“Bad-Faith” Actor Tactics

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 with the last of a series of videos on bad faith actors

Slide 2: and the things that they do to amplify and exploit our conflicts. As I mentioned earlier, this is part of a broader reorganization of the Beyond Intractability system.

Slide 3: What we’re trying to do with this series of posts is think about, and this the whole reorganization of Beyond Intractability as well, is to think about what should be included in a civic education curriculum.  As I’ve said in the earlier videos, a lot of folks are talking about the need to expand civic education these days. What do we need to include that goes beyond a relatively straightforward description of the three branches of government, and goes to the core of the conflict problems that make it so difficult for democracies to enable people of goodwill to figure out how to govern themselves in a way that lead to a society in which we'd all like to live.

Tyrants, Oligarchs, and the Symbiotic Media

Slide 4: Now the focus of the bad-faith actor problem is, first of all, on aspiring tyrants and oligarchs--folks who want to control everybody, and folks who are just content on getting very, very rich at everyone's expense. Tese are the sort of guys that books like the Dictators Handbook addressed or Sarah Chayes’ Thieves Of The State which looks at kleptocracy.

Slide 5: The other thing that we look at what this is a symbiotic media. The only way that bad-faith actors and aspiring tyrants and can possibly succeed is by working with the media. The media, as I talked about one of the earlier videos, is the medium through which we talk to one another and in which conflicts are played out. Now the media certainly is needs to raise money. The way they raise money is they spend a lot of time talking about conflict, as it gets people all fired up and they pay attention and drive ad revenue.

Slide 6: What I want to do in this video is focus on the tactics that these various types of bad-faith actors use to try to undermine democracy, and good-faith governance.

Strategies for Resisting Bad-Faith Actors

Slide 7: In the course of this video I have a lot of slides where I have a little yellow box up in the corner that highlights the fact that here we’re talking about at least an idea for helping to solve these problems. These are all referred to as “possible partial solutions.” I’m not quite sure that the stuff will work. But it's likely to help address part of the problem. We need lots more creative ideas and lots more commitment from all of you if we are going to get a handle on what is really very difficult set of problems. ‘

This George Packer article profiles a guy who is been working for the last 50 years to try to get an opportunity to control the flood of money into our political system from various folks who are using that money to make politics serve their personal interests, rather than collective interest.

Slide 8:  Also, as I go through all of these tactics, the other thing to keep in mind (and I mentioned this earlier ) is to think of these problems as a series of traps and outright cons that people are trying to trick us into falling into. The simplest thing that we can all do is to see and understand these traps, so we can avoid falling into them.

Slide 9: Another thing that we can all I do is to work toward efforts that reduce the supply of bad-faith actors in the system. Earlier I talked about Darwinian selection processes and the fact that there will always be really ruthless people around. But we give these folks far too must much prestige in our society.

Instead of honoring the strongest players, and seeking to emulate them, we would be well advised to implement what we call a “power strategy mix.” (There is a Beyond Intractability essay that it explains this idea.) But basically what we advocate people do is to combine persuasion with exchange, and only a little bit of coercion. To start, you try to persuade people to not act like bad faith actors because it's the right thing to do. You also offer them exchanges or trades of one sort or another, that you make it to their advantage to pursue the common good, rather than their selfish interests. And for some folks, who won’t be persuaded or be willing to trade, you have to use a fair amount of coercion to block what we call “incorrigible” bad-faith actors from disrupting the system.

Core "Divide and Conquer" Strategy

Slide 10: Now the next thing that you really need to understand in all of this is what bad faith actors’ core strategy is. This is nothing new. This goes back to Philip of Macedonia, way before the Christian era. It’s called divide-and-conquer politics. Bad-faith actors try to prevent the various exploited from joining forces and challenging them. Bad faith actors also want to build a highly motivated base of supporters that will provide financial and political support and also work hard to advance the bad faith actor’s interests, even over their supporters’ interest. Lastly, the bad-faith actors want to use this support base to limit the power of any competing bad-faith actors--bad-faith actors are often competition with themselves, not just with the society as a whole.

