The Divide and Conquer Authoritarian / Plutocratic Threat

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

September, 2018

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This post focuses on the nature of the rapidly-advancing high-tech authoritarian threat and sophisticated propaganda techniques that are being used by those who seek power over everyone else.  These strategies intensify and exploit existing cultural and distributional divides for selfish gain. Of particular concern is the very real possibility that today's high-tech information system could, in the absence of successful peacebuilding, give authoritarians a decisive advantage over democratic forms of governance.

Full Transcript:                                  

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I want to talk in more detail about the nature of the divide-and-conquer strategy and the  authoritarian and plutocratic threat.


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Slide 2. Again, the focus here is on defending democracy and not partisanship. While there will be things here that criticize President Trump, that's not the main focus. The main focus is defending democracy. President Trump and the controversy surrounding his presidency is not so much the problem, but a symptom of a much larger problem.

Slide 3. This goes back to Sarah Chayes' book, Thieves Of The State, and the threat that corruption poses to global security. It also adds to that long-standing problem a new set of problems associated with emerging technologies that I think are changing the game in very worrisome ways.


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Slide 4. The focus is on the dangers posed by what might be called the global oligarchy – an informal network of very, very rich and powerful people operating through a wide range of multi-national organizations that are, to varying degrees, in various countries, accumulating ever more wealth and power.

Slide 5. This also goes back to my silly diagram about puppeteers and divide-and- conquer conflict manipulators. It's important to understand that the struggle against authoritarianism is very different from the struggle between the left and the right. To an alarming degree, the conflict between the left and the right is being driven by the manipulators and not any real grassroots public feelings.

Slide 6. In the last post, I highlighted this article, which I'll mention again briefly, which provides a detailed description of one instance in which this is playing out in real life.

Slide 7. The whole idea, which I explained in more detail in the last post, is that, somehow, we have to build something close to a 99-percent coalition to challenge the authoritarians and plutocrats.

Slide 8. To do that, we have to find ways to effectively damp down the animosities at the same time provocateurs are trying to inflame them. The goal is to break the provocation/counter provocation spiral.

Slide 9. An earlier post describing the conflict between Coexisters, Fighters and Divide and Conquerors is important in this context.

Slide 10. What it does is imagine aligning all of the people in a society in a big row. (See figure in PowerPoint slide.) Towards the center are the coexisters (or compromisers)--the folks who want to find some way to live together in peace. At each end, are the fighters who, for whatever reason, think that their side can't compromise and must fight on toward total victory. In the middle of each side, there are the "swing people" who can't quite decide whether they want to align themselves with the fighters or the coexisters. Some of the fighters are principled advocates for their group who really do believe that compromise is unacceptable and that they've got to fight to defend their group's interests against the injustices perpetrated by the other side. Other fighters are, however, just divide-and-conquer types who are trying to manipulate the whole thing for their own selfish gain.

Slide 11. In any event, the key is to somehow build peace. This doesn't mean complete agreement and resolution of the underlying conflict. It means agreeing to coexist and tolerate each other to the maximum extent possible, while still constructively engaging on the tough issues that exceed the balance of tolerance.

Slide 12. In other words, we need to reframe today's big conflicts as conflicts between those who favor "power-with," constructive conflict and coexistence versus the fighters who seek "power-over" everyone else. Both groups are fighting for the hearts and the minds of the swing people. 

Slide 13. Another metaphor that is applicable in this context is the distinction between grassroots conflict, which reflects deep underlying feelings of the population, and high-tech "AstroTurf politics," where the issues (or at least the intensity with which these issues are pursued) is fake and engineered by provocateurs using cynical and very sophisticated propaganda techniques.

Slide 14. Another way of thinking about what's different about the way in which divide-and-conquer provocateurs approach conflict is based on two models of political advocacy. Some people think that if you want to be a politician, you should study policy and you learn how to put together policy papers that sensibly analyze problems and propose compromise solutions that meet the needs of as many parties to the dispute as possible. The problem is that these policymakers are often unable to persuade the larger population that their ideas make sense.

An alternative route into politics focuses on advertising. Advertising is all about persuading people (and, sometimes manipulating people) to take whatever position you want them to take. Indeed, advertisers are very good at selling people things that they may or may not want or need by using sophisticated techniques that manipulate human psychology. Advertisers are also very good at doing this in the mass- communication environment, which characterizes today's world.

This suggests that, at the level of competing policy briefs, people also need to learn how to communicate and argue for their policy proposals in a communication environment dominated by the advertising world of high-tech persuasion. And those who are good at selling things could  benefit from policy analysis that helps assure that what they're selling would really advance the interests of their constituents.

With respect to our focus on divide-and-conquer propaganda, however, it is clear that manipulative high-tech advertising poses a serious threat that needs to be challenged.

Slide 15. The 21st century, divide-and-conquer, disinformation threat that we are dealing with now is different from what we've seen before. I'll show you some citations in a moment that will give you a lot more information on this. To understand what's going on now, it is useful to think in terms of a step-by-step plan for "authoritarian wannabes." This is a little different from what we outlined earlier when we were talking about the basic divide-and-conquer strategy. Still, this is the nature of the emerging high-tech threat.

For the first step, you need very sophisticated framework for identifying politically-relevant personality types. Our understanding of the complexities of psychology and neurobiology has now reached the point where there are people who are really very good at doing this.

The next thing that authoritarian wannabes need to be able to do is obtain information from both legitimate and illegitimate sources that's sufficient to allow them to identify and contact people individually. This is the ability to send messages inexpensively to a particular person (or group of people with very similar characteristics) and not to the community as a whole.

The next key is the ability to actually categorize very large numbers of people according to these politically-relevant personality types. This is something that Cambridge Analytica figured out how to do during the last election and it seems certain that unscrupulous actors continue to get better and better at doing this.

