Risingshadow has an opportunity to feature a guest post by Matthew Kressel, who is one of the contributors to the Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena anthology.
About Matthew Kressel:
Matthew Kressel is a three-time Nebula Award finalist, a World Fantasy Award finalist, and a Eugie Award Finalist. He has written dozens of short stories, a few novels, and is the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan. He is also the creator of the Moksha submissions system.
About Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena:
WELCOME TO THE ULTIMATE MINDMELD
From Atlantis to the Third Reich and beyond, these thirteen original tales of cerebral science fiction and horror explore the evils that abound when humanity wields extraordinary minds as weapons, whether to wage war or prevent it. Steeped in psychic savagery, telekinetic combat, and extrasensory espionage, PSI-WARS imagines corrupt governments and daring operatives, gods and soldiers and hackers and spies. The authors don't flinch when they peer around the darkest, most violent corners of the human psyche. Will you?
Guest post: “You May Change the World” by Matthew Kressel
On a recent Joe Rogan Experience, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk expressed his worry that too much globalization could put us at risk for a “mind virus.” And while the subject was Musk’s brain-computer implant NeuraLink, the fact that Musk wasn’t talking about a software virus seemed to go over Joe Rogan’s head. Musk was talking about an evil meme – a malicious idea that, because of our deeply connected society, rapidly spreads across the world doing great harm.
For obvious reasons, when we think of pandemics we think of infection of the physical body from viruses or bacteria. We don’t consider pandemics of the mind. But ideas can be just as deadly.
Consider for example the pernicious idea that vaccines are more harmful than the diseases they prevent. In 2018, 140,000 people died from the measles, a 100% preventable disease, yet there still are people who refuse to vaccinate themselves or their children because they have been fed the poisonous idea that vaccines are harmful.
Or what about the toxic idea that scientists have less credibility on a subject than, say, politicians? In the United States, 14% – a whopping 45 million people – deny that humans are the cause of climate change. This, even though NASA, who by any sane account should be the world’s expert on planetary weather, reports that 97% of climate scientists agree that human activity is an extremely likely cause of climate change. But never mind this overwhelming body of expertise. Our U.S. president said climate change a Chinese hoax. Or a liberal conspiracy. Or creeping socialism. Or something.
Right now as I write this people are attacking Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as being part of some conspiracy which, depending on where you look, intends to bring Satan’s realm to earth (his vaccine is the Mark of the Beast), or will line his pockets in gold (he’s supposedly heavily invested in a vaccine), or intentionally released the virus (with the help of Bill Gates in an evil scheme to control the world). What do we make of a world where Fauci, who has served as health advisor to every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan, can become suspect of not only being partisan, but of heinous crimes? Meanwhile our current U.S. president openly and brazenly promotes unproved and dangerous “cures” and is somehow still lauded by his immutable 40%.
My point is, evil memes already exist. They’re all around us, in the air we breathe, and, often without our realizing it, in the media we consume. Some of these poisonous ideas are generated by well-meaning, but deeply misinformed individuals. But most of them – the vast bulk, I think – are crafted by highly skilled corporate and nation-state manipulators. Corporate think tanks and government psy-op teams invest millions of man-hours and use the latest technology to influence public opinion. The Heartland Institute, for example, worked closely with Philip Morris to deny the dangers of second-hand cigarette smoke. And they’re working hard, as you read this, to deny that climate change is real.
State-funded groups like Russia’s Fancy Bear – through generous help from privacy-eating organizations like Cambridge Analytica -- blasted individuals in the U.S. with highly targeted ad campaigns to stir up political unrest. They used Facebook and Instagram ads that specifically targeted existing racial, religious, and political divisions in America to foment anger at every turn. Russia-backed operatives took out ads promoting Black Panthers and White Power on the same day. They stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment to rile up the political right and they supported third-party, vote-sapping candidates to fragment the left. And in one famous instance they planned opposing rallies at the same Houston Islamic center, one vehemently anti-Muslim, and one strongly pro-. The purpose of all of this was to sow social discord. But ultimately, it’s about power.
It is said that he who controls information controls the world. The problem today is that there is so much of it. Three-hundred hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute. The internet today has around 100 zettabytes of data (a zettabyte is one sextillion bytes, or one followed by twenty-two zeroes). We are at the receiving end of a firehose of information, and there’s no shutting it off. The manipulators know this. They understand that it’s difficult to seep through all of that information to easily discern fact from fiction. Our brains can’t keep up, and so we seek trustworthy voices to summarize the world for us. And, more often than we like to admit, we let others do the thinking for us. And so, as with COVID-19, poisonous ideas may infect us before we’re aware of them. This is the power of an evil meme.
In the just-released fiction anthology, Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena, I have a short story that explores this specific topic in detail. In my story “Very Surely Do I Not Dream” Russian hackers unleash a deadly mind virus into the world. The virus, known as ZG, or Mind Ruination, causes paranoia, hallucinations, and eventual madness in anyone it infects. The idea of such a mind virus is, of course, speculative. To my knowledge we don’t have the power to drive people insane with a meme. Yet.
But I worry that the torrent of misinformation is stronger than our ability to counter it. But we can counter it. Studies have shown the best and most effective antidote to online misinformation is two-fold:
One: we need to be aware that others are trying to manipulate us. Most people watch TV ads and recognize that advertisers are trying to convince them to buy something. But it’s much harder to sense that the increasingly political posts you’ve been seeing from your favorite Facebook cat-lovers’ group is actually covertly run by a nation-state psy-op team intent on changing your political leanings. Being aware that we are constantly being subtly and not-so-subtly manipulated – by the social media we consume and the sites we visit and the videos we watch – is the first step in countering toxic misinformation.
Two: a person should address misinformation with correct, factual, and referenced information as often as possible. Even better, we should continually provide correct, factual, and referenced information, even when we are not countering falsehoods. Climate-change deniers like the Heartland Institute and others are busy spreading lies, and in some corners of the internet their lies are more prominent than the truth (cough – YouTube – cough). Instead of reacting to each deceptive message in knee-jerk fashion, we might regularly remind people of the dangers of climate change and point them to the overwhelming body of evidence showing that the danger is real. Right now, misinformation is winning because the liars are better at spreading their messages. There are simply more of them.
A corollary to this is: don’t repeat poisonous messages you see online, even if you find them offensive. For example, when you say, “I can’t believe John Schmuck said the Earth is flat! The Earth is not flat!” you have actually twice repeated the message that the Earth is flat to whomever is listening. Instead, consider countering misinformation with accurate information instead: “John Schmuck is wrong. The Earth is *round*.” In other words, saying, “Don’t think of a Pink Elephant!” makes it nearly impossible not to think of one.
There’s no easy solution to the spread of toxic ideas. Like the coronavirus, most of us don’t have a natural immunity, and so unless we gird ourselves, unless we take active preventative measures, toxic ideas may take root in our societies and cause grave harm. But the first step, as I said, is knowing the liars exist.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite Depeche Mode songs, “New Dress” which sums up my feelings quite nicely:
You can’t change the world
But you can change the facts
And when you change the facts
You change points of view
If you change points of view
You may change a vote
And when you change a vote
You may change the world