Newsletter # 43—June 2, 2021
About Moving Beyond Intractability Newsletters
Important information about the newsletters, sign-up procedures, links to past newsletters, and strategies for overcoming possible delivery problems is found at the end of this newsletter.
Bad Faith Actors SMASH Collaboration and Good Governance
Our last newsletter introduced the concept of "Bad Faith Actors," which Guy has been thinking and writing about in depth over the last several months. He continues his discussion of this problem here, examining our sources of vulnerability to such bad-faith actors.
"Bad-Faith" Actors -- Sources of Vulnerability
by Guy Burgess
In our last newsletter, we started to explore the challenge posed by what we call "bad-faith actors" --- people who, as they try to advance their own narrow interests, attack good-faith efforts to make collaborative, liberal, democracy work for the benefit of all. As we see it, the conflict field and the society as a whole needs to develop much more effective defenses against each of the five principal types of bad-faith actors.
That means we need to address the threat posed by partisans on the left and the right who are so convinced that they are the "good guys" and the other side is so evil that they must be decisively defeated. We need to limit the effect of news organizations and the communication media more broadly that have figured out that they can build a larger and more loyal audience by focusing everyone's attention on divisive, inflammatory, and often inaccurate information. We must sideline or muffle political figures who use inflammatory, "mobilize-the-base" tactics as part of a corrupt, divide-and-conquer strategy to accumulate as much political power as possible. In addition, we must identify and block foreign rivals who use information-warfare tactics to spread divisive content as part of an effort to destabilize and weaken our society. Finally, we must disempower the nihilists who are so alienated from society that they simply want to destroy things.
All of these actors see it as being in their interest to amplify our many tensions in ways that compel us to act against our own interests by handling our inevitable conflicts in destructive and, potentially, catastrophic ways. In this newsletter, we will focus on the things that make us so vulnerable to this type of attack. Then in the next newsletter in this series, we will look at the tactics that are being used to exploit these vulnerabilities and strategies for better defending ourselves against them.
One factor that increases our vulnerability to bad-faith actor attacks is the process of Darwinian selection. It has always been true that the most successful bad-faith actors can expect to enjoy enormous wealth, status, and power. As such, ambitious, clever, and ruthless people have always been attracted to the quest for social dominance. These individuals have then interacted in a highly competitive environment that systematically selects those who are able to put together the most effective power-building strategy.
So we can be sure that there will always be at least a few individuals who are willing and able to employ the most sophisticated and ruthless strategies available. In today's world, this means that we can expect bad-faith actors to take full advantage of the latest insights into the neurobiology of human decision-making; the complex structure of modern communication media; and the intricacies of legal, political and economic systems. In other words, they will know where we are vulnerable and how to take advantage of those vulnerabilities.
Bad-faith actors will know that the psychology of human thought and decision-making evolved in a simpler time when humans faced very different challenges --- challenges that, over time, the adaptation process hardwired the human brain to navigate. As society has grown larger and more complex, the nature of the challenges we face have changed, but our decision-making processes have had trouble adapting. The usefulness of many of our neuropsychological adaptations to danger have deteriorated to the point where we now rightly think of them as "biases" which undermine our ability to rationally navigate modern society. Psychologists have identified an astonishing array of biases, but there are a few big ones that are widely exploited by unscrupulous actors.
One such bias is our understandable tendency to focus first on anything that might constitute a direct threat to our vital interests. This is commonly used as an audience-building strategy by media companies and as a hate-mongering strategy by divide-and-conquer political actors who want us to focus all of our attention on efforts to this decisively defeat the "dangerous "other." This, in turn, is reinforced by a worst-case bias that, under conditions of uncertainty, leads us to "play it safe" and take the worst possible view of the threat posed by our adversaries and conclude that defeating them must be our only priority (and that other things, like the corruption of our leaders, are not as important or worth worrying about.
We also find it very hard to consider the possibility that we may be wrong, that our "friends" may not really be our friends, and things that we've been doing to protect ourselves may actually be hurting ourselves instead. Not surprisingly, we tend to seek out and give greater weight to information that avoids such unpleasant cognitive dissonance and confirms that we were right all along. Similarly, we tend to look uncritically at leaders who make extravagant, too-good-to-be-true promises (that further reinforce the sense that we made the right choice).
Beyond this, we tend to be attracted to information that allows us to hold ourselves blameless (and others responsible for) for whatever misfortunes we might suffer. This results in a sense of victimhood which, of course, reinforces the hostility with which we view those who we think victimized us.
The scale and complexity of the modern world means that we have little direct, personal knowledge of a great many key aspects of our lives. In deciding what we believe and how we should behave, we are utterly dependent upon information that we receive through mass media's various channels of communication. It is through these channels that we learn about the threats we face and things we might be able to do to limit those threats. These communication channels are, however, far from perfect. They suffer from a wide range of vulnerabilities that undermine their ability to provide us with the fair and accurate information that we need to guide our lives.
