So you want to join the information war
Some insight and advice I had to learn along the way
Some of my research and conversations with friends in recent days have sent me back to the beginnings of my time in the information space. It happened when I joined Twitter in January 2017. I was extremely not online before then. I did write a health and fitness blog for an online outlet that didn’t pay much, was sold and shortly afterwards shut down. Before that, I barely used social media. I played video games and online chess. I read the news. I read books. I binged shows on Netflix and was happy to stay away from the toxicity I knew was all over the internet. I never planned to change my routines much. I didn’t need to be terminally online.
It turned out that 2017 changed my life in unexpected ways. I joined Twitter and started collaborating with various researchers looking into Donald Trump’s business ventures, his connections to Russia, his various advisors and followed the money on super PACs, collected open source data on gangsters, learned how money laundering worked and how to identify disinformation networks. I shared everything on Twitter. Some people used that information to further their journalism. Some used it to dig further into the data or look at a different angle that I had missed. I wasn’t looking for credit or money. We were all trying to do the most good we knew how. It became an obsession, and it came with costs. I started seeing random trolls I’d never interacted pop up into my feed. For a while I ignored them but eventually I started to fight back. I trolled the trolls, and they trolled me right back. The fights grew. People picked sides. Some I considered friends online disengaged or disappeared. The toll of the information war we’d unknowingly jumped straight into wasn’t worth it for them. It wore them down. I watched it break people’s spirits.
With some distance from my earliest experiences on Twitter, I can safely say I made mistakes along the way. I picked fights I didn’t need to. I made enemies out of people who could’ve been allies or friends. Regrets, I’ve got a few. I’m still fighting, but I’m fighting smarter than I used to. The way I ended up surviving it was by disengaging. I realized feeding the trolls only made them keep coming back. It only motivated to post something worse the next day. I finally let go and realized there was no winning the trolls wars. There’s only surviving them.
I was reminded this past week of the many people who were with us in 2017 and no longer are. I don’t know most of their real names. I don’t know where they are or how they’re doing in the real world. I don’t know which ones remain online under different names. What I do know is Twitter is center of the information war once again, 2024 is coming, and it will break you if you let it. What I offer you below is what I’ve learned and what I hope you consider before really diving headfirst into the deep end. I’m not talking about sharing articles and content online. I’m talking about getting into the trenches with people who want to twist your mind in knots and fundamentally break your spirit.
If you really think you want to join the information war, or if you get thrust into it without warning, let me offer you some advice based on what I learned along the way.
If you don’t have to join it, then don’t.
Fighting people online becomes an obsession. It sucks you in, and then it sucks more and more time out of your day. You’re always looking to get ahead of your enemy. You’re always trying to spot the flaw in their argument or time your response in such a way that it damages the narrative they’re trying to sell. This means always searching and always being online. As you do this, you spend less and less time taking care of your home, your job, your family and all the other important details in your life. There’s only so much time and energy you can devote to anything in a single day. The information war will take over your life, if you let it. It may start off as a hobby, as an occasional activity that piques your interest. Some people are able to keep it that way, but many aren’t. You don’t know if you can really keep this work part time, and it’s why you shouldn’t try to juggle it if you don’t have to. It’s simply not worth the risk.
No one is coming to save you. We can only save ourselves.
Mueller didn’t save us. The emoluments clause didn’t save us. Two impeachments didn’t save us. Sessions didn’t save Trump. Durham didn’t vindicate MAGA. “Q” didn’t send anyone to GITMO.
Whether it’s on the right or left, the constant belief that someone is going to swoop in and right all the wrongs of the universe is a central focus for people who get caught up in the extremely online political commentary. After six years of this, I can tell you with extreme confidence that no one is coming to save us. No one is going to make all the bad men go away. No one is going to round up all the criminals. The world and the people in it will continue to do what they’ve always done. Some people will go to jail for committing crimes. Many others won’t face any consequences. The world will continue turning. Bad men who do go down will be replaced by new bad men. We can’t save everyone, but we can make a difference. To do that, we have to accept our own limitations. We can do a little good, some of the time. You can help individual people. Your research can expose specific crimes or specific criminals. Your outreach can save people from the being consumed by extremism and/or conspiracy theories.
But only in small doses.
There is no “winning”. You go out and fight every single day, and it never ends.
