Tag: <span>Social Media</span>

A Cautionary Tale

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I forget when Mark first told me about Becky. (All names have been changed for reasons which will shortly become obvious.) They met at work, I know that much. Mark didn’t have many friends, and he definitely didn’t have many, or perhaps even any, female friends, so Becky appeared to be a positive development.

It was early summer or maybe late spring of last year when Mark said that Becky was moving in with him. I was told that it was completely platonic, and she had a boyfriend. (I later found out that his name was David.) At the time I had no reason to doubt the platonic part, or the boyfriend part. Though the arrangement still struck me as being a little bit weird. The story was that she wanted to sell her home while the market was hot, and consequently she needed a place to stay. Mark’s house isn’t very large, two bedrooms, one bath, definitely less than a thousand square feet, so it was going to be tight, but I was told it was just temporary, while she waited for her boyfriend to finish a job in Canada.

As the months passed I heard rumblings that whatever the boyfriend was doing in Canada was taking longer and costing more than it should have, and, as a result, he was delayed. This annoyed Mark, because it prolonged the inconvenience, but otherwise things seemed to be okay. Over the last few weeks I got the feeling that tensions were starting to simmer but I assumed it was related to the stress of trying to cram two adults and two households worth of stuff into too little space. But supposedly it would all be over soon. Becky had sent her boyfriend some money to finish off the last of the job, and it would all be wrapped up any day now. 

The true nature of the situation was finally revealed to me last week. Mark approached me asking for advice, but what he really needed was money. The story he told me appeared plausible at first glance. The boyfriend had contracted with Suncor Energy to build an oil rig, and in between the pandemic and the subsequent supply chain issues, he was over-budget, and out of money, but if he could just finish the job he would get paid the remainder of his fees and he could make everyone whole. And all it would take to finish the job was $15,000 so he could purchase one final diesel generator. Mark came to me because it was urgent, David was being sued, and was facing jail time. 

I immediately questioned the idea of jail time for a civil matter, but when Mark assured me that he had looked it up, I let the matter drop. It’s very common for people to offload their critical thinking to other people. No one has the time to critically examine every piece of information. This is why doctors, lawyers, scientists and republican governments exist. And I assumed that Mark had already done significant due diligence, particularly when he mentioned that he had given David (via Becky) a considerable sum of his own money. So while a couple of warning lights were active, my entire dashboard wasn’t lit up, at least not yet. Fortunately those couple of warning lights were more than sufficient to keep me from handing over any money without documentation. But, honestly, I kind of expected it would be a formality. 

In response they sent me this:

And this:

Okay… apparently it wasn’t a formality, apparently we have some very lazy scammers on our hands. The letter has all kinds of typos, and what on Earth is “Please accept our congratulations” doing in there? As far as the second document, I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to represent. Also I have had the unfortunate experience of being sued and nothing about the process ever amounted to a single page.

Still there was part of me that resisted the obvious conclusion because if I was right, and I had stumbled onto the last stages of an advance-fee scam, it meant that my friend Mark, and his friend Becky were out a LOT of money. Even with changing the name, “Mark” would rather I didn’t reveal how much money it was, but between the two of them it was well into the six figures. Also I was under the impression that David and Becky had met before he went to Canada, which didn’t seem to fit the fraud narrative. I later found out that they had in fact met on the internet. Which cast everything in a completely different light.

It was in fact a tragedy of colossal proportions. Becky was retired, and on social security. She had already sent “David” and his “attorney” all of the proceeds from the sale of her house, plus every last dime she could beg, borrow, or steal. Which is how she ended up convincing Mark to do something similar, including taking out a HELOC on his house, which, previous to this, had been paid off. 

I resisted immediately saying it was a scam, and instead took the tack with Mark and Becky that if David really was being sued they ought to be able to bury me in documents. Just the initial complaint ought to be 20+ pages. Becky said she would see what she could do, but she really needed the money that very day. David and his lawyer were desperate, and kept calling her. No problem, I told her, have them call me. In response I was texted the attorney’s name, Brandon, and number, 813-551-1668 along with the caution that he had an accent.

I tried calling the number. It rang, and rang and rang, never even going to voicemail. I finally hung up. A few minutes later the “attorney” called me back. His number came in as “Scam Likely” and from the second I got on the phone whatever hopes or doubts I had vanished. Just from the way he answered the phone I knew this was no attorney, and yes there was an accent. I didn’t talk to him long enough that I could place it, but it wasn’t the accent of a native English speaker (Becky claimed he was British). He may have mentioned diesel generators, but I immediately asked for his last name so I could look him up on the internet. There was silence on the other end of the line. I asked him again more forcefully. He hung up. The following text conversation ensued:

I forwarded that to Mark. I’m not sure how much he told Becky, but she promised she would get me more documents, but that David and his lawyer were super busy in court, and that’s why they couldn’t send me stuff…

In the end I got three more documents:

There’s lots that could be said about these documents, but my point is not to dive into the minutia of the scam. Though I did find it interesting that all the “court” documents, despite only being a single page in length, always make sure to mention that the money is just out there waiting to be paid the minute the job is finished. 

