Pessimism, propaganda and politics

I can’t be on the only one being crushed into learned helplessness and pessimism by the triumphalism of the far right taking over British politics, and the impending Festival of Brexit. Unlike the Brexit referendum result, the election of Trump and the results of past elections in the UK, this time I knew it was coming. But that hasn’t made it easier to accept. So how did we get here? And what should we do now? I figured I’d split some content out from a diversion on a previous blog and then share some thoughts about the leadership of the labour party.

It seems evident we are now in a time of propaganda and fear-mongering, where the truth has been lost amongst distortions and misinformation. Adam Curtis captured this prophetically in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 end of the year show (shown in two tweets from the marvellous Carole Cadwalladr here). Misinformation and bias is now pervasive in the way we receive our news, which is mostly delivered via social media and decided by algorithms based on past viewing choices in a way that reinforces our narrow bubbles. The news we read is skewed by the need to to keep us coming back to see the advertising content that funds it. And that means it is full of carefully curated fear, uncertainty and doubt, in between the filler of social media anecdotes and celebrity gossip. No wonder it feels like there are so many layers of bad news in the world at the moment.

Even when we take the time to read a newspaper cover to cover, we hear about so many hideous individual crimes not just in our locality but nationally and internationally because the world is so connected now – the latter often only identifying their location way down the article, meaning the headlines make us feel these are all risks that affect us personally. It makes it feel like the world is getting more dangerous even though the reverse is actually the case. There seem to be so many horrendous incidents of stabbings and shootings, and the ongoing human cost of the various war/conflicts going on in the world. And we start to feel as powerless as we do about the terrible weather events of different types that are being reported all around the world, from forest fires to floods and loss of ice fields. You’d think we know enough already to stop the global warming that is fueling the volatile weather, address the causes of conflicts and mediate solutions, and have effective police and criminal justice systems around the world. But no. It seems as developed nations, we prefer to make superficial changes to actually implementing real change when it comes to the environment.

Sadly, that is no surprise given the disproportionate influence multinational corporations have over policy. We seem to have increasingly allowed the super-rich and corporations to covertly buy influence through donations and lobbying. This lets them promote the kind of politicians who will increase the wealth gap further still, remove consumer protections and “red tape” and allow creeping privatisation of public services. The same forces let the far right foment prejudice and anger through internet and tabloid propaganda, so the focus of blame is always downwards toward vulnerable groups and not upwards to those with wealth and power. To compound and consolidate this, in the UK we have chosen to immobilise our entire system of government, civil service and public and private sector management for three years whilst deciding how many feet to shoot ourselves in under the banner of Brexit. This has never been more obvious than in the last week, where we are now poised to undermine all the checks and balances, and scupper the next few years of economic growth to entrench this new post-truth hard right populist culture for future generations.

And whilst the Labour party try to elect a new leader with the credibility and passion to challenge this, the left is fragmenting rather than regrouping. I’ve seen so many posts about Corbyn and Corbynism, trying to make out that idealogical purism is still the way forward, that we lost the election but won the argument and should do more of the same. Another Angry Voice posted as if it was irrational fear of renationalising transport and utilities that was the problem, concluding “If you’re afraid of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, I’m afraid you’re pretty much the dictionary definition of a narrow-minded little Englander aren’t you?” I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, I doubt many progressives disliked Corbyn’s policies, especially individually. However, together his policies will have seemed very disruptive and expensive not just to conservatives but to a lot of the middle ground and left-of-centre voters that are so vital in gaining a majority in UK politics – meaning he didn’t have mass appeal. Yet he was undoubtedly a good guy – warm, kind, genuine and thoughtful, and held in high regard by everyone who knows him personally. So was this also an example of a tendency to make snap judgements by first impressions, another consequence of unhelpful stereotypes of what a good leader is like, proof of a corrupt media or some combination of all of these things? I’m not sure.

Even to the diehard lefties (and I’d consider myself left of Blair, and someone who had great hopes for Corbyn in the beginning) Corbyn wasn’t the right fit for the job of heading up the opposition or being elected prime minister. Many of us worried about his leadership ability, his ability to be decisive and persuasive, to convey ideas in simple soundbites, and his failure to crack down on antisemitism within the party – giving the biased millionaire-owned media a stick to beat him with. But most of all, we worried about his choice not to articulate that Brexit was a tax evasion ploy by the super-rich that would harm the most vulnerable most, but also cause child poverty, cuts in public services, the break-up of the union, weaker negotiating positions that allow US pharmaceutical companies to charge more to the NHS and infringement of our right and liberties. Instead he believed/pretended that labour could offer a “good Brexit” of some kind, and lost half his supporters. He then failed to form any kind of progressive alliance, and instead allowed attacks on progressive peers in other parties, which was the nail in the coffin for the election.

So where do we go from here? Is it just about getting a new leader who gives a better first impression? It seems to me that politics has polarised the historic broad and diverse parties on either side of the house into narrow camps at either extreme of the political spectrum, leaving a lot of us disenfranchised by the first past the post voting system and the recurrent gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. We can see it in the hard-right Brexiteers that now dominate the Conservative party, but we can also see it in the way that a dominant and vocal minority supporting Corbyn and accepting no deviation towards incorporating a broader range of voices or considering what policies might be popular or electable has taken over the Labour party. Perpetuating this narrow view of purist socialism in which everyone else is “narrow minded” or a “red tory” is a very significant part of the problem – to win elections you need mass appeal, not to attack and alienate anyone even one degree outside of your bubble. I think Tim Minchin is right that its a massive problem with social media culture that the Overton window for each tribe is now tiny and any deviation leads to people being shamed and out-grouped (“I am afraid to write anything that might upset my own tribe”).

