On Evil, Trump, and Information Warfare
This piece is a deep dive into Trump and the right’s innovative use of Information Warfare to win the fights they should rightly lose based on traditional analyses. We must first lay some groundwork in Systems Thinking, but we think you’ll find it all interesting and useful.
At Revelatur we rely heavily on Systems Thinking, a rigorous problem-solving methodology that enables detailed understanding of how complex adaptive systems – such as human societies -- function. Systems Thinking provides all the benefits of scientific and academic reductionism – where complex concepts are teased apart to make them easier to study—while simultaneously enabling us to “see the whole” by integrating the output of reductionist efforts onto a domain-specific knowledge mesh.
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By combining Systems Thinking with other models such as Network Analysis, AI Neural Nets and Value Chain Analysis, we can develop robust meta-models that measurably reduce bias and greatly increase the probability that our analyses are accurate and useful.
Most people and even many experts think that human societies contain too many variables to be modeled usefully. However, by combining subject matter experts, Systems Thinking and neural nets, we can mathematically eliminate most variables from our calculations because, while they may be academically and/or socially interesting, they don’t actually matter to how the world works. In other words, because most of the factors revealed through reductionist practice are superfluous, that is to say, our models are not influenced either by their presence or absence, we can legitimately ignore them.
Equally fortuitously, computational power is now sufficient to enable us to work rapidly and cost effectively with the variables that do matter. We see this successfully applied every day in weather forecasting, the illumination of protein structures, and materials science. Additionally, models and modeling techniques are frequently repurposed from one domain to another. All these recent improvements in information processing tools have reduced previously intractable modeling and analytical challenges to the types of engineering problems our society has great experience in solving.
Massive “systems of systems,” such as human society and the earth system, can, indeed, must be broken down into subsystems to enable actionable situational understanding – which is a qualitative threshold of shared knowledge that enables human action with a defined probability of outcome and/or success. Once a system’s subsystems have all been conceptually and mathematically defined, solutions designed to improve any one subsystem can be modeled for impact on the whole to prevent sub-optimization.
The primary purpose of this combinatorial modeling is to develop as accurate picture as possible of reality, or what is called the “current state” in modeling. With a robust capture of our current state, we can then forecast the emergence of future states of the system under study with empirically valid probabilities. From there, we can test various solutions to complex challenges such as climate change, increasing financial inequality, and the rise of authoritarianism, determining which are most likely to achieve the results we desire.
This process is how we at Revelatur determined that an international movement prioritizing justice, combined with the emergence of robust participative democracy programs from the neighborhood level to the global – offer us the highest probability of reversing the vicious cycles we face and eventually enabling an age of human flourishing. Obviously we’re skipping over mountains of detail in this discussion, but we’re primarily setting the context for the discussion that follows.
You may be wondering why we still have so many problems if it’s as easy as we make it seem. To quote Representative Charlie Wilson from the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War;” “well, it’s tradition mostly.” Organizational leaders and managers are loathe to cede decision rights to algorithms, computations, models, and AI – even though it can be proven to them that to do so would provide better organizational results! I have experienced this phenomenon for over forty years across the commercial, nonprofit, government and military sectors as a leader-practitioner and management consultant.
Thus, although it is possible to develop systems optimization models, demand is soft. Where we see the highest demand for integrated forecasting models is unfortunately, where we need it least – private equity and the financial markets, which are using them to accelerate the vicious cycles already in play.
Why does this matter? Well, one of the most critical sociopolitical subsystems is the information system. For human beings, the primary purpose of the information system is decision support. Based on evolution, your brain filters out most of the information you encounter, a small percentage is archived to support future decisions, and you act on a tiny fraction immediately.
The notional “place” where this system is located is termed the “Information Space,” which is more conceptual and metaphorical than it is geographic; nonetheless it’s useful terminology. The information space can be usefully “mapped out” using network science and mathematical graphing techniques, yielding insights into the relative importance of discrete pieces of information and the relative societal influence of specific individuals and communications mechanisms.
The information space is structured by a complex dynamic resulting from the interplay between the nature of specific “units” of information, their comparative characteristics if you will; the estimated value and utility of specific information packets to its consumers; and their positive or negative orientation, or “polarity” in model speak.
Information has valence or polarity like protons and electrons. Truth or verified facts are designated as positive, and falsity or lies as negative. These are not arbitrary designations – the purpose of information is to inform, thus a “fact” that does so is positive and one that does not is negative --from the system’s own perspective.
Information quality, value and utility has been historically evaluated from the positive viewpoint – in other words, to what level is the consumer informed by consuming. Information value has also been classically assessed via a hierarchy, in which: information’s lowest value was what we call data; with processing data becomes information; with analysis information becomes knowledge, and applied knowledge becomes wisdom – the highest possible value of information. Each value level has utility, but it is critical to be able to distinguish one from the other to properly assign weighted values and probabilities to your decision models.
The problems we face now in the information space are much worse than when we adopted the “data-information-knowledge-wisdom” mnemonic. So much data now flows into the information space, there are so few tools to usefully process it, and people are so poorly equipped cognitively, that data overwhelms our ability and the time available to move information up the value chain. The effects are two-fold and compounded: 1. Most of us continuously operate and make decisions at the level of data or information and hold very little true wisdom about anything except that concerning our chosen field of endeavor; 2. It is increasingly difficult and costly to identify and toss out negative polarity information – lies if you will.
