Challenging "Bad-Faith" Actors Who Seek to Amplify and Exploit Our Conflicts

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

March, 2021

About the "Bad-Faith Actor" Series

Traditionally, the conflict and peacebuilding field has concentrated on supporting the good-faith efforts of citizens trying to find a way to move beyond their differences and build a society in which everyone would like to live.  This challenging task has been the focus of the bulk of the Beyond Intractability system and, especially, the "Good-Faith Actor" section of the new  Constructive Conflict Guide which we are creating.

In recent years, as we have begun to understand why so many conflicts are becoming even more intractable, and why democracy itself is now in so much trouble, we have come to the conclusion that we have been neglecting a big part of the problem—that being the threat posed by "Bad-Faith Actors" who are actively trying to undermine collaborative, democratic governance. As an initial step toward adding coverage of this critical topic to the Beyond Intractability system, we are now posting this series of four videos and associated articles.

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Full Transcript:

Slide 1: Hi! This is Guy Burgess with the next in a series of slideshows

Slide 2:   that Moving Beyond Intractability has been assembling  as part of our new Guide to More Constructive Approaches to Intractable Conflict.

Slide 3:   A you may remember from some of the earlier slideshows, our focus has been on mobilizing how the conflict and peacebuilding fields might be able to contribute to efforts to bend the arc of history back toward democracy and away from the chaos of  anocracy, the terror of autocracy or just large-scale civil unrest and potentially war.

Slide 4: In this context, what we are really trying to do is to do our part to help reunify the United States after a turbulent and divisive period in its history.

Slide 5: While this is a United States-based analysis, it is certainly a humanity-wide problem. And we will be borrowing ideas that originated in a great many other places. And many of the ideas that will be presenting here, I think, are applicable in other places. More importantly, we see this whole project is an invitation for our colleagues around the world to engage in a much larger discussion of how we can get past this divisive period in the development of democratic institutions around the world.

A Guide to More Constructive Approaches to Intractable Conflict

Slide 6: As I said in the video introducing the Guide, the Guide is a five-part collection of materials, each focused on a different aspect of the intractable conflict problem. This video introduces Part Three, which focuses on how we challenge bad faith actors who seek to amplify and exploit our conflicts

Slide 7: The collaborative democratic ideal that is embedded in the U.S. Constitution and comparable documents from many other countries around the world depends, ultimately...

Slide 8: ...on the good faith actions of its citizens. Government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" will only work if the people want to make it work.

The “Bad-Faith” Actor Problem

Slide 9:   For this to work, we need to figure out how to defend democracy from direct attacks by what we call "bad-faith actors"--those who figured out how to profit from the failure of collaborative democratic governmental institutions.

Slide 10: The term "bad-faith actors" comes out of the labor-management field in the United States where labor-management mediators long ago realized that the whole process just doesn't work if either the union or the management is refusing to negotiate in good faith. So organizations like the National Labor Relations Board have actually written into their rules, procedures for dealing with bad-faith actors.

Slide 11: On the peacebuilding side, the focus is been on "spoilers"--folks who block peace agreements that would move the society away from violent confrontation and war and toward some sort of system of governance based on the rule of law and democratic principles.

Slide 12:   In order to apply these ideas more broadly, we have a Machiavellian definition of bad faith actors: those who, for selfish reasons, and without regard to the welfare of the larger society, act to deliberately undermine the system of collaborative, democratic governance.

Slide 13: The ideal of good faith, democratic governance doesn't assume that we have consensus agreements on everything. Rather, it is a system for making wise, equitable and effective choices with regard to a continuing stream of intense conflicts between liberal and conservative interests.

Slide 14: What's happened, unfortunately, is that bad faith actors have figured out that they can advance their narrow self-interest by attacking the system, either because they are profiteers who have figured out how to make money out of continuing conflict, or they are "I'll-fight-you-for-it partisans." We had an earlier slideshow on that--people who just want to dominate the other side, and then there are "divide-and=-conquer politicians" who figured out that they can control a society if they can keep everybody fighting with one another.

Slide 15: Now it's also important in talking about good and bad faith actors to not fall into the partisan trap. Democrats may be tempted to think that they are the good-faith actors and Republicans are the bad-faith actors. And Republicans, not surprisingly, would think the opposite.

Slide 16: The truth is that both Democrats and Republicans are being pulled in opposite directions.  There are things that pull them toward being good-faith political actors and trying to figure out how we can make it all work. And then there are the advantages of being a bad-faith actor.