As this twitter thread articulates, I’d much rather have a centre-left prime minister doing many cumulative good things that are slightly less rapid or radical, than for all my beliefs to remain represented by an increasingly narrow, segmented and ineffective opposition. An amazing amount can be done within a party and set of policies that have broad appeal. For all his flaws, the centre-left Blair government made a huge amount of impact in numerous areas:

They lifted 600,000 children and 1 million pensioners out of poverty, provided winter fuel payments, free bus travel for over 60s, free TV licenses for over 75s, and improved a million social homes. It doubled school funding for every pupil, added 36,000 extra teachers and 274,000 teaching assistants, transforming education, leading to record literacy and numeracy. They opened 2,200 Sure Start centres and provided free nursery places, giving a better future for millions. They raised child benefit by 26%, introduced child tax credit and 3 million child trust funds. They invested in the NHS, employing 85,000 more nurses, cutting NHS waiting times by 82% and got in-patient waiting lists down half a million. Heart disease deaths fell by 150,000 and cancer deaths by 50,000. They implemented the smoking ban that has contributed to a 30% decline in the number of smokers in the UK, with massive impact on numerous health morbidity statistics. They created NHS Direct. They also improved employment rates and conditions: they introduced minimum wage, created 1.8 million new jobs, cut long term unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of apprenticeships, and introduced right to 24 days holiday and 2 weeks paternity leave. They employed 14,000 extra police, cut crime by 35% and increased criminal justice (court) spending by 21%. They negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, brought in the Human Rights Act, doubled overseas aid, wrote off debts for the poorest nations and created GiftAid. They Scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships. They banned fox hunting, and gave free entry to museums and art galleries. They also managed to couple this with the longest period of low inflation growth since 1960, and created less debt than the governments before or since them, despite bailing out the banks. I’d say that’s pretty remarkable, and something to aim for achieving again.

However, at the last election, perhaps because of Brexit and this ideological purism – we (on the progressive left) didn’t manage to instill hope for positive change in the people of Great Britain, or to challenge the vacuous headline of “get Brexit done”. The election results were depressing but felt somewhat inevitable. As frustrating as it is that we have a government the majority of the population didn’t vote for, giving us a hard brexit that the majority of people don’t want, whilst we watch the world polarise and allow neo-fascist populists to rise, there are some tiny silver linings: The Tories have to work out how to do Brexit and will be responsible for the consequences and, hopefully, the Brexit party are gone.

I think this time around we need to pick someone who stands for all the right values, but has been able to articulate them in a way that has made real traction and can engage a much wider range of people. As much as I’d like that to be a woman, ideally from the north of England, supported by someone with a differing ethnic or cultural background, from the line-up on offer, I think Keir Starmer is the right person for the job. He’s spent his whole career knowing, following and effectively challenging the rules and processes of the legal system for the benefit of ordinary people, including challenging corporations and government policies and holding them to account. And he has done so without seeking personal glory, or making a reputation as a troublemaker. Whilst I really like Jess Phillips, I think she is too marmite to gain mass support and bring the country back together. Emily Thornberry seems nice, but very much a part of the north London bubble, and I don’t think the other candidates have the public profile or despatch box clout of Starmer,and we will at least get Angela Rayner as deputy leader.

Picking yet another white man from London for a political leadership role feels frustrating, as it plays into all the stereotypes of what a leader looks like. But I’m prepared to make compromise to get greater influence for progressive policies that will make the biggest impact on diversity in the long term. Plus we can only choose the most credible candidate standing. And for me that’s Keir Starmer. Hopefully he can bring the party together, tackle the scourge of antisemitism, and speak out in a way that appeals to a much wider demographic and geographic population than his predecessor.

I sincerely believe that if we all work together to encourage compromise and collaboration hopefully a more effective opposition can rise from the ashes that is more willing to be welcoming to a broad range of voters and more able to articulate how the current government continues to benefit the richest few at the cost of the rest of us, and particularly the most vulnerable in society. We need to show that the choices that Johnson and his remarkably homogeneous new pack of white male cronies are making are directly responsible for harming the welfare of large numbers of Brits. Current Conservative MPs being only 24% women and 6% BME is pathetic, and the greater diversity of candidates on the left should bring us a plurality of ideas and allow us to appeal to a wider demographic and opinion range amongst voters, if we get out of the silo mentality.

But more than that, we need to take on the issues. We need to campaign for environmental action nationally and internationally, strengthening of the legal system, an end to racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia and discrimination, and the important task of electoral reform, so that we don’t end up with scumbags in power or people who lose elections being given cabinet roles via the House of Lords. And we need to grasp the nettle with proper regulation of social media as a publisher. But they will only take action if enough of us insist on it. As I said earlier, the million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, and to find common ground. I’ll end with the wise words of Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. So let’s act like it!

16/2/2020: Lisa Nandy just made a really good speech about anti semitism that has really raised my opinion of her, so maybe there is a woman from the north that can do the job after all!

The rise of the bad guy

Trigger warning: first two paragraphs mention paedophiles, middle section is about racism and sexism, later content is political

The first time I met a paedophile I had no idea. He didn’t wear white towelling socks that showed below his slightly-too-short trousers, he didn’t wear a dirty trench coat, and he wasn’t a socially awkward man with greasy hair, unflattering glasses and a slight squint. Quite the contrary. He was a well-groomed, educated, articulate, middle-class man. He attended appointments to express concern about his grandchildren, and appeared supportive to his children in trying to sort out their problems. He was polite to professionals, and always thanked us for our time and expertise. I later found out that he had sexually and physically abused several members of the family. Looking back, our only clue (beyond the fact the children referred to us were evidently troubled and failing to thrive) was that the receptionist in one clinic said that she didn’t like the way he spoke to his wife in the waiting room, saying “I wouldn’t talk to a dog that way”. But we didn’t know how you could appropriately record that in the notes, given only the children were open to the service. So we didn’t record it.

