Time to take a break from giving and receiving abuse on Twitter and do some work.
Last night we watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” It’s about the big tech companies and how their systems manipulate us into giving them what they want, which is our time and attention.
About 25 years ago I was stuck in the airport in Reno, Nevada, where there were slot machines available for waiting passengers to entertain themselves. I recall watching a woman play one, rhythmically swaying back and forth to the musical accompaniment from the machine as she pulled the lever over, and over, and over. I could see from her glazed eyes that she was in a trance, one with the machine. I wondered if she would succeed to pull herself away in time when her flight was announced, or if indeed she would even hear the announcement. Later, I recognized the same look in the eyes of someone scrolling through Facebook or Twitter on their phone.
These systems, which although they have been developed by humans, work autonomously and learn from experience how to control the behavior of their subjects. Their developers only care about getting us to sit still and eat the ads we are “served” (I love that locution), but of course it has destructive side effects. The creation of ideological bubbles, the dispersion of fake news, and the encouragement of extremism are some of them, but there are other, deeper changes that are not obvious, like the contraction of the subject’s attention span, the forced withdrawal from normal social activities, the decline in risk-taking, and the abysmal waste of time.
The abuses of political correctness, cancel culture, and the wide popularity of absurd, self-contradictory theories and ideologies are all epiphenomena of the ubiquity of social media. They would not be possible without the ability to disseminate emotion-loaded stimuli widely and instantaneously to groups of like-minded people, people who are often in the receptive trance-like state engendered by the medium.
How, for example, did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come to take over the mind-space of the Western world? Almost none of my Twitter abuse comes from actual Arabs or Palestinians. Most of the folks accusing me of supporting “land theft,” apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of Palestinians live in the US or Europe, places which have their own problems. And yet they care so much about the Palestinians!
The Palestinization of the Western mind is a long story. It started with the KGB, who wanted to find a lever to get support for its Arab clients in the Middle East. It continued via the massive inputs of Arab oil money into Western educational institutions and “human rights” groups. It got a big boost from 2001’s Durban Conference on Racism, where the popular theme of anti-racism was successfully applied to Israel – a remarkable feat of reality inversion, since the Arab rejectionism that underlies the conflict is at bottom a particular rejection of Jewish sovereignty, and a desire to ethnically cleanse the region of Jews.
But the advent of the Internet multiplied – exponentiated – everything. It first became available in universities in the 1980s with email and Usenet newsgroups (like mailing lists) facilitating the democratization of the distribution of information. The first rudimentary social networks like Compuserve and America Online arrived in the 1990s. The dam burst with the creation of Facebook and others in the early 2000s.
The universities have always been repositories of misoziony, extreme and irrational Israel-hatred. This is because of the general leftward tilt of university faculties, who were fertile soil for the Soviet anti-Israel propaganda that began in the late 1960s and continued through the dissolution of the USSR. There was also the effect of the aforementioned Arab oil money donated to create departments of Mideast studies that were little more than indoctrination units. Students and faculty, early adopters of new technology, used it to organize and propagandize for all of their causes, including the increasingly popular Palestinian one.
Some important characteristics of social media that particularly affect cognitive warfare in this conflict are the immediacy of transmission of information, its bias toward emotional content, its tendency to create opinion bubbles, its encouragement of extremism, and the effect of numerical superiority of one side or another in a dispute. Let’s see how this works.
One of the propaganda techniques used against Israel is the “spaghetti test,” in which false accusations are rapidly thrown against the public in the hope that they will stick. By the time the information to refute them has been collected, the damage has been done and new accusations have been launched. The ability of social media to plant an idea in numerous receptive minds instantaneously with no filtering (such as is at least supposed to occur in traditional media) greatly increases the effectiveness of this.
It is well known that emotional content makes a story memorable, as well as serving as a motivation for action in a way that factual information cannot. Social media tends to be biased toward the transmission of emotionally affecting content, since that is what drives a person to share or retweet an item. Emotionally moving items (“IDF soldiers shoot Palestinian children for fun”) tend to dominate the timelines of its targets, arriving faster and more frequently than factual, but boring, corrections (“nobody was shot”).
The opinion bubbles prominent on social media, in which a person tends to collect “friends” and followers with similar political opinions means that propaganda will be repeated and amplified by the echo chambers formed by the bubbles. As it bounces around in an eagerly accepting environment, it creates anger and indignation, as well as accumulating greater authority (everyone is talking about the murder of Muhammad al-Dura, so the story must be true).
A participant in a social media opinion bubble is a player in a social game in which points are won by being first with the most shocking information. The “alphas” in the group are the ones whose opinions are the most exciting, which usually means that their positions are the most extreme. This forces the window of discourse in the direction of extremism, which is why it seems so shocking when it escapes from the bubble. The group “Canary Mission” often exposes social media posts in which students and academics express themselves against Jews or Israel in a way which is acceptable within their group but appears (and is) appallingly vicious to an outsider.
Jews and Israelis are a small minority compared to their enemies, and defenders of Israel are an equally small minority on social networks. The numerical advantage on one side makes it possible to “pile on” to a person and overwhelm them with verbal abuse. It seems that the Palestinians and their supporters are using social media much more effectively than those on the Israeli side. I am not sure if this is simply a consequence of their numerical advantage, or something else.
Technology of this kind has made everyday life much more convenient. Can you imagine life without Google? As the documentary points out, social media has reunited families and made it possible to become acquainted with people that one would otherwise never know. It can provide a lifeline for shut-ins, especially in this time of pandemic.
But – as its effects in facilitating cognitive warfare in our own sphere show – it has changed the world in ways we are just beginning to understand, and have made no effort to control. It has increased political polarization in general, fostered extremism, and seriously damaged traditional journalism.
No, I don’t want to be without Google (I think). But I wouldn’t cry if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. disappeared.