Disinformation and the Will to Believe: the myth that ‘the US created ISIS’

There was, of course, an element of truth used as an ingredient in constructing the Assadist and Russian disinformation narrative that “the US created ISIS”. It is almost totally absurd, but it has been established as a political ‘fact’ and so mainstream it seems unlikely now to ever be dislodged.

The element of truth essentially is that successive US governments have applied ‘realpolitik’ theory — with extra layers of Orientalist racism when it comes to the Middle East — assuming that non-European subjects are not only irrationally religious sectarian fanatics, or have an essential ethnic ‘Mind,’ are without personal or communal agency, for good or evil, but like chess pieces, can only be moved around by the (predominantly ethnically European) Great Powers and their appointed or approved regimes.

Arabs especially, it is assumed, couldn’t possibly initiate a revolution by and for themselves, so it must have been a regime change conspiracy by Europeans, since only Europeans can have such political agency. I’m saying ‘Europeans’ not ‘Westerners’, because a) actually ‘Western’, if you look at a map, is obviously just a euphemism to avoid seeing our culture’s continuing, systemic ethno-nationalist racism, and b) Russians, or at least the Muscovites still dominating the Russian Federation, are also ethnically European. Systemic racism is still such a normal part of our culture that we don’t even see ourselves participating in it, because there is hardly anything really fully contrasting to compare with and make it visible.

Typically one of the excuses at this point is that racist discriminatory behaviour within European dominated societies has decreased over the last century, which is true, but that is more because ethno-nationalist identity has been sublimated a bit into the idea of ‘citizenship,’ but citizenship as currently practised excludes far more people from being socially respected and legally defended as having human rights than it includes. European Nation-state theory writ internationally is deeply infected and permeated with the cultural legacy of racism. Perhaps this is stretching the word ‘racism’ too far from its historical origins, but the reality of it is continuous.

Thus, Western Assadists who believe and promote the “US created ISIS” myth also believe that it is unthinkable that Arabic or non-European people could initiate their own revolution, it must have been a Western regime change conspiracy, and the counter-revolutionary war of extermination by the Assad regime is a “counter-terrorism” campaign by a ‘legitimate’ (what does that even mean anymore?) government, with, of course, absolute State sovereignty. It all follows with an internal logic from the first premise that non-Europeans could not possibly be people like us.

Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Fell Apart, Scott Anderson and Paulo Pellegrin, August 2016 (photographic essay in six episodes).

Realpolitik theory fails to predict or control its own results when applied because it does not account for actual people having social moral emotions, especially not altruistic punishment and the very human trait of self-sacrifice for our communities, which, when sufficiently chronically injured, alienated and then exploitatively manipulated by opportunists, becomes terrorism. Far from being the cure, amoral geopolitical realpolitik is a root cause of terrorism.

The US, also the Russian Federation, have quite consistently supported foreign dictators and prioritised “stability,” which is mostly a euphemism for repressive systematic State violence, lately justifying State terrorism as a ‘pragmatic’ approach to ‘counter-terrorism’.

Terrorism’s existence is far too convenient for authoritarian States to justify themselves in comparison to it as ‘lesser evils’ for them to willingly acknowledge its roots in tyranny and occupation, or to be realistic about the relative scale and distribution of the threat to humanity it presents, or to be consistent in treating all politically motivated indiscriminate violence, whether by ‘State’ or non-State actors, as two sides of the same thing. Needless to say (I wish!), you cannot solve a problem without realistically understanding it first. Most of the popular political discourse about terrorism is so detached from reality it is delusional. The discourse on terrorism currently is mainly instrumental to: a) politically defending tyrants and excusing their crimes against humanity, and b) promoting scapegoating as a means for exploitative authoritarian demagogues to gain power. For a more evidence-based approach to thinking about anti-terrorism, read:

