Brainwashing Ourselves: How Digital Technology is Destroying Democracy
Technology as Ideological Driver of Culture
As Neil Postman noted in the nineties, tools are not ideologically neutral. Each technological advancement brings with it new values and norms and alters how we experience knowledge and truth. As Postman stated in his book Technopoly, “A new technology does not add or subtract. It changes everything.” Accordingly, digital technology is upheaving our culture and displacing the traditions and norms we were accustomed to, leaving many of us feeling unmoored and undermining our political values.
Culture is shaped to fit our tools rather than the reverse. Both print and film technologies, in creating a market of personal consumption of media, allowed individuals to participate in the exchange of potentially esoteric information without a central authority figure like a priest or a king to filter the content. As a result of this seismic cultural shift, individuals were treated as competent to manage their own consumption of information as well as that of their families. This information autonomy gave individual and family units an increased ability to direct their own lives.
Digital technology seemed at first to be expanding on the individual’s ability to receive information in a decentralized manner, but the anarchic nature of the internet created a glut of information that resulted in a backlash that ushered in centralized controls. When the private citizen went online in the early days of the internet, they were confronted with a new freedom—the ability to not just receive information but to also publish their own expression around the world. It was an exciting revelation, but one that came with a significant cost—information overload. Instead of simply receiving a highly edited, professionally curated package of content from a publisher or production company, the average person was suddenly bombarded with information and opinions of varying quality from other average persons like themselves.
It was exciting but also discomforting because people were rapidly facing an unprecedented exposure to an overabundance of information, and the responsibility of filtering that information created a new dilemma that led to a new form of control.
The Internet as an Incubator of Cultish Thinking
Online conversations quickly developed controls in the form of moderators—authoritarian figures who established the rules of engagement and who got to decide what speech was worthy and what was not. Early moderation mostly followed the formula of free speech that people were used to offline, simply restricting the low-quality items that interrupted the flow of dialogue: spam, bots, unsolicited pornography, and threats of violence. But this was not enough.
People were exposed to ideas that were too novel too quickly. The New York City liberal would end up in the same chatroom as a Texas conservative, and both of them would also be exposed to people with completely different ideologies that did not fall on the mainstream American left or right. These individuals whose windows of thought had been almost exclusively shaped by their limited, local surroundings had to suddenly confront challenges to their preconceived worldview from strangers from around the world, and heated debates would ensue. Forum users, unable to reconcile these marked differences in worldview, quickly tired of what they viewed as their opponent’s stupidity or maliciousness. There was a resultant demand for more controls. Ignore buttons popped up and were quickly used for individuals who espoused ideas that the user disagreed with, limiting their exposure to different ideas and establishing the pattern for the silo-ization of the internet that is dominant today.
The moderators, first installed to deal with harmful materials like spam links and violent threats, were soon called upon to handle other information increasingly seen as equally harmful: minority opinions. Unlike the offline world in which people were judged through personal knowledge, direct observation, and reputation, individuals online could only be judged by the content of their digital output, which reduced them to flat, dehumanized vectors of information to be categorized as good or bad. To an unprecedented extent, ideas themselves were now viewed on binary metrics as good or bad, moral or immoral, dangerous or safe. That determination was then applied to the person, because in the digital realm the person posting and their ideas were experienced as one and the same. Thus, the new controls spawned by the digital realm to deal with information overload involved the establishment of a binary, ideological filter to judge whether information—as well as the poster of that information—should be included or excluded in a particular community.
