A while back, I wrote an article on what it means to be a contrarian. It’s someone who goes against the current and doesn’t just blindly follow the herd.
Since that time, the internet has exploded with people professing to be contrarians, but in fact using the same type of herd-mentality tactics and arguments that the average Joe or Jane usually fall for.
How do you distinguish between a real contrarian and a wanna-be contrarian? A real contrarian is someone who is a critical and rational thinker first and foremost. He is someone who is aware of his own cognitive biases and tries to overcome them.
Instead, the fake contrarians that are popping out from left, right, up, down and whatever other hole they were previously sitting in, are not only deeply unburdened by any sense of logic, they in fact actively try to exploit the cognitive biases of others.
It all started with click-bait
The internet has come onto the scene in the past two and a half decades and brought the average human access to vast stores of knowledge than any time previously in history.
However with that knowledge also came dangers.
Humans are fallible creatures easily tricked by their own emotions and it didn’t take long for internet marketers to take advantage of it.
In the early times of the internet, this was a bit harder to do. Yeah sure, there was advertising, but it consisted largely of static banners (and later annoying pop-ups), which while effective at getting money, were still relatively harmless.
A bunch of people did fall for those penis pump ads, but seriously the people who did were ripe for the Darwin Awards.
At that time, if you clicked on a website, or if you typed in a certain term in a search engine, you would be served the same banner ad or the same exact results as everyone else.
While at uni, I remember interviewing an exec of an online advertising company (the ones creating the banner ads) for one of my school projects. At the end of the interview he mentioned what the El Dorado of online advertising would be for him: people seeing the right ad at the right time.
I had a hard time imagining how that would work. In those days, you were still largely anonymous on the internet. Cookies were starting to make an appearance, but they collected relatively little significant data on you.
However, the times changed fast. The technology that was used got more sophisticated, the algorithms got tweaked and started to incorporate more and more user data (including their surfing habits) in order to get a more personalized experience.
There are many positives with that. Instead of getting all the standard ads you didn’t care about, you got things that might be of interest to you.
Also your search results became a bit more relevant to your own context and situation.
Yet, with all this you also started to get entrapped in your own little bubble. These things promoted different cognitive biases that your brain often falls for, chief of which being confirmation bias.
It wasn’t long before internet marketers started taking advantage of this state of affairs.
New tools for analyzing big data allowed marketers to see when people clicked and why. They saw patterns and learned from them. With more and more data, the messages got tweaked based on what seemed to work and what didn’t.
They quickly realized what all rhetoricians knew from ancient times. The chief persuasion tactic for most people’s brain sadly isn’t logic, but instead emotion.
If you create headlines that peak people’s emotions (whether positively or negatively), they are more likely to click on them. If furthermore, you structure the text in a way that further plays with these emotions, you have a winner and the money can start rolling in.
Much of this click-bait is pretty harmless. All those lists of cute animals can make you go “awwww…” and lighten up your day.
Not everything with click-bait is as peachy though.
Many sites centered around click-bait started appearing. One of the most famous is Buzzfeed, which is known for its bombastic headlines and simplistic content.
The headlines are structured in such a way as to either stroke your curiosity or to play to your emotions, either positive or negative. The more extreme it is, the higher the clickthrough rate.
This is fine with positive emotions, however the danger is when it strokes negative emotions, which it often does. Many headlines are written in such a way as to get you to be outraged or angry.
Oftentimes the click-bait is just misdirection or an outright lie, however it does play with the cognitive biases.
The effect is really strong when the headline is in the direction of what you already believe and thereby takes advantage of your confirmation bias.
If you believe that the government is an evil conspiracy to take your money, then if you see a headline pertaining to it, you will start feeling outrage, because it is in line with your previous thinking on the issue.
The logic part of your brain (System 2) shuts down and your emotional brain (System 1) takes over.
With new media appearing on the internet, it didn’t take long before sites like Buzzfeed (although in recent times, they have shifted to also doing some serious journalism) sprung up and applied the lessons of click-bait to the news.
Bombastic headlines are nothing new. Yellow journalism has existed for a long time and was particularly strong at the end of the 19th century.
However, the nature of the internet, magnified the effect. Now you can get constantly bombarded with new and even newer headlines practically 24/7.
And then moved onto actual fake news
If you marry the fact that the best way to persuade someone is not through logic, but emotion, with new technologies and algorithms designed to serve personalized content, you have a situation ripe for what happened next, the advent of fake news.
There was always fake news on the internet, almost right from the beginning. However it would usually sit in its own corner of the internet without too many ways of spreading too much.
