You might recall this piece we put out a couple of months ago on fake news and manipulation via social media – the dark arts of disinformation. Many of us hoped, no doubt, that the Post-Truth era might be coming to a close with the defeat of Trump. That was a naive hope. In fact, the weaponisation of social media has ramped up several gears and we now face a growing pandemic of viral misrepresentations and lies to fuel the divisions in society and subvert the narrative. Worse still, most of the money seems to be behind the dark side.
Manipulation through disinformation isn’t new. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that “All warfare is based on deception.” Stalinist Russia saw the honing to perfection of the art of ‘Dezinformatsiya‘ – fake news and propaganda used to control the population and Russia’s image. The issue we face now is speed and scale. The lies get round the world at a speed that the truth cannot contend with and, once embedded in the consciousness of millions, are incredibly difficult to counter or correct. The Leave campaigns exploited that to the max in the referendum and the Brexit win demonstrated proof of concept beyond all doubt.
What Trump and #KnownLiar extraordinaire Johnson now know for certain is that if you repeat a lie clearly enough, often enough and loudly enough it will attain the status of truth for your acolytes and beyond. How else do we explain Trump’s ability to scam millions out of his devotees to pursue his bogus and vexatious court cases on alleged election fraud? How else has he got millions of Americans to believe with absolute and passionate certainty that he won and has been cheated by the ‘deep state’ and the evil Democrats?
Here in the UK, we have the Brexiter, anti-vaxxer, anti ‘woke’, xenophobic audience, ears cocked for the dog whistles from Johnson and his cabinet, lapping up the bile spewed by the right wing press and liking, sharing and spreading the carefully-tailored content put out on social media. OK. These are the extremists. But how many of us heard stories about Covid-19 being fake or being exaggerated by governments from people we might have considered to be reasonable and rational? Disturbing, huh? You betcha. And it’s going to get worse.
And dangerous. All those social media influencers going on about Sweden’s successful Covid-19 herd immunity strategy and encouraging reckless social interaction and non-mask-wearing? They’ve gone quiet but the damage is done and you won’t hear any of them admitting the strategy failed, unlike the Swedish royal family.
Yesterday in Prime Minister’s Questions (which has been turned into an offensive farce through Johnson’s clowning, refusal to answer and deception…but that’s another article.), Sir Keir Starmer called the Conservatives out for their blag and spin strategy:
Oh how we laughed. Until we stopped.
Because it’s not just #KnownLiar Johnson who is at it. A story broke yesterday about the Tory candidate for the Mayor of London sending voters letters using fake “City Hall” insignia – and this is not the dirty campaign’s first offence.
Not only were the letters from Shaun Bailey’s team faked up to look as if they had come from City Hall, complete with a bogus insignia, Latin motto and the language of a penalty notice (Do not ignore etc), but they were also a data harvesting exercise, gathering personal details invaluable for the future full-blown campaign.
You might think it doesn’t matter. It’s in London, it’s been exposed and besides, Bailey’s way behind in the polls so the electorate seem pretty savvy. But these tactics are coming to local politics. Here’s Debbie Flint, Conservative Women’s Chair and Deputy Chair, Fundraising & Membership, for Torridge and West Devon, writing today on the ConservativeHome website.
“In Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox’s constituency, we have been identifying heart-warming human interest stories to report on in our Association posts, but leading with the human angle, in the style of an anecdote told by a neighbour or a friend. That way, more likes, more shares, more “traction.” Our councillors’ name recognition should be greater in the May 2021 county council elections as a result.”
The ‘over the backyard fence’ approach we use in my day job, in television sales, translates well for getting cut-through amongst Facebookers who are only too used to three second attention grabbers. And we are aiming to use much more video, because the algorithms of Facebook automatically give them more exposure.
Looks harmless enough? Human stories, real stories, not PR stunts… But she goes on to write:
Shaun Bailey’s team in London have a ‘Shaun’s sharers’ What’s App group too, and more. We’ll have some ‘momentum’ of our own.
Yup. That’s the same Shaun Bailey using dirty tactics in London. She writes this on the same day that his underhand, dishonest tactics are called out and condemned.
Getting involved in a non-political way on your local groups helps people know who you are. We get more likes with this approach – our equivalent of puppies and kittens – showing with undeniable examples, our compassionate conservatism.
“Come on! That’s standard practice, isn’t it? Like holding a baby at the village fete!”
Well, yes. But it’s what happens once you’ve hooked those ‘likers’ . What do you feed them next when the political puppies and kittens bit wears off? How do you keep them engaged? How do you develop liking into loyalty and tribalism and, then, how do you sustain it? Looks to me like a slippery slope.
You see, the thing that really bothers me and should bother all of us is that social media users are far, far more likely to believe fake news. There’s research to prove it. And, yes, gullibility is not restricted to the Brexiters, anti-vaxxers and Covid-deniers. I’ve fallen for fake news myself because it tapped into my prejudices and preconceptions.
So how do we counter the tsunami of dangerous fakery?
- Question everything.
- Assume there is an agenda. Try to work out what it is. It may well be innocent/desirable/admirable – for example, Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed poor kids and to supply them with books. Altruism and compassion, plain and simple. (Please don’t argue with that!)
- Call out the lies.
- Counter with facts. This is the hard bit, because we know that facts have scant traction. Orwell got it right when he said “Intellectual honesty is a crime in any totalitarian country; but even in England it is not exactly profitable to speak and write the truth.” No matter. We must not give up.
- Ensure you are neither a generator nor a spreader of fake news.
- Support publications and people who are trying to counter the lies. Call them out if you feel they fall foul of their own high standards.
I am afraid we are in a war and the big money appears to be very much on the dark side. It’s up to we citizens to take up the banner of truth and justice and wave it in the faces of those who would undermine and subvert the values we hold dear.
Hardest of all to stomach, I feel, is that we have to stay on the very social media platforms who have enabled – nay, encouraged and promoted – the forces we are seeking to counter. Believe me, if I could junk Facebook I would but, just as Debbie Flint in Torridge and West Devon has twigged, we need to win the social media war.
The dark side can be defeated. It does not matter how many times Trump screams that he won or that Biden cheated. He lost. Fair and square. For him and his cult, accepting truth and reality is painful and hateful. It’s the same here for Brexiters. No matter how many times Johnson bullsh*ts about amazing opportunities and the dawning of a new golden age, the harsh realities will be there for all to see. Very sadly.
No-one likes to admit they’ve been scammed, played, manipulated. Somehow, we need to help people to welcome the truth, crave the truth, be satisfied only by the truth and to turn away from ‘alternative facts’ and corrosive lies. It’s going to be tough but we have to do it. Are you with us?