Digital botulism

Share this article

If you spend much time on social media – as most of us do these days –  you’ve probably been struck by the number of people who seem to believe things that are not just untrue, but are wildly and extravagantly bonkers.

People who think that Bill Gates wishes to inject microchips into the world’s population and carry out mass-murder through a programme of lethal vaccinations, or that Covid-19 is caused by 5G, or that the European Union is part of a Nazi plan to dominate Europe.

If you’ve ever tried to reason with such people, you may well have concluded that this is hopeless. They will insist that every piece of factual evidence that contradicts their claims is “fake news”, an invention of the “MSM” (mainstream media), and only goes to show the extraordinary power of the shadowy forces behind the supposed conspiracy. Anyone who disputes this is simply one of the “sheeple”.

It’s easy to laugh at the gullibility of these people and to think that they must always have been a little weak in the head. But it’s not so funny when it’s an old friend or a member of your family who succumbs to a belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, it can be deeply disturbing – rather like watching someone you love sink into the sort of delusional thinking that accompanies some types of mental illness. An old friend of mine has seen his marriage run into trouble for precisely this reason.

It’s something we should all be concerned about, because delusions have real-world consequences. And not just in the shape of deranged gunmen who attack synagogues because they believe George Soros is planning to commit “white genocide”, or shoot up a pizza parlour because they believe it to be a front for the “deep state” paedophile ring. Such atrocities are only the most obvious symptoms of a type of thinking that has spread far and wide through Western societies, and that has had major impacts on political behaviour in the past few years.

This has not happened by accident: it has been deliberately encouraged by a combination of unscrupulous political operators and greed-driven commercial interests.

My interest in the way that disinformation has been weaponised for political purposes stems partly from the experience of trying to argue with climate science deniers, and realising that the “facts” that they use to justify their misguided beliefs have often been generated and promoted by fossil fuel interests.

I also spend far too much time on Twitter. During the run-up to the Brexit referendum I started noticing large numbers of suspiciously fake-looking accounts sharing conspiracy theories about the European Union and stories – often completely false – designed to stir up hostility to migrants.

There’s now no doubt that the Russian state played a big part in this, using fake news to support the far right in Europe and the US, to promote polarisation in Western countries and to further foreign policy goals of its own (Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being two of these).

There’s also good evidence that Russian “bots” (automated accounts) and “sockpuppets” (accounts using fraudulent identities) have promoted UK politicians to Putin’s liking, such as Nigel Farage and even Jacob Rees-Mogg. But just as troubling is the way in which home-grown political actors have used social media disinformation to achieve their ends, supported by corporate interests for which virally distributed fake news represents a lucrative profit-driver.

Last year, I was commissioned to write a report into the ways in which Facebook has been used to spread disinformation. I already knew a fair bit about the role played by Cambridge Analytica’s psychological profiling techniques, and about how Vote Leave’s campaign director Dominic Cummings had employed the services of AIQ – a sister company of Cambridge Analytica – to target millions of UK voters with ads – often containing outright lies –  designed to prey on their prejudices. What I didn’t realise was the extent to which Facebook had facilitated this, and had allowed its platform to be used for similar purposes in many other countries around the world.

My report, which was presented at both the European Parliament and the UK House of Commons, made a number of recommendations aimed at limiting the further spread of weaponised fake news on Facebook and other social media platforms. Some of these were relatively simple and have since been at least partially acted on by Facebook, such as that political advertising should be clearly identified as such, with information on who has paid for it (though these changes do not go nearly far enough).

Facebook has taken some steps to suppress the spread of some of the most obviously harmful types of disinformation, such a fake medical information about Covid-19. It has also banned some of the most prolific inciters of racial and religious hatred, including Tommy Robinson. In recent weeks, Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to do more, after the hugely successful “Stop Hate For Profit” campaign by activist group Sleeping Giants persuaded major advertisers to boycott the platform until it does so. Meanwhile, EU lawmakers have been using the  EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to make it harder for social media platforms to be used to harvest personal data for the use of third parties.

But deeper problems remain. One of the most serious is that anyone can set up a Facebook or Twitter page without supplying any kind of ID to verify their identity – an invitation for malign actors to spread disinformation with impunity. Another major worry is that it’s still very unclear whether people in the UK will continue to be covered by GDPR or equivalent data protection laws after the end of this year. A no-deal would make it much more likely that we will lose this basic protection.

Moreover, the government appears to have kicked its manifesto promise of an  Online Harms Bill into the long grass. The bill was to have been based in part on the work of the last Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee, which produced an excellent report that correctly identified the ways in which fake news – including Russian disinformation – has undermined the democratic process in the UK. On 29 June, the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee published its own report stressing the urgency of taking action against “a pandemic of misinformation and disinformation”.

Weaponised disinformation is nothing new in itself. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a notorious forged document probably produced by elements of the Russian secret service, was first published in 1903 and has fuelled antisemitism around the world ever since. But social media have turbo-charged the dissemination of lies and conspiracy theories, and regulators are still struggling to keep up.

One of the most insidious effects of this is to blur the lines between fact and fiction, and to make it difficult for many people to distinguish – or perhaps even to care about – the difference. This works very much in the favour of propagandists and is precisely the state of mind that Putin’s spin-doctor, the “Grey Cardinal” Vladislav Surkov, has sought to create in the Russian people: “Nothing is true. There is no truth. There are alternative truths,” as one of Surkov’s associates puts it.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.”