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Meta Politics Transcript - "Selection Mechanisms, Unions, Churches and the Value of Locality"
Selection mechanisms, the incentives and mechanisms in which information is noticed, are one culprit that bring to the top the long tail of irrationality in the form of personal stories.
The median American turns on the TV, looks at the politicians on the screen and listens to them speaking blatantly inconsistent ideas. They espouse explicitly contradictory terms and base their conviction and moral judgments on them. You log on to twitter.com and you see the same spinning around everywhere, gaining the most attraction on whatever metric you want to measure with that.
There's no conclusion to be had other than believing that the opposing party is simply insane, right? But the same effect applies on both sides. And in fact, actually settling down to the level of the individual, to those communities who may be voting one way or the other quickly finds that there's much more crossover, that this insanity seems to be an isolated effect among those pushed towards the top of power.
Hi, hi, welcome, welcome. This is Metapol with me, Cactus, demystifying, politics, media, and culture for all who seek a rational way out.
Activism is almost by definition, polarizing. The point is to push people further on one given issue or another. So it only makes sense that the most extreme would be the ones who want to make these changes. The same isn't true though, for politicians and it certainly should not be true for media and supposedly journalists.
However, that's exactly the state of play we're living in. Various longitudinal studies have all found that polarization typically tends to increase among those who are more involved, who wield more power, the “elites” and that this predates general polarization. What's important to look at is also the issues in which these lines are polarized against.
While historically, there's generally a mix while historically there have been glimpses of various social or cultural protests, the vast majority of actions, all political campaigns and movements have been centered around tangible economic changes, ones that would actually benefit the daily lives of everyone involved. Of course, this isn't to say that social policy has no factor at all. But particularly when looking at the issues of today, it's clear to see where the bread is buttered. So why have we not seen, for example, an escalation in organizing and protesting over more COVID stimulus instead, the more niche issues, abortion, race, and other “culture war” topics tend to fill, not just the legacy media, but also social media and most interactions that you would have with a fellow friend.
This isn't just speculation. The polling on what issues dominate, including a recent poll by echelon insights shows that the concerns over Medicare or COVID relief on the left. Or overspending and other government overreach on the right are at all time lows while perceived threats of quote unquote white supremacy, or especially at the very top of Trump voters tops the list of concerns for democratic voters while illegal immigration on the other side is their top issue. The natural question of course is “why is this?” There are too many factors to be put in for sure. But my hypothesis is that these social issues are selected precisely because they are more malleable that they do not have a fixed outcome or goal that you're trying to achieve.
Not only that you can have starkly different interpretations, such as on abortion, where there are people who simply hold different moral values and will come to the literal polar opposite conclusion. It gives a lot of room for manipulation. And as we've covered previously, those are exactly the tools that have been developed in the past two decades.
You can look at previous episodes on pathologists and on implicit cults in order to understand how this rapidly develops into a political strategy. A short summary is that the feedback loops between inside and outside group create strong pressures to conform those who are already aligned with a given ideology. When exposed to these cultural issues and particularly when exposed to people who are designated as the outgroup, those with opposing political views or in an “opposing tribe”, then there's going to be an escalation towards those partisan and tribalistic instincts. This can then funnel into more polarizing actions, such as various forms of activism, particularly social media activism that develops these further ingroups.
One major factor is that social media is even worse than random chance at selecting a representative sample of the population. What this means is that algorithms are biased towards selecting for common human errors: things like negativity bias, the around four times sensitivity to negative information over positive information, or confirmation bias, the desire to seek and prefer arguments that align with one's preconceived conceptions, even if the actual evidence for them are lacking. When you combine these with the exponential network effects, which I've also talked about in the previous episode, this creates an effect that scales based on the social network, based on the number of people who are affected by a given idea and can further polarize along those lines. All of this goes towards creating a selection mechanism, a mechanism that picks certain attributes that people are high in and promotes those people towards a more prominent possession.
