The long strange trip it's been
We pause for a blog article
Seven years ago I was making a debate app, and I was completely apolitical.
I don't think I've bothered arguing with someone publicly for years now. I think of debate differently lately; everyone wants to be the one who argues the point and gets to be the prize debater, but no one wants to be the one who decides and judges the debate.
The problem is, you can't have a debate without stakes, without a formal process and some sense of response back and forth; and there are no real stakes if everyone has a pre-formed, dead-set opinion on everything that matters.
A larger problem arises when a manipulative opponent uses debates and judgment as forms of deceptive argument and influence. I'd argue that it's actually very, very bad to submit to debate a question like "are Jewish people human beings", or "are immigrants entitled to the same respect as citizens", especially in a setting where the opponent has a pre-set trap in terms of audience and pre-formed reactions ready to go.
I don't think the humanity of other people is grounds for debate, ever. I don't find it pleasant to watch pictures and videos of people dying, period. That makes videos of Russian casualties hard to watch, but not as hard to watch as videos of American and Ukrainian casualties; and images and videos of the latter are not hard to find in the right places on Telegram and Twitter right now, or even Facebook if you know where to look.
The flip-over point for me was when dehumanization as a political strategy started to affect me personally, when it measurably and tangibly changed my life. That actually happened for me before 2020 and anti-Asian-American racism; that goes back to 2017 and the first wave of hate crimes against immigrants and especially Arab- and Indian-American immigrants.
So, five years ago I was a political activist. Some of the oldest friends I still have around come from this time period. I look back on this time as the starting point of the wars that have dictated my life since; I identified the Republican party under Trump as a critical center of gravity in propagating and entrenching dehumanization narratives, and like a lot of people in America, I accepted that we were in a kind of 'soft' civil war with our own President.
That binds people together in a way that is fairly unique. I've seen a few people - two women, one man, all white - all attempt to replicate the kind of social media group-based digital political operation that I studied and practiced back then, and all of them failed for different reasons, but most of them come back to not having that experience with people.
We won impossible fights; we still have impossible fights to win. We still have impossible fights that are ongoing. But recall what we had five years ago: a President whom we suspected of being a traitor, a bicameral legislature controlled in its entirety by that President's party, and a year to go until 2018, when we could express our will as a people and start to address the injustice that paraded itself around on Fox News as our representatives.
I know what it is to be on the winning side of an impossible fight: in 2017 in Alabama against Roy Moore, then again in the 2018 midterms, and again in 2020 when we all read the Transition Integrity Project and saw what the Trump administration had planned to contest the transition of power. We all know what it is to be on the winning side of an impossible fight now with our support for Ukraine.
One year ago, I was hunting extremists on social media in the days after the insurrection.
A lot of this isn't out there in public yet, just the bare statement that I used to do that for Facebook, out there in the Washington Post, buried alongside more important news about pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, and digital oppression in Belarus.
The thing is, here... remember, there are two rules about me: I don't lie, and I keep receipts. "Receipts", in this case, means that I have extremists on social media whom I have turned into data, not just about the mere fact of their existence ("oh, hey, there's extremists on Facebook, what do you know") but about their behavior, and how effectively they are controlled, and how amateurish and utterly unprepared the people who hunt them for social media companies are.
I was still, even a year ago, firmly focused on disinformation; this was actually the starting point for the Belarus work that I did. I legitimately expected disinformation on social media to be the central, palpable, "odd thing in a room you've never been in before" that I'd notice in my inquest into Belarus. I didn't expect that the government would end up being the extremists.
Eighty-two days ago, I didn't think that a large-scale war in Ukraine, on the scale of World War II, was possible or likely.
The work I've done since then has accelerated in tempo, and it is increasingly different than what I did before. I'm not chasing liars on Facebook anymore, and I haven't been doing that since last year.
I started by taking on Facebook. I argued publicly for the deplatforming of Belarus' state-sponsored oppression apparatus, and for the removal of social media accounts belonging to violent pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists recruiting and fundraising on social media.
I moved onto OSINT work hunting Russian military units, and started to discover the kind of differences I could make by passing research quietly and privately to people who could action it, instead of creating public pressure with it because people didn't action it.
Then I noticed that a separatist wearing Nazi symbols was getting an award, and then I noticed that other separatists were getting pensions because they got an award, and I put two plus two together. I followed the money that the pension fund was paying to the separatists - including the one wearing Nazi symbols - and I found (surprise!) Russian oligarchs at the top, and an arcane network of intermediating companies in the middle laundering their transaction.
Now, I'm onto something entirely different, and hunting an entirely different set of Russians, on the trail of kleptocrat money and thinking about that $5 million reward from Treasury like all the other activists and lawyers and NGO workers and researchers that have got to be out there, doing something like what I'm doing.
There are moments when I step back and marvel at it all.
Not for long, though, not yet, because there's still a war going, and my distant, indirect and separate part of it is not done yet.