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Number Seven Thousand Two Hundred and Forty Eight - 01 March 2023
Iran Daily - Number Seven Thousand Two Hundred and Forty Eight - 01 March 2023 - Page 6

The University at Buffalo scholar David Castillo:

’Reality on demand’ is a dangerous promise made by the media market

In your book with William Egginton, ‘Medialogies’, you talk about “inflationary media”. What is that? And Isn’t inflation somehow a “natural” function of the media?
When we say that we are living in a time of inflationary media, what we mean is that the current media saturation is eroding the commons at a breathtaking pace, and with any collective sense of truth. While clearly digital media technologies came with the promise of increased connectivity, we all know now that the practical effect of their pervasiveness has been quite the opposite.
So, today, our media-saturated world is plagued by divisive, polarizing, fringe discourses, and increased feelings of disunity, isolation, depression, anxiety, the sort of doom-mentality that our media can monetize in a never ending series of apocalyptic products as well as miracle cures for our aching souls: Fundamentalisms of all kinds, ethnic, racial, religious, nationalistic. That’s kind of what we mean.
So, you also talk about the concept of “reality entitlement.” What’s that?
Egginton and I talk about this notion of reality entitlement, and at times we call it “reality on demand”. We think this is likely one of the most dangerous promises, or possibly products, of our media market. The way we’d receive our information today tends to allow us to curate our world in accordance with our own beliefs and biases. So our media feeds can be a sort of combination of diminished reality and augmented reality: A diminished reality that protects us from we don’t want to see, like climate change, poverty, homelessness, social injustice, etc. And an augmented reality that reinforces our beliefs by providing us with all sorts of scapegoats, the scapegoats we may need so that we don’t have to adjust to those beliefs. So I’m thinking here of notions such as, you know, the immigrants and refugees are stealing our jobs and ruining the economy, or secularists are destroying our true values and debasing the nation, or racial minorities are taking our hard-earned tax dollars living off welfare. So, this is this is what we mean by this notion.

Somebody might say that there is a connection between reality entitlement and the entitlement to an opinion. Is there a difference between these two?
So, somebody said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, you are not entitled to your own facts.” Opinions are things we need in the commons. We need to negotiate our opinions. What creates a more viable community is a discussion: The open discussion of our notions, ideas, beliefs about ourselves and the world. The problem is when my opinion tends to trump other people’s opinions in an absolute way, or when I choose to surround myself with the kinds of walls can make it impossible for me to be exposed to other ideas, other opinions, other types of beliefs, and to reinforce my own opinions in such a way as to make ourselves believe that we are in possession of the truth at all times.

To expose yourself to others’ ideas, and to be open to negotiating whatever opinion you have formed for yourself, it has a certain labor to it. It has a certain pain to it. And some people might say, “I don’t want to take that pain. I don’t want to get through that pain.” So why do we need to endure that kind of pain?
So more than a need to endure the pain is to understand the conditions that have created our own sense of fortified beliefs. So why do I believe certain things and not other things? What are the historical, cultural conditions of my own beliefs? The more I understand that, the more open I will be to understanding other people’s beliefs. And even if I’m not interested in changing my beliefs, at least I will know what the origins of my beliefs are, so that I am aware of the contingency of those beliefs.
That’s interesting. So my next question is about your observation that “Reality itself has become a consumer good.” It is a frightening one. But is it just or primarily a result of the inflationary media?
That’s a great question. All right. So, let’s take the example of misinformation or disinformation. It is obvious that there are nefarious agents out there actively generating disinformation as a political weapon, or even as a weapon of war. However, the reason that false information of all kinds spreads four or five times faster than factual information in certain social media circles, is at least in part that this kind of disinformation makes the media giants more money. So they may think of the truth as boring, i.e., the truth cannot compete with the articulation of scandals, conspiracy theories, hate speech, etc. In other words, misinformation can be a for-profit business in certain quarters. The algorithms that run social media sites, for example, have been designed and trained to attract more eyeballs and maximize profits using what industry insiders called ‘Personalized Amplification’. This is why I would argue that in the United States, we need to disentangle First Amendment rights, freedom of speech, from efforts to regulate social media. In the end, this has very little to do with freedom of speech, since these algorithms are effectively putting their thumb on the scale. Literally, they are artificially amplifying sensationalist fringe outrageous discourse at the expense of truthful, evidence-based information that may not be deemed as interesting from a market

This is an interesting observation. There is another argument as well, that the social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, they shouldn’t be run as private companies, because they are determining the outcome of the political system in many cases, and they are going to affect the lives of the American people at least, but also everybody across the globe, and therefore they should come under some sort of public supervision. How do you see that?
I do agree that we have to think about creative, commonsense ways of regulating certain patterns of misinformation spreading, that social media algorithms engage in. This notion of insiders, or whistleblowers, who come from Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok, have given us a very clear idea of how the artificial intelligence tools that are used by these social media companies are explicitly selecting content to create their recommendations, and this content plays better with viewers. In other words, it gets more eyeballs if it’s sensationalist. So, conspiracy theories, for example, are pushed artificially by their algorithms: They can come as recommendations to you even if you have never searched for a specific conspiracy theory, only because they are considered “popular searches”, or “popular notions”. So I do believe that we have to separate freedom of speech from the need to regulate social media companies. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that social media companies would need to come under the umbrella of, say, public institutions or government institutions, because then we have a different type of problem. The problem could be that you could have a government that runs its own media, and that can create other types of entanglements with freedom of speech. So, I think the best case scenario is trying to figure out how to protect first amendment rights, and identify the areas in which we need to make sure we have some commonsense regulations in place.

Okay. You describe our current world as one in which the idea that “I’m ineffable” trumps every other truth. How did we collectively become so arrogant, if you agree with my choice of term?
Let me start here: In the absence of a commons, where our ideas and beliefs can be tested through exposure to the ideas and beliefs of others, it is easier for us to essentially ignore anything that doesn’t fit our worldview, my worldview, and possibly to ascribe to those who do not agree with my own worldview, some sort of nefarious intent, since they are not members of my group, my tribe, so to speak, they are essentially my enemy, intent on destroying me and others like me. So I may come to the belief that in order to preserve my own sense of self, I have to stand up to them with everything I’ve got. The result can be a circularity that reinforces my own beliefs with even higher walls. I can project those beliefs into some agency that anchors them. To put it plainly, in a Christian context for example, the question of “What would Jesus do?”, may come with the default answer, “Whatever I believe, since I know the real Jesus!”

Or, “I am the real Jesus!”




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