Joyce McMillan: Could internet propaganda topple Western society?

Vladimir Putin's Russia has been accused of interfering in the US elections, spreading fake news and even scare stories about vaccines
Vladimir Putin's Russia has been accused of interfering in the US elections, spreading fake news and even scare stories about vaccines
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Liberal democracies are vulnerable to scaremongering, bigotry and fake news, writes Joyce McMillan

On Tuesday of this week, Scotland’s First Minister stood up at Holyrood to announce her programme for government for 2018-19. It was an unremarkable speech, without the visionary drive of last year’s announcement on a just, prosperous and sustainable 21st century Scotland; yet for opponents and supporters alike, it was a speech full of the decent, ordinary stuff of government, and of the day-to-day effort to set priorities among all the possible claims on the public purse. Despite obvious weaknesses in some areas, it offered more money for mental health services, some real moves to protect the rights of EU citizens in Scotland, and a raft of other measures that might, if well implemented, actually improve the lives of tens of thousands of people living in Scotland, and arguably of us all.

Despite the Scottish Government’s best efforts, though, the First Minister’s speech for 2018-19 seems destined to be the policy announcement that time forgot. It attracted little coverage in the Scottish media, and almost none elsewhere; and most commentators barely gave it a second glance before returning to the “big stories” of the hour - the UK Government’s ongoing Brexit meltdown, and the response to recent accusations against Alex Salmond.

It’s arguable, of course, that politics and political journalism have ever been thus – preoccupied with the rise and fall of big personalities, preferably laced with financial or sexual scandal. Yet there’s something about the clickbait age we live in that seems to have made the constant purveying of rumour, scandal, and hate, often at the expense of serious political coverage, even more pervasive and influential than it was in the heyday of the yellow press.

And beyond that, there is something else again; the possibility that there are now organised political forces around which are seriously adept at manipulating online rumour and sensational material for their own ends – ends which have nothing to do with the kind of patient, ameliorative politics still being practised by rational governments everywhere, and everything to do with destabilisation and disruption, and the general undermining of any systems of justice or government that might limit the power of autocrats and oligarchs to do as they damn well please.

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Now at this point, of course, we enter the realms of conjecture, even of conspiracy theory. Yet in area after area, over the last few years, reputable news and academic sources suggest that account-holders based in Russia have been responsible for concerted online campaigns designed to promote disruptive or divisive beliefs in the West, often without any factual basis. According to Twitter’s own report to the US Senate Judicial Committee, during the 2016 US presidential election Russian-based “bots” or automated accounts retweeted Donald Trump’s online postings ten times more often than those of Hillary Clinton, and helped to promote ‘fake news’ such as the widely-believed story that the Clintons were involved in running a paedophile ring out of a Washington DC pizza business.

Reports are also rife that Russian money and online activities played a key role in Britain’s Brexit campaign, bankrolling some of its chief funders, and helping the Leave campaign to target vulnerable internet users. And if we add to this the relentless promotion and publicising of extremist illiberal views across Europe, accompanied with a constant drip-drip of allegations that the mainstream media are concealing “the truth”, plus a steady backbeat of online whispering against “expert” opinion on everything from climate change to the measles vaccine, then a picture begins to build of a possible highly successful campaign of destabilisation against Western democracies. “Media liars” was the roar of the Nazi-saluting right-wing demonstrators in the German city of Chemnitz last week; and in Italy, one of the most popular policies of its alarming new coalition government is the abolition of compulsory measles vaccination, following an online campaign of scaremongering about vaccines co-ordinated – according to scientists at George Washington University – from some of those same Russian email addresses.

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If there is such an organised campaign of destabilisation, it would of course have had little chance of success if it hadn’t been for the glaring weaknesses of post-crash Western liberal societies; there’s something almost witty about how some of these campaigns act to exploit the popular anger, anxiety and disillusion caused by a combination of extreme and socially illiterate neoliberal economics, and the kind of arrogant “expert opinion” that assured us the 2008 crash could never happen.

Yet smart though the online bots and those who design them may be, we should remain in no doubt that they have nothing better to offer us than our existing Western democracy already provides, with all its flaws. That the West needs to end its flirtation with extreme market economics, and return to a more civilised balance between the power of markets and the needs of people, is now almost unarguable.

Each one of us, though, as a citizen and a individual, has a duty to get wise to those forces that are trying to exploit this crisis only in order to make matters worse; a duty to stop drinking the Kool-Aid, to make efforts to become our own researchers and fact-checkers, and to resist the avalanche of online lies through which such people – whatever their origin or motivation – try to influence our votes.

For what we observe, in the current chaotic politics of Britain and the United States, is what happens when weak or opportunistic politicians try to take actions based on lies rather than facts. Britain’s botched attempts at a Brexit that can never deliver what was claimed for it are almost comic in their ineptitude; but we should be in no doubt about the deadly serious damage this decision will inflict on ordinary British people and their life-chances, for decades to come. Nor should we doubt the presence of the much darker demons that now lurk just behind; those that would license hatred, bigotry and militant inhumanity as a legitimate form of politics once again, and lead us straight down a path which we all know leads only to bloodshed, and to the nightmare of war and chaos Europe once briefly dreamed of leaving behind, for good.