Unfortunately, once the ideological binary is established as the moral paradigm, group discourse becomes a never-ending witch hunt. Group leaders and members are on constant lookout for potential immorality as represented by supposed outsiders to the group. Anyone who disturbs the group harmony with deviant thoughts can find themselves the sudden target of paranoiac suspicion. If your thoughts deviate too much from the group consensus or if your contributions result in too much robust debate, you may stand accused of being an infiltrator—a troll, double agent, or other villain whose supposed raison d’être is sowing discord in the group. Every conversation becomes a purity test of sorts, and the only way to prove that you are one of the “good” guys is to make your expressions a reflection of the group’s worldview. In such a paradigm, it is beyond conception that a person’s dissentious views could be legitimately held and borne of different but equally valid life experiences. Significant deviance is assumed to be a sign of moral deficiency. As every person contorts their self-expression to stay in the good graces of the group leaders, the Overton’s window of thought becomes narrower and narrower.
In effect, people naturally strove to make internet forums reflect the values that they were accustomed to in real life but in so doing spawned a now-entrenched system of viewpoint discrimination and groupthink. Whereas all were on equal footing at first, now a pro-life woman in a feminist forum or anti-gun advocate in a conservative forum would be deemed beyond the pale of good discourse and be ousted as an enemy or supposed troll. Just having a contradictory opinion on one particular matter could be sufficient to deem someone harmful. Groupthink became the norm, and anyone who deviated from the group too much would be seen as a danger to the group who needed to be punished or eliminated. The exclusion of the independent thinker was and continues to be framed in a benign manner as a need to keep the group united, protect vulnerable members from discomfort, protect weak-mined individuals from misinformation, eliminate trolls, stay on topic for the good of the group, and to eliminate “attacks” and “hate.” Thus, thanks to the internet, intolerance for dissent and demands for censorship arose as aspirational values of a new moral order.
Consequently, the controls that developed in response to digital technology were exactly those controls that are used in the formation of cults and totalitarian regimes, tools to ensure that every person falls in line with the orthodoxy as determined by the leadership of the group. These forms of management include: 1. control of information within an environment (moderation, fact checks, content warnings, removal of information, prioritizing certain viewpoints, etc.); 2. demands for purity in thought to assure that everyone conforms to the group (Perhaps best exemplified by Reddit, where members are often preemptively banned from sub-reddits solely for having participated in other sub-reddit topics that are considered wrongthink by the moderators, but it can also be as subtle as accusing someone of not being a true believer of the ideology under discussion (e.g. a real conservative or a real feminist) because of an opinion the person expressed); 3. sacred truths that cannot be questioned without some form of reprisal, usually removal from the group or platform (e.g. “the vaccine is safe and effective,” “trans-women are women,” etc.); 4. the reduction of complex ideas to trite slogans and memes (often cliches used to terminate dialogue—“trust the science,” “I am not going to educate you,” contextually pejorative labels: anti-vaxxer, anti-science, racist, etc.—when these lines are used, the recipient is on notice that they are engaging in wrongthink and should fall in line with the group or expect to be censored); 5. control over who belongs to the group and who does not (the mere knowledge that removal from the group is possible is sufficient to encourage self-censorship); and 6. the subordination of the individual to the group (a member’s self-expression and experiences are sacrificed for the sake of group cohesion).
These totalitarian controls are quotidian at this point, and anyone who participates in discourse on the internet is exposed on a daily basis to enormous pressure to conform their thoughts to the narratives that are perpetuated by those in control of the internet fora. Without realizing it, we slowly brainwashed ourselves over time with our uncritical and pervasive use of digital technology. Essentially, by participating in these fora and submitting to their rules of engagement, which include strident viewpoint discrimination, we have been conditioning ourselves to believe that free speech is a dangerous thing and that anyone who dissents is a bad person who deserves to be ostracized and punished. It was therefore inevitable that once we accepted these digital values as normal, they would then infiltrate our offline interactions.
Exportation to the “Real” World: The Unsavory Redditification of Society
While we think of ourselves as using digital tools to change our world, in reality digital technology is changing us. The more we consume digital technology, the more we become subsumed within its values of polarization, sanctimony, lack of empathy, dehumanization, irrationality, ostracism, the desire to control others, and disdain for minority views.
