2018 photo from the Kremlin website
The malleability of the human mind, and of “popular consensus”, is both fascinating and terrifying. At a time when the last humans who witnessed the atrocities committed with the full consent of their armies’ citizens during WW2 are dying, we have seemingly learned nothing about the process by which popular opinion can be warped through the use of propaganda and misinformation.
The occupation and slaughter of millions of Iraqis in 2003 was possible only because the news media almost without exception parroted unsupported intelligence agency propaganda that Iraq’s government had WMD and planned to use them. Afterwards, few of the media admitted they’d been duped and exploited by “flawed” intelligence, and they pretty much learned nothing from the experience.
Both before and since then, the media have been endlessly conned, in their search for “exclusives” and for “information” that supports their editorial leanings and readers’ and sponsors’ worldviews, into repeating reams of outrageous falsehoods from “credible sources”. And in turn they have conned us. Whatever ideas we may have about what is happening in Syria, in Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ukraine, in Iran, or in China or a hundred other countries, those ideas are probably heavily influenced by what we have read in media that rely for their information on “the intelligence community” and the vested interests it serves.
This is increasingly so as these media, hemorrhaging from the loss of ad revenues to the execrable “social media”, have slashed investigating reporting and international bureaus. In the process, they have turned into little more than second-hand gossip-mongers and PR flacks, throwing up their hands in “we didn’t know it wasn’t true” denials when their “reporting” turns out to be utterly, criminally (leading to millions of deaths and untold misery) wrong.
And they wonder why we don’t want to “subscribe” to their shoddy publications.
So it’s no surprise that millions of people believe absurd conspiracy theories, such as that CoVid-19 was deliberately manufactured in a Chinese lab with the complicity of Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. After all, unnamed “reliable sources” citing other unnamed “reliable sources” said it was true. And it was “shared” six gazillion times. So it must be true.
The media claim they have to protect their unnamed sources because whistle-blowers, once named, face death and worse for speaking the truth. I’m sure this is so. But that doesn’t mean that the media do not have a responsibility to obtain highly-persuasive evidence that a whistle-blower’s information is correct before they present it as truth, as “news”, in their publications. A mere rumour, even from a “usually reliably source”, is just a rumour, and it is no better than a lie.
And while we’re learning not to expect much from the media, much less politicians, we have come to expect more from the scientific community. Sadly, these days they are letting us down as well. There have been several “research studies” on CoVid-19 that have been retracted, some almost as soon as they were published, others too late to stem the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theory “I told you so” blather in social media that continues, oblivious to the retractions, for years afterwards. Other “research studies” are so strident, so blatantly political motivated or biased by personal, reputational or profit incentives, that they shatter your confidence in anything you read afterwards in scientific journals.
The reasons for this scientific misinformation are pretty obvious: Big Pharma and Big Ag companies and other corporate sponsors will pay you bucketfuls of money for research “results” that promise them a big payday, and they’ll squelch or dis any research you publish that shows them to be charlatans, drug- and addictive-food pushers, and opportunistic predators. There is no money, and no research grants, offered to do research that shows for example the incredible health benefits of eating well and exercising, and the staggering cost of eating what you so love to eat now and of continuing your horrifically unhealthy lifestyle.
Meanwhile, if your self-serving “research” tells people what they want to believe (eg that social distancing isn’t that necessary to prevent CoVid-19), everyone will love you, and the media will rush to promote your “findings”, regardless of their legitimacy, integrity or substance.
And if some researcher beats you to the punch with newsworthy (reputation- and fame-making) research, well, there’s an obvious motivation to criticize it. Especially if you don’t have to provide anything of your own to counter it; just cite your previous credentials, badmouth and undermine the report, and promise that you will soon provide more credible research. Or alternatively, if the ballyhooed research angers the political or scientific establishment, tweak your own research so that it helps the powers that be perpetrate their lies, and you’ll get a ton of publicity and support.
There is, alas, no motivation for doing the hard work of legitimate, objective, investigative research, and publishing the results regardless of whether the recipients want to believe them or not. There is no money or fame in it, and there is enormous risk. There is huge motivation for superficial and sloppy, biased research that results in those consuming it thanking you for confirming their beliefs, whether or not they have any basis in truth.
The latest example of sloppy journalism is this week’s claim that Russian operatives (how many, under whose authority?) offered and paid bounties to Taliban militants (how many?) in Afghanistan for killing American and British troops. The unsubstantiated claim originated with the NYT and was soon reposted in self-congratulatory terms by the WaPo and WSJ, who apparently got calls from the same “sources”.
Caitlin Johnstone had the same response I did:
All western mass media outlets are now shrieking about the story The New York Times first reported, citing zero evidence and naming zero sources, claiming intelligence says Russia paid out bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for attacking the occupying forces of the US and its allies in Afghanistan. As of this writing, and probably forevermore, there have still been zero intelligence sources named and zero evidence provided for this claim…
The fact that The New York Times instead chose to uncritically parrot these evidence-free claims made by operatives within intelligence agencies with a known track record of lying about exactly these things is nothing short of journalistic malpractice. The fact that western media outlets are now unanimously regurgitating these still 100 percent baseless assertions is nothing short of state propaganda…
All the three [newspapers] actually did was use their profoundly influential outlets to uncritically parrot something nameless spooks want the public to believe, which is the same as just publishing a CIA press release free of charge. It is unprincipled stenography for opaque and unaccountable intelligence agencies…
The New York Times has admitted itself that it was wrong for uncritically parroting the unsubstantiated spook claims which led to the Iraq invasion, as has The Washington Post. There is no reason to believe Taliban fighters would require any bounty to attack an illegitimate occupying force. The Russian government has denied these allegations. The Taliban has denied these allegations. The Trump administration has denied that the president or the vice president had any knowledge of the spook report in question, denouncing the central allegation that liberals who are promoting this story have been fixated on. Yet this story is being magically transmuted into an established fact, despite its being based on literally zero factual evidence.