The next time I met a paedophile he didn’t fit my stereotype of a creep or bad guy either. In fact, he tried to be my friend and find areas of common ground. If I hadn’t met him in my professional capacity and known of his conviction in advance, but instead had met him socially under different circumstances, I suspect we would have found some. Perhaps we would have had a pleasant conversation about politics, video games or running internet forums, and I’d have left thinking he seemed like a nice person. He was young, outgoing and wore a colourful T-shirt referencing a slightly crude meme. He was charismatic, informal and irreverent, and he flirted with the admin staff. However, I might have picked up on something when I found out his partner’s IQ was more than 60 points lower than his, that she had a serious trauma history, and they had met on a dating app for single parents where his profile bragged of how much he loved children. But I doubt his attraction to vulnerable single mothers is something apparent to most people that meet him, at least until they know him well.

The opposite face of this coin, where people assume they can judge a person’s character accurately from superficial appearances, almost certainly contributes to a lot of prejudice and discrimination. So many people from specific population groups are assumed to be aggressive, untrustworthy, or unacceptably different because of their culture or religion – but whether people experience these prejudices or not doesn’t reflect their behaviour or beliefs (or even whether they actually belong to the assumed demographic). Think of the prejudice about gypsies and travellers, or Muslims, or young black men, for example. Likewise the stereotypes about gender, or age. As I mentioned in another blog post, women in the public eye get judged for how well they conform to societal expectations of women – to look decorative at all times, to not be perceived as “aggressive” and to look after others. Any emotional expression is seen as a weakness compared to the perceived standard of cold logic that is perceived as more masculine and therefore preferable. There is a whole lexicon of words used to put women down when they step up to the plate.

Again, most of us are blind to our prejudices and we are also blind to our privilege. We assume an equal playing field when we congratulate ourselves for our achievements, and we don’t see the constant attrition that marks facing prejudice that contextualises individual incidents. This forum conversation (from post by mr0860 near the bottom of page 2 onwards), this twitter thread and this twitter thread show exactly what happens when the recipient flags sexism or racism, but those in the audience who have not experienced it do not pick up the same cues. You end up with a split between those who think it is legitimate behaviour/debate and those who are fed up with it (the recipients of the behaviour). The former group are disproportionately white men who have never been on the receiving end of the issue they cast doubt on. In fact they often haven’t even witnessed the issue first hand, giving them the false impression that it is rare, due to the false belief we all hold to some extent that our own experience is universal. The latter group are then branded as over-sensitive snowflakes stifling debate (though ironically it is those bandying those terms about who cry the loudest if they feel they are being criticised or their voice isn’t being given enough credit, see Stephen Yaxley Lennon or Milo Yiannopoulos).

Meghan Markle has been a particular victim of this pattern, as a mixed race woman that has used her platform to speak up for feminism and against racism and inequality, so it is no surprise that the vested interests of the British tabloid press dislike her and want to put her in her place. Yet there are still those who claim it isn’t racism, or that she brought the problems on herself in some way. In this brilliant clip Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu calls it out perfectly. The emotional labour of explaining or performing inequality is exhausting, and falls disproportionately on those who are subject to the prejudice in the first place, who already have additional burdens to carry.

My point is that we all make assumptions about other people, and often we aren’t as good as we think we are at picking out people’s true character from their appearance or what we get to see of them before we know them well. In fact sometimes we can know people very well and still miss huge facets of them, as is often evident in the terrible guilt and grief post-mortem when someone dies by suicide. The same thing might also contribute to why people enter relationships with partners who later become abusive toward them. Yet we are often blind to what we don’t know – I had someone on twitter recently claim to be certain that nobody in her extended network of over 100 friends and family members has ever experienced mental health problems. Statistically that’s as probable as a lottery win on a day you get struck by lightning, unless her family deviates very far from the rest of the world population in some way.

That isn’t to say there aren’t horrible people who are outwardly and obviously bad. There are. And I’ve met plenty of them, both personally and professionally. But I don’t think we can always pick them out from a line-up. And even when we can, it doesn’t seem to always hold them back. After all, we’ve had some very popular and powerful men come to light after many years of sexually abusing people on a massive scale (eg Weinstein, Epstein, Savile). There are also more than a few repugnant men in prominent political positions at the moment. Somehow being a division-stoking, lying, philanderer who will take whatever political position is expedient to him or his far-right paymasters, or a hate-mongering, tax-dodging, cheating, sex-pest who has asked foreign powers to interfere in his country’s elections hasn’t blocked two rich, overweight, blond men from some of the most powerful offices of power in the world. Far from it. Instead of their moral character being a barrier to office it is a selling point. Rather than denying or attempting to mask their true nature, they have started to double down in the knowledge that it isn’t reducing their popularity. Perhaps their carefully constructed persona of being harmlessly dim keeps them filed under ‘amusing oaf’ rather than ‘dangerous autocrat’. It is clear that their simplistic slogans have appealed to populations fed up of being ignored or talked down to, and made them seem more down to earth, whilst their decisions (no matter how hypocritical or founded on lies) make them seem like men of action.

