Firehose of Bullshit 2: Permanent Moral Panic
The Life Cycle of Hyperconnected, Self-Updating Conformity Groups
Last Week, I brought you an article about how propaganda and moral panics interact in the form of a Firehose of Bullshit. There, I described their structure and continuation with little outside interference. If you haven’t read it yet, please read it first, because it is essential to understanding the following parts.
Like most scientific hypotheses, this posits an isolated situation that is almost never the case in reality. Instead, firehoses of bullshit exist alongside other firehoses of bullshit, an underlying reality, and other societal forces. In the real world, firehoses form, grow, change, and hopefully die. This “life cycle” is the core focus of part 2.
This project has a ton of references and acknowledgements — so much that I’ve created a separate document for all the people I’ve referenced, I’ve read (even if I did not ultimately use their ideas), and who generally think about similar questions.
A quick aside on why I’m doing this (I rarely do such long projects): I get the sense from interacting with other thinkers and observers on this issue that there is an emerging field of discussion about this type of novel collective behavior. To me, it is the closest thing to the natal, serendipitous environment characterizing early physics or evolutionary biology that I have ever experienced – even more than machine learning, which I had first imagined was the present-day analog. People are heading to the fields of social experimentation — social media — and gleaning new, powerful insights each day. But cohereing said insights into an understandable foundation which can be built upon, searched, and used as a basis for investigation has not yet been done.
In other words, this is the birth of a scientific field, or at least a sub-field. What I call firehoses are a novel class of social action, one which is more powerful and chaotic than the dominant social actions of the past: peoples, mobs, and bureaucracies. There are two things that are limiting our present development in the short term:
A precise language defining generally useful concepts, which we can use to communicate clearly and avoid repeating work
A consistent method of investigation, deduction, and theorization
These two tools should sound familiar - they are the basis of scientific investigation. The purpose of this article is to begin to establish number one.
Without further adieu, let’s dive in. Here is a chart outlining the key processes of this social phenomenon, the historical analogs I will use to flesh out each process, and the theories which I have borrowed from others to explain them:
To combine all of these ideas into one, I have to come up with a new name. I didn’t get any particularly interesting names since last week, so the provisional name is:
Definition: Neo-Social Group (NSG)
A group of humans characterized by the following three traits:
Hyper-connectivity – Rapid messages (within minutes) between any two members of the group is possible and messages can be sent (directly or indirectly) to a majority of key people in the group within minutes via the same process.
Homogenizing Force – There is a social force which pressures members of the group to conform to a certain position or face separation from the group and possibly other consequences
Total or Near Total Lack of Rigor – On the positions in (2.), the vast majority of the members of the group do not consciously consider the positions they are taking. They do not factually investigate them, nor do they check whether those positions are consistent.
This is our key object; the black box; the big bad. We want to know as much as we can about it, as soon as possible, and most of us want to stop it in its tracks. And the worst part is, there isn’t just one NSG, nor can they be isolated to one political faction. Instead, they’re everywhere. So … why is that?
The formation of something resembling NSGs, satisfying conditions 2 and 3, have been documented throughout history. A word already exists which covers most of these, moral panics. The following definition from wikipedia:
A moral panic is a widespread feeling of fear, often an irrational one, that some evil person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society. It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue," usually perpetuated by moral entrepreneurs and the mass media, and exacerbated by politicians and lawmakers.
Most people who have heard of this term have heard it describe the Salem Witch Trials or the Red Scare, two excellent examples of this effect in American history. From Smithsonian Magazine:
The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. More than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft—the Devil's magic—and 20 were executed. Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted. Since then, the story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and it continues to beguile the popular imagination more than 300 years later.
The Salem Witch Trials were a series of false and baseless accusations leading to hanging and burnings at the stake. What’s worse, those who defended the falsely accused were often the next target. Present day relics of this event can be found in our language, including the metaphor “witch hunt”. The witch trials were driven by moral entrepreneurs, who took advantage of the panic to gain status and attack enemies. These are identifiable patterns of behavior in every NSG. Attacks on dissenters or protectors of an NSG’s enemies, including their jobs and livelihoods, are common and immediate, thanks to rapid communication. Moral entrepreneurs are often identifiable by their six-digit twitter followings despite a repetitive, mindless timeline.
