The useful idiot syndrome

How good intentions might fuel online hate.

How the useful idiot syndrome might be fueling online hate.

For the last three years, I’ve cultivated a weird online pastime.

Whenever I see something in the feed that I reckon could be perceived as offensive to some random cultural identity group, I go straight for the comments. While strangers arguing might be entertaining, there’s a rather strange communicative phenomenon that I’ve been focusing on.

For instance, in one of my social feeds, I might find a Gary Larson comic strip that depicts God in front of a bunch of animals while declaring, “Well, now I guess I’d better make some things to eat you guys.”1

Useful Idiot Syndrome | Behavioral Psychology | Doctor Spin
Comic strip by Gary Larson.

Not surprisingly, there will be a few critical comments made by the occasional offended Christian creationist, or whatever the identity group may be in any given instance. However, my first reaction is often that there are a lot fewer of these types of comments than I would’ve guessed beforehand.

Sometimes, and not counting obvious bot- or troll accounts, I even have to scroll through hundreds of comments just to find one single commenter who seems to be truly offended.

In a sense, this could be indicative of something positive about social media. Maybe the popular concept of “everyone on the internet is being offended by everything on the internet” is acutely over-estimated and simply blown out of proportion?

Still, the comments, however many or however few, made by real persons being truly offended aren’t what interests me here.

Instead, what I often find are massive volumes of commenters complaining about those who complain. In relation to each other, it’s interesting that they are so many and that the ones that they’re complaining about are so few. And while some are just politely pointing out that taking offense might be an over-reaction, there’s typically also a lot of ridicule, ad hominem — and hate.

I often find posts with hundreds of comments from people who are furious about other people taking offense where none should be taken, when there’s no actual comments from anyone who has made any claims at all of being offended.

The phenomenon seems to be a version of the Bandwagon Effect:

A rather significant percentage of the type of people who comment on posts made by people or organizations they don’t know personally, they get triggered by merely seeing a post that they believe are offensive to a cultural identity group that they stereotypically think of as being overly sensitive or morally deplorable. Being triggered, they preemptively rush to the comments to aggressively condemn the anticipated behavior of the identity group — often times without even seeing any actual such reactions from other people.

It could be non-Christians expressing their hate against Creationists for not having any sense of humor, it could be angry males attacking feminists for being vengeful and mean, but it could be almost anything related to anything related to identity politics.

The useful idiot syndrome, if it is indeed a real phenomenon, can have serious consequences. It could be a social media post linking to a news story about the first person born in Africa to win a gold medal in a Scandinavian winter sport. While there might not be many real racist comments to be found, there might be hundreds and hundreds of comments brimming of hate aimed at racist comments they have only imagined. Then, in the next news cycle, the story transforms into a story of how the gold-medalist’s accomplishment resulted in racist attacks.

Aside from partly ruining a triumphant moment for the athlete in the above scenario, a media situation is manufactured where, in this case, real-life racists might feel empowered by a disproportionate amount of attention that sits way above their numeral significance in society. In conjunction with the conversion theory, cultural groups could be effectively pitted against each other literally while literally drenched in hatred — without that hatred being represented accurately.

As this moral war animosity potentially sparks higher engagement, it becomes a compelling proposition for news organizations and social media algorithms to favor news stories that fuels this phenomenon.

Also, the useful idiot syndrome might result in fertile breeding grounds for targeted attacks perpetrated by destabilizing interests using various destructive social engineering tactics.

There’s a risk that many of us, at least those of us who are actively commenting and engaging with people outside our personal circles, are acting like accelerants for polarisation — despite good intentions. By overcompensating to signal our personal moral value, we might be acting like useful idiots for those who doesn’t support our side in the moral war.

Still, this is only an anecdotal observation at this point.2 I cannot stress that enough. I could be wrong for many reasons and we need academic studies to determine whether or not this is an actual phenomenon. Good news is that it should be a testable hypothesis, I believe.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer.

Update: Only a couple of weeks after this post was published, an interesting event took place in Sweden: The police issued a public warning to Swedish parents to watch out for a specific TikTok challenge where boys are encouraged to sexually assault females — and share the video on TikTok.3

This, then turned into a national news item and a vivid social media discussion and many Swedish schools sent out a warning to parents urging them to discuss this matter with their children.

Was there ever any such challenge? If there was such video challenge, the useful idiot syndrome only served to spawn opportunities for people to post such challenges to provoke further discussion.

And, as a result, we scare young children using fake news and we frame young boys as sexual predators — actions that might be orchestrated by reactionary agendas operating in the shadows.

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  1. I love Gary Larson, so the scenario is quite plausible — the algorithms surely seems to have figured this out already.
  2. The various comment sections I encounter aren’t randomly selected since the algorithms are selecting them for me. By engaging with a certain type of discussions I might be reinforcing a systemic bias. Furthermore, I haven’t actually codified various types of comments and I haven’t properly been counting exact ratios.
  3. For more context in Swedish and sound advice to parents, read Elza Dunkel’s blog post.
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Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.org/
Jerry Silfwer aka Doctor Spin is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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