// Patrick Louis

Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control — Biases & Self: Cultural Ambiguities & Insecurities

The Sufi-infuenced teachings were aimed at destroying man's illusory sel-image, and revealing him as being guided by mechanical reflexes

  • Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control
  • Part 3 — Biases & Self
  • Section 2 — Cultural Ambiguities & Insecurities
Table Of Content
  • Constrained By Platforms Or Platforms Constrained
  • Beliefs and Values
  • Repressed Cultural Weaknesses
  • Polarization As A Natural Phenomenon
  • Primal Needs
  • True Believers

To be a netizen means to be part of the online social sphere. There’s no way around it, to have a voice and participate people have to join a platform, which comes with its own limitations.
The rules of the platforms are the rules of the information society but the platforms adapt more to fit us than we adapt to them. Anything happening on them is directly because of real people interacting together. People that have their own hopes, emotions, values, prejudices, and beliefs. Consequently, through our own cultural differences, ambiguities, and insecurities, we are indirectly manipulating ourselves.

We look for confirmations of our own experiences, as we said in the previous section, confirmation bias. We want to share and search for things that relate to our local lives, to make us look smart, empathic, cast us in a positive light, or that is useful in our day-to-day lives.
On the internet this is proved through many experiments. Emily Falk’s Lab, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Communication Neuroscience Lab, has demonstrated how the expectation of social confirmation and reward influence the likelihood of someone sharing a meme with someone else. We share for social comparison, to look favorable to other group members, for “virtue signalling”.
Similarly, according to research, on average people visit a maximum of 30 websites before making their mind about something. The bulk of these websites are part of the top results of the search engines of which 70% will always support the view portrayed by how the query was formulated. This is what we refer to as an echo chamber and filter bubble, it echoes back what we think.
We seek information sources that support and reinforce existing attitudes or beliefs, as well as process them. “All else [being] equal, people seem to prefer not changing their opinions to changing them” (Lebo & Cassino, 2007, p. 722).

We increasingly, inadvertently through selective exposure by our own judgement, are localized, not only geographically but also through our language, ideologies, time, and cultures. As we said earlier, the internet is made of networked separated individuals, linked by their interests and similarities.
This isn’t only about filter bubbles created through algorithms, but it’s our natural tendency to pay attention to those who have a lot in common with us. We lack cognitive diversity.
We call this phenomenon homophily, “birds of feather flock together”. We’re really good at it, we have this inner urge to find people similar to us, and this is confirmed by over 100 studies.
This isn’t necessarily negative, this allows us to create communities based on niches, on interests, be more democratic, etc.. All things we’ve seen in part 2 section 2.

We all think that the way we live is the best way to live. We all think that we see the world as it is, that we’ve come to the best possible conclusion about our direction in life. However, that’s just our definition of normality. And this normality isn’t even ours as most of it happens without us being there. We often can’t justify why we do what we do or why we like what we like.

This is as much as about externalities as internalities. We associate ourselves with others like us, as a way of expressing our own individuality by proxy.
We said people spent more time viewing and sharing memes that confirmed their views with others, not only because it confirms them, but also because it’s a way of expressing one-self and indirectly promoting who we are. We went over this in the meme section, memes are a representation of our mental models, how we comprehend and make sense of the world.

Ideologies are never force-fed, we are deliberately looking for them. Nobody can be persuaded if they don’t want to be persuaded.
That is why when we discussed propaganda we said that the best messages are those that resonate with the audience, that aren’t perceived as propaganda. Not imposed, but emerging from themselves and expressing the concerns, tensions, aspirations, and hopes of the persons.

We live through our media, they define us, we identify with them. That is why the interactions on the internet are a reflection of our different cultures.
Everyone has an opinion, however, what is worrying is when they give rise to consequential beliefs. When they manifest in the real world.

On social media, these opinions are now all expressed and openly visible. The pristine walls protecting us have fallen and we are faced with a messy world full of ambiguities.

This is increasingly true when netizens use persona, and even more when they hide under an anonymous pseudonym. People are then free to express themselves without restraints, breaking accepted cultural codes, expectations, unspoken tensions, and preconceived notions. They aren’t burdened by what their peers think of them.

However, we are all biased, as we saw in the previous section, and this confluence of voices brings uncertainty to our own. Doubt sets in when many claim the contrary of something widely accepted. It’s also hard for us to accept coincidence as an explanation, which gives rise to some shouting their conspiratorial thinking. Trust is easy to lose and hard to gain.
A trust crisis is setting in.

On social media everyone has an equal voice and different views. We said this was moving us towards a low-context society or informational society. We’ve also just seen the tendency to regroup in bubbles with people and content that is in agreement with our current views.
Yet, research tells us that social media users have a more diverse news diet than non-users. It shows how much we are bound to encounter opinions and information that might upset us because they go in the opposite direction of our preconceived notions. The bubbles are bursting against each others, and this implicitly creates hostility.

As humans, we tend to connect ideas in a coherent way, to make sense of the world around us based on our culture and routine. We have expectations of what is true, know historical facts set by our institutions, build a narrative from the events we are told, hold public opinions, have pictures of what is normal or not, assumptions about how structures fall into place, and which established powers we think is better.
Yet, again, reality isn’t sterile and spotless, these preconceptions are but a thin layer holding a story, and it only covers an infinitely small portion of the existence on this planet. Cultures often have unspoken tensions, anxieties, weaknesses — no story is perfect. This is felt even more heavily when they clash on the internet.
A truth crisis setting in.

