Cosas de España/Galiza
As I might have said, this is a conservative, right-wing region. So the disgraced ex-king was welcomed by cheering crowds to Sanjeno. And yesterday’s Diaro de Pontevedra, devoted its first 9 pages to the event. Admittedly tabloid size.
Demand from foreigners for Spanish property is again on the rapid rise.
This is a nice article which cites inexplicable bureaucratic delays in getting restoration licences. It reminded me of the regular response from a Spanish friend who’s converting a house into a pilgrims’ albergue but is still waiting for his final permissions and will probably lose this season – a shrug and the very Spanish sigh of resignation: Es lo que hay. ‘It is what it is’. Unless stopped, bureaucrats will always do what bureaucrats do to preserve/expand their job security.
Yet another new camino, doubtless as ‘authentic as all the others that have emerged in the last decade. The national total is possibly up to 45 now.
Boy are the beggars back in Pontevedra city! But they’re not quite as annoying as the Romanian accordionist of only 3 tunes who panhandles me every day while talking in a form of Spanish I don’t recognise. Unless I flee the bar terrace on hearing his first notes up the street. Or go inside and hide.
Ukraine v Russia
The perspective of Richard North, and doubtless many others: While it might be right Russia can’t win the war on its original terms, neither can Ukraine win it on its terms. At some time, unless the West is prepared to provide serious quantities of high-grade weapons sufficient to overwhelm the Russians, there will have to be a messy, unwelcome and wholly unsatisfactory compromise, if we are ever to see a semblance of peace in the region. If it is to be the latter, the sooner it happens the better. Without the resources, the Ukrainians’ idea of victory is a delusion.
Will securing the ‘independence’ of the breakaway region of Donblas be enough to save Putin’s skin? Who knows. Given the intense fighting there, one wonders how much of the region will be left intact should it become, effectively, Russian. And how much it will cost Russia to restore it to anything like normality. Given the likely state of its own economy, Mocow is likely to have higher priorities.
The Way of the World/Social Media
Social media has broken our society but we can still fix it. The race for ‘Shares’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ has weaponised hatred and amplified the most extreme and aggressive voices. We must act now to defend our democracy and the well-being of the next generation. See the article below.
Finally . . .
Obsessed? Moi!! Pugs: Not fit to be called a dog . . .
Scientists claim they’ve determined that 2 skin compounds – decanal and undecanal – attract mosquitoes to humans, allowing the development of better repellants. Pending these, it’s suggested that a natural remedy can keep the infernal insects at bay. A basil plant on your window sill will drive them away.’Can this really be true? See here on this. [Can you believe that – though mosquitoes are rare in my house – while typing this, I’ve just squashed one that was flying across the screen of my laptop?]
To amuse . . . The cartoon I failed to upload yesterday, as my brain kept trying to tell me during the day:-
New reader: Welcome to the ‘Christian Tech Nerd’. Who might or might not read this . .
For passing readers: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.
Social media has broken our society but we can still fix it.
The race for ‘Shares’, ‘Likes’ and ‘Retweets’ has weaponised hatred and amplified the most extreme and aggressive voices. We must act now to defend our democracy and the well-being of the next generation
Jonathan Haidt, The Times
Civilisations throughout history have relied on shared blood, gods and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?
Social scientists have identified at least three fundamental forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time, and especially in the years following 2009.
In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favourite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements, from the postal service through the telephone to email and texting, that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties.
But gradually, social media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. They became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand, activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will. Once social media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the largest transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.
Before 2009 Facebook had given users a simple timeline, a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom. This was often overwhelming in its volume but it was an accurate reflection of what others were posting. That began to change in 2009 when Facebook offered users a way to publicly “Like” posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the “Retweet” button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own “Share” button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.
Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “Like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “Share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions, especially anger at “out-groups”, are the most likely to be shared.
By 2013 social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skilful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself: “We might have just handed a four-year-old a loaded weapon.”
As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
Social media has both magnified and weaponised the frivolous. It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviours it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalised acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any individual or organisation is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media and non-governmental organisations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the US, the UK, Spain and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia).
A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012 Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly one billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.
Social media has given voice to some people who had little previously and it has made it easier to hold powerful people accountable for their misdeeds, not just in politics but in business, the arts, academia and elsewhere. Sexual harassers could have been called out in anonymous blog posts before Twitter but it’s hard to imagine that the #MeToo movement would have been nearly so successful without the viral enhancement that the big platforms offered. However, the warped “accountability” of social media has also brought injustice and political dysfunction in three ways.
First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens. Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so. They admit that in their online discussions they often curse, make fun of their opponents and get blocked by other users or reported for inappropriate comments. Across eight studies Bor and Petersen found that being online did not make most people more aggressive or hostile; rather, it allowed a small number of aggressive people to attack a much larger set of victims.
Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority. The Hidden Tribes study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviours. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives”, comprised 6 per cent of the US population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists”, comprised 8 per cent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 per cent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 per cent.
These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely to be a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.
Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputises everyone to administer justice with no due process. Platforms like Twitter devolve into the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes. A successful attack attracts a barrage of likes and follow-on strikes. Enhanced-virality platforms thereby facilitate massive collective punishment for small or imagined offences, with real-world consequences, including innocent people losing their jobs and being shamed into suicide. When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy and truth.
We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make changes soon then our institutions, our political system and our society may collapse during the next war, pandemic, financial meltdown or constitutional crisis.
What changes are needed? I can suggest three categories of reforms — three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable. We must harden democratic institutions so they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so it becomes less socially corrosive and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.
Political polarisation is likely to increase for the foreseeable future. Thus, we must reform key institutions so they can continue to function even if levels of anger, misinformation and violence increase far above those we have today.
Reforms should reduce the outsize influence of angry extremists and make legislators more responsive to the average voter in their district. One such reform is to end closed party primaries (the votes in which parties select candidates), replacing them with a single, nonpartisan, open primary from which the top candidates advance to a general election that also uses ranked-choice voting. A version of this has been implemented in Alaska and it seems to have given Senator Lisa Murkowski more latitude to oppose former President Trump, whose favoured candidate would be a threat to Murkowski in a closed Republican primary but is not in an open one.
A second way to harden democratic institutions is to reduce the power of either political party to game the system in its favour, for example by drawing its preferred electoral districts or selecting the officials who will supervise elections. These jobs should all be done in a nonpartisan way. Research on procedural justice shows that when people perceive that a process is fair, they are more likely to accept the legitimacy of a decision that goes against their interests. Just think of the damage done to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy by the Senate’s Republican leadership when it blocked consideration of Merrick Garland for a seat that opened up nine months before the 2016 election, and then rushed through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett in 2020. A widely discussed reform would end this political gamesmanship by having justices serve staggered 18-year terms so each president makes one appointment every two years.
Those who oppose regulation of social media generally focus on the legitimate concern that government-mandated content restrictions will, in practice, devolve into censorship. But the main problem with social media is not that some people post fake or toxic stuff; it’s that fake and outrage-inducing content can attain a level of reach and influence that was not possible before 2009. The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has suggested modifying the “Share” function on Facebook so that after any content has been shared twice, the third person in the chain must take the time to copy and paste the content into a new post. Reforms like this are not censorship; they don’t stop anyone from saying anything; they just slow the spread of content that is, on average, less likely to be true.
Perhaps the biggest single change that would reduce the toxicity of existing platforms would be user verification as a precondition for gaining the algorithmic amplification that social media offers. Banks and other industries have “know your customer” rules so they can’t do business with anonymous clients laundering money from criminal enterprises. Large social media platforms should be required to do the same.
Users could still post using a pseudonym. It just means that before a platform spreads your words to millions of people it has an obligation to verify that you are a real human being, in a particular country, and are old enough to be using the platform. This one change would wipe out most of the hundreds of millions of bots and fake accounts that pollute the big platforms. It would also be likely to reduce the frequency of death threats, rape threats, racist nastiness and trolling more generally. Research shows that antisocial behaviour becomes more common online when people feel that their identity is unknown and untraceable.
The members of Gen Z, those born in and after 1997, bear none of the blame for the mess we are in but they are going to inherit it, and the preliminary signs are that older generations have prevented them from learning how to handle it. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm among American teens began in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens at the same time.) The cause is not known but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor: the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the big platforms.
Depression makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening. As these conditions have risen, tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes have diminished among many young people. For example, university communities that could tolerate a range of speakers as recently as 2010 arguably began to lose that ability in subsequent years, as Gen Z began to arrive on campus. Attempts to disinvite visiting speakers rose. Students did not just say they disagreed with visiting speakers; some said those lectures would be dangerous, emotionally devastating, a form of violence. Because rates of teen depression and anxiety have continued to rise into the 2020s we should expect these views to continue in the generations to follow, and indeed to become more severe.
The most important change we can make to reduce the damaging effects of social media on children is to delay entry until they have passed through puberty. Congress should update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which unwisely set the age of so-called internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 back in 1998, while making little provision for effective enforcement. The age should be raised to at least 16 and companies should be held responsible for enforcing it.
The story I have told is bleak. Yet when we disconnect from social media and talk with our neighbours directly, things seem more hopeful. Most Americans in the More in Common report are members of the “exhausted majority” which is tired of the fighting and is willing to listen to the other side and compromise.