Slide 11: Another strategy that is widely used is fear and hatemongering. Bad-faith actors try to drive the fear and hate spirals of various factions and groups within the society enough that they come to detest one another. This is a simplified diagram, but it goes to the core of the idea. First you have one person, one side, (and it's always hard to decide who started it) but one side does something really provocative and hateful. Folks on their side think it's great, because you're telling the other side off. That's fun! So your supporters cheer but your opponents recoil. The other side thinks, “wow, those guys really are as bad (or worse!) than we thought! They are really dangerous!  So the second side comes up with a counter provocation that their supporters cheer. But then the other side recoils as says “Heavens, we really are in a war with those guys. And it cycles around and around and around and intensifies until it gets to the point that we are now in in the United States. (And similar things happen in other countries too.)

Slide 12:   This provocation strategy exploits a lot of the vulnerabilities that I talked about in the vulnerability video.  Each side is using the worst-case bias tendency of human thought to make people afraid. They also use cognitive dissonance which prevents people from admitting that they might be wrong. This spiral draws on the victimhood bias too. It's always better to blame the other side and think that you're a victim than to admit you might be at fault. And then we have the peculiar feature of our politics that rewards those who are best able to mobilize their base by making their base super angry. All this drives the conflict escalation spiral.

Slide 13: If you're trying to drive this hate and fear spiral, the picture that you paint of people on the other side is biased and filtered. In this chart, you only focus on the red dots which are intended to represent the most terrible crimes that the other side has committed.

Slide 14: You do this in a way that neglects the richness of history.

This diagrams shows green dots, which are good things, and orange dots, which are some of good, some bad. And then there are a lot of other red dots too. But they might be different than the bad things you’ve focused on. Because of our bandwidth vulnerability, which I talked about before, it's very hard for any individual to really understand the full richness of another group, especially groups they are unfamiliar with and in competition with. So you cherry pick their history and you only focus on the things that you want to focus on. In this case, you cherry pick the stories that make the other side seem absolutely evil.

Slide 15: This is the real driver in our politics. And it leads to a state where we make decisions, not so much because we have loyalty for our side, but rather because we are so fearful and hateful of the other side there. We've just got to oppose them, no matter what!

Slide : Part of the way we get away with that is because of the filter problem that I talked about one of the earlier videos. We only get information that reinforces our worldview. We don't have any information, really, about the way the other side actually lives, and we don’t know what their values really are. Then you have the fact that we live separately. This feature story from The New York Times, geographically documents, down to the almost block-by-block, certainly precinct-by-precinct level that Democrats and Republicans don't live in the same place. They live in completely different communities. So they don't have any sense of each other. That enables these demonization narratives to actually take hold and people to believe.

Slide 17: So the thing that you have to do is you've got a break this fear-hate-escalation spiral. There are a lot of things that I could suggest to do that, but they all boil down to calling out the hate-mongers and refusing to take the “hate bait.” So when people try to tell you horrible stories of the other side and why you should hate them and fight them with all that you have, say “there’s got to be more to it than that”—and try to “complexify the story. That, I think, is one of the really central ideas on how were going to get out of this mess we’re in now.

Slide 18:  Another thing that bad-faith actors do to build support is they make very appealing and totally unrealistic and dishonest promises. Unscrupulous leaders can always offer the public a much more attractive view of current events and future possibilities, because they release themselves from the bounds of reality. So you get folks on all sides making extravagant promises to lure you into supporting them.  Trump's most famous line for this is “vote for me and you'll win so much you're going to get tired of winning!”

I’m starting to worry that we’re doing the same thing on the left, for instance, when we talk about “modern monetary theory.”  This is the notion that there really aren't resource constraints to stop us from doing what we want to do, we can spend as much money as we need to. We used to worry about balancing budgets. But we’re not thinking about that anymore—we don’t think it matters. While some of this might make economic sense, it seems to me a lot more likely to be a political variation of the kind of “financial euphoria” that I talked about in the vulnerability video that Galbraith warned about. We may just be falling for something that's too good to be true.

Preventing People from Questioning Bad-Faith Narratives

Slide 19 : Now another thing that you can do if you're a bad-faith actor to keep everybody in line is you have some variation of orthodoxy enforcement. You don't let anybody question the narrative that you're presenting. If they do, you find ways of ostracizing them.

These two articles describe, both from the left and the right, they do this. In Donald Trump's case, the article argues that he was the king of his version of the cancel culture. You try to cross Donald Trump and you would find yourself ostracized, really, really quickly.

The cancel culture on the political left is also a pretty scary kind of thing that quashes  debate, quashes people who are trying to say, “this can't be this black and white, simply good and evil.” It’s hard, but we have to fight against such orthodoxy enforcement.

