We are all John Hinkleys now
A note about infowars
Humans are imitative creatures. For most of our evolutionary history, imitation was the only way we could pass knowledge from one generation to the next. As language advanced and vocabularies grew, we gained a powerful new tool for sharing information and creating culture, but the impulse to imitate remained as powerful as ever. We see this long historical process play out in miniature during the first few years of a child's life. Before the child has functional language, it can only learn by imitation or conditioning. You cannot "teach" a baby to speak; it learns simply by imitating people who already know how. Throughout human history, those who were good imitators succeeded, while poor imitators failed, and after thousands of millennia of selection pressure, imitation became an instinct.
Since mass media and digital technology became ubiquitous, this process has gone a bit haywire. In the movie Taxi Driver, the protagonist, Travis Bickle, fantasizes about saving a young prostitute played by Jodie Foster, and makes plans to assassinate a presidential candidate. The film made a major impact on John Hinkley, Jr, who developed an obsession with Jodie Foster and shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Hinkley's imitative model was a character dreamed up by Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese!
Advertising has allowed canny operators to manipulate the imitative instinct to create fashions and fads, drive changes in culture, and elect political candidates. A person or behavior that is frequently imitated acquires high status, and high status attracts more imitators. In recent years, Tourette's-like symptoms have been spreading over the social media platform Tik Tok:
During the pandemic, videos of people with Tourette's, or claiming to be experiencing the condition, have gained an enormous following on social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube. London-based psychiatrist Dr. Isobel Heyman has been at the coalface of the surge and reports that many of her patients appear to “gain peer support, recognition and a sense of belonging” from being exposed to social influencers claiming to have Tourette's. She is convinced that the tics are being reinforced and maintained by the online attention that those exhibiting the tics are receiving (Heyman et al., 2021).
There has been a similar rise in the number of people who identify as transgender in the years since Caitlyn Jenner was showered with roses on television. We are subject to mimetic pressures from non-real entities like movie characters and social media constructs, but also from people online who may or may not be bots. A relevant study from a team of researchers at the University of Adelaide has recently been making the rounds. The team analyzed over five million social media posts and various hashtags in heavy use during the early days of the Russia-Ukraine war, and found that 60-80% of all pro-Ukraine posts were generated by automated bots. During the same period, the team detected very little use of the same tactics to bolster the pro-Russia position. The Ukrainians were prepared, with a massive spike the day the war began (February 24, see below). The Russians, on the other hand, seem to have been caught flat-footed by their own invasion, and took a full week to start competing in the information space.