Woke and Democracy: A Terrible Mix

   Tommaso Ostillio


Though opposite in their political purposes and goals, the Wokeist left and the contemporary extreme right thrive online because of the same psychological patterns. More precisely, like other animals, humans are gregarious beings who inherit social norms and cultural values from their peers in their immediate surroundings. This learning process and its consequences are known as information cascade and herd behavior, respectively. By definition, an information cascade occurs whenever one consciously reads environmental information to emulate the action of others intentionally.

Notably, an information cascade can become a powerful way to defy uncertainty when one intends to learn to do something quickly. Instead, herd behavior takes place when one acts without such an intention but does so for social acceptance. For instance, someone follows an information cascade when they surf songs on Spotify based on what their peers listen to the most. In this way, they can discover new types of music and enlarge the songs they listen to on Spotify. However, if they were to seek the approval of their peers on Spotify by precisely emulating what they are doing, they would act within the scheme of herd behavior.

The consequences

It is worth noting that an information cascade can be the root cause of herd behavior. For instance, although one can sometimes take someone else as a mentor who consistently dispenses good knowledge, following this person’s advice uncritically may sooner or later backfire. Specifically, in such cases, someone may buy into beliefs they accept uncritically and under social pressure. If so, some view becomes truthful because everyone else claims so. 

Importantly, when a group of people herds around a belief whose probability of being true is somewhat low, it is often because an availability cascade is at work. The latter is an information cascade inflating the likelihood that some claim is true. So, for instance, when mainstream media excessively broadcast news about a plane crash, people may consequently overestimate the likelihood of dying in a plane crash.

Concurrently, an availability cascade is a potent enabler of group polarization. Indeed, if some people are long exposed to the same availability cascade and discuss its content with one another, they may soon become more extreme in their views about it. This happens online every day when people discuss same-sex marriages, immigration, and the like.

The matter at issue

 Although the patterns described above are embodied in human evolutionary history, automating the triggers of such patterns via social media algorithms is far from a good idea. That is because the latter algorithms can quickly become availability cascades automators. Particularly, algorithms create filter bubbles by bombarding social media users with personalized, targeted content. Besides, algorithms make sure that people who view similar content get together. Thus, social media algorithms are not only potent enablers of availability cascades. But they can also become powerful enablers of group polarization.

Several studies have shown that the social mechanisms described above are at work when right-wing extremists get together. Yet little has been said about how these social mechanisms enable leftists to become ever more radical in their views. In this regard, it is worth stressing that social media algorithms are dangerous enablers of adverse reversals of pluralistic ignorance. The latter concept defines situations in which the members of a social group accept a social norm while privately rejecting it.

For instance, when lecturers ask whether there are questions after a confusing lecture, students often respond with a roaring silence. Namely, students would have questions but refuse to voice them because everyone else is silent. Yet if anyone broke the silence, everyone would be better off because the teacher could clarify what is unclear. This social process is called positive unleashing. In the same way, potential extremists might be unwilling to espouse their views in their immediate social circles but could find accommodating social environments online because of the abovementioned patterns. This is what an adverse reversal of pluralistic ignorance is.

In filter bubbles featuring polarization, people may buy into an absurd claim. For example, right-wingers, on the one hand, may buy into ridiculous claims about the QAnon conspiracy theory and equate Trump to Cyrus of Persia. On the other hand, leftwingers may buy into equally absurd beliefs, e.g., “men can get pregnant” or “minors do not have a gender.”

Either way, both groups embrace anything everyone else in their online social circle believes. As a result, both groups feel entitled to use violence to force their vision onto others outside their groups. That is why, like the contemporary right wing, the Wokeist left is fundamentally incompatible with the founding values of liberal Western Democracies, where people are free to believe anything they want without risking of being harmed by those who disbelieve the views they espouse.

Tommaso Ostillio is a philosopher and an economist who's primarily interested in the impact of the digital world on socioeconomic and sociopolitical trends.

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