Messing With The Enemy

Over the past couple of years I've slowly backed away from social media. Most of my accounts are gone now. Facebook is really the only thing I have left. I'd love to ditch it too, but I do find some value for specific things. I tend to go in to get what I need (mainly event notifications and details) and get back out. Scrolling the feed is avoided.

After reading Messing with the Enemy by Clint Watts over the holidays, I have to question whether I want to stay in the social media world at all. I've viewed Facebook as a necessary evil. Now I wonder how necessary it really is for me.

Watts gives a historical view of how social media in general has been leveraged by those wishing to cause harm, be it through recruiting to terrorist organizations, distributing misinformation, encouraging divisiveness, or promoting hatred. We've probably all heard about social media being infiltrated by Russian hackers and trolls, particularly since the 2016 elections. The extent of the problem is greater than I realized.

It's not just that systems are being hacked. That's “old hat,” as Watts says. Hacking to influence people is the real game these days. Who and what can you trust anymore? It's exactly that uncertainty that mind hackers are after. Watts states, “...nothing can be trusted, and if you can't trust anyone, then you'll believe anything.”

What has me concerned more so than the legions of hackers, bots, trolls, and the like is how social media platforms tend to create tribes that latch onto belief systems that are all too often based on the various bits of misinformation and divisive rhetoric that we are constantly bombarded with on these platforms. Watts refers to these as “preference bubbles.” People end up being herded into bubbles of like-minded people where their preferred views are hardened, whether based in fact or not. This is large scale confirmation bias, affirmed by equally biased peers in massive social media networks. Viewpoints and facts that contradict the bubble are met with hostility.

Can we survive in today's online world? Sure, but it's not easy. Watts offers some helpful advice to close out this sobering book. Healthy skepticism and fact checking comes in to play here and unfortunately too many people just aren't willing to do it. The sheer volume of information and misinformation we are subjected to daily in social media is staggering and the allure of a preferred belief system is powerful when it is reinforced so easily in social media.

This is a quick and engaging read. Definitely worth your time and it will get you away from the social media screens for a while if nothing else.