Transcript of Extra: Memetic Warfare & Pandemic Responses with John Robb

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by John Robb. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

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Jim: Today’s guest is John Robb, a regular guest on our show. John’s a thinker and writer about global level systems and conflicts. His main platform is Global Guerrillas on Patreon. You can Google it or you can find the link on this podcast’s episode page at I’ve been a long time contributor to John’s support on Patreon and I’d encourage you to do so, too. We don’t have independent voices like this if we don’t reach into our pockets and help them make a living.

Jim: John, let’s jump into three things that you’ve talked about over the last few days on your very interesting Twitter stream. The first is a very interesting development. The website has sprung up. And frankly, I predicted something like this back in 2012. Tell us about what is and what do you think the implications are?

John: Well, it’s built on the same kind of software that was developed to run counter narrative efforts against terrorist groups. There were a lot of efforts undertaken over the last decade or so particularly in response to ISIS trying to run counter narrative. And there’s lots of companies involved in that, too. There’s a Google wing or sub-venture that that focuses on that. It’s basically a kind of system that when it sees a narrative develop that could promote a terrorist group, it would then counter that narrative quickly and spread the counter narrative out to a lot of influencers. In this case, Defeat Disinfo is focused on Republicans and Trump. For example, if Trump says something like, “Why don’t you take disinfectant internally?” They would run a counter narrative and then, spread out the information. Or “That the pandemic is similar to the flu,” they would run a counter narrative against that. That’s it in a nutshell.

Jim: Oh, and then the key part, at least as I saw it, is that they’re recruiting an army of people to be their spreaders. They don’t seem to use bots per se, but rather they are organizing a decentralized narrative, multi-broadcast point with potentially hundreds of thousands of people who are taking their counter arguments and posting them in a fairly regimented and highly automated way, by the way, on Twitter and Facebook and various other platforms, emailing them to people, et cetera. And so this is essentially automating and organizing what’s been happening in a unautomated and disorganized way by a propagation of memes and links across social media and email.

John: Well, it’s focusing on getting those key influencers, those independent influencers to retweet the counter narrative or to post about it or write about it. And recruiting an army of people to make that possible or to distribute the information and get it into the hands of those key influencers is just a way of working around the rules that Twitter and other sites have blocking bots. What they’re looking for is what they call inauthentic communication, inauthentic posts, whatever that means. This is a way of working around that. If you get a lot of people enlisted to do this, then you can avoid getting snagged by those rules.

Jim: At least probably, maybe they’ll say, “Hmm, collusion, we just saw 17,000 retweets of the same post or of the same link. Seems improbable. We’ll see if there’s a counter arms race against this?”

John: Oh yeah. Most definitely there will be, It’s kind of like IEDs and counter IEDs. There’s an innovation in IED design and then there’s a counter that comes out months later, six months later and then two weeks later there is another innovation that neutralizes the counter IED work. This is definitely an arms race. It’s a global information war. It’s an interesting maybe direction for where parties are going, political parties, political networks are recruiting tens of thousands if not millions of people to amplify a message to get it out and doing it in a formalized way. That’s how parties evolve online. They used to do it through influencing news coverage and now recruiting a million people to amplify a message and doing it in a formal way is probably how they earn their support.

Jim: It seemed like, again, I think I wrote about this in 2012 in a document, not this exact form, but the idea of a sort of disciplined, organized, memetic armies and we mentioned offense, defense arms race, which will certainly happen. Presumably the Twitters and Facebooks will try to downregulate these messages. But obviously, platforms like this, will try to work around that. But the other, which I think is perhaps more interesting and gets to what you’re talking about, about this might be the politics of the future, is the offense-offense arms race, where let’s say these anti-Trump folks build up their army of 25,000. The Trumpsters then build up their army of 200,000. And so, as you indicate, this could be the future of how the parties actually communicate. And as we know, online discourse is way less disciplined, can turn way uglier than say, controlling mainstream media.

