Plebocracy bias: Post-truth. Information bubbles. Echo chamber. Confirmation bias. We’ve all heard a lot about these phenomena recently, but they’re not new. Opinion, regardless on whether it’s founded on fact, has always influenced apparently impartial decision makers, often unfairly disadvantaging individuals and organisations. In New definitions of identity and authentication for trust-based ecosystems, we explored some of the challenges presented by traditional reputation systems and how we can apply emerging technology to addressing the issues.
Reputation systems largely fall into two areas: traditional, fact-based systems such as credit checks or histories held with federal authorities, which give limited, but hard to falsify information about an individual, and increasingly, social reputation systems, which are based on opinion. Historically, social reputation has usually been built on some flavour of fact, however there have always been individuals able to manipulate opinion and change received facts. While in the past this was limited to smaller groups, the rise of broad communications and media proliferation has opened up the scope of this influence, leading to larger groups, from states to nations, adopting beliefs. Meanwhile, the public’s relationship with the truth is becoming confused by the proliferation of opinion and obfuscated by learning algorithms.
This influence on public perception is causing shifts in opinion which impact not only individuals and businesses that may be subject to reputational damage, but how political policy and consequently economies progress, with serious implications for trade and for banks. In this article we look more broadly at the psychological background for confirmation bias, the reason it’s impacting more than just those who are already bought in, how this affects global reputation systems, and what we can do about it.
Why is critical thinking so hard?
We’ll start with some basics. We all know that your truth isn’t our truth, and yet we all know that our own truth is right. We don’t notice ourselves not questioning information because it comes from trusted sources, even if experience has told us that those sources sometimes get it wrong. We are so confident in our sources and our opinions that we readily back up our opinions by quoting those sources as authoritative. We know that our information is based on sound research, facts and statistics, even if we haven’t seen that research. You know that your information is based on hard evidence and direct experience, even if it’s not your experience. And yet our views are completely different; we can’t all be right.
People aren’t designed to know what’s happening on the other side of the world. They’re not designed to live in hundred-million person societies and work as a nation; rather, they’re wired to bypass rationale when they’re told something by someone they trust, based on the assumption that the someone has earned that trust. That’s part of the problem.
Man is a pack animal. We’re psychologically programmed to work in small units characterised by the hunter-gatherer unit of 5 to 50 people, which we’ve existed in for most of our biological history. This unit doesn’t preclude learning, but it relies heavily on received wisdom, where the older, more experienced animal passes on learning to the young. People are programmed to believe what their authority figures tell them, because it makes sound sense for survival. Don’t eat that red thing. If you see that big brown thing, run. Don’t walk on that. We’re designed to understand, remember and believe these instructions without context and without explanation, because questioning leads to low survival rates. It makes sense both from a survival perspective and from an efficiency perspective; if we debated absolutely everything we’d never get through all the information about the world that’s out there.
Pack animals live in a world where there’s scarce food and competition with other packs for the same resources. Our norms, passed down to us by our tribal elders, also help us to identify who’s “in” and who’s “out” of the pack. Keeping our pack cohesive also means enforcing the norms we learn; another pack may look and smell like us, but we can tell they’re foreign and therefore the enemy, because they hold different beliefs or speak differently from us. Questioning the origins of these norms and beliefs would be counterproductive, because it may leave us more open to accepting the other tribe’s world view, which is expensive from an evolutionary perspective. Keeping the pack together guarantees its survival.
So rather than learning to build our own mental view of the world, which would be cumbersome and senselessly resource intensive, we learn to identify who to trust, and take instructions from them. But society has developed, grown and morphed beyond recognition, so your authority figures aren’t your tribal leader and Shaman any more; they’re people who you have been told are, or who you identify as, authority figures, many of whom don’t know who you are and whom you will never meet. This is highly unusual in human evolutionary history.
How do we identify authority figures?
