Take the Red Pill

Defeating fake news will be a generational struggle

Fake news is a new phrase, not a new idea. Democratic and authoritarian governments alike have been waging disinformation campaigns since the invention of the printing press. We can take some encouragement from these precedents if we learn lessons from history in training the public to spot media falsifications. But the era of social media represents a paradigm shift in political communication. Fake news has profoundly troubling implications for how online information can be manipulated to pollute evidence-based claims and undermine the very concept of truth.

The Pizzagate conspiracy theory began when Wikileaks released the emails of the Democrat party chairperson, John Podesta. Rumours quickly began circulating suggesting that the emails contained coded messages concerning a chain of restaurants that were being used as a front for a sex trafficking ring. This was swiftly refuted by the police, yet it became part of the election story by permanently associating Hillary Clinton with the fake crime.

When the MH17 Malaysian airplane was shot down over Ukrainian airspace in 2014, the Russian media gave several conflicting explanations as to its cause until the public came to believe the truth could never be known, despite the overwhelming evidence that pro-Russian separatists were to blame. It was a successful tactic because it capitalised on people’s mistrust of the media and the government.

Russian broadcasters, loyal to the Putin regime, took the same approach in their reports on the wider Ukrainian conflict. Supporters of the elected Ukrainian government were always described as “fascists” who committed horrendous acts of violence against Russians. The presence of the Russian military in Crimea was repeatedly denied by Moscow for many months until Putin admitted that forces had in fact been deployed there. But just to confuse matters further, he claimed never to have denied their existence in the first place.

The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign only succeeded because the public were willing to collude in the fantasy perpetuated by the media machine. In The Invention of Russia, Arkaday Ostrovsky describes the media as an “hallucinogen” that immerses the public in fantasy and illusion. “Just as in any trade in drugs, television propaganda exploits people’s weaknesses and cravings. The main reason Russian propaganda works is because enough people want to believe it…They are deceived because they want to be deceived.”

Swamping people with information is producing a new kind of political engagement driven by the allure of media worlds, where truth can be shaped into whatever form is favourable to an individual. The echo chamber effect of social media can create the effect of an immersive reality, where invisible algorithms control people’s perceptions of the world. Sharing news stories on our Facebook and Twitter feeds deepens the immersion into a post-truth world. As our filter bubble expands, the hallucination displaces facts.

Social media is not in of itself to blame for fake news stories, but unless we want the very concept of truth to disappear in a data fugue then it is vital we take responsibility for the information we distribute and consume amongst our networks.

Being “redpilled” is a meme associated with the alt right to describe an awakening: a realisation that the world is rigged against straight white men. The reference to The Matrix is revealing of how the alt right see themselves as enlightened freedom fighters, but this phenomenon is not confined to the political extremes. A more fundamental lesson can be learnt from the film by it’s depiction of how digital data can augment reality and constitute it. The question underscoring The Matrix, “What is real?”, has acquired an added potency with the proliferation of the internet. Like Neo, we must choose between living in a scripted fiction or take up residence in what Morpheous poetically describes as “the desert of the real”.

The first step to re-establish trust in evidence-based stories is a digital literacy programme. This can begin with creating a lexicon to analyse fake news. The founder of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has argued for tech giants like Google and Facebook to be far more rigorous in combating online disinformation, but also to resist the temptation to establish truth commissions. To arrive at a definition of fake news, online media stories will need to be deconstructed in order to verify their source.Peter Pomerantsev argues this process must be institutionalised if it is to be effective, with journalists, think tanks and NGOs working together in order to give information a proper context. Initiatives dedicated to combatting the spread of online disinformation, such as the Arena project he runs at the London School of Economics, will need to become a permanent feature of modern journalism in order to articulate a new role of an independent press in the age of the internet. The spirit of collaboration the internet engenders can be applied to a new form of reporting where the public and professional journalists work together.

The arts have valuable lessons to teach us about the power of fake news as well. Not for nothing does Putin’s media strategist Vladislav Surkov draw inspiration from the abstraction of the avant-garde in his disinformation campaigns. Movements such as cubism represented the world as a fragmented, disordered place with no objective meaning. But Picasso never intended for his work to be read as a substitute for political analysis. Artists and academics can contribute to this digital literacy programme by providing the analytical tools for the public to study the aesthetics of online media and realise how it manipulates perceptions. Research is already underway in the field of performance studies regarding how social media profiles are character driven public narratives of our identities. Understanding tweets and status updates act as mini-performances of ourselves provide a useful aesthetic distance between on- and offline living.

None of these measures will have any impact on the corrosive effect of fake news unless we take responsibility for it’s transmission. The lexicon of digital literacy must express the participative nature of online culture. Online participation in whatever form must be explicitly linked with a responsibility for civic engagement. This involves a commitment to seeking out all of the available facts and interpret them using debate and analysis, not a reliance on our biased opinions. Most importantly, digital literacy demands we acknowledge how our misuse of data gives purveyors of fake news a say over how our political discourse is managed. If we don’t want to be controlled by anarchic data then we need to learn the value of unplugging ourselves from the wired world.