Jim: And the thing that came to my mind is let’s think this arms race going through two or three cycles here. And of course, in internet time, two or three cycles might be between now and September. And you know what it might look like is Germany in 1932, where the various right wing and right populous parties and the communists and far left parties, which there were several, were actually engaged in murderous street brawls all over Germany. Hundreds of people a month were dying in really ugly fighting in more or less quasi-organized and in some cases even paid, political street fighters, essentially. This could be what we’re heading for, some real ugly stuff with sort of quasi-organized brown shirts versus red shirts.

John: I have a whole report on that actually that looked at the Antifa versus the outright street battles and then I wrote a whole report looking at what happened in Germany on the street level in terms of how they’re-

Jim: We’ll put a post up on that, a link on our site. I also wrote a short story called Blood in the Streets back in 2017, which talks about sort of Antifa versus more or less legitimate Trump rallies spiraling out of control into violence. It hasn’t actually turned out that way yet, but it gives an indication. I think we’re all thinking about this.

John: I have some kind of a subtle critique of the whole approach though and it was kind of a built on my thinking about how it was used in the counterterrorism space is that it’s not as effective as people would think it is because Trump’s approach or the sense approach in general is more maneuver-based. It’s disruption, it disrupts cognitive function and then countering it quickly isn’t as effective in blunting that. The damage is already done and a subset of those people actually see the counter. It might be good at potentially grooming the in group and keeping them cognitively whole in the face of this disruption so they don’t feel like they’re constantly outgunned. But in terms of it’s general effect, I think it’s going to be pretty weak.

John: I think in terms of promoting a consensus, which is the opposite of the other political party or whoever that political party is, is the best way to promote the consensus is to solve the problem that consensus was formed around. And if you’re moving that forward, if you’re solving those problems, then you’re growing your consensus. And that’s the biggest failure that the Democrats have had. In this instance is that they have not jumped in front of solving the pandemic, completely abdicated it. And they’re not moving that consensus forward or whoever, whether it’s the Democrats or anybody, who stood in front of this and actually said, okay, let’s coordinate the efforts to get this thing solved.

Jim: Oh, but Democratic governors are doing a reasonably good job, certainly better than the Republican governors.

John: On a state by state basis. But we talked last time about a kind of doing that kind of national broadcast, taking in all these open source efforts. There’s lots of cool stuff that could be done. We’re talking this morning or I was talking to some people this morning about the national guard being mobilized and there’s more national guard being already mobilized in the United States than the Canadian and UK military’s combined. It’s been a huge mobilization that’s going through the end of June. And there’s a kind of a slot. These guard soldiers are out there at the meat packing plants and in other places and critical infrastructure that’s been taken down because of the pandemic and they’re supporting the reboot of this infrastructure.

John: And it occurred to me that there’s a whole new space that could be developed, a kind of a universal guard, a Swiss army knife of a mobilization that where you bring a group of people that have the capacity and the ability to learn quickly and the willingness to work hard and those people could be mobilized. And once you’ve vetted the list and those people could be mobilized to come into a situation and get that infrastructure going again. And this works at the national scale or maybe even at the community scale where you have a group of people that have these array of subspecialties or just ability to learn quickly. Now that we have access to all this information, if you have the ability to learn quickly, you can boot yourself up really quick, very, very fast. And then get them to come in and get a factory going again and getting the PPE and it in doing in a safe way until the regular workforce can come back in.

John: That could be kind of a force that would really be something that could be coordinated at national level. But there’s this moving the solution set forward is really the way to consolidate the consensus and make it feel like it’s actually moving in a direction that has some kind of positive conclusion and that grows it, that grows the center of gravity, increases the attraction of it and it accumulates more people and pulls them out of the descent.

Jim: You could imagine this little Swiss army knife militia being unofficial, being say, an arm of the Democratic party for instance?

John: It could be. You think of it also at the local level is you have lots of critical infrastructure that could be taken down and knowing or assembling a group of people that can do that, that have been vetted and vouch for and are willing to pitch in and come in and do what’s necessary to actually boot that piece of infrastructure back up after it’s been shut down. It’s even more powerful if your local government willing to fund it, willing to pay the people to come in and do this. You can get all these like positive cycles of reinforcement, if you can get it going.

