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Pynchon Was Right

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
― Joseph Heller, Catch-22
No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow,
Who’s once been set his tryst with Trystero
 — Thomas Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49

Wherein

  • We consider, first, how we are personally and individually being targeted for emotional distress
  • And, second, how artificially upping the ambient fear factor in a variety of ways magnifies that distress.
  • We see the result of this in uncivil society, a flight to authoritarian leaders, and Grey Goo.
  • We consider who might benefit from high-jacking our fear and outrage to create the erosion of democratic institutions and open society.
  • We explore some possible ways to resist.

Recent news highlights Russian involvement in the 2016 election using Facebook, Twitter, and Google Ads. The most common conclusion is that they sought to help elect Donald Trump.

This conclusion is wrong.

The attack began well before the 2016 elections. What’s being targeted is our ‘social cohesion’: our assumption of common purpose; our ability to engage in meaningful dialog.

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I tried to make this politically neutral, i.e. non-partisan. The Trump campaign features only because they were on the cutting edge of Facebook use. I realize however, it isn’t really culturally neutral. As a result I’ve created a somewhat bowdlerized version here.
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1. Slothrup’s Penis

Thomas Pynchon’s magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, contains a significant break from his previous work. In his first book, The Crying of Lot 49, a conspiracy existent for hundreds of years (think Freemasons with a postal delivery system) slowly emerges to enmesh heroine, Oedipa Maas, resulting in the most lyrical paranoid fugues in English literature (for example.)

Paranoia remains in Gravity’s Rainbow but things are different. THEY are still after you but now THEY are under your skin.

GR’s hero, infant Tyrone Slothrop, is traded by his parents to behavioral psychologist Lazlo Jamf as an experimental subject in exchange for a an education at Harvard. Jamf conditions the infant Tyrone to have a sexual response to the smell of a IG Farben chemical Imipolex G…a chemical later used in German V2 rockets. Slothrop’s post-Harvard ‘paradoxical’ response to the V2 bombing of London comes to the eye of British Intelligence via his map of sexual exploits…and we’re off into the Zone for the next 700 pages.

The key insight is that paranoia has moved beneath the skin: from fear of external forces to suspicion of ones most intimate reactions.

In case you’re tempted to miss the point, the elements are all there when Pirate Prentiss decodes a message in the earliest pages of the book.

Gravity’s Rainbow was written in 1973. It remains prescient.

This essay is dedicated to some of the only people that ended up being proved correct during the weird politics of the 60s/70s: emaciated, TV addicted, acid eating, speed freaks hippies. They sounded nuts but reality caught up as the rest of us learned that COINTELPRO had been disrupting neighborhood food coops with ‘armed revolutionaries’, had been setting up the Black Panthers for death and organizational collapse, that Viet Nam reports were falsified, that Nixon was engaged in wide ranging criminal conspiracy and on and on.

Granted they, also, claimed Spiro Agnew was one of our Reptile Overlords in disguise…but no one can be right all the time.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

2. Old School: Your Basic Garden Variety Emotional Manipulation

Over the past few decades I’ve noted two mutually reinforcing trends in media.

We’ve moved from ‘lean back’ to ‘lean forward’ media, i.e. from TV and radio to computers both desktop and handheld, e.g. smart phones, that embed us in a stream of information. Second, we’ve moved from mass advertising to hyper-personalized ads.

This second point is, in turn, built on two intertwined trends. The ads we see are based on an increasingly detailed knowledge of who you are and, second, the advertising can, increasingly, watch your responses and flex appropriately.

This isn’t merely Facebook and Twitter. There’s a huge amount of data collected via browser cookies that isn’t as widely discussed and, with Congress’s recently over-ruling existing privacy protection, it could potentially get much nastier. It’ s roughly the old ‘direct mail marketing’ profile of you that starts with census tract info, voter data, etc. but is now on steroids as your social media and browsing profiles are fed into it.

What this all means is that what most folks consider the current state of advertising (click-bait headlines, ads that chase you around, dynamic split testing, etc) is actually old school. It is important to understand it; the new ugly is simply layered on top of the old.

For a bit of nostalgia, here’s a few good articles on on how to defuse that type of advertising.

3. Data Point: Micro-targeting

I started developing an interest in automated micro-targeting after reading two articles (both here) in Bloomsberg BusinessWeek from the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. Trump’s team worked Facebook Ads at a high level of sophistication almost to the exclusion of everything else. They used Facebook data to schedule rallies at the epicenters of support. They ran 1000s of ad variants aimed very narrowly at specific types of supporters. There is suspicion that they used individual psychological profiles gathered through Facebook questionnaires to zone in on individual tendencies. (You know, those ‘harmless’ questionnaires your friends Share to your timeline for you to fill out.)