The Red Scare was as close as you could get to a modern analogue. Simply cut out the word “witch” and replace it with “communist”. Of course, unlike witches, communists do exist. However, the pattern of baseless accusation, attacks on dissenters, and moral entrepreneurs (including the Scarer-in-chief Joe McCarthy), continued.
Alongside other historical examples, this pattern generates our basic understanding of how NSGs form. A combination of self-censorship, intolerant minority views, and moral entrepreneurship sets the stage for an increasing number of people to be attracted to, or at least conform to, a set of beliefs. In the modern day, this is accelerated by hyperconnectedness. As these beliefs gain followers, their followers increase in censoriousness and decrease in cognition until conditions 2 and 3 are satisfied.
An Antithesis NSG*, or an NSG specifically emerging to oppose an existing individual, institution, or other NSG, is a special case which forms much more rapidly. They arise primarily due to mass discontent with a common enemy. A surprising number of these groups refer to themselves as “anti-X”, such as “anti-racist”, “anti-woke”, “anti-fascist”, et cetera. The X in question is not always what they actually oppose, but most of the time this naming pattern indicates an antithesis NSG that opposes something.
Western, democratic politics is filled with examples of antithesis movements. They are time-tested, effective ways of gaining political power. If you live in a Western country, the odds are that at least one (probably a majority, maybe all) of your political parties is an antithesis movement.
The most shocking analog is that of the Spanish Civil War, in which fascist anti-communists and communist anti-fascists fought a bloody, multi-front war. Morality became highly unreliable, as the horrors of the “opposing side” was always used to justify the actions of the antithesis movement. Plenty of people fought alongside the communists or fascists despite sharing none of their ideals, simply to defeat the other side. Consequently, the two factions tore the country apart, pitting towns and families against each other.
Antithesis NSGs (antithesis movements that satisfy hyperconnectivity, homogenization, and unrigor), typically follow this style of radicalization against an enemy. There is once again a formal term for this in political science: the polarization spiral. As one side radicalizes, the threat which it poses becomes an incentive to support the opposing side, even if that opposite poses an equal or greater threat. The polarization spiral does an excellent job of explaining the emotional antagonism coming out of NSGs. If they detect a dangerous enemy (possibly correctly), then they are not unjustified to react with fear, anger, or action. The problem is that NSGs respond to grievous threats in the same way they respond to other problems: irrationally, hysterically, and uncontrollably. The model of affective polarization, with ties to evolutionary psychology and the formation of competing tribes, gives a similar analysis.
The most discussed question about antithesis NSGs is why they so often assume not just that their enemies are untrustworthy, but that the opposite of what they say is true. Evolutionary psychology gives some insights to this in terms of tribal loyalties, but I would like to propose an alternative psychological model. You might recall the following chart from part 1:
If you assume that most information presented by Western media sources are in the top-left quadrant (which many prominent antithesis NSGs do), then there is some way to decipher their communication by looking at their perceived incentives. Of course, NSGs do not do this rationally, but instead by wildly overestimating the competence of their adversary and presuming their communications are a coordinated conspiracy. If you were indeed living in a country with centralized media control, Russia for example, it may even make sense to engage in such deciphering. However, because of social incentives outlined in Part 1 and earlier in this article, such as sensationalism, negativity bias, and conformity bias, any type of rational deciphering is replaced by unconstrained confirmation of the NSG’s assumptions.
An important observation about this process is that it can become iterated. Antithesis NSGs are often antitheses of each other. In this case, both can point at each other as justification for their own radicalization. As their enemy radicalizes at the same time, that justification becomes more compelling (and as we will see in part 3, this does make the NSG itself significantly more appealing). As this repeats over time, this pair of NSGs iteratively hone their message like an adversarial algorithm (most commonly used in machine learning). While a pair of NSGs antithetical to each other is a bit of a special case, considering the prevalence of them in American and increasingly world politics, they are certainly worth warning you about.