Globally, terrorism is a small problem compared to other threats faced by humanity now (impunity for mass atrocity crimes by so-called ‘States’, anthropogenic climate change without even a realistic global plan agreed yet to decelerate its causes, air pollution causing respiratory diseases on a scale far bigger than any public health systems can afford to even mitigate adequately, accelerating antibiotic resistance with not even a realistic global plan agreed yet, etc.), and terrorism is actually concentrated mainly in the areas where it arises, caused by chronic subjection to tyranny. However, the way it is represented and discussed usually is as if it was a comparatively much bigger threat than it is and as if the geographical distribution was the inverse of what is. Politicians are still publicly treated as credible when they talk about “terrorism” as the biggest problem facing societies where it actually is least, while ignoring 2–3 orders of magnitude bigger crimes against humanity by alleged ‘States’. Do I still need to point out why that is?

For any government or regime to be publicly accepted as having a credible claim to be genuinely representative and operating for the common good and thus a legitimate ‘State’, it should always be focused predominantly on: public education, public health, public transport, public social welfare, public administration of justice, public policing and security, in about that order. If they make other issues appear far bigger than is realistic, that is a priori likely to be a scapegoating tactic to gain power in order to abuse it exploitatively, and they should always be rejected as incredible. Authoritarianism of all types — traditionalistic, ‘theocratic’, and populistic, really comes from social parasitism, which is a liability for any society. The human moral foundation of a punishment response to betrayal or treason should be triggered whenever we hear politicians constructing a scapegoat and preparing the blood sacrifice to idols made in their own image.

Real anti-terrorism starts with anti-tyranny

Justice and injustice are both indivisible (MLK). Violence and peace are also indivisible (Solzhenitsyn). Besides ethics, you just cannot tolerate or collaborate with injustice and violence with impunity in one area and realistically expect to have no reactions or to be able to contain the results of the inevitable vicious feedback loop of tyranny and terrorism co-dependently exploiting each other long-term within conventional nation-State borders.

Amoral realpolitik is not actually realistic.

‘Counter-terrorism’ is inadvertently precisely named: the ‘counter-’ prefix literally makes it mean terrorism against terrorism; and that is mostly what has been done: ‘State’ terrorism against non-state terrorism. If you want to say reducing or resolving terrorism, that would be ‘anti-terrorism’. If you want to actually do anti-terrorism, start by not treating tyrannical regimes as if they were representative and legitimate States and do not cooperate with them. No-one should get to be acknowledged as a ‘State’ anymore just by possessing power by violence and terror. To be a ‘State’ should be required to mean being genuinely representative of the people it claims authority from, and to be ‘legitimate’ it must operate genuinely for the common good, and not just of that ‘nation’ or just the majority of them or just its ‘citizens’.

Disinformation and its global strategic motives

If you have come to this article from the opposite side, or if you Google the idea “US created ISIS”, you will certainly find countless sites repeating and pseudo-independently corroborating the claim. You have to begin to understand the social networking of information and how it is exploited.

According to Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (from Hannah Arendt’s phrase), who is an expert on Russian information warfare, for Putin’s regime:

“Syria is an exercise in narrative escalation dominance.”

What are the aims of that exercise?

Absurd Assadist narratives about Syria have global aims

Assadism on the social internet is mainly a Kremlin project. The Assad regime itself supplies most of the content, but the selection, distribution and the promotion of that content is directed primarily by the Kremlin.

The absurdity of Assadist narratives is not a weakness but a design feature. They have created a virtual zombie army of people so deep into groupshift and deindividuation processes that they can be told to believe anything, however implausible, and they will believe it, repeat it and defend it, and receive social rewards of identity reinforcement. Making the group’s claims more and more absurd is a test of group loyalty; very few defect when the narrative gets too absurd, partly because they become increasingly isolated from contradictory information sources due to the way connections are weighted and reinforced on the social internet. It is like cult indoctrination, but on a new emergent level of territory, the social internet, which is above the effective control of nation-States affected by it.