The past two decades were far more than enough time to change our culture. People are now accustomed to having third-party, authority figures govern their private speech and personal conversations, a sharp departure from the pre-internet days. The previous “live and let live” cultural paradigm was slowly displaced by cultural norms formed online in which individuals associate majoritarian orthodoxy with moral authority, disdain minority rights as inherently suspect, and feel entitled to control and punish those who fail to conform to the majority. Most people in the Western world are never disconnected from the totalitarian culture of the internet. That is why digital cultural norms are now dominating our society.
In effect, the digital controls that developed in order to control the overabundance of information on the internet led to polarized, cultish thinking and conditioning people to believe that totalitarianism is a necessary form of regulation in today’s world. Unfortunately, as more and more of our lives are practiced online, individuals are becoming less free to express themselves as people become more unaccustomed to confronting dissentious viewpoints. Dissent is now treated as a danger that needs to be eradicated. Worse still, this cultish conditioning is bleeding into the offline world so that anti-democratic, authoritarian measures are increasingly seen as normal in the “free” world.
In the resultant culture in which a person’s character is measured by their beliefs rather than by their deeds, ditching a friend for thinking differently is considered a virtue, not a flaw signaling intellectual immaturity, as it once was. It is commonplace these days for people to cast aside friends for espousing unpopular viewpoints; to conceal one’s true thoughts from one’s friends to avoid being cast aside; to disinvite intellectuals from speaking panels because their opinions on various topics, even if unrelated to the subject at hand, are deemed too heretical; to terminate an employee for engaging in self-expression on their own unpaid, personal time; to call for a book or movie or even a whole person to be banned on the basis of purportedly offensive content or speech; to terminate a professor for engaging in what used to be considered academic freedom; and to de-fund or de-platform an artist for engaging in the self-expression that is vital to their craft. All of these actions that are commonplace today would have been rare to unthinkable two decades ago.
In all of these instances, a full-fledged human being is reduced to the value of a single idea, robbed of their humanity and sometimes their livelihood for expressing one small part of a complex persona. The result of this new digital tendency is that, though we technically have the greatest ability to share our voices with others around the world, we have a largely diminished freedom to express those ideas. This trend renders independent thought dangerous because one idea too far removed from the group consensus can result in social isolation, a condition that humans are not wired to tolerate. Many people are chilled from speaking, not just online where they may end up banned by a tech platform, but offline where they face the possible consequences of losing jobs, networking opportunities, and friendships. Forced to choose between thinking for oneself and social inclusion, people are prone to prioritize social inclusion and to therefore censor themselves for the sake of continuing to fit in. The urge to self-censor has become so common and extreme that Saturday Night Live recently performed a sketch that satirizes how afraid people are to speak openly with their friends about the societal response to COVID. The universe of ideas that is acceptable to be expressed is rapidly shrinking and people are exposed to fewer ideas that challenge their views, which further reinforces their intolerance for differences of opinion in a cyclical manner.
Much like George Orwell’s doublespeak, people in contemporary society are pressured to conceal their true thoughts and dilute their public messages to the point that they become anodyne and meaningless enough that the mob will tolerate them. This is what people feel has to be done to avoid being stigmatized, censored, or outcast. Progressives’ dismissiveness—often on the illiberal grounds that having the freedom to speak does not mean one should not be punished for exercising that freedom (in which case, one effectively does not possess “freedom”)—reveals the troubling trend of assigning moral value to a person based on the ideas that they express, with value being judged not by the quality or validity of the thoughts expressed, but solely on how closely those ideas conform to existing orthodoxy. In their stance that purportedly “bad” speech deserves to be punished, progressives are setting conformity as an aspirational value and punishing those in the minority simply for being in the minority. This is problematic because new ideas always start at the fringes of society, propelled by those individuals who dare to question those in the majority. A society cannot progress without allowances for minority viewpoints.
