Education and susceptibility to manipulation: The real Facebook problem.

According to the news, Facebook has found that there are people trying (and succeeding) to use the platform to manipulate the minds of Americans.  There would be no worry if Americans were not, in substantial enough numbers to matter, susceptible to the manipulation.

Whoever it is who is doing the manipulation believes that the American public is susceptible and so do those who are worried about its effects.

Many of the people, it seems plausible to believe, are of the age to vote in American elections and, as the authorities appear to believe, the manipulation from outside, has the potential to affect the vote.

While the focus is on those perpetrating the manipulation, it is as important to consider why it is that a significant portion of the American public is susceptible to it.  Advertising agencies, their clients–amongst them politicians, amongst these some of the “reputable” ones–and corporations manipulate at will and without much scrutiny or condemnation.  In fact, to manipulate well is to win and a large segment of the public accepts this as a given, a fact of life in our modern society.

Almost all of those affected by those who use manipulation as a tool to provoke action, oftentimes action that is not in the best interests of the actor so manipulated, have an education.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93% of Americans graduate from high school.

In my mind it seems reasonable to believe that those with an adequate education would not be so susceptible to manipulation as to cause concern when a campaign to influence American minds is found to exist.  Campaigns to manipulate Americans minds are a regular feature of the societal landscape.  The worry now being expressed about campaigns to influence is not about concern that Americans are manipulable, but that they are now being mis-influenced by those who are understood to be bad actors.

But bad actors would not have a chance to succeed in their manipulations if the public was one properly prepared to deal with manipulation.  The American public is not so prepared.  In fact the American public, through most of the institutions that play a role in education the public, are intentionally made manipulable because if they were not the economic system would not work very “well.”

The danger of the manipulation of the manipulable by bad actors is a clear and present one, maybe the biggest danger our society and the world in which it exists faces.  It makes sensible governance reflective of the people’s impossible.  To use a currently popular term, it makes it possible to weaponize the will of the people against the bests interests of the people and, in a modern world where decisions made in one place can seriously be of serious consequence to all who live on the planet, the best interests of planet and all who live on it.

A good educational system for a good democracy would educate people in such a way as to make it significantly less likely that anyone would have to worry too much about bad actors or the tools bad actors use to manipulate people to the point that the manipulated people might decide to act in harmful and/or destructive ways.

We do not have such an educational system and those who have the most say in how people are educated do not want such an educational system.  The fact that there is deep concern about people being badly manipulated should be taken to mean that manipulation and manipulators should be studied in depth and critical thinking skills that cause one to recognize when they are being manipulated and for what purposes need to be developed.  That is, IF there is concern for the development of sensible governance by a people truly free to make its own decisions and capable of making decisions that are in the name common good.

By lafered

Retired professor of education concerned with thoughtfulness

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