Slide 20: Another way that bad-faith actors trick us is they take advantage of folks who get most of their information from narrowcast cable news outlets. Fox News has a narrative and they will spin the news they present to fit that narrative. A similar process takes place on Left-wing news shows.

Slide 21:  This raises an idea that we used to have back in the broadcast era when Walter Cronkite was ”the most trusted man in America” which was the equal time provision. Back then, when you start presenting political ideas on television, you had to provide time to the other side to prevent their (counter) view. Now, in a world where we have so many different news outlets, that's harder to do. But there still aren’t that many political sides, so there ought to be some way to reinstate that.  

Slide 22: A different facet of this where we ought to have some leverage, is that we now have the monopolization of a lot of news sources. We have groups like Sinclair Broadcasting Group that owns a staggering number of radio and television stations. They use those stations to present a particular political point of view to everyone across the country. If we were to break these mega-companies up, and not allow any one company to control more than a small number of radio and television stations, then radio and television would once again became a local affair, rather than the nationally-syndicated media empire we have now. This, I think, would allow for and encourage a lot richer conversations and it would be a whole lot harder to have these super polarized, national-level narratives.

Slide 23: Another thing that's being done that I think is particularly insidious, by a different group of bad-faith actors (which includes a lot of the same guys but also starts to reach into international powers as well) is to destroy or attack the very idea that objective media sources exist. Steve Bannon is famous for his phrase that they wanted to “flood the zone with sh*t.” By that he advocated that they flood the media with so many bogus stories, that would be coming at people from so many different directions, saying so many contradictory things, that people just give up trying to figure out what’s “true.” They’ll just conclude that the media “doesn’t know anything!” So they may as well simply believe what they want to believe.

The Russians of raised this to a high art. The RAND Corporation points out that the Russians adopted what Rand calls “the firehose of falsehood model.” Donald Trump claims that he invented the strategy of fake news—but the whole idea here is to destroy the idea that there is any trusted objective source of information at all. So that people just believe what they want to believe—OR--

Manipulating and Fabricating Public Opinion

Slide 24: they go to the next level of the media hierarchy, and only trust personal experience and relationships. In the modern world, where everything gets filtered through smart phones, your information source becomes your Facebook friend group. This goes back to another one of these vulnerabilities that I talked to in the earlier slideshow. Facts and values are social, not individual. So, you've got the social groups that we are embedded in, and we’ve decided we don't trust objective news outfits, so these are the folks we turn to for trusted information. And everybody starts moving one way or another on a political issue, we tend to follow.

Slide 25: So in this scheme we’re not so much focus on broadcasting or narrowcasting, but target-casting, where you're getting down to using fancy algorithms to deliver ads, and then influencers where you're actually engineering interpersonal contacts.

Slide 26: So again, we are lead by the all-important algorithms that I talked about before.

Slide 27: A little more of a window into how these algorithms work comes from the Cambridge Analytica scandal which emerged about 2012 (or something like that). I actually saw the first story about it in a German journal. It was a strange translation, but it described a bunch of social psychologists who had figured out a set of questions to ask that they used to paint a very detailed profile of somebody's personality type. Then other folks figured out that you can get this kind of information, in part, from tricking people online to filling out personality questionnaires for the heck of it, and also by just looking at what they post on social media. Then in 2015 and 2016, some supporters of Donald Trump figured out how to “weaponize” this information.  At a time when Democrats were scoffing at Trump for not playing the broadcast news game to win supporters, he was actually busy playing the target-casting game and focusing on this influencer level. And it turned out that they were very, very effective at that.

Slide 28: So you've got these matchmaking algorithms. But what you're talking about here is a little more than that. It's matchmaking down to the level of individual personalities and making contact with those personalities on an individual basis. This gets even more insidious for a reason I'll describe in a minute.

Slide 29: What is worth mentioning first, is the additional role played by the social media folks. These folks can be bad-faith actors themselves--in part because of what they do, and in part because they have a political agenda of their own. So, the way that they've structured the smart phone social media experience is such that they try to get people to pay as much attention for the most time on their platform as possible, because, like other media, they can monetize that attention. They have figured out that every time they make your phone beep, they get your attention. Most people just let their phone sit there when they know there's a notification. They have actually discovered that each notification releases a little dopamine in your brain.  You are literally addicted to your cell phone! Here's a Buzz Feed report that found a scandalous thing from Facebook. According to Buzz Feed, anything that allows Facebook to connect to more people, to get on their system is considered good, regardless of what they're doing system! So how are we going to beat some of this stuff?

