September 15, 2022

Hermetically Sealed Information Bubbles

In the age of disinformation, social media isn’t merely pushing your weird uncles and fringy friends into believing batty conspiracy theories. It’s deciding the outcomes of elections and shaping the course of world history, often to anti-democratic ends. In some countries, would-be autocrats are so deft at wielding the power of online untruth that they’re capturing the minds of the masses and reweaving the fabric of reality at will. The consequences are enormous — not just for those over whom they hold sway, but for the future of all humanity. Copy-cat movements can crop up literally overnight: all it takes is a crackpot creed’s gaining influence in one locale for it to spill over and catch on elsewhere — or everywhere. So be warned, and know your enemy. What follows are some of today’s most fertile hotbeds for lies and propaganda.

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Nearly forty years after Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorial regime came to an end, another Marcos is poised to lead the Philippines. The onetime president’s son has recently ridden a wave of popular support to secure a landslide victory over his closest rival, the incumbent vice president. His winning strategy? A history-erasing disinformation campaign waged on Facebook, TikTok, and other social-media platforms. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (who goes by Bongbong, his childhood nickname) has sought to sanitize his father’s murderous two-decade reign, portraying it as an era of growth and prosperity for ordinary Filipinos. Millions bought these lies — just as they did six years ago, when previous president Rodrigo Duterte (whose daughter, Sara, is set to be Bongbong’s vice) ran on a similarly truth - eliding platform of bravado and bloodlust. Duterte’s wrecking-ball style of leadership is still massively popular, as shown by his successor ’s rapid rise to power. Did the efficacy of Bongbong’s digital demagoguery deliver him the win? Or was it a matter of autocracy ’s organic appeal? Amid the fog of untruth lying over the island nation — made all the thicker by the government’s recent blocking of more than two doze n left-leaning websites for trumped - up links to “ terrorists” — it’s frighteningly difficult to say.


It’s no secret: China is a wasteland when it comes to the freedom of information. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps a tight grip on everything that can be said, and who can say it, with a deadly serious policy of censorship. Dissidents who contravene this policy are swiftly and decisively punished — made to publicly renounce allegiances, give forced confessions, and worse. Across the Great Firewall, the digital bulwark closing of f the Chinese internet from that of the rest of the world, hundreds of words and phrases are ban ned. What ’s more , the CCP has its thumb in every social -media app native to China. Twitter and Facebook are outlawed, but made-in -China substitutes are among the most widely used in the world; meanwhile ByteDance, TikTok ’s parent company, also owns the original , highly popular Chinese version of the video -sharing platform. This is all to say that if you , as a hypothetical citizen of the People’s Republic, so much as tr y to make a post containing a forbidden term, it ’s likely to disappear literally before your eyes. That is, if you don’t disappear first. Welcome to the epitome of digitally enabled, twenty-first century totalitarianism. Succumb, or be silenced.


Brazil’s rightward (re)turn under Jair Bolsonaro came about thanks to South America’s favourite social-media platform: WhatsApp. With a spate of vicious disinformation, the former army officer and congressman drew in legions of followers on the platform, harnessing their ferocity to propel him to the presidential palace. Pumped up with piles of shadowy money, Bolsonaro’s online campaign ushered in a perilous new period for the young democracy in which untruth reigns nearly unconstrained. As another election approaches this autumn, the risk is that Brazil has its own January-6th moment. There are rumblings already that Bolsonaro intends to follow in the footsteps of his American counterpart by questioning the integrity of the voting process and refusing to concede, no matter the outcome. It’s a fragile situation for the fraught re public, where the military dictatorship is less than four decades dead and “corruption” is both a poisonous dog-whistle and a perennial reality. WhatsApp, despite do-good promises, is still fumbling to staunch the spread of lies. Meanwhile the capture of the country ’s mental environment is proceeding unhindered. In the words of Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello, “It’s like a slow-motion coup” — and no one is quite able to stop it.


First the junta took over of the flow of information. Then it took over the country. Officers of Myanmar’s army took out the phone lines, the TV stations, and finally the internet. They rounded up members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) mere months after it won a majority in parliament (which previously shared power with the military) and just one day before elected representatives were to be sworn in. Among those jailed were President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the legitimate civilian leaders of the country. Three NLD par ty official s died while in the custody of police. Thousands more have been arrested, and hundreds killed, in crackdowns on dissent since t he coup d’état of February 1, 2021. Crucially, it all took place while under cover of social-media darkness. Face book , Instagram , WhatsApp, and later Twitter were shut down during the height of the repression, stifling efforts to organize protests as well as appeals for condemnation abroad. When things came back online , distrust and disinformation spread like chickenpox. Accounts nominally belonging to NLD officials were suspected of being hijacked by the junta. None of it would be out of keeping with the military’s practice of sowing hate and lies online, often translating to homicidal violence — not least against the Rohingya people. Until the next heave for freedom, democracy in Myanmar remains offline.