Slide 17: And ultimately, controlling bad faith actors requires that we find some way of controlling these bad-faith intensions and strengthening the good- faith intensions.

Slide 18: Now it is also important to recognize that this is a not what I call a "lock-up-the-bad-guys problem." Although there might be some exceptions to this,  in general it's not just a few bad people who, if you would lock them up, everything would be fine.

Slide 19: Actually, it, is a very complex system and I've always been fond of this particular graphic for talking about complexity. It has all these dots, which are organizations and individuals, and lines connecting them. The problem is that there are things that go wrong in the system, and we need to understand what goes wrong and fix it. And that's really the key to dealing with the bad-faith-actor problem.

Slide 20: I've long shown this slide and the idea goes back to the previous slide where we have a complex system that consists of connections between different nodes, different communities. They may be quite diverse, quite independent, quite different, in tension with one another. But the thing about the bridges shown here is that they permit interactions and mutually-beneficial exchanges. And different communities from different perspectives build bridges in different ways. And that's what we need to facilitate.

Slide 21: The bad-faith-actor problem, unfortunately, means that we have to learn how to build bridges under fire (to adopt a military term). This is a NATO bridge that was built during the Balkan war. The military figured out how to build bridges, even when somebody shooting at you, and, unfortunately, that metaphor applies in this particular case.

Keys to Combating Bad-Faith Actors

Slide 22: So the key to combating bad-faith actors is multifaceted, not surprisingly. First you need to understand the many aspects of the problem. There are different types of actors that are motivated in different ways, who use different tactics. Then you need strategies for actually combating those behaviors. Wherever possible, it would be good to convert bad-faith actors into good-faith actors. Help them understand that the advantages of being a good citizen. Another strategy is to reduce public support for bad-faith confrontations of one sort or another. If you can do that, then such confrontations are less effective and less attractive.  You can also reduce the effectiveness of the tactics. There are some very sneaky tricks that are used, and they can be blocked. And that, again, can address part of the problem. Then ultimately, there are cases where you need to restrain the bad-faith actors as well.

Slide 23: Ultimately, bad-faith actors are simply trying to trick us into supporting policies that advance their interests, even though they undermine our own interests. This figure highlights three things we can do to protect ourselves. Start with the glaciologists pictured in the upper left corner. These guys are walking down a glacier and you can see these yawning, terrible, crevasses. You want to see the crevasses, because once you see the danger, it's pretty easy to avoid it.

Sometimes the danger is more deceptive and hidden. Take the bear trap in the lower left corner of the slide.  The can that doesn't look too dangerous and it's got tasty food inside. But once a bear understands what it is, it is unlikely to fall for such a trap again.  So we need to understand the concealed traps that bad- faith actors may lay for us.

Then there is the outright con, where they try to exploit our psychology with very carefully manipulated images in a long, elaborate, con. "The Sting" is a movie that illustrates the sophistication of a con, but Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme illustrates the underlying evil. So, not only do we have to watch for obvious dangers and traps, we have to watch out for people who are trying to con us in very sophisticated ways.

Slide 24: Future slideshows and other materials in this section on dealing with bad-faith actors

Sources of Vulnerability

Slide 25: are going to address the sources of society's vulnerability to bad-faith actors, and more importantly, on what we might be able to do to reduce that vulnerability.  We will talk about cognitive biases like the  confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance--psychological dynamics that make it hard for us to face hard truths and make it easy for us to listen to people who tell us what we want to hear.

We will talk about cultural lags.--the mismatch between the norms of behavior that dominate our society and the objective environmental conditions of that society. Society is changing faster than we figured out how to adapt to those changes.

We will talk about base-mobilization politics where the easiest way to win elections is to make your guys especially, terribly, angry at the other side.

We will talk about polarization and the obligations we have to partners in our polarized coalition to continue the fight, even if our issue gets addressed.

We will talk about all the incentives, the amount of money you can make by being a bad-faith actor.

We will talk about profiling technology that has been developed by companies like Facebook that make it very very easy for political advertisers and  manipulators and propagandists to design and deliver propaganda to specific individuals that will do the best job of punching their buttons.

We will talk about social media algorithms so we now have a news environment that is focused on delivering to people the information that they want to hear.

And we will talk about how the media has been able to form monopolies. So where we used to have lots and lots of media sources, we now have very few that can  manipulate the flow of information in ways that maximize their profit and also serve to the advantage of bad faith actors.

So we are looking for ways of addressing each of those vulnerabilities.

