Marc Owen Jones
The growing dangers of deception
These dangers of the information disorder are becoming increasingly apparent. From the rise of those who reject vaccinations to those who believe the world is flat, fringe conspiracies are arguably becoming more mainstream thanks to a proliferation of alternative information sources abetted by an apparent rise in distrust in traditional authority, whether that be government communications offices or the mainstream media.
In his book on propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev argues that we are experiencing a “war against reality”. Here disinformation and deception seek to alter people’s views on reality through the discrediting of “experts”, the sowing of alternative explanations, and playing on people’s visceral emotions to make them feel more vulnerable and therefore receptive to falsehoods.
And it is serious. Disinformation can lead to indoctrination, which can lead to incitement. Depending on the nature of the indoctrination, incitement can lead to violence and even genocide.
The Arab world has witnessed the tragedy of this. The rise of Daesh [the Islamic State group] has widely been attributed to the ability of disinformation, propaganda and indoctrination to transcend global borders via digital technology.
Even Facebook has acknowledged that its platform was used to incite what has been described as “genocidal” violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population. The same was true in the “closed” environment of WhatsApp, where one video, for example, claimed to show Rohingya cannibalising Hindus.
Of course, it was found to be false. Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people may have died during the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of disinformation about the virus.
The war against reality risks undermining many of the advancements in critical thinking, science and knowledge creation that have been made over the past few centuries. It is no surprise then that disinformation and the attendant term “fake news” have become ubiquitous in the past decade. The terms, along with the expression “war against reality”, are bound up in the vocabulary of the “post-truth” age, wherein “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
The motivations for such falsehoods are myriad, and several explanations have been touted; false information makes companies more money, truth is boring, or disinformation for profit is itself a business model. However, while financial gains in the realm of commerce are often the objectives of the service provider, the clients of such disinformation cannot be overlooked. After all, without demand, there is no supply, and the post-truth age has played out in specific ways in the Gulf region.
Another way to view fake news is not a fight about truth, but about power. As Mike Ananny notes, “Fake news ‘is evidence of a social phenomenon at play – a struggle between [how] different people envision what kind of world that they want’.” In the realm of politics, the terms post-truth and war against reality sometimes even seem like a quaint euphemism.
Michael Peters is more forceful, and highlights the phenomenon of “government by lying”, whereby demagogues and those on the fringes of political life use online media to disseminate controversial and often fallacious content in order to obtain power as a means of promoting their view of reality through policy or legislation.
The phenomenon is not confined to authoritarian regimes, but is also being driven by well-established democracies traditionally thought to have a relatively robust media that allowed for some plurality of opinion.
Democratic regimes have, with various levels of sophistication, deceived their people. Some of these lies, such as the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), were used to justify an immensely tragic war, the consequences of which are still being felt and will continue to be felt for generations.
We should not delude ourselves into thinking that deception is the purview of regimes classified as authoritarian. It is an illiberal practice common to every regime type. Having said that, a key distinction between illiberal and authoritarian regimes is the presence of the press.
A functioning and critical media, free from state control, has always been considered a mechanism by which to expose such lies and hold governments to account, even if this happens after the purpose of the lie has been achieved. However, despite the efforts of populists like Trump and Orban, a free press, however precarious, still exists in most European countries and North America.
That these institutions offer a key line of defence against the unfettered and unchallenged deception by autocratic leaders places them squarely in the realm of the enemy. For this reason, a cornerstone of the new age of deception has been the trope of demonising the media.
Trump’s exhortations of fake news media are not new. The German term Lugenpresse, or “lying media”, was used extensively in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to discredit those media that contradicted the statements of particular political parties. The term has even been used by the likes of Richard Spencer, an American neo-Nazi and president of the National Policy Institute.
In addition to discrediting those news channels that criticise him or his allies, Trump has promoted a steady stream of news outlets that he believes are supportive of him, such as One America News Network (OANN). For Trump and other populists, the idea has been to discourage the exposure of potential supporters to criticism of Trumpism.
While lying is not a partisan notion, in the current post-truth age the rise of right-wing populism has brought with it a tide of deceptive influence campaigns.
The Washington Post revealed that President Donald Trump had made approximately 22,000 false or misleading claims by the middle of 2020.Discrediting the press results from the existence a pluralistic media system, and thus is indicative of a desire to undo that pluralism in favour of a more monistic and authoritarian approach.
Although figures such as Donald Trump might have pathological characteristics that encourage their tendency to govern through deception, the emergence of what has been described as “truth decay” has been partly spurred on by a loosely regulated digital environment.
Without established safeguards and gatekeepers setting the agenda through vertically organised media platforms as well as the deterioration of sovereign boundaries that separate national news from the international information ecosystem, disinformation has become detached from its parochial context.
A tweet sent by someone in Hong Kong can be read instantly by someone in Argentina. Regardless of whether you agree with a message or not, the swift and immediate transmission of messages, however erroneous or truthful, has become accessible to the multitudes.
This is not to advocate for vertically owned media structures that maximise the control of certain gatekeepers. Naturally, the benefits of challenging traditional media monopolies should be clear by this point. Globalisation, satellite TV and now the internet have challenged the ability of dictators and democracies to control their own domestic ecosystems. Whether we like it or not, technological change has resulted, to some extent, in a regional and global pluralism.
Digital citizen journalism, activism and open source investigations have all contributed to creating new streams of accountability that promote transparency and openness. But this book is not about the positive aspects of our digital information ecosystem; it is about the manipulation of truths and facts designed to serve the agenda of powerful actors that primarily seek to censor and mislead their populations.
It is about the “deception order” that works together to enact a war on truth that threatens the shared reality in which we live, whether that’s about medical science or harmful lies about a particular ethnic group. Fundamentally, it is about documenting weaponised deception that results in widespread suffering and misery, or the perpetuation of political systems that promote corruption and inequality.
It is important to note that disinformation transcends borders, and malign actors are using disinformation to influence the foreign policy of other countries to further their own interests. Digital globalisation does not necessarily respect the sovereignty of states or the increasingly porous digital boundaries embodied in the term “world wide web”.
The information ecosystems in liberal democratic states have, to varying extents, created a space in which institutions act transparently in order that their facts and “truths” may be contested and validated. This creates a reciprocal level of trust that affirms and establishes the authority of institutions through their accountability to those whom they serve.
And while partisanship over moral and ethical choices may thrive, the trust imbued by this reciprocal relationship, to no small extent, encourages a shared set of specific ideological values. This shared reality, while allowing for disagreement and conjecture, is still mostly bounded by a mutual set of assumptions about science, civility and the nature of truth – aspects socialised through state education and other hegemonic endeavours.
However, the rise of post-truth politics has highlighted the fragility of this relationship, and the vulnerability of sovereign media ecosystems to the transnational nature of digital media.
It is the functionality of software created as far afield as Silicon Valley, combined with the malicious intentions of specific bad actors, that are undermining this shared reality inside and outside their specific polity boundaries (assuming they are a state). Populists and bad actors, wherever they may be, are able to subvert these norms for their own ends.
Marc Owen Jones is an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at HBKU, and a Senior Non Resident Fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now and the Middle East Council for Global Affairs.