The Fish Rots From The Head

The last few weeks have been a profoundly radicalizing experience.

Before the COVID-19 crisis entered into its current phase, it was reasonable to argue that the post-2016 counter-disinformation effort was based on good intentions but had serious flaws and was entering a state of diminishing returns. The Internet and social media, in destabilizing traditional gatekeepers and spreading lies and half-truths, had created a dangerous vacuum that was being filled by malicious actors. You could disagree with the details of the diagnosis and prognosis, and disagree even more with the proposed treatments, but the underlying assumptions themselves at least could be said to have validity. But what a difference a few weeks makes.

The COVID-19 fiasco is revealing, in a very short period of time, that much of these assumptions are totally wrong. And continuing to act on them is not just misguided but harmful. Doing so compounds the costs of the failures that we have witnessed and hampers efforts that – however imperfect – provide alternatives to them. Why?

All commentary during an event is colored by biases and stunted views peculiar to being in the middle of them. Events are moving very fast. Today’s political assumptions are unlikely to hold tomorrow. Choices are not fixed, we are in a period of fluidity and re-alignment. Nonetheless, this post will take the risk of offering comment on aspects of the crisis that have clarified earlier questions and debates that have been ongoing for years. A disruptive exogenous event can often quickly illuminate hidden assumptions and flaws in earlier assumptions, and the radicalizing experience of the COVID-19 terror is just how decisively consensus narratives about epistemic hygiene and the impact of the Internet have been refuted in real time.

It is difficult to express how badly almost all legacy “expert systems” simultaneously underperformed during the initial phases of the crisis. Here is a tiny sample of this failure, a failure whose human consequences grow by the day as a cold, inhuman, and utterly ruthless killer relentlessly searches for new targets.

The Chinese endangered the world by covering up the spread of the virus within the Chinese mainland. Both the United States and China are spreading conspiracy theories that the virus is a bioweapon. President Donald Trump actively hindered testing because he wanted to avoid anything that would impede his re-election effort and continues to actively mislead the public about COVID-19 response. Unfortunately Trump is not the only American politician that prioritized appearances over cruel realities. And it’s hard to know where to begin in describing the response of the United Kingdom to the virus and the way it communicated its plans to the public.

Public health authorities did not exactly cover themselves in glory either. The World Health Organization (WHO) under the leadership of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus prioritized pleasing the Chinese over global disease response. American public health authorities – in a combination of regulatory overreach and inept paternalism – suppressed critical efforts to respond to the virus and misled the public about practical steps they could take to protect themselves from it. And what about the press? The establishment press often downplayed the significance of the virus and the partisan press at Fox News called it a hoax. There are, as the crime reporting cliche goes, “no angels” to be found here.

It is an exaggeration to say that fringe weirdos on social media often were more well-informed than people that exclusively evaluated mainstream sources, but not that much of an exaggeration as most would think. And that is not accidental. As Ben Thompson noted, the global COVID-19 response depended on an enormous amount of information developed and shared often in defiance of traditional media (which underrated and even mocked concern about the crisis) and even the Center for Disease Control (which attempted to suppress the critical Seattle Flu Study). The response still depends primarily on transnational networks and often must operate around rather than through official channels.

Taken together, all of this is astounding in both its scope and simultaneity. And it makes a mockery out of the cottage industry developed over the last few years to preserve our collective epistemic health.

Analysts obsessed for years and years over the threat of Russian bots and trolls and Macedonian teenagers to democratic institutions and public life, arguing that misinformation and propaganda spread via social networks would perturb the very fabric of reality and destroy the trust and cohesion necessary for liberal democracy to survive. This concern was responsive to the surface elements of deeper psychological and cultural changes, but it often was hindered by its emphasis on top-down control of computational platforms that eluded control at subjectively appropriate cost. Nonetheless, reasonable people could disagree about the response to the problem but not the actual implicit diagnosis. The diagnosis being that the unraveling of legacy institutions and their capacity to enforce at least the fiction of consensus over underlying facts and values about democratic authority was dangerous and no effort should be spared to fight it.

But as we have seen, these institutions are perfectly capable of unraveling themselves without much help from Russian bots and trolls and Macedonian teenagers. And if the fish rots from the head, then the counter-disinformation effort becomes actively harmful. It seeks to gentrify information networks that could offer layers of redundancy in the face of failures from legacy institutions. It is reliant on blunt and context-indifferent collections of bureaucratic and mechanical tools to do so. It leaves us with a situation in which complicated computer programs on enormous systems and overworked and overburdened human moderators censor information if it runs afoul of generalized filters but malicious politicians and malfunctioning institutions can circulate misleading or outright false information unimpeded. And as large content platforms are being instrumentalized by these same political and institutional entities to combat “fraud and misinformation,” this basic contradiction will continue to be heightened.

The cardinal sin motivating all of this is worrying about whether we trust institutions without asking if these institutions normatively deserve trust, whether it is possible for trust to emerge in the absence of agreement about underlying causes of social problems, and most importantly how subjective trust in authorities can be achieved without objective action. One particular publication by a psychologist bluntly gave the game away:

[T]he solution isn’t to try to think more carefully about the situation. Most people don’t possess the medical knowledge to know how and when to best address viral epidemics, and as a result, their emotions hold undue sway. Rather, the solution is to trust data-informed expertise. But in today’s world, I worry a firm trust in expertise is lacking, making us too much the victim of fear.