I can’t be the only person that finds this incredibly frustrating. Surely we need to value truth and honour and block bad people from power? We need to stop it being amusing or acceptable to lie, express prejudice, exploit others, or to foment hatred of vulnerable people, and that means challenging the way that this is reported. Critical in this is the regulation of social media, and the support of journalism that is ethical and independent, rather than being reliant on social media, misleading narratives from biased sources and badly checked hearsay that spreads more rapidly and widely than the corrections that follow. I’m with Carole Cadwalladr that this is key to helping the public understand the truth about key issues and allowing democracy to function. If everyone who wanted progressive values to stand a chance in the world boycotted Facebook and lobbied for better regulation, their advertising revenue would fall and their business model would have to change. The million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, even if this means we have to find alternate ways to journal and share our lives with our networks*. Otherwise the bad people might tighten their hold on power and lead us in increasingly worrying directions.

 

*If that feels too much of a step, then I’d recommend you take three simple areas:
  1. Increase your privacy. On Facebook change your name and set your privacy settings higher so little or no information is public. Be wary of services with poor privacy and data protection.
  2. Be more data savvy. Watch The Big Hack. Be aware of what data you are giving way. Be mindful of what data your mobile phone and/or internet browser is collecting and what “personalisation” of advertising you are allowing, read what you are consenting to in the user agreement for apps and software
  3. Install apps that block advertising and show who is funding the adverts you do see. I use FB Purity and Who Targets Me?

The misrepresentation of evidence

About a week ago I was involved in a heated twitter debate about this blog post. I felt, as I said on twitter and in my extensive comments about the blog, that it entirely misrepresented the evidence about Adverse Childhood Experiences by implying that because of risk multipliers within particular population groups, certain negative outcomes were almost inevitable for people with multiple ACEs. The author repeatedly asks rhetorical questions like “If 1 in 5 British adults said they were abused in childhood in the last CSEW (2017), why hasn’t our population literally collapsed under the weight of suicides, chronic illness, criminality and serious mental health issues?” Likewise, she asks how anyone can be successful after childhood abuse if the ACEs research is correct. I replied to explain that this simply isn’t what the data tells us or what risk multipliers mean, so the exceptions are expected rather than proof the finding is incorrect. For example the claim that a 1222% increase in the risk of suicide amongst people with 4 or more ACEs meant these people were doomed, in reality means that the odds increase from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 92, meaning that 91 of every 92 people with 4+ ACEs do not die by suicide.

ACEs are a very useful population screening tool, and have provided incontrovertible evidence of the links between traumatic experiences in childhood and numerous social, psychological and medical outcomes that has been highly informative for those of us designing and delivering services. To me it seems like an example of how a simple piece of research can have a massive impact in the world that benefits hundreds of thousands of people. Yet that blog repeatedly implies ACEs are a harmful methodology that “targets” individuals and to is used to “pathologise and label children, arguing that those kids with the high ACE scores are destined for doom, drugs, prison, illness and early death”. It has been my experience that ACEs are used not to pathologise individuals, but to to highlight increased vulnerability, and to identify where there might be additional need for support. For example, I have used this data to argue for better mental health services for Looked After Children.

I felt that the repeated misrepresentation of the maths involved in interpreting risk multipliers undermined the entire message of the blog, to which I was otherwise sympathetic. (For the record, it is entirely appropriate to highlight bad practice in which it seems certain professionals are applying ACE scores to individuals inappropriately, and making people feel that their life chances are restricted or their parenting under scrutiny purely because of their childhood experiences of trauma). But unfortunately the author took my polite, professional rebuttal of elements of her blog as a personal attack on her – to the extent that she misgendered and blocked me on twitter, and refused to publish my response to her comments about my reply to her on the blog. That’s a shame, as the whole scientific method rests on us publishing our findings and observations, and then learning from the respectful challenge of our ideas by others with knowledge of the topic. But I guess we are all prone to defending opinions that fit with our personal experience, even if they don’t fit with the evidence.

Thinking about how uncomfortable it felt to see someone I considered to be a peer whose expertise I respected misrepresenting the evidence and being unwilling to correct their misconceptions when challenged, but instead trying to discredit or silence those making the challenge, it struck me that this was an example that highlighted a wider issue in the state of the world at the moment. Evidence is being constantly misrepresented all around us. Whether it is the President of the USA saying there is a migrant crisis to justify a wall (or any of the 7644 other false or misleading statements he has made in office) or the claims on the infamous big red bus that Brexit would give the NHS £350 million per week, or Yakult telling us their yoghurt drink is full of “science (not magic)” now that they can’t pretend live cultures are good for digestive health. There are false claims everywhere.

I stumbled into another example just before I started writing this blog, as I (foolishly) booked accommodation again through booking.com, despite the horrible experience I had last time I tried to use them (which remains unresolved despite the assurances from senior managers that they would reimburse all of my costs). The room was terrible*.

So I felt like I should be able to reflect my negative experience in my review. But oh no, Booking.com don’t let you do that. You see, despite seeing that properties appear to have scores out of ten on every page when booking, you can’t score the property out of ten. What you can do is to determine whether you give a smiley that ranges from unhappy to happy for each of their five ratings (which don’t, of course, include quality of sleep or feeling safe). So if you think the location was convenient, the property gets a score above five out of ten, no matter what other qualities mean you would never wish to sleep there again. But worse than that, the Booking.com website forces reviewers to give a minimum length of both positive and negative comments, but only displays the positive comments to potential bookers. So my “It was in a quiet, convenient location” gets shown to clients, but you have to work out how to hover in the section that brings up the review score, then click the score to bring up the averages, then click again to access the full reviews, and then shift them from being ranked by “recommended” to showing them in date order to actually get an objective picture. Then you suddenly see that at least half the guests had terrible experiences there. However, there is no regulator to cover brokers, and fire regulations and legal protections haven’t caught up with private residences being divided up and let out as pseudo-hotel rooms.