Alongside an explosion in the use of smartphones came a veritable mushroom-cloud of murderous disinformation. In just a handful of years, India has become the country with the largest number of Facebook users in the world, at over 300 million and counting; WhatsApp has seen a similarly massive surge in uptake. From the start, the conditions were ripe for malign interests to make quick work of the chaos. Indians on Facebook use 20 of the country’s 22 official languages to communicate with one another, only half of which the platform monitors for false information. Limited familiarity with the digital world also means that few have the resources to make sense of the muddle of truth and lies. This all has proved a boon to religious extremists, many of whom hold significant cachet with mainstream political parties — not least PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In recent years, tensions within Indian society have spilled over into sectarian conflict with greater ease thanks to social media. In the weeks leading up to the Delhi riots of 2020, for example, when street violence led to the deaths of three dozen Muslims and over a dozen Hindus, the incidence of “inflammatory content” — hateful rhetoric — shot up to three times above normal, according to an internal report from Facebook. Much of the strife plays into the hands of the BJP, for which online threats of bloodshed have the power to intimidate its critics into silence. With social media as its mouthpiece, the BJP is a step away from remaking the country in its image: bullying, intolerant, and verging on fascist.

Viewers of Soviet television must have known something was up when, in the summer of 1991, regular programming was interrupted by a performance of Swan Lake. Hardline communists had kidnapped the reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev and launched a coup d’état — developments too embarrassing to mention on state TV. Days later the coup had failed and Gorbachev was freed, but by the new year the collapse of the Soviet Union was complete. It was in reference to this moment that, in March of this year, the news channel Dozhd (a.k.a. TV Rain) — among the last independent outlets in Putin’s Russia — broadcast a film of Tchaikovsky’s celebrated ballet on YouTube before calling it quits. The station had already been smeared by the Kremlin as a purveyor of “deliberately false information” for covering the invasion of Ukraine critically, and its editors forced to register as “foreign agents” as part of a wider effort to discredit dissidence. Many of its staff had fled the country out of fear not only for their jobs but for their safety. Then, two days before it went offline, access to TV Rain and its social media was set to be throttled on the orders of Russia’s prosecutor general. Why? In an absurd twist of truth again calling back to Soviet times, the channel was accused of “calling for extremist activity” and fomenting “violence” — this for taking a staunchly anti-war stance. TV Rain is far from alone. Since the start of the invasion, a government-led crackdown on its opponents, both on the airwaves and online, has all but strangled an already stifling environment for free expression. Yet the message, along with its champions, remains resilient: in June, having escaped Putin’s grasp and relocated to Latvia, TV Rain began to stream once more.


The Israeli state and its media toadies want you to forget about, to never think about, to lose the ability even to fathom the humanity of Palestinians — except, that is, as a uniform mass of foamy-mouthed terrorists. For the most part, social-media platforms are all too happy to go along with it. When longstanding residents of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem, faced forcible removal at the hands of Israeli authorities last May, for example, the likes of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter swiftly censored the outcry. On Instagram, images and videos were flagged, posts removed, accounts disabled, and hashtags suppressed, all under the guise of “content moderation.” The Facebook group “Save Sheikh Jarrah” was taken down for “going against community standards.” Meanwhile, Twitter attributed the suspension of an account belonging to the Palestinian journalist Mariam Barghouti to an unexplained “error.” But it’s not just social-media execs: the wider Western mainstream is, as a rule, eager to toe the Israeli line. A telling instance involves the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, champion of the Palestinian cause and veteran correspondent for Al Jazeera. By the time word of her murder got out — which took place in May, as Abu Akleh was reporting on an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) raid on a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank — the waters were already muddied. Despite much evidence to the contrary, the IDF claimed the fatal bullet may well have been fired from a Palestinian weapon. Major media outlets consistently parroted this falsehood, until independent probes by the UN as well as the historically pro-Israel New York Times found it baseless, both concluding that Abu Akleh had been shot in the head by an IDF soldier. Israeli institutions have yet to relent and admit responsibility. Yet this should come as no surprise. After all, the basis for 75 years of occupation, oppression, and apartheid rests on just such an evasion of accountability, repeated again and again. And again.

Readers in the US: How often do you watch Fox News? If you find yourself anywhere left of centre, the answer is likely never. This typifies the unbridgeable gulf dividing the two hemispheres not only of American opinion but of American reality. Each half operates according to its own logic, its own facts, its own truth: right is right, and left is left, “and never the twain shall meet,” as old Rudy once said. But the danger in letting the tension between these two sealed-off, mutually hostile worlds mount unchecked is that it risks snapping — and with explosive violence, bringing down democratic society along with it. “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust,” said journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa. “Without these, we have no shared space and democracy is a dream.” It’s an outcome becoming less unthinkable with each passing day. What’s more, given the scale of the planetary endgame looming before us, there’s little hope for survival if history’s guiltiest culprit is caught up in consuming itself in endless culture wars, leaving survival (let alone democracy) to the realm of dreams and fantasy. If we’re going to have a shot at making it through the climate emergency alive, the American people will have to reprioritize — even re-sanctify — the ultimate shared space: the earth beneath our feet, the very sky above our heads. It all starts with getting back to what really matters: truth, lies, and the prospect of extinction.

Staff

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