What the Internet Does to Bad Ideas

Our Body Cultural is built upon our stories of ourselves, but that process is crumbling

Credit: erhui1979/DigitalVisionVectors/Getty

This is a story: A report came out in the German newspaper Bild in 2016 that seemed to validate the feelings of those who’d claimed that taking in refugees brought rape and crime to the country. The paper reported that a “sex mob” of fifty or more “Arab” men ran rampant in Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve, sexually assaulting dozens of women and causing havoc.

The story is entirely false. But it went viral. As Newsweek’s Rossalyn Warren wrote, the article, which went global when it was aggregated by the far-right American news site Breitbart, did so because it “played on some of Germany’s worst fears.” A police investigation soon found social media posts indicating that the original source of the story — a woman quoted by Bild only by her first name, Irina — wasn’t even in Frankfurt on the night in question.

Like a tiger’s stripes, stories have evolved to use the appearance of facts as a camouflage — and it has never been more difficult to tell one from the other.

The Frankfurt rape mob story and others like it, such as this hoax about refugees allegedly setting fire to a church in Dortmund, continue to spread. In January 2018, Trump tweeted: “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!”

In fact, crime in Germany is down 10 percent, and is at its lowest level since 1992. Germany has taken far more than its fair share of refugees: recent data from Eurostat shows that the country is responsible for 60 percent of all accepted asylum applications in the European Union; in 2016 it took in far more refugees (433,905) than the United States, which only granted 84,989 asylum petitions in the same year. In fact, studies tend to show that immigrant communities tend to have lower crime rates overall than non-immigrant communities.

“Fact” is the name we give to the type of story that is rooted in empirical truth. But it has never been easier for a story to pretend to have the attributes of fact when it actually does not. Like a tiger’s stripes, other species of story have evolved to use the appearance of facts as a camouflage — and it has never been more difficult to tell one from the other.

Human civilization is, in a sense, the sum of all of the stories we tell ourselves. Society is a vast and tangled collection of stories about manners, stories about morals, stories about behavior, stories about democracy, stories about identity, and so on. This public commons is the Body Cultural; stories are its lifeblood.

For the Frankfurt mob story, Germany’s policy on welcoming refugees meant that it became attractive to people who subscribe to a certain set of stories that add up to a xenophobic, racist worldview. It became the subject of two competing stories. The fact that the truth was known — there was no “sex mob” in Frankfurt on New Year’s eve, no attempted arson in Dortmund that night — doesn’t matter to the question of which story would spread and be believed.

There is an old saying: a lie can run around the world before the truth has even laced up its boots. The image of a New Year’s Eve “sex mob” of refugees did just that: it percolated through international debates around the resettlement of refugees. The story transmitted along new communication lines, on Facebook, on Twitter and it found an audience which was primed to integrate and promulgate stories that fit their right-wing narrative, stoking their fear, anger, and resentment. Despite being demonstrably untrue, it became as powerful as the fact — more powerful, because it was a more compelling story than the complex and counter-intuitive truth.

The Frankfurt “sex mob” story is just one example of a much wider phenomenon. Something has grown sick in the way we as a species process and disseminate information. Something is broken in the way we triage our stories — or, perhaps, there is suddenly no longer a stage of the process in which a story can be triaged.

Metaphors for information tend towards the biological. Ideas grow. They spread like viruses, and they take root like trees. This is not a coincidence: There is an observable similarity between the behavior of life, and the behavior of information.

This led Richard Dawkins to propose that, just as the gene was the basic reproductive unit of biological life, there was an equivalent for informational life: the meme. Colloquially, we have come to think of a meme as a particular sort of visual internet content, but it is much more than that.

Any idea that spreads is exercising memetic life. Nyan Cat is a meme, sure, but so are Christianity, Socialism, table manners, object-permanence, Latin, and the book War and Peace. The fundamental democratic ideal of the intrinsic worth of all human life? That’s a meme; and its opposite, xenophobia, the idea of threat from the sinister “other”, is a meme as well. Freedom, justice, and equality are memes, and so are racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.