But just as Boris has faced no consequences for his bus claims (even though he stretched them further still after the ONS said he had misrepresented the truth), and Trump no consequences for his lies, and the consultants selling contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to children’s social care departments proudly told me they didn’t care about evidencing their claims, so the world carries on with little more than a tut of disapproval towards people and businesses who intentionally mislead others. Maybe I’m in the minority to even care. But I do care. I feel like it is the responsibility of intelligent people and critical thinkers, people in positions of power, in the professions and particularly in the sciences, to ensure that we are genuinely led by the evidence, even if that makes the picture more complicated, or doesn’t confirm our pre-existing beliefs. To counteract this age of misinformation, we all need to be willing to play our part. That is why I have always placed such a focus on evaluations and research, and have developed my screening tools so slowly and thoroughly, despite the fact that potential customers probably don’t see this as necessary. I believe that as much as possible, we should be promoting the value of evidence, educating the public (including children) to be able to think critically and evaluate the evidence for claims, and stepping up to challenge misleading claims when we see them.

*I booked a room in a property in London which they have euphemistically called “Chancery Hub Rooms” to stay over whilst I delivered some training in Holburn. It wasn’t a hostel or a hotel, but just a small terraced house. This time it had keypad entry to the property and to the individual room, which is a system that I have used successfully several times in Cambridge. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well in London, as they changed the codes twice without informing me. Once this resulted in locking me out of the room on the night of my arrival (and meaning that the beeping on the door as I tried the various codes they sent me woke the lady in the neighbouring room, due to the total lack of sound insulation in the property) and then by locking me out of the property the following evening, when all my stuff was locked inside. It also had glass inserts above the room doors that meant your room lit up like Times Square when anyone turned the landing light on. I then discovered that the building (which I already recognised to be small, overcrowded and not complying with fire regulations) had walls like cardboard, when the couple in the next room had noisy sex, followed by noisy conversation and then a full blown argument that lasted from 3am to 4am – despite me eventually in desperation asking them quite loudly whether they could possibly save it for a time that wasn’t keeping everyone else in the building awake. Of course Booking.com didn’t see it as their problem, and the property management company just blamed the other guests for being inconsiderate.

The attraction of small rewards

I went to the Y Not Festival last month. It was a bit of a mixed bag because of the weather, and the terrible app that was supposed to function as a map and timetable was a daft idea on a site with limited mobile in the first place and totally useless in practice as it wasn’t updated when things changed. But we saw some good bands, and ate some good food, and it was only half an hour from home so we also slept in our own beds! But the reason I mention it was because of a trivial but unexpected thing: They had an incentive to recycle the plastic pint glasses that were being used and dropped on the floor. They offered 10p per glass to take them to a recycling point in sets of five. For the most part that wasn’t enough for people drinking to bother keeping and pooling their glasses to cash in. But a small economy developed amongst people who found it worthwhile to go around collecting the dropped cups. There were some sets of kids excitedly supplementing their pocket money by collecting piles of cups during the day, and also a few adults who increased in numbers in the evenings.

At £5 per pint the beer was not cheap, and I joked with my husband that I’d see if I could collect 10 cups to offset the cost each time he drank one. But as soon as we started collecting cups, we realised that there were loads of them, and it was easy to make quite good money from them. In three hour-long collecting binges, and whilst listening to bands I enjoyed, I stacked and recycled well over 500 cups. That was enough to pay for all our food over the weekend, and the couple of drinks my husband had. Of course my legs ached like crazy the next day, after all that walking around punctuated by 500 bodyweight squats. But I felt good about being part of the efforts to clear up the site and recycle the cups.

Of course I’d much rather they used reusable cups as they did at Timber festival, or ones that are biodegradable as they did at Woodside. And it doesn’t really make much sense to pay random people more per hour than they pay their bar staff or rubbish pickers, let alone to pay the people who were simply emptying out the plastic recycling bins, stacking up the plastic cups and taking them to the recycling point like their own little black market scheme. And I wasn’t persuaded that they were actually going to recycle the cups at the end of the weekend. But I was interested in the fact that I somehow found it fun to do a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job earning way less than I can earn from work. Apart from the novelty and fact it filled in the gaps between artists, the reason was as obvious as those demonstrated in Pavlov and Skinner’s seminal experiments: The small but proximal rewards were enough to reinforce the behaviour, and make me want to repeat it over and over again. In fact it became quite addictive. The small payments made it feel like a game in which I was succeeding and earning five to ten pounds per trip to the recycling point made it really tangible that I was being rewarded. I could have spent the entire weekend picking up those crushed and broken plastic cups and straightening them out into stacks to cash in, and my kids were jealous that they’d missed out on the opportunity to earn cash because they had chosen to go to their grandparents rather than the festival.

In another example, I’ve been playing a really rubbish game on my iPad called Hidden City. It is a hidden object game, where you have to find items within a picture of a scene before the time limit runs out. For example, there might be a picture of a greenhouse full of caged birds and exotic plants, and you will then be asked to find a pair of binoculars, a fan, an oil lamp, a walking cane, a string of rosary beads, a bunch of chilli peppers, a pair of shoes, a turtle, and various other objects to click on and collect. Each will be visible within the scene, some in plain sight and others tucked away or masked by being in front of similarly coloured items. In certain quests there are also keys to find in the scene that are smaller and better hidden. Whilst this has some inherent mental challenge and novelty, it really is a very simple premise for a game, and quickly becomes repetitive, so you’d think the game would be very boring – in fact it seems boring to have explained it in writing, so I hope I haven’t sent you off to sleep! You would therefore assume that people would drop out of the game very quickly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, the makers are so confident that players won’t be bored enough to drop out that they make you search each scene for objects selected from the same list and placed in the same range of places in the scene many times. In fact, to complete some quests you search the same scene over a hundred times. The task becomes more difficult because you are expected to find more objects in a shorter time interval, and the scene becomes more cluttered so it is harder to pick out the specified items, and you have to alternative with searching other scenes to get the tokens required to go back to the main scene. To compound that, there are multiple locations in the game, and each needs to be searched a large number of times, so to complete the whole game you probably have to complete about ten thousand search quests.