Jim: Makes it makes a lot of sense. Let’s move on to our next topic. Something you’ve written about recently. The economic shitstorm that’s about to land or has been landing and will become more obvious in about a month is going to prune the economic field. There’s going to be winners and there’s going to be losers. Any thoughts on how we might think about who are likely to be the winners and who are going to be the losers, who are going to be least relatively stronger against their competition on the backside of this thing?

John: Well, there’s the pure play companies that are only viable in the pandemic when things are shut down and then there’s the ones that can straddle both sides. My son’s company Code Academy, his company straddles both sides. They’ve been making money when there isn’t a pandemic and they’re making more money now that there is, so they can handle both conditions. Amazon is certainly in that camp. The strongest players will be the ones that can handle coming out of the pandemic as well as they’re making a lot of money right now during the pandemic. Amazon added what, 175,000 employees in the last couple of months. They’re making money hand over fist on this. My bigger worry is more like is that the US government is at risk here because we’re benefiting right now from this flight to safety. It’s keeping our borrowing rates in the cellar. It’s really cheap to borrow right now for the US and if this persists and if this crisis persists and relative to everywhere else, it may be something that reverses and that we’ll see people fleeing the United States, fleeing the dollar and driving up our rates and that could cause a whole cascade of problems for us.

Jim: Yeah, that problem’s been sitting out there for a long time. This epoch of cheap money for federal borrowing is the only thing that keeps our even previous stack of debt at $20 trillion from crushing us. If we paid the historical average federal funds rate, which is about 5% average across all maturities, we’d be laying out something about 70% of income tax receipts just on interest. And so, this sword of Damocles has been hanging over us for a long while and it could be, particularly if we misplay both the public health side, which it looks like there’s some chance that we’re doing and the fiscal side, we could be in a world of hurt, we may lose our status as the world’s reserve currency.

John: There’s benefits to cohesion and stability and being the most cohesive and most stable country of any size for a long time has yielded us incredible benefits as the world became more unstable and more chaotic. But if that reverses at all, boy, the decline can be very, very quick.

Jim: It could be a phase change, as we’d say in complexity science, where we go from the perception of high cohesion and coherence, which frankly, is probably not really been true for the last 10 or 15 years, to a state where people recognize the fact that the US is in a bad way and more or less dysfunctional. Even though, again, I would point to the fact that it probably has been dysfunctional for 15 years, but people weren’t really aware of it yet.

John: It goes back to my challenge for the 21st century, at least for nation states, is to maintain cohesion in the face of a complex world, which is throwing off complex crises, again, one after another. First, 9/11 and then the financial crisis and now this. A crisis that has embedded non-linearities and ha lots of uncertainties even if you dig into it, you’ll uncover even more uncertainty. That’s the thing that actually turns a crisis that… People talk about predicting the pandemic and you can predict the kind of broad outline of a pandemic, but the one that really gets you is the complex one and the one that keeps on giving. Even if you know what it is and how it operates, you still can’t deal with all the complexity that you’re being faced with.

John: It’s constantly changing and the challenge is ongoing and it does so much damage over so much time that you end up seeing massive change in the social structures that are built to confront it. And we saw that with 9/11, yielded the GWAT, the global war on terror and yielded all sorts of changes to the US government in terms of militarizing police and et cetera, and spending gobs of money, $6 trillion on foreign wars that we shouldn’t have spent. And then the financial crisis obviously did a lot in terms of de-legitimizing the government in terms of its inability to actually punish the people who committed the fraud. These complex situations or these complex threats can keep on giving over decades.

Jim: And then this is very, very important point you’re hitting here on, John, which is frankly, no country on earth is actually very good at dealing with complex situations, nonlinear [inaudible 00:18:19] embedded nonlinearities without the complete set of data. In fact, the usual real world big problem, you only have part of the data. For instance, the pandemic, well we knew pandemics happen. Just look at the occurrence rate, about one every 10 years, but what are the parameter settings. This one happened to have a set of parameter settings that people hadn’t thought of, which is just lethal enough as we talked about last time to be a scary and disturbing, but not murderously lethal like MERS or something, but highly, highly contagious, asymptomatic. It’s essentially a parameter space.

