cause of rising partisan hatred, but use of these platforms intensifies divisiveness and thus contributes to its corrosive effects."
Social media may be an efficient delivery method for a polarizing narrative - but it's hardly the source of polarization and, more importantly, polarization is a symptom - not a disease.
Blowing the whistle
The NYU report ends with a ten point action program designed to mitigate the divisiveness it claims social media fuels. I won't go into any deeper detail, but more than a few of the suggestions would, if implemented, open up quite a few lucrative positions for people with the kind of university degrees mentioned before.
Of extra interest is the ninth point, "Strengthen engagement with civil society groups that can help identify sources of harmful content." The first paragraph reads like an elaborate jobs program for unemployed journalists, NGO also-rans and other experts at PoMo word wrangling.
Researchers, fact checkers and NGO operatives are topped off with a call for 15,000 new content moderators, no doubt to be instructed and supervised by a sizable chunk of the aforementioned graduates - whose degrees supposedly make them expert arbiters when it comes to, for example, human rights and international conflicts. These content moderators should be employed "in house" - I.E. in the US - instead of being "farmed out" to (presumably dreadful and out of touch) places like Ireland.
In an ironic twist, the report uses the Philippines as example of a country where social media polarization has spiralled out of control. It also recommends working together with locals in various conflict zones to ensure fair moderation - and then goes on to list the Philippines as one of the places to which content moderation is currently "farmed out" and should be brought back home from.
This, in lieu of a better segue, brings us to former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen. In 2021, Haugen publicly disclosed her identity as a whistleblower and was called to testify about Facebook in front of the US congress. There she made - among many other - the following statement:
"I also believe there needs to be a dedicated oversight body, because right now the only people in the world who are trained to analyze these experiments, to understand what's happening inside of Facebook, are people who - you know - grew up inside of Facebook, or Pinterest, or another social media company. And there needs to be a regulatory home where someone like me could do a tour of duty after working at a place like this and have a place to work on things like regulation, to bring that information out to the oversight boards that have the right to do oversight."
I have no interest in discussing Haugen's personal convictions and motives - but two things in this quote are noteworthy. One is the call for increased control of content posted on Facebook - something that's without question extremely useful to pretty much everyone in the various branches of US government. The second is that no matter how sincere Haugen's whistle blowing is, it comes attached with a job application and a desire to create even more positions for academics disconnected from the productive parts of the economy - something that's without question extremely useful not only to the academics themselves but also to anyone who's spent the last few decades claiming, quite erroneously, that "education is the silver bullet".
I'm certainly not adverse to the idea of social media giants somehow paying their dues, but this sudden fling with less automation and more protectionism is noteworthy and a clear indication of class struggle. Policies that have gradually eroded working class prospects in the west for decades and are a root cause of the current polarization should clearly not apply to college graduates who - preferably without the tiresome demands of measurable productivity that comes with programming - want a slice of the tech pie.
Policy and its effects on material living conditions is a key factor in driving polarization. Protests and other displays of discontent will increase in severity along with polarization, because real displays of power are needed in a fight over resouces. While social media (like any vehicle for mass communication) does play an irrefutable role in the spread of propaganda and opinions, its effect on polarization is not as big as one might be led to believe when listening to politicians and mainstream media pundits.
In any healthy system claiming to be democratic, some amount of polarization is a necessity - especially during hard times - otherwise people will eventually feel that they're lacking a voice. But when times are so hard that the ruling class can't even solve problems of their own making, they'll resort to whatever tactics needed to stay in power - of which controlling the official narrative is a vital component. This leads to more polarization, which leads to calls for censorship.
Harder online content moderation - I.E. censorship - will primarily serve those currently in power and, secondarily, a new kind of political clientele. It will help the ruling class in controlling an increasingly sprawling and confused narrative of their own creation and doing so will provide ample job opportunities for a new and belligerent class of disillusioned college graduates - the new clientele - to a great extent created by dismantling productive domestic jobs with living wages while simultaneously pushing education as a panacea for unemployment.
Instead of complacently accepting the claim that polarization is the problem in society, we should scrutinize the policies that drive it and hold accountable the politicians that create them. It's not going to be easy - in fact, chances are it will get ugly very quickly. The ruling class is cornered and their narrative, the last thing protecting them from falling, is at constant risk of collapsing. As proven in Canada, extreme measures will be taken if need be. Time will tell if those measures are successful or just serve to breed more ressentiment in even broader layers of constituents.
On that note, it seems fitting to end with another Aaron Sorkin staple: It's likely that things will get much worse before they start getting better.