Twitter—ahem "X"—is a perfect illustration of signalling theory, as Elon Musk has taken a useful honest signal and turned it into a dangerous, dishonest one that's damaging our democracies.
Brian, this is a timely piece. Signaling is all around us for better or worse. The big question in socio-economic contexts is why we see the kinds of signaling that exist. Take Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” as an example. Yes, it signals wealth, but to what end? Is it because the wealthy person is insecure and needs to prove something to others to feel better? Or to attract sycophants to reinforce how great he/she is? (paging Elon Musk and any Trump) in contrast I offer you Warren Buffett.
In the case of MAGA and the blue check as it now exists, is this a signal to others they belong to the “in group”? Where ironically the “in group” are really otherwise outcasts in “polite society” or have not achieved what others have?
In thinking about signaling in these ways I offer two additional dimensions: 3) rationale (secure or insecure) and 4) broadcast of signal (targeted or widespread). Secure people signal through their actions and are more targeted. Think of the Ph.D. example. The credential speaks for itself and is usually only a professional honorific. However, one who manages a Ph.D. may brag and broadcast widely (showing insecurity) because targeted professional recognition may not be enough. Extend this to MAGA. Why are they signaling so much and so widely? Insecurity at its core.
Amazing insights, thank you!
Brings to mind a few things. First, this signaling influence is similar to the concept of mimetic desire. This theory holds that people spontaneously will pursue goals based on the goals others pursue - that is, we want things because other people want them. It is a mental shortcut, often very useful. Perhaps memetic desire might be seen as a uniquely human-to-human signaling influence outcome.
As excellently demonstrated in the latest season of White Lotus, not everyone is equally susceptible to this sort of influence. Critical thinking is the key ingredient to buck it.
It is my experience that those favoring right wing politics are generally more susceptible to mimetic desire, often relying on this informational shortcut, relying on how others react rather than sorting out the underlying information for themselves. But everyone is susceptible to this influence of course. And it is often useful, necessary for survival. But it can be harmful and worse yet, can be exploited.
Also, 100% agree. I no longer trust Elon Musk to do things like responsibly design cars and rockets. And I truly worry about the damage a man like this might do if he goes totally off the deep end, he has become so powerful, which will only become more extreme very quickly with AI and machine brain interface that he is currently working on
Wonderful work - I finally deactivated all three of my Twitter accounts (about ~16k followers in total) because of this nudge. Thank you.
Hey Brian, Musk is just the latest in a long line of media proprietors that are simultaneously self serving in promoting their own views , ie Murdoch, Berlusconi, Maxwell, Black, Hearst, and we can go way back from there, very few proprietors of media companies have done anything but promote the status quo ever moving further right.
Brian on an aside, I am sure you have a hundred articles to write whizzing around, I would really like to see a properly researched article on Trumps ability to run again.
In my mind from the forest in south eastern Australia I think the constitution likely rules him out under the give comfort to the enemy, what I mean by this is the convict choir on his website, his promises of pardons to those who marched under confederate flags, to those who stormed the congress and chanted hang Mike Pence and who sought to stop the transfer, frankly I think the republicans who say they'd support him and pardon him if they won also disqualify themselves.
So if my premise has any validity how do they stop him running? Thanks
It's astonishing that people still believe Ellon Musk stands for free speech. He sues people who dare to criticize him. He gets customers to sign nondisclosure agreements. And when it comes to Twitter, I love what John Stewart said several months ago. "Musk is the last person to care about free speech...If you're going to spend time validating identity, why wouldn't you spend time validating information?" *Obviously, Musk didn't validate identity either.
Also, I loved this article for all the connections to signalling theory. I hope we can turn "Musk's Fangblennies" into a popular term to refer to "cryptobros who “just want to ask questions” about race and the influencers who don’t care that Musk is a vector for Russian propaganda and vile right-wing disinformation." Plus, the term works for the more intellectual but equally insidious we have here on Substack. Richard Hanania, Rob Henderson, and the like.
Also, this article got me thinking about costly signalling in religion. This is definitely a tangent, but in his book, Big Gods, Norenzayan explains that the gods of today's major religions are also moralizing gods who encourage virtue and punish selfish and cruel people after death. But for most of human history, moralizing gods have been the exception.
It seems that as societies grow bigger, so do their gods. Big gods help bring big societies together. Omniscient, moralizing deities keep a close eye on human behaviour and punish those who are selfish or cruel. The Mormons, for example, have had immense success spreading a faith focused on a judgmental god with strict moral rules, a strong cooperative ethic, and costly signs of devotion like avoiding caffeine and spending two years as a missionary.
I'm sure some of you are thinking 'WHAT KIND OF GOD DOESN'T WANT YOU TO DRINK COFFEE!" Well, rituals and other costly displays of faith prove who is a trustworthy true believer. Increased cooperation helps societies grow into complex states with other prosocial institutions, like police forces. However, these sorts of costly signs aren't only available with Big Gods.
The gods of small-scale societies, such as nature spirits, may demand offerings or enforce taboos. But it seems villagers watch each other and enforce social norms without any supernatural help. This isn’t the only critique of the big god theory.
Nicolas Baumard argues that in the same way you don't need any adaptation for people to believe in supernatural agents, you don't need any adaptation to explain why people believe in moralizing religion. All you need is a sufficiently affluent society in which people can afford to prioritize long-term goals (like the afterlife) over short-term needs.
They also found that out of 96 traditional Austronesian societies spread throughout the Pacific, six had moralizing high gods—and they emerged after the societies became politically complex, not before, apparently contradicting the big gods' idea. Norenzayan points out, however, that the complexity of most of the cultures analyzed is limited—they are small-scale chiefdoms, not large agricultural societies.
I wrote more about it here and would love some thoughts from The Garden of Forking Paths community.