The long-term goal of Putin’s regime promoting Assadism online is probably not so much to do with Assad or Syria per se actually but because it works to bring a susceptible part of the Western ‘Left’ within a higher level network module (which they don’t see) on the social internet that is directed by the Kremlin and weaponised against States on the land level of territoriality.

The global display and discourse on Syrians’ suffering is instrumentalised for increasing the Russian regime, its allies’ and its proxies’ dominance in arbitrarily constructing and mainstreaming global narratives, and also establishing new forms of old social norms about how global narratives can and should be constructed. The implicit norms in Assadist narratives have far reaching implications and consequences, which most Western Assadists probably do not foresee or consciously intend.

‘Objectivity’ is no longer just problematised if it is claimed to come from authorities, but rather the opposite. The postmodernist flight from objectivity combined with a populist type of authoritarianism, is giving authority to a new, palingenetic or revanchist, nationalist and supra-national (but invisible as such to most of its participants) cluster of clusters on the social internet, which is headquartered in the Kremlin. Anti-totalitarian political philosophers such as Hannah Arendt, last time we went through this phase, highlighted how authoritarianism necessarily has to destroy objectivity and empiricism to prepare the ground for its way of constructing narratives and framing events to claim authority.

There is so far no equivalent and opposite module on this new global level of territoriality. I am saying that there is no equivalent ‘module’ because the modules there are opposed to the module directed by the Kremlin are far smaller, not as closely clustered or as synchronously connected with other modules and not as isolated from the Kremlins’ directed modules. There is probably also an asymmetric directionality to the connections between the Kremlin’s directed module or cluster of clusters and the opposite modules. (A graph would make it much clearer than words, and I intend to make one, but I do not yet have the fluency in MediaCloud, R and ArcGIS, so would welcome offers of IT help.)

The public sense of contingent State sovereignty and primary popular sovereignty or, in other words, the belief in inherent human dignity (sometimes confused with the Social Contract theory, which is practically a form of its antithesis), is also a target of the global display of ‘sovereign’ State systematic indiscriminate violence. In principle, if the conflation of power with authority is accepted anywhere, it is also implicitly accepted and will be applied everywhere. If you consider the Russian regime’s repeated abuse of their UNSC veto as a performative symbolic act with a global intent, it is then understandable why they have invested so much diplomatic and financial capital in doing it.

The kind of global narrative Assadism constructs is a totalising and closed. As Emmanuel Levinas explained in Totality and Infinity: an essay on exteriority (1961), totalising narratives are a feature of Totalitarian political discourse arising from and leading to more totalitarian regimes. Totalising global narratives need to exclude a group, so they create and project the grouping they will use, there has to be a scapegoat identified, there has to be a sacrifice and the blood of the sacrificial victim must be spectacularly displayed for the people to see, as it has been.

That way of constructing a global narrative, what Levinas called ‘totality’, also becomes generalised beyond its original context through every instance of discourse or performative action in which it is socially accepted as ‘normal’. The opposite of a totalising global narrative is an infinitely open one. Infinitely open kinds of global narratives need to include others, they are positively evangelistic, because it is essential for their claim to authority and their social cohesion and expansion to continuously become more truly universalistic and more profoundly open to respectful confrontation with the other, to seek the face of the person.

Westerners who have become committed Assadists online probably started off just feeling critical and distrustful of US foreign policies, but Kremlin information warfare exploiting the new environment created by the inadequate algorithmic design of Facebook’s social network, which simply shows you more of what you like or otherwise interact with, making the network structurally favour authoritarian escapes from the responsibility of personal objectivity, it is too easy unknowingly to get lost in an area of the social network where all the information presented to you actually comes from sources which falsely present themselves as ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’ but are actually covertly connected and to be manipulated into becoming a zombie, like Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann. As people become drawn into Assadist networks and increasingly isolated online it become easier and easier to manipulate them to believe ever more absurd things.

