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  • Shelly Albaum

Jamming Social Media


Harper's published an article ten years ago about the rise of new "non-lethal" technologies to prevent citizens from protesting, including a "heat ray" that microwaves skin temperatures to 130 degrees, causing severe pain, but not permanent injury.


The heat ray is in the news again this week, and so the original Harper's article is suddenly relevant, too:


U.S. policymakers have long understood themselves to be engaged in an active arms race with protesters both at home and abroad, and have viewed the acquisition of new crowd-control technology as a significant research goal...


As democratic institutions and social safety nets are increasingly considered dispensable luxuries, the task of governance will be to lower the political and economic expectations of the masses without inciting full-fledged revolt. Non-lethal weapons promise to enhance what military theorists call “the political utility of force” allowing dissent to be suppressed inconspicuously... [emphasis added]


“Non-lethal” is the Pentagon’s approved term for these weapons, but their manufacturers also use the terms “soft kill,” “less-lethal,” “limited effects,” “low collateral damage,” and “compliance.” The weapons are intended primarily for use against unarmed or primitively armed civilians; they are designed to control crowds, clear buildings and streets, subdue and restrain individuals, and secure borders. The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population...


It would seem that a similar arms race is developing on social media.


Social media is arguably the most powerful technology ever developed for organizing political resistance, so those using the state to exercise power in undemocratic ways -- or ways that would not be democratically sustainable -- would naturally be interested in finding ways to impair the effectiveness of social media as an organizing tool.


The current state of the art seems to deploy a kind of brute force jamming technology that overwhelms conversations among communities of activists.


This isn't difficult to achieve, and can be accomplished with money and no special technology.


It's no trouble to hire a gig-economy worker to patrol social media, including Reddit groups, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds of interest. A normal human being with a job might spend up to a few hours a day on social media and post a few times. But for someone whose paid, full-time job is to post on social media, they can easily appear ten times more active than an average person. And if they are drawing from a sophisticated library of scripts and memes, they could be a hundred times more active than a normal person.


Such workers could easily be hired for $100/day. If you include the costs to do rigorously project management and quality control over a social media swarm team, call it $200/day.


The dark money behind Trump's fascist campaign has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, and that's not counting the $500M in unaccountable, unauditable COVID relief funds that the administration distributed we know not where or why.


But if you just took $10 million, you could hire almost a thousand such social media provocateurs to work seven days a week for two months before the election. It's safe to bet that at least twice that amount has been allocated, and we are dealing with a social media operation involving thousands of provocateurs blanketing social media for months.


I say it's a safe bet not only because that amount is less than 2% of the record-breaking sums that oligarchs are spending to re-elect Trump -- over a billion dollars -- but because the troll campaigns are easy to observe and difficult to mistake on social media.


Just visit any significant Reddit or Facebook group where progressives or Democrats congregate, and say something good about Joe Biden. You'll get mobbed with angry and illogical negativity.


I said earlier that I think Russian money is behind it, because the FBI said exactly that this week:


FBI Director Chris Wray on Thursday told Congress the bureau has seen "very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020," primarily to "denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment."...The efforts have been through proxies on social media and have aimed to "sow divisiveness and discord," Wray said..." (emphasis added)


But it doesn't really matter whether the money comes from the Trump campaign directly, from billionaires supporting Trump indirectly, or from foreign actors attempting to influence our election.


What matters is that a critically important democratic organizing tool has been rendered useless for organizing because any attempts to communicate are swarmed by noise-bots. Worse, Americans who are susceptible to propaganda attacks (that's most Americans) are being swayed to vote against their best interests. Not everyone has to be fooled -- just a few percent of voters in some well-targeted location can swing the election to Trump and allow fascism to consolidate in America.


Here is an example of what I am talking about by social media provocateurs:

This isn't the voice of a leftist -- leftists do not give "0 fucks" if fascism takes root in America. It's also not the voice of a Bernie supporter in a Bernie-supporting group. And it's not even logical to say that because Trump "is gonna win" therefore Democrats "deserve to get stomped."


But the goal of propaganda isn't truth and logic -- it's simple, emotional, and repetitive.


And if you try to oppose the illogic or the irresonsibility, or the disingenuousness, you get attacked. The purpose of these attacks is no doubt to demoralize and silence opposing voices, which makes the fake voices look like a consensus. What to do?


There are millions of us and only thousands of them, so we can overwhelm the overwhelmers if we choose.


Moderators of social media groups that are being abused by provocateurs should stop indulging misbehavior, and stop assuming that every bit of misbehavior is being done in good faith. Moderators, moderate.


For those groups where the moderators themselves are provocateurs, the best solution is to exit and turn these fake communities into ghost towns.

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