Slide 30: One strategy that seems like it makes fair amount of sense is a fee-for-service model. Turns out, the amount of money Facebook and other social media platforms make off of you is pretty modest. I, for one, don’t buy much based on the ads, so it should be possible to work out a fee-for-service revenue model to replace the ad model. So instead of having to get all these ads in these customized addictive newsfeeds, I would get what I want and I pay them some money for it. That would generate enough revenue for them and it reduces this financial incentive to get people hooked on the system.

Slide 31: This guy has an interesting idea. He thinks that you could have a regulation that would prohibit these companies from offering customized newsfeeds to individuals that are designed to appeal their particular prejudices. He suggests we go back to something closer to the broadcast news era where news had to appeal to a broad group and in order to do that, it has to be more credible.

Slide 32: Yet another angle on all this is an important and especially disturbing problem of fake people. A good number of the people we and interact with on social media are fake—they don’t really exist! I have a suspicion that this is especially true when you get the huge groups of people—if they are on Twitter, they are called “Twittermobs” where hundreds or thousands of people sign on to an article or petition or write a university or business, demanding that a particular person be “canceled” or fired.  Are all of these people real? Some are, but I’m betting many are not. Facebook has 2.32 million users. But they say they have deleted 3 billion fake user accounts.  Think about that!  That’s more fake accounts than they have real accounts!,  At any one time, they, themselves figure that about 5% of all the users on the system or fake.

Look at this picture of a woman on this slide. She doesn’t exist—she is a fake. Here’s an interesting story that shows the technology that will generate an infinite number of nonexistent people that look very, very realistic. So you're getting these Facebook profiles with (apparently) real pictures, but they're not for real people. Yet they have political agendas and they are interacting as if they are your friends and they know enough about how to do that and they know what you like and what you wanted. So they become a “trusted” information source.

Slide 33: This a technology is advancing very rapidly. Folks are now developing what are called called “deep fakes,” which are developed using artificial intelligence technology to not only create the pictures, but to actually start writing these posts. Right now a lot of news stories that you think are written by people are actually written by artificial intelligence programs. So this is another tactic that can be used by bad-faith actors to influence the way we think.

To What Extent Are Conflicts Generated by Provocateurs?

Slide 34: This raises a really big question. This is something I'm unsure about and I don't really know that anybody's investigating this. It sounds a little like a “conspiracy theory, ”but I think it's a question worth asking. Which is: “how much of our hyper-polarized politics reflects genuine, heartfelt disagreements, and how much of it is being artificially generated by provocateurs?

Slide 35: Barry Weiss used to work for the New York Times. She quit, because she disagreed with the way in which the Times was enforcing a particular narrative, not providing what she thought was objective news. In her resignation letter she asserted that, while “Twitter was not on the masthead of the New York Times, it had become its ultimate editor of The Times. So again, the need to build and maintain an audience was driving the narrative. And this is going to be true for all the other big media companies. They look at the usage statistics to see how many people read your stuff for how long, and they look at all comments and they look at what folks say on Twitter and they decide that well, whatever the Twitter-verse likes, that’s what we’ll write more of. But suppose this had been engineered somehow.  Suppose many of those comments came from fake accounts which were actually twisting the feedback that news outlets were getting in ways that drive us apart—again, by these bad-faith actors.

Slide 36: This starts to address a mystery for me. I’ve seen lots of articles-- here are three of them--but there are lots and lots and lots of them—that tell outrageous stories of actions taken under the auspices of the “cancel culture.”

Slide 37: These stories tell of innocent people who lost their jobs and all sorts of terrible things happened to them for what seems like ridiculous reasons. Let me share just a couple of examples. One story reported on a guy who didn't know what he was doing, who unintentionally used a white-supremacist hand gesture. He was fired for that. Another guy tweeted out a reference to an academic paper that was written decades ago that extolled the advantages of the nonviolent civil rights protests. He, too, got fired for that. Somebody else got fired for teaching a Chinese word--the proper usage of the Chinese word--but it sounded a bit like the N-word, so it got them fired. In story after story, I’d read such things, and they don't make any sense—why, I wondered, would people do that? They do inspire a lot of opposition from folks who think that the cancel culture has gone off the rails. But it seems odd to me that so many people are going to sign up online to support some of these crazy things!

