Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring’

From Preference Bubbles to Social Inception:

December 18, 2019

The title of this post is identical to half of a title in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. The second half of the title is “The Future of Influence.” In previous posts HM has mentioned the tremendous optimism regarding the internet that was written in this blog when it began in 2009. Physical boundaries no longer mattered. People passionate about chess, cancer research, or their favorite television shows could find like-known enthusiasts around the world wanting to share their thoughts and experiences. Those under oppressive regimes, denied access to information and the outside world, could leverage the web’s anonymity to build connections, share their experiences, and hope for a better world, either at home or elsewhere. All these sources of knowledge became widely available for those with growth mindsets.

Unfortunately, hackers and cybercriminals were some of the first actors to exploit the internet in pursuit of money and fame. Hate groups and terrorists found the internet an anonymous playground for connecting with like-minded people. Even though there were only a handful, or possibly only one, extremists in any given town, but with the internet, there were now hundreds and even thousands of extremists who used only internet connections to facilitate physical massing of terrorists in global safe havens or remote compounds.

The internet provided a virtual safe haven for bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, allowing a small minority of Muslims inclined to jihadi extremism to connect with like-minded supporters. As counter terrorists searched the earth for al-Qaeda’s head shed, the internet provided enough cover, capacity and space for the terror group to survive physically by thriving virtually. Watts writes, “This made al-Qaeda bigger, but not necessarily better—more diffuse and elusive, but vulnerable to fissures and difficult to manage.

Watts writes, “My experiences with the crowd—watching the mobs that toppled dictators during the Arab Spring, the hordes that joined ISIS, the counterterrorism punditry that missed the rise of ISIS, and the political swarms duped by Russia in the 2016 presidential election—led me to believe that crowds are increasingly dumb, driven by ideology, desire, ambition, fear, and hatred, or what might collectively be referred to as “preferences.”

Social media amplifies confirmation bias through the sheer volume of content provided, assessed, and shared. And this is further amplified by interactions with their friends, family, and neighbors—people who more often than not, think like they do, speak like they do, and look like they do.

Watts writes, “Confirmation bias and implicit bias working together pull social media users into digital tribes. Individuals sacrifice their individual responsibility and initiative to the strongest voices in their preferred crowd. The digital tribe makes collective decisions based on groupthink, blocking out alternative viewpoints, new information, and ideas. Digital tribes stratify over time into political, social, religious, ethnic,and economic enclaves. Status quo bias, a preference for the current state of affairs over a change, sets into these digital tribes, such that members must mute dissent or face expulsion from the group. Confirmation, implicit, and status quo bias, on a grand social media scale, harden preference bubbles. These three world-changing phenomena build upon one another to power the disruptive content bringing about the Islamic State and now shaking Western Democracies.

Watts continues, “Clickbait populism—the promotion of popular content, opinions, and the personas that voice them—now sets the agenda and establishes the parameters for terrorism, governance, policy direction, and our future. Audiences collectively like and retweet that which conforms to their preferences. To win the crowd, leaders, candidates, and companies must play to test collective preferences.”

This clickbait populism drives another critical emerging current: social media nationalism. Each year, social media access increases and virtual bonds accelerate, digital nations increasingly form around online communities where individual users have shared preferences.

Watts writes, “Social media nationalism and clickbait populism have led to a third phenomenon that undermines the intelligence of crowds, threatening the advancement of humanity and the unity of democracies, the death of expertise. Expertise is undermined by those on the internet who ignore facts and construct alternative realities.

Consider two preference bubbles, the ISIS boys, and Trump supporters. For the ISIS boys it was more important to have a caliphate than to do it right. It was more essential to pursue extreme violence than to effectively govern.

For Trump supporters, it is more important to win than be correct, more important to be tough than compromise and move forward. They appear to be living in an alternative reality that disdains factual information. The Republican Party can be regarded as one big preference bubble. To be fair, one might argue that the Democratic Party should also be regarded as a preference bubble, but one does not find the unanimity created in a true preference bubble.

