How Russia dominates your Twitter feed to promote lies (and, Trump, too)

The Daily Beast reports: “Ladies and Gentlemen, We have a situation in #Turkey #Incirlik” the cry went out on Twitter last Saturday night, as news spread of the Turkish forces surrounding the U.S. airbase in Incirlik.

Thousands of armed police had reportedly surrounded the airbase amid swirling rumors of another coup attempt, according to stories tweeted within two minutes of each other on RT.com and Sputnik, the two biggest Russian state-controlled media organizations publishing in English. The stories were instantly picked up by a popular online aggregator of breaking news and prompted hours-long storm of activity from a small, vocal circle of users.

In English, the tweets soon grouped into certain patterns of similar (and sometimes identical) content. The first were panicky expressions of concern about nuclear weapons allegedly stored at Incirlik: [Continue reading…]

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Why we’re post-fact

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Peter Pomerantsev writes: As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.

How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.

Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.

The flight into techno-fantasies is intertwined with economic and social uncertainty. If all the facts say you have no economic future then why would you want to hear facts? If you live in a world where a small event in China leads to livelihoods lost in Lyon, where your government seems to have no control over what is going on, then trust in the old institutions of authority – politicians, academics, the media – buckles. Which has led to Brexit leader Michael Gove’s claim that British people ‘have had enough of experts’, Trump’s rants at the ‘lamestream’ media and the online flowering of ‘alternative news’ sites. Paradoxically, people who don’t trust ‘the mainstream’ media are, a study from Northeastern University showed, more likely to swallow disinformation. ‘Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media “mass-manipulation”, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims.’ Healthy scepticism ends in a search for wild conspiracies. Putin’s Kremlin-controlled television finds US conspiracies behind everything, Trump speculates that 9/11 was an inside job, and parts of the Brexit campaign saw Britain under attack from a Germano-Franco-European plot. [Continue reading…]

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A society staring at machines

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age. [Continue reading…]

It perhaps also indicates being at less risk of stumbling off a cliff.

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Welcome to the era of post-truth politics and journalism

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Katharine Viner writes: One Monday morning last September, Britain woke to a depraved news story. The prime minister, David Cameron, had committed an “obscene act with a dead pig’s head”, according to the Daily Mail. “A distinguished Oxford contemporary claims Cameron once took part in an outrageous initiation ceremony at a Piers Gaveston event, involving a dead pig,” the paper reported. Piers Gaveston is the name of a riotous Oxford university dining society; the authors of the story claimed their source was an MP, who said he had seen photographic evidence: “His extraordinary suggestion is that the future PM inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal.”

The story, extracted from a new biography of Cameron, sparked an immediate furore. It was gross, it was a great opportunity to humiliate an elitist prime minister, and many felt it rang true for a former member of the notorious Bullingdon Club. Within minutes, #Piggate and #Hameron were trending on Twitter, and even senior politicians joined the fun: Nicola Sturgeon said the allegations had “entertained the whole country”, while Paddy Ashdown joked that Cameron was “hogging the headlines”. At first, the BBC refused to mention the allegations, and 10 Downing Street said it would not “dignify” the story with a response – but soon it was forced to issue a denial. And so a powerful man was sexually shamed, in a way that had nothing to do with his divisive politics, and in a way he could never really respond to. But who cares? He could take it.

Then, after a full day of online merriment, something shocking happened. Isabel Oakeshott, the Daily Mail journalist who had co-written the biography with Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire businessman, went on TV and admitted that she did not know whether her huge, scandalous scoop was even true. Pressed to provide evidence for the sensational claim, Oakeshott admitted she had none.

“We couldn’t get to the bottom of that source’s allegations,” she said on Channel 4 News. “So we merely reported the account that the source gave us … We don’t say whether we believe it to be true.” In other words, there was no evidence that the prime minister of the United Kingdom had once “inserted a private part of his anatomy” into the mouth of a dead pig – a story reported in dozens of newspapers and repeated in millions of tweets and Facebook updates, which many people presumably still believe to be true today.

Oakeshott went even further to absolve herself of any journalistic responsibility: “It’s up to other people to decide whether they give it any credibility or not,” she concluded. This was not, of course, the first time that outlandish claims were published on the basis of flimsy evidence, but this was an unusually brazen defence. It seemed that journalists were no longer required to believe their own stories to be true, nor, apparently, did they need to provide evidence. Instead it was up to the reader – who does not even know the identity of the source – to make up their own mind. But based on what? Gut instinct, intuition, mood?

Does the truth matter any more?

Nine months after Britain woke up giggling at Cameron’s hypothetical porcine intimacies, the country arose on the morning of 24 June to the very real sight of the prime minister standing outside Downing Street at 8am, announcing his own resignation.