The most interesting part to me was this:

“[In addition] Trump’s campaign has devised…a strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”

Let’s put this differently.

If you are a young lefty and/or a young woman and/or African American then people were paying to make you depressed.

These articles were the tip of a surge of information that brought into the public eye micro-targeting, the possibility of Russian influence, and Cambridge Analytica with their psychological profiles of individual voters (if they can tell you’re depressive to start with they can really yank your chain.)

Interest in the topic seems to wax and wane. Lately there’s been an uptick with revelations of Facebook ads placed by Russian fake accounts. We’ll return to that later.

4. Data Point: Russian Bots

The next point of interest is an article by Leah McElrath, Watching the hearings, I learned my “Bernie bro” harassers may have been Russian bots, published in early April (2017.)

During the campaign season, I was vocal on Twitter about my support for Hillary Clinton. As a result, I became used to receiving sexualized and gendered abuse, and even rape and death threats, on a daily basis.
A great deal of the abuse came from so-called #MAGA accounts…. However, the rest of the abuse came from accounts purporting to be supporters of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Almost all of the accounts presented as men — mostly young and white — and used sexist and misogynistic tones and words.
As more and more information came out…I began to suspect — correctly — that many of these accounts were not real people but rather were accounts with fake identities or bots.

Let’s put this differently.

If you’re female and participating in political discussions on social media, people are paying to terrify you. They’re paying to make you feel vulnerable and isolated.

If the term terrify seems excessive to you, start by googling “sports illustrated threats women” and reading Julie DiCario’s article from 2015.

What’s happened since is an increasing automation of this terrorist activity.

McElrath uses a somewhat casual ‘textual analysis’ of the language her attackers used to come to her conclusion.

Her conclusion has been disputed. (Links here.) I don’t find the counter-arguments convincing, particularly in light of a much more rigorous analysis published in Medium by Data for Democracy just a few days prior: Sockpuppets, Secessionists, and Breitbart — How Russia May Have Orchestrated a Massive Social Media Influence Campaign

If you’re short on time, skip my article and go read theirs. It gives a presciently complete picture of what has emerged in dribs and drabs from other sources since.

From Data for Democracy. How bots and sockpuppets can flood social media creating a false sense of ameme’s popularity or an overwhelming sense of harassment.

We’ll return to their more general conclusions below but there is one point that provides insight into what underlies McElrath’s claim for the source of her harassment.

In addition to fervent pro-Trump support, the shift in community discourse driven by these sockpuppet accounts corresponds to a documented increase in anti-Semitic language on all three platforms [Twitter, Facebook, Breitbart comments]. Previous analyses, published in the Washington Post, shows a sharp spike in anti-Semitism starting in April 2016. In analyses published by The Atlantic in January 2017, a similar shift was shown to correspond with an uptick in users sharing articles from Breitbart and Infowars. Finally, analyses published by the Southern Poverty Law Center demonstrated the steady rise of anti-Semitism among Breitbart commenters, starting in 2014 and escalating throughout the 2016 election.

Let’s put this differently.

If you’re Jewish, people are paying to make you feel a sense of deep unease about your fellow citizens and to undermine your sense of safety…if not flat out terrorize you.

The point has to be made that Russian bots are not out there tipping over gravestones. They may, however, have been a key part in terrorizing Jewish reporters. Certainly adding this into the mix of alt-right discourse encourages existing anti-Semitism to crawl out from under the rock.

A take-away from all of the above.

  1. It’s quite possible that the objective of generating fake anti-Semitism was to simultaneously increase anti-Semitism, widen the gap between the right and the left, and widen fractures within the right.
  2. One key factor in selecting a target seems to be divisiveness not the target per se.
  3. An apparent shit storm may actually be a couple of shit heads: Russian bots or possibly just random assholes.

5. WTF First Pass: A Conceptual Framework

What’s going on? Well, it’s all political. (Doh!) But what does that mean? Here are my 2 cents.

  1. My operational definition of politics is acting to unite your friends and divide your enemies.
  2. Adding something I learned from the game of Go: in a turf war, the point your opponent wants is most often the point you want.

Corollary 1: Figuring out what’s being attacked should lead us to understand our enemies’ perception of our strengths and vulnerabilities…of how they think we can be disrupted.

Corollary 2: Where they attack, we defend.

Where are we being attacked in this case? The Alliance for Securing Democracy maintains a dashboard that monitors in real time Russian influence networks on Twitter. Quoting them, here’s a hint:

Common themes for amplification include content attacking the U.S. and Europe, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Russian influence operations also frequently promote extremism and divisive politics in Western countries.