Therefore, whereas literary norms involved a celebration of the reason of each person and encouraged the development of an individual’s critical thinking skills, digital culture replaces those norms by enshrining the logical fallacies of appeals to authority and bandwagon as the successor to critical thinking. Once it becomes immoral to deviate from the group, independent thought and reason are disincentivized because such traits lead to pluralism and divergence from the group. This shift in culture is exemplified by the New York Times, a former bastion of literary ideals, unironically running a piece about the dangers of trying to think for oneself or NPR affiliate WNYC producing a show entirely devoted to the evils of free speech and the need for more stringent controls.
Thus, facts, transparency, and rationality are inimical to digital culture. Conformity, not truth, is the driving force of digital culture. Digital technology has changed our relationship with truth and knowledge. Whereas before each individual was deemed competent to find her truths for herself in a relatively unbridled market of information no matter how those truths might deviate from the consensus, today the individual is viewed through the jaundiced lens of digitalism as too incompetent to recognize truth for himself, as a person who is corrupted by more information rather than aided by it and who needs to be protected with totalitarian controls.
How Digital Norms Threaten Democracy
The Diminishment of Free Speech
By programming individuals to become accustomed to totalitarian regulations on a personal level, it was inevitable that these digital norms would also pervade the political realm. As individuals become more and more immersed in digital technology, society on the whole becomes more antagonistic towards free speech, more intolerant of pluralism, more polarized, and, as a result, ultimately more unstable. There is perhaps no bigger sign of this illiberal paradigm shift in the United States than bedrock institutions that were previously the defenders and beneficiaries of free speech suddenly supporting the idea that free speech is dangerous.
The ACLU that exists today—the former proponent of nearly absolutist free speech values and the organization that once defended the First Amendment rights of Nazis to demonstrate—seems to disdain free speech. Notably silent during the past two years of increasing government hostility to free speech, it recently filed a legal brief suggesting that the government has a right to compel speech when that speech would cause offense. One of its highest profile attorneys Chase Strangio tweeted in support of censorship, “Also stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is a hill I will 100% die on.” And in an example of the digital morality transitive property, Strangio followed up by tweeting a comment that suggested free speech was the province of bigots, imbuing the once-lauded concept of free speech with a negative connotation. Because under digital values, if a group already deemed immoral by its avowed ideas on one matter also expresses support for a second idea, that second idea must also be immoral by virtue of the moral status of the speaker. Thus, in Strangio’s digitalized mind, free speech has no intrinsic value and becomes immoral when favored by one’s ideological opponents. Clearly, the ACLU would be on the opposite side of its landmark Skokie case if it had the same choice today.
The ACLU is not unique in adopting the new, illiberal, digital value system. The New York Times published a piece in 2021 advising readers that their critical thinking skills were outdated and that they should first determine whether a speaker is “trustworthy” before engaging with the information. In this way, the New York Times sought to further entrench the digital norm of evaluating individuals on a binary, moral scale based on other ideas the person expresses rather than assessing the quality of the idea currently expressed on its own merits. In the new digital world, the quality or validity of the idea is irrelevant; all that matters is that the speaker pass the purity test of conforming to the mob establishment. Truth in the mouth of a speaker deemed immoral automatically becomes a falsehood in such a paradigm, and the search for truth is rendered into a mere popularity contest.
And that attack on Enlightenment ideals was not a one-off. The New York Times routinely engages in viewpoint discrimination in moderating its comments, frequently censoring those that express dissent from progressive orthodoxy. It reportedly also refused to publish an ad for a Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s book about Anthony Fauci on the grounds that the book was “misinformation.” This is not anomalous. Booksellers are also increasingly giving into a culture in which ideas themselves can be immoral and therefore the books that contain those ideas must be censored (See exhibits A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, and K. And, as noted above, NPR affiliate WNYC recently produced an entire hour-long show that discussed why free speech is harmful without any rejoinder.
