Fake news and confusion: reflections on a blind spot

This is a rough translation of a paper I published in the French Magazine AOC, back in February.

Should the notion of confusion be given greater prominence in our reflections on democracy and its foes? A number of us, in 2018, were alarmed by the arguments of the proposed French law on Fake News, which became the « law on information manipulation« . Originally based on a disputable definition of « false information », it had attempted to clarify matters by focusing on « inaccurate or misleading information », which is believed to be the source of opinion manipulation. Even though the various characterizations of « false information » remained very confused, the reference to truth – the « real information » – still persisted. But what if equally disturbing manipulations of opinion did not even need to persuade us of falsehoods? What to do with the arguments of those who believe that the dissemination of confusion, i.e. being in a state where relevant distinctions are no longer possible, may be a privileged objective in manipulation? This question, as we shall see, remains open, and several recent essays have made it more concrete.

Let us make it clear from the outset that confusion is undoubtedly an irreducible dimension of human affairs, even in their most technical parts. The best compliment Charles Sanders Peirce could give to a great mind was not necessarily to have the « crystal clearness » that he described as characteristic of « second knives », but to be able to see a little further than others in the fog, to be able to grasp a strategic idea while controversy was still raging. In ethics, it is often difficult to decide the status of an act – does the excuse I am carelessly given repair or worsen the offence? – it is an intrinsic part of our moral discussions to make that clear. The same goes for a great work of art, for a great law… However, we often come across the idea that this confusion can be increased, and that it can be increased strategically. If, here again, the idea is perhaps as old as that of propaganda, the means seem to be new.

Director and documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, in a short film, Oh Dearism II and Non-Linear War, in 2014, denounced the vagueness and confusion about economic policy in Britain, offering an analogy with the example of Vladislas Surkov, one of Vladimir Putin’s key strategists. He claimed that this « techno-politician » had succeeded in establishing a regime of « destabilized perception » about the war in Ukraine, as in domestic politics, supporting a nationalist league in the morning, a human rights movement in the evening, and of course letting it be known widely. Curtis made confusion a powerful tool of political control and demobilization, condemning to hebetude or to the very British interjection: « Oh Dear« . « We live, » the voice-over pointed out, in a « constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with any coherent narrative of their own. » This idea, that an important part of the fake news phenomenon is based on fog, on the « destabilization of perception », can be found in many versions, with Philip Mirowski, with Benkler, Paris and Roberts in Network Propaganda, with Kakutani in The Death of Truth, but also with Zeynep Tufekci, professor at the University of North Carolina. Her Twitter and Tear Gas shows how digital tools can be used not only by social movements to assert themselves, but also by governments to divide these movements. In her analysis of new forms of propaganda, she believes that « the goal of the powerful, often, is not to convince people of the truth of a particular narrative or to block a particular piece of information from getting out (that is increasingly difficult), but to produce resignation, cynicism and a sense of disempowerment among the people. » Her work is a patient account of the means used by what she sees as the contemporary version of censorship: the submersion under information, the delegitimization of reliable sources of information, the deliberate maintenance of confusion, the creation of hoaxes or, conversely, their supposed denunciation, and harassment campaigns by bots. Of course, such statements must be substantiated, otherwise they will remain mere incantations. Tufekci analyzes the example of the July 2016 coup in Turkey, that of Russian troll farms, where employees each kept dozens of pseudonymous accounts on social networks, during the Swedish-NATO rapprochement, flooding Swedish forums with conspiracy theories, or that of China, in the light of studies by King, Pan and Roberts. These authors show that China’s highly effective internal censorship is not limited to the « Digital Chinese Wall » and does not consist only in suppressing any message critical of the government, but operates on two fronts. It removes messages from geographically close actors calling for collective action: it is not a question of blocking speeches but of preventing actions. It is also about producing distraction. The « 50 cents party« , perhaps made up of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of members working for the regime, post en masse at sensitive moments on subjects unrelated to this specific news, to create other points of attention, to create the equivalent of the trending topics. There was no reason, it is true, for the GAFAs to be the only ones to have understood that attention was the vital resource of the time, and that it was limited. 