My core hypothesis is this: what’s being targeted is our assumption of common purpose and our ability to engage in meaningful dialog. The aim could be termed ‘social decohesion.’ (More on that here.)

If true, this should give us all pause whether we’re on the Right, the Left, or off at some right angle to both.

6. Data Point: The Facebook Ads

A few months ago (Sept 2017), accounts of Facebook ads placed by Russian puppet accounts during the 2016 election made headlines. Every other day we hear some new twist.

Surprised? Data for Democracy’s Sockpuppets, Secessionists, and Breitbart: How Russia May Have Orchestrated a Massive Social Media Influence Campaign summed it up six months prior!

Tens of thousands of bots and hundreds of human-operated, fake accounts acted in concert to push a pro-Trump, nativist agenda across all three platforms [Facebook, Twitter, Breitbart comments] in the spring of 2016. Many of these accounts have since been refocused to support US secessionist movements and far-right candidates in upcoming European election, all of which have strong ties to Moscow and suggest a coordinated Russian campaign.

Given that, the headlines tell it all.

7. WTF Second Pass: A Pause to Summarize

My conclusion from the three data points is that, while, Russia may have been interested in Trump specifically, their overall objectives are ‘meta’ aimed at our ability to cohere as a functional democracy. They seek to polarize positions, undermine genuine dialog, erode facts, and get us at each other’s throats in an unreasoning froth. Our enemies want us to arrive at the table viewing our adversaries through a lens that makes them something grotesquely incomprehensible or, at the very least, terminally stupid.

One last headline and a quote from anonymous Senate analysts.

Russian-bought Facebook ads sought to amplify political divisions:

The apparent goal of the ads, the sources who spoke with CNN said, was to amplify political discord and fuel an atmosphere of incivility and chaos around the 2016 presidential campaign….
from DonkeyHotey/Flckr under CreativeCommons Lic

8. Data Point: Manipulating the Emotional Environment

While this micro-targeting seeks to get beneath the skin, there’s been a supporting use of the same technologies to create a shaped “out there” that amplifies the impact.

On 9/11/2014, the Columbian Chemical plant near Centerville, LA, appeared to have exploded.

Adrian Chen, in an important piece in the New York Times Magazine notes:

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

It was all fake!

(The full impact is best seen through examples of the media used. I’ve added expanded version here with more of that. This was a big budget production.)

If you lived near the Columbian Chemical plant, people were being paid to terrifying you with text messages. And Tweets. And youTube Videos. And news bulletins.

This is simultaneously interesting, sinister, and weird.

I’ll look at the motives behind this weirdness in the next section.

Chen goes on to note this was not an isolated incident.

In December of 2014 the same accounts touted a fake Ebola disaster at the Atlanta, GA, airport. Simultaneously, a different set of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been killed by police again in Atlanta.

Tracking the accounts back to Russia in 2015, Chen felt certain both these hoaxes were the work of a Russian group, the Internet Research Agency, from St Petersburg.

This is the same group that ran the Facebook accounts that the Senate is now investigating.

9. WTF Pass Three: So what’s going on here? Why would the Russians bother?

The Columbian Chemical plant explosion seems to be an motiveless hoax. No one made money. No one stayed fooled. Plant neighbors did not drive by that evening and say, “Damn, they got that fixed fast!”

All these hoaxes did however have one consistent impact: they added to what might be called the ambient fear factor. The feeling of being under threat has political consequences.

First, feeling that we’re in a hostile situation tends to push us towards ideological extremes, entrenches us in our ideologies (“don’t give an inch!”), and hollows out the middle.

Pacific Standard Magazine gives a layman’s summary of recent research in Adversity Inspires Politically Polarized Attitudes. The abstract of the research paper this is based on is pretty clear as well:

Many studies find that when made to feel uncertain, participants respond by affirming importantly held beliefs….
[Further, their study found] there was a positive relationship between adversity and the tendency to strongly affirm and polarize their positions. Results suggest that adverse life events may lead to long-lasting changes in one’s tendency to polarize one’s political attitudes.

I’d like to reiterate that.

  • Uncertainty tends to cause folks to dig in to their core beliefs. (Makes sense, right? They/we need some sort of touchstone in trying times.)
  • A life of adverse events tends to create folks with polarized attitudes.

I’ve noticed the latter point myself when comparing folks I worked construction with in Texas with similar folks in Oakland. Men with a very similar stance and class background would adamantly advance precisely opposite politics…often shared with, but more extreme than, the prevalent local view.

Second, the perception of being under threat pushes the public toward authoritarian leaders.

