How precious of the mainstream news media to lecture us about the dangers of disinformation and misinformation when their whole modus operandi is along exactly those lines.
I remember when reading the daily newspaper was a pleasure and I’d look forward to it in work breaks, often getting something of interest and keeping articles to read later or do further research on. Over the years the time spent became less and less until in the last six years it went from fifteen minutes to five, then a quick flick through, then a glance at the first page headlines, now barely that. It was both the content and the literary quality that seemed, to me at least, to decrease over time until it just discredited itself or provoked a cringe.
The same with the pervasive visual media. We should keep an eye on them to see what they’re up to, but it has become less and less desirable or honourable as time has passed. The journalistic basics of recency, immediacy, proximity, superlativeness – and, of course, negativity – are there, but in typical tabloid fashion it frequently falls short in facticity, and slants things to a generally singular political view, rendering the term ‘journalism’ barely applicable.
What’s changed is that most who’ve followed world events over the last few years using more diverse, interesting, thought-provoking, and reliable resources have started to see the mainstream media news for what it is. Solhzenitsyn, in The West’s Betrayal of Civilisation, was one who easily recognised it as “shamefully shallow and short-sighted”. His March 26, 1976 BBC address was pertinent and prophetic. In reference to the deliberate “enfeeblement” of Europe, now applicable to much of the world:
[W]hat we see is always the same . . . professors scared of being unfashionable; journalists refusing to take responsibility for the words they squander so profusely; universal sympathy for revolutionary extremists; people with serious objections unable or unwilling to voice them; the majority passively obsessed by a feeling of doom.And in his March 1, BBC interview of the same year, he stated of the press that “it makes judgements and sticks on labels with the greatest of ease. Mediocre journalists simply make headlines of their conclusions, which suddenly become the general opinion throughout the West.” And of the so-called “free, independent, incorruptible” British press: “Whenever a new tyranny came into existence, however far away . . . Britain [viz., the Western media] was always the first to recognise it, eagerly pushing aside all competitors for the honour”.
So, part of the media’s attack on freedom in the West has been a degree of ‘moralising’ about misinformation and disinformation. A question for those who still hold it as their main source of “truth” might be, where have you been for the last two to twenty years or more? And to clear up one issue, like me you might be tired of the general and wide-spread manipulative tossing-around of the phrase “conspiracy theorist”. For those on the giving end – time to think. For those on the receiving end, the next time someone accuses you of being one, settle the matter forever for them by enlightening them as to the lack of thought behind the accusation. Because virtually nothing happens in world events – apart from natural disasters and accidents – that hasn’t been planned. We speak of planning everyday: plan a holiday, plan a building, plan our day, plan a lesson. We don’t say “I conspired to build a house” for the obvious reason that “conspire” normally has connotations of secrecy, maliciousness, and collusion – which is exactly why we use the word in such contexts. It’s naïve to think some of the things impacting negatively on individuals and communities now were unplanned; and if they appear secretive and malicious we can legitimately look out for evidence of conspiracy – or call it scheming or whatever you prefer. Solhzenitsyn, for example, spoke of the “conspiracy of the British press”.
“Theory” is a supposition, a hypothesis used for explanation, which could be partly true, true (perhaps we should say “conspiracy factist”), or false, simply requiring time and effort for those interested enough to discover how much is and how much is not fact. Some ideas are nonsensical to start with, as with those who theorise regarding conspiracies to trick everyone into thinking the earth is round. I’ve heard excellent scientists charitable enough not to just dismiss it with a laugh (since a few people still apparently believe in a flat earth) but to explain point by point why it’s wrong. That’s at one extreme. But it works the other way too. The opposite side can be equally nutty. I’ll explain.
Nobody questions that Julius Caesar was assasinated as a result of a conspiracy. We know who did it – the theory is a fact. There may be another side to it but we’d hardly give it a thought after over two millenia – plenty of time to prove it one would think. And nobody would question that JFK was assassinated by plan; if proven that more than one were involved then there’s your conspiracy, and being more recent, history enthusiasts obviously debate it more vigorously than Julius Caesar’s assassination. But take almost any event and apply the same reasoning. To know that conspiracy formed much of human history you needn’t be a history buff; just go back to your school history books.
So, consider the alternative. Is it sensible to say that most things happen at random, that events in history are a series of largely unrelated, meaningless episodes, perhaps one leading to another but basically just stuff happening? Previously, someone holding that view was legitimately considered as “the village idiot”. Those calling you a conspiracy theorist run the risk of being categorised as such, although describing theirs as, for example, the ‘episodic’ view of history is more charitable than lowering oneself to the game of name-calling.
The question is to what extent so-called random or conspiratorial forces are at play. Perceptive political commentators have for decades been giving rational, plausible reasons for similar events to what we’re seeing now, generally agreeing that little is by chance. Obviously it’s a mix, but it’s being handled now in everyday conversation at unpleasant levels, so let’s air it.
In a previous article I discussed some characteristic cult practices – fear and intimidation, loaded language, information control, reporting structures, and relationship control – and drew parallels. In connection with mis/disinformation I want to mention a few more: deception, exclusivism, and personal identity replacement.
Deception is self-explanatory. It’s turning misinformation into disinformation, better referred to as deliberate lying. A lie is told to trick someone into joining up with a nefarious agenda or giving away part of themselves, part of their life. A lie is to manipulate. You tell lies to the point that your credibility crashes and no-one trusts you any more and eventually it all comes back to bite you. Follow the history of any cult group and it’s a familiar story. As I previously pointed out, it happens on a macro-scale too, with terrrible damage.
Exclusivism is found in full-blown cults: “us versus them”; if you’re not one of “us” you’re shunned. It works wonders as a control factor requiring real or imaginary enemies – enemies like those “conspiracy theorists”, or conversely government as a whole, ignoring those good, well-meaning people there trying to make a difference in contrast to those who seem to relish seeing others suffer.
Add deception and exclusivism in with the other ingredients and we end up with personal identity replacement. Ever noticed a person imbibing certain ideas and then gradually becoming disagreeably different? It can happen on the “conspiracy” side as well as the “random view” side. They avoid you and don’t want to openly discuss possibly valid alternative views and eventually you end up avoiding them as they become too fanatical. We don’t all have to happily accept each other’s views when they differ, but illogical snubbing, especially of family members, is tragic.
Personal identity replacement happens when someone gets confused about life’s meaning, then becomes propagandised (systematically) over time and finally reshaped into a person with weakened defense systems and lowered rationality. The term “conspiracy theorist” repeated continuously can constitute an attempt to confuse or shame someone into abandoning any other view than what’s being presented. It can on occasion work the other way, so if you’re the giver of the term, or vice versa, and find yourself on the defensive or getting labels thrown back at you then it may be useful to ask yourself why. Many have been hoodwinked into fruitless and divisive “us versus them” games of ostracism, even with close family members, over misinformation and disinformation.
So, two years have passed, how quick they’ve gone! Plenty of time to research this whole pandemic thing and gain a basic overall view of what’s really happening. Yet just knowing is not enough. Practically, we make a big mistake if we allow any group or government to overshadow us as free individuals, because that ultimately hinders the rebuilding of country and community from the individual up – as it should be – and not from the state down through the mouthpiece of a compromised news media.
Guy Steward is a writer and musician.