“Bad-Faith” Actors--Our Sources of Vulnerability

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

April, 2021

About the "Bad-Faith Actor" Series

Traditionally, the conflict and peacebuilding field has concentrated on supporting the good-faith efforts of citizens trying to find a way to move beyond their differences and build a society in which everyone would like to live.  This challenging task has been the focus of the bulk of the Beyond Intractability system and, especially, the "Good-Faith Actor" section of the new  Constructive Conflict Guide which we are creating.

In recent years, as we have begun to understand why so many conflicts are becoming even more intractable, and why democracy itself is now in so much trouble, we have come to the conclusion that we have been neglecting a big part of the problem—that being the threat posed by "Bad-Faith Actors" who are actively trying to undermine collaborative, democratic governance. As an initial step toward adding coverage of this critical topic to the Beyond Intractability system, we are now posting this series of four videos and associated articles.

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Full Transcript:

Slide 1: Hi! This is Guy Burgess

Slide 2: with another in the series of slideshows that we’re putting together as part of Beyond Intractability's new Guide to More Constructive Approaches to Intractable Conflict. This part of the Guide is going to be focusing on what we call the “bad-faith-actor” problem, looking at all those folks who are trying to undermine good- faith efforts to deal with the many conflict problems that we face.

Slide 3: Part of the reason why bad-faith actors are able to be as successful as they are, is that we are vulnerable to their tactics in a variety of ways. In this slide show, I’m going to look at those vulnerabilities.

Slide 4: Now as you think about vulnerabilities, it makes sense to think in terms of football players. Football players certainly are playing a very dangerous game, one in which they are certainly vulnerable to injuries. There are three things that they do to reduce injuries and still allow them to play the game. There is a set of rules about what can what you can and can't do in a football game that makes it safer. There's a lot of training that football players go through to make them more resistant to injuries.

And then there's protective gear that they wear. In a sense, we need to do that when we think about the vulnerabilities that leave us open to these bad-faith actors. What are the rules of conflict interaction? How might we be able to change them to make us less vulnerable? How can we make ourselves more resistant to their tactics? And how can we separate ourselves, protect ourselves from some of the things they are trying to do.

Slide 5: As I mentioned in one of the earlier slideshows, one of the keys to this is to avoid traps--things that get us into trouble in conflict situations, and especially cons, things that bad-faith actors try to get us to fall into.

Slide 6: Another way to look at this whole enterprise is in light of the new push for more civic education. I think one of the things that people have quite rightly realized, as our politics has gotten evermore destructive over the last couple of decades, is that we let civic education lapse. In large part, what we’re talking about here are things that should be in the civic education curriculum. These things go beyond the sort of straightforward stuff, such as the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights, all that sort of thing. Think of this in terms of lessons that everybody ought to understand as part of building a citizenry that can make democracy work.

Slide 7: So the first thing to recognize is that there's going to be an ever-present threat from “tyrant wannabes”--people who would like to join the global oligarchy, people who are motivated by an intense desire to be as rich and powerful as they can be. They want to be the guy who lives in the highest, tallest skyscraper towering over the most powerful city in the world. These are the folks that Ayn Rand gave a pass to, and the folks that Sarah Chayes wrote about in her book The Thieves of State.

Slide 8: There is a Darwinian selection process that applies in all of this. There are going to be a few people who want to be this powerful. And there's going to be intense competition. So, really, in in situations like that, usually, the most ruthless ones are going to emerge victorious. So, we have to position society in a way that we can protect ourselves.

Psychological Vulnerabilities

Slide 9: Now the first thing to look at here are psychological vulnerabilities. The human mind evolved over millions and millions of years for a world and an environment that is dramatically different from the world that we live in today.

Slide 10: Psychologists have identified lots of cognitive biases -- ways in which we don't think like rational, cost-benefit calculating machines. We don’t think of the world as a giant spreadsheet. A lot of those cognitive biases have their origins in evolutionary psychology and things that we did in earlier times that made a lot of sense and helped protect us then. But they are not so well suited to the contemporary world, though there still a lot of embedded wisdom in all of them.

Slide 11: Now one of these biases is what you might call the worst-case or the fear bias. We had a colleague once at a conference who explained experiments that demonstrated that the fear part of the brain is literally wired ahead of the hope part of the brain. Thinking about that in evolutionary terms, if there dangers out there, you should pay a lot more attention to dangers before you start thinking about opportunities. So we all have a bias in that direction.