One of the most important vulnerabilities stems from the commercial nature of communication systems in capitalistic democracies. (Authoritarian societies, not surprisingly, face a different set of vulnerabilities.) Commercial media is ultimately funded by attracting and monetizing our attention. Any information source that wants to stay in business (and be influential) has to attract and retain an audience.
Unfortunately, this seems to be most effectively done by exploiting the above psychological vulnerabilities in ways that provide people with information that they want to hear (people, not surprisingly, tend to tune out displeasing information). This is best done by segmenting the market into a series of relatively small and homogeneous audiences and then delivering to each audience custom-tailored information that they will get excited about --- information that is seen as so important that it demands a space in everyone's busy schedule. In today's highly competitive media environment (with its precise tracking of the stories that individuals pay most attention to) publishers have both the ability and the incentive to tell people precisely what they want to hear.
This creates a situation which rewards those who feature stories of moral outrage and highlight the things that the "good guys" are doing to fight back --- things that will, if everyone stays committed to the fight, they promise, ultimately yield decisive victory. Similarly, it rewards those who cultivate and then take advantage of the camaraderie that arises among those fighting the "good fight" together. Since groups of people from differing cultural and economic circumstances tend to have very different priorities and worldviews, it is relatively easy to build enthusiastic audiences around the demonization of opposing groups. What makes this vulnerability especially serious is that it tends to generate a positive feedback loop in which inflammatory stories beget inflammatory responses in a continuing cycle that drives up audience participation and loyalty along with the associated revenue stream.
This is, of course, also a process that can be driven and fueled by unscrupulous, divide-and-conquer politicians and foreign hybrid-warfare actors seeking to destabilize a society. (Such actions are facilitated by the open structure of liberal democracies.) It is also clear that rapidly-advancing communication technologies have amplified these vulnerabilities by allowing them to be exploited with ever greater precision and effectiveness. It is now easy to tailor a multiplicity of "newsfeeds" to each individual's worldview and prejudices. The ability to provide these evermore attractive information flows is being enhanced by new techniques for evading the constraints of objective reality and selling people an attractive fictional vision of "reality."
Taken together, the vulnerabilities associated with decision-making biases and distorted information flows influence the way in which people interact in the larger social environment. Unfortunately, the structure of this environment also contains vulnerabilities that are subject to manipulation and exploitation.
One vulnerability stems from the hierarchical structure of the social system and the fact that there are always some people who enjoy positions of greater status, wealth and power – positions which give them the ability to claim even more status, power, and wealth over time. Not surprisingly, this is a process has generated immense resentment at lower levels of the hierarchy where people struggle to get by with ever-dwindling resources. This resentment is compounded by the tendency of the meritocratic elite to see its privileged position as nothing more than a rightly-deserved reward for their hard work.
The resulting populist tensions on both the left and the right make societies vulnerable to bad-faith actors who promise to address the problem, while actually doing the opposite. In the U.S., this vulnerability is further amplified by features of our democracy that make it easier to win elections through anger-driven, base-mobilization tactics than by actually proposing better solutions to common problems.
Other vulnerabilities arise from the social nature of our cultural beliefs and our images of objective reality. In deciding how to behave and what to believe, people don't have time to figure it all out for themselves. They inevitably look to members of their group for experience, expertise, and guidance. Very few people have the courage (or maybe the stupidity) to deviate too far from the wisdom of their group and risk the social condemnation that would accompany such deviation. (All social groups have robust mechanisms for assuring that there is enough agreement within the group for it to function effectively.)
Social systems are also vulnerable to the "vested interest" or "squeaky wheel" effect in which highly-motivated individuals (who are often resource rich, bad-faith actors who stand to gain enormous sums) are able to exert an outsized and corrupting influence on society. Also dangerous is the inherent fragility of the bonds of trust that hold society together. Relatively minor incidents can instill a sense of betrayal that is very difficult to repair. Terrible and usually violent incidents are even worse. Massacres and other atrocities that can arise from the reprehensible behavior of just a few individuals can become the kind of "unrightable wrongs" that plague societies for generations.
These vulnerabilities are not, in and of themselves, all that bad. The problem is that, as we'll see in the next newsletter on the bad-faith actor problem, unscrupulous, bad-faith actors have developed a variety of very effective tactics for exploiting these vulnerabilities. Before we can expect good-faith democratic governance to succeed, we have to develop much more effective defenses against these tactics.
