Over the past year, information warfare tactics have increasingly infiltrated into everyday life on social media.
Early this year, the AltSciFi indie cyberpunk/scifi zine project was targeted by a group of copyright trolls that bizarrely called itself “The Artist Community” on Twitter. That group was a few hundred heavy Twitter users who give each other likes and retweets in order to appear to have more social-media “clout”. They also use copyright trolling to harass anyone who “reposts their work without permission” (truly horrifying acts of copyright infringement that form the basis of most Tumblr blogs, many Twitter posts, and the majority of the content posted to various Reddit communities).
The attack even spread to the creator of a popular cyberpunk webcomic who based her public person on being shy and trusting, and has been targeted by scam artists more than once in recent years. The same person who instigated the attack against the AltSciFi project also gained the confidence of the webcomic creator and now is using that creator’s popular comic by convincing her to start a “sympathy scam” — begging for financial “support” from fans, while the scam artist puts her name above the original artist on new issues of the webcomic.
Aside from the trail of destruction left by that one person, that behaviour is more and more common across social media. Artists use the viral popularity gained by copyright trolling in an attempt to elevate their status among other artists. More generally, bullies use similar tactics in acts of small-scale information warfare every day. The strangest part of it is how such tactics seem to be accepted as part of daily life now, when the effect is to help corporations pass laws that could effectively destroy the world wide web by worsening copyright restrictions on everyone.
- For more information about how nation-states use disinformation on social media, this BBC article offers a useful introduction: Sergei Skripal and the Russian disinformation game
This post is describes ten everyday information warfare tactics, with examples.
Tactic #1. Role Reversal — Playing the Victim
Bullies love playing the victim. If you can convince yourself you’re actually the victim, there’s no need to stop bullying.
Example: a citizen is murdered by police while waiting at a traffic stop. Immediately, attempts are made to smear the victim’s public image as a “criminal”; therefore, they “deserved” to be executed by police; thence, any discussion of brutality is actually “discrimination against police for doing their jobs and protecting the public against criminals”.
Tactic #2. Use Abusive Tactics While Claiming To Be “Protecting Yourself” From Abuse
Tactics include: complain about being “gaslit” while claiming that another person is “desperate”, “obsessive”, “vindictive” or “probably mentally ill”. Rally a group to bully others after pretending that a minority is somehow “bullying” the majority.
Example: Gamergate, Comicsgate.
Tactic #3. Abolition of Context
Use emotionally charged, persuasive imagery and ignore the context surrounding the image. Then provide your own story for the image as suits your purposes.
Example 1: CNN versus Fox News versus Brietbart
Example 2: In the case of the AltSciFi project, images were circulated along with the claim that AltSciFi “stole art” based on an incomplete web store prototype posted to Github. The claim was plainly ridiculous if you thought about it, but very few people bother with thinking once they’ve seen “evidence” and heard a persuasive story, even if the story is obviously wrong.
Tactic #4: Reduce Facts to the Level of “Opinions”
As the old saying goes, opinions are like… mouths. Everybody’s got one.
Facts, however, can be shown as true or false. If someone can be persuaded that facts are opinions, then facts themselves disappear.
Example 1: The AltSciFi zine project — after the libel/slander attack began, the entire months-long bullying attack was extensively documented as it happened. Given the sheer number of people who repeated the garbage as gospel, however, the facts of the situation quickly became drowned out as “just another opinion” subject to the endless cycle of commentary by people who had no idea what actually happened.
Hot takes and instant reactions from instant pundits, self-appointed “judges” and armchair psychoanalysts replace any form of intelligent thought based on fact.
Tactic #5. When You’re Caught in a Lie, Double Down and Call the Truth “Fake News”
This is noteworthy since the term “fake news” first arose from those groups and individuals who lie pathologically. This tactic gains power from its ability to minimise the truth (based on facts) into “fakery”, which itself implies dishonesty or even conspiracy.
