The stone age mind in a digital world
While the world becomes increasingly complex and flooded with exabytes of often contradictory information, our minds are still lumbered with deep rooted “mythic” narrative-based methods of making sense of the it. But today the “myths” or narratives we collectively build are no longer directly connected to our immediate survival, as is the case with, say, the Dreamtime myths of Aborigines. So we are free to pluck information out of this digital abyss, label them “facts” and construct any new mythology we wish with them. Relation to empirical reality is useful, but far from necessary.
As these mythologies percolate through the internet, communities grow around them, tapping into an ancient desire to be part of a group and gain social status within it. With the right selection of information and the right amount of mental acrobatics, anything can be proved true, and exotic new myths grow and mutate online. Personal identities are invested in them and acts of creativity help elaborate and grow the myths that appeal to them. But there is a problem…
In our new digital habitat we increasingly receive new information either through personalised algorithms that feed our pre-existing biases, social networks, or a combination of both. This means we when we receive information which contradicts or undermines our mythologies, it is often through people. If individuals exposed to this information are heavily emotionally invested in a mythology, it can invoke strong collective reactions.
With the zeal of antibodies fighting an infection, groups engage in tactics to limit the exposure they and their group has to contradictory information, including blocking, social humiliation, dehumanisation and abuse. This can get very nasty, especially when this becomes entangled in an “outrage economy” of clickbait that feeds on and elaborates these emotive new mythologies.
Based on my experience viewing current hashtag dramas such as #GamerGate, #FTBullies, #IndyRef and also behaviour I’ve witnessed in a wide array of conspiracy theory, new age and political communities, I’ve tried to identify a common array of tools and tactics used in such information wars that exploit — knowingly or otherwise —bugs and frailties in human psychology as factions wrestle to try to make their group mythologies and their Origin myths the publicly accepted ones.
So here, in no particular order, are the behaviours that characterise the development of modern hashtag mythologies. (I’ve bolded these terms for ease of cross reference).
Death to weak ties
In social network theory, weak ties (characterised by links to external or more distant social networks) are deemed to be highly important to information flow within a system as a whole, acting is bridges between different social groups, which gives them access to greater diversity of ideas and a broader number of “argument pools” overall. Cutting weak ties, by social ostracism, blocking or unfriending, severs information flow. The end state of this is that the group — characterised now only by strong ties — becomes an intellectual “monoculture”, and any subsequent cultural evolution is towards more extreme versions of itself. This is known as “epistemic closure”. Cass Sunstein’s writes in his famous paper, The Law of Group Polarization.
Group polarization arises when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendency.
When skeptical voices are muted, communities veer towards more radical positions, as in-group factions try to make themselves socially dominant by iterating on existing ideas. This is a feedback loop, as the fewer competing ideas a person is exposed to, the more radicalised they become, and thus the more likely they are to sever weak ties. By the same token, they’re less likely to build new ones, preferring the strong ties of the in-group. By this stage, investment in the group also passes the point of no return.
In recent years there has been a trend within such groups to subscribe to “Shared Blocklists”; curated lists of those deemed to be “known abusers” or similarly emotive language. In fact, they are largely directories of ideological opponents or just genuine skeptics, who offer crucial critical voices that have been proved to thwart groups moving towards extremist positions or views divorced from reality (See the Asch Conformity Experiments).
Shared blocklists are like an ideological ad-block that increasingly warp the subscriber’s sense of reality.
As myths begin to harden, criticism of your narrative carries a heavy social cost by ensuring even mild critique is emotionally equated with the most vile behaviours of the imagined Other. Nuance is equated with apologetics for said vile behaviours (see Talk to the limbic system below). When new chapters of a mythology begin to unfold that appear to support key elements of the narrative, as happened during #DongleGate episode in 2013, critical voices are unwelcome, especially in the community heartland.
When former attorney Ellen-Beth Wachs questioned certain elements of the emerging #DongleGate narrative on the FreeThoughtBlogs site she was immediately accused of having sympathies with the Other of their narrative (You can read her account here). She was bombarded with Thought Terminating Cliches and her behaviour associated with the worst behaviour imaginable (see Talk to the limbic system).
