Do Voters Actually Have a Free Choice?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAfter five days of counting votes, the election has been called: Joe Biden is projected to be the 46th U.S. President. For at least half the country, this ends a nightmare of a tumultuous Trump presidency fraught with weekly scandals, lies, ineptitude, and corruption, capped with the mismanagement of a lethal pandemic that took the lives of more than 237,00 Americans (to date). Additionally, the run-away pandemic required the shut-down of the economy, causing a devastating recession, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, as evidenced by the highest unemployment levels (14.7%, 23 million Americans) since the Great Depression. In its wake, nearly 100,00 businesses have closed, more than 8 million Americans have been pushed into poverty, and more than 12 million have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. Moreover, Feeding America projects that 50 million Americans are food insecurity (up from 35 million prior to the pandemic). Of course, based on the vote, the other half of the country saw all of this as good news and signed up for another four years. WTF.

Nevertheless, the election reinforces the importance and sanctity of voting — the foundation of a democracy. But when you consider the perplexing results of the recent election, where half of the country fails to hold the incumbent presidential candidate accountable for four years of failures and contempt for the middle and lower classes, one has to ask: was this truly a free and fair election?

If you ask Carole Cadwaller, the investigative journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal back in 2016 (she is featured in the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack), the answer would be an emphatic “No!” Cadwaller accused Facebook and other social media companies of damaging democracy by spreading hateful, divisive lies in darkness paid for by illegal cash for millions of dollars worth of ads. Working with a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Cadwaller learned that the data mining company gathered information on millions of people and manipulated their behavior (i.e., their voting) in the U.S. to impact the 2016 presidential election and in the UK to influence the Brexit vote.

In a TED talk on April 2019, Cadwaller confronts the leaders of the social media companies head on: “I am here — to address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey. Because you set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that this same technology is now driving us apart. And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right, or leave or remain, or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. And so my question to you is: is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you? — as the handmaidens to authoritarianism? And my question to everyone else is: is this what we want?”

Recently, Bill Maher asked the same question of his guest, Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology and co-host of the podcast “Your Undivided Attention”: was 2020 a free and fair election? What followed was a fascinated discussion of the impact on social media on human behavior and free will, which is the focus of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, released in January of this year.

Maher begins the discussion with the question: In a world manipulated by social media, did voters actually have a free choice? Harris responds: “No… what people need to get is that we are ten years into this mind warp, where we have been fed an individualized reality [like the Truman Show]… We got 3 billion Truman Shows… Imagine a husband and wife couple — they follow the same friends on Facebook. They’ve got the same friends so that when they open up Facebook they should see the same feed. But that’s not actually how it works. They will actually see completely different realities based on what the [Facebook] algorithms will say “this is the thing that will likely to keep you here.” What that did was to take the shared reality we have, put it through a paper shredder, and gave each of us a micro reality in which we are more and more certain that we’re right and the other side is wrong, and it has totally confused us.”

Maher then asks, is the Facebook algorithm evil? Harris answers, “Yes, it is evil. That’s the whole point [of the algorithm]. Because of this competition for attention, the company started to get really aggressive about what they could dangle in front of your nervous system to get you to come back… It’s like a digital drug lord. It’s destroyed [the] mental health of our teenagers, it’s polarized our societies, it’s addicted each of us, and it’s really warped, I think, the psyche that now we are in the middle of with this election because I think, much like a psychotic patient has a mind that is fractured against itself… our national psyche is fractured against itself. If you look at even the examples of the “count the vote” [protestors] and the “stop the count” [protestors]… We have really been confused by these individual realities that have warped all of our perceptions.”

Maher then moves to recent news about the public putting pressure on the social companies to act on preventing misinformation and falsehoods, taking down sites. Is this helping? Harris explains, “So there’s this really weird situation we’re in where if you let the Frankenstein run without any controls — and so anything goes viral if it gets the most clicks and likes — that just rewards the most conspiracy theories. YouTube, for example, recommended Alex Jones Info Wars conspiracy theories 15 billion times — which is more than the combined traffic of The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Fox News combined. And when you just realize the scale of all of that, conspiracy theories are especially dangerous because they’re like a trust bomb — they warp your perception of everything that comes after it. In fact, the best predictor whether you will believe in a new conspiracy is if I already got you to believe in one. And once you believe, for example, ‘the election is rigged or it’s stolen,’ you perceive everything through that lens, and it warps all of your perceptions.”