Also while I couldn’t find anything on the internet about the people or the case or the job (which is to be expected) Paul-Jean Charest, the signer of the last document, is an actual employee of the Cour du Québec, and I located his email. I sent him the document and asked him if it had been issued by his office. I wasn’t sure if he’d respond. Having your email on the internet probably attracts a lot of spam, but he did, the next day with an emphatic “No”. He wanted my number so he could call and talk to me. He has yet to do that, but perhaps I’ll call him at some point. I haven’t done so already because I’m very doubtful he’ll be able to do anything to help.

Given the disaster it represents it’s not surprising that Mark was somewhat resistant to completely giving up hope, but the email from Monsieur Charest was the final nail in the coffin. Becky unfortunately still believes. This is the last text message I got from her:

I don’t share this message to in any way mock Becky, but as a further illustration of the tragedy, and as bad as this tragedy is, as you might imagine, there’s more to come. There’s the obvious point at which Becky realizes it’s a scam, that she never had a boyfriend, only a very wicked person pretending to love her so he could take all of her money and then some. And what is Mark to do about Becky? She’s living at his house and now doesn’t have any money with which to move out. I’m not sure her SSI would even get her an apartment (particularly given that she has a dog.) So the story will continue, but we’ve reached the end of it for now.

Is this one of those stories that ends with a moral? One would hope so. I’d like to think there’s some lesson we can gain from the disaster. Some small benefit we can pluck from the carnage.

And one that goes beyond just “There are bad people out there doing bad things. Watch out!” I’m aware that this is an N=1 situation (or maybe N=3 if you count Mark, Becky and myself) so to the extent there is a moral, it’s based on one anecdote, not extensive data, but hopefully it will carry some utility regardless. With that caveat in place here’s a few things that stand out to me.

I’d obviously like to talk to Becky and get more of the details on how things began. How long before “David” asked for money. One of the documents mentions 2019, and I think they said it had been going on four years at some point, but obviously the pandemic and the supply chain issues were huge gifts to the scammers. Suddenly whatever they claimed as far as delays and cost overruns made perfect sense. 

But even without the gift of the pandemic, the narrative and story behind this particular advance fee scheme strikes me as being far more sophisticated and believable than the ones I’ve heard about in the past — the traditional Nigerian Prince scam, and the one’s which just claim that there’s a huge amount of money locked up in an account. Those traditional schemes seemed so ridiculous on their face that you could imagine that only greedy people would fall for them. Such that we might comfort ourselves by saying that they got what they deserved. This scheme wasn’t driven by greed, but by love. At no time did Becky ever offer me double my money back, or something like that. It was always “Help my boyfriend and I’ll promise to pay you back. Even if I have to do it myself.” That said, I’m sure the romance angle isn’t new, still it seems more pernicious, and also easier to pull off now that online dating is far more common. 

Speaking of which, is this scam easier to pull off in general these days than it was in the past? The documents she sent look reasonably authentic. It’s mostly only the content (or lack thereof) that is suspicious. They have watermarks, logos and stamps. Obviously the technology required for this level of fakery has been around for a couple of decades, but what about new technology? How long before ChatGPT or something similar could have given me the 20+ page complaint I expected? Or craft a believable news story with pictures? Headline: “Provo business man secures lucrative $17.5 million dollar contract.” Perhaps the resources available to detect such scams is also greater? Maybe so, but Becky would have had to choose to avail herself of those resources. Or even know they exist.

A quick internet search would seem to indicate that such scams are in fact on the rise. Here’s a headline from CNBC: Consumers lost $5.8 billion to fraud last year — up 70% over 2020. A 70% year over year increase is huge. Also of note, the article reveals that the average amount lost to an imposter scam is $1000, so Mark and Becky are giant outliers in the amount they lost. 

If we allow ourselves to get even more speculative, I have to wonder if there’s something about the modern world that made Mark particularly vulnerable. Some background: he had a career in tech, but it got derailed by the dot-com bust. I’m sure he could have resurrected it if he’d worked hard enough, but instead he drifted into a series of service sector jobs. This was mostly fine. Being single he didn’t need much money, and up until he got enmeshed in this scam he was doing pretty well. His house was paid off, and he had enough money to avail himself of all the comforts of modernity (streaming services, eating out, pursuing his hobbies) and have a surplus on top of that. In other words, Mark didn’t fall prey to the scam because he was bad with money. He was great at living within his means. So how did this particular scam end up being his Achilles heel?

As I said we’re in more speculative territory. I think having few friends and fewer family contributed. Mark’s parents are both dead. He cut off his brother for being a conspiracy-obsessed Trump supporter, and his remaining sibling, a sister, lives out of state, nor are they very close. One imagines that if Mark hadn’t been so atomized, if he had had a large community, that it would have helped. Though perhaps I’m wrong about that. Mormons are famous for having strong communities, and also for their susceptibility to affinity scams. Maybe Mark had precisely the wrong amount of community, enough to be snared by Becky, but not enough that anyone cautioned him. 

