Vincent Fella Hendricks

Red Feed, Blue Feed

Air Date: October 28, 2016

Vincent Fella Hendricks, director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies, University of Copenhagen, talks about his new book Infostorms.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host, on The Open Mind. Red Feed, Blue Feed, half the country is threatening to secede. Red Feed, Blue Feed, Facebook pleaser, you must intervene. The master algorithms governing the information intake on social media are exacerbating at least the fundamental perception of unreasonably, irrationally polarized politics. So today we explore our digital footprint in democracy, and how it translates into prosocial or anti-social behavior. Our guest is prize-winning scholar, Vincent Fella Hendricks, who leads the Center for Information and Bubble Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Hendricks has authored the fascinating volume, Infostorms: Why Do We ‘Like’? Explaining Individual Behavior on the Social Net? ‘Infostorms,’ Hendricks writes, “…play right into ongoing challenges of modern society and social media usage. The lethal logic of war efforts, the installment and nature of democracy systems, the threat from post factual democracy, and the filtered bubbles we live in.” So I ask Vincent here today to answer for us, given the failure of social media to evolve into engines of civic good, are we not on the cusp of that bubble bursting from the tsunami of weaponized, unmanned, Info-streams. Welcome.

HENDRICKS: Thank you sir.

HEFFNER: Are we on that precipice of collapsing the bubble?

HENDRICKS: One of the things that we do have in abundance is information. And in a certain sense we should imagine that information in and by itself is a good, because, information is something that we use to act, deliberate, and decide are based upon. So then everything is good, but we have an abundance of information. Now, an abundance of information is not necessarily a good, if we can’t properly format it in such a way that we can use it for action, deliberation and position. And then it actually becomes a burden. Mitchell Kapor who started Lotus Development Group once said, “Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” So you open it up and it goes, ‘floof!’ And it’s a little bit the same here. So we have various information bubbles, and one of those bubbles that we really do have is the fact that we easily polarize because we have to sort the information so heavily, since the abundance is so big. And so what we tend to do is be cognitively biased in so far as to say, ‘I’d rather listen to the voices that I do agree with already, and if I only listen to the voices that I agree with already, then am I might just get an echo chamber effect where I sort of, I just all the, the arguments I don’t like, I just forget about them and I’ll just stick to the ones I really do like, along with all my peers who apparently, and I say apparently, think the same.’

HEFFNER: When I said in the intro, Vincent, unmanned, weaponized, info streams, misinformation frequently, but design now, without civic import, without the values to dictate and open society, the aspiration of a Facebook for example, is to connect this network. Can Facebook do that as a for-profit enterprise, when we read that the algorithms dictating what information is presented, tends to be exploitative of your bias.

HENDRICKS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So red-feed, blue-feed, what is the prescription, do you think, in maturing these infostorms, so that they can be part of a dialogue, a real dialogue?

HENDRICKS: Well I think it’s true to say that one of the derivatives as you would like out of Facebook is actually for people to connect and exchange opinions, et cetera, et cetera. That’s in and by itself a good thing. But you also understand that, that Facebook is a company and of course they have to make money. And that’s okay too. I have no problem with that. Now, a little about a problem is that the most valuable asset online is people’s attention. That’s what it’s all about. How long can we grasp people’s attention? Now, everybody has access now. So you have an account, I have an account, you have a profile on Twitter, you have a profile on Facebook and so forth, and so far. So if you thought that just because all of us now actually do have a bullhorn to the world. It doesn’t entail that everybody gets heard to the sam extent that, another way of saying that, if you thought that attention on the web is sort of a normal distribution, that everybody sort of gets the same amount of attention, then, unfortunately that’s not the case. What is the case, it’s a power distribution. So that means there’s only a few players up, who have pretty much, virtually all the attention, and everybody else is fighting for ever is left on the tail. And from that perspective, it doesn’t follow that just because everybody has access to the web, that the sort of, that, that web or the social media have sort of a democratizing effect in and by itself. That has to be curated and edited and so forth and so forth. That’s a whole other business, one thing. And then yet another thing is that we should actually talk about is, true there are a lot of filtered bubbles out there. But there are also studies that show, that if you talk about polarized politics, or partisan politics, it’s not that much necessarily the filtering that makes a difference. What makes a difference is the network you’re in. so the network that you’re in, along with the people that you are connected to in the network, will in many ways shape the point of view, rather than the filtering in and by itself. That’s very human, but now at the speed of light, and possibly globally as well. So, all the phenomena that we know so well: polarization, bias, herding, uh…

HEFFNER: Castes.

