Monday, January 24, 2022

It's Just One Guy (Revisited) - The Evil of Social Media

Social media isn't evil because of the mass of humanity, but rather the actions of a few people directing the mass of humanity.

A recent study shows that the bulk of anti-vax information on the Internet is being created and spread by just a dozen prominent "influencers".   This is startling information, as one might think that anti-vaxxer movements are comprised of a legion of people - as evidenced by mass (maskless) protests worldwide.  but like any good "flash mob" it isn't so much the actions of the many, but the few - the few people who instigate and promote dissent.

It is akin to the "Stonks" or "Crypto" movements.  A few smart people put up thousands of postings (or have them put up at their bidding) and millions of "useful idiots" read these and decide to buy.

\Are there really that many idiots in the world? Well, drive by your local "prosperity theology" mega-church on a Sunday morning and count the clapped-out cars in the parking lot.  These are poor people who have had life crises, and yet fork over 10% of their pre-tax income to some pastor who is banging his church secretaryThere are a lot of idiots in the world, don't add to the collection.

It isn't just social media - regular media ends up being a megaphone for single voices, in this case, Sinclair communications.   Just because you "don't watch Fox News" doesn't mean you aren't being fed propaganda, in this case, conservative propaganda.

This is not a vast conspiracy theory, just facts.  In fact, conspiracy theories are the way these sort of folks keep the useful idiots in line.  Think about it for a second - how do you get people to vote for a political party that continually promises to cut the taxes of the very rich, get rid of (or privatize) social security, reduce regulations designed to safeguard our financial markets, our workplaces, or the environment (among others), slash programs that mostly benefit the working class, and at the same time, outsource their jobs to China?  Tell them there is a vast conspiracy on the Left to torture babies for their glandular excretions.

Farfetched?  Beyond that.  But that is Qanon in a nutshell (emphasis on "nut" shell), tying in other conspiracy theories such as the Kennedy assassination and even aliens in Area 54.  And people willingly believe this shit - and willingly watch, stream, and download it all day long.  If Qanon doesn't work on you, well, they've got a religious angle - vote for me, and I'll make sure your kids don't get gay-married or have abortions - and well ban all those naughty books in the school library, too!

Any good magician doesn't use magic - it doesn't exist and they don't need it.  The trick is to get people to watch what you are doing with one hand - by making dramatic gestures and movements.  In the meantime, with the other hand, you are palming cards or doing some other chicanery.  It's not that really hard to do, if you are dexterous.  The secret is in the showmanship - the distractions.

"But Bob!" you say, "I'm smarter than that!  I'm not one of those legions of idiots who is absorbed by their phone or Fox News or Infowars!"   That may be true.  And maybe you have "legitimate" reasons to support the GOP - you want the government to get tough on crime or lower your taxes (because you are in one of those higher brackets).  OK, I get that.  But all of us are subject to this sort of indoctrination, all of the time, every day, every night.  You start reading right-wing news, your opinions tend to move rightward.  You start reading left-wing news, your opinions tend to move more to the left.  It isn't a matter of us being smart and them being dumb, we are all subject to indoctrination.  Everyone - you and me included.

So how do we escape this trap?  It ain't easy, to be sure, because everyone - everyone - has an agenda these days.  It is easier to walk away from end-times theology, scientology, prosperity theology, Qanonsense, Antifartism, ISIS recruiters, and whatnot.  Only the most dense of people fall for those sort of cults.  But what about more nuanced influence?   That's where it gets tough.

I see online a lot of criticism of Elon Musk, for example, and there is a lot not to like about him.  But then again, there is a concerted effort to union his factories, and one has to wonder where the Musk hate is coming from.  On the other hand, when you read the comments accompany such an article (always a bad idea) you see people defending Musk in terms he would enjoy - denigrating and attacking the authors or anyone who dares suggest their idol might have a few flaws.   When you parse it out, the firs thing you have to ask yourself is what is the motivation of these people?  Why is someone attacking Musk, and why would anyone defend him?  Is it possible that any of them have an agenda?  Perhaps some of these people are paid trolls?

If you start to look at it that way, you can sort of see the more obvious ones.   After all, why would someone be a "fan boy" of a billionaire - when he can afford to hire an army of 'bots to do his fan-boyism for him.  And if you think that is a conspiracy theory, think again - every major corporation, organization, celebrity, and politician has a publicist and public relations company they hire - and grooming the Internet is part and parcel of any public relations strategy.  If it wasn't, I'd fire my publicist.

We only notice this when it is done poorly.  A white, conservative Congressman posts messages as a "Gay Black Trump Supporter" but on one occasion forgets to log out of his personal account before posting as his alter ego.  Amateur hour!  Smart folks let the experts handle this sort of thing - not only is it time-consuming, but you are far less likely to get caught at it.  And if your public relations company gets caught at it, you can argue it was a "rogue" operation, just as companies release distasteful "viral" ads and then claim later on they had nothing to do with it.

I guess what I am getting at is skepticism, but even that can be co-opted, as people become skeptical of logic and science, but fully embrace para-science and "belief".  Time was, we used to have a consensus in society - worldwide - as to what norms were and what truth was.  Sure, we had disagreements, but no one seriously believed the world was flat (I am still convinced that started as a drunken bet between two operatives of the Russian Internet Research Agency - "I'll bet you 10,000 Rubles that I can get them to believe the Earth is flat - they are that dumb!"  He collected on that bet.).

Speaking of the Russian Internet Research Agency, one of the largest sources of disinformation is, in fact, governments themselves.  And this is nothing new, as I noted in an earlier post. "Disinformation campaigns" go back decades, and both the CIA and KGB were active participants.  The only thing that has changed is that today, you need not bribe or blackmail journalists or other opinion-shapers, you can get them to volunteer to do it - over the Internet.  You need not even meet them in person - or even know them or talk to them over the Internet.   And you can cover your tracks very effectively.

Whenever you read something on the Internet, assume the story is false, exaggerated, slanted, or otherwise fabricated or manipulated.   Shocking, I know, but people actually put up postings online just to get clicks.  I am not sure exactly how it works, because I refuse to get involved, but apparently, if you get enough "followers" and clicks and click-throughs, you can command a decent amount of money for endorsing products or services.   The anti-vaxxers documented above get a lot of clicks - and a lot of associated ad revenue.  Some actually sell bogus "cures" for CoVid.

As an experiment, someone posted a thing on 4Chan that drinking your own urine was a "cure" for CoVid.  It was a joke - to see if the "mainstream media" picked it up.  Well, sure enough, within a fortnight, it was picked up and rebroadcast by "influencers" and the media picked it up, to report to controversy - which only bootstraps the whole thing.  What started out as a joke, ends up being taken seriously.

But the trolls made their point - you can get people to believe just about anything.  Well, at least some of the people, some of the time.