Cognitohazards: Suicide Social Contagion, 1982 Tylenol Poisonings & Extremist Self-Radicalization - E439

· VC and Angels,Angel Investor,Singapore,Podcast Episodes English

“Continuous exposure to sensational news and content can overload our cognitive systems. In other words, a small dose of social media is not a cognitohazard, but excessive consumption can have a poisonous effect. Therefore, it's important to understand the concept of a cognitohazard to navigate the modern information landscape safely. Just as we are what we eat—healthy food leads to a healthy body, while unhealthy food or poison leads to poor health—we must be mindful of our information diets. We need to consume more healthy content and limit our exposure to potentially harmful content.” - Jeremy Au

“A cognitohazard is a form of information or idea that creates danger upon comprehension. For instance, a strobe light can trigger epilepsy in someone vulnerable to flashing lights of certain colors. Simply seeing the light doesn't cause an immediate reaction, but comprehending it triggers the brain to react subconsciously, leading to an epilepsy episode. In contrast, a laser pointed at your eye causes blindness by directly harming the retina; this is different because it doesn’t involve brain processing.” - Jeremy Au

“I watched a fascinating video by an MMA fighter who shared his strategy to mentally overload opponents. He used feints, deceptive movements, and constant pressure to exhaust them mentally, causing their nervous systems to react to various signals. This strategy reminds me of social media algorithm feeds. While individual short videos are fine to watch, an overdose—such as watching them for one, two, four, or even eight hours in a row—can cause mental fatigue and anxiety, as the nervous system becomes overloaded.” - Jeremy Au

Jeremy Au delved into the concept of “cognitohazards” — information that causes harm upon comprehension. Introduced by the sci-fi novel "There is No Antimemetics Division," this definition helps encapsulate a new danger in modern society. Examples include the "Werther effect" where suicide becomes contagious due to social replication and mass media, self-radicalization by online extremist content (a Singapore Chinese teenager became a believer of white supremacist idealogy and wanted to conduct a mass shooting), and the 1982 cyanide poisoning of Tylenol bottles where mass media coverage resulted in hundreds more of copycat attacks. Content is censored by governments or self-censored by journalists & social media platforms to prevent triggering harmful behaviors. Jeremy also touches on how listeners can become mindful of their information diet: healthy, junk and poisonous content.

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(02:11) Jeremy Au:

I love sci-fi. I got to read a fantastic book that blew my mind over the past year, which opened up a new dimension of thought The book is called, "There is No Antimemetics Division", which talks about a secret unit that is hunting down things that are called "cognitohazards".

Cognitohazard is a fascinating word. It is composed of two words, cognition and hazard. So cognition is the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through taught experience and senses. And hazard means something that is dangerous to your physical and mental self.

Therefore, cognitohazard is a form of process or idea that upon comprehension creates a danger to yourself. A simple example would be a strobe light that triggers epilepsy. So for somebody who's vulnerable to flashing lights of certain colors, to see a light does not immediately trigger it, but to comprehend that trigger your brain subconsciously reacts to it and triggers an epilepsy episode.

In contrast, a laser that's pointed at your eye will cause blindness because it directly causes harm to your retina, but it is not the same because not processed by the brain.

I want to share about three different types of real life cognitohazards that happen in real life.

The first type of cognitohazard is really about content that induces depression or increases the likelihood of suicide.

What is well known is that if you have a individual who is vulnerable, for example, feeling alone, socially disconnected, showing them graphic violence or self harm content can trigger similar behaviors in these individuals.

An in person example of this is that is well reported that there are suicide clusters in schools. For example, if a student commits suicide in a school, there is often a replication of copycat incidents where more suicides will happen because of two things.

One is that fellow students hear about a suicide and are sad about this entire process and feel sad about the loss of life.

Secondly, the knowledge that suicide is a path out for sadness creates a sort of social contagion where it becomes an acceptable form of behavior because somebody else has already done it.

