Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paranoid Mind + Social Media=Trumpism

Many people on the liberal side of American politics imagine Trump wrongly. They imply that this is simply the last ditch surge of the primitive consciousness; a rear guard fights of the traditional enemy – racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia. However they underestimate the newness of the phenomenon, which I for simplicity will call trumpism (there is a number of very similar things across Europe, including the latter years Putinism).

The paranoid mind existed for a long time. For a broad historical overview, see the influential Richard Hofstadter’s essay (1964). However, the radical democratization of information offered the old virus a new and extraordinary efficient vehicle, the social media. Conspiracy theories have always existed in obscure books and magazines. As Ivan Smirnov, a doc student from Moscow had noticed, the cost of producing a lie is much lower than the cost of rebuking it. To verify his claim, just search for seth rich death in your Facebook. You will see what kinds of sharing power to conspiratorial claims have. Search Google for clinton pedophile ring and you will get 1.5 millions of hits – on a completely fictional story. The economics of the paranoid mind are vastly different now.

In addition, the Russian intelligence have exploited this new economics of paranoia to weaponize the social media. After 2014, their choice was either to erect a Russian equivalent of the great Chinese firewall, or try something different. They succeeded in severely curtailing the anti-government discourse in the domestic social media through a combination of fake news and paid trolls. Everyone who lived in Russia in 2014-16 could see it happening. The Russians created multiple memes mocking liberalism, feminism, democratic institutions, multiculturalism, and picturing the general demise of the Western civilization. Many of those memes they appropriated from the Western right-wing political discourse. They won by flooding the social media with huge volumes of informational crap, with millions of supporters gobbling it up and spreading it further.

Almost at the same time, the Russian intelligence exported the new infowar techniques to the West. RT, the TV propaganda channel, received many millions of dollars in additional financing. If I recall correctly, in about 2014 their budget increased seven-fold. It became an anchor generating and spreading fake news, arguments, and memes. It is unclear whether the Macedonian shop had Russian connections, or it is independent. The Russian enterprise for undermining democratic institutions have found eager supporters among American and European Alt-Right types. It is debatable how much influence did the Russian intelligence really had on American elections; I cannot imagine it was much. However, the Russian intelligence community can certainly claim much credit for invention of the new vehicle for the old paranoid virus. I have to admit, begrudgingly, it was a brilliant move; it is much more sophisticated – and dangerous - than the Chinese wall technique.

Russians aside, the mainstream conservative establishment in the US has woken up to the opportunities of new weaponry. They are learning quickly, Seth Rich story being a recent example. The liberal side remains blissfully unaware, to the large extent. Liberals still try to fight the old mass media wars, with limited success. In general, they underestimate the newness of the challenge, believing, falsely, that this is still the old enemy.

The response cannot be symmetrical. Liberals cannot produce their own kind of conspiratorial garbage. First, because it does not work on liberals who tend to be more critical thinkers. And second, because it smells bad. A huge responsibility lies with the social media and search platforms themselves. Google started to do something, while Facebook and Twitter are just beginning to realize how they have been hijacked and used. They need to wake up and develop an immune system, so the virus does not just spread freely.

To be honest, we do not really have an answer to the new challenge yet. At least, I have not seen one. This is where our intellectual resources should go – we must figure out a response, otherwise trumpism wins. I only know that the old and proven things like more education, more rational discourse, more honest mass media, more critical thinking – they do not work. In social media, we tend to isolate ourselves into our neat liberal islands, and have no idea how to affect those other islands where the paranoid mind virus is raging.

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