Back when social media was still in its infancy, a fictional television newscast in Georgia created a real panic as people started to prepare for a Russian invasion that wasn't happening. It was a modern day version of War of the Worlds. Except that at the time only 7% of the population of Georgia used the internet. It's impossible to imagine a TV show, no matter how realistic, having a similar effect in our networked culture.
For a mockumentary to create widespread panic today, it would have to rise out of the internet itself. Twitter would have to explode in a collective gasp. And thousands of people at ground zero would have to somehow be drowned out by impostors or convinced of an alternative reality.
But the more connected we all become, the easier it is for a tiny event, on the other side of the planet to reverberate through all of us; and that makes us vulernable to a new kind of mass hysteria.
You and I share an electronic nervous system now. That's what the web is—a tangle of electronic nerves connecting us all together. It's a crude, embryonic system but when you feel something, I feel something; when you have a thought, it rattles around in my head as well.
We're all so intimately tangled up in each other's nerves now that a little moral panic in one of us is enough to set off a global stampede of outrage. Politicians, activists, and advertisers all know this. Propaganda is no longer just the art of fabricating stories, staging events or spreading misinformation—it's become the science of manipulating our nerves in real time.
While we've been busy arguing about politics on Twitter, the real power brokers have figured out that Twitter is a useless medium for persuasion. A tweet has never convinced anybody of something they didn't already believe. The real power of social media lies in its ability to incite. You don't persuade people to join a mob, you provoke them, you excite them, you make them nervous. And we should be nervous, because a small group of giant tech companies now owns our nervous system.