Recent and Related Posts:
From the Conflict Frontiers Seminar:
- “Bad-Faith” Actor Tactics -- We need to better understand how to see and avoid the many traps (and sinister cons) that are dragging us into ever more destructive conflict. #mbi_frontiers -- May 05
- Types of “Bad-Faith” Actors -- While it is always hard to make good-faith democratic governance work, it is even harder when people are actively trying to make it fail. #mbi_frontiers -- May 04
- “Bad-Faith” Actors -- Our Sources of Vulnerability -- Like the vulnerable US football players, we need better ways to protect ourselves from destructive efforts to undermine our ability to work together. #mbi_frontiers -- May 03
- Part 3: Challenging "Bad-Faith" Actors Who Seek to Amplify and Exploit Our Conflicts -- As an introduction to a series of three videos that we will be posting this week on the "Bad-Faith Actor" problem, a look at how this fits into the larger problem of how to more constructively handle intractable conflict. #mbi_frontiers -- May 02
From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar and BI Knowledge Base:
- Frontiers Seminar: Authoritarian Populism -- We've updated our collection of learning materials focused on rising threat of authoritarianism and populist revolts on the left and right. #mbi_fundamentals -- May 23
From the Colleague Activities Blog:
- The New Arab Street: Online, Global and Growing -- From the Arab side, reflections on the fact that this Israeli/Palestinian crisis is playing out in the new age of social media amplified hate. #mbi_colleague -- May 25
- Preventing and Reducing Conflict and Instability in the United States: Shaping What Comes Next -- Spring Speaker Series running April-June at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Past webinars are posted for later viewing. #mbi_colleague -- May 04
- Global Negotiation Conference -- GNC-2021 is open to students from all disciplines with an interest in negotiation theory and practice. The online conference includes 4 days of presentations and workshops and a day-long multiparty simulation on a current international issue. #mbi_colleague -- May 03
From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog
- Good People Must Be Dangerous People -- A scary look at how one individual explains his shift away from nonviolent politics and toward violence, threats, and even atrocities. #mbi_context -- May 25
- Mob Violence Against Palestinians in Israel Is Fueled by Groups on WhatsApp -- From the Israeli side of the current crisis, look at the inflammatory effects of social media. #mbi_context -- May 25
- Why People Feel Like Victims -- A thought-provoking look at why so many of us see ourselves as victims and how this makes our conflicts so serious. #mbi_context -- May 24
- Chinese businessman with links to Steve Bannon is driving force for a sprawling disinformation network, researchers say -- A profile of one kind of bad-faith actor that is trying to play a major role in amplifying our conflicts and making them more intractable. #mbi_context -- May 24
- For Trump, Hamas and Bibi, It Is Always Jan. 6 -- A worrying hypothesis: the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict is what happens when hate-fueled politics crosses the line into large-scale violence. #mbi_context -- May 23
- What Might a Liberal Diversity Training Programme Look Like? -- A look at a liberal, conflict resolution-based alternative to the prevailing diversity training model. #mbi_context -- May 23
- Israel’s Real Existential Threat -- A thoughtful look at the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian crisis and the quest for some sort of moderate livable future for all. #mbi_context -- May 22
- If the Left Got Its Wish for Israel -- All peacemakers ought to think carefully about the risks associated with the advice they give. For the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian crisis, here's an example. #mbi_context -- May 20
- The Cult of Smart -- A summary of the "Cult of Smart" -- a book that looks at the important and neglected divide between the supposedly smart and everyone else. #mbi_context -- May 19
- How the Storming of the Capitol Became a ‘Normal Tourist Visit’ -- An especially spectacular example of how spin doctors can alter reality (or at least public perceptions of it). #mbi_context -- May 19
- Masochistic Nationalism—A Review -- A review of a book introducing an interesting new concept "masochistic nationalism" -- the belief that your country is at the root of all evil. #mbi_context -- May 18
- The Trumpy right is violating everything our children are taught -- One key to the success of a political movement that violates fundamental democratic principles is to quit teaching those principles. #mbi_context -- May 18
- Race and the Coming Liberal Crackup -- From a moderate, conservative perspective, a critique of progressive, antiracism policies that is worth serious consideration. #mbi_context -- May 05
- The G.O.P. Is Getting Even Worse -- A look at the emerging backlash movement against the excesses of the left and a call for a similar movement on the right. #mbi_context -- May 05
- Why is Everything Liberal? -- An in-depth examination critical question: Why is the left so culturally dominant and why does it have such trouble winning elections? #mbi_context -- May 04
- Mr. President, your misinformation on Georgia’s voting law is dangerous -- From Georgia, a plea for both the left and the right to refrain from inflammatory and unjustified rhetoric regarding proposed election law changes. #mbi_context -- May 04
- imagine -- Amid our anguish over the many shortcomings in our pandemic response, a reflection on how much worse things would have been had it happened just 20 years ago. #mbi_context -- May 03
- 'I Got Obama'd' -- An in-depth look at the many troubles of a conflict resolution expert who became involved in politics. It's not as easy as we sometimes think. #mbi_context -- May 02
- Boulder police officers didn’t wait for backup to confront King Soopers shooter. That’s exactly what modern police tactics teach. -- More on the Boulder mass shooting. A look at the heroism and sacrifice being asked of patrol officers and the surprisingly limited role of SWAT teams. #mbi_context -- May 01
- Newark cops, with reform, didn’t fire a single shot in 2020 -- Yet another, encouraging, "if it's been done it must be possible" story--the reform of the Newark Police Department. #mbi_context -- May 01
About the MBI Newsletters
Every few weeks, we will compile BI/MBI/CCI news, along with selected the new posts from our various seminars and blogs into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive.
NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam). Check there or search for firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you still can't find it, please contact us.