HENDRICKS: Castes, whatever effects are the same. They have just been amplified to proportions that we have never seen before. And realize this, it was ten years ago, or twelve years ago that we got Facebook, right? This is an experience you got from yesterday. The conversations you and I are engaging in here, we have 250,000 years of experience with that. And I can, and one of the important things is, that I, when we sit here, I look into your eyes. You look into mine. And you nod, okay, so that’s common knowledge between us. That’s the permanence that we do share, and then I follow back and forth. So we play this stimuli response game. Now, on the social media, we are supposed to do the same. The only difference is, I can’t see you and you can’t see me. So if I’m in doubt about whether or not I’m being heard, what do I do? I shout a little louder. Now I might actually say things, ‘I don’t really mean it.’ Until I get a response from you, but by that time, I’ve already painted myself up into a corner, saying something in a way, possibly, where you also say, ‘Okay, if that’s the way you want to talk, let’s talk like that.’ And then you get this, throwing mud back and forth, which is not conducive to enlightenment, possible exchanges on which we become wiser. We just become more and more polarized. And that’s what you in many ways see in political debates online, one thing. And yet another thing is, most of the traffic that goes on online is not about politics. In fact one, 0.1 percent. Most of the content traffic online has to do with adult sites. You have to realize that. So it’s not like, it’s not like there’s a very big chunk of what’s going on online that has to do with politics. A lot of it has to do with a lot of other things, but politics is not necessarily a very big player.

HEFFNER: But it’s informing the social psychology with which we live today.

HENDRICKS: Yes. That’s exactly what the social media of course is also feeding into. Now, one of the things which we have to, and, and I believe that the social media platforms are aware of this. They are certainly aware that their platforms are being used for things they don’t all really want.

HEFFNER: Their philosophy is, ‘Do no harm.’ Security apparatus fully funded. But in terms of fostering civic engagement…

HENDRICKS: No, nope.

HEFFNER: So how do you deal with the radicalization? And we’re not even talking about fundamentalism in the extremist fashion that plays out with terrorist organizations. But we’re, we’re talking about another kind of inbred radicalization of political ideas.

HENDRICKS: Yeah. And that has to do, and that’s a tricky thing, Alexander, because look, studies show, and Jonah Berger has shown us from Contagious that the stories that tend to get a viral life, they don’t have to be true. Viral doesn’t imply true…

HEFFNER: They mustn’t be true.

HENDRICKS: Well they don’t have to be…

HEFFNER: It’s, it’s disqualifying…

HENDRICKS: Well…

HEFFNER: The, in some sense..

HENDRICKS: In some sense yes and in some sense no. But at least what is true is, whatever is viral is not necessarily true. whatever is true is not necessarily viral. And the sort of stories that tend to get a lot of traction online, and a lot of social transmission and shares and likes and all those, are stories that feed into our anger, fear, indignation, sometimes fascination, sometimes awe. Okay? That has a lot more traction than explanation and truth. Now, if you were a political game player, would you start speculating or not speculating as to whether or not the stories that you put online would actually get traction, yes or no? When the trivial answer is of course yes. So what sort of memes can you use for that? Well if you feed on people’s anger, indignation, and fear, then the tendency is, you get a much better gameplay in terms of getting the story online, getting it viral, getting the message out there. And since we are in an election cycle in the US anyway, I can come to think of a few political actors who would, um, perhaps, speculate accordingly.

