As one city after another erupts into “Community Protest” (leaderless revolutions conducted via social media tools), authorities are beginning to show their frustration. From Hong Kong to Beirut, from yellow vests to climate alarmist death cults, the diversity of dissent is, if anything, dystopian.
Some on the streets are demonstrating for more democracy, others against the will of the people. Some are getting media attention demanding more action on climate change while elsewhere the people are rising up against the removal of fuel subsidies and green policies. Then there are groups like the yellow vests that have morphed into “empty vessels of ennui”.
These upheavals are not merely down to a tax on WhatsApp users or an increase in public transport fares… but any rationalisation for the underlying causes of these flash-points cannot justify the hundreds of deaths. While these cauldrons are boiling over with different soups in this new normal of managed outrage, united it seems only in how the technology has changed the protest game, we need to ask what is actually causing this seemingly uncoordinated chaos to continually fester?
There are a wide range of factors that could be at play depending on the protests. To name a few: a technology that enables rapid mobilisation of activists; ten years of economic decline and inequity within populations; a culture raised to ‘fear missing out’; polarising political extremists; social media tribal silos promoting ignorance, impatience and intolerance; a rising sense of undelivered expectation and entitlement; and an increasing rejection of the legitimacy of key institutions.
In a bigger picture, an important element in any systemic breakdown is the erosion of trust. All of the factors at play have influenced our trust relationships. Moreover, many activists have learnt how to effectively undermine trust to get what they want. Our institutions will never be able to satisfy the morphing demands of the distrusting. This is the fruit of the professional Antis.
There are now experts in socially-driven protest and organised resistance like Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam (we used to call them die-hard Marxists) who are planning to overthrow the state, capitalism and the world order for (please fill in desired ideology here). Before they needed committed boots on the ground; now a twitter account will do. Before they needed an ideology, manifesto and clear solutions; now a fear campaign will do. Before they needed organisations and charismatic leaders; now a slogan and three bullet points will do. It seems outrage can be summoned and collectivised on short notice and “be like water”: fast and fluid.
The people on the streets are rarely marching in favour of something, but more against what they cannot accept (a result of fear-driven campaigns). Each campaign needs to get more extreme in its fear-mongering (social media seems to have desensitised young people to any garden-variety fears). Before we were concerned with negative environmental impacts; now we won’t get out of our chairs unless we face massive, imminent extinction of all humanity. Before we had concerns about pollution; now we need to be told we are facing the total collapse of our ecosystems. So says the United Nations (…apparently). I believe there is a certain fear resilience occurring, and with each campaign the activists need to push the alarm bells up a notch to register a reaction.
Strategically, as fear resilience hardens, their solutions are simpler (to save humanity from extinction, stop eating meat). I wonder how long before these click-hardened revolutionaries will turn on their own achievements (I had to smile when the anti-fuel-tax yellow vest protesters joined the anti-car Extinction Rebellion campaigns in France).
These professional Antis are able to fill the streets due to a fundamental institution trust deficit … one they masterfully stoked.
While there are regional political variations, I don’t think we have ever seen a point in history where trust levels are so low, public authority credibility stocks so depleted and institutions so distrusted. I have written a few articles on trust as well as a three-part series. It might be interesting to take some of these talking points and build them into the context of our present “world gone mad” situation.
The Value of Trust
Trust is as essential to life as the air we breathe. It lies behind every decision we make, every bite of food and every step we take and yet it is rarely studied. It is an emotional concept that we all seem to just know. We would never take a risk with someone or something we didn’t trust. Trust is essential for people or societies to function.
In the world of risk, as issues like food safety, energy and pharmaceutical products explode, we see an erosion of trust in the experts, the authorities and the science. What is behind this crisis of trust and can it be fixed?
This did not just happen but is, I believe, a result of the evolution of the key factors that define trust.
Worth – Authority – Communications
Trust is influenced by three key elements: authority, worth and our means (tools) to interact. As these elements evolve, so too does our object of and capacity to trust.