Now, this may sound like an organized effort and in many political cases, it is. However, this also happens implicitly with social media, with the formation of things like groups, with the formation of things like follower accounts, and can naturally influence the broader world at large. The phrase “Twitter is not real life” quickly stops applying when it can be used to garner millions of votes and billions of dollars.
What is the point of reviewing all of this information? Of course it's to answer the question of why the politicians and the movements are even more incoherent than those voters themselves. Even if voters have more salient cultural issues in mind, they're not necessarily going to speak the same untruths, the verifiably false self contradictory statements that often come out of the mouths of, for example, Donald Trump or Joe Biden. This is because those exact selection mechanisms that we just described are incredibly effective at finding and elevating those who have the aforementioned psychological traits that lead to these distortions being possible.
This isn't just in the realm of psychology or in the realm of biases. This also includes the effect on personal stories. You often have activists who are wildly unrepresentative and often even conspiratorial due to things that they have personally experienced. What's even more worrying is that this is becoming increasingly accepted on both the left and the right.
Of course, the reasonable thing to do, unfortunately, is that regardless of how extreme someone's experience is, and we're assuming that we're believing them off the bat here, as long as that experience is in what I termed a little last episode as the long tail of irrationality, something that is wildly unlikely to happen, but as strongly, emotionally compelling regardless, then the outsized effects that would have on government policy are actually extremely destructive to both parties.
So the answer is that these cases should be ignored since there are sheer anomalies for centuries. This has been understood, albeit not followed perfectly by either the population or the media. Because of a variety of factors, including increased technology and ability to manipulate media. As long as the widespread reach of social media of individuals who would be reporting and recording these extreme cases, this long-tail irrationality is now exactly what gets selected into the activist crowd.
This means that those with the anecdotes that are incredibly extreme, may indeed be living in quite a different world because their presuppositions are changed. They don't know that the average person is not thinking in the same way as them due to these distortions from these wild, long tales of irrationality. Nonetheless, they operate and can often interact in a very compelling and emotionally manipulative way, gaining further ground. This leads to entrenched power, both politically and in various institutions, which then continues the feedback loop by acting in incredibly anti-intellectual and anti-scientific ways, by prioritizing these individual experiences, which are wildly unrepresentative over actual statistics and actual policy.
Moreover, because these institutions are motivated by these individual experiences. They can often hold incredibly contradictory points. If you have two points that are logically incoherent, but are strongly emotionally manipulative, then they might find their way into a script. Nonetheless, one major problem that has led us to this point is the problem of scale, both in the sheer number of people in a given population.
And with the communication, the information that's shared between them, the most obvious solution to this is separation separation along a common factor or along an arbitrary line that instead of polarizing, politically leads to just a smaller sample size, that's still representative of the general population.
It can also give a primacy factor to a given group. The unions or the military are good examples on the left and right. Respectively of course, unions do have a political lean, especially economically, nonetheless, historically, they've also acted as mediating organizations. Their purpose by definition is to negotiate.
And often this leads to internal conversations that co-center around a common goal, higher wages, more benefits. And can actually tune down the cultural differences, particularly in countries with a higher unionization rate forms of communities, such as these can often be a time for deep polarization for an understanding of the opposing side, since those who hold culturally left-wing and culturally right-wing beliefs may nonetheless share the same line of work and therefore share the same union.
The same thing happens in the military where regardless of your political beliefs, you've put the willingness to die for your country on the line. That is a unifying factor and the various combat drills and other trainings can also serve as a way to give that connection that transcends those political divides.
This solves two problems, the logistics problem and the power problem. Of course, there are problems with unions and the military, but the benefits that come from them can be significantly preferable to the existing way of political organizing. And it can be distributed and translated into different forums, including local schools, including clubs, et cetera, various means of grouping people together, particularly moving them out of a larger context, such as social media.
