See the French translation
Today the world woke up to a vote by the British public to move backwards and leave the European Union. This decision went against strong overwhelming advice from economic experts, against the strongly-worded advice of the UK’s business leaders and the widespread consensus of the mainstream political establishment. It was a decision based on emotion, fed by fear of immigrants and a faceless bureaucracy people could not understand, relentlessly blasted via social media circles.
It was a decision that makes perfect sense in the Age of Stupid.
We are indeed living in the Age of Stupid: a time where dialogue is dead, where fear is the main decision-making motivation and where we seek to confirm our bias with short emotional messages flaring continuously across our closed Internet tribes. Those whose ideas differ from ours are banned from discussions or routinely ganged up on by insult mobs; experts who provide challenging evidence are personally attacked; and trust is found, not in the leaders, scientists and technologies, but rather the activists with story-telling campaigns. With anecdote taken as evidence, there is no longer a search for understanding or knowledge in exchanging ideas – in the Age of Stupid, people search for the right crowd saying the right thing to confirm their righteous beliefs.
A Social Media Chokehold
Social media has made facts optional across many issues where Stupid is on the ascendancy.
- People concerned about the risks of vaccinating their children (a position no credible scientist supports) find each other via Google search tools and share emotional stories of personal tragedies.
- Those who want to feel good about themselves are drawn into circles promoting organic food on the basis of taste, quality and the environment (despite evidence to the contrary and the potential catastrophic consequences on the ability of agriculture to provide food security without modern technology).
- Xenophobes are finding tools to ‘mainstream’ outrageous racist opinions, spread hate and condone (no less, promote) violence.
Our comfortable western lives mean we don’t have to think, our schools don’t have to teach and the consequences of our bad decisions won’t actually affect us.
And our leaders know it (… so they don’t have to lead).
At the same time as the population is struggling to adapt to the new on-line communications tools (and the opportunists who are exploiting them), there is a leadership vacuum. Expedient functionaries lack the courage to make necessary decisions, stranded in a political structure demanding dialogue and consensus but lacking the capacity to deliver it given a population driven by emotional factionalism. In response, the Age of Stupid is producing its own, social-media grown gurus who exploit the confusion and vulnerability to undermine trust in political and economic establishments.
Political extremes ‘liked’ a million times are still extreme
Caricatures like Donald Trump have built a tribe of xenophobes (against Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants … please add an other local scaremongerable scapegoat) who, lacking proper exercise in rational discernment and disgust toward the political institutions, find themselves susceptible to emotional jingoism while united in a perception of a movement of like-minded people. This idealistic return to some hard to specify better past (much like the anti-technologists in the organic industry, chemophobic NGOs and anti-vaxxers), to “Make America Great Again!” plays on the vulnerability and uncertainty prevalent in a large percentage of uneducated, middle-aged white American men. Trump has been able to elevate Stupid from the trailer park liquor store to become a politically awkward force ready to fight for their newly focalised celebrity guru.
Trump has been able to elevate Stupid from the trailer park liquor store to become a politically awkward force ready to fight for their newly focalised celebrity guru.
In countries from Austria to Greece, from the Philippines to France, the mainstream centre is melting and we are witnessing a polarisation of the extremes on the far, xenophobic right and the far left, now occupied by radical ecologists. Social media in the Age of Stupid makes anything that you want to believe suddenly make sense.
After eight years of austerity, economic decline, increased immigration and decline of services, any public is prone to emotional exploitation. Like Goebbels use of the nascent communication media of radio and cinema in 1930s economically depressed Germany, the population has yet to wake up to the exploitative opportunity of the new social media tools. Without a qualified, trusted mainstream media, an unvetted population is getting volumes of unfiltered information delivered to them in direct images from “trusted” sources (friends and tribal gurus), and are themselves propagating these messages to their followers, without any concern for fact-checking or responsible communication practices.
The opportunists’ abuse of social media makes 1933 seem tempered and limited.
Because a Donald Trump or a Rodrigo Duterte make some lunatic declarations on twitter or Facebook, does not mean that it is true, no matter how many millions share or favorite it! Organic agriculture will never be able to feed a growing global population, no matter how many friendly Internet gurus with books to sell or diet plans to hock tell you so. No matter how many times Nigel Farage growls it, Turkey and Syria are not about to join the European Union.
But still the tweets and posts flow in the millions to those who want to hear it.
The anti’s have taken over the asylum
In the Age of Stupid where I have lost trust in the authorities, where I do not have to listen to ideas that differ from what I want to believe, and where social media offers me no-fault alternatives by gurus who seem to care about me, saying “No!” is the norm.
