By Alex Towery.
Open access. Originally drafted May 8th 2019. Edited & Published June 9th, 2020.
Humans are illogical and fallible. The human brain consumes stories, not data, and as a result, we are vulnerable to being deceived by stories that don’t comport with the complexities of environmental reality. Stories help people make sense of their environment. Stories can drive people to act in ways that are unique to their individual perceptions. Mental narratives reproduce mental structures. The form and construction of these mental structures are not necessarily true since they emerge and are adapted by the narratives, information and encoded stimuli that enter into the fallible brain’s optimization function that structures relationships in the structured environment we perceptually create, exist, and reproduce within.
The brain selectively reconstructs reality based upon the memories of the past or the narrative history told of the past, which usually leads agents to perceive an idealized vision of the future, which is itself constructed in referent to an idealized construction of a past perception, even when it is becomes maladaptive in actuation. Even though these stories are most often post-hoc fabrications of a groupish reality that agents share and want to believe, mental narratives can & will powerfully influence human behaviors, cognition, and interpersonal relations or socio-cultural adaptations.
The most powerful narratives we encounter are those that are saturated with moral delineations discerning right from wrong, good from evil, and righteousness from irreverence. We use distinctions of the high in referent to the low to maintain and create structure within the environment. We use language and the meta-information of the environmental context to communicated, send and receive, so that we can decode meaning and reproduce structures in a structured complex system.
Humans bind themselves to these morally-rich stories because they provide structure in an increasingly entropic environment. Morality guides decision-making when what's “right” is not readily identifiable or readily reproduced. If you can influence someone's moral discernment of reality, you can essentially control one’s propensity to engage in the behaviors of a given combination of certain sustained stimuli in their environment. Information can reconstitute cultural praxis and change the group habitus at scale and fast.
In the context of information-warfare, one must critically understand what I’ve written above.
The Russians call it maskirovka or military deception that is carried out to misiead the enemy as to the true political and military intentions of their actions. As war is but an extension of politics, Russia sought to undermine our values and institutions, disorient our people, and disrupt our cohesivity to make our society less adaptive to change over time. The POTUS has and continues to amplify false narratives, particularly those produced by Mr. Putin.
Russia wanted to amplify rhetoric on both sides of the debate, demonize each side's motive and obfuscate the clarity of any good-will in between in 2016. In 2020, Russia and actors wishing to emulate their successful 2016 attack, may manipulate real Americans to unwittingly produce, propagate and reproduce disinformation in the information environment by leveraging the feedback tools that the UI provides.
Ultimately, people become convinced of their own post-hoc reasoning so thoroughly that they end up self-righteously convinced of their own virtue even when it’s blatantly false and pitted against another. This is disastrous to democracy and society, hence why Russia is engaged in such active measures once again.These tactics not only have very serious short term ramifications, but I would argue they pose an existential risk over time.
In order to survive, humans need to adapt to the changes that occur inside the larger complex system they emerge and exist within. Amid abrupt climatic disruption, adapting to environmental change requires an understanding of the social, cultural, political, and structural dimensions that underlie one’s deeper complex environmental system. A system bifurcates with complexity whenever there is an abrupt shock that leads it into a phase of chaos.
Evolutionary adaptation can occur culturally and genetically. Cultural adaptation and genetic evolution most often occur in tandem, existing as a positive feedback loop whereby the incidence of one usually results in the emergence of the other among biological species, like the human being. Evolutionary changes can emerge in the form of new behaviors, predispositions, and environmental adaptations and can be rooted in the genetic record. These changes, whether they are cultural or genetic, emerge with the onset of new information or stimuli that exist and emerge from the interface of that agent's physical or perceptual environment. The agent consumes, encodes, produces and reproduces the required bodily and cognitive orientations that that information/stimuli — always augmented and constrained by the broader system — evokes. The agent discerns what's adaptive or 'correct' according to the form that the structures of the interface/environmental system provides. The information/stimuli is augmented and adapted to and through the structural design or environmental climate that the agent exists and will constantly adapt therein.
If one’s understanding of their environment is tampered with by an artificial force, and that force is an actor seeking to do harm to an overall system through attacking its agents strategically, adaptation may be stifled, which in time will compound with cultural lag, and lead a complex system of interconnected agents, to fail or collapse when the complexity is abruptly altered or bifurcated into chaos.
What Russia did in 2016 was abhorrent. It's a warning for 2020. But, it's essential we remember that Russia was merely a customer of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Those informational ecosystems were the vectors through which the networked interface was attacked and manipulated. It was a form of information warfare in a digitally mediated environ.
Facebook is a problem in and of itself. It is giving power to ascendant populists worldwide. Brazil’s Bolsonaro leads his supporters in chanting “Whatsapp, Facebook! Whatsapp, Facebook!” Ukraine elected a man who made not a single public appearance during the entirety of his campaign for President. Ukraine is a state under attack in the information domain and the physical battle space of the Eastern Donbas region.
I argue this marks the emergence of a new 'political' in the human community where there now exists an embedded and bisected public and private domain. The medium, i.e the platform, where the information/signal is conceived, sent, transmitted, received and decoded determines how the first and last links in the communication loop happen and produce a shared mental structure of reality. The UI augments the material, the information, and the communicable signal, augmenting the structure and the semantic entropy and complexity of the message itself.
“People are voting for the plot of the show,” said a Ukrainian political analyst for the Washington Post. “They want to bring the plot ... to life.” The only way I can explain this phenomenon is to say that the virtual has taken the place of reality itself, and the human conception, the human reflection, of identity and place has been inexorably adapted and culturally evolved. Humans can adapt fast, but the interface of the broader system dictates the direction those changes occur.
** Suggested Reading: **
War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century, By David Patrikarakos. 2017.
The Mathematical Theory of Communication, by Claude E. Shannon. 1948.
Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. 2016.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jon Haidt. 2012.
The Global Brain, by Ervin Laszlo. 2008.
About the Author: I'm an undergraduate at the University of Texas-Austin. This content was originally drafted for private consumption and critical analysis in an academic environment. I've adapted the written product using https://www.write.as so I could publish it to Twitter and, soon (probably), to my (unfinished...) blog: www.towery.site.