“The British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected,” Cameron declared. “It was not a decision that was taken lightly, not least because so many things were said by so many different organisations about the significance of this decision. So there can be no doubt about the result.”

But what soon became clear was that almost everything was still in doubt. At the end of a campaign that dominated the news for months, it was suddenly obvious that the winning side had no plan for how or when the UK would leave the EU – while the deceptive claims that carried the leave campaign to victory suddenly crumbled. At 6.31am on Friday 24 June, just over an hour after the result of the EU referendum had become clear, Ukip leader Nigel Farage conceded that a post-Brexit UK would not in fact have £350m a week spare to spend on the NHS – a key claim of Brexiteers that was even emblazoned on the Vote Leave campaign bus. A few hours later, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan stated that immigration was not likely to be reduced – another key claim.

It was hardly the first time that politicians had failed to deliver what they promised, but it might have been the first time they admitted on the morning after victory that the promises had been false all along. This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s military leaders turn to Instagram to promote domestic support for the war in Syria

The New York Times reports: The first news report, to a nation usually kept in the dark about military matters, was shocking: 13 Iranian soldiers, all with links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had been killed in an ambush near the Syrian city of Aleppo. What followed this spring may have been even more surprising. Details about the soldiers appeared extensively in the Iranian news media, which not only gave the names of the dead but lionized them with sweeping life stories. Poster-size portraits were plastered all over their hometowns.

For years, Iran covered up its military activities in Syria and Iraq, so the government could deny any official involvement on the ground. Coffins arrived with the bodies of soldiers who went unidentified, referred to only as “defenders of the shrines” of the Shiite saints. When the bodies began to come home in larger numbers, the state news media began calling them “volunteers.”

No longer. Now every Iranian killed in action is named, his picture published, his valor lauded in elaborate tributes in the hard-line news media and on Instagram accounts dedicated to the fighters. The reason for the change, analysts say, is not some newfound dedication to transparency but a rift between the Iranian establishment’s hard-liners, who control the military, and the moderates.

The hard-liners, they say, want to prevent any decline in Tehran’s absolute support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and to undermine the moderates, who they fear might be open to a political settlement in which Mr. Assad would step down.

The Revolutionary Guards see publicizing the sacrifices of the fallen as a way to build domestic support for the current Syria policy and squelch any talk of compromise. The Instagram accounts have attracted tens of thousands of followers, most of them supporting the military effort. [Continue reading…]

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The era of the angry voter is upon us

Der Spiegel reports: Paula Heap and Joel Coe live 6,400 kilometers apart. They don’t even know each other, but they share the same sense of outrage.

She voted for Brexit and he intends to vote for Donald Trump in November. She hails from Preston, a city in northwest England that never truly recovered from the decline of the textiles industry. He’s an American from the small town of Red Boiling Springs in northern Tennessee. His textiles factory, Racoe Inc., is the last of its kind still in business in the area.

It’s Heap’s view that globalization has created a lot of winners and a lot of losers, and that Preston is among the losers. She describes the EU as an “empire” that regulates her electric water kettle but doesn’t create any prosperity. She’s riled by the many immigrants, saying the pressure on the labor market and the health system is increasing. “We want to retain control over immigration,” she says.

Heap is a career advisor, whose motto could be “Make the UK great again,” to borrow a line from Donald Trump’s US presidential election campaign.

Coe, the Trump backer with bulky upper arms and a bushy, reddish beard, blames the NAFTA free trade agreement for the fact that jobs in his industry have been relocated from Tennessee to Mexico. A little bit more of the America of the clattering sewing machines — which are still standing behind him, operated by around 50 women who sew jackets and pants for the US military — disappears each year.

Coe says he plans to vote for trump because the candidate has “never been a politician.” Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been “bought by large corporations and is corrupt.” He says if Trump weren’t in the picture, he would probably vote for Bernie Sanders. Both candidates, he says, are running against “the system.”

He says he doesn’t know a lot about Britain, but he has the feeling that the British vote against the EU is somehow related to his own battle. “It’s good that Britain is leaving the EU,” he says. “Each country has its own identity.”

The phenomenon of the angry voter currently appears to be making significant strides toward conquering Western democracies at the moment. The outrage is directed against elites in politics and in the business community, against the established political parties, against the “mainstream media,” against free trade and, of course, against immigration. Many Brexiteers are among these angry voters, as are Trump supporters in the United States or Le Pen voters in France.

“Take back control” was one of the main slogans used by Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom. It could stand is as the cry for help from angry voters all around the world. In an era when increasingly complex free trade agreements or unknown EU commissioners are determining peoples’ own living conditions, voters once again yearn for borders, national legislative control and closed economies.

