Insurrection in the digital age (on being made an instrument of the state II)

Insurrection without reasoning

This is about what Berliners on Twitter are calling #CapitolRiots. There's a public debate: do a bunch of people dressed like LARPers constitute an insurrection, a military-style assault? Can they "storm" a building? 

My intuitive response was "no", but this is probably because I was raised a white "middle class" (parents were both first-gen college educated, father worked white collar) midwestern American, so I was inaccurately projecting myself on those members of the crowd I most easily recognised (er, the ones dressed like LARPers). But the point was that even those who just thought they were "demonstrating" or "protesting" could still be a part of an insurrection. The insurrection could be planned and indeed executed by someone else, with the participants not fully informed, aware, or even practicing doublethink

It's pretty common even in war for actual combatants not to know what the real point of their actions is. And as an example of doublethink, Facebook employees in 2016 apparently fully believed they were running one of the world's best advertising engines, were knowingly taking money from Trump, yet "felt sick to their stomach" the day after the election. Somehow they thought they could sell things without actually being political participants, even when those things were political ads. Facebookers aren't stupid, humans just practice a lot of heuristic reasoning. Which means we can learn how to get things done just by experiencing success or failure, but without fully understanding how things work or what the long-term consequences will be.

So anyway the events at the Capitol Riot didn't seem like "storming" to me initially. Here's a similar perspective from another tweeter. "From what I can tell, this was not a planned insurrection but an outburst of racist xenophobic violence by an inchoate group of alienated and deranged people," – Daniel Bessner

But the events were planned, by the president and others, to achieve firstly the goal of reducing confidence in democracy–a long-running aim also of Putin and many others who have power now but either little or eroding popular support.  Quite likely a lot of the events' planners (especially the president) hoped also to keep Trump in office. Definitionally, even if that was only a secondary goal they weren't very optimistic about, that is still sedition, and an insurrection.

I think what changed for me was reading that a policeman had been beaten to death (he died today or late yesterday). I'd learnt the woman shot and killed on site was an air force veteran who was going through a window illegally and aggressively. Also, I saw reports of how people went out of their way to destroy cabinets set aside to celebrate women politicians. And I finally understood. Yes, this was a rag-tag lynch mob. But they were still responsible for their actions. And they were still being used by people even more responsible for their own actions and those collective actions. Like a drug lord that uses under-age children as dealers because they'll do less time so can be paid less. The crime is the same in terms of drug dealing, and the culpability for the crime operator is even higher.

So similarly, this really is insurrection. It really is an attempt to disrupt the functioning of the government and constitution, to interfere with the lawful transition of power. But the information age simplifies recruiting actors / "fighters" unlikely to be blocked or hurt by the law. Like the children drug lords recruit to deal, right-wing white people receive lighter treatment from the law than others. For children, this is because their criminal records are flushed when they turn 17, but for the participants in the 6 January insurrection, the capitol police not only may have sympathised with them, but some seem to have aided them (here's footage of a policeman blocking access by the press saying "no one can go in" while people stream in). So this makes the cost of organising these people lower for the organiser as well as for the people themselves. The savings is passed on.

Trump's employees even say he runs insurrections. Here's a video from 2016 or 2017 of former US General Michael Flynn describing how Trump had fought and overwhelmed first the GOP, then the USA.  "We have an army of digital soldiers", "I'm saying this as a general", "This was an insurgency folks" – a bunch of phrases in word salad; coherence in thought or speech also seems to be classical rituals Trump and his employees don't believe they need to support.

I used this video about ten times in talks in 2017 and 2018, when people asked me to speak about anthropomorphised or conscious AI. I use it to show them what real AI ethics is about, how technology was actually being used to change lives and power balances. The problem with using it though is that it makes me so upset I risk crying, even from a lectern. How can a former general brag about running an insurgency against his own country? Against that country's legitimate media, against one of its two main political parties (the GOP), and then against the entire country? How can he brag about using transnational funding and transnationally-sourced digital technology to fight against the country he served? Of course, Flynn was also on the payroll of Cambridge Analytica, as well as more famously Turkey. By the way, Google's Eric Schmidt's daughter was also paid by Cambridge Analytica (not the main point of that post, search for "daughter" within the page.)

War by any other name

In a way, it's wonderful that the digital age means that we are fighting with and over information. I'm glad there's far fewer boys fighting in trenches under clouds of chemical weapons than there were the last time inequality & polarization were this high, which was "The Great War", World War I.  (See figure on the right here, and further my recent inequality & polarisation article.)

But there are civilian casualties. The assaults on the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obama Care) in the USA, and the NHS in the UK mean lives are lost – hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of them. Not to mention the lives of various minorities, refugees, and genders in other countries sharing our political experience, such as Hungary, Poland, India, and Turkey. Most loss of life from warfare comes from the destruction of domestic infrastructure, not from direct casualties of fighting or even of bombing or droning. See for example this famous study Mortality in Iraq, published in the leading medical journal, the Lancet.

