Reality trumped

Reading You Are Here: A field guide for navigating polarized speech, conspiracy theories, and our polluted media landscape by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (MIT Press)
for New Scientist, 3 March 2021

This is a book about pollution, not of the physical environment, but of our civic discourse. It is about disinformation (false and misleading information deliberately spread), misinformation (false and misleading information inadvertently spread), and malinformation (information with a basis in reality spread pointedly and specifically to cause harm).

Communications experts Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner completed their book just prior to the US presidential election that replaced Donald Trump with Joe Biden. That election, and the seditious activities that prompted Trump’s second impeachment, have clarified many of the issues Phillips and Milner have gone to such pains to explore. Though events have stolen some their thunder, You Are Here remains an invaluable snapshot of our current social and technological problems around news, truth and fact.

The authors’ US-centric (but universally applicable) account of “fake news” begins with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Its deliberately silly name, cartoonish robes, and quaint routines (which accompanied all its activities, from rallies to lynchings) prefigured the “only-joking” subcultures (Pepe the Frog and the like) dominating so much of our contemporary social media. Next, an examination of the Satanic panics of the 1980s reveals much about the birth and growth of conspiracy theories. The authors’ last act is an unpicking of QAnon — a current far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a secret cabal of cannibalistic Satan-worshippers plotted against former U.S. president Donald Trump. This brings the threads of their argument together in a conclusion all the more apocalyptic for being so closely argued.

Polluted information is, they argue, our latest public health emergency. By treating the information sphere as an ecology under threat, the authors push past factionalism to reveal how, when we use media, “the everyday actions of everyone else feed into and are reinforced by the worst actions of the worst actors”

This is their most striking takeaway: that the media machine that enabled QAnon isn’t a machine out of alignment, or out of control, or somehow infected: it’s a system working exactly as designed — “a system that damages so much because it works so well”.

This media machine is founded on principles that, in and of themselves, seem only laudable. Top of the list is the idea that to counter harms, we have to call attention to them: “in other words, that light disinfects”.

This is a grand philosophy, for so long as light is hard to generate. But what happens when the light — the confluence of competing information sets, depicting competing realities — becomes blinding?

Take Google as an example. Google is an advertising platform, that makes money the more its users use the internet to “get to the bottom of things”. The deeper the rabbit-holes go, the more money Google makes. This sets up a powerful incentive for “conspiracy entrepreneurs” to produce content, creating “alternative media echo-systems”. When the facts run out, create alternative facts. “The algorithm” (if you’ll forgive this reviewer’s dicey shorthand) doesn’t care. “The algorithm” is, in fact, designed to serve up as much pollution as possible.

What’s to be done? Here the authors hit a quite sizeable snag. They claim they’re not asking “for people to ‘remain civil’”. They claim they’re not commanding us, “don’t feed the trolls.” But so far as I could see, this is exactly what they’re saying — and good for them.

With the machismo typical of the social sciences, the authors call for “foundational, systematic, top-to-bottom change,” whatever that is supposed to mean, when what they are actually advocating is a sense of personal decency, a contempt for anonymity, a willingness to stand by what one says come hell or high water, politeness and consideration, and a willingness to listen.

These are not political ideas. These are qualities of character. One might even call them virtues, of a sort that were once particularly prized by conservatives.

Phillips and Milner bemoan the way market capitalism has swallowed political discourse. They teeter on a much more important truth: that politics has swallowed our moral discourse. Social media has made whining cowards of us all. You Are Here comes dangerously close to saying so. If you listen carefully, there’s a still, small voice hidden in this book, telling us all to grow up.

Eugenic America: how to exclude almost everyone


Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American eugenics, and the sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press)

Defectives in the Land: Disability and immigration in the age of eugenics by Douglas C. Baynton (University of Chicago Press)

for New Scientist, 22 March 2016

ONE of 19th-century England’s last independent “gentleman scientists”, Francis Galton was the proud inventor of underwater reading glasses, an egg-timer-based speedometer for cyclists, and a self-tipping top hat. He was also an early advocate of eugenics, and his Hereditary Genius was published two years after the first part of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Both books are about the betterment of the human race: Marx supposed environment was everything; Galton assumed the same for heredity. “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle,” he wrote, “what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilisation into the world, as surely as we… propagate idiots by mating cretins.”

What would such a human breeding programme look like? Would it use education to promote couplings that produced genetically healthy offspring? Or would it discourage or prevent pairings that would otherwise spread disease or dysfunction? And would it work by persuasion or by compulsion?

The study of what was then called degeneracy fell to a New York social reformer, Richard Louis Dugdale. During an 1874 inspection of a jail in New York State, Dugdale learned that six of the prisoners there were related. He traced the Jukes family tree back six generations, and found that some 350 people related to this family by blood or marriage were criminals, prostitutes or destitute.

Dugdale concluded that, like genius, “degeneracy” runs in families, but his response was measured. “The licentious parent makes an example which greatly aids in fixing habits of debauchery in the child. The correction,” he wrote, “is change of the environment… Where the environment changes in youth, the characteristics of heredity may be measurably altered.”

Other reformers were not so circumspect. An Indiana reformatory promptly launched a eugenic sterilisation effort, and in 1907 Indiana enacted the world’s first compulsory sterilisation statute. California followed suit in 1909. Between 1927 and 1979, Virginia forcibly sterilised at least 7450 “unfit” people. One of them was Carrie Buck, a woman labelled feeble-minded and kept ignorant of the details of her own case right up to the point in October 1927 when her fallopian tubes were tied and cauterised using carbolic acid and alcohol.

In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen follows Carrie Buck through the US court system, past the desks of one legal celebrity after the other, and not one of them, not Howard Taft, not Louis Brandeis, not Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, gave a damn about her.

Cohen anatomises in pitiless detail how inept civil society can be at assimilating scientific ideas. He also does a good job explaining why attempts to manipulate the genetic make-up of whole populations can only fail to improve the genetic health of our species. Eugenics fails because it looks for genetic solutions to what are essentially cultural problems. The anarchist biologist Peter Kropotkin made this point as far back as 1912. Who were unfit, he asked the first international eugenics congress in London: workers or monied idlers? Those who produced degenerates in slums or those who produced degenerates in palaces? Culture casts a huge influence over the way we live our lives, hopelessly complicating our measures of strength, fitness and success.

Readers of Cohen’s book would also do well to watch out for Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land, to be published in June. Focusing on immigrant experiences in New York, Baynton explains how ideas about genetics, disability, race, family life and employment worked together to exclude an extraordinarily diverse range of men and women from the shores of the US.

“Doesn’t this squashy sentimentality of a big minority of our people about human life make you puke?” Holmes once exclaimed. Holmes was a miserable bigot, but he wasn’t wrong to thirst for more rigour in our public discourse. History is not kind to bad ideas.