A Review of “the Engineers of Chaos”, by Giuliano Da Empoli
Find below a summary of the book “The engineers of chaos” (Les ingénieurs du chaos) available only in Italian and French.
The summary is followed by a short critic. The book was written by Giuliano de Empoli and came out in 2019.
In a book published in 2006, Peter Sloterdijk explains the origin of political anger. According to him, it originates from a feeling of injustice, exclusion, or discrimination spreading throughout society.
Historically, the Catholic Church had been the first institution to focus on these social groups and channeled their anger. Left-wing political parties took over amid the industrial revolution. In 2006, Sloterdijk declared that no institution was there to welcome and channel the rage of the people, which could have unforeseen consequences. In 2018, the author explained that populist parties had taken over the role.
If the rage felt by the populations is empirically justified (social-economic inequalities, among other things), it is also built on an unarguable fact.
Society has changed. A lot.
People have changed. The elites have changed.
The cause of this evolution, according to the author, is the new communication technologies. Internet, smartphones, and social media.
The Consequences of Technology
Technology impacted society in two different ways. The first one concerns the speed of technology. Its immediacy accustomed users to have their desires immediately fulfilled.
Whether it is to inquire about the train schedule, shop online, access free entertainment to kill boredom, or verifying that the prof got that fact right in the middle of a lecture, smartphones gratify us with instant satisfaction.
As technology spread, people became less tolerant of slowness and inefficiencies (such as public policies, for example). As a result, the attention span has decreased from 15 seconds in 2000, down to 8 seconds in 2015. The brain needs constant stimulation.
The second aspect to consider regarding technology concerns social media.
Human beings are social creatures. We want to be liked. Signs of affection trigger dopamine in the brain as they inform the individual about a higher likelihood of survival within the group. Those signs can be a compliment, a hug, a kiss…or a like on social media.
Validation from social media has been so abundant that users became hooked. They want more.
Social media subsequently appear as a second online “reality” where users experience kindness and affection.
This creates a paradox. Users feel successful online yet their “normal” lives remain mediocre. This duality creates frustration and incomprehension.
To evacuate this frustration, users subsequently tend to end up on two different websites: porn, to release the tension, and conspiracy theories.
Both, in their own ways, serve as a loophole.
Conspiracy theories discharge us of the responsibility of our misery by designating an exterior cause responsible for the status quo. If our lives are so mediocre, it’s because of x, y, z.
They are written in such a way that trigger emotional responses, which explains their popularity on social networks.
They produce clicks and shares and keep users stuck to their screen in an endless cycle of emotional amplification.
This pattern was spotted in the case of the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and to a lesser extent, in the movement of the Gilets Jaunes in France. Calls to murder (in Myanmar) and hate were amplified by social media.
To summarize, hate emerges out of two simultaneous events: the decadence of the institutions charged to canalize it and the emergence of new media that spread and amplify it.
The intelligence of the populist has been to place themselves at this crossroad and harness the power of hate and social media to accomplish their political objectives.
Populism in Italy
Beginning in 2000, Gianroberto Casaleggio, an Italian marketing expert, understood how the Internet was going to revolutionize politics. Yet he felt society was not yet ready for the constitution of a purely digital political party.
To give his idea a human dimension, Casaleggio decided to hire an Italian stand-up comedian, Beppe Grillo, to be the figure of his movement. In 2005, both launched a blog, beppegrillo.it.
The marketing background of Casaleggio encouraged him to treat voters like consumers and to apply sales theories to political engagement. The important stream of data harvested on the blog allowed him to get precise and abundant feedback on users’ experiences, wishes, fears, and desires.
These data were then used to build the content of the blog based on users’ comments and different popular themes of the time: governmental incompetence, banks stealing the honest citizen, and more.
Each post uploaded sparked reactions that provided feedback and better targeting for the next post in a never-ending cycle.
The popularity of the blog exploded up to a peak reached during the organization of the “V-day” in 2007, which saw hundreds of thousands of Italians protesting after a call issued by Beppe Grillo.