New algorithms created an environment where it could go viral really, really fast.
The rise of fake news can be dated back to the early 2010s and Russia. Some Russian officials noticed the power that social media had in organizing the protests against Putin in 2011 and also in helping spread the message during the so-called Arab Spring.
This led to the Russians setting up troll farms, most famous of which is the one at Olgino in St. Petersburg. The key aim was to confuse: if you throw a lot of shit at the wall, some of it will stick.
Their activities went into overdrive in 2014 after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
The general strategy can be seen from the way that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Donbas was handled.
In order to create doubt in the official story (the plane was shot down by the pro-Russian rebels using a Buk launcher), different versions of the causes were released, some of which were often contradictory.
This was done in order to create as much doubt and confusion in the official version of events and thereby make it less credible.
Together with these different fake versions, huge numbers of internet trolls started flooding the message boards of major internet newspapers around the world, usually using copy + paste arguments and buzzwords.
Fake news such as “Obama was born in Kenya” has been around for a while, but it played a huge part in the current US presidential election which saw Donald Trump get elected.
Much of these fake news originated from one little town in Macedonia. A bunch of teenagers saw great opportunities in making money from the gullible voters in the US and took advantage.
They especially concentrated on Trump voters and spread news which played to their confirmation biases. The few friends that I have that were Trump supporters fell for it and when I pointed out that they were sharing fake news, they didn’t care and continued on.
We all get fooled sometimes (I do too), but to get fooled consistently is another matter.
Get fooled once, shame on them. Get fooled twice, shame on you. Get fooled constantly, you are an idiot! Plain and simple.
We all have a slant, but if you want for things to improve, you need to engage your System 2 thinking.
What’s in store for 2017?
As things in the world seemed to be improving, the shock of 9/11 caught everyone by surprise. This date set into motion a chain of events that have quickly spun out of control.
The invasion of Afghanistan (home of the Taliban and together with Pakistan, the place where Al Qaeda was headquartered), was followed up by the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Instead of being the first domino for democracy in the region, it was the first domino for more terror.
Fast forward to the situation in the Middle East and North Africa now. Most countries in that region are in disarray with both Syria and Iraq experiencing civil wars and a new entity called ISIS (or the Islamic State) controlling big parts of both countries. This situation has resulted in big refugee flows into Europe.
Together with this, there is a rise of random acts of terrorism around the world, including in places which had not experienced it for decades.
In Europe itself, we have seen the rise of an aggressive Russia (which pains me a lot, since I have been a big fan of Russian culture), which seems to think it is once again in the 19th century and has invaded a neighboring country, the Ukraine, and annexed a piece of its territory (the Crimea).
In the EU, the UK had decided to shoot itself in the foot and after a campaign of lies, has voted to leave the organization without any plan whatsoever. Populism (both right-wing and left-wing) is on the rise around the different EU Member States and there is a danger of more populists gaining power.
In the US, after an intense battle between the worst candidates in a long time, Donald Trump has emerged as the victor.
The supposed anti-establishment candidate is set to create the most anti-establishment cabinet ever which includes several Goldman Sachs execs (including a Secretary of the Treasury who worked with George Soros, so much for the Soros conspiracy theories), heirs to billionaire fortunes, and the current CEO of the largest oil company in the US.
According to Aristotle, there are three ways of persuading a person: ethos (authority), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic). Trump built his election around the first two.
Focus on emotions is nothing new and has been a part of elections since the first time elections were held. In fact, even good old Cicero used these types of tactics when he ran for consul.
Ronald Reagan was good at stirring up emotions. In his speeches he used a lot of adjectives that heightened it, for example “evil” and metaphors like “empire”, when he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”.
Donald Trump has trumped that (no pun intented 🙂 ) by getting rid of logic and facts altogether, focusing on his persona instead.
He might say a thing one day, go back the next day and say something totally the opposite and this would not matter one bit to his supporters.
It’s as if the world has suddenly gone mad. Commentators are saying that we have entered the era of post-truth politics, where facts don’t matter. A sad state of affairs indeed.
What we need now more than ever is to go back to critical thinking.
Dr. Brainiac ran an experiment which showed that Mr. Smart Chimp was very good at resisting the urge to click on click-bait articles. In fact his percentage of times that he clicked on click-bait was 0%! Amazing!
Wanting to know how he was able to achieve this feat, he asked Mr. Smart Chimp a question.
Dr. Brainiac: “Your stats are amazing! How were you able to resist the urge to click on click-bait articles?“
Mr. Smart Chimp: “Ummm dude, I am a monkey. I can’t read!“