Social policing sometimes descends into particularly nasty behaviour, such as abusive comments, doxxing, abuse and threats. Sadly, this is often excused, ignored or denied by the in-group (see Denial and Noble Cause). If the target refuses to recant, or “doubles down”, ostracism, unfriending unfollowing, and permanent association with the Other is almost inevitable, perhaps even banishment to the purgatory of a shared Blocklist. With such a harsh climate inside the in-group, the only form of social expression is not criticism, but innovation of and iteration of key beliefs (see Death to weak ties).
Such rigid enforcement of Reputational Boundaries cannot but help veer towards extremist views increasingly at odds with reality, and epistemic closure. Which brings us to…
Talk to the limbic system
Advocates of certain myths often compete for in-group attention and try to gain socials status by competing to say most outrageous controversial statements that promote the narrative. The best ones get retweets and shares before people have time to reflect on, or even read supporting articles / evidence in the first place.
This strategy often aims to link powerful signs and symbols from the background culture (words like misogynist, bullingdon, TERF, ISIS etc) to signs and symbols used by the Others that feature in your narrative (a logo, photo, name of opposing group, a hashtag). Repetition is important for the goal is for this link to become “canonical” and irreversible by transferring the negative emotional state from the old symbol to the new. This ensures instant revulsion of the symbols of the Other.
In prehistory, this may have involved associating the emotion evoked by dangerous animals (fear and loathing) with the symbols or markings of rival clans on tribe. Today, we associate terms of revulsion or mockery with hashtags, names of online communities or websites, in-group signifiers such as twibbons or personal adornment.
If left unchecked, this process sees a surreal descent into the “fear pornography” of the conspiracy world or “outrage pornography” of the social justice left (or historically, the religious right).
Selective use of evidence
Only evidence that supports the narrative is promoted and emphasised and receives a “signal boost” (retweets, shares, copypasta). Contrary information and argument methods — often emotionally associated with the Other — are ignored, ridiculed and sidelined. Thought Terminating Cliches are deployed to try and dismiss opposing evidence, or it is ridiculed as fake (often without supporting evidence) or classified as deliberate misinformation (Also see Denial.)
Low standards of evidence
Evidence does need to stand up to scrutiny if Social Policing is done correctly. Cite such evidence as if it were infallible (i.e. in conspiracy circles “we’ve got the official documents”). Visual “evidence”, such as graphs and charts, are more likely to go viral due to our inherent visual bias. New species of evidence, such as cryptic screenshots and photos montages covered in red boxes and arrows, are a new innovation in this field.
Thought terminating cliches
Coined by Robert J Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Thought Terminating Cliches were described as the process when…
“…the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”
The internet is a habitat where the Thought Terminating Cliche thrives. When conspiracy theorists want to dismiss an event that contradicts their narrative, they use the term “false flag” or when pointing to their sacred texts they say “We’ve got the official documents”. In feminist circles, there are terms like “mansplaining” that are designed to immediately dismiss the argument without engaging with its content. In Scottish nationalist circles one just need mention association with “Westminster” to dismiss an opponent. The most ubiquitous and multi-purpose Thought Terminating Cliche, used by virtually every group, is of course “troll”.
The more a community veers towards extremism the more baroque such terminology becomes, as more and more intellectual avenues are walled off.
For much of human history, and certainly within pre-literate or oral cultures (which outside of the small literate elite was almost everybody) personal experience was all we had to go on. Even within educated elites it was held in high regard, and such experiences formed background texture of reality. The historian Norman Cohn wrote in Europe’s Inner Demons that St Augustine;
“Regarded it as sheer impudence to deny that fauns [Roman demons] were having intercourse with women, considering the many testimonials to that effect.”
If your narrative allows for “lived experience” to be beyond question, despite the well known problems with constructed memory, eyewitness testimony, and other routine failures of human cognition, it broadens the scope for what can be considered “facts”. If personal revelation can be put at the centre of your narrative and seen as infallible without the need for any supporting evidence you are onto a winner.
As a natural consequence of effective Social Policing, key characters in the narrative should find themselves beyond criticism, or criticism of them and their behaviour becomes and in-group taboo. Indeed, the Others in the narrative are usually defined by criticism of these infallible characters (a cardinal sin) and as such conceptually chained to negative emotions (see Talk to the limbic system). The polarised narrative typically allows no room for nuance of grey areas; people are either fully good or fully bad.
