The Escalatory Spiral
A network swarm has plunged us into a new “cold” war with Russia. What does this mean, and how can we prevent something similar in the future.
We are now in a long war with Russia. A new cold war was declared in, of all things, a tweet:
If we look at this closely, we can determine the following:
Global scale. This declaration describes a global struggle that harkens back to the cold war (“anew”). It justifies the disconnection of Russia and ongoing efforts to contain Russia militarily.
Moral absolutes. Democracy vs. Freedom. Good vs. Evil. Biden: ‘Putin is a war criminal, a butcher.’
A long struggle. Years and decades vs. days or months. Implication: this won’t end with a resolution of the war in Ukraine.
The Swarm’s Frame
This declaration and supporting statements are a good indicator that the Biden Whitehouse:
is trying to lead the swarm by escalating the conflict. To be a leader of a networked swarm, you must move the swarm towards its goal. Once you stop doing that, your role as a leader ends.
is unable to do anything but continue to find ways to escalate the conflict if it wants to remain a network leader. It simply can’t de-escalate, although it can slow aspects of escalation (refusing to permit a no-fly zone).
By outsourcing the moral prosecution of this war to the swarm, western leaders have put us on a path that has the potential to cascade into a nuclear confrontation.
This escalation wasn’t needed. Within the first week, Ukraine had demonstrated the potential to defend itself against the Russian invasion with the support of the western powers (arms, intel, and support) without escalating it into a global struggle.
This escalation may make it impossible to end the conflict in Ukraine. Since Ukraine isn’t part of any alliance negotiating on their behalf, the war’s end is a two-step process. First, Ukraine and Russia must come to terms. Second, Russia and the West must come to terms. Given the extreme frame of this conflict, that second agreement is likely to be impossible to achieve.
Russia would then have three options. Completely capitulate to the demands of the West — regime change, disarmament, and war crimes/reparations. Continue the war in Ukraine by making it absurdly damaging (potentially including micro/tactical nukes) to force the West to come to terms. Cease hostilities in Ukraine (stop the losses) and seek other methods of escalating the conflict with the West or damaging western systems in ways that force a return to the negotiation table (a path filled with tripwires to nuclear escalation).
The massive networked swarm (composed of individuals, governments, corporations, etc.) that mobilized to defeat Russia did far more than disconnect and disrupt Russia. It reset our assumptions about the conflict. Here’s how:
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the western swarm rapidly amplified, with the help of social networking algorithms, the importance, danger, and threat posed by this invasion.
This amplification threw us, collectively, temporarily into chaos — a period of time when our previous ways of making sense of the world are discarded while we search for something new that makes more sense (we’ve seen this alot over the last five years).
The growing swarm filled this void, and it provided us with a new, ready-made way of making sense of the war. It sold us a ready-made set of assumptions: this isn’t just about Ukraine, it is a global war against evil, and it will only end when that evil is crushed (regime change, disarmament, war crimes, etc.).
Once we returned from chaos, these new assumptions were locked in place. They quickly became the operating assumptions of western governments, corporations, media, and much of the public.
How to Prevent This
Obviously, beyond the difficulty we find ourselves in, we need to find a way to prevent this from happening in the future. There are three ways visible right now:
A circuit breaker (the market-based approach to social contagion). When a big event causes a descent into social chaos, shut down the major social networks. In this case, it most likely can be done by shutting down Twitter for a week. Prompt action would reduce the chaos and allow a policy approach to develop before the swarm overruns it.
Digital rights. Rights that protect dissent and dissenters against censorship and deplatforming by corporations. Early in this conflict, due to pressure from a mobilizing swarm, all information coming from/about Ukraine underwent heavy corporate censorship. Digital rights would alleviate this.
Algorithmic choice. Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey recently promoted this idea. Simply, it’s the ability to select the algorithm/AI used to filter, reorder, and amplify the information you see in your social networking feed. “Algorithmic choice” would slow information flow across the network and mitigate the cohesion of a networked swarm by making it harder to synchronize.
Next: We’ll dig into the origins of the (dangerous) moral framework used by the swarm and how this swarm might collapse in the future.