A Tale of Two Futures
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Jarrod Varty and Jackson Calder
The year is 2030 and society is fragmented…
Politics has become partisan, with the media following suit. Debate, consensus and critical thinking are things of the past. Ideas are judged for their origin rather than their merits. Opinion now equals fact as reality becomes subjective. The post-truth era has now reached its maturity.
Social media and partisan reporting have allowed people to sequester themselves within bubbles, surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and pandering media. People live sheltered within self-validating echo chambers that merely confirm what they already believe. Reality filtered and tailored to their preferences.
Misinformation only further entrenched this trend. Naturally, people turned to the handful of sources they trusted, their favourite media site, the influencers they follow, or simply what their friends shared. Closed off from the rest of the world these groupings seldom interact short of hostile exchanges via social media, wars leaving the comment sections ablaze. Those who don’t fall into one of these groupings, either slip into political apathy or have their voice drowned out. But echo chambers are far from useless.
With decades of data gathered by the tech giants, they know you better than anyone. With increasingly sophisticated algorithms, they can not only better reach their desired audience, but their desired ends. People are not coerced but rather subtly manipulated, their preferences shaped, the illusion of choice and independence obscuring the more sinister truth.
Make no mistake this is no mind-control, people won’t just jump the partisan divide. But data can tell you who is vulnerable to manipulation and who is on the fence, who can be pushed towards the extreme and how to do it. Understanding individuals' biases and knowing how to use social context to your advantage becomes a power in itself.
Foreign powers and private companies vie to assert their influence. Narratives are framed and controlled, domestic tension exacerbated, voting patterns manipulated. Echo chambers conveniently facilitate this, allowing misinformation and influence campaigns to be tailored to a group's biases, spreading ideas within like a virus. Elections continue in most countries but are no longer sacrosanct. Those agencies trying to protect elections are overwhelmed by the swarm of sophisticated influence campaigns.
As the information age reached its maturity, we had the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, yet we chose not to read it. The signs had been there for decades, the literal writing on the wall, but we chose to ignore it. We stopped debating, stopped engaging, stopped trying to understand.
This is the future we chose.
The year is 2030, and society chose better...
Widespread political tension, identity conflicts and violence in the early 2020’s served as a global catalyst for positive change. People on both sides were emotionally and ideologically fatigued, and calls for change echoed through the streets and the halls of power.
A new brand of leaders arose, reinvigorating democracy by campaigning on platforms of depolarisation, supported by grassroots movements that aimed to bridge society’s political divide.
By emphasising common ground, downplaying fringe fundamentalism, and being openly critical of their own party’s ideologies, they have encouraged the public to engage in robust discussion and debate on previously polarising political issues.
Key governments and NGO’s around the world have implemented fully funded Mini-Publics and Deliberative Democracy initiatives, where assemblies of citizens are regularly convened to learn about and discuss policy issues, and inform decision-making.
Engagement in this way with experts and fellow citizens from a plethora of socio-economic and ideological backgrounds has vastly improved the public’s ability to make informed, rational decisions. This removed people from their usual political echo-chambers and gave them access to different perspectives and high-quality debate.
Social media is no longer a hotbed for abuse and scheming from the far reaches of the political spectrum. Industry giants have committed to more transparency, openly sharing how their algorithms categorise and remove hate speech. While stricter regulation in this space has greatly reduced the amount of hate speech online, it remains a hotly contested dynamic, as free speech activist groups regularly push back.
In a similar vein, leading media outlets now openly encourage fact checking of their content, and a plethora of independent organisations exist to efficiently recognise and expose misinformation. The click-bait market has tapered off as the public seeks out more meaningful stories, and investigative journalism has seen a resurgence around the globe.
Sweeping reforms of democratic processes, originating in the U.S., have created a ripple effect through troubled democracies world-wide. Democracy is now more representative than ever before, with gerrymandering abolished, big-money political donations processed and scrutinised transparently, and voter engagement at an all-time high.
After being on the brink of the abyss, humanity chose not to stumble blindly forward, instead taking the path towards enlightenment. We see and listen to each other once more, and whilst ideological divides and rivalries will always exist, our more equal and engaged society now possesses the ability and patience to bridge the gap. A multitude of challenges still lay ahead, but humanity is now more equipped to face them than ever before.
Dear reader, these futures are not binary. Your actions can influence them, change them, and make them more or less likely. Fight for the future you want.
Jarrod Varty and Jackson Calder were research and communications interns at Diplosphere.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.