Why has this happened? Because it feeds our insatiable human need to be reassured that our beliefs are valid. For Republicans (like most WSJ readers), it confirms their belief that the war in Afghanistan was legitimate, and that the Taliban and Russia are enemies that hate Americans because Americans “love freedom”. For Democrats (like most NYT/WP readers), it confirms their belief that Russia is an enemy that would subvert American elections, that the war in Afghanistan was legitimate, and that Trump, who reportedly was briefed on the “bounties”, is in cahoots with Russia. Something in this “news” for everyone to love!
Republican hawks immediately called for a “proportionate response” against Russia, without so much as a “if this is true” qualifier. Biden immediately jumped on the report, saying “I’m quite frankly outraged by the report,” adding that if he is elected, “Putin will be confronted and we’ll impose serious costs on Russia.”
What are the questions that critical thinkers (including any remaining responsible newspaper editors) should be asking when this kind of “information” is released?
- How is this different from what “intelligence sources” told us before the Iraq invasion?
- If it’s untrue, who stands to gain from perpetrating and propagating the falsehood (eg military suppliers and other war profiteers)?
- Why would the Taliban need to be bribed to attack what they believe to be a foreign army invading and destroying their country? (The Taliban’s response to the “report” was that they are not “indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country”.)
- Why would Russian intelligence leaders be so stupid as to offer such bribes to insurgents, knowing they’d be impossible to keep quiet and knowing that their discovery would be very embarrassing to Russia?
I could go on, but you get the idea. Caitlin asks some more damning questions, but I’m inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, and instead try to figure out how and why this happened. Not because I believe it won’t happen again (and again). But because I really do think we’re all doing our best, and I want to know how we all get so easily and dangerously conned by misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The title of this post (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) is an ancient proverb that provides a clue to one answer to this question. It explains how Republicans have become reluctant apologists for Putin, and how Democrats have come to embrace CIA “press releases”. It explains how China, for all its atrocities against its own people, has become an intermittent hero to all sides, and the largest economy and largest creditor (and worst polluter) in the world. When we really want to believe something bad about one “side” on an issue, it is all too easy to become strange bedfellows, for a while, with monsters who share that belief.
So do we just give up seeking the truth, and just believe whatever bullshit theories, unsupported reportage and opinions those in our particular circles uncritically believe? Do we let the “view-from-nowhere” both-sides everything to the point that any kind of moral clarity, and any kind of search for and belief in, fundamental truth is lost?
I don’t think it’s necessary to do that, though I do acknowledge that most people lack the time, access to resources, and (thanks to poor education and propaganda conditioning) the capacity to critically unpack and think through what passes for information and insist on unvarnished truth. I think it’s completely understandable that most are so bewildered by the endless firehose of misinformation and conspiracy theories that they no longer know what to believe, or cease believing that anything is absolutely true, and/or opt for simplistic beliefs that are consistent with those of their particular circles. Even when those beliefs hurt others and lead to massive cruelty, suffering and war.
I think there still is such a thing as absolute, verifiable truth. I have to believe that, because it is the only way I can make confident assertions about our teetering economic “system”, our collapsing climate and ecosystems, and about what seems to be human nature. We may only be able to know and believe things on “the preponderance of evidence”, but that can and must be enough.
It can be enough to enable us to discount, and (if we can wean ourselves off our new addiction to social media) not even expose ourselves to time-wasting, self-interested, and sometimes dangerous misinformation, rumour and conspiracy theories. And when such nonsense infects those we know and care about, all we can do is keep restating the truth and the importance of never giving up the search for it. And when we find ourselves infected, all we can do is keep challenging what we believe, not to the point of not believing anything, but to the point we know, as best as we can, that what we believe is based on substantiated evidence of the truth, and not on what we fear, or what we ideally would like to believe.
As for the rest of the world, and their beliefs, we cannot hope to influence them, or prevent the tragedies they lead to.
Moral clarity — the kind that finds cruelty, dishonesty, hatred, fear-mongering and racism, and pandering to these traits, instinctively repulsive — comes, I think, from a combination of our insatiable passion to know the truth, our capacity for critical thinking, and our innate biophilia — our acceptance that we’re all one, all a part of Gaia, and all doing our best. Our responsibility to help the world “do better” starts and ends, I think, with pursuing and helping others find and see the truth, even as we know most of them will not or cannot see it.
Our real “enemies” are ignorance, fear, credulousness and gullibility. They transcend beliefs and worldviews, and are pandered to and perpetrated by social media (and too often, now, by struggling and inept mainstream media), by self-interested politicians and corporations, and by our own hapless, bewildered and overwhelmed peer groups.
They can never be defeated, only worked on, endlessly, a bit at a time. It would be nice if some of the once-reliable media, and the scientists, would get back on board.