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Exploring the Link Between Uncertainty, Ahistoricism and Algorithms

Exploring the Link Between Uncertainty, Ahistoricism and Algorithms
30th November 2020 Isaac Kfir
In Insights

We are living in a time of extreme uncertainty. Nothing seems real because any fact is contestable.

There are several reasons for the growing uncertainty. The first is the omnipresence of social media platforms and their algorithmic engines. These entities have democratised information gathering and sharing. In doing so, they facilitate the dissemination of raw, empirically-untested data (information) as knowledge (information arranged in a specific way to produce an understanding), adding to the confusion and uncertainty as the proliferation of so many ‘facts’ raises the prospects of alternative facts.

The pervasiveness of contestable facts about the social world has led individuals to question their social identity, accelerating the spread of ahistoricism. In other words, as individuals become uncertain about who they are, where they fit in their society, and how they see their society, they are more likely to reimagine the past and idealised it. To explain the loss, individuals do several things. They blame established political parties, globalisation, liberalism, internationalism, foreign values, etc. and they also search for a community that shares their idealised past, which is when they turn to the online space.

The role of history is key in defining a person’s social identity and sense of belonging, as those characteristics rely on a shared history, values, and community and when those are challenged, the individual experiences doubt, making them more susceptible to accept narratives comporting with their idealised social identity. The desire to embrace a romantic, idealised, ahistorical past encouraged the growth of imagined communities. Embracing such an outlook demands a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ dichotomy, with the former wanting to radically change society, whereas the latter want to restore and keep their society great – at least before it was changed. In romanticising the past, they invent historical ‘facts’, ignoring past wrongs, diminishing wrongdoings, etc. For example, it was recently found that a third of people in Britain believed the British colonies were better off being part of the empire, which meant ignoring all the damage caused by colonial pursuit.

An example of ahistoricism and how it can change society is the way Slobodan Milosevic corrupted the Battle of Kosovo Polje in his campaign to assert Serbian dominance. During Tito’s reign, the Battle was referenced to underline the need for a Yugoslav identity, whereas Milosevic used it to emphasise Serbian identity against the other ethnicities. Simply, by reclaiming the Battle for the Serbs, Milosevic constructed a distinct, social identity, based on romanticism, transhistoricalism, good and evil, and an allusion of redemption that galvanised and mobilised.

Another reason why the Battle of Kosovo Polje is so significant is because conflict, particularly war, generates an emotional response. Notably, that individuals are more likely to share an emotional event with their social network. Moreover, if the event is negative or evokes negative feelings, individuals will want to share it.

Turning to social media and the role these entities play in advancing an idealised past and society requires an appreciation of the role played by a proprietary algorithm. One way to look at algorithms is to see them as tools designed to make one’s life easier. The algorithms predict the content users want or the profound, meaningful interactions users crave. To achieve these tasks, copious amounts of data on users is collected, facilitating social relations and social realities. Moreover, social media enables individuals to seek out those that share their idealised conception of the past. Once a community is formed, it shares stories, myths, and truths all aimed to reinforce the same vision.

Extremists are cognisant that we are living in a time of extreme uncertainty. They also know that most people are introverts, willing to change their opinions to match the majority because they want to fit in. Social media platforms allow extremists to identify users’ characteristics, attitudes and views because users share their feelings online. Once the target is picked, the extremist can tap into the doubt, the paranoia, the distrust and the negativity through the construction of an amorphous master narrative, aimed at providing certainty and community.

The narrative has homophonic elements and explanations for disturbing events, allowing the individual to feel they are in control of their lives and of the future. Moreover, through the narrative individuals imagine they are part of the select, enlightened community that has taken the ‘red pill’ and now it is they who have the power (and possibly duty) to resist while everyone else submits because they are trapped under the blue pill. Another important feature of the master narrative is its ‘realness’ – it is seen as authentic, drafted by ordinary people, and not the elite. Finally, the narrative includes an acknowledgment that the plan will unfold over time. It is not possible for a complete reveal of the plan because to do so would empower the cabal and permit a continued subjugation. The propagator, therefore, has time to shape and adapt the master narrative to fit with the events.

Undoubtedly, social media companies must do better. They must challenge untruths and require users to abide by codes of ethics and terms of use. Dangerous, incendiary information must be removed or at least counted. However, it is important to recognise that extremists adapt. For example, when Twitter warns that published content is disputed, extremists claim such warnings show ‘the system’ is stacked against those telling the ‘truth’.

One way to address uncertainty is by training users to engage in critical assessment.

In developing critical skills, users of the information superhighway must learn how to defer judgment while they assess the validity of a proposition. They need to consider alternative perspectives, seeing a proposition from different angles. Users must appreciate that just because something is repeated and shared by many, it does not make it true. Also, users must learn to accept the right to be ignorant, and that just because they cannot see the whole picture, does not mean that a conspiracy is afoot.

Ultimately, we are living in a time of great uncertainty and confusion, but we have tools and mechanisms to reverse the trend, we just need a community willing to take on the challenge of uncertainty.