Neither classic politicians nor the media had seen it coming.
Confident in their popularity, Casaleggio and Grillo decided to launch the Five Star Movement, a political party based on the functioning of the blog.
The structure was simple: The Five Star Movement was built as a political platform on which members expressed their opinions.
The drastic rules implemented and the legal structure that identified the movement as a private entity belonging to Casaleggio allowed him to expel any member that did not respect the rules.
The declarations of the political figures of the party that Casaleggio had chosen for their youth, lack of charisma, and lack of experience, were based on the data harvested through the platform and social media.
Early on, Casaleggio used emotionally investing content to increase engagement with his lieutenants’ speeches.
The constant stream of data allowed him to micro-adjust the party’s messages to always be in phase with the population. The program, purpose, and ideology of the party did not exist, as it reflected at all instants the desires of its members.
In 2013, the Five Star Movement became the first party of Italy. In 2018, it governed the country.
Populism in the United States
As Barack Obama was celebrating his victory for the 2008 presidential election, newspapers and experts around the world saluted the end of racism in the USA. That same night, Google registered a peak of the search term “first n***** president”.
The first to foster a movement opposed to the likes of Barack Obama was (out of all people) Donald Trump. He quickly gained support among the white working class, starting by questioning if Barack Obama was American.
Through this act, it was not so much the citizenship of the President he was questioning, but the rightfulness of the idea to have a Black person sitting for president.
To this story was added the conspiracy theory that Obama had been placed at the head of the US against the wish and interest of the American people. Finally, the last ingredient of Trump’s recipe was the fake news claiming that Obama was not born in the US, which Trump later recognized as a lie.
At the time when Trump started his non-official political campaign, the US social and political climate was politically correct and established on the traditional meritocracy.
However, under all appearances, people were unhappy. One man at that time had felt that something was about to happen in the US. That’s how Steve Bannon entered the picture.
In 2005, Steve Bannon participated in the launching of a video game company in Hong-Kong. The idea was to sell gaming artifacts earned by professional Chinese players to lazier players around the world.
The unfairness of the practice triggered a torrent of anger in the gamer community. The violence of then reactions considerably surprised Steve Bannon. That’s how he learned of these “invisible communities” and of the power he could harness from them.
Entered Milo Yiannopoulos.
After several scandals in the gamer community made Yiannopoulos a political commentator, Steve Bannon who, by that time in 2015, had started working for Breitbart, decided to offer Yiannopoulos a job as editor of the Breitbart tech section.
The purpose was for Bannon to mobilize the gamer community through tech news, and slowly lure them into politics to make them Trump supporters.
The message was clear: democrats are muzzling freedom of speech and anonymity online (which are the core of the gamer community). Trump is the only one there to defend it.
During that time, Trump was jumping from one scandal to the next campaigning in the country, under the disapproving look of the democrats.
The ridicule, vulgarity, and rudeness of the character comforted the democrats that he could not win because someone such as him could just…not win.
While Trump was talking to “the forgotten of the country” and leveraging communities usually ignored in political campaigns, the democrats were untiringly repeating to themselves that a Trump presidency was impossible.
The rest was history.
Populism in Hungary
To understand the story of Hungary (and almost all of Eastern and Central European states), we need to contextualize the position of these ex-Soviet satellites.
When the Berlin wall fell, the elites of the East started a process of “westernization” based on imitation.
However, the problem of imitation is not so much that the imitator is worth less than the original, but that it gives the right to the originals to judge the success or failure of the imitation. For the imitators, this led to a feeling of loss of sovereignty.
While ex-Soviet countries lived in fear to be criticized by the West until 2010, the paradigm unversed: “27 years ago, we thought Europe was our future, declared Orban in 2017. Today, we realized we are the future of Europe”.
This all started with Arthur Finkelstein. As he was not even 20 years old, this Jew from New York started militating in the right-wing of the Republican party.
He rapidly became an expert at electoral campaigns based on denigrating the candidates he’d play against.
