Networked Conflict and the Culture Warriors.

Deplatforming cannot stop an asymmetric network with the goal of destabilization, and neither can ideally enacted pluralism.

I do not want to talk about the ethics of deplatforming, but I want to start off with a notable example of deplatforming, and ask a key question: has Twitter calmed down without Trump on the website? This may be quantitatively investigated with something like sentiment analysis, however, it certainly seems the overall temperature of the Culture War has barely changed. In fact, writers are getting cancelled for tweets — and so are actors and philosophers! The culture war continues.

Arguably, then, deplatforming has failed to achieve its core goals and is possibly even being used against the deplatformers. Let’s say, then, that you are sympathetic with the view that some ideas are quite abhorrent, but disagree that censoriousness is the correct approach. What is a better path, where do we go from here? Perhaps we strive for individual judgments, utilizing a case-by-case analysis of actors in the marketplace to decide if we ignore, rebut, or debate. However, I am convinced this is a losing strategy.

While this strategy has clear legacy institution analogues, we will focus on its digital expression. Largely, this strategy is pursued in two ways: dunks and essays. The goals of each are ultimately to expose the obvious absurdity of the other view, or to utilize social shame and intellectual standards to convince the other party to have some self-reflection or self-correction — or at least engender such reflections within the target’s audience or supporters. At best, this can be a nudge to gently imply “this ain’t it chief” or a rigorous intellectual take-down that illustrates this particular emperor has no clothes. At worst, it’s just Tweeting out “this aint’ it chief” or perhaps a “sir, this is a Wendy’s.”

Yet, have you ever found yourself wondering how is it that some character on Twitter can put up L after L after L, but their influence does not wane, and maybe even expands? How is it that their audience cannot see the obvious fact that they have been owned? Perhaps, one more dunk Tweet will put it over the top, perhaps our own careful rebuttal of the more pernicious misleading claims will put this all to rest, perhaps…one more click…one more essay. Dunks and essays have been entirely unimportant, and the weirdness of the culture war has accelerated.

Diagram of the OODA loop.

A diagram of the OODA loop.

The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a hodgepodge of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under-react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible.

— Harry Hillaker (see the Wikipedia on OODA loop)

Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (or OODA) almost explains itself. A tool of strategic thinking developed by John Boyd and originally tailored for fighter pilots in a combat environment. Yet, as discussed in the essay “Complexity, the root of networked warfare,” the concept is widely applicable in any environment with a scarcity of information, uncertainty in intention of actors involved, and under time pressure. An environment quite a lot like Twitter but, increasingly, an environment a lot like the current political climate.

Let’s dwell on this last point for a moment. Even before a global pandemic, there were a number of problems identified across the political spectrum that require large-scale coordinated action, and quickly. For my own political commitments climate change looms large, but you look at one thing that seems to unify the political factions of the United States, it is that time is running out. In the broad strokes our big problems do not exactly suffer from a scarcity of information, more-like entrenched disagreement. Yet, to encourage large groups of people to coordinate there must be trust, and when the stakes are high this often means trust, but verify. Arguably then, we need information about those we are trying to coordinate with, and this is where the OODA loop arrives.

Networked warfare is ultimately when there is competition between two groups. The battle involves individuals, or groups of individuals, but information is sent back and forth and decisions for the competing collectives are made, changing the battlefront. Perhaps we could even describe this as a literal computer network, and the battle a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS). If you are able to do your OODA loop faster than the DDoS network, you can maintain legitimate traffic while simply ignoring requests, or shunting the traffic to an exterior service like Cloudflare. Yet, this isn’t much different than what we see in the culture war, or disinfo in the world more broadly: many people want to change institutions, and various structures of organization want to use networked individuals to achieve these goals.

Let’s take a slight detour: does philosophical inquiry make progress over the centuries? Arguably, yes it does. But the fact that we can levy convincing rebuttals should give us pause, if only because it implies something quite funny about academics in general, and perhaps legacy institutions in general. Namely, we can live our whole careers as serious intellectuals in a single OODA loop. It seems quite obvious that many academics are stuck between observe and orient, to the point that it is a common, exasperated, refrain in academic spaces of “where is any of this actionable?”

In contradistinction, the behavior of many on Twitter is to essentially engage in activities to engender over- or under-reaction. To appear unguided, confused, or incomprehensible. To cause you to look at their timeline, feel confused and angry, and retreat from them. Go back to your bubble as this is not a place of honor — there is nothing of value here.