Our early authority figures are both traditional from an evolutionary perspective and relatively safe: your parents have your best interests at heart and will usually give you positive guidance, which may be full of mystery but of course you trust them completely. Other authority figures in early years are the adults around you and older siblings; again, usually responsible people who have your best interests at heart, sharing values and guidance in much the same way that human tribes have since their early evolution. But as society has developed, things have become more complicated.
The first characteristics of early society formation, regardless of geographical origin, are the maturing of codified faith and of government. These are both human constructs which emerge on the one hand to explain the world and define behavioural norms, and on the other to organise it and define social norms. Government leads to administration, which leads in turn to education, while faith leads to organised religion and facilitated rituals, which requires faith leaders. So, with origins in tribal wise women and Shamans, teachers and faith leaders emerge as society became more organised, and these are the second tier of authority figures most people encounter face to face. Officially appointed teachers and faith leaders are usually doing things in your best interest, although with an unpublished agenda controlled by their organisation. As a pack animal seeking instructions for good behaviour, man is ideally programmed to subscribe to both so this works pretty well, with societal norms being more or less consistently communicated.
We learn from our parents, teachers and faith leaders what is acceptable and “normal”, based on the rules that they are given by our societal constructs. These norms become hard-coded as we develop and are some of the hardest beliefs for us to change, because of the early and repeated exposure we have to them. It’s always been important to social animals to conform to the behaviours of their tribe and as an intensely social animal, people do this extremely well. And on the whole, that’s ok, although it does lead to societies with widely differing world outlooks emerging, whether from village to village or now, from country to country.
As societies scale, they become more complex and governments and faiths evolve, forming sub-tribes with alternate views even within societies, of what the “correct” form is, which again leads to divisions. Because these are based on pretty hard-coded beliefs which form part of our world views, we defend them strongly as part of how we define the world and, by extension, ourselves. Our tribal instinct kicks in when we meet people with opposing views, reverting to our primal “kill or be killed” instincts where anyone who isn’t part of our tribe is, by definition, a threat to be eliminated.
Complex societies with government, of course, then build two other subsets designed to control behaviour which are not so positive: military and communications media. Typically, early versions of both are directly controlled by central government (or in some cases by organised religion) although as society matures, communications media usually devolves quickly to civil control, following a short struggle by central authorities to retain control. Armies tend to be more closely controlled by central authorities, largely because of the threat they pose to the central authorities when not closely controlled. However of these two groups, it’s easy to see that in democratic societies, communications media has more direct impact on people by impacting their belief systems through building versions of the truth which are approved by central authorities, so even where communications media is not owned or directly controlled by central authorities, they usually impose standards on communications agencies to ensure the output is controlled in some way.
This control is generally viewed as a negative thing both by the communications agencies and populations, who rightly believe that a tightly controlled media will filter information that they otherwise want to see. So control of communications agencies tends to be more relaxed in countries that value democracy and participate in free elections, which recently started to include the majority of countries in the world by a narrow margin. Even in democracies, however, politicians have always been aware of, and frightened by, the power of communications media. They represent key authority figures to anyone with access to media sources – perhaps that’s why the BBC is known popularly as “Auntie” and are usually introduced well before exposure to other authority figures, so have a disproportionately high level of influence on how we think.
This then also explains how we self-select our authority figures from media and politics – largely passed down to us well before we have the opportunity to apply personal judgement to our choices. Consequently, we generally choose not just the politics and religion, but the news sources used by our parents, which in turn were passed on from their parents. Bubble, anyone? We may select to review some other sources as we age, but are most likely to remain loyal to the newspaper (or, nowadays, news channel) we saw across the kitchen table at breakfast, and to choose other sources that reinforce or to some extent echo the agenda it laid out.
What does this mean for our modern reputation systems?
