Confusion in an era of instant disinformation
To capture the current state of uncertainty that pervades both global socio-economic instability and cultural decay succinctly is no mean feat. Teenage rebellion is a rite of passage at a critical period of transition in our lives, an interlude between childhood innocence and adult responsibility when we question the powers that be and often challenge parental authority. We pose our elders a simple question: What kind of world did you create for us? and more to the point: How am I supposed to navigate a social rat race with its contradictory messages and emotive provocations? In short What is the purpose of life?. In the not too distant past we would soon overcome our adolescent existential crises as we assumed new responsibilities as conscientious workers, mothers and fathers. The purpose of life is life itself, the continuation of our species, our family, our culture and hopefully incremental improvements in our quality of life. However, in an age of rapid technological transformation, our adolescent hiatus now extends well into our 30s or even 40s. I sometimes recall the mood of my own teenage years as cultural continuity gave way to a new era of mass consumerism, family breakdown, atomisation and job insecurity. We naively believed punk rock bands screaming their disaffection with mainstream society would challenge elitism and empower the masses to take back control from greedy capitalists. Alas they were just marketing tools that served to drive a wedge between generations and subvert traditional support structures. Yet whenever I wrestle with a paradox and try to make sense of contradictory news sources, somewhere in the back of my brain I hear echoes of the dissonant punk chorus of X-Ray Specs "œThe day the world turned dayglo". Yet the late 1970s seem a relatively tame era when despite the trappings of modernity, incipient cultural decay and excitement about the coming computer revolution, we had not completely lost touch with human nature and divergent philosophical perspectives could be openly debated.
Before the advent of the Internet, we could either follow an organised political faction who would filter objective reality for us or we could engage with the great university of life by reading the works of important thinkers whose ideas had been shaped not by dogma, but by practical experience. If most people retain some power of critical thinking and share some core ethical values, bad ideas will fail in open rational debate because their consequences are truly evil, because they're incompatible with human nature or rely on fanciful, but dodgy science. However, in an atomised society with obsessive surveillance of politically incorrect speech, patently biased mainstream media reporting at odds with people's daily experiences and a tangled web of unofficial counterpropanda, bad ideas can proliferate because they cannot be challenged in an open, rational and empirical way. I'm inclined to think that online videos claiming the earth is really a flat disc or that the moon landings were staged are some kind of social experiment. From the isolation of your bedroom connected to the outside world only via social media and surrounded by a synthetic backdrop of housing schemes, shopping malls, office blocks, warehouses, hospitals, schools and prisons, one can believe almost anything, especially when official narratives reveal so many internal inconsistencies. In the end, our analysis of evolving news stories depends more on whom we trust most than independent analysis of conflicting sources.
How do we know that tightly controlled media and strict censorship sow the seeds of distrust? Just ask anyone who experienced life behind the Iron Curtain. The more the government limited the range of permissible opinions and smeared dissidents with accusations of fascism or treason, the more ordinary people distrusted official media outlets and sought means to clandestinely listen to foreign radio stations or smuggle in banned books. Many would pretend to go along with the system, but behind closed doors in the privacy of their own homes they'd voice dissent. However, in such environments it is easy to fall victim either to counterpropaganda from rival superpowers or to planted disinformation campaigns designed to entrap dissidents, e.g, setting up bogus anti-semitic groups recycling Nazi-era propaganda that would still resonate with some anti-Soviet dissidents in the 1950s and 60s. Stalinists would love all their opponents to behave just like stereotypical Nazi sympathisers to justify their coercive means of corrective political re-education. Likewise today's globalists would much prefer all troublesome dissidents to be either rightwing extremists, an epithet often applied to social conservatives whose views would have been conventional wisdom until recently, or Islamic fundamentalists.