Thirdly, if there is a copycat suicide, it can continue self perpetuated because it becomes much more of a norm rather than an aberration.

(04:20) Jeremy Au:

As a result, the school best practice today is that after a child commits suicide or has attempted suicide, that they activate counselors and do a lot of active intervention to prevent further incidents, media all across the world are now very careful about reporting about school suicides in order to prevent social contagion.

This is called the Werther effect. This can not only happen in school systems, it can also happen in a tight community, or for example, it can even happen nationally after a celebrity suicide wave. The World Health Organization has worked with reporters to create the following guidelines. First of all, to use extreme restraint in covering suicidal deaths, in other words, to keep the word suicide out of the headline.

Number two, to not romanticize the death. And three, limit the number of stories, including photography, pictures, and visual images of film.

(05:10) Jeremy Au:

The second type of cognitohazard would be school shootings and self radicalization. It has now been studied that extensive coverage of school shootings can inspire copycat attacks.

These attackers often write manifestos, publicize their attacks, and even seek to live stream their attacks. Extremists can also seek to radicalize individuals by promoting and inspiring individuals to themselves become extremists and to propagate the same content.

For example, in Singapore, a 16-year-old Singaporean student of Chinese ethnicity was self radicalized by online content to become a white supremacist.

He came upon videos by the American far right personality, Paul Nicholas Miller, who is known for promoting a race war and espouses white supremacist and neo Nazi rhetoric.

As a result, a teenager, upon perceiving this information and absorbing it, developed an intense hatred of communities typically targeted by far right extremists, including African Americans, Arabs, and LGBTQ individuals. He came to believe that African Americans were quote unquote, responsible for a significant percentage of crime in the United States and deserve to die a horrible death.

He also perceived illegal Arab immigrants as having committed violent acts against white populations in Western countries. What is fascinating is that he felt that he had no plans to conduct any attacks locally, as he felt that these communities had not caused any trouble in Singapore. However, he shared his interest to travel to America in 10 years time to conduct a mass shooting.

If you think about it, it's quite bonkers that a teenager of Chinese ethnicity identifies as a white supremacist. On one hand, it shows the extent of how vulnerable, the youth and teenagers can be. On the other hand, it also shows the power of cognitohazards.

The third example of cognitohazards was the Tylenol poisoning case. In 1982, Tylenol bottles in America were tampered with and had cyanide entered into the bottles, therefore causing multiple deaths. At that time, the headlines caused mass panic and many people were exposed to this method.

Unfortunately, the public absorption of this information created hundreds of copycat attacks, including Tylenol and other over the counter medications and other products. This was only stopped when the pharma industry worked on better packaging security, tamper resistant seals, and legal reforms.

(07:20) Jeremy Au:

I watched a fascinating video by the MMA fighter GSP. He shared his strategy to mentally overload the opponent. He would conduct feints, deceptive movements, and constant pressure to exhaust the opponent mentally, because opponent's nervous system would be overloaded, reacting to all kinds of different signals.

That could or could not be the proper attack vector. This reminds me very much of social media algorithm feeds where shorts content, even though they're individually, okay to absorb, when there is an overdose, for example, you're looking at not just 1 or 10 shorts. Are you looking at them for one, two, four, eight hours in a row? It can cause mental fatigue, anxiety, because your body's nervous system gets overloaded.

(07:59) Jeremy Au:

What I'm trying to say here is that a continuous exposure to sensational news and content can overload our cognitive systems. In other words, a small dose of social media is not a cognitohazard but taking too much of it creates a poisonous effect.

As a result, it's important for us to be aware that such a phrase, cognitohazard, becomes because it helps us navigate the modern information landscape more safely.

We all know that we are what we eat. If we eat healthy, then we have a healthy body. If we eat unhealthy or drink poison, then we become unhealthy. We do have to be thoughtful about information diets, and we need to eat more of the healthy content out there and limit our exposure to potentially harmful content.

(08:35) Jeremy Au:

On that note, see you next time.