The world famous fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” does not teach children what most people think. In the story, The shepherd boy who was bored and lonely cried “Wolf!” to get attention. He did it again and the villagers came. On the third time, the boy was ignored and as a result he paid for his lie. His life and that of his flock of sheep were eaten by a visit from a real hungry wolf. The moral of this story that we are taught in school is that a liar will not be believed, even when telling the truth. Thus, we should never lie.
However, this statement itself is a lie. Children are excellent observers. They can read between the lines and see beyond the stated morals. They watch celebrities and leaders on television, their parents at home and their peers and even teachers in the classroom lying on a regular basis. Sometimes people lie for personal gain. Sometimes the reason is not always clear and seems almost random. People lie as a form of social lubrication in the form of white lies and exaggeration. Many people who have achieved the pinnacle of society are sometimes publically caught lying, but rarely do they get eaten like the boy who cried wolf. Children at a young age notice that lying serves a purpose. Despite what adults say, children learn more from watching what adults actually do.
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” does not teach children never to lie, but rather not to make the grave mistake of being labeled a liar. Liars absolutely cannot be trusted, but if you are to lie, make sure that you do it well and you will be rewarded. This mindset is engrained in each and all of us at an early age. As children grow and eventually take their roles as adults in our society I think that this belief only strengthens. This mindset appears to be ubiquitous across all of the major cultures in the world. We are now an interconnected single global civilization. The stakes have never been higher. With the rapid collapse of the biosphere that supports all of us, the doomsday clock to collapse is ticking closer to midnight. Truthfully, it's been stuck at 100 seconds for 3 years now. But with the pandemic and obvious signs of environmental collapse in the recent year, the refusal to move the clock closer to midnight is yet another lie. The world needs to find a way to trust each other. This needs to happen quickly. We are running out of time.
Over the last decades, public trust across the board has rapidly and steadily declined. In 2022, the world is in a trust crisis. Trust in government, traditional media and social media (where increasing numbers are exclusively getting their news) have rapidly and steadily declined. This is because fake news concerns are at an all time high. There is a lack of trust in societal leaders and governments to solve major problems such as the pandemic, job loss and climate change. In short, the people of countries of the world are quickly losing faith in the system itself. This video clip from the Endelman Trust Barometer 2022 does a great job of explaining the trust predicament that we all are in.
One of the reasons for this is the constant feeding of the confirmation bias by social media. From Wikipedia:
The Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values.People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs.
This is perfectly normal. One explanation for why humans are susceptible to confirmation bias is that it is an efficient way to process information. There is simply too much information out there for the brain to process. So, it tries to only gather what it considers relevant. According to Britannica, "people need to process information quickly to protect themselves from harm. It is adaptive to rely on instinctive, automatic reflexes that keep humans out of harm’s way."
Social media utilizes the innate confirmation bias in humans to profit. Science journalist and podcaster David McRaney, believes confirmation bias is the root of why we’re drawn to social media. "The fact that social media platforms confirm what we already believe is the reason many people use them in the first place,” he says. “If the platforms didn’t do that, they wouldn’t be successful.”
The biggest brands in social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter gain income by the number of hours users spend engaged with content, where they can be exposed to advertisers. They use proprietary adaptive algorithms to assess our interests and flood us with information that will keep us scrolling. The information that we are most attracted to is that which conforms to our confirmation bias.
The number of people in the world who get their news regularly from social media is staggering. According to earthweb.com, Nearly 60% of the world’s total population has at least one social media account. Each spends an average of 2 hours 24 minutes every day going through their feed. A significant portion of this time is spent absorbing news content specifically tailored to the user. In the US, 48% of Americans usually get news from social media sites. In Europe, this is under 40%, but some countries in the world are over 70% including the Philippines, Malaysia and South Africa.
Social media has removed the traditional gatekeepers to information, the traditional media. Once upon a time traditional media was viewed as a mainly unbiased trusted news source. Traditional media is still more trusted than social media, but it is no longer viewed as objective and impartial. Mainstream media are increasingly exposed as being beholden to their advertisers and those who fund them. Thus, people are stuck between the echochamber of their social media feed and heavily biased traditional media.
This downward spiral of mistrust is incredibly dangerous. It will stifle any unified action to solve any major problem. The risks are mounting. The dangers are increasing. But, we are unable to come together to take meaningful action. We are losing trust in our leaders. We are losing trust in our institutions, and we are losing trust in our democracies. A wise person once said "you can't dig yourself out of a hole". I say, "you can't lie your way to the truth either." The system needs to change. Step one, our leaders and the media need to start being honest. Our global civilization is being steered into an iceberg. We all know what happens next in the story.