Compare this to a third group: activists on campuses. A common refrain is more or less that the norms of these activists change quickly, and entail moral judgement on people exterior to that network. Perhaps, you may say, they are operating under a faster OODA loop than the legacy institutions they want to change. And, in fact, some of the more noxious Twitter personalities have gestured at this, or have even made it explicit what their intents are and why they think they cannot win.

 Tweet from James Lindsay arguing that his goal is to cause the system to crash and burn.

Now HOPE not hate can reveal that this upheaval in the QAnon community is being exploited by a previously unreported network of over 100 coordinated Telegram channels, with a combined total of almost 900,000 subscribers.


What bearing does this have on the central question? Pluralism, classical liberalism, retrenchment of elitist values, or even cancel culture and deplatforming will ultimately fail to address any ideological perspective that recognizes some aspect of the existing OODA loop, and has found an exploit. Maybe you could write an essay about the intersection of Woke capital, acceleration, and leftism. Certainly I think a case can be made that capital has owned many aspects of legacy social justice, but let us not dwell too long on this branch only to say that I think perhaps ZIRP has owned many things. I digress.

The thrust is that legacy institutions are largely centralized and have painfully slow OODA loops. Twitter culture warriors have faster OODA loops, and while I might separate them broadly into Woke or anti-Woke coalitions, their goals are to either be faster than the legacy institutions, or to cause those who glance at their network to fold back in on themselves. Thus, any attempt to act based on the judgement or orientation of the legacy institution, or a network that has folded in upon itself, will continually lose. The legacy institutions, and those arguing for the values that underpinned these institutions, have largely not oriented themselves to the new realities of the networked world, and so it is actually this legacy perspective that is in fact “owned.”

I have reached the end of the loop, and I have been intentionally vague. Do you have any sense of who are in the networks? What I expect you to do? Perhaps you find this vagueness confusing and infuriating. The bottom line is that actual networked warfare is going on, and in fact, some of the anti-Woke warriors are essentially articulating a belief that they are also engaged in such a conflict. My belief is that however deluded or dangerous certain rhetoric can seem we should listen when people tell us about their strategic thinking — even if it is foundationally flawed their OODA loop will beat ours if we are slower or reacting to a misleading model of their strategy.

Perhaps you would like to ignore this message of warning about danger. Saying this was important to me, and I would like you to pay attention. Whatever lead you to this piece, my plea is for those I think are of good conscience. You must realign your models of the world to include networked conflict, or else you will be forever owned.

Update: Between the time I wrote this and the time I put this in a form for others to read, more cases of networked warfare arose that seem to fit this pattern. To me, it was clear what would happen as soon as people who are more genuinely pluralistic (that is on Twitter they have nodes they consider friendly in both Woke and anti-Woke networks) started weighing in negatively. Each un-obfuscated interaction across networks like this is like a proc; roll a dice, take your chances, maybe you’ll be the interlocutor to grab the attention of a network warrior and escalate the bad take into cancellation.

By the next morning, the inability of academics to see what they might consider to be a frustrating Tweet and simply let it slide (a behavior that I had sub-Tweeted cryptically) had brought some Tweets to the attention of some who are considered acting in good faith…except when they are on Twitter! Wouldn’t it be grand if there was some kind of model for why someone might act differently in a network context than when they are constrained by the norms of a legacy institution?

At any rate, getting attention of someone operating on this wavelength is dangerous, and it quickly escalated into the realms of the familiar names of the culture war. Perhaps it will escalate even further? I am not certain, but I certainly hope not. In any event, what appears to have occurred is that a few very low-stakes Tweets turned into a full-blown culture war front simply because academics touched a hot network with their dunks. From there on out, network dynamics took over and the intents of individuals really stopped making any bit of a difference. People will, of course, offer to “not pile-on” and explain their reasoning for such a lofty enlightenment ideal, but at the end of the day it all amounts to slower OODA loops — by the time they noticed there was a pile-on to avoid or add to it did not matter because the network was activated. They could not stop it if they tried, and the time to orient, decide, and act had long since passed them by as they were busy observing and dunking.

If I were to proffer any advice at all, it would be simply, this: undermine recognition of easy-to-observe data points so as not to be noticed by the people you don’t want to deal with right now.