HEFFNER: Right. absolutely. Well, look, your objective at the bubble institute is to create strategies to combat the malignant bubbles, as you say, unjustified Twitter storms for instance, and to formulate recommendations to stimulate benign bubbles, again that will engender the kind of discourse. You come at this from a heritage that is American and Danish. I want to relay a story that speaks to a defining narrative this election cycle. I recently moderated a mock debate at Wright State where the first presidential debate was supposed to be. I had a ride from Dayton Ohio through what we call fly over country. And a young man there drove me from Wright State uh, to Indiana, uh, South Bend. He was relaying to me, based on his exposure to the social experience there, something that corroborated a story that my godmother said, told me, that she said she spent some time recently in North and South Carolina, and they refer to the President as, you know. That is how they identify in the derogatory way they do, um, the Commander and Chief of the country, right? Um, as an insult to delegitimize, to disqualify, um, to wipe him off history, and so what was discouraging, was to hear that his roommates were doing the same thing that these brothers and sisters in the Carolinas… I tried to get at the causal impact of that intolerance, because that fundamentally is an important story line of the American political experience right now. Based on your research, the collision of that resentment which is overwhelmingly the narrative and the tendency to radicalize thought, where do we go from here?

HENDRICKS: Yeah, okay so, now, you are absolutely right. I mean narrative and opportune political agendas have sort of substituted truth and facts. And when we get there, then we get to this issue of post-factual democracy. And post-factual is not a historical period where there was a golden age once, where everything was good, and everything was about truth and so forth and so forth. But more like, beyond, that you use facts in an opportune way, or you neglect them if they’re not opportune to you. Now feeding into this whole issue here, when people get together and they argue, then once you think that even, when you and I exchange ideas, if we are like minded and start deliberating, we don’t get more nuanced in our point of view. We just hammer in the argument that we agree on, and we keep going at it and going at it and going at it and going at it. And that’s exactly what you find, the sort of polarization game is being played across the country in many different ways, shapes, and forms, and colors and creeds and what not. And then you get this very unfortunate situation where politics sort of polarized to extremes which cannot negotiate with each other, basically because even though we have information in abundance, and everybody can in particular contact each other, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we do so, nor that the web sort of stimulates it even so. It does stimulate that we find our peers that we agree with, and that our network is strengthened and so forth. So basically, just because we have more information, just because we can exchange more information, and we have this issue of everybody having a voice, doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand each other better. And that’s hard for democracy to work with. And what we do know about modern day democracies, western democracies is, they don’t take necessarily very nicely to extremism. It doesn’t have to be all the way to terrorism, but extremism in, in a political society, climate like ours, is not really fruitful to not have, to having a democracy in which fact plays a role, right? It’s important for us as a navigator in our everyday lives, who to choose, what sorts of policies to implement. How could we possibly have a political system in which you can actually promise the voters whatever you like but when the day comes if you have to cash ’em in, you can’t do it and you say, well that’s not really what I meant. And you might say, this doesn’t happen. Yes it does. [LAUGHTER]. It does. It just happened at the Brexit, where the leave campaign was actually promising voters things, even put those promises on buses, and they couldn’t cash ’em in. and by the time they left the union, or were about to leave the union, it became fact that they had to, they said, ‘Oh well that was a mistake’ That is not how you get trust in politicians. And you remember one thing about modern day societies as we know it, and democracies, the key glue here is trust. That’s really what it’s all about. And once you start hammering away on the trust, and that becomes an issue, then citizens don’t believe the state, the states don’t believe the citizens, and then you’ve got yourself a really really big and nasty coordination problem on you hands, based in no small part off information being treated in the wrong way.

HEFFNER: Because the conspiracy theorist bubbles are so prevalent today, how do you navigate and attempt to insure intellectual rigor in the digital space?