The proliferation of information disseminated by news sources causes some challenges to our 50-person society brains:
As we said above, people aren’t designed to know what’s going on in the next village, let alone the other side of the world: it’s a question of context. We all view events that are happening globally through a filter of our own experience, our own values, and our own beliefs about what should be normal. When we see information about events that are happening elsewhere we have a choice to empathise/relate by mentally putting ourselves in that situation, or to regard the activity as “other” – belonging to a different tribe with different values. In many ways, the more we see about other societies, the less likely we are to relate or empathise, in stark contrast to how our ancestors would experience other cultures, which would be either by visiting different places, where a more full experience is more likely to result in some empathy, or by meeting individuals from other places on “home turf”, where they’re again humanised.
We’re more likely to see people as “of” rather than “other” if we can see something in them that we already have – the obvious ones being if they look like us or speak the same language. But even if we have this connection and empathy, we’re likely to misjudge by plastering our own world view on top of other cultures. This can result in some really odd things happening; firstly, a very skewed view of what happens in other cultures, because we only see reports of unusual events (that’s the very nature of news) and that is our only experience of those cultures. Second, forming ill-informed and often culturally inappropriate assumptions about other cultures, as we apply our own values. Thirdly, we dehumanise people in cultures where we can’t or don’t want to understand the context, which by extrapolation we sometimes start to apply to other cultures which would otherwise be closer to us, and lastly we apply the same emotional responses to things that are real and things that are made up – we don’t just mean “fake news”; we can also have very real responses to situations and societies that exist only in a film or a book. Consider the response when “War of the Worlds” was first broadcast.
In summary, not only does global media reach cause us to dehumanise other people, we can actually develop more empathy for fictional characters than for real people and lose our ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
Since we’re now bombarded with information from many more sources than we’re designed to experience (i.e. our immediate tribe members and environment). We are all every day receiving so many conflicting messages and influences that we can’t actually process it. As is often quoted, an average person in the 17th century would have access to as much information in their lifetime as is contained in a day’s edition of the New York Times. We simply can’t process that much information effectively, which leads to us taking even more shortcuts than we are programmed to take. This means we find it harder and harder to apply any kind of critical thinking to information that’s reaching us; bear in mind that we’re hardwired to believe what authority figures tell us, without asking questions. So any authority figure (press in this case) is likely to be believed without question – as long as it’s one of your selected authority figures, obviously!
While you may choose media for a number of reasons, and usually select ones which agree with elements of your world view, the media (fictional or factual) may be driven by a set of values aiming to find additional buy-in among populations for a number of reasons – and they’re not going to tell you what those reasons are. The more remote the source of information, the less likely you are to understand the underlying cultural values or to recognise the agenda driving the content. News sources don’t declare their methods and generally assume a local audience with certain cultural values, and they’re under pressure to keep wordcount down so usually give a very stripped-down message with no available background. So you may find yourself consuming content that’s completely divorced from its context which again, makes it harder to separate truth from fiction.
That was disturbing when new sources were all push – being controlled by boards and investors with a particular agenda, as they overwhelmingly are. However with the rise of the internet and in particular social media, we’ve seen further rapid evolution of how opinions are formed, consumed and internalised by people.
The rise of plebocratic reputation systems
Now the proliferation of global media sources has exploded, and opinion formers are as likely to be individuals as news and media outlets. Microcommunities of opinion formers can give rise to global beliefs with no particular evidence or rationale, other than some citations supporting their assertions which may be completely false – “fake news”. This gives us a whole new dimension to dissemination and filtering of information, with impacts unique to the connected information age:
Popular conspiracy theories, rumours and falsehoods
While there have always been conspiracy theories, these have in the past been relatively isolated to particular special interest communities or political/religious groups; only since the arrival of the information revolution have we seen a new phenomenon, where information with no valid source or attribution is shared so much that it gains traction and validation, often being picked up as valid by genuine news agencies.