Trust is the outcome of an evaluation process where we identify an extrinsic or intrinsic worth in an object of focus. We then submit to this object (trust is essentially a submission) – a decision of a vulnerable person at a time of need. This object becomes an authority (we place our trust in someone or something that has a worth). We can trust a person with whom we have a relationship, a food we choose to eat or a material object we work with. This relationship fails when we are unwilling to submit (we no longer believe in the worth of a person, buy a product or dare take a step).
The tools that define these relationships are the communication tools that control how we interact with the authority, how we gather information and how we evaluate. As these tools have evolved, so too has our capacity to trust or, in the present context, fail to trust.
Some history of the evolution of these tools may help clear this up.
Evolutions of Trust
What follows is a light narrative (generalisation) of how trust evolved with the shifts in our communications tools and authorities. As the communications tools become more individually driven, so too are the authorities. This narrative is intended to open some thinking to how the present leaderless protests have erupted. In my view, they are a natural outcome of the evolution of trust.
In God we Trust
When communications tools were not sophisticated (in a Christian context, when most people were illiterate and there was only one book, the Bible), the Church was the authority in which people trusted. Our worth (our dignity) was identified in how we reflected the image and likeness of our creator. The Divine Plan was designed. The main institution, the Church, kept a control on the messages and the narrative was built around followship and dependence. Submission to the authority (trust) was enforced.
The Print Revolution
When Gutenberg invented movable type (ostensibly to print more Bibles), this new communications tool played an enormous role in interrupting established trust relationships. The Catholic Church was challenged not just by Protestant reformers, but by rulers, writers and heretics. The worth of a person was identified in direct relation to a God, king or idea – an authority, an individual or an object of trust was submitted to.
As literacy rose and books and pamphlets proliferated, so too did revolutions and reforms. By the 1700s, individuals could claim to have rights and freedoms and trust needed to be earned. As “Enlightened” man submitted to reason and discovery, a more “Romantic” man opined for a humanity grounded in values and tradition.
The beginning of the 20th century introduced communications technology tools that brought people together: the telephone, cinema and radio. The capacity to send messages to mass audiences created communities where narratives were shared widely around values and political messages. The worth was identified in the tribe (often nationalistic communities).
The means to exploit individuals via messages propagated for political purposes (around cults and conflicts) created challenges for trust relationships as populations adjusted to these nascent communication tools. Opportunists like Goebbels, Wells and Roosevelt used these tools to influence (manipulate) the perceptions of large populations. Local communities and language dialects melted into the mass.
After World War II, television brought the world into people’s homes as post-war economic expansion led to a consumer boom. Trust had evolved from trust in a deity, to king, to leader to finally, trust in a celebrity and the product he or she was endorsing. As corporate sponsors promoted products as an identification of worth, the trust decisions became more material and more frequent as individuals were marketed to.
As the authority moved “down to earth” with this communications revolution, a new focal point for the trust relationship was created: the home. New products and technologies demanded shorter chain trust relationships where submission became purchasing power. As science filled our narrative with innovations, discoveries and improvements in the quality of our lives, it became the new religion (the authority upon which our trust was grounded). But as man progressed, the Romantics re-emerged in the form of the environmentalist, questioning science, progress and humanity’s submission to the market.
The Internet Revolution
If communication technology revolutions determine how our relationships with authority evolve, then there has never been such a massive shift as the communications revolution we are presently going through: the digitalisation of knowledge. We should not be surprised then that the disruption in trust relationships has been so severe as it has been over the last two decades as the age of the Internet evolved into the age of online social communities.
The authority now is no longer the deity, ruler, leader, celebrity, corporation or scientist, it is the algorithm (read Yuvel Noah Harari). The algorithms sort us into online communities of like-minded individuals based on the data of our search history. We trust those like us and as these algorithms are refined, our tribal relationships define who we are – we submit to our tribe. Our faith in our peers has led to what I have called “blockchain trust“.