His craft made him known outside of the US to lead campaigns in Europe and Israel, and he eventually met Orban in 2009.
At the time, Orban had already been prime minister but had lost the election after a financial crisis had propelled his country into the arms of the IMF and the EU.
The two men decided to organize Orban’s next political campaign based on a backlash against the “elites from Brussels”, despite Orban originally winning with a pro-European campaign.
In 2010, Orban won with more than 50%.
From there on, Orban signed the beginning of a new era for Hungary. To gain popularity, he surfed on an anti-western sentiment inherited from the end of WWI (which saw Hungary amputated from about 70% of its territory).
Later on, corruption scandals tied to personalities closed to Orban sent his political party in limbo at 20%.
Their attempt at reviving the Fidesz with debates on capital punishment did not work. They needed a new enemy, which the refugee crisis was going to give them.
As millions of Syrian refugees entered Europe, banderoles and ad banners started to appear in the streets of Hungary with messages denigrating refugees.
Orban opposed the homogeneity of the Hungarian culture and people to immigrants that were coming “to steal the work of Hungarians”.
Later, the plan of the EU to impose quotas of migrants to each country became a benediction for Orban which declared war on the “diktats of Brussels”.
Orban has been ruling Hungary ever since.
The author tells the story of a director of refuge for cats.
For a couple of years, the director had been noticing that black cats got more often abandoned and less often chosen by customers.
After some research, he realized that the phenomenon was countrywide.
One day, a young lady explained to him why: “black cats do not appear well on selfies, the camera has trouble capturing them well. But white and ginger cats appear the cutest”.
The extreme narcissistic period into which we live coupled with new technological communication and the immediate satisfaction phenomenon risks seeing the representative democracy abolished.
Smartphones have allowed users to interact and decide directly and immediately, rendering representative democracy “useless”.
When the Trump campaign team was testing its 5.9 million different online messages, it was testing messages targeted at the scale of the individual.
The individual wants to think it is in command, but the reality is that what the individual perceives is a hyperreality designed for him/herself. Not for anyone else.
On top of breaking communities, smartphones and social media have split people from each other.
Even if the community still existed, it could not function well because everyone lives in their reality, their bubble, complicating the experiences of sharing and exchanging about one common reality.
As such, it is not power, money, safety or materialism that people desire most. It is human connection.
While the media portrayed scenes of extreme violence during the Gilets Jaunes movement, many did not have the chance to see the scenes of joy and happiness. Most of the protesters were not fighting the police but danced and assembled on roundabouts and in the street.
The Gilets Jaunes movement may not have been so much a protest movement than an event to share some time with friends, families, and neighbors. An event to rejoice.
In the press, one journalist observed that “roundabouts and the street have replaced bars and cafés”.
The rhetoric of both the Five Star Movement and of Trump politics borrows to the personal development community the idea that their movement is about freeing people’s energy far too long reprimanded by the traditional elite.
Each member in their separate reality subsequently gets the feeling to be part of something historical, something grandiose.
The slogan of the Brexit campaign “Take back control” is echoing this feeling.
These slogans work because humans have a dire need for control.
Psychologists have discovered that dying patients in retirement houses were living longer when they had the right to decide about the place of a painting, a frame, a chair, a picture.
There is something in the human instinct that makes us want to take control of our own lives.
The lack of control, or worse, the feeling our control is in the hands of others, is deeply disturbing.
Populists have managed to harness this fear and give the people exactly what they desire: control over their own lives.
Or at least, the feeling thereof.
In Italy, the engineers of chaos managed to dynamite the center of the political spectrum to divide and push voters towards extremes.
Extreme-right populism ended up governing with the extreme-left populism.
It was the pinnacle of the achievement of populism, its the exact raison d’être.
Yet, in this chaos, someone seemed to have achieved the impossible.
In France, Emmanuel Macron managed to assemble both the right and the left in the center and to govern with everyone.
Doing so, he dynamited both the traditional right and the left parties.
