When it comes to spreading disinformation in our society, the most effective way to accomplish this is through ” disinformation agents .” And these fall into two distinct classes.
The first (and overwhelmingly the larger of the two groups) are the “Neutral” or ” Passive Agents ” (also sometimes scornfully known as “Useful Idiots”). They spread false information or views based on incomplete or fragmentary data, and are often motivated not so much by testable or verifiable “facts” but rather by allegiances to persons or factions whose views they happen to promote. These allegiances are often unrevised and automatic, perhaps even “inherited” (for instance, if their families or friends share a given view, the passive agents themselves often adapt the same view, uncritically). Other times, these allegiances are a matter of personal choice (“I like this group I hang out with, so I won’t rock the boat with views which this group doesn’t endorse”). Other times still, it’s a matter of convenience (it pays better to stay loyal to the group).
The principal characteristic of Passive Agents in the manner in which they spread false views or data is, most typically, their lack of will to actively and thoroughly test the assertions they promote. When they do evaluate the given information or data, they typically tend to stop their research at authority figures. If so-and-so confirms their espoused view, then that’s sufficient proof for them. This lack of critical thinking isn’t due to their inability to do so, but rather their unwillingness , typically due to group pressures.
Because the “Passive Agent” is not motivated by spite or bad will, but rather by something which might usefully (if slightly offensively) be termed “sheep mentality”, it is not impossible to change his or her mind , given enough evidence, time and patience. It is, however, not always an easy process, because in the course of establishing any such “objective” proof to the contrary, the Passive Agent will invariably have to make a choice not so much between the two sets of data (facts versus falsehoods, for example, or “logic” versus “convenience”), but more importantly between the social groups to which he or she belongs – and is about to alienate him- or herself from.
The second, much smaller group, are the ” Active Agents .” These people know the facts and nuances of a given dataset or viewpoint, but deliberately set out to deceive the population at large, with an “alternative” version which best suits their interests. Active Agents are the definite minority but are typically directly connected to the social power centers and are frequently in positions of influence or political or economic power.
The manner in which they operate has changed over the years, most especially from the late 19th Century onwards, with the birth of the new branch of scientific inquiry: Psychology – and later Sociology.
Extensive observations, experiments and tests on the human psyche which have been carried out over the years revealed, among many other things, that “a lie shared” can trump “isolated truth” even among otherwise honest and decent people, for no better reason than their strong desire to conform.
Well-known psychological tests have confirmed that most individuals will conform to the group even when the object of their conformity is seemingly innocent, and quite obviously wrong – even in their own secretly repressed views.In one such experiment an unsuspecting subject would enter a testing room where, unbeknownst to him, all other participants were not subjects themselves, but rather assistants in the experiment. All would give deliberately wrong answers to obvious questions, and by the time the test subject had to give his answer in over 70% of the cases he or she would support the view of the group, no matter how patently false! (Some questions concerned the relative sizes of geometric figures, for example, where the obviously-smaller object was pronounced “larger” by the group – and the test subject agreed!). The said experiment is Solomon Asch’s Conformity Test and you can see an abbreviated video version of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sno1TpCLj6A. But another perhaps even more famous experiment is known as Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment (which dates back to the 60’s) and you can see a little 3-part video summary of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvSNg0HZwk&feature=related. It too shows exactly what the “passive agent” is capable of doing…
Knowing this and other aspects of human psychology ” Active Agents ” no longer need to “personally lie” to the society. They only need to “influence” or “lobby” – and communicate in a manner, language and tone which is calm, wise-sounding, logically reassuring – and at the same time good-naturedly (or otherwise) dismissive of any potential opposing views. This is also known as “arguing from position of authority”.
The public at large, having been exposed to such ” Active Agents ” will be extremely likely to support those views, no matter how flimsy the evidence to support them. And, in the process, become Passive Agents !
Now comes the tricky part.
You’d think that ” passive agents ” will only be present in the “lower” spheres of our society, while the ” active ” ones will most certainly hail from the “upper” governmental or corporate classes. While this is definitely true to a large extent, it is by no means the only way. Popular – (or by-definition “respectable”) people such as celebrities, artists, politicians, popular scientists, newscasters, etc, can all be ” Passive Agents ” too. In fact, a staggering number of them are! Many among the mainstream news anchors, for example, are Passive Agents , clearly. Their desire to conform with Powers That Be, to maintain their job security and the current circle of friends, makes them less-than-critical when representing information to the public. They’re not “dishonest.” Just conforming. “Brainwashed?”
A particularly infuriating aspect of this conformity (“sheep mentality” to you and me) is the Passive Agents’ tendency to use “derision as argument”. Or insult. This a priori shutting off of constructive, fact-based dialog is directly responsible for most of our societal woes. Perhaps it’s been that way forever during human history. But it’s never been as intensive as it is today, in the Age of Information. Or is it “DIS-information?”
In fact, we can easily extend the above “active/passive agent” paradigm well beyond “information.” It affects everything from legislation to research, to science, to interpersonal relations. Lack of will to dialogue with persons who advocate opposite (“unpopular”) views all too often masquerades as false superiority (“let’s not waste everyone’s time by discussing this”).
It is my contention that more than ” Active Agents, ” more than any would-be “Grey Eminences,” “Secret Governments” or “Hidden Power Brokers”, it is the ” Passive Agents ” – essentially the majority of all of us – who are the most responsible for the very issues we all complain about on a daily basis ( including the Passive Agents themselves! ).
By passively endorsing untested, unrevised and unchallenged views (on any number of issues), we have contributed to the creation of the modern “Nanny” (or rather “Police masquerading as Nanny”) states. We have helped shield – and vastly enrich – the worst criminals in our governments and most influential corporations, and we have allowed morality, ethics and human values to be subjugated to our desire to conform.
Well done, Passive Agents!
(originally posted here: Passive Agents Of Disinformation)