1. WTF: Environmental Variables
The Columbian Chemical plant explosion (see Part 1) seemed to be a motiveless hoax. No one made money. No one stayed fooled. Plant neighbors did not drive by that evening and say, “Damn, they got that fixed fast!”
So what’s going on here? Why would the Russians bother with something so expensive but apparently pointless?
This and the related these hoaxes did have one consistent impact: they added to what might be called the ambient fear factor.
The feeling of being under threat has political consequences.
2 Data Point: Ideological Entrenchment
The feeling that we’re in a hostile situation tends to push us towards ideological extremes, entrenches us in our ideologies (“don’t give an inch!”), and hollows out the middle.
Pacific Standard Magazine gives a layman’s summary of recent research in Adversity Inspires Politically Polarized Attitudes. The abstract of the research paper this is based on is pretty clear as well:
Many studies find that when made to feel uncertain, participants respond by affirming importantly held beliefs…. [Further, their study found] there was a positive relationship between adversity and the tendency to strongly affirm and polarize their positions. Results suggest that adverse life events may lead to long-lasting changes in one’s tendency to polarize one’s political attitudes.
I’d like to restate that.
- Uncertainty tends to cause folks to dig in to their core beliefs. (Makes sense, right? They/we need some sort of touchstone in trying times.)
- A life of adverse events tends to create folks with polarized attitudes.
I’d noticed the latter point myself when comparing folks I worked construction with in Texas with similar folks in San Francisco Bay Area. Men with a very similar embattled stance and class background would adamantly advance precisely opposite politics but for identical reason. The espoused views were generally shared with, but more extreme than, the prevalent local worldview.
3 Data Point: Disease and Authoritarian Leaders
The feeling of being under threat pushes the public toward authoritarian leaders even if the threat is unrelated to current politics.
Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion.
Not to pick on the GOP, but what’s the dynamic here?
The article, Trump Culture: Threat, Fear and the Tightening of the American Mind in Scientific American, lines it out quoting a group at University of Maryland:
We need to step away from the current election cycle and consider the history of human culture, particularly its relationship with warfare, famine and natural disasters.
Our theory — which has been supported by computer models, international surveys and archival data — is that communities are more likely to survive these threats when they set clear rules for behavior, put strong leaders who can regulate those rules in charge and punish those who deviate from the norm.
We have also found that people in tighter societies tend to prefer autonomous leaders. Such leaders have extreme confidence in their own abilities and make independent decisions without the input of others. These leaders can be successful in high threat environments because of their quick and unambiguous decision-making, which often comes at the cost of more democratic dialogue.
It’s not so much philosophy as stance. This has Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump written all over it.
4 WTF: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
So far so good, but things become a little weird when our perception of threat deviates from reality and is being manipulated for profit or political gain!
Study after study shows we increasingly live in a world of perceived threat, e.g. from violent crime, disconnected from factual risk.
Layer this on to the fact that working class Americans are under economic siege and we’re certainly we’re in position to understand why people might vote against their best interests and expressed beliefs for someone who can more effectively play the fear card and exploit that.
Clearly, a fake disaster can have a more lasting emotional resonance. Still, I’m not sure why the Russians bother with disaster theater when our own 24 hour news machine is working it quite well on its own.
5. Data Point: Why Am I a Target? A Prediction
One last quick data point. Social media captures not only your interests but your connections. There’s a big push in advertising to utilize key influencer’s social media accounts to push products. And you can tell by a network graph who should be targeted as an influencer. In the picture below you can see a Hub, i.e. someone at the center of a group, and Connectors, i.e. people who bridge groups.
My prediction is that these folks (and maybe you’re one yourself) are currently being targeted by advertisers and, if not now, will soon be targeted by political campaigns. They may target you to pitch a candidate or position or they may target you for demoralization in order to impact your connections. As the Cambridge Analytica guy sez, “It’s all about group dynamics.”
This sort of analysis is not difficult to do. There are open source tools and services that let you get this type of analysis. One of the resources I cite below did exactly that.
6. WTF: Final Analysis
There’s a Science Fiction concept called Grey Goo.
Nanotechnology should, in theory, be able to take a pile of dirt and energy and build, say, a cheeseburger atom by atom. In the multiverse of our Science Fiction imaginations, the nano-machines will occasionally go off the rails and start reducing everything to a sticky mass of uniform components, i.e. Grey Goo.
We have entered a stretch where new technologies are being used by our enemies in ways that dissolves facts, public conversation, our ‘most personal’ reactions, and even our attention spans into the informational equivalent of Grey Goo. The objective is to isolate us in bubbles of outrage and fear and thereby paralyze us. Currently, it’s succeeding.
Next Part 3: If they have a strategy, we need a counter-strategy
This is the second part of three. Part 1 is here.
This is segmented and slightly bowdlerized version of the original one-piece article published here.
I’ve decided if I was going to write I might as well seek readers. I’m replacing my old system (spam everyone I know) with a mailing list. You can sign up for that below. I’ll let you know when I publish something.