Slide 12: We also like to think that our view of the world is right. We look for information that confirms that what we already thought is correct. We get very uncomfortable when people tell us that our worldview is wrong. But the truth is, and this is especially true in our rapidly-changing world now, sometimes we don't have the world figured out. And that leads us into trouble.

Slide 13: There is also a sense in which we would much rather think of ourselves as victims, than having failed ourselves. When things aren't going well, it is a lot easier psychologically to blame it on somebody else, rather than admit that is your fault and that you need to do better. The truth is that we’re not always “the good guy” and blaming somebody else doesn't always make sense.

Slide 14: Another thing to keep in mind is that we are not all that smart. We really have a limited amount of bandwidth. Bandwidth is a computer term that measures the amount of information that can be transmitted over a particular channel in a given amount of time. We have ears and eyes. And there's only so much information that we can process. We live in an enormously complex world, and we have all these filters arranged. So that the information actually makes it into our head from the environment that were operating in is just little pieces of a picture of the larger world in which we live. But we tend to think we have it all figured out. But we don't. We need to understand those limits.

Slide 15: Another psychological bias that gets us into trouble is that we tend to like things to be as good as they can possibly be, and maybe too good to be true. When my kids went off to college and studied economics, the one thing I suggested they read (with some success) was Galbraith’s Short History of Financial Euphoria, the history of bubble markets. Humans have, again and again and again, in economic terms, and in all other parts of life, fallen victim to this illusion that “this time, things really are better than they can possibly be,” and we go chase that illusion. And economists have actually adopted a Wile E. Coyote approach here. (In the Roadrunner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote had this remarkable ability of running off the edges of a cliff and he’d keep going until he noticed that he done so, and only then did he fall down.) A lot of people pursue these too-good-to-be-true political visions. And they are okay until they catch on to the fact that none of this true--its all a lie! And then they are in big trouble. We need to learn how to resist that.

Communication Vulnerabilities

Slide 16: So those are some of the psychological vulnerabilities. There are also vulnerabilities that have to do with the way we communicate with each other. We are a social species. Everything that we do and everything we've been able to accomplish is because we are able to work together. We used to do this by talking to one another.

Slide 17: But now, at least as far as my U.S. society is concerned, we don’t talk to each other directly anymore. The media has become the political playing field. It’s our “town square.” People don't really get together and have political conversations very much. Even town meetings like this one are very rare. The real information exchange that occurs is our back-and-forth on the cell phones that we all carry. That exchange all gets mediated through these giant server farms. This is the table on which our society exchanges ideas on how to live. So we need to ask ourselves “what does this media playing field do and what vulnerabilities does it open us up to?

Slide 18: Here it makes sense, I think, to think in terms of a series of major technological changes that have occurred in communication media in my lifetime. I want to trace this back further, off course. But I think this this gets to the set of problems that we face now. When I was in college, there were only a couple of major television networks and they all had to be very careful to appeal to the broadest cross-section of the population, in order to be commercially viable. That produced the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Cronkite was said to be “the most trusted man in America.” Can you imagine any media figure now being the most trusted person United States? No! It wouldn’t work.

This is, in part, because technology has changed. First, we entered the era of “narrowcasting,” where Cablevision led to a proliferation in news channels, each with its own had political spins. So, if you were more conservatively oriented, you could focus in on Fox News. For the liberals, there was MSNBC. It would offer you a very different vision of the world. It was closer to the vision that you wanted to hear than the vision being shared by Fox News. This goes back to those psychological biases that we like to hear things that are appealing to us and we don't like to be told that we’re wrong and we like to think that the other guys are the bad guys. That's what these narrowcast channels did to large groups. There are only a few of these narrowcast channels, but that is part of what's driving our political divisions.

Now we've entered the new age of target-casting, where on social media, they can do a much more precise job of steering each of us the information that we just want to hear with a variety of ads in our news feeds. And in the murky world of “influencers,” which are people-to-people transactions that are also getting engineered on social media, you get information that flows through this communication space that sort of mimics conversations with people you know, but it is different somehow.

Slide 19: Now the thing that's important to understand is, as we've gone from broadcasting to narrowcasting to target-casting and influencers, the cost of delivering a piece of information has plummeted to virtually zero. But it still cost something.

Slide 20: So in order to understand what's happening with the media and how it makes us vulnerable, you need to understand its revenue model. All of these media sources, whether it's television, newspapers, or social media, are all driven by the drive to get your attention. So their revenue model is they monetize attentive eyeballs. If you're looking at their stuff, they have a way of either selling ads or sometimes they will get you to pay a subscription fee.