Jim: In fact, I’m working on an essay right now. I’d love to send you a copy of it for your thoughts before I actually publish it, Asking the US government to establish a department of wicked risks where we actually build up the capability of complexity science modelers, network theorists, et cetera. And think of it almost like a planning staff like the military has, but for the civilian sector, which will enumerate as many known categories of potential wicked risks like pandemics, like solar flares, several others, which I enumerate and does some probing with leading edge thinkers for what unknown unknowns could become known or at least speculated apart. And then would actually build models that are parameterized for as many of these situations as they could afford. And so that, again, complex thinking does not come naturally to humans. We weren’t raised in a world where high nonlinearities play out over short periods of time really impacted our lives very often, maybe a forest fire or something like that, but not too often. And now, our societies are going to be put at risk of at least extreme damage if not actual collapse by one wicked risk after another. And it seems to me just like we have a Department of Defense, we also have to have a department of wicked risks.

John: And a lot of the stuff has to do with them changing our perspective on response and we try to solve these problems with traditional thinking and it just doesn’t work. For instance, the way in which we shut down international borders, we’re slow and methodical and we try to do it selectively. But with this kind of threat, you have to do it quickly and all at once because they’re so easy to route around. But it’s these assumptions that we have about how things operate and that we can optimize the solution and that there’s a way to kind of target the bailout money or that we should do it higher in the stack in focusing on corporations versus individuals. All of these things are clearly mistakes if you look at it from a holistic perspective. And looking at it from a perspective of complexity, it’s a different kind of assumption set. We don’t know the particulars of any given crisis, but we do have the ability to develop a kind of a general response methodology, a way of responding to these things that kind of a crisis group that you were talking about. Just [inaudible 00:21:34] the kind of a gut-level instinct is to what direction we should be heading into.

Jim: And can simulate it. Gut-level is one thing, but having mature various teams [inaudible 00:21:46]. We know with like in climate change, different models give different results, but when you have an ensemble of models created independently that gives similar results, it gives a lot of confidence in the situation. I would imagine this department not only having its own modelers, but also being a fairly significant source of funding to academic researchers to build models using entirely fresh [inaudible 00:22:08] code bases, entirely fresh ideas and have those models up and running and be ready to go at need rather than the very halting and the whole series of bad decisions that we’ve seen made. And oh by the way, it did turn out that there was one simple way to, partially at least, tame the pandemic on the front end, which was social distancing. And those countries that were willing to do it firmly and hard, unlike the United States, have actually really pushed their case count down, but the backside is going to be way more complicated.

Jim: This is not just one simple rubber mallet. Now, we’re going to have to manage contact tracing, escalating testing and not only escalating testing, but then optimizing how do you use the test. Do you use them on people high probability of being sick or do you use part of that as a background instrumentation to see your base case rates? You want to do both, but are our current people capable of thinking like that? I don’t know. In the coupling between the public health problems and the economic problems are classic nonlinear coupled systems, which are, I hate to say it, beyond the cognitive ability at least the people I see at the highest levels of our government. These are going to be challenges. This will not be the last time we faced this. This may be one of the great exemplars, which allows us to think about how we should build some institutional response for the future.

John: I think the modeling aspect of this is great at the very, very early warning period. And then once you have identified that this is a complex threat, then you go, okay, what quick frames can we put on this to make some immediate decisions? And then you the more complex or more detailed modeling to refine those early decisions, but you can’t wait until all the analysis is done. Like on masks or universal masking, do you have to run all the tests and do all the science necessary to prove that it works? Probably not.

Jim: I’ll tell you a funny thing about masking. I was saying it from the day one when they were talking about masking, idiots. The thing about playing on the model, you could actually find this in a very simple model, the mask is not to protect the inbound, it’s to reduce the outbound. Just put that in your model. It’s just so fucking obvious. But it took, what, a month for the US to come to a consensus and even that now reluctantly and politically charged that masks are a good idea. All you had to do is think the one frame change that this reduces outbound, not inbound and yes, masks are cheap, of course you do them. Why should there have been any discussion about it?

