A few years ago, I noticed a striking change. People — friends, colleagues, readers, family, mentors — seemed to suddenly somehow believe strange, improbable, fabulously foolish things.
“But the EU’s a colossal failure!”, they’d cry — while in fact, the EU was (and is) humanity’s most successful democracy ever, period, the one with the highest quality of life in history, I’d gently try to remind them. “But immigrants are taking our jobs!! They’re useless, lazy, and a burden!!”, and then I’d try to explain that the reverse is true — immigration creates economic activity, and jobs are going because of a lack of investment. “But we’re broke!! We don’t have the money to spend on healthcare and education!!”, while in fact interest rates are zero, meaning we have something like infinite free money right about now.
I could go on. But when I replied to them, they stopped replying to me, like a wave of silence falling over my world. Their eyes just glassed over. Creepily, weirdly. Nothing was going in — and nothing was coming out. It was as if their minds had stopped working. There was just a furious, doleful pout, like I’d stolen their candy. It reminded me of an infant. They’d regressed back to their little selves. A scalpel no one could see had somehow excised the adult parts of their brain responsible for reason, wisdom, and change. And that was when I really began to be troubled.
It felt to me as if an info-bomb had gone off in the heart of society. A dirty bomb radiating disinformation, misinformation, and folly. It was hard to see it’s alpha particles — they were invisible. I could only see human minds changing — not the beliefs in them, but the nature of the minds themselves (I’ll explain that — remember the infant and the candy? We’ll come back to it). And because I’d never seen minds change so suddenly, fast, or extremely, I understood — a war of propaganda was beginning to be waged unlike any other in human history. And so even then I warned that to use social media was to put yourself squarely in the explosion radius of this info-bomb.
Today we understand all this a little bit more. There really was an info-bomb — weaponized, military grade propaganda was used against whole nations, with the encouragement, and even the guidance, of social media companies, while political leaders and media were asleep at the wheel. What was the goal? What was the result?
People were getting radicalized. I’d seen it before, I realized, one day, a little shocked. In just the same way that they had in the East — only more slowly. There, throughout the 90s, once sensible people came to believe foolish and strange things. Some turned into religious zealots. Some turned into xenophobes and authoritarians and bigots. The vector of this radicalization was often the mosque, the TV station, or even the bookshop.
But radicalization is radicalization. And now it has happened in the West, ironically, just as it did in the East. And that is the great question we are not facing. Some significant portion of society has now been thoroughly radicalized. They believe in outlandish and foolish things. They have become ignorant and blind and petty and easily provoked. That isn’t an insult — they can undo all that. It is just an observation of empirical reality.
A major social question for the West now is: how does it undo the radicalization of the last few years? Can it? How does one undo military-grade propaganda at a social scale?
Let us first think about the effects. When one is radicalized, the effects linger. Your fundamental beliefs are changed into the overriding need for perfection, utopia, the flawless mommy, daddy, the promised land they’ll take you to, at any price — and now they are with you for a lifetime, usually, unless someone changes them back. But that is just the beginning. You are spoiling for a fight — because to be radicalized is to feel part of a persecuted minority. And you become an ideologue, on a crusade of purity — which makes reasoning with you then impossible, because it questions your faith.
In other words, radicalization makes you something like a traumatized child. The adult part of your brain closes down. The one responsible for producing empathy, handling ambiguity, appreciating difference, carrying on that struggle, discovering nobility, reverberating with purpose. Triggered, provoked, humiliated, afraid, wounded — regressed — the adult becomes a child whose overriding mission it is to find safety in the arms of someone invulnerable, macho, strong (like, perhaps, that gilded dictator). Remember the pout I saw on the faces of my friends?
So undoing radicalization is not as simple as filling people’s heads with “accurate” facts. A radicalized person will not — cannot — accept them, because the adult part of their brain is no longer really working well, or maybe at all. Only the child part is — and that part will lash out violently when too much reality meets it.
So you need to first make the radicalized person, who is really an infant self, capable of not feeling threatened, unsafe, and wounded — which is what all that propaganda has done, often permanently. But how do you that? It’s very, very hard. It takes social bonds to be restored somehow — oft through therapy, education, or civic organizations. That is why in societies that get radicalized, often there need to be large-scale movements for social change — or whole generations dying out — before normality returns.
Let’s put that another way. It’s much harder to undo radicalization than it is to produce it. It is asymmetrical. That is why it is so damaging for a society. The engineers of this info-bomb have inflicted maximum social damage for minimum cost. They have regressed societies back to wounded, paranoid infancy, a state in which they are ready to lash out even at friends, allies, and neighbors, in the name of a traumatized need for extreme safety.
Just how extreme are radical views now in America? Let’s think about it. Life expectancy’s falling. School shootings happen every 2.5 days or so. The young will never retire — and are already putting off families. There is some significant portion of Americans that think is all good news. Let me try to put it as simply as possible. The radicalized believe that the enemy is their own government, Muslims, Jews, blacks, browns, gays, women, feminists, modernity, decency, supporting anyone else, and therefore society and civilization itself — not that their enemy the very people manipulating them into this folly. And they are quite happy to act upon their beliefs, not just hide them away, eroding basic civil rights and social advancements. Wounded man (and woman) children, trying to seize all the toys.
Do you see what radicalization means now? Now, what is the knock-on effect? It makes a sane, or “normal” political economy or social contract more or less impossible for everyone else — because this voting bloc holds America hostage now, and quite possibly the whole of our lives. The lesson is this: when something like more than a quarter of a democracy gets radicalized, it’s often curtains. You don’t need to radicalize everyone — a handful will do.
Now let us come to American pundits. Their claim is that propaganda has “no effect”. By this, they mean, that it doesn’t “affect” “voter turnout” or “voter patterns”. In other words, they have reduced thinking, as they do, to linear causality with simple, one-dimensional variables. But radicalization is not so simple as to be measured or gauged thus. It’s about changing people’s fundamental beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions — the asymmetry of trauma. The same people still voted Republican in America — but for a candidate more radical, toxic, and extreme than ever before. And that’s still probably the case. See what statistics miss? The point of propaganda is to divide societies, make them riven places, uprooted as if by earthquakes, by regressing people into infants, incapable of handling reality with maturity and grace. If you can radicalize people, the politics will follow as sure as night follows day.
I’d bet that the engineers of the info-bomb are shocked and surprised that it worked so well, so fast, so hard. And overjoyed — that no one really put up a fight. And even now, that American leaders, in media, politics, and technology dismiss its radicalizing effects almost entirely. Why stop there, then?
This war is only going to intensify. American leaders don’t seem to care — and that is exactly what leaves Americans vulnerable to being manipulated by weapons grade engines of deep psychological manipulation at a social scale. Manipulated right back into infancy. And all that I call the infopocalypse.