Any idea can take hold in the public consciousness, believed by large numbers of people to the point where it becomes widespread or doctrinaire, if it is a powerful, compelling story. A gene survives if it contains the instructions for a life-form which is well-suited to survive and reproduce in its environment; a meme survives if it contains the instructions for a story which is similarly well-suited to survive and reproduce in its environment. That environment is the Body Cultural, the public commons of our collective minds and media, and reproduction there means compelling the attention and belief of individual humans.

Individual people do not incorporate the Body Cultural uniformly. In fact, our “personality” can be defined as the sum total of the memes and the stories that we internalize over our lifetime.

These stories range from the simple to the arcane and complex. Some experiences we feel as having an innate power, because they conform to one of the narratives that are core to the instincts we evolved as a species; we instinctively fear the dark and loud noises because fear of the dark and loud noises kept our ancestors safe from predators — both genetic and memetic selection at work. We contain multitudes: our collection of stories grows with us, becomes layered, entwined, entrenched. We learn to speak, which allows us learn from others. We learn to read, which allows us to learn from text. And we learn to fear fire the first time we are burned.

A David and Goliath underdog story or a last-minute Hail Mary comeback — these are all examples of powerful narrative archetypes, well-suited to survive and reproduce in the public commons of stories. They are foundational stories, pure and monolithic. More complex stories entangle to form more complex narrative organisms: multi-cellular memetic life. They are at their most potent, most able to spread into new human minds, when they tap into a one of these deep narrative archetypes, such as the fear of the ‘other’.

That story, which teaches dehumanization, is core to totalitarianism. But not all of our primal narratives are fear-based; core to democracy is the idea — the story — that all humans “are created equal,” as the American Declaration of Independence puts it, a meme born of empathy.

Nations and religions are also both types of stories, some of them vast and intricate, that have evolved over centuries, even millennia, of retelling and reproduction. America is, at its heart, one such story: like all nations, it is a collection of stories which come together as powerful defining narrative.

In the early days of the human race, our power to circulate such stories was limited. We developed language, but for a long time could only tell our stories individually, on a peer-to-peer basis. Town “criers” would shout the day’s news in the market square. Foundational mythic ideas of national identity were encoded into lyrical ballads, and bards toured and performed them as narrative poems.

Information operates on Darwinian principles.

Later, with the invention of writing, those stories could be archived and their structures built upon. Religions standardized their dogma; nations anchored their narratives in tomes, and founded universities where they could be stored and evaluated. The stories that made up our narrative worldview were controlled by gatekeepers: the church, the state, and the press. Libraries allowed the public commons to grow and become more robust.

The printing press allowed for the development of narratives that were an order of magnitude more complex than the environment could previously support, and hard on the heels of its invention came the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. There is a reason that the Nazis burned books: In order for an idea like totalitarianism to take hold — a malignant idea, a cancer of the Body Cultural — first the potential for the public commons to act as a corrective to the untrammeled growth of that memetic tumour needed to be cut off.

And then came the internet.

Information operates on Darwinian principles. Those ideas best fitted to their environment survive, spread, and evolve. Those which are not, die out. Except for the narrative power of the idea of truth — itself a type of story — there is not much that favors truth over lies in the process of memetic natural selection.

Silicon Valley provides us with a good example of the power of a compelling narrative: Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. Holmes claimed that she had developed a revolutionary new technique for running blood tests that would need only a finger prick, not a full draw of blood from a vein.

It would later turn out, after some fearless and clear-sighted investigative reporting by the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, that it was all smoke and mirrors.

If we are given information that does not fit with the stories we have integrated into our worldview, our instinct is to reject it despite all proof.

But before that could happen, Holmes was able to leverage the power of her own personal narrative — that of an heroic visionary founder in the mold of Steve Jobs — to raise stunning amounts of money from investors. Her company became a “unicorn”, the name given in the Valley to startups valued at a billion dollars or more. She was even able to tempt luminaries like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz to join her board of directors.

With each progressive milestone, the narrative powering Holmes’ rise got stronger. When her downfall finally came, it became an even more powerful narrative archetype: the Icarus story of hubris and comeuppance.

