Can an idea be dangerous? We tend to dismiss the concept of harmful information, and treat susceptibility to it as a weakness. The children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, But words shall never hurt me” reminds us to distinguish between threats real or imagined. However anyone who has ever witnessed a fight, knows that violence almost never erupts from a cold start. It starts with a heated exchange of words. This is how opponents size each other up, and usually the weaker side acquiesces before things turn violent. The words you choose to use in this exchange can radically alter your chances of getting punched.
For some hot heads the slightest remark might be enough, or for others things only get ugly if you use a racial slur, or talk about their mother. It’s not just the two opponents to consider: everyone watching from the side-lines will form an opinion about the relative honor and status of the participants. The crowd’s reactions to the words being exchanged is often what instigates the violence. Studies show that social devaluation by others is enough to elicit shame, even if there is no wrongdoing. Both sides are caught in a dangerous dance of ideas, where they attempt to make themselves sound tough while dehumanizing their opponent. Take it too far, and you risk crossing some imaginary line into physical violence.
We frequently write off conspiracy theories as harmless nonsense. They may often prove to be nonsense, but they’re not harmless. Real world violence regularly results from dangerous ideas. For example the January 6th U.S. Capitol attack in 2020, where five people died protesting the ‘theft’ of the election. We can tell ourselves that these people are morons, but we’re more susceptible than we allow. Just like in the lead up to a fight, everyone has their limit. One crackpot YouTube video might not be enough to radicalize you, but if in a period of weakness find yourself spending too much time on the fringes of the internet, it can quickly become part of your identity. That’s when it gets dangerous. Because insulting your beliefs is the same thing as insulting you. People regularly fight and die for their religion, of which there are over 4,000. Most religions insist on being the one source of truth, so by believing in one religion, you’re dismissing the rest. Every group has their hot heads, who take that dismissal personally. At times throughout history, having the ‘wrong’ belief in your head has been a death sentence.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, toxic ideas held by the Nazi party of Germany led to the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust. In this context, whether you lived or died could come down to whether the wrong person knew of your beliefs. Information in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Homosexual men were also rounded up and sent to concentration camps (they had a pink triangle instead of a gold star). Tragically the homosexual survivors of these camps were not released at the end of the war: they remained convicted criminals. There’s no DNA test or other physical indicator that someone is gay: but once they’re caught with another man the information is out there. Again, information in the wrong hands is dangerous.
Even in our modern more enlightened age, some forms of information can be dangerous. People regularly get so obsessed by toxic ideas that they do things that harm their own self-interest, for example racist tweets leading to losing your job, radical fundamentalists turning to terrorism, and cult members committing mass suicide. Other ideas are simply dangerous on their own, for example if you came upon detailed plans for how to build a nuclear bomb, that information would be extremely dangerous to you, and those around you. This is an example of what Nick Bostrom calls an “Information Hazard”: a dangerous piece of information. Information doesn’t have to be detailed to be dangerous: as Bostrom says “Sometimes the mere demonstration that something (such as a nuclear bomb) is possible provides valuable information which can increase the likelihood that some agent will successfully set out to replicate the achievement”. The same can be said of copycat killers, school shootings, poisoning Tylenol, or any other memetic crime loop: once it’s out there in the media, the information causes more damage to be done.
Information hazards aren’t all at the same level of danger, and can sometimes be very mundane or minor. For example the annoyance you feel if a colleague tells you a spoiler about your favorite show. No real damage has been done, but in some small way they have done you harm. Broadcast that spoiler on social media, and a small amount of harm done to thousands of people can add up to a lot. Or maybe by ruining your enjoyment they’re doing you a favor: a TV show that distracts you from more productive pursuits might have a negative individual or societal effect. In a remarkable example, a study found that when the French national football team did well, increased viewership resulted in thousands fewer babies being born. Other times seemingly unproductive pursuits can be a welcome distraction: whenever a Grand Theft Auto game is released there is a noticeable drop in crime, as criminals stay inside to play.
Information hazards are regularly used as weapons. It’s common practice for spy agencies to keep “kompromat” or compromising materials – like evidence of an affair, proof of homosexuality, or documentation of a crime – on politicians, businesspeople or other public figures. Ignorance is bliss: only on distribution of the information does the damage occur. After which, the damage is irreversible. Knowing this, information can be used to blackmail people or manipulate them into doing their bidding. In fact, this method is so effective, efforts are frequently made to get influential people to compromise themselves in order to build kompromat to use later: for example the ‘honeypot trap’, where an attractive person lures them into a compromising position, with hidden cameras waiting to document the evidence. Information is power.
Factually: Threats real and imagined
GAY MEN UNDER THE NAZI REGIME
Good teams= less babies. When teams do well, people spend more time watching games & birth rates drop
In regard to SCP, what is the difference between memetic hazards, cognitohazards, and infohazards? They all seem like the same thing to me.
Information Hazards: A Typology of Potential Harms from Knowledge
January 6 United States Capitol attack
List of religions and spiritual traditions
Policy position more politicians should advocate for: mandate Rockstar Games release more Grand Theft Auto games to lower crime rates
Sticks and Stones
The Infohazard Economy, Part 1
We summarized the top info hazard articles and made a prioritized reading list
What are information hazards?
Why do people feel shame when others falsely accuse them of doing something wrong?
Why It Took Decades for LGBTQ Stories to Be Included in Holocaust History