Maher then moves to the issue of freedom of speech, since some of the social media companies have introduced initiatives to either tag misinformation or suspend accounts spreading falsehoods. Harris clarifies: “We have to protect the freedom of speech. I think the distinction [that needs to be made] is freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom to reach, meaning we’re all granted the right to speak, but are you granted a football stadium-sized audience to say anything you want without accountability? And when you let that become the default, like that’s what makes up our information environment — that the default information all of us are consuming is each of us get a [football stadium-size audience] and say whatever you want without any accountability… you don’t end up with a healthy information environment and we also get more rewarded the more extreme things we we say. And the more extreme the things you say the more likes and feedback you get which leads us into our own distortion of ‘hey we’re really right, we have all these supporters, we are on the right side of history.'”

Maher responds: “But the people who don’t know its bullshit have been trained not to see it as bullshit… The underlying issue of all of this is that the American people are too stupid to be governed. They have no bullshit detector. They believe a lot of kooky stuff on the left and on the right they believe in QAnon [a conspiracy theory that alleges that the world is run by a powerful cabal of pedophiles that worship Satan and operate a child sex trafficking ring that works to undermine President Trump.] … There is no knowledge of the past. You can’t scare them by saying ‘Trump is becoming a totalitarian.’ — [Americans respond:] What’s that? You know like East Germany — What’s that? Like in the Cold War — What’s that? Technology wouldn’t be so scary if people had a better brain to deal with it. Harris quickly responds, “But what has social media done to our brain? That’s the problem. Social media [has led to] the downgrading of attention spans, our critical thinking, our ability to form an opinion on anything that is not the hyperpresent. We don’t read books any more. We have polarization, conspiracy thinking… [All of this due to the business model of Facebook discussed in the documentary Social Network] — So long as we’re the product, we’re worth more when we are addicted, distracted, outraged, narcissistic, polarized, and disinformed than if we are a thriving citizen, an informed citizen of a democracy… [To Facebook] a child is worth more if they’re narcissistic and attention-seeking and seeing how many likes they have than if they’re actually free — growing, developing, and playing with their friends. [As the inventor of the “Like” button explained] so long as the whale is worth more dead than alive and a tree is worth more as 2x4s than as a tree, in this new [business] model… we’re the whale, we’re the tree, we’re the thing that is being mined… [The technology in Facebook’s business model] is converting us into someone who cares more about the number of new likes and followers and comments that we have than living our lives. Each of us get to participate in a system that profits from social performance, where we each perform and that’s what we’re doing with our time, instead of actually doing any of the other things that we care about.”

The discussion of freedom of choice reminds me of the routine of one of the most influential comedians of all time, George Carlin, winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Like Twain, Carlin was a fearless critic always ready and willing to speak his mind — passionately and eloquently. Carlin was the thinking person’s comedian — his razor-sharp, incisive rants about politics, culture, religion, philosophy, and language were not only funny, they were compelling and thought-provoking. Long after watching a Carlin performance, you actually remembered what he had to say because in most cases he was right — the world is fucked up.”

One of Carlin’s most famous bits was his rant on freedom of choice: “Yes, you can [vote for president], but you don’t get much choice in this country about important things. They have all the guns. They have all the tools. They have all the power. We call it freedom of choice. There is an illusion of choice. Americans are led to feel free through the exercise of meaningless choices. There are only two political parties. There is a reduction of the number of media companies. Banking has been reduced to only a handful of banks. Oil companies. These are important, and you’re given very little choice. Oh, but the flavor of jellybeans? The flavor of muffins? A bagel? You can get a Pina Colada bagel. We’re given the illusion of choice by the meaningless of choices of trivial things. You know what your freedom of choice in America is? Paper or plastic, buddy? That’s it. After you’ve said cash or charge, maybe it’s Pepsi or Coke? Window or Aisle? Smoking or [Nonsmoking]? Everything else you’re kinda guided towards by focus groups and marketing research.”

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Read related posts: Plato on Idiots and Ignorance
You Should Figure Out a Way to Get Off Facebook
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
A Republic If You Can Keep It
Is the United States A Democracy or Republic?

For further reading: Real Time with Bill Maher, 11-6-20 (HBO)
The Great Hack, Netflix Documentary (2019)
The Social Dilemma, Netflix Documentary (2020)