Such a perspective was also at the centre of Peter Pomerantsev’s widely circulated essay, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Public Affairs, 2014). On the surface, the book is an autobiographical essay: it deals with the experience of the author, who was born in the USSR, exiled in Europe, notably in Great Britain, in the 1970s, then returned to Russia to work in the audiovisual industry and in reality television at the turn of the 2000s. We can see the economy falling in the hands of large groups, under the leadership of the government, the importation of the most trashy genres of Western reality TV, and we can even follow Pomerantsev in Eastern Siberia, in the company of a former mafia man whose Spets series would almost make Troma Productions’ films look like art cinema. It’s a crazy world, where « everything is possible ». But what struck readers was the first part of the title, « Nothing is True », the portrait of new forms of propaganda and of the fake news phenomenon. In the book, which inspired the Curtis documentary mentioned above, Pomerantsev notably gave a portrait of Surkov, who « likes to invoke the new postmodern texts just translated into Russian, the breakdown of grand narratives, the impossibility of truth, how everything is only “simulacrum” and “simulacra” . . . and then in the next moment he says how he despises relativism and loves conservatism, before quoting Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” in English and by heart. » It might be interesting to inquire further into this use of post-modernism (and also of the Beat Generation), but what is important here is the subversion of the cardinal values of liberal democracies, which are becoming questionable, in a context where access to information is no longer a liberation but a means of crushing dissent, where contradictory information obscures debates more than it enlightens them, where it prohibits mutual understanding more than it fosters it. “This isn’t a country in transition but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends…”

The idea was already developed in a report co-authored by Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, The Threat of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money (Institute of Modern Russia, 2014). They hammered home the idea that the effect of disinformation from Russia was not to persuade us (as in classical public diplomacy) or to gain credibility, but to “confuse us through conspiracy theories and the proliferation of falsehoods.” Beyond this historical transition, the authors felt that this strategy, which consisted primarily in exacerbating divisions in Western opinion, had the effect of providing a form of X-ray of the « weak links » and of the « underbelly of liberal democracy, » by which they meant above all the undermining of the very idea of freedom of expression, reversing itself into its opposite when speech becomes insignificant. 

Pomerantsev’s latest book, This is not Propaganda, Adventures in the War against Reality, takes up this analysis to extend it and plays on two fronts: the personal story of Pomerantsev, whose parents, judged too critical of Soviet power, are forced into exile in 1977, and this biographical anchoring naturally sheds light on the author’s implacable reading of current power. The other front goes beyond the Russian setting of the 2015 book, and gives a glimpse of how dissent is being fought by troll farms and the new tools provided by social networks, in the Philippines, Estonia, China, Latin America and the Balkans in particular, overlapping with some of the points we saw in Tufecki’s book. The interest of this story, which is closer to the author’s own admission more to analysis and journalism than to academic research, is that he does not confine himself to lamenting Fake news and the credulity of the masses, but that he sees in the phenomenon a revelation of the exhaustion of liberal democracies and the fragility of mobilizations. One of the most interesting passages is the nuanced look at Srđa Popović, one of the theoreticians of non-violent revolt, a pillar of the Otpor! movement, extremely active against Milosevic in Serbia at the turn of the century.  Popović gave methods to revolt movements in Georgia, Ukraine and Iran, multiple « coloured » revolutions and even to leaders of the Arab Spring. Popović is the author, along with Matthew Miller, of a form of revolt manual, the title of which alone is a whole program, Blueprint for Revolution. How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (Spiegel and Grau, 2015). The starting point is the search for alliances around a political vision, even if the starting communities are very heterogeneous, which should encourage the search for a « lowest common denominator », and the affirmation of an identity opposed to that of the regime. But a power that constantly plays on contradiction, whether it is the Russian state pretending not to invade Ukraine or the Trump administration, not hesitating to contradict itself permanently, complicates the federation of oppositions for lack of stable support. The trap is the following: to put oneself in the position of responding to a meaningless or contradictory agenda. This is only the first step. As Pomerantsev notes, while the non-violent and often funny modes of action imagined by Popović can be very powerful, the recognition of a critical community by itself, by its own members, is fragile and can be effectively disrupted, especially if it uses open social networks to federate itself. Pomerantsev describes, for example, in Mexico, the observations of Alberto Escorcia, who graphically shows how, during a social movement, armies of bots come to pollute the exchanges of demonstrators, relayed by human operators (« cyborgs ») when one of them begins to respond, with the result that exchanges within the movement are dissipated. In the face of the Bots’ attacks, « the little nodes representing protesters would stop interacting with each other and instead turn outwards to engage with the attackers, and as they did so the thick lattice became thinner and the ball started to break apart into a shapeless, twitching mess.”