Why is this? Surely news agencies should be able to root out fake news? The information age presents two challenges to this: one is, that the news gains validation by the critical mass of (often quite sane, intelligent people) crediting it, . The other problem is that it’s subject to the same attention-span problem we described above, and with news agencies under increased pressure to reduce staffing and increase output, corners are cut; a story which appears to have backing from respectable sources and which confirms the news organisation’s values can appear to be genuine, is reported by the genuine news agency and then of course, gains even more credibility because of this.
Non-news becoming news
Just as we empathise more with fictional characters than real people in terrible situations outside of our experience, people have always responded more to human interest stories where they can directly relate. The corollary of this is the phenomenon we’ve seen of “vloggers” attracting huge audiences just because of their ordinariness. See also, cat videos, motivational memes, out-of-context quotes from dead actors, etc etc. Your newsfeeds and, as above, your news outlets, are now flooded with non-news which also has an impact on your values and sympathies, and creates new authority figures for you who, unlike a news outlet, are creating content primarily because they’re bored, vain or in it for the money, with no regulation or need to tell the truth.
Spread of fundamentalism and other cranky belief systems
OK, give anywhere the right conditions and a committed enough religious goofball, and they’ll develop a cult. But for those cults to become truly widespread takes the internet and a whole load of people who can’t apply critical judgement to what they read, or more accurately, don’t want to. Fundamentalist Christian America and ISIS are both examples of extremist communities that have been able to spread and consolidate influence thanks to firstly, communication between like-minded communities and secondly, the ability to recruit undecided or just bored/uncritical individuals using the same methods used to spread conspiracy theories.
Misquoting, misappropriation and misinterpretation
With information cut to short soundbites and the massive volume of information available, traditional editorial standards have eroded in mainstream press and never arisen at all in popular internet celebrities, who feel free to quote sources at random, use any random picture that looks as though it backs up their point, and misquote/misinterpret quotes they’re publishing. Twitter has dragged us to new lows and rapid-fire behaviour, such as that illustrated by Sean Spicer retweeting a satirical tweet about himself with approval, opens up opportunities for ridicule.
Exposure to the internet now means exposure to everyone’s opinion, and recent studies have shown those people aren’t actually sad loners living in their parents’ basements, but really ordinary people who feel free to share their less pleasant opinions online. Many of these opinions are divisive, tribal and instinctual, driven by disappointment, hate or depression, often combined with alcohol.
Once written, they’re visible for everyone to see, and draw in even balanced people to argue, push back and create partisan divisions, reinforcing further the beliefs of the trolls. We’ve seen an explosion of this as America, starkly divided along (mostly) political lines, screams at each other over the internet every time Trump does something, but it’s been around for a while. The obvious negative impact of this is a lot of upset people, but it also leads to reinforcement of the barriers between camps, and growth of the links between like-minded people, trolls or otherwise.
Removal of filters and barriers
There’s traditionally been a curtain between public figures and the rest of the world. Their opinions, speeches and lives are only visible as dictated by themselves, their publicity machine and their speechwriters. Obviously there have been paparazzi for some time now, and this has also exploded, but what we hadn’t had before Twitter, was their unfiltered voices. Of course, many still use third parties to curate their accounts, but we can now get direct insights from sources as diverse as Stephen Fry, Stephen Hawking, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Degeneres and, oh yeah, Donald Trump. Of course you can see this as a good thing or a bad thing, but it changes the relationship between authority figures and populations into appearing to be much more direct and intimate, and potentially having greater influence as a result.
All of this leads to significant confusion between what’s real, what’s validated and what’s fake. If trusted news sources are picking up fake news and reporting it as true, even a few glitches will undermine people’s trust in their sources and lead them further towards sources that reinforce their own confirmation bias. News sources of all flavours are now saturated with advertising that leads to click-bait of all types, so you can find yourself led from a well researched, validated source to fake news in a couple of clicks; advertising algorithms track your choice and present you with more of the same. Hence the creation of bubbles.
