Posts Tagged ‘memetics’

Learning to Lie

June 13, 2019

This is the third post based on a new book by Douglas Rushkoff titled “TEAM HUMAN.” The title of this post is identical to the title of the third section of this book. Rushkoff begins this section,”It doesn’t take much to tilt a healthy social landscape toward an individualist or repressive one. A scarcity of resources, a hostile neighboring tribe, a warlord looking for power, an elite seeking to maintain its authority, or a corporation pursuing a monopoly all foster antisocial environments and behavior. Socialization depends on both autonomy and interdependency; emphasizing one at the expense of the other compromises the balance.”

One desocializing strategy emphasizes individualism. The special group is broken down into automized individuals who fight for their right to fulfillment by professional advancement or personal consumption. This system is often sold as freedom. But these competing individuals never find true autonomy because they lack the social fabric in which to exercise it.

Another path to desocialization emphasized conformity. People don’t need to compete because they are all the same. Such system mitigates strident individualism, but it does through obedience usually to a supreme ruler or monopoly party. Conformity is not truly social, because people are looking up for direction other than to one another. Because there is no variation, mutation or social fluidity, conformity ends up being just as desocializing as individualism.

Rushkoff concludes that both approaches depend on separating people from one another and undermining our evolved social mechanisms in order to control us. He continues, “Any of our healthy social mechanisms can become vulnerabilities: what hackers would call “exploits” for those who want to manipulate us. For example, when a charity encloses a free “gift” or return address labels along with their solicitation for a donation, they are consciously manipulating our ancient, embedded social bias for reciprocity. The example is trivial, but the pattern is universal We either succumb to the pressures with the inner knowledge that something is off, or we recognize the ploy, reject the plea, and arm ourselves agains such tactics in the future. In either case, the social landscape is eroded. What held us together now breaks us apart.”

Spoken language can be regarded as the first communication technology. Language has many admirable capabilities. But before language, there was no such thing as a lie. Rushkoff writes that the closest thing to lying would have been a behavior such as hiding a piece of fruit, but speech created a way of actively misrepresenting reality to others.

Rushkoff writes that when we look at the earliest examples of the written word, it was used mostly to assert power and control. “For the first five hundred years after its invention in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively by her kings and priests to keep track of the grain and labor they controlled. Whenever writing appeared, it was accompanied by war and slavery. For all the benefits of the written word, it is also responsible for replacing an embodied, experiential culture with an abstract administrative one.”

Rushkoff continues, “The Gutenberg printing press extended the reach and accessibility of the written word throughout Europe, and promised a new era of literacy and expression. But the printing presses were tightly controlled by monarchs, who were well aware of what happens when people begin reading one another’s books. Unauthorized presses were destroyed and their owners executed. Instead of promoting a new culture of ideas, the printing press reinforced control from the top.

Radio also began as a peer-to-peer medium such as ham radio. But corporations lobbied to monopolize the spectrum and governments sought to control it, radio devolved from a community space to one dominated by advertising and propaganda.

Hitler used this new medium of radio to make himself appear to be anywhere and everywhere at once. No single voice had ever permeated German society previously, and the sense of personal connection it engendered allowed Hitler to create a new sort of rapport with millions of people. The Chinese installed 70 million loudspeakers to broadcast what they called “Politics on Demand” through the nation. Rwandans used radio as late as 1993 to reveal the location of ethnic enemies so that mobs of loyalists with machetes could massacre them.

Initially television was viewed as a great connector and educator. However, marketing psychologists saw in it a way to mirror a consumer’s mind and insert with it new fantasies and specific products. Programming referred to the programmability not of the channel, but of the viewer.

There have been so many previous healthy memory blog posts on the problems of social media and of cybernetic warfare, that can be found under the category of Transactive Memory, that little more on these general topics will be written.

But a few words words will be written on memes and memetics. Rushkoff writes, “An increasingly competitive media landscape favors increasingly competitive content. Today, anyone with a smartphone, web page or social media account can share their ideas. If that idea is compelling it might be replicated and spread to millions. And so the race is on. Gone are the collaborative urges that characterized embodied social interaction. In their place comes another bastardized Darwinian ideal: a battle for the survival of the fittest meme.”

Rushkoff continues, “The amazing thing is that it doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be infected by the meme and provoked to replicate it. ‘Look what this person said’ is reason enough to spread it. In the contentious social media surrounding elections the most racist and sexist memes are reposted less by their advocates than by their outraged opponents. That’s because memes do not compete for dominance by appealing to our intellect, our compassion, or anything to do with our humanity. They compete to trigger our most automatic impulses.”

Rushkoff concludes this section as follows: “…our extension of our social reality into a new medium requires that we make a conscious effort to bring our humanity along with us. We must project our social human organism from the very things we have created.”

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.”