Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pain to bring it to light.
— George Washington
“Does Barack Obama get to decide what is information versus what is disinformation, now?” A colleague had just finished telling me about a speech Obama gave at Stanford last night. Apparently, the former president still has an eye for politics.
“Regulation hsi to be part of the answer,” Stanford’s own website quotes Mr Obama this morning. Meaning, we suppose, that Barack Obama and future graduates of Stand will be part of the group of people who do and don’t decide what is and what isn’t misinformation, disinformation or… good forbid, difference of opinion.
In yesterday’s missive we took a look at a few dissident political candidates in long shot bids for Senate seats. Articulating their stance, Curtis Yarvin, says a younger generation of would-be politicos are simply ignoring the rules and mores defined by what he calls “The Cathedral” – the ideas and strategies being taught, followed and propagated in today’s most elite colleges and universities.
We’re on a slippery slope if we follow Mr. Obama’s suggestion to start regulating speech on line.
It’s true, I care about as much about what Obama said last night as I do Florida Governor DeSantis’ opinion of Mickey Mouse’s sexual proclivities. But I am intrigued about the news and the news cycle – specially having spent the week considering John Robb, from Global Guerillas, exposition of the “network swarm” following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“During the initial week of the Ukraine conflict,” Robb observes, “the assumptions were reset towards this moral conflict, this absolute tribal conflict, where there’s an existential evil that cannot be allowed to exist anymore and has to go away. That we have to save our tribesmen in Ukraine and they are absolute good and everything they’ve ever done is absolute good. Regardless of any knowledge of their history or any kind of accurate moral judgment of their actions.”
During that “outrage” Biden gave his now infamous outburst “For God’s sake, [Putin] cannot remain in power!” The White House “walked” the comment back, yada, yada.
“Biden tried to lead the swarm,” Robb says, referring to the president’s moral outrage. “But it’s a contingent leadership. A simulacrum of the old network model. When you have this kind of network, you no longer have traditional leadership. The president is not being given leadership because of who he is. It’s what he’s doing for the network to move it towards this goal. So every leader tries to outdo the other by moving the conflict forward, new attack, new escalation.”
“If we can get it right,” Robb says positively, “we have a great, bright future going forward. Unbelievably productive and amazing. If we get it wrong, that infrastructure, that thing could suppress us like no police state has ever done in the past. Can control us, can misdirect us, prevent us from moving forward, cause us to kill each other and at levels that we haven’t ever seen before in history.”
Leaving the act of getting it “right” in the hands of government regulators, as Obama suggested last night, only exacerbates our political discord. It does nothing to abate it.
I’ve included this most recent essay from John Robb on “empathy triggers” the mechanism by which the swarm is led. – Enjoy, Addison
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
— E.O. Wilson
Empathy triggers are used to mobilize network swarms, which is, as we have seen with the response to the invasion of Ukraine, a key element of network warfare. Let’s figure out how they work.
What does an “empathy trigger” look like?
Here’s a widely shared picture that shows a pregnant Ukrainian woman on a stretcher in front of a building shattered by a Russian bombardment (both she and her baby died).
Pictures with descriptions like this are something we have seen in traditional media (TV, newspapers, magazines, etc.) for a century, and although they have an impact on us, that impact is muted. It feels slightly removed due to the nature of the medium.
However, everything changes when that picture and description of a victim are in a social media post. Due to the nature of the medium, instead of simply evoking sympathy or sadness, it can often trigger a strong empathic reaction. For example:
Empathy triggers like these, distributed to tens of millions of people online, can mobilize millions into action for protest or war. An excellent example of this is the smartphone video of George Floyd:
Social networking has rewired us.
“Empathy triggers” work so well because social networking and smartphones have fundamentally changed how our brains process news. It has rewired us. Here’s how:
- Scan. We can’t read all the news we receive, there’s too much of it, and it would be impossible to make sense of it all even if we did. Instead of reading it, we scan it, looking for novelty and patterns.
- Social cue. We don’t simply read the news and form opinions in isolation anymore. Online, the news is packaged as a social cue that lets us figure out what other people are thinking.
- Addiction. The news isn’t just a one-way flow of information anymore. Online, it’s interactive, with social feedback loops and induced hormone release (cortisol in fear of getting it wrong and dopamine for getting it right) that make it addictive.
Addictively scanning our news feed for social cues doesn’t just make us more vulnerable to empathy triggers; it encourages us to seek them out.
Another contributing factor is that empathy isn’t simply sympathy; it’s a powerful pre-verbal form of communication. A form of communication that humanity has only recently learned to mitigate with reason in large group settings. Here’s how empathic communication works:
- Empathic communication is an involuntary process if you are not actively resisting it. As a result, this form of communication is usually limited to children (it’s critical for socialization) and for intimate groups (family).
- In empathic communication, we build an internal model of the other person’s feelings based on cues (face, body, screams, etc.). We feel what the victim feels: their fear, anger, and pain. Our faces grimace in pain like the victim, and we can feel the knee on our necks (George Floyd). We connect at a deep level.
- When we empathize with victims, they are no longer strangers; we form a fictive kinship with them. They are now part of our tribe, and they are being threatened.
When we combine these elements — addictive social cue scanning and involuntary connections that produce fictive kinship — we get a powerful tool for mobilizing a networked swarm.
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We encourage you to listen to John Robb’s complete interview, here . Robb puts his network swarm analysis on full display regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflagration. We find it provides an important context as we discuss continued rising inflation, prolonged supply chain disruptions and a growing global food shortage.
The head of the World Bank warned explicitly of the global food crisis this morning. We’ll be following up in a discussion next week with a veteran food industry CEO and cutting edge entrepreneur in the plant fuel space.