There's also the value of permanence. Recent studies on “deep canvassing” show that recurring trips to opposing communities, communities with a different political belief could be much more effective in forming those human connections and creating a shift in the other direction. The bonds that are formed in the long-term with regard to certainty and security can be a valuable part of this. And a long-term organization serves exactly this, except instead of going to those communities individually, you instead gather people together by these other possibly nonpolitical issues. This also sets another possible cause for the increase in polarization, one that fits well with other research that shows that there's been an increase in nationalization of politics.
This doesn't mean more people with a nationalist ideology, but instead that politics is becoming more and more reflective of the issues that affect the entire nation of the federal elections. Instead of, of local elections and the local candidates themselves. That factor of course, is that as more anti-corruption efforts, which I think were started in good faith, ended up taking away power from local organizations and quote unquote machine politics.
This disruption allowed for the same types of system only operating at a national level to step in. This means that instead of having local leaders be more representative and essentially work as kingmakers for their communities, financial interests, donor basis, and heavily online activists filled that role, creating even more problems for those people who are trying to solve their own local issues.
The self feedback loop combined with other financially backed efforts, such as union busting resulted in a dramatic decline. And although once again, there are too many factors for us to be sure this can possibly be yet another cause for the increase in polarization, this gives us a straightforward first step for solving the problem of selection mechanisms that may also work to decrease the amount of national polarization overall. That is this decentralization and parallelization of various organizing efforts. Instead of having one effort centralized across the entire country have different competing interests on even possibly some of the same issues and on certain apolitical or non polarizing issues distributed across the country for whoever is interested in them.
This of course can also be applied along the internet. It solves the fundamental mathematical problem of scale that as population increases and particularly as connectivity increases, various psychological errors become more dominant than reason. However, if those localized organizations are formed, then a hierarchy between them can mitigate these issues with smaller errors, with much smaller errors, add much more ability to reconcile different problems together at each individual level. One method of implementing this technologically could just be to select for various communities or even to group people together arbitrarily.
This would be one method that I would be very interested in for example, being implemented on Facebook, where essentially randomly selected groups of say maybe a hundred people are put together from all across a country. All with drastically varying political beliefs, of course, ensuring participation would nonetheless be a difficult problem and you might see more conflict and more argument in the initial stages when people haven't quite formed those types of bonds, it may all solve the problem of directing people more towards the forms of engagement on the internet that are polarizing, that are victim to those self selection mechanisms.
However, the ultimate benefit of this is that those people with wildly extreme stories would now have much more layers of mitigation to go through those same extreme stories might not be able to coalesce and gather in the form of political activism as it does today, as there would be much less of a power base, especially an organized and chorus of power base within each of these fractured groups.
Finally, the three principles that I talked about on the previous episode, pull a lot of weight here in terms of considering what to do to counteract this effect in the here and now, number one, follow the attention, recognize that this long tail of irrationality gathers an insane amount of attention when making decisions for yourself or for an organization that you're involved with pay little or no heed to these types of individual stories.
It's a shame and a blight on the education system. That, that seems to be something that has to be relearned, but unfortunately here it is. Number two balance. The scales, try to participate more in information distribution for ideas that are not polarized along these lines, not to fall into the trap of issues on one side or the other instead look at what is tangible to you.
What affects your daily life and what statistically affects a large number of people. Overall, finally, media is power. In the case of social media and particularly in the case of organized media, which could be easily influenced and manipulated by these types of individual stories actively reduce their salients by discrediting them by posting contradictory evidence and by spreading a broader understanding of, and a spreading a broader understanding of how to see through these types of tricks.
Of course the contrapositive is also clear spread, good information, spread information that helps you make this understanding. Share this podcast, for example, and any idea that you see online that seeks to verify this information that provides accurate and distributable information either mentioned the podcast by name, talk about some of the core ideas and of course brainstorm your own and figure out how you can ameliorate these processes in your own daily life. You can send in, of course, any questions, comments to be interacted with on the show, by giving us a five star review on Apple podcasts, you're genuinely helping to leverage these network effects and create a better future for us all.
And so, thank you.