From Ebola Fears Helped The GOP In 2014 Election:

Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.
“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.

Not to pick on the GOP, but what’s the dynamic here?

The article, Trump Culture: Threat, Fear and the Tightening of the American Mind in Scientific American, lines it out quoting a group at University of Maryland:

To understand tightness-looseness, we need to step away from the current election cycle and consider the history of human culture, particularly its relationship with warfare, famine and natural disasters.
Our theory — which has been supported by computer models, international surveys and archival data — is that communities are more likely to survive these threats when they set clear rules for behavior, put strong leaders who can regulate those rules in charge and punish those who deviate from the norm.
We have also found that people in tighter societies tend to prefer autonomous leaders. Such leaders have extreme confidence in their own abilities and make independent decisions without the input of others. These leaders can be successful in high threat environments because of their quick and unambiguous decision-making, which often comes at the cost of more democratic dialogue.

It’s not so much philosophy as stance. This has Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump written all over it.

Things become a little weird when our perception of threat deviates from reality.

Study after study shows we increasingly live in a world of perceived threat disconnected from factual risk.

I’m not sure why the Russians bother with disaster theater when our own 24 hour news machine is working it quite well on its own. Perhaps they were targeting specific local elections?

Certainly we’re in position to understand why people might vote against their best interests and expressed beliefs for someone who can more effectively play the fear card.

10. Data Point: Why Am I a Target: A Prediction

One last quick data point. Social media captures not only your interests but your connections. There’s a big push in advertising to utilize key influencer’s social media accounts to push products. And you can tell by a network graph who should be targeted as an influencer. In the picture below you can see a Hub, i.e. someone at the center of a group, and Connectors, i.e. people who bridge groups.

My prediction is that these folks (and maybe you’re one yourself) are currently being targeted by advertisers and, if not now, will soon be targeted by political campaigns. They may target you to pitch a candidate or position or they may target you for demoralization in order to impact your connections. As the Cambridge Analytica guy sez, “It’s all about group dynamics.”

This sort of analysis is not difficult to do. There are open source tools and services that let you get this type of analysis. One of the resources I cite below did exactly that.

11. WTF: Final Analysis

Tyrone Slothrup, conditioned by Them in infancy, eventually unkinks and simply disappears well before the novel ends. A popular interpretation is that he becomes unglued; I believe he becomes unpinned. Outside the grids of Control and language, Slothrup is no longer describable. Detached from the wheel of maya, he has escaped the plot…or rather The Plot.

The book ends with a new experimental German rocket bomb descending on London. Another youth, Gottfried, is bound inside and unable to escape the mechanics of Control. His fate is predetermined and inescapable.

Our situation is not so binary nor bleak. I do, though, feel we have wandered into a technological landscape where we can be known, sold to, manipulated, and perhaps ultimately controlled with a remarkable degree of specificity. It’s gotten personal. Reading, driving, buying, connecting, expressing an opinion…most all of our everyday activities have moved online and leave informational residue that can and is being collected and utilized.

This becomes particularly pernicious when it is employed by hostile or cynical political operatives to manage the instruments of power.

There’s a Science Fiction concept called Grey Goo.

Nanotechnology should, in theory, be able to take a pile of dirt and energy and build, say, a cheeseburger atom by atom. In the multiverse of our Science Fiction imaginations, the nano-machines will occasionally go off the rails and start reducing everything to a sticky mass of uniform components, i.e. Grey Goo.

We have entered a stretch where new technologies are being used by our enemies in ways that dissolves facts, public conversation, our ‘most personal’ reactions, and even our attention spans into the informational equivalent of Grey Goo. The objective is to isolate us in bubbles of outrage and fear and thereby paralyze us. Currently, it’s succeeding.

So, if they have a strategy, we need a counter-strategy.

12. The Counterforce: Where They Attack, We Defend

You are being targeted. The target is your emotions…the negative ones: fear, rage,depression,disgust. Besides the immediate individual impact, they spill over and have a corrosive effect on our relationships with family and friends. They makes us less effective.

But that’s just a means to an end. In a very real sense, we’re collateral damage.

While the attack is on the individual, the target is the collective. The aim is to erode the balanced mechanisms of our democratic society with its preconditions of free discussion, compromise, and the assumption that there is a common welfare.

We need to defend politically, culturally, and, also, individually.

(LP version of the below.)

Political : A Legislative First Step

To get a grasp on this we need some immediate transparency.

We currently have the right to see our credit data and when it is used. It is no less vital to know when some enterprise is selling our stats to advertisers. We need the ability to find out ‘what they have on us’ and how they’re using it …particularly since it seems pretty easy for anyone, no matter how fucked up their purpose, to purchase ad space embedded in our social stream.

