When Emotions Are Weaponized

Originally published on my Substack in 2020.

Over an extended coffee date with a dear friend recently, we meandered into the realm of politics, in the context of energy healing and the collective. We both work in those realms, she’s an energy healer, I sell energy healing tools. We were talking about the run up to past elections that were contested and stressful. We mentioned Bush v Gore as an unsettling time, but it wasn’t as heated as where we stand today.

One major difference-- the weaponization of emotion. I threw that into our conversation and pointed out that in 2000, we didn’t have algorithms and social media platforms whose very revenue models rely on heated emotional interactions. Nor did we have such openly available and manipulable weapons like algorithms and Facebook ads.

During Bush V Gore, you could simply pick up the newspaper and peacefully read the actions from our government that happened the day before. You could calmly debate these actions with your friends and neighbors throughout the day and then you could wrap your evening up with Brokaw or Jennings telling you what happened while you were traveling through your day. Blissfully unaware, moment to moment, that an election was being stolen in the Supreme Court.

Enter 2020. We now live in a reality where we’ve openly and willingly allowed our lives to be dominated by algorithms and computers we keep in our pockets, panic scrolling through timelines strategically crafted by nefarious actors to weaponize the very thing that makes us human--- our emotions.

Never before have we lived during a time where a country or power structure had the ability to infect our minds, our dinner tables, our quiet thoughts as we lay in bed at night. Our enemies don’t need to launch missiles or release bioweapons into our water supply-- they only need to press a button and we’ll gladly suck up the weaponized disinformation that drives us to hate one another and seek to destroy our neighbors.

Think of all the money wasted on the military industrial complex, when all that’s needed in 2020 is to spend a thousand dollars on Facebook ads, targeted at insecure racists or unwitting consumers and then sit back and wait.

The weaponization of our emotions is something that we’ve done to other countries for decades. Plenty of strategic plays were made to manipulate a population into submission, hell, the catholic church has been doing it for centuries.

But now it’s different. Now we, the people being attacked, are openly seeking this weaponized information. We are addicted to the dopamine that such a strategy produces. And during a pandemic, we’re scrolling out of a sense of desperation for information that we can use to protect ourselves. Only to end up consuming information designed to do the opposite.

Some of us are lucky enough to understand how all of this works. We can step back and look at the broader picture of technology, media manipulation, disinformation as a weapon and we can educate anyone willing to listen. I spent years studying these very things at one of the top universities in the country. One mentor created “media agenda setting theory” in the 1970s and I was fascinated by his work.

We are here to spread information and make people aware. But here’s the catch, people don’t want to really step away from the very devices that are being weaponized to manipulate them. Some desire peace, and they’ve logged off. Some revel in the emotional turmoil and spread it far and wide. Others are capitalizing on the weaknesses of millions and are taking this weaponization of emotion into the streets, carrying lethal weapons and killing people that the algorithms told them were their enemies.

What they’ve actually done is allow a foreign power or a political operative to reach into their brains and what passes for their hearts and compel them to acts of violence on their behalf. Our enemies don’t need to invade our shores and overrun our military bases, they’ve created millions of willing soldiers through our citizens who blissfully accept the information delivered to them in their pocket by handful of careless CEOs in Silicon Valley who refuse to take control of the monsters they’ve built.

And that’s where we stand. In a swamp of disinformation. In a sea of weaponized algorithms manipulating our emotions and bringing out the worst in our society.

As someone who is a proponent of free speech above almost all else (except human rights), it pains me to realize these platforms that began as channels of free expression and connection are now the toxic weapons that foreign powers use to enable us to destroy ourselves. We must regulate the algorithms and remove the ability to weaponize information.

But I fear the damage has been done. Too many people refuse to disconnect from the platforms destroying the country for a multitude of personal reasons. Others use these platforms to power their businesses. I get that, the necessary evil of it all is not lost on me. Others are simply too far gone, their brains already warped and converted into walking weapons of a distant power broker, traveling through our neighborhoods seeking to destroy people who don’t look or act as they do.

And that, my friend, is the core problem that I don’t believe we can solve through regulation. The human manipulation, the weaponization of our emotions, is not something that can be easily remedied through legislation. Such a fundamental rewiring of our emotions takes a disaster or a deep chaos to rectify. Events that cause people to truly step back and question their own humanity, mortality and role in the destruction of their own country.

I thought a pandemic would be that catalyst. I was wrong. The pandemic actually allowed those who traffic in disinformation to place fringe conspiracies into the mainstream. The pandemic became the catalyst for the weaponization to accelerate.

And that is why I am mentally prepared for something far worse and much deeper to reintroduce balance into our society. For systems will always re-balance themselves-- one way or the other.

I’m also prepared to leave my once beautiful country and find a society of people who value human life and are not weaponized by the devices in their pockets. I trust I don’t have to leave. But if I do, I harbor the hope that this society still exists. Somewhere.