It sounds like an enormous and monotonous task, and the game itself is full of bugs, glitches and poor translations, yet it is the most popular hidden object game in the world. More than half a million people have played it, and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of players active at any one time. They are not only signing up to play in huge numbers, they are choosing to pay for the optional purchases to assist their searching, making this game and the multiple other games by the same company, and the multitude of similar games available, highly profitable.  Estimates suggest that over £3 million of in game payments have been made since the game launched four years ago, and tens of millions of pounds are being spent in in-game micro-payments across all the games by this maker each year. It seems illogical, but many players spend way more than they’d need to pay to purchase a really good game to play this glitchy game that is constantly interrupted by advertising for in-game purchases and other games by the same company.

So why do people keep playing, and why do some of them keep paying? I think it is the same idea of reinforcement through small rewards. As a player you experience a lot of small successes. They make the first few searches really easy. Then each time you search and don’t find all the items you are told to try again. If you find them all you are rewarded by a random selection of small icons, and you can collect these items in sets. Completing the set gets you a rarer icon, with some bonus points or magical powers to boost your energy or increase your ability to find other bonus items. In the bigger quests you might also get tokens to unwrap gift boxes containing more icons. You also get overnight bonuses, daily bonuses and components of a magical piece of jewellery each time you play again after more than 8 hours but less than 24 hours. They compound so an unbroken chain of about a month gets you the finished item, and 12% more items to find for a 10 day period. If you break the chain you either have to use or buy in game currency to restore it, or you lose the components you gained. Something about our psyche likes gaining these pseudo possessions and dislikes missing out or losing them, enough that these games are quite addictive. But they are all just small pictures of random things. Why should I care if I have a magical tuning fork in my collection, or whether I get the apple strudel icon that completes the huntsman set that gives me the Austrian clock? There is no intrinsic value in the drawing of the clock, or the strudel or the tuning fork. They bear little relation to the scenes I search, or to the token plot about the magical city trapping people, or the candy-crush style mini-games. My life is not better in any tangible way if I collect 75 keys and open the golden chest to receive 6 bonus items, or if I play the scene 100 times and get a new avatar of the lady of the manor, or the Samuri, or the gardener. Being at a higher level on the game doesn’t convey any greater skill that would garner respect from other players, let alone in the real world, nor does it teach me anything I can generalise outside the game.

So why is a badly made game with such a simple and repetitive premise so popular? I’d suggest that is intentionally designed to be rewarding to play, and to tap into what we know about reinforcement with the number of small rewards it offers. Our brains are set up to love rewards, no matter how meaningless they are, or what the longer-term cost is. Like scratching an itch, or eating something tasty but unhealthy, using drugs or smoking cigarettes, the immediate rewards are often much more effective as an incentive than the longer-term consequences are as a deterrent. The logical decisions we make about changing our behaviour struggle against these proximal sources of gratification. It doesn’t feel like a big effort or commitment, because we are only playing a three-minute mini-game. We are tempted to take the small action to sample the reward, but this then lures us in to take the next step with another small effort, and the result is that we repeat that for far longer than we planned. Even if this means losing out on sleep, or getting things we objectively rate as more beneficial or necessary done.

The same is true of our online behaviour. We chain from one news article to another, or one social media post to another, or one youtube video to another until whole evenings disappear into a black hole. Even when we are going about our daily lives, we constantly check for the small rewards of messages, likes or responses on social media. For many people this becomes something done obsessively, to the detriment of other activities in our lives. As well as hitting our reinforcement pathways, these small social connections also fire up our desire to feel belonging and acceptance in a group, and to gain the approval and/or attention of others. I’ve blogged before about the toxic aspects of social media. Studies have shown that stopping using social media, whether for a couple of hours per day, a day per week, a longer block of time, or permanently, makes people happier (journal articleanecdotes, article citing studies, more anecdotes, even more). Yet for most of us, we are enticed by the sense of connection (albeit often a much more distant and less authentic connection than we make in real life) and the promise of these small rewards.

It makes me think how despite all the progress of technology, we really are quite primitive creatures in some ways, tied to the way our biology has evolved to reward behaviours that had some adaptive function that had evolutionary benefits. So can we make a conscious choice to use these inherent reward systems for more positive purpose? Possibly. For example, we can benefit by building chains of positive behaviours that we don’t want to break – like a colleague who told me he hasn’t drunk alcohol for 92 days after realising he was drinking almost every night. That challenge of having a dry month, or to do without meat, or caffeine, or cigarettes for a set time period seems an effective way to change behavioural habits. It is less final and impossible sounding to have a break from something than to give it up permanently, but it can give you a chance to see what life is like without it, find alternatives that fill that gap and build up some of these rewards for going without. It then becomes easier to continue that pattern, and there can be a reluctance to break the chain, particularly if there have been social or financial or health rewards for the change.

Likewise we can gamify exercise. When I used to weight lift I would share my achievements with a group of other weightlifters online. This gives a sense of a peer group who can reinforce your behaviour and some social pressure to sustain the pattern (though I was never one to post every gym visit on facebook the way that many runners/cyclists use their apps to, or to post lots of philosophy and photos the way that yoga fans seem to – I just posted to a weightlifters group when I made gains, and could compare my progress to others in the group). But even without this online support I had a sense of achievement each time I went to the gym, or completed my routine, or increased the weight I could lift in a specific exercise. I liked to record my weights in a journal and to feel that I was making measurable small gains. I also liked confounding expectations by being an overweight middle-aged woman who had hidden physical strength. I’ve mentioned my joy in having “ninja muscles” before. I’d like to get back to it, and I’m sure my core strength would return. I’ve still got surprisingly muscular legs, though I wouldn’t risk picking up an 18 stone barbell these days!