HENDRICKS: We can talk people like you Alexander.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHTER]

HENDRICKS: Put it this way, one of the big, one of the important gate keepers here in, if you’re looking, if you’re really, if you really get down to the brass tacks of this and ask yourself, Why am I doing this show? Your answer would in the end be, I’m doing it because, one of the things I have as an ambitions, is to actually enlighten the population in such a way that they can make and take proper decisions for themselves. Now I have to curate parts of that information so that they can do so. And I also have to check whether or not the people in power, or they want to be in power, are actually following the narrow path of truth and not the parallel truth, and not the parallel track of narratives, independently of whether they are true or not. So from that perspective, gatekeepers of truth, and checks and balances of information, relies in no small part, on media outlets like yours and others. So you have a very important role to play in the modern day society.

HEFFNER: Should an organization like Facebook or Twitter, in order to insure the integrity of rigor in dialogue, I’m not talking about your personal page or my twitter handle, but on comments isn’t, isn’t there a role for not censorship, but algorithms to dictate the kind of dialogue that would be sensitive to free thought and exchange?

HENDRICKS: I agree, and what is a little puzzling to me about this whole discussion is, look, Facebook, Twitter and the other actors in this field, they are private companies, they’re like a newspaper. Now newspapers, or insofar, they are media outlets, put it that way. And media outlets are allowed to have an editorial process and an editorial goal and an editorial policy. And if you can’t follow, abide by that policy, we just can’t have that sort of discussion. And then people would say, ‘What about my freedom of speech?’ Well freedom of speech only comes in as so far as to say that if Alexander Heffner can’t post whatever he would like to post on Facebook, he can post it anywhere else. Then you can talk about censorship, but any, at any given time, you can open up your own news site. You can open up your own server, and say whatever you like. So the issue of freedom of speech does not come into this conclusion. And by the way, like you also have, every editor of a show, every editor of a media outlet or a newspaper and whatnot, they can decide what sort of discussions they would like to curate and have on there, and so can the social media. There is nothing stopping them from doing that. however, of course, that this is still the beginning of the information age, yes? So of course everybody is a little unsure of exactly how we’re going to do this. And one of the things that we need to, and one of the things that Twitter and Facebook and the others probably have to curate to a little bit, is to say, ‘Look, it’s not interesting so, per say, that I believe P and you believe not-P. What is interesting are the preconditions on which you base your decision to believe P and me not-P. So those are the premises. Now premises and arguments have very very tough times on the social media, because the attention that you can get out of people is very short. So you tend to get the conclusion but you don’t get, don’t tend to get the premises. So, but if you don’t get the premises there’s not, you can’t actually talk about there being a factual agreement or disagreement. It’s just basically, ‘You P, and me not-P, and done with it.’ And that is not conducive to the sort of exchanges on which we have to base our qualified decisions on. And so from that perspective, we have to look at, or they have to look at also, ways in which, you don’t only get the conclusion. You don’t only get the 140 characters. But you get, the reason that, that was before 140 characters were actually printed.

HEFFNER: Right.

HENDRICKS: And by that time, then all of a sudden, we sort of have a dialogical way of operating on the social media. But we’re not there yet. But that would be an important part of it.

HEFFNER: It certainly is nuanced, and we are demystifying it for ourselves and hopefully for the viewers too, but to me one thing that is clear when we discuss this subject of safe spaces on college campuses and free thought, free expression, free speech, um, you know there’s a difference between a young person being sensitive to a discussion of affirmative actions for example, let’s say it’s a minority audience, that should, that discussion should happen even if the audience disagrees with the thesis, if it’s done in a mature sensible way.

HENDRICKS: Sure.

HEFFNER: Now, the N-word, to which we allude, and let me clarify, we were referring to the N-word, that is an act of depravity no different from rape, in, in my estimation. I was saying this to the students. So when you look at the newsfeed as an opportunity for, not just the birthers conspiracy theorists and the Clinton health scandal which is a real issue on the trail, but when you look at that, you don’t see an opportunity for civil discourse because, again, Facebook’s mantra is, ‘Do no harm,’ rather than, ‘Do good.’ Anyway we can get that to change? Emily Bell and Jay Rosen were here, leading digital observers from the journalism sector, they say Facebook needs a public editor.