In technology, there is a key term: the “killer app” – an application so self-evidently useful that it justifies significant investment and differentiation from the competition. With a radically different social structure such as an NSG, it is important to find justification for its differences. First of all, what is the difference between NSGs and past social movements, tribes, or other emergent groups? Well, each of our historical examples so far can be argued to satisfy two of the three conditions of an NSG: the social pressure and lack of rigor. However, none of them have been able to be hyperconnected because they simply did not have the technology.
This is the core distinction that makes NSGs worth investigating. On the other hand, just because something is different doesn’t mean it will be successful. We return to the question, “what is the killer app?” My newfound friend, who writes Handwaving Freakoutery (HWFO), describes this brilliantly in a panel discussion, as well as in written form. Here is the key quote:
Smartphones allow people to outsource certain brain functions to the phone, like road navigation, like everybody uses Google Maps, no one remembers road names anymore. Some people outsource more thinking to their phone than others, and some people use smartphones so much that they’re outsourcing morality itself to their phones.
One of the key features of Google Maps is that it updates, it tells you where the traffic is, it tells you whether the roads change. The key feature of tying your morality to social media is that your morality updates.
The weakness of moral panics and similar social groups is not just that they’re wrong, but that they’re wrong in obviously exploitable ways. Coordination and change across large groups is near-impossible without hyper-connectedness. They cannot adapt to novel challenges, fail to retain members as interest moves on to a different topic, and can be countered by strong institutions. In other words, the killer app is adaptation. Another quote from HWFO about how this works:
A brain fires ones and zeros … An ANN (Artificial Neural Network) usually takes numbers in and turns them into other numbers. What we’re doing on social media is we’re gathering entire thoughts and we’re sharing them, so there’s a whole lot more information packed into the like or share that we do on Facebook than would be in a cell in a brain.
In other words, the capacity to handle a much greater variety of situations exists. Even if only one millionth of this capacity is actually utilized, an NSG will be able to handle significantly more variation than any non-hyperconnected social group.
The actual mechanism of this processing, as observed in practice, is fairly similar to formation. The same status lures, cycles of outrage, and attacks on dissenters occur. The difference is that pre-existing connections, assumptions, and emotional triggers already exist. As a consequence, the time for adaptation is typically significantly lower than the time for formation.
Split and Merge
Splits in any movement, NSG or not, tends to occur when there is ambiguity in precedent. When a situation arises where members of a movement disagree in their reaction to a sufficient extent, it splits. “A sufficient extent” is itself ambiguous, but this is because it varies based on the movement in question. The model of political tribes would suggest that this point is when members of one view differ enough to see those who disagree as “other”, although this definition is somewhat circular, equivalent to saying “tribes become separate when one part sees the other as separate”. Nonetheless, it can be used to predict some splits in practice.
One notable split in recent memory is that between pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine conservatives. While they may both be anti-left, pro-gun, anti-abortion, and anti-woke, these two factions see the question of whether the vaccine is effective as so pressing and direct that they cannot endorse or support those who disagree. Rarely is an issue so directly impactful, in terms of both differing death rates and harsh restrictions imposed on the unvaccinated, but when this occurs, disagreement is more likely to result in splits.
A more interesting question might be why movements in general and NSGs in particular merge. After all, when simply considering the abstract ideas, there’s no reason why opposition to vaccines, support for Vladimir Putin, and a conspiracy theory about a network of pedophiles would line up. The same can be said for COVID bureaucracy, conspiracy theories about mass racism, and transgender activism.
What unites these collections of topics are the mechanisms with which they spread. In the former case, it’s interpreting uncertainty as negativity, the aforementioned antithesis effect against most or all organized media, and appeal to tradition. In the latter case, it’s weaponized empathy, do-somethingism, and fallacious appeals to equality, such as equality of outcome. In both cases, fear-mongering, sensationalism, innumeracy, and religious-like thinking are involved. However, it’s the degree of difference that seems to determine whether NSGs are compatible.