So I guess the knack is working out how to make our innate reward systems work for us in a modern world. I’m certainly far from achieving that. Change is hard. But maybe I can at least recognise the patterns better now I’ve thought about it more. Maybe I’ll come back to that theme in a future blog.

 

 

Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

Spectator sports

We are in the age of the internet. Adele’s Hello has been viewed 1.8 billion times, yet there are five other music videos on YouTube with more hits, culminating in Gangnam Style’s 2.7 billion view parody of the western status symbols rich south Koreans aspire to. Viral memes emerge and hit millions of page views in a day or two. Websites full of recycled content and filler with clickbait titles make up news stories to profit from the advertising revenue. False news engineered for the most gullible audiences makes tens of thousands of dollars a month. False news created by vested interests including foreign governments sways election results. Trivial stories that involve popular vloggers make headline news. Swedish video game blogger Pewdiepie reached 50 million followers last week and reportedly earns $12 million per year. His empty threats to delete his channel made headlines around the world. The top ten YouTube channels each make in excess of $5 million per year in revenue. Yet many people above the age of 40 have never heard of any of them. Part of what they have in common is what image-hosting site Imgur calls step 1: “Be good looking” although, as has always been the case even prior to the internet, that rules doesn’t seem to apply if the content is funny.

This new class of creators and media is packaged into bite-size content that doesn’t require any critical thinking, often with a catchy title and thumbnail that oversell the contents. Clicking from item to item across quick videos, memes, images and articles seems to make a time-sink trap that captures internet surfers in their millions. Amongst the new population of content creators are people with various different personalities, histories and views about the world, ranging from the ordinary to the extreme. And just as in the responses to any feminist video online, there are then vloggers whose content is made up of critiques of more famous vloggers and their content.

As Katie Hopkins has worked out, being sufficiently unpleasant and controversial generates clicks. It then creates responses that drives more traffic to the original content, and perpetuates discussion. There is then meta-debate about the creator themselves, attempts to shame them, and debate about what to do about them. Even publicising her embarrassing apology and substantial payment of damages for making false racist allegations of terrorist links against a muslim family gives her more notoriety and more clicks.

So it has been with the media rubbernecking the car crash of Eugenia Cooney’s weightloss, from a slim but attractive young woman into an emaciated role model of anorexia (weighing an estimated 4-5 stone) whilst denying she has a problem. A petition to ask YouTube to block her videos until she has sought help reached 18,000 signatures before being removed as inappropriate, and this has created a media circus with numerous vlogs and articles about her weight and whether this represents anorexia or not. Some have commented on the obesity of her mother and brother, and her childlike demeanour and role.

Because she has chosen to put herself in the public eye, and to make money from her audience, she is considered fair game for discussion. Yet if she does indeed have anorexia (and from the little I know of the case that does not seem an unreasonable assumption) she is very vulnerable and likely to have very distorted thinking. In the UK, there might well be a case to section her under the mental health act for treatment if there was not an alternative explanation for her weight loss, because of the lack of insight and high morbidity characteristic of this condition. So there appears to be a dangerous incentive of clicks (and the cash from advertising that follows) for being controversial, and in this case, seemingly putting her own life at risk.

Let us not underestimate the seriousness of eating disorders. One in five people with an eating disorder will die prematurely as a consequence of the condition, making it the mental health condition with the highest level of mortality. There is an increased risk of suicide, and an average duration of eight years for anorexia or five for bulimia, with less than half of all of those diagnosed making a complete recovery to the point they no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. This is significantly more dangerous for your health than all but the most severe levels of obesity, and yet being too thin is often viewed as a positive characteristic and aspirational. The internet term “thinspiration” has nearly 4 million hits, with the top sites being pro-anorexia websites, with young women sharing tips and setting dangerously unhealthy weight loss goals.

Teenage online model Essana O’Neill bravely exposed the truth behind her instagram profile, which had half a million followers, before quitting social media to focus on real life. She later posted about her insecurity, depression and body dysmorphia. But she was far from alone. Photoshopping of images in magazines has become ubiquitous. Various surveys have shown that half to two thirds of selfies shared by adults or young people on social media have now been edited.

The fact that there are now dangerously thin vloggers denying that they have a problem and giving fashion and lifestyle tips to their followers must be considered concerning. It gives a new set of easily accessible role models that parents and clinicians may be unaware of, with very large audiences of young girls. Eugenia Cooney for example has 900,000 subscribers, who are predominantly teenage girls. There are several anecdotal examples of how this has been a trigger for eating disorders in girls trying to emulate them, and given 6.4% of the population has traits of an eating disorder, with most starting in this age range, that is highly concerning.

On the positive side, there have been growing moves to prevent overly thin models being used in catwalk shows and magazines and to indicate when images used in magazines have been photoshopped (something I would strongly support), so some progress appeared to have been made to present healthier role models to young women. There are many positive messages about health and fitness out there too (personally, I particularly like the goal of being stronger rather than thinner). However, there is a huge challenge when it comes to legislation on the internet, because of the many countries that the vlogger, hosting company and viewer can be situated in. Whilst these logistical pitfalls fail to prevent propagation of eating disordered messages (or other forms of toxic content) on the internet, there is little that we can do to prevent more and more young people normalising or idealising unhealthy role models.