This brings me to my next point. A constant feature among the people I talked to online was the idea that we were almost to the light at the end of the tunnel. Mueller was coming soon. The convictions really were going to start dropping to round up all the criminals. Trump’s latest outrage would really be the end of him! Once more into the breach, dear friends!
But it didn’t happen. As I said, the world keeps turning. There is no final boss we defeat to end all the corruption, pain and suffering in the world. There are only minor victories we can achieve. We should enjoy those victories. We should be proud of the people we help and the good we do in the world, but we should also know they’re only one small part of all the good and the bad that exists out there. Tunnel vision makes it seems as if our little bubble is the only thing that exists or should matter to everyone on planet earth. It’s never that simple or easy. How could it be, with seven billion people in the world?
The work is never done. The corruption never ends. Pure good and pure evil are rare. Replace your ideas of black and white with gray. The final battle to vanquish the foes of justice makes for good movies, but it’s not real life.
Only pick the fights you have to.
Social media drives us to rage, conflict, bickering and infighting—all of which leads to inflammatory arguments where we often feel inclined to pick one side over the other. It’s true, there are times when a fight is worth having. There are wrongs worth attempting to make right, but I think these are infrequent exceptions, not the rule. Whenever you pick a fight with someone on social media, you force the followers who are mutual friends of you and the person you’re attacking to either uncomfortably ignore the situation or choose a side. Even if you’re right, even if it’s blatantly obvious that you’re the aggrieved party, there’s no guarantee your mutual followers are going to see it that way. Every attack, every slight on social media can start by one little snide comment, and this can create a snowball effect wherein a group of former allies can quickly turn into sworn enemies.
Early on, when I thought this Twitter Life and my social media use was a short-term gig, I did not consider the consequences of each fight. I wanted to do the most good, and at times, I believed the most good required the most criticism as possible. I always tried to be honest in my criticisms! I believed those criticisms were fair at the time! Sometimes they were. Plenty of times they were not. I lost friends along the way. I alienated people who could’ve been allies. I didn’t help people who were willing to listen. I pushed them away.
Our interactions on social media are often brief and fleeting. Be kind. Assume the best of people until you no longer can. Ignore most offenses. Only start online wars if you’re prepared to finish them—and realize what it may cost you along the way.
Decide what you want your brand to be early on.
The way social media works, especially Twitter 2.0, social media bickering is the equivalent of algorithmic catnip. Fights draw attention which draw replies which draw more replies and quote tweets and become primary drivers of the conversation. Ryan Broderick over on his Garbage Day newsletter wrote about how easy it is to make posts viral on Twitter now, and it very much aligns with what I’m writing here. Quote tweeting someone, even to fact check them, only tells the algorithm a post is more important and needs to see by more people. Sometimes this is worth doing, but understand the effect. Simply seeing a post causes people to respond to it—either in favor or opposition. If you’re pushing a political agenda or want to grow a brand online, you should throw all the hot takes you want out there and stir up trouble.
If you’re someone who wants to make a living through social media, by all means use the algorithm to your advantage. If you want to do the most good on social media, understand the inflammatory takes may draw attention, but they’re unlikely to make anything better on their own.
Survive. Don’t let the bastards get you down. That’s the most important thing.
When I think back on the last six years, my greatest accomplishment isn’t the articles I’ve provided research for, the blog posts, the retweets by celebrities or any other fleeting dopamine hit. There have been some cool moments along the way—watching Nick Fuentes get banned was pretty high on the list—but really what I’m most proud of is the fact that I survived. I’ve received threats. I’ve dealt with internet and one particularly heinous real-life stalker. I’ve dealt with defamatory insults along the way. My experience isn’t particularly unique in this way! I know a lot of people who have dealt with similar and much worse due to their extremist work. It sucks, but it’s something you have to accept if you stay online.
That’s the thing though. There have been quite a few people along the way who wanted me to give up, to quit, to log off for good, but I didn’t. I have no plans to. I think I can make a small but significant positive difference in the world, and I’m going to keep working towards that. You can do the same, and the simply act of trying to do good may make you quite a lot of enemies. You can’t ever really beat a persistent internet troll. They’ll come back and keep coming back and keep finding ways to try and tear you down. You win if you keep going. You win by not being consumed by the vitriol that comes your way.
Avoid emotional responses online. Trolls are always after emotional responses. They will exploit them to torment you further.