There's no question that the present government has made dismantling the institutions we built to protect ourselves a priority. That link to an article in Vanity Fair about the Department of Energy is still the scariest single article I've read, well, maybe ever, but certainly in the last four years, which is saying something. I mean, even the way the Department of Energy is supposed to work when it isn't under assault is scary. That department is in charge both of our electricity supply but also of the world's nuclear assets, and both sides are terrifyingly overextended and threatened by assault. The USA and UK were ranked numbers 1 and 2 globally for pandemic preparedness in 2019, but both countries had already by then managed to elect governments who would choose to throw those preparations out the window in 2020. Not to mention the assaults of the last four years on the integrity of both NATO and the EU, two security establishments – one military, one economic.

On being made an instrument of the state (II)

Five years ago I blogged about being used to surveil for New Jersey shortly after having moved back to the USA (for four and a half years, as it turned out.) I received a robocall asking me to check our outbuildings for a missing teenager, but otherwise I was given no details. I suspected the teenager might just have spent his first night with a girlfriend or something, and had I known that it was something like that, I wouldn't have wanted to participate in hounding him. But I didn't know for sure, and I did look in our yard.

If some people were "only" LARPing – if not all of them expected to disrupt the smooth transition of power, if some were "only" protesters trying to show how important white nationalism was to them, does that make the overall action any less of an insurrection? This matters, because (among other things) the US constitution says that anyone who participates in an insurrection can never (again) hold political office. This could have significant political and societal impact. Many of the insurrectionists – including but not limited to those deliberately organising the insurrection – were obviously ambitious and determined, and could make a lot of difference as politicians.

My position is that it's the action that mattered. It's always been true that those fighting wars were not the ones picking wars, and may not have understood what they were fighting for. Particularly when they choose to fight (nobody here was drafted) they are responsible for their choice. No matter how much disinformation they've been fed, responsible adults are responsible for their actions. That's just what "responsible" means, and how we've organised our society.

What changes with the digital age, with robocalls and AI targeting? I'm sure a lot, and I expect we will be continuing to research this for some time. But here's a couple of pointers:
  • When we receive a broadcast message from a system rather than a person direction, we can't return queries and ensure we are actually understanding the message or are actually sympathetic with its sender. This is what I've called elsewhere brittleness. It's a problem for companies: while it makes it cheaper to communicate, you get what you pay for – you lose information that might help you adjust to changing demands, opportunities and threats. In highly polarised political times though, brittleness might be an advantage, at least to autocrats. People only want to assure themselves they are in the right herd, and it saves you time over negotiation that might dilute your message. Of course, that means ultimately your message is of lower quality and benefits fewer people. So in the long term (we might at least hope) this would lead autocrats to less stability.
  • By the same reasoning, we are less likely to notice if the message is coming from someone who is not who we think they are. The digital revolution makes it easier to deploy power and wealth over distance, because it lowers the cost of distance.

How good were the 1950-1970s? (How useful are low inequality & polarisation?)

Speaking of both polarization and white nationalism, one interesting subthread out of the Twitter conversation concerning the above started from a question by Tobi Müller that I've been thinking about a lot myself. Was the period of low polarization and inequality really that great? In the USA, high racial tensions, assassinations, the Vietnam and Korean wars; in Europe a great deal of domestic terrorism notably in the UK and Italy, but even some in Germany

I'm not an expert on this (yet) but I suspect that the reduction of inequality results in malign efforts being focussed more locally rather than transnationally. For example, was racism really higher in the 1960s, or was it more salient because other things were less so?  In the 1980s my parents moved to Charlotte, North Carolina (following my father's job) while I was attending University of Chicago in Illinois, where we'd lived since 1970 in a fairly "whitebread" suburb, Carol Stream. At that time, white people were way more aware of racism in Chicago than Charlotte, but it seemed to me that was because Chicago was actually making some progress in addressing their social problems. Barack Obama was community organising in Hyde Park, Chicago, while I was living there and then on the north side; we both voted for Harold Washington, Chicago's first African American mayor. 

I'll never forget on one of my visits "home" to my parents' new house reading in the Charlotte Observer a report on a study showing that 85% of white people in Charlotte thought that there were no race problems there, and 90% of black people thought there were. Which meant, there were. That discrepancy in itself struck me as a bigger problem than what Chicago had, despite the hostility we all experienced there.

Anyway, I'm old enough to remember when people said Nixon's pardon was the reason the Iran-Contra Affair happened. I wasn't excited to have a man who had been the head of the CIA in the late 1970s for president, but at this point he seems like George HW Bush (Sr.) was the only non-criminal Republican president in my lifetime. And to be fair, he was sent in to the CIA to clean them up. Anyway, I hope someone cleans up this mess. Maybe America's first Female American vice president, given she's been an attorney general.