Our instinctive hunches may very often be right, but sometimes embarrassingly wrong. Would I stake my political reputation on the assertion that Boris Johnson knowingly lied about the Skripal poisoning incident ? I'd need good evidence to challenge such claims in the midst of Putin-bashing hysteria. It is just possible that the Russian secret services may have wanted to eliminate a former double agent, but it's also highly likely that the British establishment is spreading disinformation again to pursue a hidden policy agenda. As most of us have limited time to corroborate primary news sources, a much better approach is to compare contentious claims that were made ten or twenty years ago with what turned out to be true. Often only snippets of the truth reach us through mainstream media and usually long after the original claims have served their purpose. Did Tony Blair lie about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? Maybe, but a narrow focus on this one claim deflects our attention from a much larger game plan. It's possibly one of the few cases where the establishment has begrudgingly admitted its deceptive claims. However, if you dig deep enough, many of the one-sided claims made about the Rwandan killing fields, the Balkan civil war, Iraq, Libya and more recently the Syrian quagmire turn out to be either fabricated or twisted to suit the dominant narrative of the time.
The Social Media Rabbit Hole
For a variety of personal reasons I've steered clear of intrusive social media platforms, and that means mainly Facebook, much preferring peer-to-peer messaging, though no doubt Skype eavesdrops too. I do tweet, but seldom reveal personal details that could either embarrass me or get me into serious trouble, although if I had millions of followers my account may well have caught the attention of Twitter's thought police by now. Social media provides a platform to keep in touch with friends and family, but also connects you with hundreds of millions of other potential virtual friends, who may recommend products, services or ideas. A simple example of Facebook's business model is product endorsement. Why would you recommend one product over another? Maybe some people have well-informed predelictions based on firsthand experience and technical knowledge, but more often than people recommend merchandise because they might win a prize or wish to express their short-lived joy about owning a trendy gadget. Marketers have long known that loud, brash or in-your-face advertisements can put off large segments of their potential clientele, but what if your new friend with whom you've enjoyed a few brief chats and has an endearing profile picture recommends a product. Research shows peer pressure is often much more effective than traditional advertising. So what if your new friends do not just recommend products, but contentious causes, involving concepts, ideas, analysis and scientific data that you have not yet had either the time or inclination to investigate? Would you support a cause just because your charming new virtual friend has endorsed it?
Online campaigning platforms like 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Change Dot Org are theoretically open to anyone who wants to struggle against injustice, but in my experience their bias is overwhelmingly in favour of universalism and social engineering, i.e. a borderless utopia controlled by large worldwide organisations. Superficially, they favour many campaigns associated with the traditional green left. I've signed and promoted a few campaigns myself on things like TTIP and the Monsanto-Bayer merger because I instinctively oppose any policies likely to empower big business. However, these outlets have also run campaigns calling for the Daily Mail to be banned from colleges and public transport or for the BBC not to let Nigel Farage appear on Question Time again. They've run numerous campaigns on letting more refugees and economic migrants move to the UK and elsewhere in Europe, against organisations accused of hate speech and most disturbingly many of their campaigns against the horrors of war recycle mainstream propaganda on complex conflicts in the Middle East. Would I sign a petition calling for Malala to win the Nobel Peace Prize? Maybe. She seemed a nice girl and I totally abhor the Taliban's treatment of women, but her rise to fame, supported by many bellicose politicians, helped justify ongoing NATO intervention in Afghanistan. But could I be duped into supporting Bana, the 7 to 9 year old social media expert and technical whiz girl from Eastern Aleppo? Sorry, I don't buy that version of events, especially as the Syrian civil war only escalated after the US and UK started funding anti-government militias. However, I'm a natural cynic. I tend not to fall for propaganda from powerful lobbies, but today we live in an era of shifting alliances and disinformation overload. Gone are the days when the BBC and CNN could set agendas on foreign policy initiatives. Their grip on the global collective psyche has failed to recover in much of the world since their logistical support for destabilising US-led military adventures. Worse still, the BBC has lost much credibility with conservative public opinion due to its conspicuous promotion of identity politics, globalisation and epistocracy, i.e. rule by an intellectual elite.