The next key is to prepare materials that inflame tensions, drive the escalation spiral, and make left-right compromise seem so impossible that people feel that they have no choice but to support one side in an all-out fight.

To see what people are doing along these lines, you can look at some of the references suggested below.

Slide 16. The next step is to create lots and lots of fake people on social networks who are presented to your target audience as "trusted friends." You don't just want to send out an ad--which people tend not to trust. You want to make it seem like people are getting advice from people "just like them" – people who they can trust. This kind of fake peer-group pressure is especially insidious.

At the same time, you can try to monopolize (and, if necessary, create) "narrowcast" news channels aimed at a particular audience that tells that audience what they want to hear and what the authoritarian wants them to hear. This is something that talk radio and Fox News has been good at. There are similar things being done (though, perhaps, in a somewhat subtler way) on left-leaning media that tell folks what they want to hear.

The bottom line is that you want to distribute these propaganda materials that you've created to the people that you have identified by personality type using the trusted individuals in your manufactured social network of fake friends.

Another key to this is something the RAND Corporation calls the "firehose of falsehood" strategy. Here the idea is to flood the media environment with so many competing and often outlandish claims that it becomes almost impossible for individuals to figure out what's true and what isn't. In such circumstances, people tend to believe what they want to believe.

The final step is to hide your actions behind an elaborate and secretive array of organizations and confidentiality agreements so that nobody knows who's doing what.

So, that's the broad strategy.

Slide 17. Now let's look at a few readable articles that explain all of this in much more detail. To start with, here are three articles about Cambridge Analytica. The guy on the left, Christopher Wylie, is the guy who sort of figured out how to do much of this before he concluded that it was a bad idea. Since then, he's become a prominent "whistleblower." At any rate, this article is the story of the Steve Bannon's psychological warfare tool.

The other articles provide a more comprehensive update on this strategy and addresses the question, does this really work? The key point in this article is to look beyond the immediate question of whether or not the impact of the techniques is being overstated or whether they really did change the outcome of the election. The danger is longer-term. Since people can be expected to get better and better at doing these kinds of things, we need to think of high-tech propaganda as a continuing, emerging, and evolving threat.

Slide 18. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the fake people problem, this this is an article about recent testimony before Congress from a key executive of Facebook, who, among other things, claimed that there are two billion Facebook users in the world. That's a lot of users! The thing that really got me, though, is that they have deleted 1.3 billion fake user Facebook accounts. And, even while they're doing that, people are busy generating more, so that, at any one time, roughly 3% of the Facebook users are "fake." So that tells you somebody is trying very hard to keep playing this game. And, they have to pretty deep pockets to be operating at this level.

Slide 19. Then there is the "firehose of falsehood" problem. This is a article from the Rand Corporation (Research Applied to National Defense), on the Russian firehose of falsehood propaganda model, how it's working, and what might be done to oppose it.

Slide 20. You certainly see a window into this with some of the indictments that have come out of the various investigations of Russian influence into the last US election. What I find so persuasive about the indictments is that they identify specific people and describe exactly what they did.

Slide 21. Perhaps not surprisingly, propaganda warfare gets tied into other kinds of warfare. These two articles talk about the Russian art of hybrid warfare. It is hard not to conclude that this is a direct international attack aimed at preventing democracy from functioning effectively. It is also an attack that continues to intensify and become ever-more sophisticated with the apparent goal of ultimately leaving the field open to authoritarian, plutocratic regimes around the world.

Slide 22. The other thing that is important to emphasize is that it's not just the Russians. In today's highly escalated environment, domestic politicians are, too often, using a lot of the same techniques. Exactly who is responsible for what is not quite clear, because the nature of and responsibility for the various actions taken is being carefully hidden. Still, I think that it would be a big mistake to assume that it's all just the Russians. This is what politics has become, and we have to find some way to fix it! Doing so is essential if we are to have any hope of promoting coexistence and tolerance along these distributional and cultural divides that I mentioned earlier.

Slide 23. I've mentioned how this is an emerging threat that will keep getting more sophisticated, especially as people learn how to apply artificial intelligence technologies. Here, again, are a couple more detailed articles that give you a better sense of what I'm talking about.

Slide 24. In case I haven't depressed you enough, these are two articles that talk about how authoritarian rule is being solidified in China using a wide range of monitoring technologies Many of these tecnologies are tied to smartphones and others are tied to face recognition technologies that can track people in any public space. Using this information and all sorts of very sophisticated tracking technologies, the Chinese government assigns people "social credit scores." If Chinese citizens do things that the "powers that be" think aren't deserving of social credit, then your life chances can take a really big hit. This raises the prospect of an authoritarian regime with an enormous amount of ability to control people.

Slide 25. The last dismal article that I talk about (I also mentioned it in the first post in the series) explains in more detail about how this might work.

The bottom line is that, to save democracy, we have to figure out some way to defuse the cultural and distributional conflicts that are getting exacerbated by divide and conquer provocateurs using high-tech propaganda.

Slide 26. When we think about what this means for the lives of our kids, our grandkids, and pretty much anybody else that we care about, it gets pretty scary. But we just can't give up. We've got to get past worry, fear, and depression and actually start taking concrete and realistic steps to address these problems.

Slide 27. The thing that we found encouraging in working on this massively parallel peace-building project, is that there are, in fact, lots of realistic things that can be done to get us closer to a solution to these many problems. In the next post, I'm going to try to build on these last series of posts and identify some very specific steps that we can all take to help address this. So don't be too terribly depressed, but the truth is, we've got to actually start doing things!

Post Script

Since this slideshow was created. Foreign Policy published the following article on the Uighurs, which offered an another disturbing window into China's new, high-tech, authoritarianism (and a case of cultural genocide).

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