It’s a phenomenon that didn’t just pop up yesterday. But the rage has reached a boiling point this year, fueled by the financial and euro crises, by destabilization in the Middle East and the refugee flows it has spawned, by the rise of China and by the deindustrialization that has taken place in recent decades in many Western countries. In the Internet, this rage has found a forum where it can thrive. [Continue reading…]

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Young people are so bad at voting – I’m disappointed in my peers

Hannah Jane Parkinson writes: I’ve had millennial peers tell me that they didn’t vote because they didn’t know the referendum was happening. This despite the big money spent on a youth voting drive. Pre-roll YouTube adverts; ads designed to look like club signs. It was an extraordinary novelty: David Cameron courting the youth vote. Celebrities such as Lily Allen, Keira Knightley, Idris Elba and Emma Watson encouraged individuals to vote. Unless you were in a six-month K-Hole, I have no idea how you could have missed all this.

I have also had peers tell me they did not vote because they were confused and didn’t understand. To which I say: barely any of us understood, regardless of age. There is no doubt that the lies promulgated on both sides showed scorn for the British people, made a mockery of our supposed new era of “good, honest politics”. But, when you don’t know about something, to paraphrase Larry David, well then you learn. You learn. £350m per week to the EU? Let Me Google That For You.

But there’s an even more curious and infuriating type of non-voter. Young people who are engaged in the political process, but don’t end up voting. Social media has much to answer for. I have argued before that tech can be helpful when encouraging engagement – Facebook’s voter status initiative, for instance – and I see that changing your profile picture to a French flag, or a Rainbow flag helps you to feel better and does contribute to a nicer, supportive tone of discourse – it has its place – but when it comes to affecting policy change, it’s as good as hovering a pencil over the box and crossing the air.

It’s the same school of thought that has Jeremy Corbyn eschewing mainstream media because he has, um, 525,000 Twitter followers. Newsflash: avatars of eggs don’t win elections. People quite rightly talk of the Westminster bubble. The media bubble. But there is a Twitter bubble and a Facebook feedback loop. Social media was supposed to widen our world, but its algorithms can shrink it entirely. I am concerned that young people – but not just young people – think that changing their name to a referendum-related pun or re-gramming Jean Jullien equals a vote. [Continue reading…]

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There’s a new tool to take down terrorism images online — but social media companies are wary of it

The Washington Post reports: President Obama suggested that extremist information spread online inspired a Florida man to commit the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando last week — the latest in a long line of terrorist attacks in which Islamist propaganda played some role in radicalizing the assailant.

Now a Dartmouth College researcher and a nonprofit group say they have created a technology that can help Internet companies instantly detect images and videos generated by terrorists and their supporters and remove them from their platforms.

It is, they say, a way to cleanse popular online sites of gory videos and propaganda from the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and Daesh, that can serve to incite and inspire people to commit acts of violence.

“If you could search out the beheading videos, or the picture of the ISIS fighter all in black carrying the Daesh flag across the sands of Syria, if you could do it with video and audio, you’d be doing something big,” said Mark Wallace, chief executive of the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a nonpartisan policy group. “I believe it’s a game-changer.”

The White House has signaled its support. “We welcome the launch of initiatives such as the Counter Extremism Project’s National Office for Reporting Extremism (NORex) that enables companies to address terrorist activity on their platforms and better respond to the threat posed by terrorists’ activities online,” said Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism.

But a number of major social media companies are wary of the idea. They say there is no clear consensus in the United States, and globally, as to what constitutes a terrorist image, and they might end up expunging material posted by researchers or media organizations. And, they say, once a database is created, governments around the world will place additional data requests on them — and some countries’ will probably demand the removal of legitimate political content under the guise of fighting terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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Zeynep Tufekci: How the Internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win

 

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Looking for ISIS where the light is

The New York Times reports: After Orlando and San Bernardino and Paris, there is new urgency to understand the signs that can precede acts of terrorism. And with the Islamic State’s prolific use of social media, terrorism experts and government agencies continually search for clues in posts and Twitter messages that appear to promote the militants’ cause.

A physicist may not seem like an obvious person to study such activity. But for months, Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami, led a team that created a mathematical model to sift order from the chaotic pro-terrorism online universe.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Dr. Johnson and Miami colleagues searched for pro-Islamic State posts each day from mid-2014 until August 2015, mining mentions of beheadings and blood baths in multiple languages on Vkontakte, a Russia-based social media service that is the largest European equivalent to Facebook. Ultimately, they devised an equation that tries to explain the activity of Islamic State sympathizers online and might, they say, eventually help predict attacks that are about to happen. [Continue reading…]

This is a classic example of the ‘streetlight effect.’

To anticipate acts of terrorism being initiated by ISIS, other terrorist groups or individuals, you’d need access to all forms of communication and planning. That means gathering information from a field much wider than social media and even wider than digital communications. What it requires is omniscience. Currently — and anytime in the foreseeable future — omniscience is unavailable, unlike grandiose propositions which pop up all the time.

