The Breakdown of Shared Reality

(T)o describe the so-called ‘safe schools’ and ‘gender fluidity’ garbage being peddled in schools as ‘cultural Marxism’ is not a throwaway line but a literal truth.

-Fraser Anning, maiden speech to the Australian parliament


We have a senator not only peddling Nazi-derived conspiracy theories on the floor of parliament, but even calling for ‘a final solution to the immigration problem’. Sky News calls upon neo-Nazis like Blair Cottrell to share their opinions on immigration and policy. Our major papers decry Jews who form colonies. The ABC’s august Four Corners decided that Steve Bannon deserved their platform to gaslight the nation. This isn’t normal. How did we get here?


Once upon a time, legacy media was the only media. Journalists were well-funded enough and maintained enough reputational cachet to allow a search for truth. Public broadcasting and journalists unions provided a counterweight to owners demand for profit. Since those (possibly imagined) halycon days, our media has been increasingly personalised, creating separate individual realities for each reader. The search for truth has been superseded by the demand for cheap content and clicks.


Talkback radio provided the blueprint. Instead of considered investigation and analysis, the shock jocks provided hot takes and a self-reinforcing audience. The impromptu reactions of the ill-informed were spotlighted. Thoughtful listeners went elsewhere, leaving Alan Jones and Ray Hadley spitting bile to the deluded.


The advent of the web allowed audiences to self-segregate further, collecting on blogs, forums and comment sections to form communities of the like-minded. But this was still a conscious choice – one had to seek out and choose Infowars rather than the ABC.


Then social media automated radicalisation. Now the alternative facts would come to you, one after another until algorithms found one you liked. YouTube was taken over by conspiracies of all kinds (but mostly the alt-right), and their recommendation algorithms found that ‘red pill’ MRA shut-ins spent all day on the service, consuming their advertisements.


So optimising advertising income meant serving everyone this horseshit, in the hopes that they too would retreat to their basements, subsisting on Doritos, Mountain Dew and feminist tears. A glance at my own YouTube frontpage offers helpful suggestions like ‘Family Guy Destroys Political Correctness & Millennial Internet Culture’ (683K views) and ‘The Suicide of Europe’ promoting the neo-Nazi white genocide conspiracy theory (2.7M views).


Where there are consumers, so there will be entrepreneurial businesses set up to fill their demands. Hefty funding from corporate sugar daddies like the Kochs and Mercer helped set up an alternate ecosystem which catered to these wingnuts. Social media algorithms were more than happy to drive them traffic, so long as they kept paying for advertising.


Though they found money in pumping out content, these entrepreneurs couldn’t buy respect. They may have had a cadre of followers, but the mainstream media referred to them derisively, trying to maintain what audience they had left. So the ever-present rallying cry went out – conservatives were being silenced by the politically correct mainstream media. So silenced that, to take one example, Jordan Peterson has more than four times as many YouTube subscribers as the ABC. Is someone with 1.4M YouTube subscribers really being silenced when a university chooses not to invite them to speak?


The mainstream media, already struggling to maintain journalistic standards with declining revenues, listened. The talkback radio vox-pop and cable news debate were much cheaper to produce than expert journalism, after all. So they filled their airtime with endless debates over matters which were well and truly settled. By presenting climate change denial, flat eartherism, racism and sexism as questions to be debated, they provided the alt-right with ample platforms with which to spread their views to the general public.


The myth of the silenced conservative has spread into the mainstream too. So we get endless pontification about how the real problem is the left calling people racist. How the left fails to pay appropriate respect to debate club. Meanwhile, the Overton Window has shifted so far that George Bush, architect of the Iraq war is an icon of the #resistance. John ‘bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran’ McCain gets fawning eulogies, even in the Australian media.


