Fake news, Dis-Information and Popular Geopolitics

Klaus Dodds

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Monument to Józef Poniatowski, Presidential Palace, Warsaw. Authors own image.

This month, I found myself in Warsaw speaking with seasoned Russian observer Brian Whitmore (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and prolific blogger/tweeter (@PowerVertical). The venue was the Natolin campus of the College of Europe, an educational body first established in 1949 to train young Europeans in the values and practices of Western European states. Since 1993, there has been a second College of Europe campus established in Warsaw, and like the first one designed to recruit and train young people from all over Central and Eastern Europe and the European neighbourhood regions.

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Natolin campus, College of Europe: authors own image

It is an impressive place to visit. A beautiful campus to the south of the city houses some 120 Masters students who come to the College to study an intensive programme on international relations and EU institutional politics. It is a highly competitive and every student I encountered was multi-lingual, highly educated and in many cases armed with an array of professional experiences. Many of the graduates will go on to serve in the EU or their respective countries’ diplomatic services.

As two visiting speakers, we were asked to consider the popular geopolitics of fake news and the spectre of disinformation.  Without say so explicitly, many in the audience were concerned with Russia and President Putin’s assault on European institutions and public spheres. But in my opening talk, I cautioned against the view that fake news, disinformation, lies and deception were somehow unique to the contemporary moment and particular states.

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The Geopolitics of (dis)information: authors own image

During the Cold War, for example, American politicians were concerned with ‘brain washing’ and the propensity of ‘American minds’ to be corrupted by communist propaganda. Vince Packard memorably wrote of The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 warning of modern advertising’s capacity to manipulate consumers into buying products, and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) warned of Chinese and Korean mind control affecting ex-servicemen. American military funding for psychology and communication studies sky-rocketed in the 1950s and 1960s. But the United States also committed itself to the production and circulation of propaganda via radio, film, television and leaflets. The situation was murky but the stakes were huge.

States during the Cold War era lied to their publics, and deception and manipulation was not unique to regimes ‘we’ in the ‘West’ didn’t care for. I had the pleasure of working with two colleagues (Al Pinkerton and Stephen Young) on Cold War communications research – which not only involved research on communication networks but also rumour control. US governments, as critics such as Noam Chomsky have argued for decades, have engaged in their own ‘fake news’.

Liberal democratic states can and do violate international and domestic legal and political norms and values) – and they lie, distort, omit, and fabricate in a myriad of ways. British audiences were told by the then Labour government of Tony Blair that Iraq stood poised to launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. The truth of the matter was rather more complicated but the then government knew at the time that at best it was guilty of exaggeration and at worst mendaciousness. Dodgy dossiers and intelligence notwithstanding.

In recent years, especially after the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia stands accused of unleashing an army of trolls dishing out disinformation and fake news. The Kremlin is also held to be responsible for disrupting critical infrastructure to the detriment of neighbouring European states. For some observers, the Russian state is hell-bent on civilizational conflict – determined to weaken western states (and the EU) by generating fear, mistrust and schism using so-called ‘wedge issues’ including the status of minority communities, LGBT rights and immigration.

Eastern and central European states have often bore the brunt of this disruptive endeavour. In 2017, for example, Latvia complained that they thought Russian forces had disrupted their mobile phone network in the summer, and Norway noted similar disruption in September. It now seems a long time ago when Estonia’s experience of Russian-backed hacking was first revealed in 2007. As a number of Royal Holloway PhD students are exploring, Estonia’s approach to information security and digital embassiesis inspiring interest from an array of other states and organizations.

Infamously, Russia stood accused of meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. The potential beneficiary, President Trump, has used social media to accuse his opponents of spreading ‘fake news’ whenever his perceived competency and popularity is under challenge. The geographies of dis-information might be blurry rather than clear-cut; fake Facebook pages and twitter feeds provide ample opportunities to confuse our sense of where networks of production and circulation begin and end. We could argue that Donald Trump’s tweets provide in themselves source material for others, using their fake social media accounts, to disseminate and exploit. Hashtags, twitter feeds, news feeds provide nourishment to a ‘rumour mill’, which helps in turn to amplify and prompt ‘bespoke’ forms of popular geopolitics – catering for particular readerships and social media constituencies.

What does this mean for European liberal democracies including those neighbouring Russia such as Ukraine, Estonia and Finland? We can point to three areas which will deserve further attention.

First, we can point to counter-measures and anti-disinformation strategies. The EU diplomatic service (EEAS) has initiated a campaign to counter dis-information with a database detailing examples of lies and distortion in an array of 18 languages. The technologies and content have changed but it is worth noting that in the recent past, the United States invested in rumour control centres in a deliberate attempt to counter-act disinformation in the 1960s and 1970s. In Finland, the new EU-NATO Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats provides another example of investment in disinformation counter-measures. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in a further example, is working with Ukrainian and Baltic state governments to address Russian speaking communities in those respective countries in an attempt to counteract any campaigns designed to generate communal schisms.

Second, using countries such as Finland as example, we might consider how states invest in education regarding media and digital literacy, in a bid to better inform their citizens about the nature and scope of disinformation. In March 2016, the Russian media agency, Sputnik, closed its Finnish-language bureau because of a lack of readership. Is that an indicator of success? Or do we need to recognise that disinformation and the affective flows that it generates can vary in speed, space and intensity? And we need to be clear European political parties have been using social media data themselves to target voters on issues they believe will resonate with them. So if Russia is being accused of promoting divisions within EU states, we might note they are not alone in doing so.

Third, contemporary anxieties about Russian-sponsored disinformation, troll farms and fake news perhaps obscure other challenges facing liberal democracies in Europe and North America namely tribalism, nativism, erosion of democratic norms, partisanship, and loss of mutual toleration. Sourcing erosion is complex but economic factors such as wage stagnation and inter-generational inequality are part of the issue but so are geopolitical factors such as a war on terror, which has witnessed unprecedented intrusions into the everyday lives of European and North American citizens as well as a series of wars in the Middle East and South Asia. Further acts of terrorism in Europe, Africa and Asia has arguably further weakened democratic norms and safe-guards – the politics of exception becomes the new norm.

In short, if we (as Europeans and North Americans) are worried about Russian and other powers (we might not think of as ‘friendly’) and their adoption of hybrid warfare/disinformation/territorial unsettlement is it because we have suffered a ‘crisis of [democratic] confidence’ (to echo the words of former President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s)? Have ‘we’ sought comfort in wars on terror, security barriers and travel bans instead often at the expense of fellow citizens (rarely white and privileged) who end up bearing the brunt of fear and suspicion? Political leaders like Trump and others agitate about deviant others and promise restitution from the present, while at the same time eroding the rule of law and weakening democratic institutions.

As the American historian, Timothy Snyder (2017: 121), concludes in his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

“…[eternity politics] performs a masquerade of history, though a different one. It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, freed from with any real concern with facts…Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present.” (Snyder 2017: 121).


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Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway. You can find him on twitter:

 


 

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