The Comment Section Insurrection
The events we witnessed yesterday at the Capitol were awful, sad, jarring, and scary. A common reaction I saw echoed on TV and on Twitter was, "This isn't who we are." or "America is better than this." Aside from mostly agreeing, I found it interesting because it is essentially the acceptance of a major collective identity disorder - a dissociative mental illness. If this was a single individual who was shocked and in denial that they stormed a government building shirtless in a viking helmet, they'd be committed. As a collective nation, it's more complicated than that.
It's not a stretch to say that America is suffering from a dissociative identity disorder. We are highly polarized and identity focused politically, have two versions of reality (and increasingly history), two (or more) very distinct personalities, and the country is beginning to lose its ability to function properly. It goes without saying that I'm not implying that most Americans are suffering from such a disorder, but something seems to be going on in the minds of Americans to cause the identity of the collective whole to so visibly fracture.
Physical damage is easily observed and comprehended. Mental damage is largely hidden or, worse yet, marginalized until it results in some sort of physical manifestation. Growing up most of us all learned and uttered the famous nursery rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.
The main intent of the rhyme was to use it as a defense to name-calling and bullying. Stay calm. Carry on. Unintentionally it also communicates that violence is strictly physical in nature. Damage can only be inflicted upon the flesh or, at the very least, that you can't die directly from a bullet of information to the brain.
As you get older you know that this simply isn't true. We largely recognize that psychological damage and trauma is real, and though we know a bullet to your brain won't directly cause death, it is possible to die from the complications.
Yet, we as a society still largely believe in the rhyme. We pride ourselves on our freedom of speech and press and don't see information as a threat and minds as an attack vector. We mostly see ourselves as "mentally tough". This is reinforced by the ongoing survival of our physical body through periods of mental pain, like the loss of a loved one. We refuse to acknowledge the ease and magnitude of damage that can be done to our minds. We may appreciate the risk and danger of posed by damage done collectively at scale, we don't believe that it would ever happen to us. We also don't want to accept that the new information tools and services that we use so often, and that have changed many other parts of our lives, could possibly be a weapon that inflicts such damage.
If we are underestimating the damage of words, we are then underestimating the threat of informational warfare. The idea of such a form of warfare is starting to gain traction. A few weeks back Fareed Zakaria wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post about how Russia is not just hacking our computer networks, but our neural networks as well. The piece is definitely a bit light on substance, but drives home the main argument:
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has significantly expanded its hybrid warfare, using new methods to spread chaos among its adversaries. The United States will have to fortify its digital infrastructure and respond more robustly to the Kremlin’s mounting cyberattacks. But what about the perhaps more insidious Russian efforts at disinformation, which have helped to reshape the information environment worldwide?
In 2016, two scholars at Rand Corp. wrote a paper describing Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” propaganda model. Very different from Cold War-era propaganda, current Russian approaches work with prevailing technologies and social media platforms. There are two key features — “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.” There is no effort at consistency or credibility. The report quotes one analyst: “New Russian propaganda entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience.”
Russia’s method closely resembles Trump’s own propaganda strategy. Trump issues a blizzard of messages, using every medium he can find. He is usually untruthful but always entertaining. He never worries about consistency, asking only that you remember his most recent claims. When campaigning in 2016 he argued that the unemployment rate was a hoax, that the Federal Reserve was keeping interest rates dangerously low and that the stock market was a bubble about to burst. Once he entered the White House, he soon said the opposite about all three. If you bombard people in the present, few have time to dwell on the past.
A much better essay was published a few years back by Renee DiResta from the Stanford Internet Observatory. I came across it about a year ago and have been sharing it since. The post, The Digital Maginot Line, loudly proclaims the existence of an ongoing informational war - and one that we are not prepared to fight, let alone win.
There is a war happening. We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality. The conflict is still being processed as a series of individual skirmishes – a collection of disparate, localized, truth-in-narrative problems – but these battles are connected. The campaigns are often perceived as organic online chaos driven by emergent, bottom-up amateur actions when a substantial amount is, in fact, helped along or instigated by systematic, top-down institutional and state actions. This is a kind of warm war; not the active, declared, open conflict of a hot war, but beyond the shadowboxing of a cold one.
We experience this as a state of continuous partial conflict. The theatre opportunistically shifts as geopolitical events and cultural moments present themselves, but there is no sign of abatement — only tactical evolution as the digital platforms that serve as the battlespaces introduce small amounts of friction via new security checks and feature tweaks. As governments become increasingly aware of the problem, they each pursue responses tailored to the tactics of the last specific battle that manifested in their own digital territory; in the United States, for example, we remain focused on Election 2016 and its Russian bots. As a result, we are investing in a set of inappropriate and ineffective responses: a digital Maginot Line constructed on one part of the battlefield as a deterrent against one set of tactics, while new tactics manifest elsewhere in real time.
While viewing photos and videos of yesterday's insurrection at the Capitol, it struck me how such a symbolic and serious event was a laugh to those involved in the coup. From the shirtless Nazi viking, to the dude chilling at Nancy Pelosi's desk there was a fun loving non-chalant attitude about it all. This wasn't a political movement with deep, serious principles. The lulz is the point. It was a group of people shitposting IRL on the Capitol. It was the Comment Section Insurrection.