The Cambridge Analytica Delusion
First off I'm beginning to think that neither the Trump phenomenon nor Brexit (the awful term coined for the unexpected outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum) hindered corporate globalisation at all. Trump had three selling points: Stronger borders, greater protectionism and an end to pointless wars that do not protect the American people. His slogan was Americanism, not globalism and it appealed especially to rednecks and blue collar workers from the Rust Belt. Yet now with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as senior security advisor, the Trump administration is firmly in the hands of bellicose NeoCons. Despite all the rhetoric about temporary travel bans for jet-setters from 7 countries accused of exporting terrorism, Congress failed to approve Trump's much trumpeted border wall. As for trade protectionism, Trump's proposed tariffs against Chinese, Japanese and European manufacturers are much lower than those enforced during the Reagan era. We used to think US Democrat or British Labour leaders would be more bellicose because they could more effectively deflect dissent. Now Trump supporters have inadvertently reinvigorated the military industrial complex at a time when US economic power is waning. Likewise the British government has effectively negotiated a deal with the EU that addresses none of the key concerns that 17.4 million leave voters had, while cleverly driving a wedge between generations, regions and social classes. The ruling elites can now blame Brexit or Russia for anything that goes wrong, while doing little to stem migratory flows or social alienation, banning social conservatives from entering the country, locking up Youtube pranksters, remaining in full regulatory alignment with the EU and even letting them access our fishing waters. The subtle point many observers have failed to get is that we the people do not own the land we call home. Banks, big business and the government do.
So did a bunch of cybernetic whizkids use social media and clever artificial intelligence algorithms to sway the vote to the outcome that the establishment appeared not to want? Yes, but so what? So did the Clinton campaign in the US and Remain campaign in the UK, but midway through these campaigns millions of ordinary voters grew tired of the uninspiring marketing spiels emanating from the establishment media. In the run-up to the EU Referendum, I saw much more proactive persuasion from the well-funded Remain camp. The frequency of these videos seemed to track my online behaviour, which varies from technical sites, to mainstream media and several alternative media outlets. For a while leave campaigners seemed much more active on social media, but largely because they were the challengers rather than the incumbents. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has the advantage of appealing to impressionable Guardian readers, but also empowers government to regulate the Internet with the tacit support of the wishful thinking chattering classes. The establishment's answer to the Brexit rebellion appears to be a rebranding of UK PLC's relationship with the EU Commission and greater control over social media.
Recent community guidelines enforced by the main social media outlets have almost exclusively targeted what we may class as social conservatives and nationalists as well as a few rogue racial supremacists and outright nutters. The existence of the latter justifies the suppression of the former. They're getting worried because a few channels such as Infowars, Stefan Molyneux, Paul Joseph Watson, Jordan Peterson and Gad Saad, to name but a few, have attracted large audiences to challenge the logic of postmodernism, sometimes known as Cultural Marxism. People are slowly but surely cottoning on to the emerging reality that agendas like transgenderism or the abolition of nation states are not just wild ideas championed by a few maverick academics, but are actively promoted by well-funded NGOs deeply entrenched in government and often bankrolled by the same evil corporations that the anti-establishment left used to hate. No wonder people are confused.
This morning SumOfUs.Org sent me another mailshot urging me to support their campaign to censor the Internet by getting major retailers such as Amazon to boycott Breitbart. Let me quote their missive:
Nearly 2,600 advertisers pulled out of the white supremacist news site famously known as Trump News. Amazon is one of the last major advertisers on Breitbart, the site formally operated by hate-leader and Cambridge Analytica colluder Steve Bannon. meeting for us to share our concerns!
This is guilt by association and insinuation, a reaction to memes spread at great expense by the mainstream media. Any outlet telling the truth about the migration crisis will be targeted, while the British State spreads lies about nerve agent attacks and bellicose NeoCons take over the White House. Yet SumOfUs.org is more concerned with protecting their NGO friends who have colluded with people traffickers.