What about marriage? If he had been married to Becky, or married, period, it wouldn’t have happened. Instead he ended up deep in white knight mode, another thing modernity seems to have made far more common. This first started when he agreed to let Becky move in, but it then progressed to the point that he gave her all his money. One also detects something of Richard Hanania’s Women’s Tears observation, and by Mark’s report there were a lot of tears shed. 

If anyone out there has any ideas for recovering the money I’m all ears. But I’m guessing it’s gone, and shortly “David” and the “attorney” will disappear as well. Leaving only a wound that will haunt Mark and Becky for the rest of their lives.


It doesn’t feel like the time for jokes, but it does feel like a time where it might be appropriate to ask for money. I am helping Mark out somewhat, but if anyone also feels like helping, I will take any pledges which come in over the next couple of weeks and give them entirely to Mark, for the duration of that pledge. (So if you sign up for $3/month on patreon, I’ll make sure Mark get’s $3 every month as long as it lasts.) 


Nassar, Uvalde, and the Decline of Responsibility

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As part of my summer of experimentation (really just the summer when I’m super busy) I thought I’d try a more meditative post. Which is to say a post where I’m thinking out loud and I’m not exactly sure where things are going to end up. 

Even more than three weeks out it’s hard to not still be thinking of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And similar to what I said in my recent newsletter where I mentioned abortion. I don’t think I have any particular insight into what we should be doing that we’re not. Fortunately or unfortunately—I’m not exactly sure which—it appears that the debate over solutions for these sorts of shootings has been eclipsed by horror at how long the police took to storm the room. And each time we receive additional details, the behavior of the police, or at least the commander on the scene, just looks worse and worse. 

Of course this horror also comes down to a list of recommendations for what we should do differently in the future. Though in this case all of the experts had already recommended something, and it was even a recommendation that “both sides” agreed to. The police just failed to follow through on that recommendation.

Ever since Columbine the recommendation/doctrine has been for police to engage quickly, even at the risk of their own lives. This did not happen at Uvalde, and it’s clear that there were children and at least one teacher who died from their wounds who would have lived if they had gotten prompt medical attention. The teacher died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and three kids died after arriving at the hospital. In trauma care there’s the concept of the golden hour, that your chances of saving someone’s life are significantly higher if you can get them care within 60 minutes of the trauma occurring. This is particularly true for blood loss. I’m sure you see the connection given that the golden hour was also the same hour the police spent waiting outside the room. Once you take this into account, I’m guessing that four preventable deaths is the bare minimum, that it could have easily been two or three times that number. 

As shocked as I am by this unforgivable delay, it was another story that really inspired me to write this post. This is also a story of law enforcement behaving exactly the opposite from how we would expect, and while arguably the damage was not as great, the officials in this story had far longer to consider their actions. I came across the story in the June 10th daily news roundup put out by The Dispatch

In 2015, the FBI received reports that Larry Nassar was sexually abusing gymnasts in his role as team physician for USA Gymnastics and elsewhere. Instead of sharing this information with local law enforcement, FBI agents delayed victim interviews, fabricated witness statements, and later lied to investigators—one even tried to get a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee during his investigation, according to an inspector general report.

Between the 2015 reports and Nassar’s arrest more than a year later, he abused at least 70 girls and women, the inspector general investigation concluded. “People at the FBI had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year. “I’m deeply and profoundly sorry.”

But the Department of Justice has declined three times to pursue charges against agents involved in bungling the investigation, noting the third time that its decision did not “in any way reflect a view that the investigation of Nassar was handled as it should have been.”

Both of these stories make me sick to my stomach, and similar to the story of Uvalde, the Nassar story also has the quality that the more you know the worse it looks. This is the opposite of most stories, where the deeper you dig the more sympathy you develop for both sides. Here, the more I dig the less defensible the actions of the Uvalde police and the FBI agents appear.

I’ve uncovered many disturbing details in both stories—for example, while the lawsuit by the gymnasts focuses on the period starting in 2015, there’s evidence that Nassar started abusing Gymnasts as early as 1994! But amidst all these details, the bit that jumped out at me about both stories and the commonality I wanted to discuss in this post is both the lack of responsibility—No one is saying “I screwed up” emphasis on the “I”—and the lack of consequences.