Anything that could allow a person or group to express an unorthodox idea is suspicious, and therefore in digital culture, the concept of free speech is inherently dangerous. Undergirding all of these actions is the implicit idea that the private individual is not competent to think for himself and should not have the opportunity to do so. The paternalistic notion that individuals must be protected from corruption by bad ideas has taken hold of our culture. And this type of milieu control of information enables independent thought to be supplanted by majoritarian propaganda just as it does in other totalitarian environments.
The supposedly benign reasons for viewpoint discrimination were extended offline, with accusations of hate speech and a supposed need to protect the vulnerable used as thin pretexts to ban viewpoints that are inconsistent with progressive orthodoxy. More alarming than the fact that such viewpoint discrimination is regularly practiced today is the reality that many Americans are accepting of such discrimination, a sign of how conditioned to censorship they have become. The assumption that the individual is neither competent to judge the quality of information nor strong enough to be exposed to information of allegedly dubious quality now reigns supreme, bolstering the new flourishing culture of censorship.
Arisen from such fertile, censorial grounds is a perpetual mob that is constantly on guard for potential wrongthink (i.e. ideas that deviate from progressive orthodoxy) and feels no compunction about harshly punishing a person for engaging in such heterodoxy. The ends—eradicating all dissentious viewpoints and forcing each individual to submit to the progressive narrative—is seen as a noble cause that justifies the means, no matter how harmful to individuals. The ideological binary is in full effect in the offline world, and a person who expresses a supposedly dangerous idea is considered a dangerous person who needs to be punished to set an example to others who might also be tempted to stray.
Progressives are frequently dismissive about concerns of censorship and “cancel culture,” arguing that the high-profile celebrities who have been “cancelled” still have the technical means to express themselves. However, they ignore the fact that such censorship demands increasingly target private individuals, not just public figures, and that private speech is increasingly being censored in a way that was not possible before the rise of the internet. Moreover, they also overlook the chilling effect such actions have on the speech of private individuals, who have less resources to cope with such threats and are therefore more likely to self-censor. They are dismissive because they actually want a world with limited speech, where the window of permissible thought is narrow enough to exclude all the speech they disagree with.
Frequently lost in the debate is the effect that censorship has on society at large rather than just the effect on the individual. The more censorship and cancelling that occurs in society, the more people are taught to censor themselves to fit within the bounds of acceptable discourse. The more people self-censor, the more society descends into a cultish groupthink that forbids nuanced ideas and novel solutions to problems.
There is no acknowledgement under digital norms that there can be any positive intent or benefit in the exchange of ideas between people with opposing viewpoints, and the result is that society as a whole is becoming increasingly polarized as individuals confine themselves to echo chambers where everyone else thinks exactly like them. Accordingly, people are becoming adept at applying the standards of the new digital morality, viewing people who dissent from orthodoxy as immoral or inhuman and being unwilling to engage with those who think differently. This ultimately undermines our political culture since the interchange of ideas is vital to a functioning democracy.
This ultimately leads to purity seeking of the sort the left frequently engaged in after Trump was elected. Under digital norms, a person’s moral standing has to be sufficiently established before you can align with them, meaning they cannot have a history of engaging in any wrongthink, such as having voted for Trump. One’s allies have to be in agreement on all issues. Digital morality would discourage, for instance, an alliance between women on the issue of domestic violence if all the women were not also in agreement on the topic of abortion. Transcending political boundaries in digital culture is a sign of immorality. In essence, that means one cannot ever build coalitions across aisles and instead must rely on the small minority of people who already think exactly like you on all issues for all your political support. The result is a fragmented society that is unable to unify around common causes and instead leads to groups becoming more insular, which leads to extremist thinking that dehumanizes opponents and creates further impediments to societal unity. Consequently, digital morality’s emphasis on social cohesion actually has the reverse effect of creating systemic disunity in society.
