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Ukraine: have we reached peak fake news?

March 8, 2022

Fascinating is probably not the right word. But as I watch the conflict in Ukraine – or what the media wants to share of it – from the comfort of my suburban English bunker, it occurs to me that people in some parts of the world are getting a crash course in interpreting what passes for news and opinion, both from social and mainstream media sources.

In fact, it’s becoming pretty obvious that thinking about the media in terms of two streams, at least in the minds of consumers, is becoming irrelevant. How many people now rely exclusively on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok for updates on Ukraine and much more besides? How many people still trust just one of the BBC, CNN, Fox, Russia Today or Al-Jazeera to the exclusion of all other outlets?

I suspect that like me they choose a mixture of sources. The common denominator is the level of trust we place in what we read and see. If it’s the case that people stop automatically believing the stuff that the BBC broadcasts “because it’s the BBC”, is that a bad thing or a good thing? Good, I’d argue. Because if we’re stuck in a jungle without obvious paths, we have to find our own way through, rather than rely on the only path available, which might lead us over a cliff.

Our scepticism is a direct result of the so-called information wars. Deliberately-planted disinformation can certainly skew our perception in the short term. But are we discovering that it has a limited half-life? Is Putin’s much vaunted use of disinformation to destabilise Russia’s political and military rivals now working against him? Are we becoming immune to the bullshit because we’ve learned to treat everything as bullshit unless proven otherwise?

That would certainly seem to be the case in the West, where Putin apologists have been widely discredited. Politicians and pundits are having to make rapid about-turns when they realise that those they seek to persuade will no longer buy their arguments. Won’t get fooled again, as The Who once sang. Whether the same thing is happening in Russia remains to be seen. But that country, for all Putin’s efforts to stifle free speech and control the national conversation, is surely far away from Stalin’s Russia, where neighbours were reluctant to speak frankly to each for fear that their words might be reported to informers who lurked on every street corner. The internet is leaky. Stuff will always get through.

Time for a little analogy. I’m currently reading Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. Flyn is a Scottish journalist who takes us to parts of the world that have been dramatically altered by human activity, and subsequently abandoned to nature. The obvious example is Chernobyl. But she looks at many other examples of places seemingly ruined by natural disaster or human habitation, and describes how nature has regenerated in those areas.

Two examples stand out. River estuaries in New Jersey are still toxic after receiving constant streams of chemical effluent from factories dating back to the earliest period of the industrial revolution. Much of the marine life in these estuaries has died out. Some has survived despite exposure to high levels of toxic chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins. One species, the Atlantic killifish, has evolved at extraordinary speed to become 8,000 times more tolerant of these chemicals than its neighbours in nearby unpolluted estuaries.

The second story is of a botanical research station created in a pristine mountainous area of Tanzania more than a century ago. It was populated with hundreds of non-native species of trees and other plants, with the intention of discovering how these alien flora would adapt to different soil and climatic conditions. Over time, funding ran out and the research station was abandoned. One particular tree, maesopsis eminii, prospered. It became pervasive, and changed the eco-system by out-competing with local species. Now, it seems, it has been attacked by a bracket fungus that is causing die-back. In another case, trees producing quinine that were introduced into the Galapagos prospered rapidly, but have also died back, allowing the “substantial regeneration of the native species” beneath the dead wood.

Could it be that humanity has started to develop a resistance to an invasive species of information?

The Ukraine conflict has spawned such a plethora of propaganda that I, for one, have to remind myself to take all the videos, posts and tweets with a pinch of salt. Is it fake? What’s the source? What’s the motive for posting it? I try and be equally sceptical on stuff emanating from both sides.

Just as in Cal Flyn’s narrative nature rarely returns to what was there before, are we moving towards a world in which no information is taken for granted, whether it’s derived from scientific studies of COVID or climate change, or the imagination of trolls in little offices in St Petersburg? I’m not sure. What will continue to matter is what we choose to believe, and the mental processes we go through to arrive at that belief. We will never stop believing in things, even if we cry that “I don’t know what to believe any more”. Nor will most of us who hold on to a religious faith lose that faith, though some will. on the grounds that it’s difficult to believe in a God who allows your entire family to be wiped out by a random missile.

But what will matter will be the journey we take towards our beliefs, which are usually based on life experience, communal values and inherited culture. If much of the disinformation we’ve been inclined to believe becomes discredited in our perception, will we become wiser and less susceptible to new versions of fallacious truth? Perhaps then we will be less easily duped. Or perhaps, as the spreaders of disinformation hope, we shall become so stressed by the effort of discerning truth from fiction that we shall simply swallow the next generation of lies because it’s easier to do so than to apply a rigorous examination of the provenance.

Perhaps the critical question is this. Which comes first: the disintegration of society, resulting in a loss of belief fuelled by fake news, or an initial loss of belief that causes disintegration, helped on its way by misinformation? That’s one for historians and anthropologists to answer. I’m inclined towards the latter. Either way, as we see the real-life consequences of fake news in the form of a deadly war, more of us seem to be are developing the capacity to see through the bullshit.

Scepticism is hard. Most of us don’t have the time or the energy to research the provenance of the information we consume. We rely on others to do it for us. Fortunately, there are more and more people prepared to do this outside the traditional media. So we don’t have to rely on news media owned by Rupert Murdoch and other media barons. In Britain, we have outfits like Bellingcat, that first exposed the identity of the would-be assassins of Sergei Skripal by trawling exhaustively through open-source information, and now trains others on the techniques it uses though workshops. We also have Marc Owen-Jones, an academic whose major area of expertise is tracking bots launched on to Twitter for political motives. And here and there we have characters like the author and radio host James O’Brien, who does a good impression of Socrates as he punctures the prejudices of his listeners.

In other words, we have options. We don’t have to rely on our gut feeling, which often has more to do with our own lived experience than the facts on the ground. We also have evidence of the erosion of cultish belief systems spawned by the social media, such as QAnon. Though some still believe Trump’s bullshit about the 2020 election, and there are still plenty of British voters who still believe Boris Johnson’s lies about any number of subjects, or think they don’t matter, their numbers appear to be getting smaller, if recent opinion polls in the US and the UK are to be believed.

If Putin-style disinformation is losing its potency, it will still be of little comfort to the people of Ukraine, who are being bombed out of their homes by a vicious invasion force. But how many people in that country believe that they’re being governed by a cabal of Nazis led by a Jewish president? And do the thousands of Russian protesters being jailed every day believe what they’re being told by their government?

I may be alone in thinking that we’ve reached a high tide of fake news, and that we’re slowly learning to resist the falsehoods, or at least some of them. Won’t get fooled again? Maybe we will, but perhaps the propaganda merchants will have to think of more sophisticated ways of getting their messages across.

It may be impossible to replace the eucalyptus and bamboo trees in Tanzania with life that once flourished there. It may be that our belief systems have been changed forever since the virus of disinformation has spread across the social media. But if the bitter experience of conflict and division within nations, societies and even families has taught us anything, perhaps it will be enough leave us less prone to lies and manipulation.

Or am I just a victim of a strain of false optimism implanted I know not when, living in a silo of sceptics, while the rest of the world gets on with devouring their favourite falsehoods? Time will tell.

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