HENDRICKS: Well that…

HEFFNER: And, and a humanitarian shift.

HENDRICKS: Sure, sure. I mean you could put the burden on Facebook to say, “You gotta change things around in such a way that we can actually provide civic discourse.’ I think there is some truth to that. But I think and another thing I mentioned which is important here, is the way in which we, the way in which we culture ourselves online.

HEFFNER: Right, you say here, “…in the post factual democracy, politician win by getting feelings right, and of course, facts wrong.” And that’s what you said of Brexit, of the American political experience today. That is a phenomenon, a real problem that we ought to collectively tackle. It’s not only Facebook’s responsibility. But I totally dispute this idea that the ship has sailed. People are saying that the ship has sailed. Because…

HENDRICKS: I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Well there was a Myspace, there is a Facebook, there was was an AT&T, then there was a Verizon. I mean, no ship has sailed.

HENDRICKS: No. And I guess it is, and if it has sailed, it’s still a ship on which you are on board, and you can change courses on this ship. It has not sailed never to return to any port or to some designated port. This port, the port is gonna move around as we move around in the digital space and in our age. So from that perspective I think there is room for development and there is room for change and there is room for progress, also on the social media platform, and we have to also, as it is, as being a responsible citizen, being a responsible citizen is also to be a game player in democracy. And game playing in democracy requires some of you and some of me, and coordination with a state. Those are the conditions on which we agreed o live on, to live in when we were born. And so from that perspective we are curated through out entire life to do that. Now, that requires, there is some responsibilities from us and from the state, and we coordinate between independent rights on one hand, and the best of the state on the other. And that is a very tricky balance, but it required something of both parties. And when we have the social media platforms on the other side, well, one of the things that they should do, I mean they are not, they were not installed to nourish democracy, but they don’t have to not nourish it, right?

HEFFNER: Right.

HENDRICKS: And so [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: Right, exactly.

HENDRICKS: They don’t have to, not to do it. So from that perspective, so part of their ambition, which I think would a very admirable ambition would be to say, how can we actually play in, in such a way that civic discourse actually serves the purpose of enlightenment for citizens in this country? That’s a very, very ambitious goal, a very admirable goal, and entertainment, you can get that on the side.

HEFFNER: In light of the cyber security threat, which consumes the folks who operate these mega-billion dollar organisms, of Google, Facebook, Amazon, I mean they’re concerned with, with security and to some degree, if there’s consumer awareness, privacy. Knowing that that’s where these companies are investing their dollars, how can we encourage democratization in the climate of hacking, cyber predators, and all the malicious actors that, that we identify as pulling away from something like electronic balloting, because the Russians are going after the DNC and RNC. How can we still have confidence in the web’s potential for democratization, when we’re constantly under assault this way.

HENDRICKS: We have to think about it in the following way, now, a lot of the things that happen, and that also goes to the transparency debate that has been discussed a lot during the American election, right, is the fact that we are balancing various important principles here. One principle is transparency. That’s good. Another very important principle to us is privacy. That’s also good. Sometimes you can actually sacrifice one to get the other, and that depends on your prioritization. Now one of the things that we have to get very clear on here is that if we have to, when we have to use the web in such as way that we’re actually using it in no small part as also aligning our civic discourse and democracy. Then clearly one of the things that we have to be very, very, aware of is the fact that there are different players with different sort of interests. And they don’t necessarily play into democratization or whatnot. And from that perspective we, it starts with ourselves. It starts with, what do I want to use this platform for? Do I want to get enlightenment or something else? And if I want to get enlightenment, I’m putting also a burden on my shoulders to get, to acquire proper information, and look away form the hackers and not try to, and not try the pitfalls of whoever have other sort of vested interests. And that’s a lot of work, but that’s the, that’s the price you pay for knowledge.

HEFFNER: Amen, Vincent. Great to see you.

HENDRICKS: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for another thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out at on Twitter on Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.