“Everyone is a potential murderer. In everyone there arises from time to time the wish to kill – though not the will to kill”. – Hercule Poirot, in Agatha Christie’s, Curtain – Poirot’s Last Case.
Between Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conon-Doyle, the two fictitious detectives from the old English novels, I like Holmes much more than Poirot. However, in the last case of Poirot, “Curtain- Poirot’s Last Case”, Agatha Christie and hence Poirot surpassed Holmes, undoubtedly. She describes the perfect murderer in mysterious “X” whose identity is revealed to be of one Stephen Norton, who was in the words of Poirot, “a good listener” with “quite sympathetic personality”. However, he had “the taste for violence at second-hand”. His passion, a drug or necessity induced in him “a craving to influence others to commit murder”.
In the 21st century, we have much more sinister ways and mechanisms to unleash “X” on gullible people for achieving political objectives at a scale and ease that is unprecedented. Weaponization of common man as a potential murderer of other men of different identities as a structural tool has existed from the time, we started organized societies.
Human beings can be “radicalized”. They can also be “nudged” to act in a specific way in specified contexts. The “Nudge Theory[i] ” describes that human behavior can be changed or influenced by altering the “choice architecture” without “mandating” yet offering least hindered path to an option that is desired by the nudging architect. Taken in a positive way, nudging can help people in eating healthy, be less wasteful, be environment-friendly and to participate in an election process. Same, principles however can also be starting points for nudging them to build hate, violence and kill humans.
There are many differences in human nature, experience and contexts. Yet, there are certain commonalities – above all there is a strong identity concept in human civilization that is deeply embedded – it starts with me, mine and ours. There are entangled hierarchies and networks of identities in all of us. Radicalization of population (especially young impressionable minds) has a long history.
It may be a reaction to the simmering discontent or perceived or real exploitation or persecution of a specific class, group, community or identity. Some percent of the population will be more susceptible to such influence. As long as such change or intensity grows in an individual on its own – naturally – it should be considered and accepted as a specific reaction ingrained in human nature.
However, if the need, narratives and networks – the key tenets of influence – are designed and developed to structurally transform the individual or a group, it is a cause for concern. The systematic and organized design of reality for creating desirable actionable responses – typically violent – cleaves the politico-socio-economic fabric of a nation. In the past, many political and geo-political forces have utilized such methods for radicalization for political gains.
In the last 20-25 years or so we have seen a sharp rise of violent extremism and also a rapid rise of technology (read internet) driven long-range, multi-dimensional and multi-channel connectivity. Reach and effectiveness of messaging (of all kinds of messages) has exploded in a connected world. Every political, religious, commercial, business, ideological and spiritual group has started and exploited these connections of pure technology to build narratives for influence, control, agenda proliferation and actionable response. The extent to which the recruitment and radicalization is influenced depends upon the following (whether one need to impregnate the human mind with a meme or a mind-virus, the factors are the same)
• Individual Susceptibility that depends upon the appeal of the message embedded in the narrative. Further, appeal depends upon the extent of similarity or congruence of the mental model that the individual has with the experience and information provided. Second sub-factor is the propensity of the individual to react or act based on the narrative or information. Third factor is his method of investigating the information presented and his way of thinking about the world that comes from family, education, culture and society.The individual’s overall cumulative experience and cognitive structure that has emerged in his life so far, makes him susceptible to nudging narratives. These three sub-factors create a heterogeneous mix of susceptibility of individual.
• Context, Timeliness and Accuracy of the information and narrative
Context and time in which the individual finds himself/herself when he is receiving, processing or mulling-over the narrative or series of narratives create the web of thoughts that get embedded in the human mind. The accuracy of information – relevant pick of key juicy components of real-world events with the aim and objective to influence and reach the inner world of an individual who is susceptible is the task of the narrative designers. It should have some commonality with the truth on the ground with enough twist to make the mind believe in the reliability of information as an evidence for taking action or creating reaction.
• Network Structure
The homogeneity of the network of the individual with closeness to specific centers of memes or mind-viruses is the key to the radicalization. In a recent study [[ii]], using agent-based modeling, it was found, “misinformation spread most quickly through small-world networks”. Further, it was concluded that, “Humans living in polarized, disconnected clusters constitute particularly conducive environments for the spread of misinformation. This means attempts to stop the spread of misinformation must focus on the conditions under which misinformation originates and begins to spread rather than tactics to halt that information once it gains traction”.