John: It was a lesson learned from a hundred years of infection control in hospitals.

Jim: Exactly.

John: That’s just common wisdom in hospitals and a common practice and you just go with that.

Jim: Well, why not take a month to reach a consensus and by the way, that consensus is not even firm in the United States. It’s now apparently become politically charged in certain jurisdictions to be wearing a mask in public. You will be made fun of by the scoffers. I go, what the fuck is wrong with people?

Jim: Anyway, let’s move on to our third and final topic, which you posted on very recently, which is we have these regional blocks of states which are working in a coordinated and seemingly reasonably intelligent fashion to reduce case loads towards zero, maybe to zero. And then we have other states, which aren’t parts of these regional blocks and maybe there’s some new reasonable blocks of scoffers who are opening up very early. And we’re already seeing some reports in the media that even the administration’s own models are showing, holy shit, this could produce a whole bunch of cases and a real resurgence in those areas. And you suggest, hmm, could it be that we might have to have hard border controls between US regional blocks? What do you think about that?

John: A couple of things. One thing I saw in terms of behavior in Asia early on is that border controls were pretty loose in China and other places until they got the caseload down to nearly zero. And then they saw a resurgence of cases and there all those cases were coming from the outside. And so they quickly went to hard border controls, quarantine and say we’re willing to take that step. And then the other piece of evidence is that the countries that took early action in terms of border controls, like from a Taiwan, Japan, Greece even, where they closed the physical borders very early on in the crisis have escaped almost all of the disaster that we’ve seen. You combine those two, after having a reduction and you’ve taken all the pain associated with achieving that reduction and then seeing all the new cases coming from the outside and the fact that if you can quarantine yourself, you can externalize the quarantine and erect borders. You can save yourself a lot of hassle in the future. That will probably be driving the decision making of a lot of these big regional blocks.

John: We see a big reductions now in New York and New Jersey and Massachusetts and others are holding the line. They’re not seeing any increase. If those numbers start to come down by the end of the month and the rest of the country starts to zoom like New Hampshire is about to open up, Georgia obviously did last Friday, Texas did last Friday. They’re all seeing surges in cases. Illinois is seeing a surgeon cases, Maryland. If those places start to zoom again, it’s just going to be a natural development that the states that have won that decline will start to erect borders. And it’s going to be a big shock, a big shock to a lot of people. Those administration numbers from yesterday were pretty interesting, is that they were projecting an increase to 3000 cases a day or 3000 deaths a day by the end of this month, largely due… And that model was running at about a 50% rate. It was like 50% of the actual. In effect, it was projecting 6,000 dead a day by the end of this month, largely due to reopening. Up from about 2,500 where it is now.

Jim: 6,000 a day for people, just to keep in mind, that’s close to 200,000 dead people a month, which is two months worth’s our total loss in World War Two.

John: Three times of Vietnam every month.

Jim: And that’s just staggering because we have been unable and or unwilling to do the obvious thing, which was the shutdown. But even states that are shut down, this is what drives me crazy, Virginia, relatively strong lockdown regulations, the reality is there’s huge amounts of leakage. And again, if we’d had this department of wicked risks, the simulations would have said the right answer is a four week, very stringent shutdown. Nobody comes out of their fucking house for four weeks. National guard distributes food in bulk to your doorstop once a week. And that’s it, people. A four week absolutely rigid shutdown would have killed this thing in its tracks. And oh by the way, we can then reopen the economy fairly rapidly thereafter.

Jim: And again, the other thing they didn’t take into is the slow, drippy, leaky shut down starts to deplete people’s ability for vigilance. It turns out most people can maintain vigilance for four weeks. You can stay on a diet for four weeks, we all know that, but once you get past four weeks, it gets really hard. And I’ve seen research and I’ve seen personal experience that says by the time you get to 10 weeks, it’s damn near impossible to maintain vigilance, at least for a fair percentage of the population. And the problem with a leaky shutdown is it takes a lot longer. And so we will soon be reaching that 10 week mark around the 1st of June most places and I expect, unfortunately, we will see further unraveling even in places that are trying to keep social distancing in place. Should have been harder, should have been faster.

