This year, millions of people have found themselves sitting in both awe and terror, entirely bewildered by the views they’ve discovered others have embraced. It is easy to question why people hold beliefs that make us purse our lips and raise our brows, but the simple answers, “They’re crazy,” “They’re stupid,” “They’re evil,” simply aren’t very good explanations when speaking about hundreds of thousands or millions of people. In the common maxim attributed to H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” and reflexively designating malintent, low intelligence, or mental disorder as a primary basis of explanation for the existence of any belief system one might deem beyond the pale is certainly clear, certainly simple, and probably wrong.
When looking at the impacts of extremist movements and emergent collectives online, such as QAnon, Right Wing Militias, Accelerationists, and Left-Wing Splinter Groups, it’s important to recognize that common assumptions about them may be illusory. The stories carried within digital discourse are dynamic and subject to change over time both on public and private channels, and there may be both accidental and purposeful blur between what the members of those groups think is real, hypothesized, exaggerated, or a joke—a blur between reality and performance sometimes referred to as kayfabe, a concept which will require a bit of groundwork in order to be addressed properly.
The origins of radical ideas
Sociotechnical systems like social media are complex, and within every narrative thriving inside them are a myriad of actors playing a variety of roles at different stages of its life cycle. To assign one explanation to all of those who hold a belief is to resign oneself from ever having a chance to understand the belief’s origin, evolution, spread, and plausibility, because no idea is an island, and no belief system is composed of a single personality. In researching the origins of these chimerical ideas—conspiratorial webs of blurred truth and falsehood, both in the mainstream and on the fringes—one of the most important areas is the scaffolding. At some point, somebody did work putting together the necessary structures upon which others would be inspired to add—this material didn’t appear out of nowhere—but the question is, why did the creators do this work? Careful observation may indicate that some of the actors playing a role in the evolution of these ideas didn’t believe in them at all.
The first thought that comes to mind for some professionals is likely the foreign state actor—however, state actors have significant cultural barriers to overcome in attempting to co-construct and develop ideas abroad. It’s not that they can’t be successful—it’s just difficult and highly unreliable, which is the reason nations that prioritize narrative warfare have generally moved toward “water on a stone” and systems-oriented doctrine. The idea isn’t to expect any single deployment to be effective. Instead the focus is placed on many attempts at amplification and placement of information paired with disruption and escalation. There are other types of actors who are much better positioned to create rather than adjust, and one of these types of actors is simply playing a game—a game with serious consequences.
A necessary primer
First, a necessary primer: there is a concept called “serious games” that has shown up in academic, military, and systems engineering literature from time to time, with shifting definitions from the time of its inception to today. In short, the study of serious games is the study of game-like frameworks and systems that have impacts or purposes other than entertainment—and unfortunately this field has generally received limited attention and poor reception. Part of this poor reception is shared with the mathematical field of “game theory,” where the uninitiated layman might have preconceptions about the term game, preventing them from taking the study seriously despite its importance and impact. Ironically, the study of serious games has been taken even less seriously. Where game theory has the benefit of being an integral part of the mathematics community and being associated with mathematical formulas and frameworks, the study of serious games is often accompanied by actual games. The concept has nonetheless had some popular impact: those who have heard the terms “gamify” or gamification have interacted with concepts from this area of study.
Sometimes games are designed to be entertaining while providing meaningful impacts. For instance, a project undertaken by MMOS (Massively Multiplayer Online Science, an organization which helps tie scientific research to gaming experiences) introduced into the already existing MMO space game Eve Online a minigame that has players hunt for exoplanets for personal gain in a fictional universe, using and creating data that could be used to find real exoplanets. In other cases, games are designed solely for entertainment. Meaningful impacts might emerge still, as was the case with World of Warcraft teaching many of its players about economics and accounting, as well as human resources and organization management practice, as they attempted to coordinate and plan with dozens of other players in order to handle the game’s most difficult content.