This of course breeds conflict as communities are coalescing around gurus – tribal leaders who have been adept at exploiting commonly shared fears while promoting aspirations. As knowledge becomes more accessible, it has become more targeted and localised. Echo-chambers are more easily formed as walls or silos are built to protect our comfort zones and confirm our bias. The focal point of our trust relationship has become even more personalised as it has moved out of our home and into our pocket.
Trust has been weaponised by an ad hominem distrust of others in what can only be considered as cult-like behaviour where interaction on the Internet has become hostile and intolerant with claims and fears getting to the point of absurdity and paranoia. Rage is reinforced in closed communities seeking certainty and virtue, signalled readily among the vulnerable tribal members.
Trust in anything or anyone outside of the social media tribe is gone. As walls are reinforced, distrust grows upon isolated cult-driven logics.
Bring on the Environmental Death Cults
Things seem to have recently gone absurd within certain social media communities and tribes. Climate death cults are declaring the extinction of humanity in ten years or a total biodiversity/ecosystem collapse. In less than a year they have built up an army of weeping teens and forlorn grandparents willing to be arrested for the “Purpose”. Chemophobes are predicting mass sterility, 50% autism rates and a cancer catastrophe. Right-wing neo-Nazi groups, seeing waves of immigrants swarming over their borders, feel reassured enough to take off their hoods. Left-wing social justice warriors are campaigning to disempower everyone who is not like them. As we have become the deities in our tribes (hordes of unleashed gurus running around with “purpose”) nobody feels they have to listen to or tolerate anyone else. The media has become me and I have become the media.
Before we had problems for which we could find solutions (if the well had been poisoned, clean it up); now in a world beyond trust, we run from our problems and campaign to stop everything feared to be at the source (don’t drink any water). Blind faith in the precautionary principle; no trust in man’s capacity to solve problems.
So what has caused this breakdown of trust today leading to all of the entrenched risk issues lingering into lunacy? Have the communication revolutions led to a minimising of authority (from a dominant deity to a tribe of my peers)? Has the narrowing of worth resulted in a diminishing of respect (from the image of our creator, to a dignity of humanity to a closed group of like-minded individuals)? Has trust become commoditised by the focus on consumerism and technology (rather than trust in deities, leaders and humanity as a whole)? All of these seem to be factors but there is a wider question to ask.
Is it a question of whether this extreme evolution in trust is a mere swing of the pendulum? As societies move to political extremes and protests, now leaderless, become both massive and intransigent, it should be asked whether, like the era of mass communications in the 1930s where the extremes of fascism and communism polarised vulnerable populations, this communications revolution will need a certain social adaptation phase before institutions can once again stabilise.
Like the post-war realisation of how emerging tools like the cinema and radio could have been so exploited, could we imagine that soon people will realise that not everything on the Internet or among one’s tribe is true or should be trusted? That maybe the gurus and tribal instigators are manipulating peers for personal gain or opportunity? Given that the extremity and absurdity of the claims seems to be at its zenith, we could expect (hope for) a certain rationality to return.
Fear Resilience and the Pendulum of Reason
I noted earlier how social media alarmism has a volume issue. With over-exposure, people habituate or banalise the fears and are desensitised to the risks a campaign tries to escalate. So the activists need to turn the alarm bells louder, go more extreme and raise the “fearometer”. But how loud can they go before we go deaf?
In order to get people to move on climate, the nuclear option needed to be used (no, not to adopt a rational energy policy, come now!). They had to project a narrative of the extinction of humanity (in a decade). On biodiversity, they have had to peddle the risk of complete ecosystem collapse. Glyphosate is now basically responsible for every ill to have come to man and the environment. But as the absurdity of the campaigns are increasingly realised, the fears should implode, lose their shock value or become ridiculed.
Endocrine disruption campaign threats of the mass sterilisation of humanity did not materialise and today, such hyperbolic warnings have become banalised. Whatever happened to dioxins (the most dangerous substance known … to guinea pigs)? When the activists go too far, Chicken Little becomes vol au vent.