Slide 21: Their whole existence depends on being able to succeed in the market. So the only information sources that we see are the ones that show us what we want to see. And as we get more and more focused on individuals and less and less on large groups, what you have is a race among the major media outlets to give us the information we really want to hear. That reinforces a lot of conflicts within our society.

Slide 22: So Facebook has a matchmaking algorithm. That’s basically what it is. If you read into their terms of service, in the fine print you find out how much information they are gathering on you. And then you combine that with publicly available information. This is an interesting little exercise. Click on “I want to buy an ad on Facebook” and they'll tell you who you can target that ad. You can get a sense of how precisely they been able to segment the population of Facebook users. So you can pick somebody who's very likely to want whatever it is that you have to sell.

Slide 23: Now the same sort of technology goes into designing the newsfeed. Your newsfeed is really based on the information they gathered with their sophisticated algorithms. They can do a superb job of giving you what you want and keeping you hooked on it. And it is not just Facebook, but all the big social networks work this way.

Slide 24: This creates what are called “filter bubbles.” We all only get information that has gotten filtered through this system and our worldview image is based on this filtered flow of information. Not surprisingly, we get very, very different images of the objective world we live in.

Slide 25: And now we have gotten to the point where Democrats and Republicans and groups within Democrats and Republicans see two totally different worlds. So that's another set of vulnerabilities.

Social Vulnerabilities

Slide 26: Now they are also vulnerabilities that are introduced by society. Here are a couple of charts that just so show how rapidly society has changed over the centuries, and how that rate of change in term of the size of the population, the basis of the economy is accelerating. And so we have all of the social structures that were developed in earlier times and the world's changing and they don't quite work anymore. That causes all sorts of tensions and that part’s of our problem too. And as a result of that, we have another set of vulnerabilities.

Slide 27: One of them, somewhat paradoxically, is individual freedoms. Part of why it's so difficult to find common ground at a societal level is that we are all independent actors. There is no social hierarchy. So we all will either listen to, or not listen to, somebody, depending on what we think about that person’s ideas. Because, since we have these individual freedoms, everyone is free to act as they choose, and even if you persuade some folks, you still haven't persuaded others, and the conflict still exists. So part of the problem that we have trouble with is that there's no place where you can have a few folks gather around the table and worked this all out. You have to work it out at the level of grassroots opinion across the entire society. That's a very different challenge.

Slide 28: Another social vulnerability is just the inherent nature of the social hierarchy. We've built a society in which everybody wants to be at the top of the hierarchy and we really don't value people further down the hierarchy very much. And there just isn't room for everybody at the top. We don't have jobs for people. You can't all be in charge. This neglect of the lower layers of the hierarchy is a serious problem. We don’t honor people who contribute and add value to the society, even if they're not the most highly educated or in leadership positions. This is a great failing. And that has produced enormous tension with folks at the lower levels, maybe the lower 60%, maybe even 80% of the population is are deeply resentful of the elites. And that is a huge driver behind an awful lot of conflict, and it's the kind of thing that bad-faith actors can exploit.

Slide 29: Another thing that causes us trouble is that facts and values are social. They're not individual. We like to think that if you lay out a coherent argument and provide somebody with data in a well-written paper, then they will say “Ah ha! You're right! I was wrong all along! I'm going to change my mind and change my behavior! But the truth is we live in social groups. And groups, in large part, have evolved to be successful over time because everybody's on the same page. And everybody sort of agrees on everything. If you have a group where nobody agrees on anything, then they can't cooperate and they can't get things done and it all falls apart. So social groups have very strong mechanisms for enforcing the uniformity of belief in a wide range of fact-based and value-based issues. And changing those things is not something that an individual is going to do. You have to be awfully brave to say that “the group that I grew up with is wrong, and I'm going to go somewhere else.” Young people do that often, but it's hard to go back and it's a big step. So we have to think about facts and values in social terms, not individual terms.

Slide 30: Sometimes group worldviews are very stable. You can look at animals than they can exhibit a lot of the same sorts behavior. Here is a flock of snow geese and a coyote who would love to eat some snow geese. But they are far enough out in the water, that they are not very afraid. So they just sit there. But sometimes, and if you're a birdwatcher just observing this, it's hard to predict when it happens, but all of a sudden, all the geese will decide to fly up and leave. And people are kind of like that too. Their beliefs and behavior will be very stable. A group will all believe the same things and keep doing the same things, and then something will happen and the whole group will say “Oh! We have to go do something else!” You get these political fads—they are almost stampedes, they are mob behavior. And sometimes the changes that they take are good, and sometimes they are not.