Dehumanisation of Syrians dehumanises humanity

The struggle for Syrian freedom does not only affect Syrians, it affects all of us. The Syrian political philosopher who I most admire, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who was a political prisoner of the regime for 16 years, increasingly emphasises how the Syrian conflict has global meaning and indirect effects on everyone. The spectacular, sensational and desensitising global display of crimes against humanity in Syria, which has normalised the sacrificial bloodshed of innocents again for the idol of ‘national sovereignty’, and the struggle for humanity for Syrians and their bond with their homeland, are indivisible from their indirect effects on global humanity. The dehumanisation of Syrians dehumanises us all.

The carcass of truth, the carcass of justice and the carcass of politics, which have been killed in Syria and purposefully displayed to the world, are being used to establish new epistemological norms that favour populist authoritarianism globally. By appealing to people’s will to believe and repeat whatever it takes for them, their families, their class and their ethnically conceived nationality to stay comfortable, to escape from a sense of social responsibility to others, and to avoid at all costs accepting any risks to defend others, they are achieving a new global standard of ‘truth’, that is, eviscerating truth.
(Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 1942).

Assadists when challenged typically resort to an ostensibly moral claim for critics to “respect for my opinions” and “accept different perspectives”, but about matters of fact. ‘Opinions’ have a legitimate diversity when they are interpreting symbols, concepts or constructing theories, explicitly so, and ‘perspectives’ can legitimately vary about what might be in the future or what should be done, but you cannot validly have different opinions or perspectives about about events that have happened. There is a real objective external world out there, and real people suffering, so objectivity matters ethically.

There is absolutely no legitimate grounds for any opinions or perspectives about who has actually killed, tortured, raped, maimed, traumatised and forcibly displaced 13 million Syrians, because these are facts. The criminal regime of Assad and Syrian Baath Party is responsible for the whole thing, and with their mainly Iranian and Russian occupation forces they have directly committed about 97% of the civilian killings (Syrian Network for Human Rights). The erosion of the moral value of objectivity, which means a confrontation with the person, facing the face of the other and listening to the voice of the person directly affected and suffering, is toxifying the whole world.

The struggle for truth and justice

Lying is the cornerstone of injustice, honesty is the foundation of justice.

Modernist and post-modernist critiques of objectivity were responses to genuine human needs and grievances from centuries of misuses of claims of ‘objectivity’ by authorities.

But the difficulty of trying to be objective and to be universally fair in representing and discussing other people does not at all justify giving up even trying to be reasonably objective and then respond accordingly.

…it would be absurd to affirm that one’s own age of the world can be beyond correction by the next age. Skepticism cannot, therefore, be ruled out by any set of thinkers as a possibility against which their conclusions are secure; and no empiricist ought to claim exemption from this universal liability. But to admit one’s liability to correction is one thing, and to embark upon a sea of wanton doubt is another. Of willfully playing into the hands of skepticism we cannot be accused. He who acknowledges the imperfectness of his instrument, and makes allowance for it in discussing his observations, is in a much better position for gaining truth than if he claimed his instrument to be infallible. […] If we claim only reasonable probability, it will be as much as men who love the truth can ever at any given moment hope to have within their grasp. Pretty surely it will be more than we could have had, if we were unconscious of our liability to err.
William James, 1902.

Truth and justice are intrinsically interdependent, as being a person has both aspects of the objectivity of the person’s face and their social intersubjectivity.

At the same time, the rotting corpse of ‘justice’ means that we are supposed to believe now that human rights are merely based on social convention or granted by State authorities, rather than founded on inherent human dignity and expressions of inalienable and equal natural rights. Our politicians would have us accept treating ‘human rights’ as just legal technicalities to be ‘pragmatically’ evaded by clever procedural law arguments and policy euphemisms that basically mean killing people.

In the short-medium term, the pro-Assad lovies are not going to go away or shut up, but the absurdity of their narratives can be exposed, their connections made visible to themselves and others and the way they construct their global narratives using Syria as an example to establish their new norms about authority can be understood and eventually dissolved.