The Useful Idiot Syndrome

How online samaritans is adding fuel to the fire.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

The useful idiot syndrome amplifies online hate.

In this blog post, you’ll get a deeper insight into a strange social media phenomenon that makes us all into useful idiots.

By pointing fingers at a specific instance of bad behaviour, we amplify the perceived momentum of that behaviour instead. Even if the behaviour never actually existed in the first place.

Let’s dive right into it:

Like Flies on Dirt, We Gravitate Towards Conflict

I’ve cultivated something of an online pastime for the last couple of years.

Whenever I see something in the feed that I reckon could be perceived as offensive to some random cultural identity group, I head straight for the comments.

While strangers arguing in the comment section might be entertaining, a strange communicative phenomenon often occurs:

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.” 1I love Gary Larson, so the scenario is entirely plausible—the algorithms seem to have figured this out already.

Gary Larson - The useful idiot syndrome
A Far Side comic strip by Gary Larson.

Aha! A joke that points out one of many logical flaws of religious texts. That ought to attract some religious fundamentalists. “Lets’ see if some wacky creationists are going to town in the comment section,” I suggest to myself.

Whenever I get the impulse to dive into a public comment section looking for people fighting each other, I get two distinct notions:

One is the notion that this behaviour probably isn’t very productive.

And two is that I’m not the only one heading for the comment section to enjoy some expected mayhem.

When “Good” Samaritans Are Crying Wolf

Whenever I dive into a comment section to entertain myself by enjoying people stating just how offended they are, I’m typically able to find a few such comments. But rarely as many as I would’ve foreguessed.

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

In a sense, this could indicate something positive about social media. Maybe the popular concept of “everyone on the internet is being offended by everything on the internet” is acutely overestimated and blown out of proportion.

Still, the comments made by people who have taken offence, however many or few, don’t interest me here.

What truly interests me is that I’m finding droves of comments from two types of people:

1. Meta-Samaritans. The first group complains about those who are taking offence. “People who are offended by this content have no right to be offended,” they say. This group won’t hesitate to express harsh opinions despite a complete lack of comments made by people being genuinely offended.

2. Double-Meta Samaritans. The second group complains about those who complain about those taking offence. And this group is typically just as nasty and hateful as the first group.

Now, we have an online fight on our hands. But for what reason?

Stirring Up Online Hate on a Cold Brew of Nothingness

Sure, some meta-samaritans politely point out that taking offence might be an overreaction, but there’s typically an unproportionate amount of unwarranted ridicule, ad hominem—and plain hate.

And sure, some double-meta samaritans are just politely pointing out that taking offence isn’t an overreaction. Still, the amount of unwarranted ridicule, ad hominem, and plain hate is equally unjustified.

Is all this hate between hundreds or thousands of commenters essential when there are only a few comments (and sometimes none) made by people genuinely taking offence?

I often find posts with hundreds of comments from angry mobs furiously fighting each other over claims never stated by anyone in the first place.

I’ve even seen numerous content creators being forced to publicly delete their content and apologise despite no evidence of anyone who took actual offence.

Why the Useful Idiot Syndrome is a Force Majeure

At face value, the helpful idiot syndrome seems intrinsic to human nature. When we feel at odds with the world, we tend to overcompensate.

Overcompensating signalling virtues might result from feeling that our morals are under attack. But instead of making the world better, we stir up more online hate instead of less.

And some might be actively seeking to pick a fight because it’s socially safe. The useful idiot syndrome might be a psychological version of the Bandwagon Effect:

A significant percentage of people who comment on posts made by people or organisations they don’t know personally get triggered by merely seeing a position that they believe is offensive to a cultural identity group that they stereotypically think of as overly sensitive or morally deplorable.

Being triggered, double-meta samaritans preemptively rush to the comments to aggressively condemn the expected behaviour of the identity group—often without seeing any actual reactions from other people.

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

Consequences of the Useful Idiot Syndrome

The useful idiot syndrome, if it is a natural 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 accurate racist comments to be found, there might be hundreds and hundreds of words brimming with hate aimed at racist comments they have only imagined. Then, in the next news cycle, the story transforms into 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 pitted against each other literally while drenched in hatred—without accurately representing that hatred.

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

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

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

Still, this is only an anecdotal observation at this point. 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. The good news is that it should be a testable hypothesis, I believe. 2The various comment sections I encounter aren’t randomly selected since the algorithms choose them for me. I might reinforce a systemic bias by engaging in a specific discussion. Furthermore, I … Continue reading

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Update: A few weeks after this post was published, an exciting event occurred in Sweden: The police issued a public warning to Swedish parents to watch out for a specific TikTok challenge where boys are encouraged to assault females sexually—and share the video on TikTok. 3For more context in Swedish and sound advice to parents, read Elza Dunkel’s blog post.

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 a video challenge, the useful idiot syndrome only spawns opportunities for people to post such challenges to provoke further discussion.

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

PR Resource: Amplification Hypothesis

Amplification Hypothesis

It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them. The harder you “attack” someone with words, the more you convince them of their belief, not yours.

The phenomenon is also known as the amplification hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.

“Across experiments, it is demonstrated that increasing attitude certainty strengthens attitudes (e.g., increases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are univalent but weakens attitudes (e.g., decreases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are ambivalent. These results are consistent with the amplification hypothesis.”
Source: A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis 4Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue reading

How does the amplification hypothesis work?

In a threatening situation or emergency, we resort to the primal (fastest) part of the brain and survival instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 5Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous thinking—This thinking style is at the heart of radical movements and fundamentalism. Even people who exercise abstract thinking, logic, reason, and the ability to recognize complex issues can resort to this thinking style when threatened. 6See also conversion theory.
  • Egocentric thinking—People who demonstrate non-egocentric thinking in many areas can also resort to this thinking style under stress. When a target is labelled an enemy, a series of cognitive steps justify violent behaviour and prevent altruism and empathy. 7Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted thinking—we tend to ignore details in our environments that do not support our thinking and beliefs. 8See also cognitive dissonance.

Using an emotional attack on a cognitive attitude will increase resistance, whilst a cognitive attack will be more effective. A logical attack has less impact on an emotional attitude, whilst an emotional argument is more powerful.

Attacking

To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.

Defending

To put off a persuader, mismatch their attitudes. When they are logical, be emotional, and vice versa.

Read also: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

PR Resource: Conversion Theory

Conversion Theory

The disproportional power of minorities is known as the conversion theory.

How does it work?

The social cost of holding a different view than the majority is high. This increased cost explains why minorities often hold their opinions more firmly. It takes determination to go against the norm. 9Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

In contrast, many majority members don’t hold their opinions so firmly. They might belong to the majority for no other reason than that everyone else seems to be. 10Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.

“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
Source: changingminds.org

According to conversion theory, while majorities often claim normative social influence, minorities strive for ethical high ground.

Given the power of normative social influence, minorities must stick together in tight-knit groups that can verbalise the same message repeatedly.

Read also: Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 I love Gary Larson, so the scenario is entirely plausible—the algorithms seem to have figured this out already.
2 The various comment sections I encounter aren’t randomly selected since the algorithms choose them for me. I might reinforce a systemic bias by engaging in a specific discussion. Furthermore, I haven’t codified various comments and correctly counted exact ratios.
3 For more context in Swedish and sound advice to parents, read Elza Dunkel’s blog post.
4 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810–825. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013192
5 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
6 See also conversion theory.
7 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
8 See also cognitive dissonance.
9 Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.
10 Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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