What consequences should there be? Well, with Uvalde, I prefer to let the various investigations conclude before making any definitive statements. And it’s certainly too early to say that consequences have been lacking, though I strongly suspect that that will be how it ends up. However it’s not too early to talk about the Nassar situation.  I dug pretty deep and the only consequence I could uncover was that one FBI agent, Michael Langeman, had been fired over things, but not until September of 2021! The other agent who had been involved in things and who was, in fact, more senior, W. Jay Abbott, retired in 2018 (at 57, we should all be so lucky) and is apparently doing great on his government pension

Of course if I’m going to claim that all of the foregoing was bad, I should be prepared to put forth some alternatives, some suggestions for how things should have gone instead. And yes, I do have some ideas, but as I mentioned at the beginning I’m still thinking through this problem, I’m not ready to make any concrete recommendations. But let’s start the process by considering two things:

First, how is it that someone can say something dumb on social media and the whole world will rush to condemn them—for example, as I write this everyone is piling on James Patterson because he said that white men struggling to find writing jobs is “just another form of racism”—but do something awful like stand by as kids bleed out, or ignore a serial sexual predator, and you can largely remain entirely anonymous and continue with your life as if nothing happened. I’m sure that, from here on out, anytime someone talks about Patterson this assertion will get mentioned, up to and including his obituary, while the police officers and FBI agents will soon be forgotten.

I’m not advocating that everyone involved with Nassar and Uvalde should be tried and condemned on social media. In fact I’m reasonably certain that no one should be tried on social media. No, I’m more pointing out the strangeness of our priorities. To provide a different example consider the story of Justine Sacco. Sacco made an unfortunate joke about AIDS on Twitter just before boarding a flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” I’m sure most of my readers have heard this story and that many of you had heard the name, Justine Sacco, how many of you were familiar with the details of the FBI agents incompetence with Nassar? How many of you had heard the names of those agents? I assume far more of you are in the former camp than the latter.

Sacco’s life was ruined by that tweet. She was subjected to brutal online harassment, she lost her job, and for years afterwards she was unemployable. It was so bad that books have been written about it.  Hopefully it’s gotten better, but compare that to W. Jay Abbott, who’s comfortably retired, and even Michael Langeman kept his job for six years before finally being fired for his gross dereliction of duty. The disparity between these two crimes, (if Sacco’s tweet even rises to that level) and their punishments is so egregious that one feels they’re looking at two different realities, or perhaps reading two different novels, written by different authors and in completely different genres. 

To be fair, disparities in punishments were very common historically, but they generally involved wealth and class. The Uvalde police, and the FBI agents—despite Abbot’s comfortable retirement—are not wealthy, so then what class do they belong to that makes them largely immune from consequences?

I’ll get to that in a bit, but before I do, discussing the historical norms takes me to the second point I wanted to examine: How were these sorts of disasters handled in the past?

I have strong feelings about how they should be handled. I think the people in question should accept responsibility, admit that they failed, and resign. In addition to my strong feelings I also have a strong impression that this is how it used to work, but I haven’t been able to find a lot of hard data to back me up. (Perhaps because I’m not entirely clear what sort of data set would cover those events.) Despite this, my sense is that it used to be far more common, when something like Uvalde or Nassar happened, for people to resign, sometimes in disgrace but more often out of a sense of duty. In the latter case the idea was that preventing just this sort of event was so fundamental to their job that the fact that it happened meant that they were clearly unqualified to continue performing that job, and as such they resigned. Here, after spending a lot of time talking about consequences, we return to the question of responsibility. Resigning was an assumption of responsibility. Resigning didn’t mean that you were 100% responsible. As frustrating as the actions of the Uvalde police were, and as incompetent and craven as the FBI agents were, the shooter and Nassar still bear the vast majority of the responsibility. But surely there is some small percentage that should be assumed by law enforcement in these cases, given what we now know.

So then the question is, why don’t we do that anymore? Or if I’m wrong and such resignations never happened, even in the past (which I doubt, though perhaps I have an exaggerated impression of how common they were) we still have to answer the question: why couldn’t it happen now? Why doesn’t Pete Arredondo, (Are-re-don-doe) the commander on the scene at Uvalde resign? (Instead he was quietly sworn in to a position on the City Council.) Why didn’t anyone in the FBI resign? And to be clear, I’m not saying that if they did that it would make it all better. It might be appropriate for there to be additional consequences, but accepting responsibility and resigning would be a very good start.

But it doesn’t happen, and once again we’re reminded of the disproportionate nature of things. Currently, it seems comparatively easy to get people to resign over an ill chosen statement, but somehow it’s inconceivable that someone might resign because they have completely failed at their job. But job failure would seem to be precisely the kind of thing where resignation from that same job would be appropriate. So why doesn’t it happen? And does it give us any insight into the larger problem of law enforcement failure? As you might imagine I have some theories, so let’s go through them:

One obvious factor has to be legal liability. If you admit to any percentage of the overall responsibility then presumably that’s the percent of the damages you’re liable for. If the gymnasts suffered, collectively, $1 billion dollars in harm (which is actually what they’re seeking from the FBI) and by resigning you essentially admit to 1% of the responsibility, then that’s $10 million dollars. And it’s certainly possible that this is the whole of the explanation, that as claims for damages have increased both in frequency and amount that there is a vast disincentive towards anything that might appear to be an admission of guilt. Perhaps that’s all it is, and I should just end here. But I think there’s more going on, and it’s possible that increased litigiousness isn’t the disease, it’s just one more symptom of something deeper.