This intuitively follows from a fairly obvious statement: the same types of appeals affect the same people. This both means that the same people are likely to be swept up by NSGs with the same appeals in the first place and that NSGs as a whole are less likely to react negatively to the emotional appeals of matching NSGs. Wesley Yang has an excellent breakdown of this happening with the second example mentioned above:
This framework of course proved very useful in academia. It is a machine for generating discourse and imbuing that discourse with moral and sociopolitical significance. It is most effective at propagating discourse when it unburdens itself from a burden of proof or from the tests of proportionality or reasonableness, and hardens into a dogma. It is a discourse unusually susceptible to those temptations, as it purports to speak on behalf of marginalized truths whose proof is situated in lived experiences that the logocentric system rejects in principle. In practice, the valorization of the subaltern, and the invitation to extended to the Madwoman in the Attic to speak her suppressed truth has a way of turning into a warrant to dispense with any limiting principles on the claims one can make without challenge, and swiftly move toward totalizing accounts of reality.
A necessary condition of fighting one aspect of this many-tentacled beast is to fight all of its other aspects. Over the years, this movement has elaborated a continually advancing series of dimensions of oppression that it is necessary to invoke anytime any other dimensions of oppression are invoked, so as to ensure that the unity of all oppression is centered in our discussion of any particular of oppression. This peculiarity of the movement is rooted in both the academic parlor game of Left academe, and the prime directive of the non-profit professional activism sphere, which is to manufacture out of various discrete grievances, a single seamless synoptic picture of the world that can yoke together those various grievance under the sign of a single unifying mission.
Witnessing the death of an NSG is rare. They build and exercise their power in their spotlight, but by the time they are on their deathbed, they are shared only in a few hidden corners where the truly committed gather. Few bother to record these deaths because, well, by definition they’re insignificant.
I think the closest thing we have to an example of an actual NSG dying is the “9/11 Truther” conspiracy theory – the belief that 9/11 was orchestrated by George W. Bush or some other part of the American government. One of the strange things about the death of NSGs is that it’s somewhat difficult to convince people they were ever prevalent at all. While not all-consuming, there was a period of time following 9/11 where it was not uncommon to encounter strangers, either online or in real life, who genuinely believed that 9/11 was orchestrated and would fiercely defend their views. In the present, this is quite rare, although the same people would likely be just as eager to talk about vaccine microchips or systemic racism.
So why did the 9/11 Truther movement die? Was it because they were factually debunked even harder than they were before? Was it because it became more socially stigmatized to hold those beliefs? Was it because they were censored and persecuted? The answer to all of these questions is no. Facts and arguments did not change at all. Social stigma was highest immediately following 9/11, which was close to the peak of the 9/11 Truthers. And conspiracy theorists of all stripes found more ability to communicate, not less, in this period.
The answer is far more simple. People simply cared less about 9/11. They cared less about the history, which no longer seemed hot to the touch. They cared less about the people who died. The emotional triggers that worked time after time simply did not work any longer. The core ideas behind 9/11 Truthers could not survive by merging with other conspiracy theories, either. Maybe 9/11 Truthers are still conspiracy theorists by this day, maybe there are even a few true believers left out there, but 9/11 Truth-ism has long disappeared from conversation.
If I were to summarize this journey of an article into one sentence, it would be “NSGs have predictable behaviors, incentives, and indicators of success”. I hope this work will be useful to anyone who wants to understand, investigate, and change this strange new social behavior.
Obviously I don’t expect this article to reach more than the several hundred who usually read this substack. But I hope with the blessing (or curse) of hyperconnectedness we can make this language known, shared, and useful for everyone I see discussing these complex phenomena. I have clear conviction that being able to say, “this here is NSG formation”, “what adaptation operations should we prepare for”, and “should we try to force a NSG split” will help many of my friends and readers. Of course, this is only one layer of many. I want to reiterate my thanks to everyone whose work I drew from, especially HWFO and Wesley Yang who I long-quoted. There will also be many layers to come. I will be glad for anyone else to develop more complex and derivative ideas based on these.
This section described the function and internal structure of NSGs. The next part will describe the complex value of truth in NSGs, their interaction with network structure (algorithms + human nature), and their utility in collective decision-making. The hopefully fourth and final part will describe the mathematical nature of networks, NSG optimization on networks, and the practical tools of investigation (which by complete coincidence relates somewhat to my area of mathematical research).
Hopefully, we will solve this mystery while we still have our lives intact :> .