Types of Bad-Faith Actors

Slide 26: And as we do this we obviously have to look at the different kinds of bad faith actors. There is what I call the "tell-people-what-they-want-to-hear media." Right now, if you don't deliver to your audience the information that they want to hear, they'll go somewhere else. So we have information sources that reinforce existing prejudices and opinions. They don't challenge it. They don't show how we could all work together.

We have a lot of advocacy groups that really are still under the old fashion "I'll-fight-you-for-it rules" and they want to dominate the other side and push them into the sea.  And they might just do that!

There is also the "advocacy industrial complex." These giant organizations that have figured out that they can make lots of money fighting political fights on one side or the other and they're not above intensifying those fights for commercial purposes.

There are also advocates who I call "no-partner-for-peace advocates"-- folks who think that they'd like to be a good-faith political actor, but the other side won't, so they don't have a choice other than to be a bad-faith actor. That's a big problem.

And then there are the divide-and-conquer authoritarians. Divide-and-conquer politics goes way, way back in human history, of course.  It is now being applied with incredible sophistication by folks who want to achieve as close to authoritarian political powers as they can in the United States and in other democracies.

And the other thing that's happening is foreign aggression. We heard this from the Muller report.  Foreign powers, notably Russia but also North Korea, Iran, and maybe China are aggressively trying to destabilize the United States by using various social media technologies to exacerbate our conflicts.

These are all different types of bad- faith actors, and we have to find a strategy for addressing all of them.

Bad-Faith Actor Tactics

Slide 27: We also need to think about the tactics these folks are using. Again, there need to be strategies for opposing each one of these tactics. There is a long history of scapegoating and hate-mongering and that certainly is being used now, and we have to find ways of addressing that.

We live in a world where outright lies and what Al Franken used to call "weasels"-- things that are not technically lies, but they are presented so deceptively that they amount to lies. But it's now common for political figures to completely lie to the point where you don't really know what is true and what is not true. And that if there's a problem that needs to be addressed, the challenge is to find a lie to get out of it--to pretend the challenge doesn't exist, rather than addressing the problem.

Taking this a step further, we also have the fake news epidemic, where folks just attack the very idea that there is reliable information out there on which the public can make decisions. Politicians do that by what Steve Bannon used to call "flooding the zone with BS"--putting out so much information that is so unreliable that people conclude that  we don't know anything about anything so you can just believe what you want to believe! This is what the RAND Corporation calls the "fire hose of falsehood" propaganda technique.

There is also outright obstructionism. Part of the key to making democratic governance work is that democracies have to work. A political tactic--and this goes way back way too, though it is getting increasingly serious now, is that if you just prevent government from ever managing to do anything that advances everybody's interest, then people will lose faith in the whole notion of democracy. Then democracy falls apart and then people start looking at other possibilities.

I already mentioned profiling and target-casting--the kinds of sophisticated political propaganda that can be individually targeted to people in ways that are hidden and clandestine and funded by hidden people so that nobody knows where it comes from. This is deeply manipulative and it's another big part of the political conflict problem.

There is also something I call "synthetic peer pressure." There are billions of fake accounts on Facebook at any one time. Something like five or ten percent of them are fake. So what's happening is we're getting these fake personalities that are masquerading as friends, just like us, that we're interacting with on social media in various ways. They convey the impression that while the "big guys" can't be trusted, they are friends, just like me, and and they are telling me the way it is. And of course it's all fake! It's all deliberate propaganda and it is twisting the way we think about the world!

We also have social intimidation on both the left and the right where if you say something that the group doesn't like, you will find yourself quickly ostracized. It's been called "the cancel culture" on the left and Republicans are running on an anti-cancel culture platform. But then again, they're using their own brand of cancel culture to cancel anybody who disagrees with the Republican dominant views. 

We are also getting precariously close to outright violence, as we saw with the attack on the capital. Politicians are not quite sure who's going to get provoked into attacking them and their families if they make an unpopular vote. Things could easily escalate out of control beyond that.

And then there is what's called "whataboutism." So any time you challenge somebody on the use of any of these techniques, the response is "well, the other side does it too!" So you wind up canceling out all the objections to these behaviors. So these are just some of the bad faith factor problems we have to address.

Slide 28: The whole idea is to prevent this from deteriorating to what, I think, is the worst case, the rise of Nazi Germany, though there are lots of other similarly horrific episodes in human history. That is why I selected this image for this slide.

Slide 29: But the bottom line is that good-faith democratic governance won't work until we can prevent bad faith actors from sabotaging it. And that's something that the peacebuilding and conflict field hasn't engaged in the past, as much as it really needs to.


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