I see the language of violence used to describe our emotional state. The words “attack,” “abuse,” “destroy” are more likely to describe verbal than physical confrontations. What if this is the future of violence? What if fucking with people’s emotions really is the new battlefront?
I tend to think we’re already there. Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief aide who’s known as Russia’s “Head Propagandist” and the man who “stage-managed separatist groups” in the Ukraine, described a version of this kind of warfare in a short story he published in May 2014. Two months later, Russia invaded Crimea using a similar playbook. His story describes warfare as an endless process, with constantly shifting attacks on ideologies and identities:
This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.
And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state — took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.
The goals of those in conflict were quite varied. Each had his own, so to speak: the seizing of disputed pieces of territory; the forced establishment of a new religion; higher ratings or rates; the testing of new military rays and airships; the final ban on separating people into male and female, since sexual differentiation undermines the unity of the nation; and so forth.
The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.
It’s hard not to see the parallels in Crimea, where Russia waged a massive propaganda war that pitted Ukrainians against each other and funded proxy armies that blurred the line of who is against whom. Confusion and infusing disbelief did 80% of the work. And Russia is only getting better at it — they’ve had 20 years of practice.
Case in point: Surkov first started waging war to influence elections in 1999 when he orchestrated ‘Operation Successor’ to elect Putin. Surkov and friends were looking for a successor to Yeltsin who was “increasingly drunk and unstable.” So they ran a public opinion poll of who was the most popular hero and found it in a 1973 TV show about a spy. Putin at the time was the relatively unknown and politically unthreatening head of the FSB (formerly the KGB), and he seemed like a decent match. So Surkov & Co. decided Putin should succeed Yeltsin, because spy stuff.
Surkov hatched a plan with his homies to invent a problem that Putin could solve, boosting his popularity and ability to succeed Yeltsin. So they planted a series of bombs which killed hundreds of Russian citizens, and blamed it on Chechen separatists. Putin proceeded to crush them, raising his approval rating from 2% to 45% alongside round the clock news coverage. He was elected President in 2000. More on this insane story here, but fast forward to 2018 and Surkov had graduated to Facebook ads and Twitter bots to basically do the same thing.
Whereas most leaders manipulate emotions to wage war, Surkov manipulated war to influence emotions. And I think Surkov’s calculation was prescient —fear dictates who’s in power more so than death itself. But what if we took this idea even further? What if violence in the future was purely emotional? What if the future of warfare really is everybody against everybody? What would life look like?
Twitter. It would look like Twitter. If I were to design a weapon that allowed the maximum amount of people to inflict emotional damage on strangers, I would create Twitter with zero changes. It is Surkov’s dystopian warfare of endless attacks on identities and ideologies, put into our pockets. There is never true victory in a Twitter fight and the list of people to attack morphs every day. There are positives to be sure — a retweet can make someone’s day, and it truly is the only outlet for many marginalized voices to be heard. But in my opinion that’s what makes the whole experiment sadder. People are compelled to use it for lack of options. People are compelled to use it because it’s their strongest source of some modicum of positive reinforcement. So they’re stuck playing by Twitter’s shitty, violent rules.
In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of social media companies. It’s my personal belief that social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google are the cigarette companies of our age. I’m certain they’re sitting on a mountain of evidence about social media addiction without doing a damn thing about it. But that’s besides the point…
It doesn’t feel controversial to say that social media is a bonafide detractor on our emotional states. No therapist has ever prescribed more Facebook. I’m more curious about how we protect ourselves from it. There’s another theory that I think helps answer this. The theory, outlined in the Book The Sovereign Individual by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, is this: the technology of violence determines the size and shape of our social orders. Here are a few examples throughout history:
- In the Middle Ages, knights with horses, armor, and swords were invincible compared to peasants with tunics and pitchforks. Kings in their castles could wage violence at will…at least until they reached the next castle. Then the technology changed in favor of more offensive weaponry. With the dawn of gunpowder and cannons, violence was wielded on a much larger scale, burying fiefdoms and dawning colonial powers.
- And then things turned towards the defensive. When guns got cheaper in the 18th century and citizens had the same weapons as professional armies, colonial powers devolved into smaller nations. The American Revolution and the European revolutions of 1789 are prominent examples. Colonial powers no longer had the edge they once wielded over local populations when it came to the technologies driving violence.
- And then the technology of war got complicated and expensive. In the 20th century, wars involved millions of people and billions in dollars. Monarchies can only raise so much money from lords and inspire so many people to fight. Capitalist democracies, however, can draft 50% of the population into war and tax 100% them to fund it. And so in the 20th century we see the rise of democracies due to their unprecedented ability to wage violence.
Today the power of violence takes many forms. For every bullet that’s killed a black man, how many threats, memes, and glares have given him real pain? I’d argue that social media is uniquely suited for emotional violence, and it is primarily an offensive technology. It is easy to attack people. Without meaning to I’ve said things on Twitter that people felt violated or attacked by.
Similar to how those who could use cannons spread influence through destruction, those who can leverage emotional violence will expand their reach. And many will try. Spain’s success at pillaging the Americas didn’t exactly dissuade other European powers from doing similarly. Trump’s Twitter attacks have energized countless copycats. Except the copycats aren’t limited to heads of state. Twitter fighting is a power nearly all of us have, starting in about 6th grade. As a result I feel it’s a technology uniquely suited for mutual self-destruction.
And so I worry about social media. It’s a powerful technology for offensive warfare. The most effective defense seems to be not partaking, but that can come at significant professional and personal cost. Better would be emotional shields of some sort. Something that blocks or erases or silences the bullshit. Google, Facebook and Twitter’s campaigns to block misinformation might be steps in this direction, but viewed in the context of the emotional warfare that’s going on, I find them almost meaningless. These companies are writing the rules of engagement, giving everyone shotguns for offense and a thick sweater for defense. Without equally powerful defensive tools, our wars will intensify.
It’s easy to predict how the status quo gets worse. Google, Facebook, and Twitter do the bare minimum in response to its users getting harassed, spreading misinformation, and generally causing real pain and confusion. Trust drops not just in institutions like Congress, but in people in general. Paranoia, conspiracy theories, and anxiety all rise. Everything feels like a performance. It looks, in short, like Russia.
What’s harder to predict is how things get better. But that’s for another post.