Posts Tagged ‘Soviet disinformation’

Surviving in a Social Media World

December 20, 2019

The title of this post is the title of the final chapter in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. Go to Starbucks or any public space. The customers heads are down, peering at smartphones; rarely do eyes meet. Customers might stand in the same line with the same people hundreds of times each year and never utter a word or even remember each other’s faces.

HM attends professional conferences on psychonomics (cognitive psychology), the America Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and Human Factors and Ergonomics. Professionals come from all over the world to attend these conferences and to learn from other professionals with shared interests. HM sees groups of people, sitting together peering down at their smartphones. During talks, many are not looking at the speaker or the slides but are peering down at their smartphones.

Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, further defined the social capital concept pioneered by Tocqueville, dividing it into two types: bonding and bridging. Bonding capital involves Americans associating with people similar to themselves. Bridging capital comes when we make friendships and associations with people unlike ourselves. Putnam argued that these two types of capital, when combined together, power American democracy. The decline of bridging capital that is occurring signals an ominous future for the United States.

After publication of this book, Putnam not only defended his thesis, but worked to identify solutions for increasing American social capital. In 2001 his Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey sought to discover approaches for increasing social capital but instead revealed more troubling indicators for American society. The study noted: “Our survey results makes clear the serious challenges of building social capital in a large, ethnically diverse community. The more diverse a community in our study, the less likely its residents are: to trust other people…to connect with other people, even informally…to participate in politics…to connect across class lines.”

Watts writes, “Democracy dies in preference bubbles. That’s it, there’s no way for Americans to communicate, debate, compromise, and thrives as these bubbles diverge and insulate themselves from challengers. The United States, if it stays on this trajectory, ultimately may not endure. I’ve explored social media preference bubbles in great detail, but they drive physical-world preference bubbles as well. We all increasingly live in places where we walk like, talk like and look like one another. Members of the same social media preference bubbles move to places where they can reside with like-minded people who share the values, ethnicity, identity, and lifestyle of their social media nationalism. The Islamic State, while seen as extreme in the West, provides an early example of this phenomenon. Social-media-induced fantasies led young Muslims, entire families of women and children, to voluntarily move to a war zone in Syria and Iraq—the digital tail wagged the physical dog.”

Watts writes,”I’ve offered some thoughts on how the U.S. government can protect American against Russian interference, but the threat to democracy comes not from Russia but from America. The U.S. government will not save Americans from their preference bubbles, and since the election we’ve seen not just Russian active measures attempting to destroy our democracy, but American active measures tearing down our institutions. It will take Americans fighting for their own democracy to fend off the social media manipulators, the hidden core, who seek to hear them and coalesce them into a movement outside of their control and only partly of their own design. Public and civil society must come together, leaders must emerge, and civil society must be rebuilt—on the ground, not online”

Watts says the retired General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation of a national service, beyond the military, would be an excellent way to bring citizens together through common cause and shared values. Here HM strongly concurs. HM was drafted and served two years. Initially this was regarded as a burdensome obligation. But it turned out to be, perhaps, the most rewarding two years of his life. HM worked for NCOs, who were black. One of his best friends was a poor white from Louisiana. He was so poor that he had plates of artificial teeth. When inducted his teeth were so rotten that they all needed to be removed. This was not an uncommon experience for new draftees. Absent the draft, HM’s chances of meeting, much less befriending, such individuals were virtually nil. Watts writes, “Ultimately real-world physical relationships will be the only way to defeat the online troll armies tearing democracies apart.

Watts and his colleagues have proposed the equivalent of Consumer Reports should be created for social media feeds. Information Consumer Reports would be an independent, nongovernmental rating agency that evaluated news outlets across all types of media during a rating period. Outlets would receive marks based on their performance as assessed on two principal axes: fact versus fiction in the content it produces, and subjective opinion versus objective reporting.

Watts notes that Finland fought Soviet disinformation for years, and Russian resurgence in this space led the Finns to develop a coordinated plan and trained personnel to deflect propaganda. They’ve also invested heavily in good public education, equipping their citizens not only to assess incoming information, but also to recognize falsehoods because they understand how their own government institutions and processes work. Americans enraged by WikiLeaks dumps, shouting claims of corruption or collusion, actually know little about the operation of the branches and the electoral process. Civic classes alone could enable Americans to better spot falsehoods.”

Watts also writes, Social media users can take several steps to survive in the modern social media world. First, and above all, ask whether the benefits of using social media outweigh the costs, and even if the answer to that question is yes, try to use social media less.”

HM blog readers should recognize this as a recommendation repeatedly offered in this blog.