Slide 38:  It may be that they're just trying to virtue signal or moral grandstand and be “clicktavists” (clicking activists) that don't really do much,

Slide 39: but it also might be being socially engineered. Here, (maybe) is an example of that. Again, it’s unclear as to whether this is true or not. But the technology is such that it's possible, and we ought to pay attention to this. This story claims that roughly half of the Twitter accounts that were pushing to reopen America during COVID were bots--automated fake people, rather than real ground swells of opinion! When you think about how big of a flashpoint that became in our politics--and the fact that it maybe was engineered--that raises some pretty big questions!

Slide 40: It also helps suppress people who might normally challenge this because they're afraid to speak up out of the fairly-justified fear that if they do, they're going to get the Twitter mob chasing after them as well.

Slide 41: Here are a couple of stories that explain the whole process of reinforcing a narrative. The first one is how Pro-Trump forces pushed the lie about Anttifa--the anti-fascists and how they were involved in the capital riots. This other one is a disturbing story about how we may be overselling the hate crime narrative, especially with respect to white supremacists and anti-Asian hate.

Slide 42: Ultimately, of course, this could go further and start to underwrite the really crazy things that people believe-- like QAnon.

Slide 43: All of these things are based on a lot of the vulnerabilities that I talked about first video. That raises again the question of how can we get at least our social media back to talking about real people?

Slide 44: It’s not going to be easy, but Amazon has actually been confronting something of the same problem where companies would create lots and lots of fake people and log on to Amazon and write glowing reviews of their products. So Amazon started a program of highlighting comments from people who are verified purchasers so you don't get to comment unless you've actually bought maybe that item. Maybe that’s the germ of an idea. Maybe it will take us somewhere.

Geopolitical Destabilization Campaigns

Slide 45: The next thing to think about is to get out of the notion of bad-faith actors just being folks who are trying to build their economic and political position within a society, and start looking at this whole set of problems at the level of global geopolitical tensions. At this point you have Russia and China doing this sort of thing. But there are also minor powers who are playing these games: Iran and North Korea, for example. 

Their goal, apparently, is simply to weaken an adversary. If they can get everybody fighting with each other, that's to their advantage. It doesn't really matter who wins. (Of course, it is always nice if your guy wins). But it doesn’t really matter.

Slide 46:  Some of this came out in the Mueller report which indicted 12 Russians and laid out a pretty sophisticated effort that took place back in 2016. This effort tried to support Trump’s candidacy, but probably more than that, drive and amplify the divisions within US politics.

Slide 47: Now there is a lot that we don't know about this. These are a couple of articles that highlight what has and what hasn't been determined.

Slide 48: But you are not crazy if you start asking whether this sort of rapid deterioration of US politics, especially over the last eight years, has actually been something that was a foreign attack in which Russians really played a significant role? Is it a 21st century Pearl Harbor?  I sort of doubt that it is, but maybe it is in part.

Slide 49: It might be designed to be a distraction from our own failings. An awful lot of these things we are doing to ourselves. This series of articles that explain how a lot of the techniques that we are blaming the Russians for, we are actually doing to ourselves. In fact, very rich, very low profile American political actors are doing a lot of it. And again, we don't know quite how much.

Slide 50: But it's also worth remembering that once you're getting to this level of talking about revolutions, talking about geopolitics and superpower tensions and what amounts to cold wars that are edging on toward hot wars, you're starting to deal with a really brutal game. If you look at what happened in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in almost every country, the brutality of the response certainly ought to give you pause.

Slide 51: Here’s another series of articles on the kind of authoritarian threat that China is mounting. Consider the story what's happening in Hong Kong. Or the story what's happening to the Uighurs. The story of China's use of a lot of these profiling technologies along with technologies of social control really ought to scare everybody!

Slide 52: So part of what we need to do to deal with this bad-faith actor problem is at the level of counter-influence operations. This is the sort of thing that comes out –or ought to come out of the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies where we monitor the flow of information across the entire Internet. We need to be able to understand, identify and intercept hostile communication. But we are a long way from having an effective system to do that.

Slide 53: So bottom line from all of this discussion is that we need to give the bad-faith actor problem the attention that it deserves. This is very serious. And it can deteriorate very rapidly. And it is something that can change the future in ways that none of us would like.

One last comment. This is this is the bad-faith actor part of the problem. The other part of the equation which we’re going to get to another parts this guide is the key to being able to challenge the bad-faith actors by showing them how good-faith democratic governance can actually build a society in which we would all like to live. If we can have that vision, then it's a lot easier to resist all of these tactics that I've been talking about.


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