The Bots

Dividing and Conquering: It's an Old Thing

Posted Feb 27, 2018

Source: Freepik

The web crawlers are everywhere.  And some don't like us very much.  Years before the last US presidential election, Kremlin propaganda agencies proliferated tweets about poisoned turkeys, contaminated water, chemical plant explosions and terrorist attacks.  And they picked sides as the election heated up.  They liked Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders.  They didn't like Hillary Clinton.  Or Jeb Bush.

Other bots just stir the pot.  An hour after the Valentine's Day massacre at Parkland, Twitter accounts linked to the Russians sent out hundreds of aggravated posts on the gun control debate.  “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans.  Almost systematically,” a source reported for the New York Times.

The idea of stirring up animosities among enemies is probably as old as we are.  Chaos has been created.  Havoc has been wreaked.  The evidence is all over history, ancient and US.

When China was unified by Qin Shihuangdi in 221 BC, he took a few pointers from an old Spring and Autumn Period study, Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  It said things like, “If his forces are united, then separate them;” and “We can keep our forces concentrated, but the enemy’s must be divided;” and “We can form a single united body, while the enemy must be split up into fractions.”

When Chandragupta Maurya unified India in 324 BC, he relied on advice from a contemporary, Kautilya, who was the author of an Arthashastra, or study of money.  It went on and on with little gems like these: “Those who are opposed to him, he should put down by sowing the seeds of dissension;” and “Chief officers of the army may be induced by offering land and gold to fall against their own men and secede from the enemy;” and “Keepers of harlots should excite love in the minds of the leaders of the enemy’s army by exhibiting women endowed with youth and beauty, then fiery spies should bring about quarrels among them.”

Julius Caesar, who handed the Roman Empire to Augustus, is supposed to have put divide et imperia, “divide and become an emperor,” into practice.  And Augustus’ contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth, is remembered for this: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:25).  For centuries, Jesus’ followers did their best to hold their households together; and Caesar’s successors did their best to break those households apart.  Daughters and sons who gave up inheritances from their parents, in order to win inheritances in heaven, were persecuted for hundreds of years.  From the 144,000 harpists undefiled by women in the book of Revelation, to saints like Agnes and Alban who protected their chastity under the emperor Diocletian, they were condemned to the leones, or lions, or offered up to lenones, or pimps—“a confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death.”  So the early Church elder, Tertullian, wrote.

Americans are no strangers to what the bots are about.  Back when the Founders were debating the merits of a strong executive versus a weak one, James Madison (the staunchest of Republicans) and Alexander Hamilton (the strongest of Federalists) put together The Federalist Papers.  Madison was opposed to the concentration of power.  “Divide et impera, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles,” he admitted in a letter.  Hamilton said, in effect, don’t worry about it.  “We have been almost taught to tremble at the terrific visages of murdering janissaries, and to blush at the unveiled mysteries of a future seraglio.”  Silly us.

Ants anticipated the bots.  Nearly 50 years ago, the great Harvard myrmecologist, EO Wilson, wrote a paper about how groups of Formica sanguinea, the blood-red slave-maker ant, use propaganda to mess their adversaries up.  Glandular extracts guide columns of attackers from slave-maker colonies on raids; but they make defenders from enemy colonies disperse.  “Propaganda substances,” Dr Wilson liked to call them.  They’ve worked well for a few million years.


Betzig, L. L.  in press.  “Every kingdom divided against itself:” A history of Roman religion.  In J. Feierman et al, eds.  The Evolution of Religion.  London: Routledge.

Regnier, F. E. and E. O. Wilson.  1971.  Chemical communication and “propaganda” in slave-maker ants.  Science 172: 267-269.  Many thanks to Bernie Crespi for suggesting this!