For all those demanding we listen intently to the ‘legitimate concerns’ of those who consider brown people less than human, or women just sex objects, I say, when was the last time you gave that platform to a communist? A trans person? An anarchist? I’ll even settle for a postmodernist – if they’re supposedly running the world, then that can’t be so hard, right? I’m all about listening to the ideas which aren’t being heard, and on that criteria there are at least a billion people more deserving than yet another white conservative.


Yet our appetite for white conservatives seems endless, especially if they’ve come from overseas. Quite why our nationalists are so enamoured with failures from outside the country is a question I’ll leave you to consider. Perhaps its the white part. Whatever the reason, we can’t get enough of these blowhards. Nigel Farage, Stefan Molyneux, Lauren Southern, Ann Coulter, even those disgraced overseas like Milo Yiannopoulos grace our shores to contribute to our discourse and grift their poor deluded fans.


So we reach the present day, where senators on the floor of parliament decry cultural Marxism and public commentators claim Hitler was a socialist. Where a typical¬†panel on the ABC’s Q&A comprises Reclaim Australia fan and LNP MP George Christensen, odious racist Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter, who is 1000% behind Anning’s drivel together with single Labor and Greens members for balance. Where Steve Bannon headlines festivals of ideas.


Where do we go from here? We can’t put the genie back in the bottle and in many ways the democratisation of information online has been a good thing. The same mechanisms which have allowed for rightward radicalisation could be used to spead the ideas of the left. But compassion and solidarity are always harder to sell in a soundbite than hate and division. Competing with the sheer volume of funding and existing infrastructure from a standing start would seem almost impossible too. It’d be real handy if the conspriacy theories about George Soros were correct, but the tendency for capitalists to favour the interests of capital is a real downer for progressive movements.


The need to maximise profits and thus engagement is built into the funding model of social media. If they were changed to a subscription, advertising-free model or nationalised then the motivation to drive hate could be removed, cutting off the process before it begins. But the current platforms and their audiences already exist – stripping Facebook of advertising wouldn’t do anything about Breitbart’s current audience.


So we come to the real core of the problem. Critical thinking. Much of this poisonous bile is prima facie nonsense. Are there 39M cases of ‘illegal aliens’ (and damn, that’s some literally dehumanising language they’ve chosen there) stealing Americans’ identities in the last 4 years, as Breitbart asserts? With 11M unauthorised immigrants in the US, that’d be nearly 4 identity thefts per person. Applying any level of thought to the content demonstrates its falsehood. But thanks to the continual nudges, Breitbart’s readers seem incapable of deducing this. Their reality shifts so slowly that they don’t realise they’ve been taken in.


But Breitbart didn’t denude their readers of their critical faculties. Facebook didn’t strip away their users’ reason. Those abilities had already been worn down by years of repetitive toil and following orders in the workforce. By an education system which is built around memorisation of technical knowledge to prepare students for that workforce, instead of moulding them into rounded, thoughtful citizens. I’ve covered the inherent conflict between submission to a capitalist system of wage labour and critical thinking before on these pages, but the reaction to Gonski’s most recent recommendations on education demonstrates this quite readily.


Governments were eventually willing to parcel out more money to schools to support education after the first Gonski report. But the 2018 version asked for something even more unpalatable. It asked for schools to focus more on critical and creative thinking. It decried the ‘industrial model of school education’. Such sentiments were quickly quashed by the government and think-tank commentariat. Critical thinking was a waste of time, not as valuable as memorising the facts demanded by their future masters. Not as valuable to those masters, perhaps.


If our reality is shifting to suit those who would undermine our liberty, equality and fraternity, then we could be in for grim times ahead. There is not yet any political figure with both the inclination and capability to succeed with nativist politics (as the thoughtlessness required for the former tends to get in the way of the latter), but the culture is shifting, and I despair to see what actions the Liberal party takes after ScoMo is defeated at the next election. We need to provide a left alternative to the disenfranchised – an answer of solidarity rather than bigotry. We need to somehow get that message in front of an audience who aren’t looking for it. Maybe I need to start a YouTube channel.