The Conflicts That Drive the Web and the World

January 23, 2019

This is the eleventh post in a series of posts on a book by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking titled “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” The title to this post is identical to the subtitle of the chapter titled “Likewar.” In 1990 two political scientists with the Pentagon’s think tank at the RAND Corporation started to explore the security implications of the internet. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt made their findings public in a revolutionary article titled “Cyberwar Is Coming!” in a 1993 article. They wrote that “information is becoming a strategic resource that may prove as valuable in the post-industrial era as capital and labor have been in the industrial age.” They argued that future conflicts would not be won by physical forces, but by the availability and manipulation of information. They warned of “cyberwar,” battles in which computer hackers might remotely target economies and disable military capabilities.

They went further and predicted that cyberwar would be accompanied by netwar. They explained: It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population “knows” or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A network may focus on public or elite opinion, or both. It may involve public diplomacy, measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with the local media…In other words, netwar represents a new entry on the spectrum of conflict that spans economic, political, and social as well as military forms of ‘war.’

Early netwar became the province of far-left activists undemocratic protesters, beginning with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico and culminating in the 2011 Arab Spring. In time, terrorists and far-right extremists also began to gravitate toward net war tactics. The balance shifted for disenchanted activists when dictators learned to use the internet to strengthen their regimes. For us, the moment came when we saw how ISIS militants used the internet not just to sow terror across the globe, but to win its battles in the field. For Putin’s government it came when the Russian military reorganized itself to strike back what it perceived as a Western information offensive. For many in American politics and Silicon Valley, it came when the Russian effort poisoned the networks with a flood of disinformation, bots, and hate.

In 2011, DARPA’s research division launched the new Social Media in Strategic Communications program to study online sentiment analysis and manipulation. About the same time, the U.S. military’s Central Command began overseeing Operation Earnest Voice to fight jihadists across the Middle East by distorting Arabic social media conversations. One part of this initiative was the development of an “online persona management service,” which is essentially sockpuppet software, “to allow one U.S. serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.” Beginning in 2014, the U.S. State Department poured vast amounts of resources into countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts, building an array of online organizations that sought to counter ISIS by launching information offensives of their own.

The authors say national militaries have reoriented themselves to fight global information conflicts, the domestic politics of these countries have also morphed to resemble netwars. The authors write, “Online, there’s little difference in the information tactics required to “win” either a violent conflict or a peaceful campaign. Often, their battles are not just indistinguishable but also directly linked in their activities (such as the alignment of Russian sockpuppets and alt-right activists). The realms of war and politics have begun to merge.”

Memes and memetic warfare also emerged. Pepe the Frog was green and a dumb internet meme. In 2015, Pepe was adopted as the banner of Trump’s vociferous online army. By 2016, he’d also become a symbol of a resurgent timed of white nationalism, declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Trump tweeted a picture of himself as an anthropomorphized Pepe. Pepe was ascendant by 2017. Trump supporters launched a crowdfunding campaign to elect a Pepe billboard “somewhere in the American Midwest.” On Twitter, Russia’s UK embassy used a smug Pepe to taunt the British government in the midst of a diplomatic argument.

Pepe formed an ideological bridge between trolling and the next-generation white nationalist, alt-right movement that had lined up behind Trump. The authors note that Third Reich phrases like “blood and soil” filtered through Pepe memes, fit surprisingly well with Trump’s America First, anti-immigration, anti-Islamic campaign platform. The wink and note of a cartoon frog allowed a rich, but easily deniable, symbolism.

Pepe transformed again when Trump won. Pepe became representative of a successful, hard-fought campaign—one that now controlled all the levers of government. On Inauguration Day in Washington, DC, buttons and printouts of Pepe were visible in the crowd. Online vendors began selling a hat printed in the same style as those worn by military veterans of Vietnam, Korea, and WW II. It proudly pronounced its wearer as a “Meme War Veteran.”

The problem with memes is that by highjacking or chance, a meme can come to contain vastly different ideas than those that inspired it, even as it retains all its old reach and influence. And once a meme has been so redefined, it becomes nearly impossible to reclaim. Making something go viral is hard; co-opting or poisoning something that’s already viral can be remarkable. U.S Marine Corps Major Michael Prosser published a thesis titled: “Memetics—a Growth industry in US Military Operations.. Prosser’s work kicked off a tiny DARPA-Funded industry devoted to “military memetics.”