Slide 31: Another vulnerability is that societies tend to be drive by true believers and squeaky wheels. These are the folks that are brave enough to challenge the larger group. Now sometimes they're just nuts and are viewed as nuts, and the larger group doesn't pay attention to them. But sometimes they set society off on a whole new track. And often they have kind of radical, crazy views. Here is a Pew article that shows how it's the extremes –the “true believers” that drive an awful lot of our politics and the moderate centers are much less influential.

Slide 32: Another vulnerability of the system is the fact that our politics, and there's a Beyond Intractability article on this, has evolved in a way that base mobilization has become the key to electoral victory. In the U.S., there is a very small percentage of the population that isn't of firmly on the left or the right. There are a lot of people who are pretty alienated about the whole election process and they don't participate at all. So the key to winning elections isn't to persuade the relatively small number of “undecideds” in the political center. The key to winning elections is to fire up your base--to mobilize the base--and that you do that by convincing them that the other side is so terrifying that, even though you don't really like politics, you'd better get out and vote! We have now evolved apolitical system in the United States, and I suspect other countries have something sort of similar to this, where we have two sides. One side is the Democratic Party which has, over the last many decades, evolved as the protector of the whole series of “protected groups” that are seen to be marginalized or disadvantaged on racial, gender, identity, and disability issues. And they've pushed through a whole series of measures designed to serve and protect those groups. But when you are protecting a group, that implies that you're protecting them from somebody else. That implies that somebody else has more than they should have, and it ought to be transferred to these groups. These are the “protected from groups” and that group doesn’t like those policies much.

So Republicans have built a whole political movement around that. And an awful lot of politics has become trying to fire up your side in this fight. And as you try to get your side to be really worried about the other side, that drives the backlash spiral and intensifies the whole conflict. So that's another vulnerability that these bad faith actors can cultivate and exploit.

Slide 33: There is a concentration of power effect. Kenneth Boling used to really like to quote what he called “Matthews Law,” which is a line from the Biblical Book of Matthew which says “for whomsoever hath, to whom shall be given.” In the world of business, you have the law of increasing returns. This is why Amazon and Google dominate their domains. As you assemble power, and bad faith actors also assemble power, that enables you to assemble even more power. And that tends to concentrate power in a way that, again, drives this whole kind of conflict spiral.

Slide 34: Just a few more vulnerabilities left, if you're not too depressed yet. But I think these things are important to understand. This is a quick tour of a whole series of issues. We need to be aware of all of these things in order to prevent them and deal with them effectively.

Going back to the football analogy, we need to come up with rules to try to limit our vulnerabilities, we need to recognize them, protect ourselves and separate ourselves from folks who are trying to exploit them.

Another one, and this is an important one, especially with respect to international conflict, and the degree to which Russia particularly, but other countries as well, are trying to meddle with or influence elections. This is that we live in an open society. The Internet is open. Anybody can get on the Internet and do their dirty work. We see this on Beyond Intractability. We routinely get people trying to hack into our system from Russia. That’s come to be “normal.” The global open Internet allows a wide range of bad faith actors to try to influence the world in the way that they desire across national boundaries. These actors can, literally, get right into your hand and influence what you're seeing on your phone! So, we need to understand how that openness leaves us vulnerable and what to do about that.

Slide 35: Another key point is that society is a bit like a house of cards. It is easy to break. It is easy to make people hate each other. It is easy to start us down the path of escalating violence. And it's awfully hard to put that back. So, folks that just want to break things can do so easily--and here you have foreign provocateurs that are seeking to destabilize another country are an obvious example. There are a lot of things they can do to take advantage of the fragility of society. We need to protect ourselves from that and not lightly do things in the heat of anger that undermine the social fabric which is far easier to tear than it is to repair.

Slide 36: Then finally, it's important to recognize that there are a lot of traps out there that we haven’t really recognized and are not included on this list. There is a huge industry of folks who are trying to figure out tricky ways of exploiting people that nobody thought up yet, and there are not effective defenses against. My son, Evan, is a glaciologist. So to continue the metaphor that I started with, part of what we’re trying to do is show you how to navigate a series of traps and dangers. The ones he faces, walking across a glacier, with all these crevasses, is a good analogy. Now what Evan explained is that walking across a glacier where the crevasses are exposed is relatively easy and safe. These folks are just strolling. But when you have lots of snow and the snow hides the crevasses and the dangers are unknown, that’s really a big problem. That's also what we have to pay attention to with respect to conflict.


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