Without exposure to mitigating ideas, the polarized factions of society lose their ability to empathize with others as well as their willingness to find compromises. Every political issue becomes a high-stakes, zero-sum game because the insular thinking prevents consideration of a middle ground, which is tantamount to defection in the polarized mind. The inevitable outcome of such polarized thinking is that each group feels it has to win at all costs. When a group feels that the only options it faces are a binary, win-or-lose situation, the group is more willing to play unfairly to win, seeing the ends as justifying the means of their purportedly noble cause. Violating due process, rule of law, and minority rights can all be seen as moral when the alternative is to let the opponents win, which, in the addled mind of a political cult member who no longer sees the opposition as human, is the same as letting evil win.
Intolerance of Pluralism
Decades of internet engagement—entire lifetimes for some generations—conditioned people to see other people’s exercise of freedom as an existential threat and to see their own attempt to infringe on others’ freedom as morally heroic. That is why many people now see citizens exercising their democratic right to political expression as dangerous and see nothing sinister about limiting political expression.
As harmful as the erosion of free speech is to the individual, it is indicative of an even greater harm to political culture. The persecutorial mob complex ingrained in digital culture has as its target unorthodox groups. Thus, society’s inability to tolerate divergent thought in the individual is indicative of a more systemic intolerance for the existence of minority sub-populations. If the individual is not free to deviate from the majority, then the individual cannot exist as a member of a minority group. Minority groups can only exist at the pleasure of the mob, and anytime the minority group conflicts with mob orthodoxy, it is the minority group that must bend to keep the peace. Thus, while digital culture proponents often nominally claim to want to protect minority groups, their insistence on conformity to majoritarian standards ensures that genuine diversity cannot exist in the new moral order.
Speech is an outward expression of inner beliefs, and the loss of freedom of speech is dangerous because it is a threat to the ability to hold and practice a belief system that differs from the orthodoxy. This means unorthodox group members cannot speak, believe, love, and live in a manner that diverges from the mob. If they cannot express themselves freely, then they cannot effectively organize, represent their political interests, or secure legal protections for practicing their lives in a different manner. Without freedom of expression for the individual, the very existence of the minority group is threatened. Consequently, digital morality is a direct attack on minority rights.
By engaging in strenuous viewpoint censorship and infringing on minority rights, adherents of digital morality are cultivating political frustration that undermines societal stability. The resulting polarization and intolerance for divergence is creating a landscape of media consumption that is completely fragmented. Progressives, being at the forefront of adopting digital culture, ensure that legacy media companies do not reflect the perspectives of anyone critical of progressive orthodoxy, so people who want an outlet for their own worldviews have to seek out independent media. The end result is that there are no longer any shared truths or narratives; each group has its own narrative, and there is no universally shared basis from which people can build a consensus on.
Additionally, the tension between the new digital culture and the old Enlightenment culture is exacerbating the situation. People are straddling two very different, incompatible cultures. Our old values and traditions are being diminished while many may not be ready or willing to adopt the new digital value system. The shifting landscape causes people to feel unmoored from reality. Without a stable, cultural foundation from which to make sense of the world, people can come to believe anything, accept anything—even ideas and values that directly contradict the norms that they previously supported. That is why today people in the “free” world barely blink when totalitarian measures are proposed as political solutions and why many on the left today hold political positions that are the antithesis of the values the left used to hold.
Most people do not even notice that we are living through the clash of two opposing cultures—the old, “real” world culture that emphasized reason, pluralism, and individual sovereignty and the new, digital culture that demands conformity, surveillance, and centralized control. Without a fixed cultural foundation to filter information and discern for themselves real from unreal and true from false, people are extraordinarily dependent on authority figures to tell them how to think. Deprived of the context and order that the previous cultural stability provided, people are struggling to make sense of the world and to find shared purpose. Without individual integrity at the personal level to decide for oneself what information to be exposed to and how to interpret that information, the very basis of our once Liberal society is unraveling.