Exploiting the ignorant: From quack cures to the rise of Trump

I was reading today about a man called Braco (pronounced Bratzoh) who is the centre of a personality cult that believes his “gaze” (looking out into a crowd and not speaking for 5-7 minutes) can heal health problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones. He does free online gaze sessions, and cheap or free local events all around the world in order to market books, DVDs and items of jewellery containing his golden “sun symbol” (many for $500+ each). I see nothing more than a man who learnt how profitable it was to be a fake healer from a mentor in a similar line of work, and took on his audience and methodologies (but without the stress of having to give any advice, or the risks of making any claims about himself that could be proven false).

Yet, nonetheless he has a plentiful audience of believers. People claim remarkably diverse experiences and attribute all kinds of random positive events in their lives to his gaze. One contributor believes that Braco cured the hearing loss of a newborn whose parent and grandparents went and gazed (and bought the $500+ trinket). Unknown to them, 13% of children identified with newborn hearing loss spontaneously recover, without any superstitious interventions. It reminds me of Tim Minchin’s fantastic song Thank You God [link contains swearing] that describes alternative explanations for a “miracle” in which a lady’s cataracts are “cured by prayer”. These include spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, a record-keeping glitch, a lie or misunderstanding. He mentions the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and simplistic ideas of causality based on temporal correlation (as was the case with autism and MMR). On the internet there is also the significant possibility that the review is fabricated.

The same story repeats all over the world. People are paying something for nothing more than woo in numerous seances, palm readings, psychics, mediums, crystal therapies, quack nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki, all energy therapies, coffee enemas, homeopathy, reflexology, magical weight loss products, Bach flower remedies, most vitamin supplements, magnetic items making health claims and anything that promises to “detox”. In fact, any one of us could invent our own snake-oil or novel form of quackery. And then we could invent some titles and qualifications and go on TV as an “expert” to promote them. The trade is worth in excess of £500 million per year in the UK alone. Quackwatch is a good reference point – I check doubtful health claims there, just as I check doubtful internet stories on Snopes.

We are 250 years past the enlightenment in which the ideas of reason and science supposedly gained supremacy over superstition and liberty progress and tolerance gained traction over dogma. Yet here we are in so many ways believing in magic and witch hunts. The public doesn’t understand science, is wedded to superstition, or simply has overwhelming credulity and a lack of critical thinking. This is the same culture that created plausibility for Andrew Wakefield’s weird “measles immunisation” recipe that contained his own blood and goat colostrum and that pushed an appropriately skeptical professor of complimentary and alternative medicine into early retirement because he wouldn’t endorse homeopathy and reflexology on the NHS.

No wonder in the Brexit campaign and in Trump’s electoral campaign there has been such wide deviation from the facts. The public have been told to disregard experts and go with their gut feelings, or with the guy who they could imagine meeting in the pub. That is a very poor way to judge the evidence base, and (as we have discovered with Brexit) a very easy way to be sold a pup. I can’t understand why it is not a crime, or even a disgrace, to lie to the public. Why were there not enquiries and reprimands for people who knowingly lied about the £350 million pounds a week extra that was supposed to go to the NHS if we left Europe? The answer is because we have better protections against a drink being sold with false weight loss claims than we do over vote-changing political claims.

It is interesting to explore why people don’t trust experts, and here it seems that there are a few dimensions that are important. Knowledge is only trusted if it is coupled with a perception of benevolence, and presented in words that people understand and don’t feel patronised by. It is all too easy for people with expertise to use jargon or technical terminology that makes sense in their field, for readers of the journals they publish in or in conversation with their peers, but that makes the content inaccessible to lay people, who then think of the expert as being part of an intellectual elite who are sneering down at them from a position of superiority.

And some people seem to deliberately manipulate any show of expertise to make it seem that particular commentators are not connected with the experience of ‘the man on the street’. Michael Gove (linked above) was probably the pinnacle of this, but Trump also directly appeals to this distrust of experts, and seems to bank on his audience not caring about his content being proved to be factually incorrect later down the line. Tim Minchin captured my feelings and frustrations about this rising anti-intellectualism (and Brexit and even Donald Trump in passing) here [contains swearing, I’d recommend watching from 24 to 35 mins in].

But it is becoming more and more common. I was listening to the radio earlier this week and flicked over from Radio 4 to Radio 2 to hear the host Vanessa Feltz tell a labour party spokesman that the word “narrative” when used in context, with four repetitions of the word “story”, was jargon that was beyond her and her listeners and proudly proclaimed that it was similar to the teaching that went over her head at university (listen at 15:00 for just over a minute). She seemed to want him to pitch his vocabulary lower, whilst showing her own insecurity about wanting to be clever by using the word “elucidate” herself in her instruction to him to do so! It was particularly notable in contrast to Radio 4, where the words that she criticised, such as “managerial”, “technocratic” and “narrative” would not stand out in the discussion or require definition. Maybe it is just a mark of my age and changing listening preferences, but I would always prefer to have conversation pitched at the level that I learn from, than patronisingly dumbed down.

It is also a reminder that, despite a natural tendency to consider ourselves pretty much average at everything, very often we fail to recognise our own levels of skew within the population. My politics are left of average, my income and intellect above average, just as my physical fitness is below average. But this deviation from the norm does not stand out to me as I have sought out a peer group of other professional, intellectual lefties. In my peer group, the remain preference was so strong that the vote to leave the EU was quite a shock!

Similarly, despite having written a book to try to make the scientific knowledge around attachment and developmental trauma accessible to care givers and professionals from other fields, and working hard to make psychological knowledge available through this blog and various forum posts, not everyone finds my writing accessible. For every ten positive views of the book there is one person who feels I pitched it too high. I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person of knowing the meaning I intend to convey, and therefore not always recognising when I have not communicated this effectively. So please do point it out to me!