how social media brought us to the edge of world war 3
Unless you emerged from a coma literally minutes ago, you know what’s happening in Ukraine and the terrifying threat to the world order as we knew it for nearly three quarters of a century. It’s a sad and horrible culmination of a decade of disinformation, propaganda, and monetized, weaponized outrage and lies in both social and mainstream media and politics, which so often degenerates into a sad circus of killer clowns. It’s honestly hard to know where to begin since so many events and topics connect here, and while it makes sense to start with the history of the conflict, that’s not my specialty, and neither are international treaties or laws. So, the next most likely focus is the horrific role Big Tech played in bringing us to the edge of World War 3.
First and foremost, we have to establish a very simple fact. Under Vladimir Putin’s gangster-like rule, Russia’s economy has been effectively stagnant outside the energy sector thanks to out-of-control corruption. Its GDP is lower than that of the state of New York. Income inequality in Russia is comparable to those of narco-states, and one fifth of the citizens want to leave given the opportunity. In a functioning democracy, people would be voting for different parties and trying to fix systemic problems in a series of elections and voicing their discontent with angry demonstrations, as the world has seen in Ukraine over the past decade. However, the Russian elite have absolutely no interest in letting people improve their lot in life.
Having stolen trillions over the last three decades, they’ve hidden more than half of their assets offshore and used it to buy mansions, yachts, castles, and businesses while storing an obscene amount of cash in foreign banks. Having to potentially return this money and be investigated by government officials actually interested in tackling corruption is basically their nightmare, so a permanent status quo which lets them constantly grease each other’s’ hands and dole out cash in backroom deals is their ideal setup. One of the biggest reasons why Putin remains president is his ability and tendency to keep the money flowing to the oligarchs now in his employ, which creates a textbook kleptocracy.
how social media became an autocrat’s best friend
But the looming problem for the Russian regime is that a lot of people are getting awfully fed up with being subjugated for the material benefit of a small elite, so Putin and his inner circle need to either start governing the country like real statemen rather than thieves or crush the populace’s hopes. And guess which one they chose. This is exactly why Putin funded far right and neo-Nazi movements across the West: he desperately needs other nations to be every bit as dysfunctional, and ideally struggling to deal with its increasingly frustrated, loud, and violent extremists. This way he can turn to the Russian people and say “See? Every country is like this, at least we’re not completely paralyzed like Americans and the EU!”
Of course, if you need countries to be paralyzed with political division and have extremists organize and sow chaos, discord, and pain, you need a way to rile them up. Enter Facebook, which deliberately decided to train its recommendation algorithms to reward and amplify outrage. If you’re a far-right agitator or a propagandist who wants to stir up conflict with fake news and hoaxes, this pretty much ensured that your message got maximum exposure, and mainstream media’s rapidly growing dependence on social media traffic almost guaranteed it would be covered on the news as well. In short, we set up a media ecosystem perfect to more or less surgically target societal divisions and turn them into political crises.
Likewise, it breaks the primary idea behind Facebook’s implicit promise, that liking lots and lots of puppy pictures and feel-good stories would produce more such warm and fuzzy content on your feed. In reality, what happens is that your cute feel-good stories are interrupted by posts designed to get your blood boiling, and liking certain pages sucks you down a rabbit hole of exponentially escalating extremism and fake news. Worse yet, Facebook knew this, ran very disturbing experiments showing how it all works, then refused to do anything about it. This is why dictators and authoritarians now routinely use the platform to whip up support for civil wars and ethnic cleansing across the world.
Which brings us back to Putin. He is, by far, one of the most masterful users of these toxic algorithms and has an entire intelligence division devoted to sowing discord across the West, escalating simmering tensions until they blow over into political upheavals. While the typical user will rarely see direct foreign propaganda, they don’t have to in order for it to work. All that propaganda has to do is get enough people mad enough to start sharing links and liking pages ran or boosted by troll farms and peddling fake news to spread the conspiracies and rage to others, supercharged by an algorithm built to make you lose your mind with rage, so your eyeballs stayed glue to outrage fodder, and most importantly for them, ads.
why we must reject our fascist fifth columns
It’s at this point where so many horrible threads intersect, from right wing media which thrives on using the same exact tactics to poison the minds of its viewers, to craven politicians whose ultimate goal is to become beneficiaries of a Putin-esque retrograde kleptocracy, or who would do and say anything to win the vote of their increasingly rabid, conspiratorial, and unhinged base which now rejects the very premise of civilized society. We could spend volumes carefully unpacking all of this, and hundreds of books have been written on these subjects, but if we look at the core of this clusterfuck, we’ll find a common thread: the refusal to do anything about all the obvious, glaring red flags pointing to a global crisis in the making.
In order to make a few lines on a chart go up, we began to tolerate intolerance across the globe and give right wing extremists and the autocrats who wanted to use them as pawns in political power games the most efficient possible tools to organize and spread their message of hate and intolerance, so much so that American politicians now headline thinly veiled Nazi rallies and state lawmakers openly post utterly unhinged rapid fire anti-Semitic conspiracies while the media waves it all off as news as usual. And we allow politicians and world leaders get away with tolerating, if not outright enabling and empowering a fifth column of saboteurs, thieves, and fake patriots to hollow out their nations from the inside.
Now that Russia is invading a sovereign country just because it doesn’t like the fact that it’s not a pliant puppet state, trying to threaten the rest of the world with nukes should they try to stop the numerous war crimes being committed every day, and posting increasingly rabid tirades of gibberish accusing the West of literally everything bad under the sun, maybe it’s time to really sit down and think about how we got here, and what we need to do now to clean up the media, both social and mainstream. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s literally edging us closer to nuclear war and the collapse of global stability. We need a full-blown revolt of the decent against the shameless edgelords who led us here.
We may be mostly united right now, but as this conflict continues and becomes a background hum of the new normal, we’re bound to drop our guard once again from the cancer of social media charged extremist eating at the very pillars of modern civilization. We have to stop being so afraid of calling out bad people for being bad people, from labeling lies as lies, not just with polite euphemisms like “misrepresentation,” and we absolutely have to stop mandating civility towards bad faith actors and professional liars who are clearly out to make their countries a worse, more hostile, more regressive, and more authoritarian place to live after performative flag-humping and wailing about freedom. If we don’t, they will kill us all one way or another.