Terrorists and telephone trees

Up until what seems like only yesterday -- but, at most, was just twenty years ago -- people still routinely depended upon phone trees to share information. If you were in charge of a group -- an intramural club, a prayer chain, or sometimes even a workplace -- you would set up a phone tree so that you could share information in a hurry.

The idea, for those who have never been a party to one, was that the person at the top of the tree would call a limited number of people -- maybe three or four -- each of whom then had their own list of people to call. If you designed it right, the phone tree would branch quickly, so that each individual only had to call a small number of other people. Because, if you didn't reach the next person on your list, you'd need to call the people whom they were obligated to call. And it all depended upon actually speaking to the person on the list -- you could leave a message on an answering machine (or voice mail, if they had it), but the message didn't count for "relaying" the message on down the tree. For that, you could only "pass the baton" if you actually spoke to a real human being.

Keeping up phone trees took a lot of work -- every time someone moved in or out of a group, you'd need to give it an update. And in the time before cell phones were utterly ubiquitous, some people had landlines and some people had both, and if you reached a live person at a landline, but not the person who was actually on the list, you had to determine whether the message was going to be relayed swiftly enough for the handoff to actually count.

Of course, there was also the inevitable shortcoming of the "telephone game". A message transmitted orally, person-to-person, invariably comes with an element of error. So if you were at the top of the phone tree, you were pretty well assured of getting the right message, but you might also be on the hook to call a lot of people if your handoffs didn't go well. If you were at the bottom, you wouldn't have to call anybody, but there was a good chance you were getting some errors along with the message.

Once email and text messages became ubiquitous, a lot of these problems went away. Phone trees aren't necessary if the person who used to sit at the top of the tree can just send a group text to everyone on the list at once. And if you can assume that everyone checks their email (or you can mandate that checking your e-mail is a necessary component of membership in a group), then even larger messages can be distributed instantly and without any "signal loss" as they're handed off from person to person.

We've always been interested in whether messages can go viral. It's just that we never called it that when we only thought of them as phone trees. Organizations that used to depend on sending out bulky paper newsletters send out "e-editions" or invite people to join their Facebook groups instead, distributing the same messages as before, but often faster and at little or no cost (compared with what could be the daunting expenses of paper, printing, and postage).

But the same technologies that enable much better message transmission among church members organizing a funeral lunch also permit people with radical, violent, and other anti-social ideas to communicate amongst themselves as well.

And while there have been some steps taken to de-radicalize some of our large-group social media tools like Facebook Groups and YouTube, the costs that used to be borne by the groups distributing their messages via paper newsletters are now mirrored (in a warped way) by the carriers of the new-media messages, who have to expend resources on policing the messages that go out on their platforms.

Even if we were to achieve some kind of total success in eradicating the worst of anti-social communication off of social-media platforms, the old phone tree has a bunch of modern analogues -- ranging from text messages to Snapchat and WhatsApp to many others. And they are faster and easier to distribute (and replicate error-free) than a phone message ever was.

All of which should tell us that, even though there are certain technical improvements that can be imposed to take some of the worst elements of hate and violence and malice out of social media, we're still going to find ourselves dealing with the spread of anti-social ideas through populations, and no matter how many public or group platforms we chase them off of, there will still be lots of ways for them to go from peer to peer much faster than any old bowling-league telephone tree used to.

So there's a lot of work to be done. Deradicalization and preventive intervention to keep people from turning bad are both going to be needed in big and sustained ways, for as long into the future as anyone can foresee. The scale of what's inevitably ahead shouldn't intimidate us, but we shouldn't kid ourselves, either: There's a lot of work to be done that we never would have conceived just a few years ago. And that work is some of the price we're going to have to pay for not tying up all of the good we used to have to do through tools like slow-moving phone trees. It's often said that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that turns out to be true in more than one way for a society. For the same tools that grease the machinery of good can also expedite the spread of bad. And unless someone finds a way to create perfect people, the work of pushing back against the bad is never going to be over.

The moral of the story: Technology doesn't make us good or bad. It just tends to enhance or speed up what we were already doing. It seems to be speeding up the transmission of radicalization from person to person, and we're going to need to put social capital and taxpayer resources into fighting back.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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