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The Weaponization of Language

Just a quick note to help people, particularly the Media in the United States, to better understand what it means when language is weaponized—and especially what it means in the context of connected digital communication networks. While these techniques have been refined over many years in Russia and the former Soviet Union, they are somewhat new to mainstream American politics. This is not to say that these techniques haven’t been used over the years, but generally they’re employed around the edges. It hasn’t been possible, until recently, to move them to the center of a political communication strategy.

Certain tools are designed as weapons, for example: guns, knives, clubs, brass knuckles, bombs, poison gas. Each of these tools is specially constructed to inflict a certain kind of harm on its target. Now here’s another list of tools: a cast-iron frying pan, a fireplace poker, a baseball bat, a car, a brick, and an electrical current. Each of these tools has a proper use—a set of uses that humans understand through habit. All of these non-weapons have been used to commit murder in some mystery novel. Part of solving the mystery involves a detective envisioning an ordinary tool expressing its potential as a deadly weapon.

When language is used as a weapon—it’s deployed to inflict the maximum possible damage. The usual response to language used in this way is to say that it is neither true nor proper. While this may be a reasonable approach to language used to communicate, it has no effect on language when used as a weapon. It’s the equivalent of saying that the blow inflicted by a frying pan to the head of the victim was not a proper use of frying pans.

Much of the effectiveness of advertising is due to the frequency with which it is broadcast. If you see or hear an ad ten times a day for three months, it’s likely you will remember it for the rest of your life. Most of us can recite ad copy we heard in our childhood even when the product has long since disappeared from the shelves. To maximize the effectiveness of weaponized language, it must have high frequency. In political campaigns this is usually accomplished through producing negative attack ads and buying lots of radio and television time.

In the age of cable news and connected digital social networks, another strategy is possible. An attack is constructed that will harm the target using metaphors, statements and images. In itself, this isn’t enough to assure the attack will be retweeted frequently and universally (by all sides) throughout cable news, newspapers and social media networks. Two elements must be added to the attack, the first is that it should be demonstrably false. This will cause many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack, and then explain why it is false. If the attack is on the veracity of the media itself, many will discount the explanation. The second added ingredient is that the attack must break with ordinary decorum, it must cross a moral line. This causes many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack and explain why it is immoral. Each of these media responses is the equivalent of decrying the improper use of a frying pan in committing an assault.

The media becomes complicit in the attack because it serves as the force multiplier that maximizes the harm. That’s how “playing the media” works. And as the media chases its tail on obviously false sensational headlines, it loses its credibility on the serious investigations it’s doing. When a President has immunity through Republican majority in Congress, a free press is needed more than ever. The attacks on the media have escalated and the media seems blind to its own role in amplifying the harm that is done.

Where’s Twitter’s Aksimet?

Why doesn't Twitter have something like WordPress's Akismet? Akismet is a plugin that filters spam by combining information about spam captured on all participating sites. It uses that information to generate rules to block future spam. I know that bad actors can easily create new Twitter accounts, but should also be easy for a large group of people to tag them in real time.

And I'd imagine if you can create an algorithm that can predict what you'd like to buy, surely an algorithm could be created to identify both hate speech and the speaker based on a few online real-time gestures. Identifying these storms of attacks, like the ones against Leslie Jones, is not too different from identifying the events that Twitter wants to sell advertising against.

Twitter valued being unfiltered at a certain point, but now the stream is quite polluted.


Uploading Knowledge

Every once in a while I hear that some “scientist” is working on a method to upload knowledge to the human brain. Ideally this would work like it did in the film “The Matrix.” A person needs to learn some sort of skill or master some area of knowledge, and rather than putting in hours of study and dedication. They upload the knowledge needed in a matter of seconds. Mastery is instant.

I wonder if knowledge is uploaded or downloaded? I suppose it depends on where you're standing.

What would knowledge have to be in order for it to be capable of being uploaded? What would a brain have to be in order to accept knowledge using this method?

In practice, if some process like this were ever to be created, it would look more like something by Philip K. Dick. Rather than uploading skills that increase a person's capability in the future, the market for downloading pleasant memories of a luxurious vacation to Mars would dominate.

Assuming you could lower the price sufficiently, everyone would upload everything. Why wouldn't they? “We can remember it for you wholesale.”

Of course, knowledge isn't like that. It's not uploadable. And brains aren't like that. They aren't computer hard disks.


Monetizing the Backchannel

One of the best uses for enterprise instant messaging apps is to engage in a backchannel conversation while engaged in a tedious conference call. It's an excellent stage for comedy. Talking back to the screen has a long and entertaining history.

Social media, when it's not just a curated newsfeed, is a backchannel. It's a hallway conversation that comments about what's going on. Slipping advertisements into a newsfeed is what television and radio have been doing all along. It's what newspapers do. No one has really successfully monetized the backchannel.

The various social media provide backchannel tools. When a presidential election debate is on television, the backchannel is sometimes the most amusing way to watch it. The jokes are quick, in real time, and sometimes really provide the best insights into what's going on. The regular news media generally waits until the event is over before weighing in with their official analysis. But during the show, they've got their own backchannel going.

We're not really meant to see the backchannel. It's a private joke, just between us. When an attempt is made to foreground the backchannel and monetize it through advertising or some other data sale, the backchannel creates another backchannel to comment on what just happened.

The backchannel must constantly step out of the light in order to provide the proper cover for the kind of conversations it hosts. The best hope of those trying to monetize the backchannel is to create a front channel and call it a backchannel.

Of course, the best place to learn about those kind of efforts is on the backchannel–that's where you'll hear the best jokes about them…


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