Example 1: “The mainstream media is ‘fake news’ — you should really believe this extremist propaganda instead!”
Example 2: Although the entire libel/slander attack against AltSciFi was extensively documented in realtime, attempts to warn the cyberpunk webcomic artist (mentioned above) that she is being scammed were met with “no! The scam artist is my ‘friend’ (she’s not — she’s a freelance employee who befriended the artist in order to scam her). So what you’re saying must be ‘fake news’!” That’s also known as being in a state of denial, which is sad since befriending and manipulating a vulnerable person is one way that con artists keep their victims from seeking help.
Tactic #6. Substitute Real Motives for more Socially Acceptable Explanations
Blatant racism and misogyny are generally not well-tolerated. In order to subvert social norms, pretend that racist/misognist/homophobic/etc. motivations can be explained in more acceptable terms.
Example 1: transphobia becomes “being gender-critical”. Genocidal racism becomes “ethnic nationalism”.
Example 2: Actress Loan (Kelly Marie) Tran is hounded off of Instagram by racist hatred. The racists are nowhere to be found after the fact because they claim to be criticising her for being a “bad actress” instead of an Asian lead actress in a Star Wars film.
The strangest part of this tactic is that it doesn’t really fool anyone — but it is a useful way to avoid blatantly breaking rules. That way, if a bigot’s account is deleted on the grounds of bigotry, they can hide behind “free speech” since they weren’t blatantly breaking any rules.
Tactic #7. The “Free Speech” Ruse
Free speech absolutism: “I can say any violent, bigoted or abusive thing I want because I have the right of free speech.”
In the real world, absolute free speech does not exist. If you claim that the Earth is flat, most people will laugh at you until you stop making that claim. If you claim that Jews are inferior, or that black people are apes, or that latinos are rapists, most people will shout you down until you shut up or go away. Online, though, the “but you’re destroying ‘free speech'” ruse is used most often by people who want an excuse for their worst behaviour.
Example: a president constantly tweets about how a free press is “the enemy of the people”. After months of this, several people are shot to death in a newsroom. The president’s Twitter account is not deactivated, however, “because free speech”. Hate speech continues to spread across social media because the operators of social media sites refuse to recognise that words change beliefs and inspire actions.
Tactic #8. Any Change Will Be Worse, So Let’s Keep Things Exactly The Way The Are
“Any attempt at fixing problems will be a slippery slope to hell, so there’s no other answer except the status quo.”
This is the default reaction of everyone who has something to gain from keeping things the way they are. This is also called a “slippery slope” fallacy.
Example 1: Gun control? No, that would lead to the destruction of all freedom for all citizens, forever! We must allow mass shootings! It’s “the price of freedom”!
Example 2: Ban violent racists and misogynists from social media? No, that would destroy all free speech for everyone, everywhere! We must allow bigotry! It’s “the price of ‘free speech'”!
Tactic #9. The Reframe
Take an entire category (“Behaviour X”) and demonise it. From that point on, any discussion that is labeled as similar to Behaviour X will also be considered “evil”.
Example 1: Anyone who has a sense of morality that disagrees with the majority is reframed as an “SJW”. From that point on, any discussion of right and wrong is demonised as “bad” and instantly dismissed without further consideration.
Example 2: The rise of neonazii propaganda is reframed as “free speech” and protected. Anyone who fights against neonaziis are “as bad as them”, which is completely nonsensical — also known as Orwellian doublethink (“war is peace”, etc.).
Example 3: Someone could write a TL;DR for this post that deliberately mischaracterises its content, since more people will probably read the comments section than the post itself.
Tactic #10. Use Ridicule and “Humour” As A Distraction
If an argument requires any intelligent thought to understand, destroy it by reverting to “witty” sound-bytes and misleading jokes that distract from the real issue.
Example: Read the title of a post on Reddit, and ignore the text itself. Instead, post a snarky remark in the comments section in order to seek upvotes from others who are similarly illiterate and never read anything longer than an article title or a tweet.