DiResta addressed this years ago:
The Information World War has already been going on for several years. We called the opening skirmishes “media manipulation” and “hoaxes”, assuming that we were dealing with ideological pranksters doing it for the lulz (and that lulz were harmless).
In reality, the combatants are professional, state-employed cyberwarriors and seasoned amateur guerrillas pursuing very well-defined objectives with military precision and specialized tools. Each type of combatant brings a different mental model to the conflict, but uses the same set of tools....
... [one group consists of ] small but highly-skilled cadres of ideologically-motivated shitposters whose skill at information warfare is matched only by their fundamental incomprehension of the real damage they’re unleashing for lulz. A subset of these are conspiratorial — committed truthers who were previously limited to chatter on obscure message boards until social platform scaffolding and inadvertently-sociopathic algorithms facilitated their evolution into leaderless cults able to spread a gospel with ease.
Combatants evolve with remarkable speed, because digital munitions are very close to free. In fact, because of the digital advertising ecosystem, information warfare may even turn a profit. There’s very little incentive not to try everything: this is a revolution that is being A/B tested. The most visible battlespaces are our online forums — Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — but the activity is increasingly spreading to old-school direct action on the streets, in traditional media outlets, and behind closed doors, as state-sponsored trolls recruit and manipulate activists, launder narratives, and instigate protests.
The problem with such a form of warfare is there is no easy solution. First we'd have to accept that the war is not being fought merely in the minds of the alt right groups that we witnessed yesterday, but in our own minds as well. Different movements that we value should be viewed under the same skeptical scrutiny as this one - whether it be Bernie Sanders, Bitcoin, or BLM. I'm not saying that the underlying causes and values of such movements are invalid, or that the people behind them are malicious in nature. They just represent notable movements in the past few years where there is both motivation to wage war and signs that war is or was being waged and weapons were being used. Our most valid grievances are easiest to hijack, because behind them are damaged psyches and sympathetic supporters wishing to do (or at the very least signal) that they are virtuous. Fighting a war on multiple fronts is difficult and we must first acknowledge and defeat those who are attempting to weaponize our populace, starting with ourselves.
Should we merely decide that we need to fight such a war, we are ill-equipped as a nation to combat it. Not only are our citizens being turned into unwitting enemy combatants, the freedoms that we value and that have made us great have become our biggest attack vector. DiResta explains this predicament, and offers up a starting point for a solution:
What made democracies strong in the past — a strong commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas — makes them profoundly vulnerable in the era of democratized propaganda and rampant misinformation.
We are (rightfully) concerned about silencing voices or communities. But our commitment to free expression makes us disproportionately vulnerable in the era of chronic, perpetual information war. Digital combatants know that once speech goes up, we are loathe to moderate it; to retain this asymmetric advantage, they push an all-or-nothing absolutist narrative that moderation is censorship, that spammy distribution tactics and algorithmic amplification are somehow part of the right to free speech.
We seriously entertain conversations about whether or not bots have the right to free speech, privilege the privacy of fake people, and have Congressional hearings to assuage the wounded egos of YouTube personalities. More authoritarian regimes, by contrast, would simply turn off the internet. An admirable commitment to the principle of free speech in peace time turns into a sucker position against adversarial psy-ops in wartime. We need an understanding of free speech that is hardened against the environment of a continuous warm war on a broken information ecosystem. We need to defend the fundamental value from itself becoming a prop in a malign narrative.
We have grown up believing that the exchange of information, words, ideas, speech is inherently a good thing. At worst we believed it to be mostly harmless. The harm we did see felt minor, fleeting, contained, or largely removed - the friend whose husband berated her, the weird cult out West we watched a documentary about, or even the kid who got bullied and shot up a school. We don't even consider for a second, that the exchange of information could potentially be incredibly dangerous on a mass scale. It feels almost un-American to write such a thing, yet I contend that we are living it. As DiResta points out - we can either cling to our laurels and watch as we lose it all or strategically fight back.
Digital, social media is fantastic in so many ways. I'm an early adopter and avid user of many blogs, forums and communities. I've been so encouraged by the power of them that I committed a large chunk of my career building an online community. The technology alone is not inherently good or bad. It just is. Good intentions could have terrible unintended consequences - which is just the history of technology. The industrial revolution changed a great deal of things for the better, but we had to go through two World Wars and a Depression before stability kicked in. Just as Bessemer didn't envision massive steel tanks meeting outdated tactics in World War I, the slew of internet entrepreneurs probably didn't envision Russian sock puppets, All Lives Matter memes, and disinformation flooding their inventions when they wrote the first code.
For many, the internet feels safe because there are no physical sticks and stones. It's all words and information. You can dunk on someone and not get punched in the face, or even see their face when you do it. You can even get a crowd of hundreds of people watching and cheering, when they would never do that in the physical space. Ironically, this makes it a much more informationally violent place, filled with many digital sticks and stones that we don't know we are wielding and getting hit with. Yesterday was just one example of just how they are beginning to break our bones and hurt us. The Comment Section Insurrection sounds like a joke but it's real. The fact that we even see it as a joke is what gives it power. Voting out Trump, arresting the participants, and scorning Facebook are merely akin taking out a few tanks on the battle field. We need to shore up our informational infrastructure and free our fellow citizens before our national identity is so fractured, and half the country is so unrecognizable that we no longer see a shared path forward.