Turning around the ship of divisiveness

Now that we see the momentum divisive discourse is gaining in America it can seem like an impossible task to turn this ship around. Some people believe that since it has taken years to build the ecosystem that has created confirmation bias bubbles that have narrowed and hardened many people’s views that it will take years to reverse the trend.That would be true if it were a ship. Large ships need miles of lead time to make a course adjustment.

Fortunately we are not dealing with a ship. We are dealing with a collection of individuals. Like a flock of birds or school of fish. Which means we can turn this on a dime.

Take 14 seconds to watch this video and make note of how quickly the whole school makes sharp changes of direction.


Hundreds of fish swirl in a cluster shifting directions. Turning on a dime. Joining with other groups. Splitting into small groups. Watch flocks of starlings and you see the same patterns. These group dynamics of fish and birds are an excellent simile for the how the internet actually works.

The collective seems to move as one animal. But really, those sudden turns start with just a few fish shifting. The news spreads through the group and the others shift their course so quickly that the school of hundreds of individuals seems to be of one mind. There is a similar duality in influence messaging. It operates on both the individual scale and the group scale. Like with the flocks and schools the two levels work in tandem.

I’m not saying that making this shift will be easy. I am saying it can be done.

Full disclosure

I didn’t just think of this. It is a fundamental concept from my days in social media marketing.

Since psyops and marketing are two sides of the same coin, and social media platforms honing themselves into the ultimate marketing tools unwittingly created the ultimate weapons of mass disinformation, it is logical that some of the resources for counter measures will be found in social media marketing.

Social media marketers were, after all symbionts of the social media companies. Ours has run the full spectrum of symbiotic interactions – mutualistic, commensalistic, and parasitic. Want to understand the art and science of driving influence on social media? Talk to the experts that have been immersed in it since the inception of social media, both driving form and function of the sites and being driven by the sites to adapt and innovate.

The ultimate ruthlessly unethical social media marketing campaign

When the Internet Research Agency’s (IRA) tactics were revealed I immediately recognized it for what it was — a well funded, well staffed, ruthlessly unethical social media marketing campaign. I appreciated the sardonic name of this division of Putin’s information warfare department, a name that sounds like any generic social media marketing company.

The campaign was a masterful manipulation on both the individual and the group level. And they had it easy as far as thought influence campaigns go.

The narratives already existed – America is not the melting pot. We don’t all merge and blend into one sauce. America is more of a gumbo. A mix of different ingredients roiling and boiling about in the pot. Diversity of thought is fundamental to this country. The Founding Fathers worked to build it into our system of government to force debate and compromise because collaboration leads to the better ideas. The other side of that coin is, as we have now seen, we also have divisions can be rendered highly combustible.

Fear & anger are the easiest emotions to exploit – One of the basic principles of marketing is emotions drive decisions. Even when people think they are making a logic driven purchase decision they are usually justifying an emotion driven decision they already made. Fear is the most powerful emotion for driving action. Even things that seem like other emotions come down to fear. The ads that seem to be selling a better, happier life are really selling fear of missing out or being a bad parent. Peel back anger and you find fear is pulling the puppet strings.

Our brains are wired to respond to fear because it is essential for our survival. They also don’t differentiate between an actual growling bear in front of us and an image of the candidate we hate with an angry expression and a message in big dramatic letters of how they will destroy our way of life. Our bodies respond with the same fight or flight hormones.

Unfettered by ethics or truth – Cue the “Marketers have ethics?” jokes. While, yes black hat marketers have always been a part of the social media ecosystem, there is a certain code of ethics followed by most social media marketing. For some it is driven out of an inherent sense of ethics. The capitalism wheel needs to turn and social media became the tool to reach customers, and it can be wielded with decency.

Others are driven to good behavior for pragmatic reasons. An unethical social media marketing campaign, one with lies or abusive or openly inflammatory posts would be a PR  and free market nightmare for a company.

All those things are assets for the Internet Research Agency’s mission of fueling the flames of divisiveness and animosity. It’s easy to create dramatic, shareable content that hones in on individual’s fears when you don’t have to worry about truth.

Creating a fake flock – Social media is a very different marketing beast then traditional forms. Basically, it comes down to this, social media is social. A company needs people, or accounts that appear to be people to advocate for them in the online conversation. This is why brands pay mommy bloggers, fashionistas, gamers, etc. to be “influencers”. This is why companies try to get people to like & follow their pages and engage with their content. They are seeking to generate enough individuals heading in the direction they want the conversation to go so the school follows.

It is SO much easier to create the enough individuals to lead a shift the flock if your “leaders” don’t need to be real. The tactics that have gotten the most attention are the trolls and bots.

Trolls and bots were just one piece of creating the illusion of the direction of the flock. Another piece that came out in the Facebook collection of IRA’s content is the fabricated community and influencer pages. If you dig through the collection of Facebook and Instagram ads released by the House another more subtle pattern emerges. They created communities and groups and personality pages. In other words, creating individuals in a position to draw members of the school  and lead them in a new thought direction.

Note: I used the Internet Research Agency’s work to as an example information warfare tactics on social media. They are not the only players. They are a good instructive example at this time. Putin created the playbook. Others are picking it up. As new countries implement their own programs we will see variations that reflect their goals and world views. The flavor may be slightly different, but really it is the same. We counter this not by play whack-a-mole with the latest player, but by getting to the root of the problem.

How we turn the dime

Short answer: we use social media influence tactics to influence people to develop their digital resilience skills. I.e. their ability to spot disinformation and propaganda tactics and develop technical skills to vet photos, videos, articles and other content. Yes, it can be done ethically and in adherence with the First Amendment.

Done right, not only can people be educated on the nitty gritty technical details of recognizing propaganda and disinformation, but it can be a campaign of patriotic unity. Imagine the loose lips, victory gardens, and war bonds campaigns of World War II.

The volatile divisiveness happening in our country is in large part due to a direct information warfare attack on our country by a foreign power. It is time to develop a collaborative, strategic, comprehensive counter measures.