While most of the electors moved to the center, the rest fueled the populist extreme-left and the populist extreme-right.
These changes and new paradigms have dynamited the political landscape of 2010 and before. It’s dead, and it’s not coming back.
The code and rules have been rewritten.
Traditional parties and the representative democracies themselves will have to adapt if they wish to keep the current democratic model.
Even though many have predicted the near end of populism due to the emptiness of their politics and political programs, populists have proven they can adapt to circumstances.
Liberal democracies have a lot to worry about.
The engineer of chaos is a remarkable book.
It attempts at reconstructing from a scientific, political, and historical perspective the genesis of the data scientists, physicians, and political strategists that led populist parties to rise to the power of the biggest economies in the world.
However, the author does not stop at telling this story.
Through an intelligent mix of history, sociology, and psychology, he explains the societal changes that established the base for populist parties to rise after a decade of liberalism.
His book, almost written like a scientific novel, follows a logical and geographical path. It explains the atypical careers of all these scientists hiding behind their computer screen, almost controlling the politicians they placed to power.
The book reveals several political paradigm shifts, fractures, and divides in society. The connector of those three is technology, used as a vehicle by the engineers of chaos to fulfill their political purposes.
It is not about one type of technology only, but about several that, by chance or opportunism, appeared at the same moment.
The first one is social media, whose business model is based on clicks on ads and time spent on the platform.
To do so, social media have made their use compulsive thanks to a smart system of likes equal to social achievement and hence delivering dopamine at each hit, reinforcing the addiction cycle.
The user is presented with content he/she agrees based on psychological profiling individually built with streams of data taken from the clicks, content read, and searched terms.
The unique content the user is exposed to participates in the creation of a digital reality into which the user is alone to live, hence creating needs of social connections assured by social media themselves.
When those needs are too high, the user ends up on pornographic and conspiracy sites, releasing him/her from responsibilities of the mediocrity of his/her life by blaming an external agent.
This phenomenon is one of the interactions linking social media and smartphones.
The second does not especially concern smartphones, but social media alone. Science (and marketeers) uncovered that emotional content received more clicks and attention from users, which sparked their use.
But emotional content also amplifies real-life emotions, among which anger, often targeted by the engineers of chaos.
Indeed, anger is an emotion that calls to action (vote) and can mobilize crowds for political support.
Finally, the third manner social media influence populations is with data and targeted messages.
As we said, social networking sites can build profiles of users thanks to their data.
Similarly, a company or a party can send targeted messages to influence users based on their psychological profile.
This technique was used to leverage an important number of people in the UK for the Brexit vote, people that would have not normally gone to vote.
The interaction of these technological components, coupled with psychology and data science, may be the greatest political hold-up in history. And the worse may be on its way.
The traditional media, guarantors of democracy, have neither seen nor anticipated the populist rise.
Worse, faced against it, they became incapable of defending themselves.
While the book is remarkable for its precision, simplicity, and details it brings, it fails at time to talk about elements that would have been interesting to the investigation.
The first one is the Russian disinformation campaign led both in the US and in the UK.
The second is the concept of the filter bubble.
Central to the theories of the author, the term was never mentioned in the book.
Besides that, the book remains more relevant than ever, for policymakers, parents or journalists, and all citizens that vote.
The engineers of chaos have managed to orchestrate a revolution through mass manipulation without anyone realizing so.
They have done it already many times, in many different countries, and keep their algorithms ready for the next elections.
This may be what sets them apart from dictators.
Everyone living in a dictatorship is aware of its nature.
In our present case, the instigators stayed in the shadow, no one knows their names or faces, and voters get manipulated while being persuaded of the opposite.
In the part on Italy, Casaleggio’s son compares the users of his platform to ants.
They must continually move, obeying orders, but cannot question the established rules and must not know that other ants work less than them, or they’ll want to do like these ants.
To continue with the animal metaphors, these engineers are similar to parasites.
They colonize the brain of their host without them knowing so.
They take control in the shadow.
The result becomes particularly deadly.
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