The need, narrative and networks can be exploited by everyone with remarkable innovativeness to synthesize reality for all of us. Some of us will succumb to the narratives based on our individual biases and susceptibilities.
Response by Nation States
In the Internet age, the nation states have taken gross ways of countering online influence and psychological war methods and structures. It is similar to what we have for responding to medical epidemics – like virus in population that spread very fast through various connections. In the case of online structural influence as well – states have taken similar ways – stopping the internet, media, blocking people from all means of connecting with each other and to outside world is the typical response. In that blocked time, assumption and effort is that state can find out the narratives of influence and people who are radicalizing or are radicalized and subdue or transform them before releasing the blocks on networks. That is not very effective and has long-term consequences that simmer late discontent.
Second is to create your own narratives of anti-radicalization or de-radicalization. These also have been used as counter narratives or memes. These as well are not been effective in democracies. Counter-narratives somehow are not very enticing for susceptible percent of the population.
Third and most rational approach which has long-term benefits perhaps is to have dialogue with the susceptible individuals and to understand and solve their concerns and problems. This is what has been called a “wicked problem[iii]” and has not been tried and attempted to the extent that is needed.
Digital Literacy [ii] has been proposed a counter to misinformation spread online. Lateral reading – checking for alternative sources authentication of source of information, has been found to be an effective anti-dote. The problem of fake news and misinformation exploding after the 2016 US Elections has just started been considered as a national security problem. However, the technology has grown so rapidly that we already have a bigger challenge in the form of DeepFakes – videos produced or altered to create synthetic content that is pure figment of imagination yet they look plausible.
The software-based world that ushered in 1990s gave us the cyberspace [iv], the sixth wave of innovation starting in 2020 with its algorithmic intelligence is enabling us to create synthetic reality.
Deep Fakes in Synthetic Reality
Artificial Intelligence (AI) based fake-news orchestration, ability to synthesize narratives and create what has been called “manufactured reality” [[v]] has emerged as a technology-driven phenomenon. Yet, manufacturing of reality is not new as [v] states, “Humans are and have always been vulnerable to being tricked, provoked, conditioned, deceived, or otherwise manipulated”.
However, the new means and ease of mass scale misinformation orchestration is already creating a peculiar blend of influence and effective divisiveness. Couple this trend with increasing shift towards “right” side of the political, social and economic spectrum that the world that was being globalized through increasing multi-dimensional connectivity, is now moving towards “trust-lost” islands of identities that doesn’t augur well for the coming decade.
The 2010’s anti-globalization backlash along with the spectacular rise of China that became more assertive, is moving towards a possible chaotic world in 2020’s that need changes in the substrate of narratives and influence.A super-arching meme that should unify the world based on liberal order established for the harmonizing world is needed else we are all becoming tech-savvy, highly-educated and yet influenced terrorists.
When the tools of sixth wave of innovation gets applied to big-data for precision marketing and micro targeting combining with social bots and deep fakes through generative adversarial networks (GANs), the problem of fake news of last five years seems like a rattle in a baby-crib.
Ability to synthesize reality and influence mass scale population to execute or act specific desired acts in specific contexts and specific time-frames is a strategic capability that many nation states, non-states actors and potential tech-savvy terror organizations will be utilizing in ways that will make us – the common man – an instrument of political warfare which anyway is purpose of war as per Clausewitz.
In the Agatha Christie story mentioned at the beginning, Hercule Poirot has to himself kill the murder instigator,“X” – Stephen Norton, because, as Poirot explains, “Make no mistake, X could not be touched by law. He was safe. By no ingenuity that I could think of could he be defeated any other way”. On X’s modus operandi he states, “The only thing necessary was to understand them (the actual murderers) – to penetrate their thoughts, their secret reactions and wishes”.
In the emerging world of breakneck speed of social-media with its excessive and mind-numbing explosion of information masked as infotainment through cacophony of news channels and social media’s content, we are looking at a world where as Poirot said “each one of us is a potential murderer”. The impact on security of the nation and way warfare is prosecuted in the synthetic reality of the sixth wave will be profound. We need more Hercule Poirots, else as we continue to be gullible to accept things at their face value with absolutely no time and effort spent to investigate the deeper truths covered by deepfakes. We will all be the murderers, killing people for the political aims of X.