When the Mueller Report failed to provide conclusive evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded directly with the Russian government in 2016, there was outrage. That Trump had merely welcomed Russia’s ‘sweeping and systematic’ interference was felt to be insufficiently damning. That says a lot about how the issues of electoral interference and ‘information war’ play out in domestic politics.
By seeming to fixate on exogenous influence, anti-populists expose themselves to the charge of blame-shifting – of being bad losers. Liberal complacency and a sense of entitlement may indeed play a part in the narrative of foreign meddling. But the reverse is certainly not true: that anti-liberals and populists only deal honestly and fairly and do not benefit from external support.
The reality is somewhere in between. Among researchers, the consensus is that anti-liberals in the West avail themselves of foreign disinformation and other forms of interference, of which there is no shortage, whenever it suits their purposes. Likewise, Russia promotes anti-liberal forces in the West in so far as they suit its purposes. However, objective observers emphasize that the great majority of disinformation is created and spread by domestic actors. This is crucial.
Far from being the root cause of what we associate with the rise of illiberalism, disinformation is its symptom or, better, its medium. As Péter Krekó argues, disinformation must be understood in the context of a much more fundamental political phenomenon: hyper-partisanship and tribalization. ‘In order to be successful in tribal wars,’ Krekó writes, ‘we need tribal myths: weaponized information against other perceived tribes. Disinformation provides raw material for such myths, which are then used to justify transgressive political acts.’
This observation rings all too true in the UK case, where – according to Adam Ramsay – disinformation was used to inflame hatred of a ‘broken political process’. Writing on December’s elections, he argues that the Conservative strategy was simple: ‘wage war on the political process, on trust, and on truth. Ensure the whole experience is miserable, bewildering and stressful, then ask voters to make it go away.’ This is the now the Conservative government that has announced its intention to massively scale down the BBC and privatize its funding.
A combination of neoliberal dogma and populist opportunism, this assault on an internationally respected public service media organization is so obviously incompatible with countering disinformation that one cannot but conclude that the intention is the opposite. Which is not to say that the BBC is beyond criticism, or that legacy media are the sole guarantors of trustworthy information.
As Dan Hind argues, throughout the Cold War and into the post ’89-era of Gulf conflict and financial crisis, legacy media have been complicit in the orthodoxies of national political elites. The new alliance between legacy media and social media platforms is far from being motivated by genuine concern at disinformation, he suggests. Where both sets of interest converge is in shutting down alternative democratic channels of information. Micah Sifry shares his analysis but argues that democratic oversight rather than popular ownership of the media, particularly social media, is the solution.
Arguments for cultivating independent media in the face of the disinformation threat have a different emphasis in the context of a country such as Poland, with its experience of Russian aggression. Wojciech Przybylski calls for the concept of ‘information sovereignty’ to be reclaimed from autocratic governments for whom ‘hybrid war’ is a pretext for monopolizing national media. What Poland needs is more, not less foreign investment in the media sector. Adam Lelonek also emphasizes the centrality of the media in defending democracy, arguing that journalists must embrace their role as actors in the security space.
Realizing that regulation alone cannot combat disinformation, policy makers have been turning to media literacy as a sustainable strategy. Antonija Letinić reports on initiatives in Croatia to restore journalism to its proper democratic role, while Sidney Tarrow, writing on ‘deep fakes’, argues that only concerted action by civil society groups, states and social media intermediaries can nip this new danger to democracy in the bud.
Thinking about ‘what to do’ about disinformation means understanding information’s positive quality as a public good. Abandoning a purely reactive strategy will stand democracies in better stead. Contributions to the new Eurozine focal point ‘Information: A public good’ reflect this way of thinking.