When Prophecy Fails

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About 15 years ago, I read a book recommended by a mentor at Intuit (Bill Mirbach) called When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger. (Wikipedia Article) The book, published in 1956, studies a small UFO religion in Chicago called the Seekers that believed in an imminent apocalypse and what happened when the world did not, in fact, end. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has been influential ever since. If you are interested in QAnon, I would suggest reading (or listening) to it. It’s quite well written.

The book is now 65 years old, but we haven’t really evolved to avoid the trappings of these sorts of predictions. Just look at QAnon. Just like a religion the believers of this cult have specific and disturbing predictions. The parallels to me are striking.

This morning, I listed to the NYTimes Podcast about a QAnon believer (amusingly, she went to Harvard). All of the QAnon people thought there would be a revolution on Jan 6th. Then they thought there would be martial law on Jan 20th. Each time they are wrong and then find a reason why the prediction wasn’t false. Rather they misinterpreted the signs. Obviously, none of this happened because they were just silly predictions based on zero evidence.

There is good news and bad news if I look at the book as a guide to what might happen with these people. The good news is that they eventually will give up. The bad news is that they will get more and more obsessed with their prediction, to the point of serious consequences (selling their houses, committing crimes, even suicide). The question for me is “Have we gone far enough where they give up? or are they still in the cycle of obsession?

The Internet changes the equation because the lies and the false theories spread with little friction. Back in 1956, you had to live near other cultists. Now, you can be anywhere in the world. Also, foreign actors like Russia can manipulate this psychological phenomenon to make us crazy. The internet and its anonymity are a serious weakness in our culture. We will either fix it or we will suffer the consequences.

Tangent: Years ago, at Marketo, a customer got infected with a keylogging virus on their computer. They logged into Marketo, thereby giving the hackers a login. The hackers figured out the system and started sending out spam emails. We saw that our tool was being misused by bad actors. We implemented multi-factor authentication, as well as other security restrictions. Additionally, we built a world-class deliverability team that ensured our customers could send mail to the inbox and not the spam folder. We addressed the problem head-on.

If you work for Facebook, Google, Twitter, Telegram, or any other tool that can be used by bad actors, you need to react on behalf of the rest of us trying to live our lives and do our jobs without trying to dismantle our entire society. QAnon should not be allowed to spread through our free services because its harmful to the health of our citizens. It’s the same as a virus, or wildfire, or a man with a gun in a movie theater. You don’t have the right to hurt other people. The first amendment doesn’t say “You have the right to say anything you want in any platform no matter who it hurts.”.

It’s hard to tell where this will all lead. I have no prediction other than we will continue to be human beings, failings and all.

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