Particularly in the case of controversial hashtags, there is often heated debate around its origins that cast a shadow on its meaning. Indeed, this is often the key point of contention and is often rooted in Selective use of evidence. In the #GamerGate controversy, (at least) two broad narratives developed to what this symbol represents; a flag held by misogynists who want to drive women out the gaming community, or the banner of people who want to stamp out corruption and nepotism in the gaming press.
Each origin story for the meaning of the symbol has its own set of characters (mythologised versions of real people) and key episodes and dramas. The same is true of the #FTBullies controversy in the secular community, which developed widely different narratives on the origins of the schism. Each narrative evolves a canonical list of “chapters” with associated moral fables and meanings. Over time, as the war between mythologies intensifies, different canonical narratives crystallise and within each certain chapters are “lost” or marginalised (on the web they are not lost, but rather the signal is turned down — fewer inbound links — as their importance to the overarching grand mythology becomes less useful). Competing hashtag mythologies value different chapters or attribute vastly different meaning to them.
Historically, this occurred to the Bible, which crystallised from a wide variety of early Christian texts that added sometimes radically different perspectives to the faith. When Christianity was co-opted by the Roman State, certain books, such as Gospel of Judas and the Book of Enoch were either lost to history or retained only by fringe groups.
The structure of myth has historically been used as a storehouse of knowledge, a means of making the “seamless flux” of reality more understandable by organising crucial knowledge in a comprehensible structure. Empirical facts needed for survival, such as how to know if a tuber was ready to be cooked, or how to navigate using only starlight, were threaded together with colourful myths that can be thought of as aids to memory. For thousands of years, ignorant of the physics of metallurgy, blacksmiths knew how to forge swords just by following ritual behaviour prescribed in myths.
Modern hashtag mythologies can — if they so choose — dispense with the need for empirical facts altogether. Indeed, in the Big Noise of the internet, what constitutes a “fact” is becoming increasingly opaque. These myths can be composed of opinion, half-truths, assertions and orphaned fragments of media devoid of context. This problem is magnified when groups exclude or ignore important information to preserve group cohesion. Although it is increasingly difficult, it is better to begin with material facts and build up towards an overarching narrative, than to reach down for facts amongst the exponential expanse of the internet to validate pre-existing mythologies.
If one is fighting for a noble cause or some kind of “cosmic struggle”, all behaviour is justified, however underhanded, abusive or distasteful. This often goes hand in hand with Infallibility, and often excused as “punching up” when the group imagines itself as persecuted. Many times, it is at best punching sideways or in some cases punching down. Orwell wrote in Notes on Nationalism:
“There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when “our” side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.”
This should be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the trenches of a Hashtag war and witnessed the despicable behaviour, hypocrisy and double standards on display therein.
If people exist that do not fit into your narrative, claim they do not exist (sockpuppets, shills), have been brainwashed by the Other (denial of agency) or are deliberate agitators (trolls). This is especially effective when the narrative relies on an imagined dominant group or caste.
By constant blogging and producing media, the amount of information selling your narrative makes it “true” by sheer ubiquity. This is where access to large media platforms acts as a crucial vector of your version of reality, especially when comments are heavily policed or non existent. Cite each other as supporting evidence to form a web of self-supporting information. (Natural News cites Infowars and vice versa). As the narrative grows, the more ubiquitous the “reality” it describes.
Aim to dominate trusted sources like Wikipedia and cite only sources that promote this narrative (see Ubiquity) ensures that you control the “canonical” version of reality. Those with a passing interest will take this for the “real” version of events. If you cannot dominate such sources, claim they have been infiltrated by the Others of your narrative.
The edit war surrounding the #GameGate controversy was recently subject to a massive arbitration case on Wikipedia in which 27 editors were named, with 11 receiving topic bans and one a site-wide ban. Interestingly, the media coverage of the case led by the Guardian — criticised by Wikipedia as “completely ridden with factual errors” — spread widely online and was duplicated by nine other websites, altering public perception of what had actually occurred and supporting a particular narrative (see Ubiquity).
If you have managed to read this far, the takeaway message is to always attempt to challenge the mythology you subscribe to, whatever it is, build weak ties with people from different communities rather than block and unfriend. Give charitable readings to the views of others and have high standards of evidence. Don’t share things just because they make you feel good, and don’t spout hyperbole just to curry favour with your in-group.
Be excellent to each other.