But in Silicon Valley, the recurring myth of the lone genius founder persists. Those stories can become more powerful than reality itself. If we are given information that does not fit with the stories we have integrated into our worldview, our instinct is to reject it despite all proof — because ultimately, as far as human understanding goes, proof is just another type of story.

The internet has sent this phenomenon into overdrive. Before everyone was potentially connected directly to everyone, the information ecosystem revolved around the library and the archive. It was difficult and costly to publish a work, and when it was published it was a permanent and immutable part of the Body Cultural.

But in the age of the internet, there is now such a colossal amount of information being produced that the Body Cultural risks becoming overwhelmed. Ideas need now only to spill into a smartphone to potentially spread to every human mind on the planet almost instantaneously. This is perhaps why this has been called a “post-truth” age: there is no longer any reliable way to tell which stories will help us and which will harm us if we incorporate them into our individual narrative understanding. Truth was generally respected, even idealised, during most the age of the printing-press, but not all the time. We cannot rely on truth “winning out” over a lie in the end if enough people believe the lie.

The power of the human narrative instinct was perfectly observed by the satirist and author Terry Pratchett, who described a substance called “narrativium” as one of the fundamental elements of Discworld, his magical fantasy universe. It is a particularly brilliant premise, which gives the human instinct towards stories the form of a literal force — a kind of narrative gravity.

The point Pratchett understood perfectly is this: humans can only understand the universe by way of stories. To construct narratives out of life’s chaos as delivered to us by our senses is the most basic of human instincts, because it is only by imposing narrative order in this way — in constructing a framework of stories — that we can begin to comprehend the world around us. When we engage with that world, it is by applying that framework.

But what happens if that process becomes so complex as to no longer be under our control? How does a bad idea form? What is its genesis? How did it once grow, spread, take root, and reproduce in an age where the growth of information was limited by the written word or the printed page, and is it more or less able to do so now, in an age where we can find whole ideological silos of reality to incorporate into our narrative framework?

This has always been a part of the human experience. But it, too, has been greatly exacerbated by the internet.

Take the recurrent societal story of “national economy as home economy.” During the tenure of prime minister David Cameron, the British government instigated a policy of “austerity.” This was sold to the public with a simple and compelling idea: that the national debt being high was just like being in a lot of debt as a household — as if bailiffs were going to come to the U.K. and start confiscating national monuments any day now.

Of course, national debt is completely different from individual debt. When the U.K. government borrows money to spend on domestic welfare and other programs, the money gives an injection of liquidity into the economy. National economy as home economy was and is a rhetorical trick to force the politics of the right, which believes in a more limited welfare state than the left does, onto a public that does not fully grasp its intention.

But the narrative had a compelling power all of its own. In the U.K. case, austerity politics actually caused a contraction of the economy, forcing the government to actually borrow more. Republicans in the U.S., too, have long used similar arguments to push for cuts to welfare programs. The fact that they don’t really care about reducing national debt was made stunningly clear after Trump and Paul Ryan passed their 2017 tax plan, which cut taxes on America’s wealthiest and in doing so blew a smoking great hole in the federal budget.

But while “National economy as home economy” is a bad idea in that it is demonstrably untrue, it is also a bad idea in a purer sense: it harms those who incorporate it into their narrative framework. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature: its function is to serve the interests of those who spread it at the expense of those who are convinced by it. Its effectiveness stems from its simplicity — that being in debt as a nation is the same as being in debt as an individual or household — which makes it a compelling story, which spreads more easily from person to person than the complex, more difficult to understand, truth. It has what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”.

That’s not new, of course. Bad stories have been used by the powerful to control the powerless for as long as human society has existed. The instinct towards stories like it is a core part of human nature — Pratchett’s narrativium is a fundamental human element. As the social media age progresses, however, we are going to have to grapple with the fact that the nature of the environment in which those narratives spread has drastically changed.