The people who troll you via small follower, usually anonymous accounts have a simple goal. They want to find your pressure points, your weaknesses, your painful memories and exploit them to cause maximum damage. They will poke and prod and wait to see how you respond. If you respond to a particular type of harassment, they will double down on it. If attacking your spouse evoked a response, you can expect five more posts attacking your spouse. If mentioning your kids gets you to scream into the void, they’ll up the ante with a picture of their school. The goal is to find what makes you tick, escalate, swarm and set you off. It’s a simple strategy, but after days and weeks and months of this sort of harassment—which you can often do little about—even the most well-adjusted person can start to break down.
I’ve witnessed it. I’ve seen what it can do to people. Right and wrong don’t matter here. Do not let them see your pain if you can avoid it. Do not post while you’re raging. Do not fight back with ad hominem attacks. This only invites more of the same awful abuse.
But how can you not? You should go outside. Take a walk. Touch grass. Frequently. Put the phone away. Hold your family tight.
The dopamine hits from Twitter can be an addiction as debilitating and deadly as drugs and alcohol. Really. Some people can drink without ever becoming an alcoholic. Others can’t. The same goes for social media use. Most people can use the internet responsibly, but not everyone can. Once you get sucked into this world, it can feel as though it supersedes everything else in your life. Why? Because most of us have pretty normal lives! The reason people get hooked into QAnon is partly because they believe they’ve captured an experience and a purpose that’s far greater than themselves. Why take the dog for a walk when your memes can save the children?
QAnon is the most extreme example, but it’s the reality of what happens to certain people’s brains on social media. They get fixated and can’t let it go. I’ve done this. You’ve done this. We all do this sometimes, but you have to recognize it and re-center yourself away from a computer screen. If you don’t, you run the risk of only traveling further down the rabbit hole and some people don’t make it back up intact. It can fundamentally change you as a person. So go outside, spend time with your family, read a book. You do not actually have to respond to @Shitposter_1488 in a timely manner. He can wait, and the world won’t actually end.
Keep accurate records. Implicit trust is not a virtue.
Save every email. Keep your text messages. Save screenshots of your private chats or messages. Archive every piece of work you do. Buy a safe and put a hard copy of your original work inside of it. Sound paranoid? Well, maybe it is, but the people you consider friends today may not be your friends tomorrow. It’s the internet. People lie. Stories get embellished. Memories get fuzzy. Details get forgotten. Lies metastasize into grievances that you never saw coming. Some people are not who they seem to be! Some people change! Do not assume things with strangers on the internet. If they can turn a profit by ratfucking you, plenty of them will do it!
Protect yourself. Watch what you say to anyone at any time. Do not assume your messages are secure. Do not assume you and the person you’re communicating with is the only one who will see these messages. Always assume your phone calls are being recorded.
You’ll thank me later.
Avoid information bubbles. They’re pathways to extremism or conspiracy theories
You may think you’ve found a safe place to get your information that isn’t an echo chamber, but that may or may not be true. The only way you can know for sure is by getting a variety of takes from a variety of sources. No, don’t be like me and spend hours on end watching Steve Bannon or Charlie Kirk. I do that as a job and you shouldn’t subject yourself to it or take on the risk of being radicalized into believing them! It does happen to people, and it could happen to you. However, read lots of different outlets across the non-crazy political spectrum. Follow non-crazy right-wing accounts, libertarians, technology outlets, liberals, progressives and everything in between. The less diversity of thought you experience, the more likely you are to move into a sort of tunnel vision. This not only warps your sense of reality. It builds animosity towards those who don’t think like you or you don’t agree with. This leads to unnecessary arguments which leads to unnecessary enemies.
Remember, most people aren’t good or bad. They’re just people! Sometimes they have an agenda—political, economic or otherwise—but that doesn’t make them evil. That doesn’t mean they’re you’re enemy. An agenda isn’t inherently villainous. Don’t assume the worst about people because most people really aren’t so bad
Know that you’re going to fuck up, and that’s okay. We all have.
You’re going to make mistakes on social media. You’re going to trust people you shouldn’t. You’re going to pick fights that we not worth having. You’re going to share stories that later turn out not to be true. If you aim for perfect, you’ll drive yourself mad, but responsible social media to me means remaining human. Admit mistakes. Ask forgiveness. Do better next time. Most people will understand because most people aren’t that vindictive and terrible. Some people won’t, but you know what, the people who treat you the worst online often treat a lot of other people terribly too! Goodness and decency rise to the top.
The information war isn’t something you should wade into lightly. If you decide to join the fight, strap in, hold fast and prepare for a bumpy ride.
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