These contradictions need to be accepted and that might generate cognitive dissonance in some people. Cognitive dissonance is a word used to describe the effects someone feels when holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values and it’s denoted by psychological stress. The human-psyche wants to be consistent, otherwise it creates discomfort. We feel an urge to resolve these contradictions.

Then it’s no wonder that some content go viral, it’s because they’re unleashing a repressed cultural agenda. Online discourse promotes outrage because we feel the need to defend or attack our positions so that our world view doesn’t shatter — to keep our own consistency or to find it again.
If we didn’t have issues in our societies, these extreme forms of discussions wouldn’t materialize. Thus, it is reductive to point the finger at just the social media platforms, that’s why we’re pointing it at ourselves here.

When facing an unclear situation, a tension, a question, or decision, we instinctively take stances. Naturally we either are with or against. We put ourselves in camps. At least, the most prominent and outspoken people take sides, so on the internet these are the ones whose voice break through the noise.
That person will be exposed to a disproportionately large amount of info similar to their view and a small amount of info against their view. Naturally, they’ll want to react the contrarian viewpoints to defend what they think is right.

After that dance, opinions will be polarized and the diversity of point of views and nuances will disappear — the system will have reached its equilibrium.
Absolutist thinking is in human nature when there is an absence of certainty. We want to grasp for reassurance.

The researcher Cass Sunstein has shown that this is even more apparent when putting people that have similar mindsets in the same room. They divide themselves according to more polarized version of the same mindset.
Initially the group shows a lot of internal disagreement over issues but then, again, fall unto an equilibrium. People held more-extreme positions after speaking with like-minded individuals and were more homogeneous, squelching diversity. Either an all or nothing, a black and white vision, highly moralistic, with expectations on us and others.
Similar studies show the same results and adds that people have a less negative perception of opposite views if they get exposed to them more often, instead of mainly the ones confirming their own.

We’ve seen that people self-sort and seek confirmating views online, this widens the rifts between different points. The internet makes it exceedingly easy for people to move into extreme absolute positions and versions of whatever is discussed.

The internet, and particularly social media, also fills the voids that our societies cannot. Gaps in our primal needs: the need for certainty, the need for identity, the need for belonging, the need for accomplishment, competency, and approval, or higher spiritual and moral callings. All things that are missing in contemporary civilizations according to Charles Taylor.

Our lack of certainty about fundamental assumptions and loss of control inclines us to the middle but opinions on extremes look steady and we slowly move towards them — a need for closure, narrowing our perception.
We generally adopt the first belief that fills the gap, which is given to us by the flashy promotional culture or fringe ones.
These fillings do not have to be understood but believable, to look consistent and absolutely certain. The quality of the ideas themselves play a minor role but the meaning and confidence that they bring matters.

The persons the most sensitive are the ones who are bored, feel powerless, have insecurities in their culture, feel uneasy about the ambiguity of the world, and are frustrated. A feeling of anomie.
They are driven primarily by hope for a coherent future, their gaps filled by the ideology, being consoled and rewarded for taking part in it.
They go under the name of fanatics, highly motivated individuals, defenders of culture, true believers, memeoids, or hyper partisans.

The transformation or indoctrination can happen slowly over time, through repetition and a slippery slope, as we said, reaching a target level of saturation creating a full universe of meanings. Then stuck in a feedback-loop.

Undeniably, micro-targeting can be used to find these individuals which needs aren’t filled by society, to then turn them into true believers. Monitoring posts can give us insights on whether someone feels stressed, defeated, overwhelmed, anxious, nervous, stupid, useless, and a failure.
It’s not surprising that this is going to be used because hyper partisans are the most motivated, they are driven by their ideology and occupy a bigger space in the information market. This is a sort of tyranny of the minority, which drags people that are undecided.

Sarah Golding, the president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says “It has essentially weaponized ad technology designed for consumer products and services. There is a danger that every single person can get their own concerns played back to them”.

Cognitive dissonance and uncertainty open a window of opportunity to hack the mind and bring these individuals in.
The memeoids are known to self-isolate into fringe communities. Ironically, statistically these communities, with their extreme viewpoints, are the most influential on the internet. This is all unsurprising because they offer certainty and answers for the lost netizens.

Additionally, these communities always have gatekeepers and look enticing. They isolate the members and shun anyone that has a different opinion. The stories are reinforced through time. This reminds us that certain communities on the internet are no different from cults, and of the reasons why people join them.

This concludes our review of cultural angst and how they are reflected on the internet. First of all, we’ve talked about how the internet has its limitations but is more shaped by us than we are shaped by it. We’ve then dabbled with the concepts of beliefs and values which always get confirmed through the results given by recommendation/curation engines and other algorithms. Next, we’ve seen how when cultures clash they make us feel discomfort and bring to the surface cultural anxieties and weaknesses, thus we react. After that, we’ve talked about how polarization is natural, how we instinctively take sides to become more homogeneous. On the internet this creates rifts between ideas, people want to take sides. Later, we’ve covered how the internet can fill needs that aren’t filled by societies, be it a need for closure, accomplishment, belonging, or approval. Finally, we’ve looked at hyper partisanship, how people get stuck in these communities, and why they are the most vociferous online.

Table Of Content


Attributions: Alexander de Salzmann, cover-design for the programme of the “Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man”, Tiflis, 1919

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