He says things so sweetly. He knows all your failures. He remembers your emotional scars. He sounds like you. And he craves your attention.
The Thursday after the election, I woke up, grabbed my phone next to the bed, and scanned the latest news. We were still two days from announcing the winner of the election, but there was good news. Some media site had called the election, and the hourly trends on ballot counting in Pennsylvania looked very promising.
A sigh of relief. The briefest moment of early celebration in a year where celebration was scarce. I shared this relief with close dear friends, and the reaction was swift and crushing, “Don’t celebrate. Let me explain to you in great detail how this is going to go simply horribly.” And then they explained the terrifying opinionated detail.
Fear is a liar.
She knows what scares you. She was iteratively designed over billions of years to prevent you from being eaten by a cave bear. She’s still around. She has impressive controlling strength over you. She sounds helpful. She sounds smart. She moves so fast.
Early in the pandemic, I was part of a hastily thrown together Zoom interview. The host opened with a softball, “How are you?”
A guest, “Spent the morning doomscrolling.”
An internal mental giggle. Yeah, it was the first time I’d heard the word: doomscrolling. It perfectly described a regular act for me. Sitting down at my favorite device and just soaking in the doom, the fear. Pick a topic: elections, racism, democracy, civil unrest, or a pandemic. It’s trivial to find a steady flow of content to confirm and stoke my worst fears. I do this daily.
Fear is a liar.
The early builders of the Internet had a hit on their hands. They quickly realized they had two critical challenges. A lot of data was being generated by humans using the Internet, and there was an infinite gold mine buried inside that data. Billion-dollar data storage, management, and analysis businesses emerged to tackle these challenges.
Machine learning also flourished as businesses learned how to use machine learning to look at vast data sets and learn. What were they learning? Very simply, these ‘robots’ learned to predict things that you like with increasing precision.
Correction. It’s not like. It’s engagement. How likely are you going to engage with a piece of content? The content could be a link, advertisement, but – important point here – it’s not relevant whether you like the content or not; it’s whether you engage. The more you engage, the more signal you send, the more data you create, which means more data for the robots to learn from, which means they do an even better job find more engaging things to click on.
I’m delighted and a little in awe when Instagram presents me with pitch-perfect advertising. I spent the first fifteen years on the Internet, avoiding engaging in all advertising, but Instagram ads are good. Really good. Why yes, those navy blue leather boots are precisely what I want. Right now. It’s magical. It’s nice that Instagram made my shopping experience better. Still, it’s horrific that the same mechanisms have created a generation of humans who believe doomscrolling is anything but compulsive consumption of weaponized fear.
And fear is a liar.
You’re worried about something. Very normal. Very human. You have a moment, so you sit down with your favorite device and take a gander at your friend’s activity, whether that’s a social network, a messaging thread, or any number of means that keep us connected.
What are they up to? They’re worrying, too, because there is a lot to worry about these days. One friend found a particularly worrisome piece of content and has shared it. Oh dear, how worrisome. You click on the link (engagement), read the opinion (not facts) piece, and it echos your worry, so promptly share it with another group of friends (sharing) who need to read this critical content.
Every sentence, every action in the prior paragraph, involves creating useful data for the robots to figure out more what this group of humans cares about to push more engaging content targeted explicitly at these humans.
Those who peddle fear understand precisely how these robots work and have come to expect how you will react. They throw a thousand lies into a social network and let the robots do their work. Humans react, robots notice and adapt, and the peddlers of fear create a fear-based echo chamber where they’ve discovered the very best lies that will efficiently engage the broadest audience.
We’re talking about a planet full of humans mostly unknowingly generating data that robots are sorting, filing, analyzing, and search for that one piece of content that instantly engages you. These robots don’t care if that content is a new pair of boots or a lie.
Those who peddle fear are counting on the fact that your reaction is fear and that you’ll get mad and want to take action. Quickly. Urgently. Irrationally. They don’t want you to think; they want you to hate. They want to divide. They want you to believe the act of consuming, engaging, and echoing anger, fear, and hate is a productive act.
Don’t think. Don’t analyze. Don’t assess. Just be scared. Hate an amorphous someone. Fear.
The thing is – if you choose…
Fear is a teacher.
I think of that bully in my 6th-grade class who randomly stood up during lunch, walked across the courtyard, and bullied me. First, I was scared, then I was embarrassed in front of friends, and then I was mad.
Today. Many years later, it’s the only thing I remember about the 6th grade. It’s a permanent mental scar, but I’ve chosen to learn from that scar. I’ve thought about what it means to be a bully, how they are motivated, and how they should be treated. I now treat them appropriately. Quickly and with directed informed purpose.
I act because I’ve considered, I reflected, and I’ve learned. This is the bizarre gift of fear: it teaches you. It ferociously highlights a situation where you must pay attention. It’s an unforgettable opportunity to learn when the danger passes because you absolutely do not want to be here again. That’s the lesson.
Fear is a teacher.
He says things so clearly. He understands you completely. He knows what motivates you. He speaks with confidence. And he wants you to be safe.
Fear is a teacher.
She knows how to get your attention because she knows what scares you. She was there when it happened. She remembers how you got that scar and she wants no further harm to come of you. Fear is a reminder that it’s time to learn and then act.