Don’t think carefully. Trust expertise. Sit down and go back to watching television. You’ll only make things worse if you do anything. Many of these op-eds – which now have aged horribly in very short periods of time – emphasized public cognitive deficits in evaluating risk. But a novel virus – in a climate of partial and often distorted information – is not so much a problem of risk as much as it is an issue of uncertainty. Uncertainty nonetheless requires bold action, even if action must occur in conditions where even post-hoc information may not fully reveal all of the relevant decision parameters. And more importantly, responsibility is not equal. The nature of the modern ‘risk society’ is such that the impact of individual actions are swamped by those of large institutions and risk is often systematically passed off to society’s losers.

Thus, Thomas Hobson and Daniel Bristow appropriately observe that in the UK the institutions in question were mostly passive rather than active even as they invoked the rhetoric of collective sacrifice. They asked the public to endure and keep on keeping on, even if it was unclear how or why they ought to do so:

For those who may be less aware of the UK’s early approach, Boris Johnson’s government oscillated wildly, making it difficult to discern a plan as such. What appeared clear though, is that there was strong resistance to the notion of the government actually doing anything. Calm has been praised, handshakes have been discouraged and national resolve has been much-cited. Viewed alongside this invocation of Blitz Britain and wartime stoicism, the complete lack of executive leadership, discussion of providing essential resources, mobilisation of industry and population in the service of a common good, is particularly striking, leaving only a myriad of divergent explanations – none of them reasonable – for the UK executive opting for an approach that has been described as “an outlier”, “cavalier”, “reckless”, “insane”.

Western society fetishizes the appearance of leadership even as actual leaders recede into a malfunctioning technocratic machine that prunes individual agency and leaves behind only a phantom limb sensation of what once was, Hobson and Bristow explain:

Philosopher Stanley Cavell once asked the question: ‘what kind of world is it in which, though recognized to be patriarchal, there are no patriarchs?’ We might ask a similar question of a world seemingly predicated on ‘leadership models’; ostensively structured around a leadership culture (there are a great many books straddling the self-help, business, and sport section overlaps of bookshops, or within the catchall of ‘smart thinking’ that centre and widely diverge on the subject and strategy of ‘leadership’ – the same shelves that house Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, home to behavioural science theory consulted by the government in tackling this coronavirus, and which the Guardian describes as a ‘jolly economic romp’); that is, this conjuncture’s structure is organised around apperceiving itself as led, to the extent that leaders themselves might then drop out of the equation, and a form of human fronting take their place. This is to say that leadership in this conjuncture has become virtual or hauntological; mechanised and bureaucratised to the extent that human agency can become circumvented.

We have gotten very far from the original goal of trying to ensure good information is not drowned out by the bad, because the social status of those circulating the information is a cheap heuristic for validating it. We must not give into fear or panic, because the experts are watching over us. Rumor and prejudice is as bad as the virus itself. But a program of infantalization – trust that the adults know what is right – will provoke equally infantile resistance. In serving as an unwitting adjunct to the enormous circumvention of human agency that Hobson and Bristow allude to, the counter-disinformation effort ultimately reveals its inappropriate underlying motivations and assumptions. Its legacy is a bifurcation between a passive populace that waits for acknowledgment from authorities about what is right to think and say and an conspiratorial subset of the public that defines itself against whatever the “bluechecks” deem right to think and say.

But is there an alternative to this? What can we do? This post will not give a pat answer, but it will once again reference Thompson’s observation about how the Internet fulfilled much of its original promise and other more traditional information management systems underperformed.

The Internet emerged in a climate dominated by fears about the resilience of heavily concentrated command and control in the face of nuclear attack. But its growth was motivated by both utopian dreams of “man-computer symbiosis” and practical economic computer time-sharing considerations. Military concerns meshed with these other motivations into a generalized organizational scheme that now structures so much of our everyday lives. The complicated origins of the Internet and the later World Wide Web defy simplification and reduction, but there was a basic question of how increasingly complex and intensive military and civilian communication requirements could be achieved, and greater distribution and modularity was the answer.

Clearly, it has become far more than that. And not all of the things it has become are good. Techno-utopians dreamed of a world where computer networks are the only intermediating authorities, human bodies and identities vanish into a stream of bits, and increasingly automated markets replace knowledge with information. These dreams are just as delusional as the knee-jerk obeisance to legacy institutions they position themselves against. The COVID-19 crisis does not mean that techno-utopian predictions of frictionless information networks and the end of asymmetric information have been retroactively validated. This is far from the case, and detractors of legacy institutions should not crow too loudly.

What it means is that in the next crisis, reliance on legacy institutions alone to save us is a collective suicide pact. Tradeoffs are inevitable in any complex endeavor, and as Thompson has argued we need to tilt the balance further towards opening up control of information transmission and communication in spite of what we have painfully learned about the false promise that technology will save us from ourselves. This is not about salvation, it is about survival. Reframing the question offers much clarification about possible answers and takes us away from debates that have become stale and uninformative.

We need only look back, as Thompson does, to the origins of the Internet to see that beneath the hyperbole about digital life washing away everything else is a basic concern for survival and resilience under severe strain. And this is the best place to start before we do anything else. In the long run, we must repair or rebuild the legacy systems that failed. Starting over from scratch is simply not an option. “Year Zero” approaches are tremendously destructive and attempts at creating planned societies ex nihilo do not work. But in the short and near term we must create alternatives. These alternatives can over time help us make older systems better. And, quite frankly, building robust alternatives may provide legacy institutions with the incentive to either rise to their obligations or be rendered irrelevant.

Waiting for them to get better on their own or hoping they will change without being prodded is like waiting for the authorities to tell you the right time to stock up on quarantine supplies. Don’t bet your life on it.