Here are three (update:
four five) bonus tactics.
Tactic #11. Majority Illusion
“We all know [x] is true (so I don’t need to show any evidence).”
Example: any item an accusation is made on social media, then repeated virally by thousands of people before evidence is presented, or before the accused can respond.
Tactic #12: Gender-baiting
If someone is a woman and thinks you’re a man, they’ll use misandry (hatred of men). “[Person X] is a dude and therefore a stalker. I’m sexually rejecting them and that’s the real reason why they dare to disagree with me.” If you’re calm, it’s because you’re one of those creepy “Nice Guys”. If you show any emotion, you’re an “abuser”.
If someone is a man and thinks you’re a woman, they’ll use misogny (hatred of women). “[Person X] is a girl and therefore a neurotic weakling. I’m more rational and reasonable them and that’s the real reason why they’re hyserically disagreeing with me.” If you show any emotion, you’re patronised for being “very passionate”. If you’re calm, you’re “frigid” and likely just need to “smile more” or “be nicer”.
Tactic #13: Victim-blaming
If someone notices a problem, reverse roles and blame the victim for the problem.
Yes, you’re right — this is related to tactic #1.
Examples: Anyone who legitimately mentions racism (in science fiction, for example) is blamed for being “a ‘race-baiter'”, or having a secret “political agenda”.
Notice that “baiting” is the use of exaggeration. Someone who wants to dismiss this post in the comments section could use any of the tactics above as a form of “baiting”. They would then proceed to distort, distract, conflate, minimise or fabricate with a wall of text in order to confuse readers and score cheap points. Entire groups of Reddit (and Twitter) users thrive on that type of “baiting” behaviour, although it’s only clever if you fall for it. Now that you’ve seen what these tactics are and how they work, hopefully you won’t fall for them so easily.
Tactic #14. Reversed Burden of Proof
Someone advances a claim without evidence. When questioned, the person who advanced the claim tells everyone else to do the research to prove or disprove the claim. This allows conspiracy theorists and other peddlers of misinformation to thrive by crowding a given space with unfounded claims that often have no basis in demonstrable/provable fact.
— Added 30 September 2018 —
Tactic #15. Refusal to Argue Endlessly is Admission of “Defeat”
One person advances an argument — usually some sort of accusation against another. The other may make some good-faith effort to address the arguments’ points and refute them. The accuser, however, is operating in bad faith and drags the argument into petty bickering and character assassination. When the accused realises this and decides not to waste further effort in bad-faith arguing, the accuser declares “victory” and gloats the accused is silent because they are “guilty” (or “weak”, unable to refute the claims and therefore a “loser”, etc.).
– Accuser [A]: Here’s evidence that you did this thing!
– Accused [B]: That’s not “evidence” at all. This is what I was doing (insert explanation of relevant facts and context).
– A: Yes it is! It’s evidence because I said so!
– B: No it’s not. Because you weren’t even there. Besides, [insert logic, evidence and context here.]
– A: You must be deranged! I’m not going to read all that! The fact that you wrote so much means you must be making things up! [Insert any of the tactics from 1 to 14 here, or several at the same time]
– B: Okay. I’m not going to waste my life arguing with you, keyboard warrior.
– A: Ha! Just as I thought! You’re guilty, weak, and a loser! I win! I win! I win! Ha!
– B: *sigh* (Thinking silently: nope… and you’re just an idiot who desperately needs a hobby.)
P.S. The gang calling itself the “(Twitter) Artist Community” attack against the AltSciFi zine project even went so far as a libelious/slanderous DMCA takedown request. The request was filed by a makeup artist, regurgitating the same bilious garbage circulated across social media, at the instigation of the same “(Twitter) Artist Community” social-media con artist who started the attack. This makes the case of AltSciFi a perfect example of how copyright trolling works. You can read more about that here (click here). Unfortunately for that makeup artist, the legally binding nature of DMCA requests puts her in legal jeopardy for making false claims (i.e. libel). Bad idea.