In the biological world, unchecked and uncontrolled cell growth caused by a damaged gene is called a cancer. There is no equivalent word for when a bad idea — a damaged meme — cascades through society, but throughout history this has happened often, to varying degrees of catastrophe. Marxism, the idea of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need” — metastasized into totalitarianism under Stalin. That this was out-evolved on a global scale, eventually, by a collection of oppositionary ideas centered around freedom and democracy — and capitalism — is our fortune as a society.

We’ve been lucky. The narrative arc of the moral universe, to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr., may have been long, but it has bent — admittedly, often slowly — toward justice. That’s not to say that the true or good story always won. But what if the change in our narrative ecosystem has powerful effects? In the age before the internet, lying often carried an opportunity cost, because being caught in a lie was itself a powerfully damaging narrative. Can we still take that for granted?

Politics is fundamentally based around the art and artifice of the crafting and broadcasting of stories. Its practice incentivizes the twisting and harnessing of narrative as a mechanism for taking and holding power, all the way back to whoever first thought of protecting their monarchy from revolution by inventing the idea of the divine right of kings to rule. But some ideological groups have discovered that their ideas are spreading in new ways, and some politicians have discovered that when they are caught in a lie it no longer seems to have the same effect as long as they just pretend not to have been caught. That they can overpower the story of truth with the story of “fake news”.

One of the core narratives that make up the story we call America is “American exceptionalism.” Politicians on the left and right strive to harness this idea. “This is the greatest country on earth” is a common refrain on the campaign-trail. In fact, many, if not most, nations have incorporated some variation of this kind of idea of manifest destiny into their national narrative DNA.

Patriotism is a useful survival-trait for a nation, but if it is allowed to escalate unchecked it becomes xenophobic nationalism — and in the internet’s digital communities ethno-nationalism is on the rise again as ideas spread unchecked and, often, unchallenged, peer-to-peer, from individual to individual.

At the core of Donald Trump’s message during the 2016 campaign, and on through his presidency, was a story. It is related to the manifest destiny narrative, but with the addition of a primal story of nostalgia, too. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” encapsulated this story perfectly, and the campaign was powered by it. The innate feeling that life has not lived up to its promise — an inchoate feeling — was harnessed by the evolving story. It found structure and form in Trump and Trumpism.

At the same time, the story Trump told us all about himself — that he was a self-made man — turned out to be entirely fictional. A bombshell New York Times story from October showed that he actually got his money from his father by a process of gargantuan tax fraud, meaning he effectively stole half a billion dollars from the U.S. treasury. But for the political right, the truth doesn’t fit with the story, so it was rejected from the narrative structure.

Like when a transplant patient’s body rejects the new organ, a group of people in thrall to a particular underlying narrative simply refuse to register facts if they don’t fit the story. This is confirmation bias: you’re inside one of these sectioned off areas — known as filter bubbles — where the stories are cherry-picked to include only those which confirm the preconceived and preconstructed worldview.

This, too, has always been a part of the human experience. But it also has been exacerbated by the internet, especially by social media structures like Facebook, which not only use algorithms to try to show people only content that it thinks they want to see (which greatly strengthens the effect of the filter-bubble and favors controversial posts or ideas, which fuel more engagement) but also visually standardize every story so that an investigation by the New York Times looks the same as a post from a conspiracy nut about chemtrails or the Illuminati putting fluoride in the water.

It is interesting to note that Facebook itself had a deeply flawed underlying story, encapsulated in the company’s original slogan, “move fast and break things.” The seductiveness of the “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” approach made it endemic to tech culture after Facebook’s success, and has led to endless and horrifying real-world repercussions.

Framing a story in terms of biological life is a useful story in and of itself. It helps explain how ideas can seem to spread of their own accord. When an idea grows, it doesn’t matter whether one of the human nodes in the network of minds across which it spreads knows themselves to be lying or believes themselves to be telling the truth. This is itself a story, a metaphor designed to help understand the spread of ideas across a network. And the point is that while it is still composed of individual humans, the structure of that network — of the Body Cultural — has drastically changed.

What that might mean for the future of mankind is uncertain.

Politics, science & the internet. @GuardianUS and @newstatesman alum. not really harry styles' dad. email me: nicholas.j.woolf@googlemail.com

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