Thus, people stop searching for higher value levels of information outside of work or study because the psychic acquisition and opportunity costs to obtain it are too high. Where this most impacts democratic societies negatively is in the domain of politics, because democratic systems pre-suppose that chosen representatives actually represent the will of constituents, who can then, in the classic division of labor concept, turn most of their attention to the societal domains they are responsible for.
The bad guys know this – at least some of the bad guys employed by the rich bad guys do, and they deliberately reinforce and accelerate this dynamic programmatically with what we know as propaganda. They also weaponize propaganda systematically through a domain known as information warfare – which has rapidly become the most cost-effective mode of warfare in human history. Now of course these tools are available to everyone, relatively simple to wield, and affordable, but the right has the jump on us in application and integration into long-term strategy.
One reason propaganda works is because it exploits one of the characteristics of information itself – negative polarity information (lies) permeates the information space more rapidly than does positive.
The good news is that negative polarity information eventually gets gobbled up or zapped by positive – although the timeline for this can be in the neighborhood of several hundred years for complex scientific concepts – although this lengthy of a timeline is exceedingly rare.
That is perhaps not the best way to describe the actual system dynamic. What really happens is that the existence of truth (positive polarity info) steadily erodes falsity’s defenses through things such as cognitive dissonance, hubris, overreach, and self-destruction on the part of its consumers.
Currently the bad guys enjoy information superiority, but this is not a permanent condition, and based on the characteristics of lies, the bad guys can never gain information dominance – which would be required for authoritarianism and totalitarianism to send us back to the Dark Ages – unless the good guys simply capitulate. And this is exactly what neoliberalism, and the right are trying to get us to do!
Truth can’t be easily or rapidly monetized, but falsity can. If truth could be monetized there would be as many “atheist” churches as there are for organized religion, right? This is a profound problem because nothing significant happens without monetization in the modern world.
The problem is that truth forces the people it embodies to make tough choices, and it gives them visceral discomfort – thus requiring virtuous response to avoid the deeper costs of cognitive dissonance.
Authoritarians are not anti-intellectual – they just pretend to be. They harvest from the academy continuously. They are anti-truth, which we posit is the evil of all evils because it holds the door open to all the others.
All this said, it is certain that the right will accelerate its fight against education, methodically targeting universal schooling and universities to reduce the sources of positive polarity information while reducing their capacity to serve as long-term truth reservoirs. Same with the fight they’ve picked with science – they know the scientific method eventually establishes truths and vanquishes untruths.
Where does Trump fit in? Like Hitler, Trump is an evil genius. While he is evil through and through, his particular genius is the information space. He has so much successful experience with manipulative communications that his instincts about which negative polarity information has the greatest impact are uncanny – and this is precisely what separates him from other Republicans.
While Trump is only a genius at this one thing, his applied expertise is enough to sink American democracy in the near term.
How? Well, this is where we need to integrate the other subsystems and their dynamics into our picture. Trump’s unsurpassed ability to influence interconnects with: declining organizational and political engagement across the U.S., most critically within what should be a very solid democratic coalition; a defensive, neoliberalism-complicit, purposeless Democratic Party that could have spent the last 60 years destroying the Republican Party as a meaningful force by joining with democratic constituencies in Participative Democracy efforts; technologies and information channels that enable the unprecedented scaling and spread of bad ideas and untruths; and the cumulative effect of economic trends accelerated by Republican strategy that impoverish and thus effectively “tie down” the natural constituencies for progressive efforts. Most notably, the latter has included the decimation of the middle class and the dismantling of the entire concept of upward mobility.
The reductionist approach that has taken the U.S so far in terms of scientific and technological progress has, at the same time, rendered it exceptionally difficult for people to see the connections between societal subsystems, so we tend to focus on one or another and thus advocate for solutions in terms of policy that will “fix” that problem – such as the Wars on Poverty and Drugs that have cost us trillions of dollars while “fixing” neither.
But the right has – at the money level – figured this all out and deliberately widens this “reality disconnect.” The left keeps taking the bait, aided by a mainstream press which should be engaged in sorting this all out but finds it more profitable to amplify the right’s strategic communications advantage.
The good news is that the tools to enable the truth to prevail are all already here – we just need to wield them more effectively than the bad guys do. This will require an organized and sustained effort -- another reason with advocate forcefully and continuously for Participative Democracy mechanisms and the human commitment to animate them.
Our models and analyses indicate that our objective in the information space must be information dominance, which sounds ominous but does not mean the end of free speech as that concept has been historically understood.
Rather, it means attaching such a high cost to lies and such evident value to the truth that the natural constituency for democracy will fight to the last measure of devotion for victory – resulting in the attraction of existing centers of wealth to the democratic cause for the same reasons they are now so bound to the right. We realize this sounds utopian, but history and our analyses confirm that positive societal changes are only achieved with intense focus on goals and that, paradoxically, the bigger the goal, the more likely is meaningful, long-term change.
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