Obviously one of the great achievements of western democracy has been the concept and gradual solidification of “rule of law”. But of course as I just mentioned, it’s possible that we have gone too far, that we rely too much on defining what exactly is lawful and what exactly isn’t, which often involves lawsuits. One place where this over-reliance is most pronounced, to the point of it being a cliche, is within government bureaucracies, which is precisely where law enforcement sits. Now, you may argue that in both of the examples, the people in question weren’t following the law, but I don’t think that’s the case. The failure in Uvalde didn’t involve rule breaking, they ignored a guideline, but they were scrupulous about following rules, particularly the rule about obeying the chain of command. No officer decided to disobey Arredondo and go in regardless, and officers were equally rigorous about keeping parents away from the school. As far as the FBI situation, given the fact that the FBI has three times refused to prosecute the agents, presumably they didn’t break any obvious laws either, as far as rules, that seems less clear, but my guess is that the agents in question were exquisitely aware of where the law actually drew the line and they were very careful to never cross it. 

This all takes us back to a discussion of responsibility, and I think both of the foregoing points can be traced back to a decline in personal responsibility. And I know that the minute someone complains about something like this they get put in the “grumpy old man” category (which is indeed precisely what I am) but clearly this post has given two examples that are clear demonstrations of a deficit of personal responsibility, the question is whether this deficit is broader than that—if it’s something that’s endemic. I would claim that it is, though I don’t have the time to back up that claim. So, I’m kind of just tossing it out there, but before you dismiss it ask yourselves what incentives are currently in place to encourage responsibility? And what about the opposite, what incentives are there that have the effect of discouraging the acceptance of responsibility? I’ve already provided two examples in the latter category: litigiousness and bureaucracies.

To wrap things up I have two more thoughts, each of which is even more speculative, but despite that (or more likely because of it) I find them to be the most interesting of the factors I’ve discussed.

I have commented before about the current overemphasis on safety, nor am I the first to do so. It certainly was and continues to be a huge factor in our response to COVID, but was it also a factor in the two examples we’ve been discussing? I’m not sure it played a factor in the investigation (or lack thereof) of Nassar, though I could certainly imagine that one of the reasons the agents didn’t try very hard is that they were getting pushback from “entrenched interests” as they’re euphemistically known. And they tried to “play it safe”. This would go a long way to explaining Abbott’s attempt to secure a job with the Olympics. On the other hand, safetyism seems to have clearly played a role in Uvalde. Officer safety was the main reason given for the delay, and while I don’t want to discount that, I am once again of the strong opinion that it would not have been such a large concern had this happened in the past. I am convinced that there was a time, not that long ago, when there would have been officers who would have rather died trying to save those children, then lived with the guilt of standing outside the door for an hour while those children bled to death. Perhaps they still exist and were there, but decided to defer to Arredondo or other officers. If so I have a lot of sympathy for them, I can only imagine what sort of guilt they may be experiencing now.

Finally, there’s the closely related idea of heroes. There were no heroes in either of these stories, nor can I remember that last time someone doing something truly heroic ended up being big news. I assume that this dearth is related to a lot of things I’ve already discussed, but I wonder if it’s also related to the attention one receives for being heroic. There’s a theory that school shootings are all about the notoriety given to the shooter. That’s the reason troubled people commit these horrible acts, it will make them important even if it’s posthumously. Does that work the other way as well? Probably. I assume that someone might decide to do something heroic in a similar bid to feel important. So why did it not happen in my two examples? Why didn’t someone from the FBI, or heck why didn’t someone in all the time since 1994 stand up and make sure Nassar was arrested? And why, out of all the cops on the scene in Uvalde, didn’t one or a dozen step up and decide that they couldn’t wait any longer.

One would think that we would want the world to be set up in such a way that we encourage heroism. But clearly that’s not the case. I think all the things I’ve mentioned thus far serve to dissuade heroes, the chance of a lawsuit, the bureaucratic nature of the world, etc. And it’s possible that it’s even worse, that we have somehow twisted things so that the modern world is excellent at creating villains and awful at creating heroes. It’s easy to imagine this happening as a side effect of social media. If you’re interested in being infamous, then that’s easy to accomplish through social media, but being heroic on social media is a lot harder. If nothing else you have invited people to examine the rest of your life, and somewhere during all the time you spent not being a hero will be something people find objectionable, and you’ll go from being a hero to an object of scorn and ridicule at least for half the country. Beyond all the other things I’ve mentioned this system has to create a powerful disincentive for the average person who stumbles into a chance to be heroic.

I started this post, and the discussion of Nassar and Uvalde with the vague idea that there needed to be more consequences for members of law enforcement who dramatically failed in their duty, But is it possible the problem is the inverse of that? That the problem is not that villains don’t get punished, but rather that heroes don’t get rewarded.


