"Do you really think we are the only ones engaged in this level of manipulation?" the voice asked. It seemed to come from behind a blinding spotlight that had been aimed at my face ever since I regained consciousness. If I looked down and blinked the hot white afterimage away, I could see a damp concrete floor. I was secured to a metal chair that was bolted down, my hands were tied behind my back with what felt like duct tape, and a rope bound my waist. This chafed where it had managed to ride up under my shirt, on the left side. I'd given up struggling hours ago, but it hadn't made anything better. It was clear to me that I hadn't been put in the chair just to escape.
"I don't know what to think anymore," I said, in as strong a voice as I could muster. Failing to clearly communicate with my captors had resulted in either a dousing of icy water or short bursts of electric shocks. The combination of the two hadn't been very much fun, so I spoke with as much fluency as my hoarse throat and withered confidence would allow.
"Now that comes as little surprise," a voice replied. "Very few do. It is one of the conditions for our victory, you see. Complete dissolution of the public's ability to critically analyze anything. I think we've done a rather bang-up job, wouldn't you agree?" There was no mockery in the voice, only a polite and patient questioning. I couldn't place the accent, but it sounded like a Brit or Aussie who'd spent long enough in the States to strip away most of their native inflection.
"You said you're not the only ones. Who are you? Who are the others?"
"We are legion, as cliché as that may sound. Many, and one. We are not an organization you'd be familiar with. The Illuminati, Anonymous: these are inventions that have served us most conveniently throughout the ages. But no: we are far older and wiser than you might think you know. But the others, yes. The others you know quite well.
"Let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a young person, born into a world of privilege. Given everything they could ever ask for. Spoiled, if you will, by right of birth and failure of parentage and society. One who simply does not know better, a victim living in Plato's cave, gaping at the shadows on the wall and believing that those phantoms represent everything that reality has to offer.
"Now, this young person has been fortunate enough to be born into our modern world of technological marvel. The Internet; mass-mobile communication; democratized creative tools. Social media. A bundle of fire hoses for both the spraying and consumption of content.
"A clever one, one with the wherewithal to master the basics of the tools at their disposal, our young person is also bored. Alone and isolated. Perhaps they are too smart for their own good. Maybe they outperform their peers in public and find themselves ridiculed and tired of having to live on a level that doesn't challenge them. So they take to the anonymity of cyberspace as an outlet. A diversion, if you will, for indeed such a space is useful only for distraction.
"A side-note on that, if you will allow me. You imagine your information sharing to be somehow empowering, do you not? Most do. Certainly the feeling of powerlessness that comes when you find yourself without access to your networks is overwhelming, no? Yet for all that sense of empowerment brings you, truly how much force for change does it offer? To tippy-tap words into your terminals and express your opinions and absorb others', this is not empowerment. It's diversion. It's a smokescreen that satisfies a primal desire for change while affecting exactly nil.
"You see, it is only boots on the ground and fists in the air that cause things to change. Everything else is a systematic dispersion of power. The true masters of this world are the ones who arbitrate and administer the systems that you believe keep them in check. It's hilarious and pathetic, when you think of it, how little power the moneyed and so-called first world citizen actually has. But I digress."
My wrists ached and I was hungry. But the voice was making plain sense, and that disturbed me. It was speaking to an understanding that I'd tried to bury for years, a sensibility that I'd earned through experimentation with hallucinogenics back in my school days, an experience that I'd dismissed out of hand as irrational.
It continued. "So our clever, bored, and very dangerous savant takes to the online networks in search of some outlet for the frustration that bubbles so hot just beneath the surface. And they find it in the form of harassment. So, so petty but so marvelously effective in furthering their, and indeed our, goals.
"Here is how it works: they create a social networking account and begin massaging it into shape so that it resembles a character that is useful to their means. They build a profile for it, and a set of basic motives, and then engage in activity that makes the account seem alive. Believability is key, but not always essential. Having at least one persona that 'works' is all that matters.
"They may then take up a cause. Typically it's some bigoted agenda, since that usually gets the most response. Once their account has a critical mass of believability they begin publicly targeting other real, high-profile activists, and seek to undermine them through harassment. Sometimes our savant will play their role with intelligence, and offer reasoned argument with lengthy discussion. But more often than not they'll simply attack, using whatever verbal weaponry hurts their target the most.
"And you see, throughout all of this it is only words. Words that can be ignored. These systems, these useless systems of diversion, no one has to use them, and they serve no real purpose. But the victims place such great importance on them. They have been trained, you see. Trained to believe that they must engage, must be active, must be seen to be believed. It is really quite delicious. All the while they are accomplishing exactly nothing. Their followings consist of people who are already in agreement with them, the attacks that come from the savants should mean nothing. But they give them attention, they engage, and in doing so they undermine themselves.
"It takes a very heavy psychic toll, battling with the savant. In addition to their core account the attacker usually has a cadre of lesser accounts, and they will swing those into action to 'signal-boost' the core account's messages, thus making it appear that the target is under attack by a larger group. The victim then believes that some real portion of the public is after them, when in fact it is only the actions of one or two individuals.
"And it gets more intense when the target has a large public following, for our savants, despite their misanthropic and exclusionary tendencies, will flock together. Two people with ten accounts seems to be twenty people. Now multiply that exponentially. You still may only be dealing with a dozen people, a minuscule sampling of the actual public. But to the target it will seem as though the whole world is against them.
"And, in the end, what is being accomplished? Does either side convince the other of anything? Don't be silly. The savant doesn't care about the core of their target's argument. They only care about causing distress and getting their own rocks off by annoying someone from behind the security of anonymity."
"But how does that help further your own goals?" I asked.
"Ah, yes. Our main objective lies in the disempowerment and distraction of the moneyed public. We desire control, and maintenance of the so-called 'status quo'. So, by keeping this swath of the intelligent public occupied, we are free to push our agenda. Those on the social networks, spending precious minutes or even whole hours of their days fighting imaginary battles that have no tangible outcomes? That is time spent not thinking about us."
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