Worse, though, is the impact we see on political, and then media rhetoric, caused by these bubbles. While it doesn’t uniquely apply to politics, politicians in elected democracies are in a fundamentally unstable position; they can’t get anything done unless people vote for them. So they tend to prioritise getting votes over other qualities such as honesty or doing things they believe in, and it’s hard to see how they could behave otherwise. Getting votes means supporting policies which people will vote for, which may mean supporting policies they may not personally believe in, for the sake of votes. While this seems dishonest, it’s easy to justify in that a politician can’t do anything good at all if they don’t get elected. But we won’t go down that route. Of course, in some cases, hopefully many, politicians’ beliefs match their policies, but it’s not necessary or universal. You can apply a similar narrative to popular media figures, who also rely on ratings for their continued career success.
Now look at this through the lens of popular culture. If politicians or pundits believe they’ll be supported for policies and views which are getting a loud airing on social media, as their researchers tell them they will, that means that all of the bias we’ve just described is directly influencing policy formation. As we’ve seen, social media is used both to source and to influence opinion by political parties and news outlets. We’ve seen some dramatic reversals of policy in politicians, media sources and political parties, partly fuelled by politicians influencing media and social media to grow support, but also by fringe or semi-fringe elements tapping into the zeitgeist and getting enormous support because they understand how to tap into people’s tribal instincts and fear of outsiders. It’s happening all over the world, with outcomes of recent elections in both the UK and US reflecting social media sentiment more closely than predictions based on traditional research.
So if politicians change their policies and newspapers change their politics, what does that mean for the rest of us? Clearly, it means the rules will change – at the moment towards protectionism and anti-globalisation, with as yet unknown consequences for banks and the economy as a whole. De-regulation under Trump could be a very good thing for the banks, at least in the short term, but not such a great thing for consumers, while what’s going to happen after Brexit is anyone’s guess. Uncertainty, as we know, is bad for the economy (although good for the price of gold, or is that bitcoin these days?). However the effect on people’s beliefs and values is even more profound.
People are remarkably adaptable; that’s one of their key success factors. We all share a weird combination of optimism bias (the belief that things will go right, despite all evidence to the contrary), paranoia (the belief that everyone else has a hidden agenda to undermine us, however uninteresting we are) and confirmation bias, which allows us to change our beliefs given the right circumstances. It means that, just like politicians, we’re all prepared to overturn our beliefs if there’s enough pressure to do so. Not evidence – in most cases, a well-reasoned argument is no match for strongly held belief – but, as we see authority figures starting to use different rhetoric, however much we may disagree with it, a primal instinct tells us to believe. What starts as a nagging doubt (paranoia) in our dearly held belief, can grow to acceptance of an alternate viewpoint as valid (optimism bias), and eventually, to our sharing that viewpoint (confirmation bias). As we said at the top, argument doesn’t change people’s views, but authority figures can, usually slowly but surely. The other thing that changes people’s views is personal experience, and with social media it’s becoming easier to conflate someone else’s personal experience, whether told through Twitter or viral memes, with our own, thanks to the same inbuilt survival instincts.
To an extent, this is how societal beliefs and norms have always evolved; free thinkers disagree with received wisdom, some people get angry about it, more people start to notice and then the politicians and media sit up and do something. This is normal and usually benefits society, although feelings, egos and occasionally people get hurt on the way; but what’s different is that nowadays, those free thinkers aren’t necessarily tackling real social ills. Thinking about historical populist reversals of policy, for everything from slavery to disenfranchisement to civil rights, opposition movements had access to and reasonably clear understanding of, the facts of what they were trying to overturn. Laws were explained, often by written media such as pamphlets or newspapers, or by people who had a good understanding of them, to other influencers.