John: The longer this goes, the more at risk the US is in terms of staying together. And that’s an outlier. It’s always been an outlier, obviously, but it’s becoming increasingly possible to see how this whole country could actually unwind. And you could actually even see it in the way people who have actually been locked up for what two months now in Massachusetts and New York. And I’m sitting and watching and listening to people saying, “We don’t want to do anything.” People who would just spend a week or two in lock down and complaining about it in other states and then becoming the source of the pandemic. That enmity, that anger could end up being the impetus to a soft breakup through these border controls and through prioritization of resources. The multi-state council is already set up a buying group for PPE and they’re starting to source manufacturing and you can start to see maybe taking preeminence over resources and control over resources ahead of other states. There’s a whole mechanism here now for actually seeing a breakup.

Jim: And frankly, I’m not sure that’s a bad idea. I know, I think you and I disagree on this one, but maybe not.

John: Oh no, I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m actually probably more in the camp of actually seeing a breakup might be a good thing.

Jim: Good. Because my view, the one thing I’ve said this is it’s becoming increasingly clear that California and Mississippi are both getting very, very tired of the other having a partial veto on how they run their societies. And that’s just about the most extreme version of it. But there’s sort of at least two rough blocks in the country and four or five is not unreasonable either. And frankly, they’d all be a hell of a lot happier if they got disentangled from each other and California and Mississippi didn’t have a mutual partial veto over each other’s cultures. California wants to legalize marijuana, let them. Mississippi wants to outlaw abortion, let them. And this might actually be a good thing to release this decoherence because clearly we can have more social coherence in smaller units that are more culturally homogeneous than we can in what’s becoming a very highly polarized country.

John: That’s more like 1800s America. Is there a way of kind of an organized retreat where you weaken the federal system, weaken federal controls and limits on behavior that had been instituted through Supreme Court through Congress bringing it back, bring back power to the states or do you see a hard breakup?

Jim: I don’t see it ever happen. People never give up power. When was the last time somebody gave up power other than in a radical phase change, like the breakup of the Soviet Union? While yeah, in theory, we could roll back to 1931, but I would bet long dollars against it and I think to achieve the same result, a much more likely scenario is to actually carve ourselves up into independent nations. Now, we might still have a free trade zone like the EU, but in terms of-

John: Yeah, but how did Gorbachev killed the Soviet Union? It’s in some ways kind of similar to what we’re seeing now with Trump and the federal government. Trump may be the Gorbachev of the US. Gorbachev started those pilot projects in private ownership, pilot projects in certain subsectors and that spun out of control. And then he started putting more and more restrictions on the nomenclature and they started opting out. They started instituting those pilot projects and starting grab resources and selling them and making a fortune and the whole thing kind of fell apart really, really quickly.

Jim: It was certainly not Gorbachev’s plan. Actually, I had lunch with Gorbachev a long, long time ago and he was absolutely flabbergasted by the whole thing. He thought he was a gentle, good reformer, but he was a true to a heart communist. That the whole thing blew up in his face was absolutely unintended. It was not his intent at all.

John: And then the same thing here is letting the states and individuals fend for themselves on this may end up creating the impetus to actually see things break up. We’re seeing a fast diminishment of federal power. We’re not doing anything at confident nation, World War II America or Cold War America is a completely different place than what we’re seeing right now. Total lack of confidence in everything and anything, there’s no national will to get anything done. And with forcing people to make decisions on their own in the face of a crisis is the surest way to see things breakup because they’re going, “Why do I even have you? Why do I even pay any attention to you?” And if that’s the case, then Trump may be Gorbachev for these states, unexpectedly.

Jim: We’ll wrap it up on that. This has been an extraordinarily interesting episode. We’ve covered some very, very serious ground here, John. Very, very much worth thinking about and seeing what comes next. Hope we’ll have you back on the show soon.

John: All right, cool. Thanks Jim.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Jane’s consulting. Music by Tom Muller at