Friday, November 13, 2020

Agents sent to harm us

 There is a great deal of speculation these days about the possibility of agents provocateurs, the undercover agents sent to infiltrate social movements by police, sent by ideologues, sent by corporate interests, or by any party opposed to that movement. These agents would not merely spy on groups, they would attempt to destroy them.

How might they do that?

The common understanding of agents provocateurs is that they are sent to promote violence and thus give the police an excuse to crack heads. But that is only one of several functions that such an agent would perform. 

The overarching goal is to neutralize a civil society campaign that wants change, or it wants to protect something--a good law, some policy that favors marginalized identity groups, clean water, etc. There are many ways to attempt that goal, including but not limited to: 

  • provoke violence
  • discredit leaders
  • redirect campaign focus
  • promote internal conflict
  • push irrational views to media in the name of the group
  • influence poor financial management
  • alienate influencers and funders
  • ruin image of coalition
  • commit fraud in the name of the organization
  • create factions that split off
  • start harmful rumors about people or group intentions
  • promote an internal security culture that amplifies paranoia
Of course there are authentic ineffective activists who do all these things too, so it is inappropriate to accuse anyone of being an agent provocateur without absolute proof, but it is helpful to periodically remind everyone in the group that agents provocateurs engage in these actions for a reason--to harm or destroy a movement--and therefore everyone should attempt to avoid these destructive practices. 

Call in your less effective activists, please don't call them out. We need to work to promote the more feminist, nurturing styles of leadership that build an unstoppable mass movement. This is not easy and takes emotional maturity. Tolerate each other's mistakes and our own slips. We can do this but we need to do this together. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

Just give me some truth

 We are witnessing an era when social media has supplanted our normal news for many people, and our natural human tendency to engage in siloes of affinity groups thus amplifies the set of "facts" we tend to receive, and it also tends to deepen our distrust of other points of view. 

For example, I find it hard to accept friend requests from people who espouse hatred of identity groups that have been historically marginalized. Racism turns me off so completely that I choose to ignore friend requests from those whose timeline includes dogwhistle racism. Environmental protection is important to me so I tend to accept friend requests from those who espouse such policies. This often means I am creating a silo for myself in social media that feeds me analysis that confirms my bias against bias, my bias in favor of protecting the environment, etc. 

That silo is fine, frankly, as long as I also get news from a diversity of other sources. I get mainstream stories from credible sources like the Washington Post (which is available to both students and professors for very cheap subscription rates of literally about 18 cents per day), occasional stories from the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Economist, Frontline, and more. I listen to podcasts while I do my daily walk, including some news via comedy by Trevor Noah, but also NPR Politics and Rachel Maddow. This mix can generate news that helps me contextualize what is going on, humanize all sides, and see the validity in whole or in part of views I do not share. I believe millions of Americans do that sort of eclectic information gathering and it helps us make more richly informed decisions. 

Sadly, however, other millions only stick to their silos and this whips them into selective facts, underinformed points of view, and misinformed analysis. It tends to make them more extreme and thus widens the polarization and creates worlds full of "alternative facts," a phrase coined by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and one that is indicative of the low respect for the truth characterizing Trump and his people. 

Lying to the public is something politicians and their close advisors have done forever. But the rise of fringe journalism that warps the truth (like Fox News or Alec Jones), along with the concomitant expanse of social media as the primary news source for many, has fed into our post-truth polarization. While it is trickier to stay credibly informed these days, the stakes are too high to avoid it if we hope to keep our democracy and avoid massive public violence.