What’s different now, is that it’s so hard to separate fact from assertion, that many people are wilfully allowing themselves to be led into false correlations. The bewilderment in Sweden over Donald Trump’s extraordinary statement about immigrant trouble in Sweden is a great example – Sweden has lots of immigrants, and reported rapes have increased at the same time. That makes it easy to draw the entirely wrong conclusion. In this case, the reporting of rapes has increased because the Swedish tightened up their definition of rape (which now includes what some, including Donald Trump, may describe as “grabbing”) and therefore more are reported. In fact, statistics show that immigrants tend to commit fewer crimes, so crime statistics are more likely to decrease with higher immigration. Of course, that wasn’t reported on Fox News, leading to Trump’s erroneous belief. Which is now firmly shared by a huge number of his supporters, in the teeth of any evidence to the contrary beyond a deliberately misleading media report.
And that is leading to people voting against their own best interests, because they’re voting for something which they are told is in their interests, but will ultimately undermine their own position – such as rural Republicans opposing the ACA because it’s “Socialist”, without considering that the change will impact them directly, or UK pensioners living in Spain voting for Brexit. In most cases the rhetoric is about “taking back control” from some group that’s perceived as a threat (that’s the paranoia hard at work, a lazy but effective alternative for facts. The facts, of course, are that we’re not going to get back control; we never were in control and whoever we vote for, that’s not going to change. But it makes a good soundbite.
So what can we do about it?
The solution is both personal and systemic. Personal change may seem hopeless in the onslaught of mass information and apparently endless confusion, but it should be possible for every one of us who is a leader (which is nearly all of us in one capacity or another) to role model behaviours where we question our own long-held beliefs, and to demonstrate that this is a strength. We’re always coming across things we long believed to be true, and then found out weren’t – small things like why you shouldn’t put cooked food on the compost heap or whether glass is a liquid (ok, not so small if you’re a physicist but relatively unimportant to a Fintech CEO). It’s important to be able to apply the same process of critical thinking to the big things too; see new evidence, don’t dismiss it out of hand because it doesn’t fit your beliefs, evaluate it and, if appropriate, adapt your belief system. But the critical thing here is to evaluate it rationally and scientifically, weighing available evidence, rather than just taking an authority figure’s word for it.
In addition, we need to put ourselves in check when we find ourselves telling stories to back up our gut feelings. People are very, very good at this and clever people are even better; that’s why it can be really dangerous to believe someone just because they’re clever, and why it’s really important to question yourself more if you are! Daniel Kahneman in his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the mechanisms behind this, but to summarise, your gut feel about something, which is strongly influenced by your belief systems, tells your brain what to think, and your brain then goes and cherry-picks information to support the position you’ve chosen to hold. This is confirmation bias in action. Questioning your stories, as well as your beliefs, is a key element of critical thinking.
On a systemic level, as we’ve said elsewhere, we now have the opportunity to implement reputation systems that are agnostic of opinion and solely based on facts. Technology is available to implement contextualised trust systems for organisations, individuals, governments, you name it. Blockchain and machine learning give us a powerful opportunity to build a future where we can trust reputation systems; that doesn’t invalidate opinion systems, but let’s learn to separate true reputation from opinion; keep your opinions and beliefs to support your identity, but when it comes to evaluating an argument, have access to a source where you know you can find the truth.
Through the role modelling of critical thinking and making it easy to distinguish reputation systems based on fact rather than opinion, we can start to turn the tide away from this apparently inevitable rush towards plebocracy and the serious consequences it could have for our economy, our environment and our society.
We’re pack animals struggling to make sense of the society we created, with a combination of unprecedented access to information and primal mechanisms for analysing it. Although tools are available to filter and interpret information, we’re hard-wired to believe things, for very sound evolutionary reasons, that may not be founded on fact. The rise of modern platform reputation systems, largely unregulated and with limited curation, has allowed belief systems based on limited or misleading information to take root across the globe.
Addressing this isn’t straightforward – it will need both personal commitment and provision of reputation systems based on fact. At hiveonline Sofie is leading the charge to address the latter; it will take all of us to address the first. That’s a personal choice, and may be one people choose not to take, but we hope this article has helped raise a few questions.