In 2016 the growth of fake news, propaganda and misinformation passed a point of no return. The various conspiracies, smears and alliances are too complex. We lack the tools to police it.
Russian state propaganda and the alt-right have proven themselves exceptionally successful. It suits autocrats and a cynical generation of political ‘content creators’ to undermine notions of truth. Socially liberal Westerners spent so long criticising the establishment, and opening their minds to relative notions of truth that they are left with no defence and often entertain similar conspiracy theories. They were complicit in undermining trust in the news, in politicians, in the courts, in truth itself to help create an environment where Donald Trump and Brexit campaigners could say whatever they want without reproach.
Within the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and associated online media helped create a mob atmosphere. You could tune into a leadership election in 2016 and see Labour members boo one of their candidates and scoff at the suggestion that their MPs include left wingers. The Canary and other blogs had circulated — with great success — myths around a Portland Media conspiracy, Ruth Smeeth MP being a CIA agent, and MI5 working to undermine Corbyn.
At the extremes the alt right and left are increasingly in alliance, with the newest development being to use a critique of "fake news" against those trying to make sense of it.
Currently, journalist Sarah Kendzior is experiencing the fall-out resulting from reporting primary source interviews with Trump during the 1980s, setting out Trump's views on nuclear co-operation with Russia. The reporter becomes the story as Kendzior is misquoted as suggesting that Trump is a KGB sleeper cell. She is attacked online, appears to have recieved death threats and the original point is lost.
Elswhere, Glenn Greenwald's The Intercept's criticisms of the liberal media are increasingly being reported in lurid headlines by the alt-right Breitbart. Most recently, Breitbart were able to crow that in Greenwald's view "Breitbart News Has ‘Editorial Independence’ That ‘Left and Establishment Right Utterly Lack’".
Earlier in the year Jo Cox, Labour MP, was tragically murdered. Parts of the left were less interested in her committed work to support civilians in Syria and instead entertain conspiracy theories about the victims of double tap barrel bombing and chemical weapons being staged. Socialist anti-imperialists are tuning in to watch Australian Syrian emigre Mimi al Laham/Maram Susli, Assad stooge, friend of Alex Jones of Infowars and David Duke (previously leader of the KKK). https://pulsemedia.org/2016/12/29/down-the-alt-rights-syrian-rabbit-hole/
Fake news won out in the US election. Wikileaks presented Democrat emails which served as a place holder for rage and distrust against “liberals”. The emails eventually become a focus for the baffling "Pizzagate" child abuse conspiracy theory, resulting in an armed gunman entering a Washington DC pizzeria. Trump lied, claimed Obama had literally created ISIS, boasted about grabbing pussy, called Mexicans rapists, threatened to ban Muslims from entering the country, and buddied up to Alex Jones who had been screaming that Clinton was an actual demon (who smelt of death). 2016 demonstrated that a proportion American voters like that sort of thing, or at least that there is nothing a candidate can say to disqualify them if they say it with a big enough mouth.
While online misinformation is a conscious political tool in the UK and the US we are not experiencing anything like totalitarianism. Nevertheless, political theorist, Hannah Arendt's comments in the 1950s help explain a now permanent feature of public affairs.
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
Or more concisely:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
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