A blur between games and real life
What these two games have in common, however, is that even when role-play occurred, it was impossible to be unaware of the fact that a game was being played. All activity was inside of a virtual frame, inside an application that displayed a virtual world (the game itself), and whenever role-play occurred outside of this frame, it was still tied to digital avatars players use to interface with that virtual world. In some games however, this line is not so clear. Consider the game Ingress, created by Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go. Ingress was not just played online as it was an augmented reality (AR) game, where a smartphone layered images onto the real world. Players chose one of two factions, each of which vied for control over “portals.” These portals were, according to the game’s lore, entry points for something called “exotic matter,” which was said to affect human cognition. Players acted as “agents” working for their faction in coordination with other players to control portals for noble and storied reasons.
Players often began to roleplay as agents and to take actions that certainly weren’t part of the affordances that Niantic offered. This included the adoption of intelligence and counterintelligence practices, threats and intimidation, surveillance of other agents, and cyberattacks. Players began to map the game’s lore to the real world. For instance, players discovered that the fictional intelligence organization, the NIA, said to have been involved in the discovery of the portals, was actually a real organization. The US NIA was replaced by the US National Security Council in the 1940s, but players found patterns in declassified documents and matched dates to suggest that this was actually a “hidden” agency that had never been shuttered. Further, “exotic matter” is actually a real phenomenon and, while the game was at its peak, scientists succeeded in detecting and creating it. For many of the players involved, linking these events in the real world to the game was just part of the role-play, but for many, that line began to blur. Some players began to suggest that the portals represented in-game were actually real, that they could feel their effects, and that the game was built by intelligence agencies to direct people to do the work to ensure the portals were used for good or destroyed before others could use them for evil. Trying to sort out what people actually believed versus what was just part of the role-play is now very difficult.
This is not a unique phenomenon. With the amount of information online, it is nearly always possible to find patterns that support arguments, and eventually the line between role-play and reality blurs. There’s a word for this blur: “kayfabe,” which was originally used to refer to the stage performances of wrestlers and the drama that unfolded in and outside of the ring. It’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not when the performance isn’t constrained to the stage and when it incorporates ongoing events in the real world—and even more difficult when there’s no stage at all. Here, another example of a serious game emerges: a game that is emergent, has no clear boundaries on its environment, and has not yet received a specific definition. It’s a game in which players lock on to a specific theme and then work to discover relatively reliable information to form patterns that support or reinforce that theme. The themes can be silly and inconsequential, or they can be serious: “there is an international cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles which infest our academic, cultural, and governmental institutions.” It’s something of a collaborative and improvisational puzzle game, and it falls into the same category as Cadavre Exquis and PPPiP (Partner Pen Play in Parallel)—game-like frameworks in which “players” co-construct art, narrative, and story by adding pieces to the work of others, sometimes in parallel. The closest match to this cooperative co-construction of narratives online is found in systems derived from the fictional Glass Bead Game in the book of the same name by Herman Hesse, in which players attempt to form meaningful connections between otherwise unrelated concepts and topics.
Even in the case when the theme is ridiculous by any standard, such as thinking “Finland Isn’t Real,” Kayfabe can blur what is real for those who are not in on the joke, and in some cases, even those who are in on the joke can begin to question whether or not it is a joke. The text-based nature of internet communication only deepens the confusion, as text lacks tone and inflection. Further, the fact that these games are often played with strangers further subverts the norms necessary to distinguish sarcasm or role-play from serious expressions. “Finland Isn’t Real” is not hyperbole. It is a very real (or parody of a very real) conspiracy theory about the fabrication of a country and landmass for the sake of preventing competition over fishing rights. The creator has stated it was a joke and yet, after its spread, wasn’t sure anymore that it was being interpreted as such. It gained a life of its own with people forming fairly convincing arguments—players are rewarded with attention, and the patterns they find that can’t be easily dismissed get added to the collective story. The emergent, Glass Bead-like mechanisms within have been framed as a set of game mechanics on more than one occasion.
The Proud Boys: A case study
While the spread of “Finland Isn’t Real” certainly exceeded expectations, it never impacted national narratives. Study of narrative warfare would suggest that this is because it failed to channel preexisting resentments, hostilities, tribalism, and fears, but others have. For example, the Proud Boys arguably started as a joke, but few people considered them as such when then-US president Donald Trump asked them to “stand back and standby.” The Proud Boys allowed for a creative co-construction of a parody of a men’s club built out of mechanisms intended to facilitate the development of masculinity in opposition to what was perceived to be the destruction of Western culture.