Making this information available to each of us individually would be the most effective engine of change. We could see how and why we were targeted and by whom. It would have the advantage letting us take subsequent steps from an informed position.

There’s Legislation in Europe that does this but not in the US.

California, Massachusetts, or New York would be great places to start. Let’s race!

Here’s a sample letter and some resources.

Cultural/Collective:

Strengthen the Tribe; Build Bridges

Since the enemy’s key attack point is where they see our most significant vulnerability and they’re primarily attacking solidarity…trying to dissolve the type of social cohesion that leads us to seek broad collective solutions…that is where we defend.

First we can take the easy step of defending by strengthening the tribe to buffer it against future fractures. Take the time to cultivate your real world connection with friends and family. We’re a tribal species. This part is essential to our cultural, collective, and individual health and it is the antidote to letting ourselves be driven into isolated hopelessness and become ineffective cultural and political actors.

Then comes the hard part: building bridges. This requires us to assume common ground with folks where that assumption can seem a stretch. Yet there are folks of decent intent on all sides of most issues and, important to note, while the most extreme examples of a position are the most visible, they’re not the most numerous.

70% of the folks on any particular ‘side’ have a nuanced and rational position that is open to dialog, and an instinct to meet folks halfway. The concept of ‘sides’ is in itself non-helpful. Most folks likely agree with you on other significant political and cultural issues even if they go another route on some. (We might want to save putting effort into the other 30% until a bit down the road:-).

Let’s make a pact to assume we’re all good guys until we’ve figured out a way to frustrate the enemy. They want us at each other throats. Once we’ve got that out of the way we can go back to being amazed at how misguided everyone else is.

Here’s an inspiring example of dialog under adverse conditions and a pointer to a context wider than our differences.

Personal: Self Care

Manage Time and Attention

The social media post or news item that disgusts, outrages, or depresses you might be designed to do precisely that. In fact, it probably is, whether the intent is your demoralization or simply getting clicks. Awareness of that can help. It is likely going forward that the more effective you are, the more you’ll be a target.

Here and in the point below, disrupt your initial reaction. Disconnect, take a walk, sit zazen, wait 24 hours before hitting send…then act.

The articles in section 2 above give pointers. Here’s another resource:

Fight…as a Discipline.

It’s like getting in 20 minutes of walking a day. A small amount of effort, consistently applied has a significant impact. Pick your focus and give it consistent attention. It’s good for you.

Forgo Outrage: It’s Been Eaten by the Grey Goo!

Everyone loves outrage. Heck, I love outrage. The Right uses it as motor. The Left likes a good wallow. Without getting into ego, politics, and contaminated emotion, I think we need to give it up. It hurts us as it pretends to provide value. We are more manipulable but not more politically effective. It dissolves opportunities for common ground, and erodes dialog.

Spreading awareness of the manipulation around us is critical. It is a first step towards a movement that can grow to stop this effort to pit Americans against each other and unravel our democracy.

There’s a baked in irony. The fight against this clear danger can provide a focus to bring us together rather than further divide us!

Much thanks to everyone who read and commented on this essay as I prepared it for publication!

Further reading — General References and Useful Articles

There’s been a lot of in-depth coverage of the hows, whys, and background of the current situation. Here’s a useful selection of different angles.

This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go,” said professor Jonathan Albright.

A hundred year long view of the situation.

During the 1970’s Yuri Andropov, then the director of the KGB, led a campaign to seed the Muslim world with anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda.
“Andropov commissioned the first Arabic translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian-forged 1905 propaganda book that alleged Jews were plotting to take over Europe — and were being aided by the United States.”

Deep dive on the hacking companies and tech

The conclusion: While this set of “fake news” sites might not have the sheer quantity of ad tech that, say, the Alexa 500 have, the behavioral targeting and identity resolution technologies associated with many of these conspiracy, hyper-partisan, and propaganda sites are as sophisticated as it gets.

An even deeper dive using IBM Watson to analyze Twitter accounts and hashtags.

A seriously non-optimistic view of the situation.

A shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign influenced the result of the EU referendum. As Britain heads to the polls again, is our electoral process still fit for purpose?

Another cheerful assessment.

New York Times does its typical deep look at the issue starting with a fake news case in Berlin.

The Lisa case, as it is now known, was an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West. In the months that followed, politicians perceived by the Russian government as hostile to its interests would find themselves caught up in media storms that, in their broad contours, resembled the one that gathered around Merkel. They often involved conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods — sometimes with a tenuous connection to fact, as in the Lisa case, sometimes with no connection at all — amplified until they broke through into domestic politics.