From my perspective this is another late post. I don’t know if you’re keeping track or if you even care. But I do really try to get out four pieces a month. If you appreciate the guilt I feel when I’m not publishing as often as I think I should, or even if you’re just amused by it, consider donating


Is Social Media Making Unrest Worse?

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The other day I was talking with a friend of mine and he mentioned how crazy his Twitter feed was these days. According to him, it’s completely dominated by people yelling at each other. From the description, the Trump tornado is a big part of it, but it’s not just that. As he described it, he’s seeing a lot of left-on-left yelling as well.

I’m not really on Twitter much (though perhaps I should be.) But his description of things certainly mirrors my impression of the state of dialogue in the country. And of course it’s not just Twitter, it’s all over Facebook, and Youtube and essentially any place with comments or user-generated content.

Once we decide that this state of affairs deserves a closer examination, then, as is usually the case, we can approach it from several different perspectives. First we can decide that there’s nothing to worry about. That this is the same sort of factionalism which has always existed, and that it’s not even a particularly extreme example. People have, after all, been disagreeing with one another for as long as there have been people, and even the slightest amount of historical knowledge reveals times in our nation’s past when things were much, much worse. As examples of this, in my last post, I mentioned the social unrest of the late 60’s/early 70’s along with the enormous factionalism which preceded the Civil War. And these aren’t the only two examples in our nation’s short history. As it turns out, despite the rosy view we have of the country’s founders, things were a lot more acrimonious than as well. If you have studied the battles between the Republicans and Federalists, and specifically between Jefferson and Hamilton, it makes Clinton vs. Trump look like amateur hour.

In other words there is a reasonable case to be made that we’re over-reacting, that the nation has weathered worse division than this and survived. That however much hate and anger exist that it’s manageable and unlikely ever to tip over into large scale violence. And, as reasonable as this case is, I don’t see very many people advocating for it. Partially this is because some of us (myself included) are natural Chicken Littles and we want to believe that the sky is falling and that the political anger we’re seeing is something new and terrifying. And this makes us disinclined to be reasonable. This is a second perspective. The perspective of looming civil war.

But the Chicken Littles and the doom-mongers are the minority. Far more people aren’t focused on the divisions at all. They have a completely different way of looking at things, a third perspective to add to our list. From this perspective they’re not focused on the anger, and they’re not focused on the divisions because they’re creating the anger and divisiveness. And they know that their anger is a righteous anger, and that their divisions are only dividing the pure from the wicked.

From this perspective we’re experiencing extreme conditions, but they have nothing to do with not getting along, or with an impending civil war, and everything to do with Trump supporters and the alt-right and white nationalists clinging to their privileged status (or their guns and religion.) At least for some people. For some others, the problem is the pampered social justice warriors who can’t stand the fact that Trump won, and who especially can’t stand what that says about the world they thought they were living in. And who are, furthermore, unduly fixated on achieving justice for imagined crimes.

As I mentioned, both sides are angry, but from this perspective there’s pure anger and there’s wicked anger, and all the anger on your side is justified, and all the anger on the other side is an extreme overreaction.

For people operating under this third perspective, yes, the current level of hatred we’re seeing is alarming, but if we manage to get rid of Trump in 2020 or, if he’s just impeached or removed from office under the 25th amendment, then things will go back to normal. Alternatively if we just stop pampering these college kids then they’ll wake up and realize that they have pushed things too far, that society can’t be perfectly fair and that attempts to make it so only end up causing worse problems than the ones they hope to solve.

They share the perspective of the Chicken Littles in believing it’s bad, but, for them, this badness exists entirely on the other side. It’s all the fault of Trump, or Obama or Clinton, or the Globalists, or the rich or the immigrants, or any of a hundred other individuals and organizations. And if we could just get those people to see the light or to go away. Or in the most extreme cases, if we could just line them all up against the wall at the start of the glorious revolution and shoot them, then everything would be fine.

I’m skeptical about any explanation which lays all the blame on one side or the other. And even if it were true, getting rid of one side is only possible through something resembling the glorious revolution. Thus I’m inclined to dismiss the last perspective as being both naive and, even aside from it’s naivety, offering no practical prescription. The first perspective, that the current social unrest is no big deal, has a lot going for it. And that’s precisely what we should all hope is going on, but even if it is, there’s very little downside to trying to cool things down even if they’ll cool down on their own eventually. Which places us in a situation very familiar to readers of this blog: The wisest course of action is to prepare for the worst, even while you hope for the best. Meaning that even if I get branded as Chicken Little, I will still advocate for treating the current unrest seriously, and as something which has the potential to lead to something a lot worse.

If, as I have suggested, we prudently decide to act as if things are serious and conceivably getting worse, the next question becomes why are they getting worse? Of course, before we continue it should be pointed out that the other perspectives have their own answers to this question. They aren’t actually getting worse, in the case of the first, and in the case of the last, they are, but the culprits are obvious (though very different depending what side you’re on.) But I’ve staked out a position of saying that things are getting worse, and that no one group is an obvious scapegoat. Then, the question which immediately follows from this is why are things getting worse?

