Berlin Wall Art

Why is activism taking over?

If you look around, almost everybody is trying to be an activist. Most fields including but not limited to entrepreneurs, academics, government officials, religious groups are being dominated by activists. Why is this happening and is there anything you can do about it?

Activism is mostly a zero-sum game1. In fact zero-sum activism is easiest to get behind. It is a us vs them. As long as you can find simple enough grounds to paint them as evil, and us as the good people, it is extremely easy to bully people into supporting your view. You can see this bullying and how it played out in campaigns like .

So why is this happening?

Game theoretic perspective.

  1. Let us say you and X2 are part of a (online) tribe T.
  2. X is very motivated by movement Z, which is not related to T.
  3. X tweets about Z, supporting Z and condemning Y.
  4. Now you three choices - co-opt, ignore, or oppose X.
  1. It will enhance your mutual influence with X.
  2. Your influence in T is determined by sum total of your influence with each individual member. So supporting X will enhance your influence in T.
  3. It will enhance influence of X in the tribe.
  1. You can continue to ignore X on Z.
  2. As long as views of X do not become dominant view within your tribe, you are fine.
  3. If those views become dominant with T, your returns from T may start diminishing. At the very least you will not be able to greatly enhance your influence.
  1. If you have far more influence in T compared to X, then you can oppose X.
  2. This will neither enhance nor diminish your influence in T, as long as X does not get further support from members of T.
  3. If X manages to gain even one supporter, then your influence starts decreasing if you can not get supporters as well.
  4. If both you and X keep getting supporters, the tribe will eventually split into T1 and T2.
  5. Effectively, you lose your influence by half.

Based on above information, you can see that your dominant strategy is to co-opt X. This is especially true if you are not very passionate about Z to begin with.

Let me explain why

  • This is a combination of sequential and simultaneous game.
  • Sequential as you can wait for other people to make move, taking a small risk of losing out on being an early mover.
  • Simultaneous as every member of the tribe can make decisions simultaneously.
  • So in this case, if you are a new member of the tribe with very little influence. Your best change of gaining some is by coopting views of X.
  • In a loosely organised tribe where there is no gate on membership, you can see how supporting X will be very lucrative thing to do for new members.
  • Especially given that it is a simultaneous game as well.
  • This effectively means almost always X is going to win, unless someone with very high influence is willing to launch motivated opposition.

This is the reason why most tribes become fairly rigid in their views. This is how they create shared myths which are very difficult to see past. Anyone who does not believe in those shared myths is eventually castigated. You can see this any number of close-knit tribes such entrepreneurs, academics, climate activists, political activists, crypto activist, organised religions, and so on. Essentially any tribe where you can not concretely with hard evidence show something to be right or wrong, you will see this same exact behaviour.

So is your only choice available is to co-opt, either immediately or eventually, to support dominant activism within your tribe? It is possibly the best and easiest choice available.

Now look at it from perspective of X. X is someone who has moderate level of influence in T. X does care about Z to some degree. X may not be expert on Z. It is extremely easy for X to gain really high influence in T. Even if they do not care about Z, purely from game theory perspective it is quite difficult to resist being an activist.

If so, then why I am still not an activist3?

Mainly because over a period of time these tribes will become more and more extreme. What you think of as extreme, they manage to make it a normal within an enclosed world view. Then there is more activism within that already narrow world and it can only push the tribe as a whole towards extreme end. And that is the biggest worry. It is not that there is activism in the world and it is increasing at an alarming rate, but that over time all activism ends up being extremism which has a net negative impact on the world.

How do you protect yourself?

  • Do not go into fields which have become tribal in nature - academics and journalism are the most prominent examples of this.
  • Do no rely on having a strong tribal identity. Build individual relationships with people that you need help from. Avoid going to group events once you have say 5-10 people in your network. Especially startup events. Essentially any event with more than 7-8 people is not worth going to anymore.
  • Avoid doing too much business with people who are vocal activists. Even if you agree with their activism today, I suggest keeping your risk exposure to them as low as possible.
  1. There are some exceptions to this rule, but generally this rule holds. 

  2. Don’t want to use any real names to avoid subtext. 

  3. I do have a dominant ethical and moral view which manifests as support for political parties or other social issues. But directionality between cause and effect is ethics to party and not the other way.