If there are "information terrorists" among us, can "slow truth" address the root of the problem?
We’re interested in alternatives opening up for citizens, beyond existing party positions and ideologies - and thus we support the idea that the web can provide alternative angles on reality to that provided by established media. But there’s no doubt that there are many other players in this technological and semiotic field than just autonomy-oriented makers and activists. And that it’s febrile and wild out there (and in here).
This Wired US magazine piece tries to describe a particular kind of actor in our mediaspace - what they call “information terrorists” - and to relate them not to far-off forces, but to the battle for consensus within American society. Focussed on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, but ranging broadly and widely over the last few years, the author Molly McKew defines what she thinks they’re up to.
(We’ve taken the more general points - for the detail, please read the piece, which identifies figures like Roger Stone and others as chief info-terrorists):
These are not the proverbial hoodied losers in some basement, engaging with other humans only via videogames and 8chan. This cadre has hundreds of thousands of followers and devotees on Twitter, Instagram, Gab, and other social media, many of whom will post and amplify their views even after the personalities themselves are kicked off the platforms for threats and rules violations. The network also takes advantage of affiliations with increasingly mainstream partisan media outlets that will subscribe to any argument that suits their current agenda.
Ultimately, the followers—who are real people, not bots—are cultivated and activated: They don’t need be told to threaten or harass whoever the new enemy is because they already know their part in the play…
…Once information architecture is in place, it's like pipes. You just inject new material into the system, and it gets where it needs to go faster and faster as people get used to receiving narratives and themes in a certain context from certain sources. On the far-right, in particular, there has been a concerted effort to recruit people to participate in this process. They act as human amplifiers, both organic and automated, within these narrative structures.
This architecture has a preternatural advantage, of sorts: It has always been backed by hackers and coders…who understand how to use algorithms and automation. As a result, a small number of important actors can drive the system as long as they have the right content to distribute—content that triggers the right emotional response.
In 2014, Chuck Johnson explained in a Mother Jones interview how he offered "bounties" to independent online researchers to solve "puzzles" that he gave them… "You get all these hobbyists and amateurs and people out there who have a lot of time on their hands, many of whom are retired or they're a mother, their kids are sleeping while they're researching, they're stay-at-home moms, or they're college students or they're unemployed or this is their moonlighting thing. All those people are starting to find one another." It's that sense of being a part of a bigger mission.
When it comes to the psychology that shapes mass movements, there are two fundamental rules: Everybody wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants someone to tell them what to do so that things will turn out OK. With that in mind, our understanding of what conspiracy theories are and why they work comes into focus. Conspiracy theories aren't something that stupid or uneducated people fall for—they are something that people who want to believe in something latch on to.
Maybe it's religion, family, national identity, ethnic identity, community, or government that used to be this structure—the system of belief, the answers to who you are and where you fit within the system. But when those break down, conspiracies can take their place, particularly in times of rapid change or upheaval. They become the framework for making things that don't make any sense somehow understandable…
Whatever it takes to win is fair game, even if they burn down the minds of Americans in the process. This wilful radicalisation is a campaign of information terror waged on fellow countrymen—the necessary domestic counterpart for hostile nation-state information warfare to be successful….
The leading lights take scalps and champion memes, only to shed their skins and awake in a new persona, turning their flamethrowers from one topic or group to the next. In a non-Trumpian America, they might have remained the fringe provocateurs they are, trolling the fact-based world for exposure and ad revenue, vitamin hucksters and doomsday preppers masquerading as political commentators.
It is clear that foreign powers seeking to manipulate Americans with these asymmetric tools of information warfare must pay a price for doing so. But what about domestic forces that use the same tools and tactics? How do we judge those who apply disinformation against their fellow citizens to improve their odds, seeking to benefit from the ability of this architecture to spark frenzy and fear, intimidation and violence? What price should they pay for the scorched earth they leave behind?
Cognitive warfare is a dark, seductive rabbit hole. It is powerful and unregulated, and right now, thanks to social media in particular, the information domain is as lawless as the wild west, as demoralizing as the terror of World War I trench warfare, and as adaptive as the guerrilla tactics in the Philippines in World War II. There are state actors, nonstate actors, private sector and other independents—armies, mercenaries, and terrorists, all looking to master these techniques. Even small groups, like the cadre I described here, can achieve significant outcomes when the network effects kick in.
Trained and untrained operators alike are beta-testing tools and tactics on human minds, deliberately or intuitively. Information weapons are intangible. But people aim them, and people are the target. It's time we take them seriously.
It’s an intimidating, terrifying vista. One could appreciate a response which would be just a great “switch-off” - a mental and cultural “off-griding” from the powerful machines that seek to steer our attention, and our passions.
We blogged Yuval Harari a few weeks ago. He argued that one way to resist the authoritarian tendencies of information culture was to strengthen your mind, and be aware of your own reactions, feeling and limitations - the better that you might resist being gamed or triggered by the kinds of characters and strategies mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.
Our question in that blog was: how can this becomes a community or local activity, something that people do together to strengthen each other, rather than just isolatedly fall upon their own personal resources (ie, maybe personal mindfulness practice isn’t going to be quite enough)?
Yet there might be bigger and deeper framings and practices required. In a piece defending postmodernism - the relativistic, super-ironic sensibility of the 80s and 90s - against the charge of being “to blame” for the “fake” and “post-truth” maelstrom we’re in, Ephrat Livni wonders if we can find a different relationship to truth:
Instead of blaming postmodernists for the messiness of our time, we should be trying to find a new kind of language—one that allows us to speak across divides, rather than rejecting opposing perspectives as inherently false. We have to learn to acknowledge the validity of a multiplicity of views and from this craft some kind of working truth. That may too be an illusion, but it will be more functional than living in denial. Otherwise, all that we’re left with is this impossible mess, and our perpetual rejection of life’s many inconvenient complexities.
Our question, a bit like Oscar Wilde’s about socialism, is that establishing this process might take too many evenings… So we should think seriously about granting ourselves some deliberative, discursive time, some extra hours and days, out of the bounty of automation (and global limits on consumption) that’s coming.
We’ve taken to calling it “slow truth” (as opposed to “post-truth”) - truths patiently established for networked communities, who then use it as the basis for concerted local action. This obviously doesn’t reject information searching, or social networking - but we’re wondering whether there are particular interaction designs that might better fit this kind of communal deliberation. We have highlighted a few of these - see here - but watch this space for more to come.