Stumbling into Power
A few months ago I wrote an off the cuff article about some observations I made in a neighbourhood I frequent. It was like so many I’ve seen and spent long periods of time in over the years. This place was as peculiar as its inhabitants were clueless and I decided to share my thoughts. The article was titled Why People Hate Your Lily-White Neighbourhood (which I admit was meant to stir up some discussion — good luck catching readers on this platform without an eye-catching title) and is simultaneously my least important and most read piece. I can appreciate when the universe is busting my chops.
When it comes to interacting with the online world, I’ve found that having a few people understand or resonate with what you write is about as much as you can hope for.
And resonate they did.
The responses were predictable with one group in particular taking issue with the points made, another being very supportive of what was found, and not too many straying from their complexion camp. Several missed the point entirely or were seemingly not reading at all before responding to the title. I’ll leave you to ponder which group said what and with how much vitriol. Although there were some interesting takes from some readers. One in particular summed it up well when he pointed out how the nice people living in these areas tend to raise a very particular breed of child and employ NIMBYism as a near absolute.
There was a commonality among virtually every response: anger. It ranged from very subtle to outright hostile with some being forthright with their racism. Internet anonymity has a way of teasing out the truth. The angriest responses tended to get the lion’s share of claps (and start the most arguments) as many who would rather not overtly voice their opinion simply cheered on their contender from the sidelines. Supporters recounted their experiences with an arguably understandable sting as this is a very real phenomenon. Detractors spit venom at me for having dared to point out something that, at the very least, had some truth to it. How often do you begin frothing at the mouth when someone tells you that your flying saucer is an affront to their being?
This is by no means scientific, but it is yet another example of what our online discourse and overall society has become. Even a cursory glance at our online and in person worlds (they’re both equally real now, see below) will show anyone paying attention just how angry we are. Internet articles and Facebook posts exhibit what we already know to be taking place hundreds of thousands of times per day. The temperature surrounding our political and societal discussions is turned up far too high and we’re set off by virtually anything that encroaches on our beliefs.
What I want to emphasize is not only the power one can wield by harnessing this anger but the ease with which they can do it. I’m a very small time writer on this platform. I have a few dozen followers, a few thousand views, and no interest in or offers to write for a publication or take part in the partner program. In all probability, most of my writing will go unseen. And even I managed to rile a few hundred people up, even without intent. While I realize that one can point to the title alone and say that’s what I was attempting to do, it’s important to recognize the difference between being provocative in your observations and trying to whip people into a frenzy. We did not get the latter, partially because of my lack of reach and partially because that wasn’t the intent to begin with. But we very well could with minimal effort.
How much damage can we do when we increase our input? Substitute an unknown writer with a well-known public figure who has a large and devout following. Add in any amount of resources versus the virtual zero that are here, and make the end goal to purposefully create a mob. The speed that we can have a literal riot on our hands is terrifying. This can and has been done by a man in a position of power and his phone. So consider a foreign government devoted to sowing discord in what they deem enemy countries. They have tremendous funding, logistics, staff, advanced technology, experts on group psychology, direct communication with the foreigners they are targeting, a clear purpose, and worst of all a total devotion to their cause.
There is no limit to the damage that can be done to a society with this much interconnectivity as the damage is done from within. Fighter pilots and tank crews need not apply. Russia and China, the most well-known and often-caught perpetrators of these disinformation and destabilization campaigns, have devoted tremendous resources to this type of warfare. To be clear, that’s exactly what this is. The vector used to bring this to light is the same one currently dominated by these bad actors, making it easy for them to cast doubt on verified facts. Unsurprisingly, they have no compunction with manipulating both algorithms and audiences to divert attention from their confirmed activities.
Our governments lack the knowledge and the sophistication to combat this threat. What’s more, our emphasis on individual freedom, eroded as it has been over the past few decades, acts as a shackle when trying to prevent disinformation. It’s our Achilles’ heel and it has been masterfully exploited by oppressive governments seeking to impair and cast doubt on our democratic institutions.
The only defense is a critical eye. The ability of the individual to examine what they are being told, review the evidence, and form a conclusion based on reason. A healthy skepticism regarding the motivations of any speaker or writer (this one included) and an education system that can build these skills and form them into habits.