The Reality Virus

There’s a new virus infecting the Internet that’s more pernicious and more dangerous than any virus that has gone before. It’s the first example ever of a hybrid Internet-human virus and probably the universal common ancestor of all hybrid Internet-human viruses to come.

The condition the virus leaves behind is increasingly well recognised and goes by the understated label of “post-truth” but the virus itself is so far anonymous and so I propose we name it after the effect it has on those it has infected who, put simply, can no longer distinguish reality from fiction, hence the reality virus.

The symptoms of those infected by this reality virus are evident:

  • They doubt all truly great human achievements, even the most recent history where events have been recorded by multiple independent people and machines. The growing example is the number of otherwise intelligent people who believe that the moon landings were faked and humans never achieved that extraordinary feat.
  • The virulent passion of the commentariat who are compelled by the virus to push their views in comments on every article on a particular subject as the reality virus seeks to propagate itself and infect new hosts.
  • The instant production of conspiracy theories and the instant credibility that people give them.
  • The belief that dismissing a conspiracy theory, however outlandish, that we saw on the Internet (more below on why the Internet is key here) is an irrational action and that truly rational/clever people consider conspiracy theories as possibly true until the evidence is conclusive against them. Which of course once you’re infected it never is. This view of what is rational/clever is the fundamental internal intellectual justification that keeps the reality virus alive.

The overall effect of the virus is to leave the mind with all its usual barriers of common-sense, scepticism and ridicule broken down and the mind now susceptible to mental infection by any old nonsense.

Some have suggested there’s nothing new in origin here: that this is all the work of propaganda operatives in the crumbling kleptocracies that masquerade as nation states; that they are following the long tradition of faking news and evidence to manipulate minds; and that the Internet is simply the modern equivalent of the leaflet drop.

Gary Kasparov puts that view very eloquently:

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

But I don’t buy what is ultimately another grand conspiracy theory – the ambition of propagandists has only ever been to redefine truth in a defined population not to break truth altogether because that’s a situation they can’t control and they’re as much scrambling to understand this virus as anyone is. After all, a propagandist wants people to believe their version of the truth not any version of any truth as put out by anyone, anywhere.

It’s also clear that the propaganda teams were not responsible for much of the support this reality virus received as it evolved. There was a time when conspiracy theorists were laughed at but then the popular culture of storytelling shifted to use the new plot twist of “what if that conspiracy were actually true”. Nobody doing that intended for so many people to end up believing conspiracies, nor did they even think that was possible, it was just a new storytelling device that made their stories contemporary and absorbing. But it nevertheless contributed to the breakdown of the barriers that protect truth and sanity.

It wasn’t a Russian psyops team that started the meme that the moon landings were a hoax, but a US author Bill Kaysin who had already made his mind up before the moon landings took place.

And so, unlike all previous Internet viruses which have been specifically engineered, the origins of this virus do not appear intentional but an emergent behaviour from the combination of human imagination and the power of the Internet.

As observed in the symptoms above, Internet propagation is critical for a conspiracy theory to take hold and people retain scepticism about conspiracy theories that don’t have that pedigree. It’s as if many believe that a theory can only propagate online if it resonates with a critical mass of people and therefore if it does propagate it must have some truth to it.

As an Internet fundamentalist, I trust that the Internet always routes around failure and that’s inevitable because of the permissionless innovation that the Internet supports and rewards. So, just as the virus itself has emerged from the Internet, I believe the cure will too.

I can already see three ways in which that will happen: sentiment analysis in web indexing; automated fact checkers; and anti-fake prophylaxis.

Internet search is currently web indexing with various measures that are basically popularity rather than relevance (number of inward links, previous clicks on search results, etc). It’s also popularity that drives auto-complete, which has had numerous problems because using popularity suggests that the results somehow reflect the aggregate of human sentiment. This leads to the highly misleading belief that because a racist link comes highest in search ranking for a specific term, that must mean that racism is on aggregate more popular than the contrary view. Another mechanism by which the reality virus grows.

The use of sentiment analysis is a logical next step for Internet search and builds on the extensive work and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence of recent years. A web indexer that analyses the sentiment of the context in which text appears can recognise hate speech for example and adjust the rank down accordingly.

Another technology likely to have a big impact is the emerging breed of automated fact-checkers, which can clearly identify fake statements. The area most ripe for the assistance of fact-checkers is that of ‘promoted stories’ where fake news proliferates making this a major propagation vector for the reality virus. Particularly as more news sites give up on generating or curating their own content and trawl clickbait from the web instead.

The operators of search engines and promoted story sites are going to be faced with a real dilemma soon — should they use automated fact-checkers and eliminate fake news or ride the fake news wave whatever the long-term consequences?

And then of course there’s the same local prophylactic approach that we use to tackle standard computer viruses. I’d happily install an ‘anti-fake news’ content filter alongside my anti-virus filter as both are equally harmful and I can’t imagine it will be long before we see those available at both the desktop and enterprise level.

Whatever the future, the failure has been detected and the Internet is starting to route around it.

This article was originally published here.