In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about how to approach disinformation in the contemporary media landscape and Global South neutrality or support for Russia in the Ruso-Ukrainian war. The discussion takes a few turns.
I was fighting a head cold when I did this interview so was not as lucid as I would have liked to be, but credit to RNZ for giving me the airtime. It has to do with the placing of Russian disinformation talking points in stories on Radio New Zealand’s digital platform. Knowing about Russian disinformation campaigns in the US dating back to at least 2016 as well as similar campaigns in various European states since that time, and watching the spread of foreign sourced disinformation during the pandemic and afterwards here in NZ, I have been trying to call attention to the insidious nature of these types of psychological warfare. After all, if you can subversively undermine trust and confidence in liberal democratic governance from within, then there is no need to confront it from without. The Russians are not the only ones who play this game.
The good news is that Western intelligence agencies, including those in NZ, are belatedly focused on countering the phenomenon.
Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.
In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.
Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.
This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.
The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.
It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.
I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.
Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.
It should be obvious by now but let’s be clear: The same folk who regularly traffic in disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” are also those who most strongly claim that their freedom of expression rights are being violated when moves are made to curb hate speech (as opposed to protected offensive speech). They lie, they mislead, they conspire and they subvert, only to whine when they are called out on their prejudice and deceit.
That is what might be called message “cloaking” or “masking:” using the legal protections of democracy in order to undermine it from within via propaganda and psychological operations designed to confuse, divide and accentuate extant social cleavages, or what right-wing extremists call “acceleration.” This harks to old Marxist-Leninist notions of exacerbating social contradictions, although for Marxists these are class based in capitalist societies whereas the alt-Right sees race and ethno-religious differences as the main fault lines to be exploited (precisely because capitalism is seen to aggregate ethnicities into socio-economic classes, thereby diluting the racial or ethno-religious basis of “proper”–read: Anglo-Saxon–governance).
Ironically, the alt-Right and white supremacists share Lenin’s view that democracy is “capitalism’s best possible political shell,” and they, like him, see it as an impediment to “pure” government (be it of the workers or of a chosen racial or ethnic group, respectively). Lenin believed that democracy blinds workers to their common interests because of the false promise of choice offered by the universal vote. Conversely, Alt-Right adherents and white supremacists believe that democracy (both in terms of the right to vote and in legal protections for minorities, etc.) gives too much power to “inferior” or “replacement” groups, thereby impeding merit-based efficient (read: White) governance. Perhaps both are right.
All of this happens in a context where public cynicism about political elites runs deep in both mature and emergent democratic societies. Venality, corruption and instrumental opportunism are rife throughout the so-called ‘free” world, leading to disenchantment and anger towards “the system” as a whole. This creates the space where conspiracy theories, false alternative narratives, fear-mongering, scape-goating and other deliberate distortions of the truth take hold in the collective consciousness. Some of this is at play on the Left side of the political spectrum but the majority of notions about the existence of a (presumably homogeneous in outlook and transnational in manifestation) Deep State, climate change being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, etc. come from the Right, harking back to previous incarnations of paranoid fantasies like those of the John Birch Society and various anti-Semitic cults that see Jewish control behind every major social organisation. In fact, pushed by social media connectivity, new and old Rightist tropes have merged into a particularly nasty amalgam of hate and manipulated ignorance.
The convergence of hate speech enthusiasts, climate change deniers, bigots, xenophobes and assorted conspiracy mongerers has been facilitated by social and alternative media platforms, which has given them common ground and global reach. They fight vigorously to defend their “right” to voice retrograde views while working equally as hard at propagating all sorts of subterfuge and stupidity in pursuit of their ulterior motives.
The saddest part is that this syndrome has seeped into mainstream politics throughout the democratic world, with Right-oriented parties now adopting both dis-and misinformation campaigns and “cloaking” as political tactics. National-populist parties provide the most obvious example, but one only need to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this seepage works. If I was uncharitable I would call it the “Trump tactic dispersion effect:” lie, deny, invent, obfuscate and obstruct in pursuit of partisan and personal gain without regard to the negative impact it has on the political system as a whole. The GOP is too far gone to recover from its MAGA infection, but the NZ Right parties need to be called out on their attempts to model some of their tactics on Trump’s approach and those of the alt-Right.
The irony is that the major beneficiaries of this dispersion effect are authoritarians, both those internal to the societies in question as well as the foreign despots who see utility in the weakening of democracy world-wide (and who therefore encourage and support disinformation/cloaking efforts globally).
After all, the deadliest thrusts of sharp power are into soft targets.