Much like “Finland Isn’t Real,” this creative co-construction began with more obvious parody and Kayfabe acting. The founder, Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice, is an excellent example of a Kayfabe actor; he was well known as a provocateur prior to the founding of the Proud Boys, with a number of public figures stating that there was a consistent blurriness to what he was joking about and what he was serious about—a reason for which Vice sought to distance itself from him.
Gavin’s footprint is obvious in the Proud Boys’ initiation rites, which include an initiate being beaten by five men until they can name five breakfast cereals. However, the obvious parody begins to blur further after coverage of a series of violent encounters resulted in the leaders claiming they were intentionally misrepresented, generating a narrative renaissance within the organization that increasingly attracted violent members and created an impetus to action that eventually transformed it into something that McInnes himself and others felt compelled to leave. The Proud Boys took on a life of its own, with many splinter groups and chapters continuing to co-create a narrative about the West and its enemies—the ideas that fit the narrative got pushed to the top, and the ideas that didn’t, got left behind. Mainstream organizations and platforms have now blurred the story further; McInnes has since been repeatedly deplatformed, and his explanations of the founding of the Proud Boys and his early appearances speaking about it have now mostly been taken down, censored, or put into supercuts removed from their original context.
Future handling of emergent collectives
The truth is that this blur is deeply discomforting—humans are naturally uncomfortable with the sense of not knowing. When reducing the complexity of the environment is difficult, the brain tends to reduce the complexity of the strategy used to make sense of it. People want to put these “groups,” such as QAnon, into the same box as more clearly defined organizations like the KKK or ecoterrorist groups. People crave objective and unambiguous claims such as:
- This is who they are.
- This is what they believe.
- This is what they want.
- This is who their leaders are.
- This is their origin story.
However, getting used to the discomfort of not knowing and being cautious about accepting craved, unambiguous explanations are necessary to avoid the risk of blurring the space further through oversimplification—after all, the people in these groups are not the only ones provided with multiple incentives for advancing popular narratives.
Further, these groups won’t be the last of their kind, as the GameStop swarm event, January 6, and ongoing mayhem in Portland have demonstrated, emergent collectives online, extreme or not, will likely have as much of a role in defining the twenty-first century as nation-states, and, this being the case, there are actions and strategies that could be taken and implemented now to avoid being caught off guard by their materialization in the future:
- Talking about and researching conspiracy theories and radical narratives as a subset of more general, benign psychological phenomena can improve understanding of the space, avoid escalating tensions, and inform the creation of tools that help to maintain cognitive security.
- More than 60 percent of Western adults use social media as a primary source of news. It’s time to fund the development of new tools for navigating the information environment online to provide alternatives which optimize for metrics other than dwell time and moderate emotional engagement rather than incentivize it.
- Research on attitudinal change suggests that being aware of one’s own narrative is a basis for changing it. Tools that help monitor and aggregate flow and change of digital narratives may help moderate their impacts, especially if stakeholders in those narratives are allowed to contribute.
- Funding nonpartisan, interdisciplinary research on memetics (spread and adaptation of cultural artifacts), narrative, and serious games might help codify sometimes obscure topics and allow better monitoring and aggregation of influence online. Using a serious games approach to frame the underlying incentive structures behind the digital spread of narrative and co-construction of story and art could help enable monitoring and predicting radical shifts online and help prevent missteps in handling them.
Digital narratives cannot be censored out of existence. It would be like hitting mold with a hammer: fact-checking has been mostly ineffective at cooling tempers, and shaming or exiling believers often just drives individuals further into radical communities by creating both a common vacuum for community and a common object to bond over. Even if they could be removed entirely, doing so might be unwise. In all disruptive digital narratives there is a blur of truth, art, exaggeration, parody, and risk. This is the risk that comes with having a free society—or perhaps a risk that defines it. Nietzsche once wrote, “A superstitious society is one in which there are many individuals and more delight in individuality,” but inaction is not an option. It is past time to improve the ability to monitor, impact, and discuss the spread of narratives online.
We all can lead. Positive “change agents” — individuals willing to work across sectors and nations to help illuminate better ways through the shared turbulence we are experiencing — are needed now more than ever.
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