What can we learn from these examples? 

First of all, that democracy can certainly refer to the functioning of institutions, but that it is also a model that regimes can have an interest in tarnishing, by creating dissension or, more ordinarily, by exacerbating it, or that we can tarnish ourselves, through recklessness or apathy. As Snyder noted in his chilling Road to Unfreedom: « If citizens doubt everything, they cannot see alternative models beyond Russia’s borders, cannot carry out sensible discussions about reform, and cannot trust one another enough to organize for political change. A plausible future requires a factual present  » (T. Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, Crown, 2018, 160). His conclusion probably covers more ground than just the Russian context. The confusion that is produced wins every time: it has internal effects, promoting cynicism and discouragement, limiting the coalition around clearly identified interests; it also has external effects: it makes the game of democracies unreadable from the outside, their debates unintelligible, and erases the difference that separates them from authoritarian regimes, from the point of view of cynicism or hypocrisy. This is not to say that these strategies are omnipresent, or even dominant, or that they are exercised in the same way in authoritarian regimes and democracies, which are, however, sometimes their playground. However, it can be noted that they do exist and are well documented in some contexts, although their detailed analysis may need to be repeated and quantified each time, where data permit. It may be that the core of information manipulation is therefore not what we believe: it is an illusion to fight it by tracking down only false statements and by searching for what distinguishes apparent information from fake news, from its mere appearance, even if these tasks must be tirelessly pursued. 

A second idea is that any movement that does not integrate from the outset a reflection on possible counter-measures to these dispersion of the debates, or at least on a reduction of vulnerability to these offensives, is at best naïve, at worst irresponsible. This is probably not an easy task. Control of the agenda, of what should be at the centre of collective attention, is a crucial dimension, for any movement, and basically for any collective, press organ, association, political party, trade union… The rare areas where this mastery is still possible must be cultivated. 

Finally, confusion can be a strategic objective, but the examples we have just encountered also show us that, even when there may be some doubt about the existence of such an objective, it is the effects themselves that are of concern. They are the same whether the confusion is the result of intent, recklessness or carelessness: confusion deprives deliberation of meaning, prevents us from agreeing on the motives for our actions, as well as on our oppositions, and ultimately makes us intelligible to ourselves. Yet, whether or not it is the subject of strategies, the term is increasingly used to describe major democratic debates. A pension reform, here, which has been prepared for two years, finally seems to be hanging on an index that INSEE has never heard of and which does not exist to date. A national debate occupied part of the French people last year, syntheses were published, but they do not seem to play any role in the government’s agenda: what exactly were we doing while debating then? An invasion of the privacy of a candidate for mayor of Paris in February became a trial of pseudonyms on social networks, while the perpetrators were well identified, this news item transforming itself into a questioning of possible manipulations by a foreign power. Some cases are purely coincidental, others are unintended consequences, others involve unpreparedness, others seem to be a monstrous outgrowth of the « theorem » of the former Minister of the Interior Charles Pasqua, which was not his and was not a theorem either: « When one is annoyed by a case, one must bring up a case within the case, and if necessary another case within the case, until no one understands it any more’. Are the times when « no one understands anything anymore » the froth of things, unfortunate accidents, or a subject that deserves our utmost attention? This was the haunting question that was chasing us, reading the authors mentioned here: whether we are talking about governments, or even these new digital players that are sometimes as powerful as states, beyond the crucial differences in terms of institutions and the defence of public freedoms, does not any exercise of power that increases confusion about its objectives, about the reality of its action, that makes the debates meaningless, take us into lands strangely close to those described by Pomerantsev?

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