Having chosen to act as if the current unrest is historically significant, something with the potential to equal or even eclipse the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, we should be able to identify something which also equals or exceeds the past causes of unrest. During the Civil War it was slavery. During the late 60s/early 70s there was Vietnam and Civil Rights. Whatever the current rhetoric we don’t have anything close to the Vietnam War or the civil rights violation of 50 years ago, to say nothing of slavery. So if the injustice is objectively less severe, how do I get away with claiming that the unrest might get just as bad if not worse? All of this boils down to the question, what contributing factors exist today which didn’t exist back then? And here we return to my friend’s Twitter feed. Why is it so acrimonious?

You might start by assuming that the problem is with the users, or perhaps Twitter itself. But as I already mentioned this same sort of thing is also a problem on Facebook, and as far as the users, have people really changed that much in the last few decades? Probably not.

In my last post I mentioned a recent podcast from Dan Carlin. His primary topic was the unrest itself, and whether there was the potential for a new civil war. But he made another point which really struck me. Carlin, much like myself, is very interested in the comparing and contrasting the current unrest with the unrest during the late 60s/early 70s. And he brought up a key difference between now and then. Back then you could call in the presidents of the three major networks and suggest that they avoid covering certain stories or saying certain things on the nightly news, and if all three of them agreed (which they very well might) then with a single meeting you had some chance of influencing the narrative for the entire nation.

Obviously this is something of an oversimplification, but Carlin points out the undeniable difference between now and then. Even if you expanded that hypothetical meeting to include the top 500 people in media, getting everyone from the Roger Ailes (assuming he were still alive) to Mark Zuckerberg, and even if you could get all 500 people to agree on something your overall impact on what people saw and heard would be less than with those three people back in the Nixon era. Which is to say, when it comes to what people see and hear, the last election demonstrated that the media landscape, especially the social media landscape, is now vastly more complicated.

I admit up front, that it would be ridiculous to blame social media for all of the unrest, all of the hate, all of the rage and all of the factionalism we’re currently seeing. But it would be equally ridiculous to not discuss it at all, since it’s indisputably created an ideological environment vastly different than any which has existed previously.

Victor Hugo said, “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” (And I am aware that is a very loose translation of the original.) I agree with this, but is it possible that social media artificially advances the “arrival” of an idea? Gives ideas a heft and an urgency out of proportion to their actual importance?

To illustrate what I mean let’s imagine a tiny medieval village of say 150 people. And let’s imagine that one of the villagers comes to the conclusion that he really needs to rise up in rebellion and overthrow the king. But that he is alone in this. The other 149 people, while they don’t like the king, have no desire to go to all the trouble and risk of rising up in rebellion. In this case that one guy is probably never even going to mention his desire to overthrow the king, let alone do anything about it. Because that would be treason, which was one of the quicker ways to end up dead (among many back then.)

For any given villager to plot against the king he needs to find other people to plot with. How this happens, and the subtle signals that get exchanged when something is this dangerous is a whole separate subject, but for now it suffices to say that if a villager is going to join into some kind of conspiracy he has to be convinced that there’s enough like-minded people to take the idea from impossible to “if we’re extraordinarily lucky”. You might call this the minimum standard for an idea’s “arrival”.

For sake of argument, let’s say that our hypothetical villager is going to want at least 10% of his fellow villagers to also harbor thoughts of overthrowing the king, just to get to the point where he doesn’t think it’s impossible. And that, further, given the danger attached to the endeavor he’d probably actually want the inverse of that, and know that 90% of his fellow villagers were on his side, before he decided to do something as risky as rising up in rebellion.

Which means our villager needs 15 people before he even entertains the idea that it’s not just him. And he needs 135 before actually drawing his sword. The actual numbers are not that important, what’s important is the idea of social proof. Everyone, particularly when they’re engaged in risky behavior, has a threshold for determining whether they’re deluding themselves and a higher threshold for determining whether they should act. And for 99.9% of human history these thresholds were determined by the opinions of the small circle of people in our immediate vicinity. And 135 people might constitute 90% of everyone you come in contact with. But humans don’t do percentages, so none of us are thinking, what does 90% of everyone believe, they’re thinking do I know 15, or at the extreme end 135, people who think the way I do? But social media, as might have been expected, has changed the standards of social proof, and it’s now much easier to find 15 or even 135 people who will agree with nearly anything. And if 15 other people think the same way you do, you go from thinking you’re crazy to thinking you’re normal, but an outlier. And if 135 people feel the same way you do, then you’re ready to storm the barricades.

