Disinformation and its effects on social capital networks
© 2021-2023 David Troy
ABSTRACT: The related problems of disinformation, misinformation, and radicalization have been popularly misunderstood as technology or fact-checking problems, but this ignores the mechanism of action, which is the reconfiguration of social capital. By recasting these problems as one problem rooted in the reconfiguration of social capital and network topology, we can consider solutions that might maximize public health and favor democracy over fascism, even as the urgent need for stewarding human behavior may introduce ethical questions about what kinds of network configurations are ideal, and who might have the moral authority to oversee their pursuit.
This paper is organized into three sections: premises, problems, and possible solutions. The first section, “Premises,” offers several connected observations and hypotheses about how culture and societies function with respect to social capital, information, and belief. The “Problems” section outlines challenges we are currently facing, using social capital as a framework. Lastly, the “Solutions” section offers some potential solutions, given the premises and problems described in the prior two sections.
This analysis intentionally does not address education or specific shared societal goals (comity, civility, compromise). A balanced, non-cultish social topology is a necessary condition for an informed democracy to function. Obviously, we should aim to promote such public goods, but we should not expect to be able to fix a fundamentally social problem only by addressing higher-level layers. Indeed, a balanced, functional social landscape is a prerequisite requirement, and that is what this paper specifically intends to address.
1. Culture is a network. The relationships between individuals and cultural entities are what form culture and shape our experience of it. Relationships may be between people (weak or strong; offline or online) or parasocial, such as to celebrities and media outlets. The concept of social capital can be used to qualify a relationship between two entities, assigning a type of relationship (casual or family; friend or acquaintance; fan or patron); a relationship may be quantified by assigning it a weight signifying its overall strength or duration. This allows us to describe a society or a culture as, minimally, a network consisting of nodes (people, other entities) and edges (weighted relationships). (Barabasi, Pentland)
2. Belief is social. We tend to believe what people around us also believe. Some studies have shown that people tend to be the “average of the five people they are closest to.” (Christakis, Fowler) This can be attributed to the principle of “homophily,” or the idea that “birds of a feather flock together.” People tend to be attracted to people who think similarly to themselves. Likewise, communities of shared belief may repel people who espouse different beliefs. In recent years we have seen a tendency for people to sort themselves geographically, such that people in rural areas may have very different beliefs from people in urban communities. This lack of cross-cutting social connections tends to make people more reactive and likely to condone political violence. (Mason, Kalmoe)
3. Belief confers identity; identity confers belief. Because our individual identity derives in part from our group memberships, we are reluctant to reject our in-group; this is the equivalent of negating our own identity, which can feel almost like death. The social consequences of belief rejection are why it is nearly impossible to convince people of something even in light of overwhelming evidence: no one wants to concede a point especially if it alienates them from their group and negates their identity. No one wants to become one of “them!” (Rauch)
4. A cult is a kind of pathological network configuration. Cults need not have a single charismatic leader and devout followers. (Fig. 1) Speaking in terms of networks, a cult can be defined as a networked group that pursues its in-group’s interests over those of society as a whole. The degree to which this group is intranetworked with social capital will determine the degree to which it is willing to dispense with evidence (flat earthers), disregard the law (mafia), or commit heinous acts (Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, January 6th). Two criteria for pathological social capital are if a network 1) is highly connected internally but lacks balancing connections to other networks, 2) has a tendency to violate societal norms, resulting in harm. (Adler, Kwon)
5. Mathematically, cults could be thought of as “black holes” of social gravity. If there is too much internal social capital in a network, participants may cross an “event horizon” that makes escape difficult or impossible. Though it should be noted that unlike with black holes where matter has no agency, people do, and can in fact escape with proper intervention and will.
6. Culture (i.e. the network) is upstream of politics. The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci noted that “culture is upstream of politics,” a quote since co-opted by Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon. These political technologists understand that they are working at the network level on altering culture, while many people are focused on politics, which is a losing strategy.
7. Relationships determine public health outcomes. Most of the information about a society is found in relationships. Speaking mathematically, a graph depicting a meshed network of 50 people will contain 1,225 relationships. When people talk about “individual” rights, they are willfully discounting the many relationships that may be affected by the behavior of individuals. This should serve as a reminder that any effort to promote specific human behaviors must be evaluated through the possible effects on human relationship networks, and whether those changes are positive or negative.
8. Only certain network configurations can support democracy. If it is possible to render democracy impossible through manipulation of social capital, then it follows that there is also a range of “healthy” network configurations that can support democracy, and that those, too, can be sought through engineering of social capital. Deciding who has the moral authority to assume that role carries major ethical quandaries, however failure to engage will cede the question to actors like Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Charlie Kirk, Elon Musk, Vladimir Putin, et al.
9. A network of disconnected cults cannot support a functional democracy. Some minimal level of cross-cutting social connections between networks of interest must be maintained in order to support a functional pluralistic democracy. Too many cultish groups, each unwilling to compromise, produces the kind of “bundled aggrieved factions” that are useful to populist fascist leadership. It is therefore in the interest of populist fascists to promote social atomization and to destroy cross-cutting social ties.
10. We don’t live in a post-truth era; we live in an age of influence. It is fashionable to suggest that we live in a post-truth era, or that we are suffering from a kind of “truth-decay.” This is false; rather, we are experiencing a rise in the use of the tools of influence, that is the tools that alter social capital networks, to produce so-called “islands of dissensus.” (DiResta; Hassan) In response, we must reject the idea that objective truth is unknowable and instead re-wire social networks in ways that allow for a baseline level of shared reality. Truth is not a social construct, but belief is.
11. Pathological social capital configuration is a public health concern. Not only does pathological social capital contribute to dissensus, it also seems to contribute to addiction and depression. People who are socially isolated tend to be more susceptible to drug use, addiction, and long-term depression. (Hari) Lack of social connection can drive attachment to conspiracy communities, which in turn can drive people away from family and friends, further contributing to addiction and depression. Anti-vax networks can also drive behaviors antagonistic to public health measures.
12. Disinformation works by altering social capital to produce cultish networks. Disinformation (information spread with the intent to harm) and misinformation (false information) tend to alter societal network structure by destroying healthy social capital, such as relationships between family and old friends and creating malignant social capital between people who share false beliefs (UFO conspiracists; anti-vaxxers; QAnon ‘researchers’). These changes may become permanent if care is not taken to restore lost connections, which can be very difficult and non-intuitive. Many people are inclined to “unfriend” and even “disown” friends and family members who have taken on radical beliefs. (Hassan) Disinformation operations are not so much about pushing false information as rewiring social networks in ways that break down society as a whole. It's not about the belief itself, it's about the social and network consequences of harboring and espousing a belief. [will add more citations re: broken social ties resultant from disinfo]
13. Radicalization is a process of altering social capital. The process of radicalization (i.e. the harmful kind, vs. someone who is an enthusiast or out-of-the-box thinker) is usually a circular process involving ingestion of information, leading to 1) creation of “unhealthy” social or parasocial relationships, and 2) destruction of “healthy” relationships (such as with positive influences in community or family). Sometimes a “free radical” loner may falsely appear to “self-radicalize,” by developing parasocial ties to entities online.
14. Information produces a system of effects. Disinformation can have devastating effects on social ca