At some point the fear-hungry media realises such threats aren’t worth the click-bait they’re printed on. Their own credibility (trust) gets threatened. I argued once that Greenpeace did not join in on the nanotech fear campaign in the early 2000s because the risk of a negative reaction (portraying the NGO as a band of anti-science cranks) would have threatened the viability of their anti-GM campaigns.
With Extinction Rebellion, after a week of disruption in London in October, I believe Canning Town was the turning point. People no longer were frightened about the mass extinction of humanity and ecological collapse – they just needed to get to work. The public became resilient to the fear campaigns of a loud but very small minority so when two XR hippies lodged a protest on top of a train in the London Canning Town Underground station, well, the “citizens” did indeed rebel. The alarmism of this climate death cult had worn off and the outrage turned on the activists.
So how will reason return to these environmental debates? As activists need to push alarmist campaigns to the absurd extremes to overcome fear resilience, the illogic will, at some point, cause the campaigns to implode. These small activist tribes will lose trust (hopefully before too many bodies start piling up). It may be that fear resilience will allow the pendulum of reason to swing back to a more rational discourse although I suspect the trust in authorities may take much longer to restore (trust is gained by the inch but lost by the foot).
I believe we are soon coming to that point of fear resilience where the activists behind the assault on public trust are running out of credible bullets. That is indeed my hope and my prayer and I submit this to my tribe.
5 Comments Add yours
David, I’ve been reading your work for some four or five years now, it seems, and I think this is hands-down one of the most important essays you’ve ever shared. Hits home on so many levels. Thanks.
David, I have been reading your work for what seems like four or five years now, and I feel that this piece is hands-down one of the most important and far-reaching essays you have ever shared. It hits home on so many levels. Thanks.
Thanks Scotty. I had to cut it short leaving my parts on fear resilience and the fearometer for a further blog. Too much going on …
I look forward to it. In the meantime, you might find this most recent conversation between Dr. Glenn Loury and Dr. John McWhorter of great interest. It was just posted only yesterday, and the parallels between some of their overarching themes and what you are writing about here are pretty remarkable I’d say. https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/57818
It’s an interesting article but the author, like all of us, is blind to his own value judgements. He mentions science as a religion and notes the change from one-to-many to many-to-many – or as it actually turns out, many-to-some – communication structures as the big unbalancing act Clearly there was a demand for such rebalancing or Twitter would be a flop.
In my own irrational anti-science crusade, what I think is that amateur doctors should not be given prescribing powers for patients they will never examine or meet, or correct a non-existent deficiency never measured, whilst diminishing their pharmaceutical role under the Asch-experiment-like groupthink impression that water has teeth. Which turns out to have been central in the one-to-many product description.
Worse yet I think average people are not all the same but that averaging is a mathematical tool whose limitations do not include its limitations not being understood by the irrational masses.
However we seem to agree that they are a bit thick somehow and I wonder if broad-spectrum intereference in their biochemistry at the biome level by other idiots is really one of the scare stories the author seems biased against.
Simply generalising about protests on a variety of different issues seems quite dangerous, and much more favourable to the usually much more well-heeled side being protested about.
Lumping everything “anti” together and dressing it up as an examination of crowd dynamics is simply a cunning ruse and a well-known PR tactic to reduce their concerns to an abstract cipher. The aim is to smear all and sundry in a way which attaches contempt for the least currently credible, so that all anti-vaxxers, anti-Roundup, anti-fluorothink, anti-rain-flooding-and-heatwave types are basically the same, bad “losers” like Remoaners, the more easily to devalue them and their pointless Canute-style tirades against Solvay, Bayer, or Lincoln City Council http://www.nfl.si/ed.
The problem is not that the crowd has too much of a voice now, but that it never had one like it before. Presently the winner of the argument is Zuck, the guy with the biggest database, the most data points about the topic in question and, as before, the most to spend on column inches.
Ome thing about the media pecking order of protestor characterisations is noteworthy: we do not see anti-vaxxers or anti-Roundup citizens compared, for reputational effect without reference to scientific jousting, with opponents of impaired synaptogenesis by ERK1/2-mediated BDNF-TkrB signalling disruption. Only the other way round.