Fast forward to now and let’s say that you think that the Sandy Hook Shooting was faked, that it was a false flag operation or something similar. (To clarify I do not think this.) In the past you might not have even heard of the shooting, and even if you did, and then for some reason decided it had been faked, you’d be hard pressed to find even one other person who would entertain the idea that it might have been staged. If, despite all this, you were inclined to entertain that idea, faced with the lack of any social proof, or of anyone else who believed the same thing, in the end you would have almost certainly decided that you were, at best, mistaken, and at worst crazy. But using the internet and social media you can find all manner of people who believe that it was fake, and consequently get all the social proof you need.

Certainly it’s one thing to decide a crazy idea is not, in fact crazy. As is the case with the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. Holding an incorrect opinion is a lot different than acting on an incorrect opinion. To return to our example villager, you could certainly argue that in the past, kings were deposed too infrequently, that certain rulers were horrible enough that the benefits for rebellion might have been understated by just looking to those around you for social proof. In other words if you want to say that in the past people should have acted sooner, I could see that being possible, but has social media swung things the other way, so that now, rather than acting too slowly, we’re acting too precipitously? Are we deposing kings too soon?

Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian Civil war are good illustrations of what I mean by this. Assad is indisputably a really bad guy, but when you consider the massive number of people who have died and the massive upheaval that has taken place is it possible that social media, and the internet more generally, made the entire enterprise appear to have more support than it obviously did? As a narrower example of this, for a long time the US was dedicated to helping out secular, moderate rebels, which turned out to be something which had a large online presence, but very little presence in reality, another example of distorted social proof.

None of this is to say that the Syrian Civil War hasn’t been horrible, or that Assad isn’t a bad guy, who should have just stepped down. But we have to deal with things as they are, not as we wish them to be, or as a view, distorted through the lens of social media, portrays them to be. And it’s not just Syria, social media played a big role in all of the major Arab Spring uprising, and it didn’t work out well for any of them, with the possible exception of Tunisia.

Perhaps you think that I’m going too far by asserting that social media caused the Arab Spring uprisings to begin prematurely, leading to a situation objectively worse than the status quo. But recall that things are demonstrably worse in most of the Arab Spring countries (certainly in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), and not noticeably better in the rest. Meaning the truth of my assertion rests entirely on determining the role played by social media. If it hastened things or gave people a distorted view of the level of support for change, (which I think there’s strong evidence for) then it definitely represents evidence of social media leading to greater unrest and greater violence and a worse overall outcome.

Social media is a technology, and a rather recent one at that (recall that Facebook is only 13 years old). And anytime we discuss potentially harmful technology one useful thing we can do is to take the supernormal stimulus tool out of bag to see if it fits. As you may recall one of the key examples of supernormal stimuli are birds who prefer larger eggs, to such an extent that they prefer artificial eggs almost as large as themselves over their natural eggs. If social media represents some form of larger, artificial egg when it comes to interacting, If people are starting to prefer interacting via social media over interacting face to face, how would that appear? Might it be manifested by stories about teenagers checking their social media accounts 100+ times a day? Or (from the same article) claiming that they’d rather go without food for a week than have their phone taken away. Or the 24% of teens who are online almost constantly? But wait, you might say, didn’t I read an article that teenagers still prefer face-to-face communication? Yeah, by 49%, but it’s also important to remember that, other than the telephone (at 4%), all of the other choices didn’t exist 20 years ago. Which means that face-to-face interaction used to be at 96%, and that it has fallen to 49%.

Obviously it might be a stretch to call social media a supernormal stimuli, but, to return to our hypothetical villager, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that there are some things we select for when socializing with 150 people who we all know personally which don’t scale up to socializing with the 3.7 billion other people on the internet.

In conclusion to go all the way back to the beginning, I think the case for social media being the ultimate cause of the recent unrest is mixed at best. That said we do know that anonymity causes incivility, that social media appears to cause depression, loneliness and anxiety, and that, anecdotally things are pretty heated out there. But if you’re tempted to think that social media isn’t contributing to the unrest, consider the reverse hypothesis. That social media has created the new dawn of understanding and cooperation it’s advocates insisted it would. That social media is a uniting force, rather than a dividing force. That social media makes friendships better and communities stronger. Whatever the evidence for social media’s harm the evidence for its benefits is even thinner. In an age where connectivity has made it easier to harass people, to swat them, and to publicly shame them to a degree unimaginable before the internet age, where is the evidence that social media is decreasing divisiveness? That it is healing the wounds of the country, rather than opening them even wider?

All of this is to say that this is another example of a situation where we were promised that a new technology would make our lives better, that it would lead to an atmosphere of love and understanding, that, in short, it would save us, and once again technology has disappointed us, and, if anything, in this case, it has made the problem it purported to solve even worse.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, we’re in a race between a technological singularity and a catastrophe. And in this race, it would be bad enough if technology can’t save us, but what if it’s actually making the problem worse?


I know I just spent thousands of words arguing that social media is bad, and that blogs are a form of social media, but you can rest assured that this is a good blog. It’s all the other blogs out there that are evil. And based on that assurance, consider donating, you definitely don’t want to be up against the wall when the revolution comes.