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Uploaded:2020-08-25
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In which John discusses a viral TikTok about a time-traveler named Noah who is back from 2030 to tell us about Mars and microchips.
Check out Curious Tangents: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgHn5LN2NiQXWMLL4BO70OQ

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.  I've been thinking a lot about how our information feeds shape our understanding of the world.  Like, one of my new favorite YouTube channels, CuriousTangents, has a great video about how people actually change their minds, which is very different from how I thought persuasion worked.  

So humans tend to trust information that comes from people we trust, which is why so many of our sentences begin "somebody once told me..." or "I heard..." or "My friend said..." or whatever, but online, this rumor and anecdote driven approach to information sorting really runs wild.  Like, I've been repeatedly tagged in this viral TikTok about a time traveler named Noah who is visiting us from 2030.  This video has over 2 million likes and because it is such an obvious and naked example of misinformation, I thought it would be interesting to analyze it a bit.

The video begin, "This true story about a boy who claims he is a time traveler will freak you out."  Okay, so no proof is presented here, but critically, the video establishes at the outset what it is going to accomplish.  You are going to get freaked out, and we know that humans tend to pay more attention to information that is novel or strange or outrageous.  In short, we look for information that will freak us out, so this is already very promising.

"But the real crazy thing about this is, it's not just that he told the future, but as he made all of his claims, he passed a lie detector test, not failing once."  Okay, so there's the proof that Noah is a time traveler from the year 2030 who came back to tell us about the future, except that one, polygraph tests are not that reliable and two, no evidence is actually offered that Noah took a polygraph test or indeed, that Noah exists, but now having offered some semblance of proof, it's time for some claims about the future.

"One of the first things Noah stated was that Donald Trump will be re-elected in 2020."  Yeah, so remember, we look for information that freaks us out.  Also, many social media algorithms value engagement over accuracy, so predictions that will lead to lots of engagement are often more successful than well-informed predictions.  You see this offline, too, like in sports talk radio, for instance.  

"Noah says that humans will make it to Mars by the year 2028 and SpaceX is actually taking their first ship to Mars in 2022."  Yeah, no, SpaceX is not sending a ship to Mars in 2022, but if you're crafting a persuasive argument about the future, it makes sense to put something in the middle about how this is already happening or we're already starting to see it, because that makes this future feel graspable.  

"He then states that we will have implant chips put into our bodies that will benefit you."  Right, then you end with another prediction that will receive lots of engagement and you don't need to be from the future to predict microchips in humans.  It was predicted almost 20 years ago in MT Anderson's novel Feed which begins with the wondrous first sentence: "We went to the Moon to have fun, but the Moon turned out to completely suck."

Okay, so you would maybe expect the most popular comments on this video to be like, this is fun and silly and a little bit creepy or something like that, but no, the most popular comments are either about how chip implants are a mark of the beast or a sign of the apocalypse or else they're about Donald Trump, because even though the video is clearly false and doesn't even really try hard to pretend otherwise, it leads to us feeling real emotion, fear and outrage and fascination, and that makes us engage, so the video gets shown to more and more people until eventually it begins to look vaguely legitimate because it has 12 million views and comes from a verified user.

This phenomenon where false or inadequately contextualized information leads to very real emotional experiences is, for me at least, quite common, and it's powerful, I mean, even though I know that video is fake, in the future when I think about chip implants oro Mars or Trump or whatever, Noah's predictions will be somewhere in my mindscape, literally changing my mind, and in that sense, Noah is real whether he exists or not.  

In fact, if a time traveler really came back from the year 2030, one of the first things I'd wanna know is how we fixed the misinformation problem.  The second thing I wanna know is how many titles Liverpool wins in the next decade.

Again, Hank, I really recommend the channel CuriousTangents.  I think it only has 8,000 subscribers and it's great.  Check it out, link in the doobly-doo.  I will see you on Friday.