When it comes to the art of the possible, too often the question that researchers seem to be preoccupied with is not whether they can accomplish their research goals but whether they can secure their funding needs.

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Killing twice for ISIS and saying so live on Facebook

The New York Times reports: He stabbed an off-duty police officer and left him bleeding to death on his own doorstep. He forced his way inside the home and stabbed and killed the officer’s female companion. He then sat down and videotaped himself live on Facebook declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, according to the French law enforcement authorities.

Sitting just behind him was the couple’s son, a terrified 3-year-old boy, of whom Larossi Abballa, the killer, said dismissively, “I have not decided what to do with him,” according to David Thomson, a French journalist for Radio France Internationale and the author of a book on jihadists who saw Mr. Abballa’s online posts before they were taken down.

The events that unfolded between about 8 p.m. and midnight on Monday — when elite police forces broke into the house in the small town of Magnanville, fatally shot Mr. Abballa, 25, and rescued the boy — were the second time within 48 hours in which a person appearing to act alone claimed to kill in the name of the Islamic State.

In the attacks in both Magnanville and Orlando, Fla., the killers had more than just brushed up against the authorities before, in what has become a distressingly familiar pattern — from the set of attacks in Paris in November, to those in Brussels in March and beyond. The Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, had been interviewed twice by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his possible links to terrorism, and Mr. Abballa had been convicted for having links to a terrorist network and served about two years in jail before being released.

Further complicating the job of protecting Western nations are governments’ dual goal of preserving civil liberties while trying to make people feel secure.

The attack in France was shocking not only to neighbors in Magnanville, about 35 miles from Paris, but across the country because it underscored that extremist attacks can happen in the most ordinary places, above all in those where people believe they are safe.

Mr. Abballa’s Facebook post from Monday night made clear that he wanted to terrify and destroy those he deemed “unbelievers,” people he had come to hate. He also wanted to encourage other lone wolves to do the same.

“It’s super simple,” he said, looking into the camera. “It’s enough to wait for them in front of their offices; don’t give them any respite. Know this, whether you are a policeman or a journalist, you will never feel calm again. One will wait for you in front of your homes. This is what you have earned.”

Boasting that he had “just killed a policeman and I just killed his wife,” he called on fellow believers to give priority to killing “police, prison guards, journalists.” He specifically named several writers and journalists, adding rappers to the list because, he said, they “are the allies of Satan.”

Even more chillingly, he warned that jihadists had “reserved some other surprises for the Euro; I am not going to say more.’’

“The Euro will be a cemetery,” he said, referring to the Euro 2016 soccer tournament being played over the next several weeks in 10 French cities.

It was unclear whether Mr. Abballa had specific knowledge of a potential attack on the matches or the crowds gathered for them.

The version of the video released by the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency was trimmed by a couple of minutes to omit images of the boy and Mr. Abballa’s references to him. On Twitter, opinion was divided between those who thought the images of a defenseless child were tasteless even by the standards of the Islamic State’s hardened propagandists and those who speculated that the extremist news agency did not want to show Mr. Abballa as unwilling to kill a child. [Continue reading…]

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In the depths of the digital age

Edward Mendelson writes: Every technological revolution coincides with changes in what it means to be a human being, in the kinds of psychological borders that divide the inner life from the world outside. Those changes in sensibility and consciousness never correspond exactly with changes in technology, and many aspects of today’s digital world were already taking shape before the age of the personal computer and the smartphone. But the digital revolution suddenly increased the rate and scale of change in almost everyone’s lives. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s exhilaratingly ambitious historical study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) may overstate its argument that the press was the initiating cause of the great changes in culture in the early sixteenth century, but her book pointed to the many ways in which new means of communication can amplify slow, preexisting changes into an overwhelming, transforming wave.

In The Changing Nature of Man (1956), the Dutch psychiatrist J.H. van den Berg described four centuries of Western life, from Montaigne to Freud, as a long inward journey. The inner meanings of thought and actions became increasingly significant, while many outward acts became understood as symptoms of inner neuroses rooted in everyone’s distant childhood past; a cigar was no longer merely a cigar. A half-century later, at the start of the digital era in the late twentieth century, these changes reversed direction, and life became increasingly public, open, external, immediate, and exposed.

Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

Many probing and intelligent books have recently helped to make sense of psychological life in the digital age. Some of these analyze the unprecedented levels of surveillance of ordinary citizens, others the unprecedented collective choice of those citizens, especially younger ones, to expose their lives on social media; some explore the moods and emotions performed and observed on social networks, or celebrate the Internet as a vast aesthetic and commercial spectacle, even as a focus of spiritual awe, or decry the sudden expansion and acceleration of bureaucratic control.

The explicit common theme of these books is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects — what William James called the “material self” — has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd. [Continue reading…]

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