How To Win Friends And Ignore People

by stephenpalmersf

Ignoring people used to be a character fault – the height of rudeness – but in the internet age it could become an increasingly powerful force for humanity.

With the internet, so much now is about attention. (It wasn’t always that way of course.) It’s a truism that too many people have the attention span of a gnat and flick from nothing to nothing via nothing in their search for something to capture their imaginations, but in fact the many media/technology corporations out there are all desperately battling for your attention; and the struggle can only become more intense as the internet continues to dominate our lives.

I’ve long been struck by how difficult people find it to ignore provocation delivered to them via the internet – often through social media. Lefties go into paroxysms of rage at the Daily Mail, and presumably right-wingers do the same at the Guardian. But, as I mentioned in my blog Silence, organisations like the Daily Mail have no interest in reducing the 50/50 split of our polarised society, nor have any desire to stop the resulting flame wars. In fact, they’re doing everything they can to encourage polarisation.

Outraged people who share partisan provocation, on Facebook via memes for example, are falling right into the trap set up for them. A classic Daily Mail example occurred recently, when a “girls’ jobs/boys’ jobs” Theresa May topper was contrasted with the “Labour back to the 1970s” headline. Did the innumerable critics on Facebook really think that Daily Mail writers hadn’t noticed this juxtaposition? Did they think it was accidental? No – it was entirely deliberate. The sole aim of the writers behind the Daily Mail is to create a strong emotional reaction in their readers, and then in the opponents of their readers. The purpose of creating such reactions is to achieve and perpetuate tribal loyalty: that is, a constant, regulated stream of money flowing into the Daily Mail’s coffers. The actual “content” of such pieces, though limited to the usual anti-immigrant, anti Labour, anti-women stance, is irrelevant. But it suits the Daily Mail to be reactionary and bigoted because that is one of the most effective ways to split the country into tribes.

Sharing Daily Mail headlines online, however appalling those are deemed to be, is doing the work of its writers for them. They want their opponents to share. They want division, and everyone who shares such material is part of the problem. Without the oxygen of publicity – massively amplified by the characteristics of global communication – the Daily Mail and all its absurdities would stumble into the e-wilderness.

The problem is of course that most people find it impossible to restrain themselves. This is in part a natural human reaction in complex society, but it’s also an aspect of the internet and social media, which allows instant reaction and comment, thus bypassing reason, and even any attempt at basic thought. Yet our reactions can be modified, with a bit of effort.

Another example of the negative outcomes of such promotion is the case of Katie Hopkins. Reviled alongside Nigel Farage as “one of the most hated people in Britain,” millions of people are doing her a favour every year by constantly retweeting, reposting or otherwise disseminating her brand of ludicrous ignorance. But Katie Hopkins has a particular psychological problem, one shared by Donald Trump – she is intensely narcissistic. As a consequence she cannot survive without the attention given to her by the mass media and the internet. This is the motivation for her behaviour. Her utterances, like those of the Daily Mail, are to all intents and purposes content free, despite their apparent right-wing nature. They exist only to rile others and therefore get Hopkins more attention. They are effectively meaningless utterances. If people want Katie Hopkins to go away all they have to do is realise that there is no content then ignore her. But doing that requires self-control as much as it requires insight, and for many it’s easier not to bother.

The most extreme form of modern over-attention is terrorism. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his book Homo Deus, “How, then do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation around the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show… In most cases, the overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.” But it would take a considerable amount of effort for news organisations, based as they are now on a 24/7 schedule, to ignore, say, the terrorist incident in Manchester. In our current cultural environment that would be considered insulting to the victims. It’s hard to imagine it ever happening, in fact. Yet this is what needs to be done to counter terrorism, which entirely relies for its effect on media over-attention. Modern media methods are highly conducive to terrorism, and many people have argued that they foster it via the media’s modus operandi. Unfortunately, such modern media methods are like fertiliser in earth; it’s a vicious circle now. To ignore terrorists would require the beginning of a positive feedback loop, and at the moment there is only negative feedback – worse events, more and more media coverage. It would seem that humanity is trapped with the consequences of its own clever inventions.

Solutions are of a type despite the range of phenomena here. The solution to Katie Hopkins is not to be provoked by her. But this, as I said above, is difficult – it involves effort. And this illustrates the great irony of the situation we find ourselves in, whether we are social media users or not. You would think that ignoring is passive in nature, that it involves turning away, doing nothing. But in fact ignoring is an active deed. The passive deed in this case is to go with the flow and not think about the situation in its entirety, to follow simplistic drives, to react, to be appalled, to shout. That is passivity, and it is what Katie Hopkins, the Daily Mail and terrorists want you to do. They expect their readers to remain passive by going with the flow. In fact, they’re banking on that. The active response is to take the decision to ignore; to follow another path.

Where that path leads is up to individuals. Politics is of no use whatsoever here. Our world is so complex now it is for the very first time showing signs of evolving faster than human beings can mentally cope with. This means we are heading into very dangerous waters. But individuals can still make an individual response, if they want to. It depends on what questions you ask yourself.

My guess is that over the duration of the next generation we will begin to enter a post-politics world in the West. The gap between politicians and public has never been wider – and it will widen further. Politicians, already out-of-touch, won’t only be so, they’ll be shown to be so, time after time after time. The weapon of satire will mutate into something much more relevant: action. The independence of communities will begin to become a factor, making mere national devolution look like a charade. And as politicians show they are incapable of reacting to the speed of change, let alone to legislate with it in mind, they will be rejected in a move which will make ‘60s counterculture look like playground games.

Good grief!