- “No!” to the European Union and their hordes of immigrants
- “No!” to vaccines and medicines sold by an evil Big Pharma
- “No!” to the threat of Mexican drug-dealers and Radical Islam
- “No!” to chemicals, pesticides and GMOs
- “No!” to scientists and experts who say things I cannot understand
People without trust in science, institutions or authorities find comfort in saying “No!” For the expedient politician, this translates into only one tool in the policy arsenal: The Precautionary Principle.
- Unless science can confirm that a medicine is safe, the answer is “No!”.
- Unless you can prove to me that you are not like those other corrupt politicians, the answer is “No!”
- Unless authorities can assure me that a herbicide farmers need won’t give me cancer, the answer is “No!”
- Unless British politicians can convince me that there will be a place for my child in a good school and a job for me not being given to an immigrant, the answer is “No!”
Of course the joke is that I don’t trust these authorities, so the answer will never be “Yes!”, but the process still needs to go on. The contrapreneurs have managed to push precaution to the front of the policy queue so that “No!” is the only possible outcome. With the rise of the activist NGO, Stupid has assumed the right to lead, and policymakers have the burden to comply. The rest (industry, scientists, consumers, the developing world …) don’t matter. Precaution as a tool only works in one direction; towards “No!”.
Social media has created a “club” mentality – until I choose to follow you or like you, you really don’t matter to me. Until you can prove that something is safe, or convince me that it is in my interest, you are not legitimate. Until you say what I want to hear, I am not going to listen to you! This sounds absurd to a rational thinking person, but for those deeply entrenched in the Age of Stupid, it is just so. Just Google the phrase: “Not in my name!”.
The Remain Camp in the UK failed in their referendum because its leaders were not like me (had not earned my trust), were unable to convince me that staying in the EU was in my interest and did not speak to what I had wanted to hear (to reassure me about controlling the hordes). What they needed to do, strangely, was really quite simple: Let me know that I was going to be OK! Boris Johnson, at the front of the Leave Camp had done just that. He might just make a good Prime Minister (… at least a hell of a lot better than the last one!)
The need for affirmation
People are confused by the myriad of information and emotion they face on a daily basis. No longer able to trust their leaders and experts, they feel vulnerable. If I am uncertain, afraid and vulnerable, I do not seek knowledge or truth – I crave affirmation: That I am OK. Is my food OK? Is it OK to vaccinate my baby? Will my job be OK? I go onto Google with the question: Am I, or will I be OK? Depending how I phrase my question, Google will send me to a circle (an Internet tribe) that will tell me what I want to hear (affirmation), reduce my vulnerability, and hence earn my trust.
I trust those who think like me, share my concerns and are like me (not the experts, the rich businessmen, scientists or politicians). Why should I trust my doctor when David Wolfe tells me I don’t need to take medicine? Why should I trust an FDA regulator when the Food Babe tells me all I have to do is eat organic and I will be healthy? Why should I trust David or Jeremy when Nigel tells me that Turkey and Syria will shortly join the EU?
As Ragnar Lofstedt had said more than a decade ago, we are living in a post-trust society. Since then, social media has created trust filters to meet our concerns, affirm our deepest, darkest thoughts and, well, mix a bit of fear in (to make us reach out to trust our tribal gurus even more). This though has led to some interesting consequences.
When I went to this year’s March Against Monsanto, the people there were suffering significant angst and dread – causing them to turn to comforts like cigarettes (and why I offered them free hugs). The anti-GMO, chemophobic tribal gurus have made their followers so afraid and enraged that while they turn to them for trust and affirmation (and donations, subscriptions and on-line purchases!), they are getting more and more stressed and vulnerable. Trump supporters are looking to their leader to deliver on his promises of greatness (… walls, expulsions and some lamentable pogroms). Incoming Prime Minister Boris has promised the UK population (at least the half so vulnerable as to reach out to him) a land flowing with milk and honey … from the billions of available pounds now available to solve all problems.
What will happen when these “Gurus of No!” cannot deliver? They will likely become those institutions that they themselves hated – losing trust and influence to even more radical opportunists. In the Age of Stupid, with the focus on returning to some Golden Age in the past, people rarely look to the future.
I firmly believe that success has come as a surprise (that Stupid has moved faster than the strategists had ever dreamed possible). The organic industry cannot grow near enough produce to meet the market their fear campaigns had so successfully generated (thus creating the obscene moves to colonise Cuban and African agriculture); the Trump campaign was meant to be a reality-TV exercise with somebody eventually voting the Donald off of the island (or firing him); and the British Leave campaign? They hadn’t even planned a celebration event last night.
The future is daunting in the Age of Stupid, where the contrapreneurs’ hopes and dreams are recklessly pinned on returning to the past. Today, the 24th of June, is a day where so many young people (like my daughter and many of my students) received their university diplomas and set out on their professional lives. This generation of graduates has to look over this massive Wall of Stupid to see their futures, realise compromised dreams and rebuild the mess we have created.
It is a sad day for them.
Image source: twitter