⭕ If you were being manipulated, would you even know?; The 17th Law; False Flag° #5

We don't know why we do what we do when we do it.

An infrequent newsletter about information, society, and seeing clearly.

Well, that was a long hiatus. Crazy dystopian summer indeed. But back just in time for a crazy dystopian fall. (With a new name! Why Life on Mars, you ask? Feels of the moment, does it not?)

In this issue:

  • If you were being manipulated, would you even know?

  • Ministry of Links

  • Research your own experience

  • The 17th Law of Reality Distortion

  • Term of the Day: False Flag

Kosmos, Ilya Chashnik, 1925


Am I being manipulated?

By shadowy algorithms? Media billionaires? Political puppet-masters? GEICO ads?

And if I were being manipulated, would I even know?

The most interesting line in Netflix's popular documentary The Social Dilemma was Tristan Harris' use of magic tricks to illustrate that resisting manipulation is a discipline:

“A magician understands something, some part of your mind that you’re not aware of. That’s what makes the illusion work.

“Doctors, lawyers, people who ... build 747s or nuclear missiles, they don’t know ... how their own mind is vulnerable. That’s a separate discipline. And it’s a discipline that applies to all human beings.”

Ok. But to know if I'm being manipulated, wouldn’t I have to know what I would otherwise do if I weren't being manipulated?

This feels like Neo going down the rabbit hole (1:45 mark):

The Oracle: Candy?

Neo: Do you already know if I’ll take it?

The Oracle: Wouldn’t be much of an oracle if I didn’t.

Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?

The Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.

-The Matrix Reloaded

I think it’s safe to say that most of us don't understand the choices we make. Most of what we do every day is unconscious. Automatic, auto-pilot.

Any pat explanation after the fact is fiction — your brain coming up with a story to explain the unexplainable. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, most reasoning is justificatory. "Here's a clever argument for why I was right."

And to top it off, we don’t seem very curious about why we make the choices we make. Seriously, how much time do you spend trying to understand why you did what you did when you did it?

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, historian Yuval Noah Harari (best known for Sapiens) argues we never examine our own behavior because we believe in our free will so strongly.

How do you choose what to eat for breakfast? How do you choose where to go on vacation? Where to work? Whom to marry? Whom to vote for?

People imagine that they make these choices ‘freely.’ ...this makes people very incurious about themselves. As long as I think that my choices reflect my free will, I have no incentive to investigate what made me choose this or that — I simply did it of my own free will.

So, to know if we are being manipulated, we have to investigate why we make the choices we make, and, as Harari says, “all the biological, social, and cultural forces that have really shaped our decisions.”

How do we investigate our own behavior? There are 1,000s of years of philosophical and spiritual practice on how to research one’s own experience and see more clearly. I won't attempt to summarize it here. (Though I will say I find mediation, rumination, and slowing down helps.)


  • A lifetime of experience, and a host of biological, social, and cultural forces have led to this moment, shaping what we do next.

  • To know if we are being manipulated, we have to investigate our own behavior and understand why we make the choices we make.


It may be the normal news, not the fake news, we have to worry about. Outright fake news consumption only makes up 0.15% of the average person’s media diet. (ScienceAdvances) The researchers’ findings “suggest that the origins of public misinformedness and polarization are more likely to lie in the content of ordinary news or the avoidance of news altogether as they are in overt fakery.”

🔥 Twitter, Responsibility, and Accountability. (Stratechery) A fantastic analysis about the governance of social media. “Here’s the thing about social media: simply facilitating the transmission of information doesn’t make a story into a STORY.”

Tips on Avoiding a Civil War (Robert Wright). "All I can say for sure is that the [most commonly used] algorithm — if it feels good, share it — is less good for the world than pausing and reflecting on the consequences of your online actions."

Fox News: How the network molds the Trump reality into a conspiracy thriller (Vox). Neil Postman was right, when he proposed in Amusing Ourselves to Death, that TV (all TV, not just Fox) turns everything, even the most somber subjects, into entertainment.

The Social Dilemma Manipulates You With Misinformation As It Tries To Warn You Of Manipulation By Misinformation (Techdirt). Remember, one of the salient features of information collapse is the growing dominance of opinion and anecdote over fact and data (n.b. talk radio and cable news).


You would think that sharing a news article is a conscious choice. But how conscious, really?

An experiment: Next time you have itch retweet finger, and feel compelled to text / post a news article, catch yourself.

What is the feeling present in that moment? A subtle thrill? Of excitement? Agitation?

Why that article and not the other one? Why to them? Did you consider how it will affect their day?

Now — come back, after you cool off (the article can't be that urgent). Still feel the urge to share it?

The way you see the world depends upon the emotions you are feeling. And those emotions are contagious.


If you feel a subtle thrill — be it excitement or agitation— when sharing a political article, you just might be both a victim and spreader of mania and polarization.

(see past laws)


(This Modern World - full comic)

The term false flag originated from pirate trickery (arrr!) — when pirates would sail into battle, they sometimes flew flags of other countries, a disguise to take enemies by surprise. Sometimes, the attacks would be blamed on the country whose flag they flew.

Today, false flag refers to any covert operation designed to deceive people by falsely attributing an activity or attack to a particular group (for example, a country staging an attack on itself as a pretext for war, as demonstrated by the Klingons attacking their own ship in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

Sometimes (more often?!) the false flag argument is used as the basis for conspiracy theories (e.g. Sandy Hook deniers, or 9/11 truthers who believe these events were an “inside job”).

For more:

(the full glossary)

Thanks for being with us for issue #5. Special thanks to James Abels and Harry Hobson.

Anything you’d like to see discussed in these virtual pages? Just hit reply, or hit the comments.

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With gratitude,

— Upendra

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. — H.H. the Dalai Lama XIV