Webs of Deceit: Alternative Facts, False Narratives and Toxic Politics

It is becoming harder to distinguish between truth and lies. Soon, we may not be able to. In a future where we will choose our “facts”.

Latest Post-Publication Notes and Updates added at the end of the article on February 22, 2020.

Alternative Facts

We are being lied to, with impunity, by those in positions of privilege and power. Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to US President Donald Trump invented the phrase “alternative facts” — a euphemism for a lie — and made lying acceptable. These “facts” are being used to construct universes full of fantastical conspiracies, devotion to populist “supreme” leaders and seething hatred for all “enemies” who have to be annihilated. Across countries, this infocalypse of lies and misinformation, is fuelling violent, toxic politics.

Here are some narratives based on alternative facts. They seem so “believable” when read uncritically.

I. Alternative Fact: White People in Europe and America are Being Wiped Out by Immigration: A great French philosopher, Renaud Camus, tells us about “The Great Replacement” in his book You will Not replace Us! White populations are being replaced by non-White (mostly Islamic) people through immigration and violence (and even by encouraging abortion among White populations). This is being done deliberately by the corrupt elites of many nations.

“White people are being wiped out by immigration US and Europe”
From Tweet by @Labor Left. Source: Twitter

II. Alternative Fact: The Holocaust Never Happened: Let us go back to World War II. They say that the Nazis, under Hitler, murdered 6 million Jews in Europe. This is referred to as the Holocaust. A written account is given by the British Broadcasting Corporation. This paid media outlet has taken pains to write all of this very simply so that even the dumbest human can swallow their propaganda. The holocaust is a gigantic hoax and there is evidence to show that this was a conspiracy to defame the non-Jewish, Aryan races in Europe. “Though six million Jews supposedly died in the gas chambers, not one body has ever been autopsied and found to have died of gas poisoning.” We should wonder if Hitler was such a villainous person that he is made out to be if his only crime was to defend the Fatherland against the rapacious depravities of corrupt, usurious Jews. Does this affable looking man seem dangerous to you? It is chilling that for speaking out this truth you can be imprisoned, in many countries.

An example of Nazi internal propaganda collected by Corporal Charles Overstreet during his tour of duty in World War II
An example of Nazi internal propaganda collected by Corporal Charles Overstreet during his tour of duty in World War II Germany. These leaflets were distributed to German citizens by Hitler`s government. Source: Source: IMLS DIgital Collections.

III. Alternative Fact: Nuclear Weapons Don’t Exist: We have been fooled into believing that atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, at the end of World War II (sometimes I wonder if such a war actually happened). The whole idea of nukes was just a massive “psy ops”. Death Object: Exploding The Nuclear Weapons Hoax by Akio Nakatani, a respected academic, lays bare the whole conspiracy. According to the description, “the nuclear trick is the biggest, boldest and baddest-ass scam in all of mankind’s ancient and eternal quest for power and profit through mass slaughter. DEATH OBJECT takes you behind the curtain and reveals the empty sound stage. The science, the history, the misery, the mystery — the full hoax is covered. … Every element of the atomic bomb scam, the founding myth of the technological age, is tied to every other, coalescing into an unanswerable exposé.

Pretty scary, given that so much money is being poured into nuclear weapons worldwide, all for a fraud. Surely another trick by the corrupt elites and their paid media to keep this away from the public eye.

Real versus Alternative

How do we decipher what is true and what is not?

The first thing that people do when confronted by information is to check how it stands with respect to existing knowledge they hold.

Experts who track effects of immigration tell us unequivocally that immigration makes nations more productive, increases their wealth because of enhanced economic activity, provides for skills not available natively; and that extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric is a strategy to is “strike and intensify fear of ‘the other’ in the hearts of voters.”

Those who have studied history will have an idea of what the Nazis did; and also know about the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, towards the end of World War II. The grief that they have caused have been described by so many records.

Anyone familiar with physics and space research will know about all the Apollo landings on the moon. Biology and evolutionary theory tell us that dragon myths came from the fear of large predators and the importance of fire in human prehistory.

Therefore, an education that exposes us to science, history and stories about the world is needed to distinguish between truth and lies.

When we are not sure about some information we hunt for relevant books, articles and archives — in the real world and on the internet — in a bid to resolve the truth value of what is being claimed or denied. Generally, we also try to ensure in some way that the resources being used are credible; it is likely that we will trust the information given in a reputed encyclopaedia or the archives maintained by a well known university.

The Collapse of Cognition: Why and How Do We Believe What We Do

However, this structure of how we decide to believe something is breaking down, driven by a complex ecosystem of technology and politics. We list below ten factors that make up this ecosystem.

First, many people now take information and news stories from the internet (websites, social media, blogs) and not so much from newspapers or television. This is true of America as much as it is for developing markets.

“Facebook and WhatsApp are also the most widely used for news”
“Facebook and WhatsApp are also the most widely used for news — 52% of our respondents [in India] say they get news via Facebook, and 52% say they get news via WhatsApp, similar figures to those seen in a market like Brazil.” Source: Source: Reuters Institute India Digital News Report, 2019.
More Americans get news from social media than from newspapers
Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source. Source: Pew Research Center.

Second, the general tendency is to assume that what they are reading is true. This is what print culture has taught us. Textbooks are usually edited by someone as are newspapers. These gatekeepers check what is finally published. This is not true on the internet where there is a lot of stuff that has not been checked for authenticity, making it very easy for untrue material to proliferate.

Third, there has been an exponential growth of fake and false information on the net — events that never happened (Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile racket), people saying things they never said (President Trump endorsed PM Modi). Many people are turning skeptical about the quality and truthfulness of what they read. Unfortunately, some of this skepticism is also targeted towards information that is already proven to be authentic (e.g. verified and checked historical records; validated scientific principles).

Fourth, fake information that is being “manufactured” today is of fantastic quality in terms of production values and technical sophistication, and this makes it so believable.

Weapons of Mass Deception

Fifth, false stories are designed with an objective to influence so these are crafted with the right emotional “hooks” to generate rage, despair, disgust, elation, hatred, and so on. Such misinformation is very effective is building or destroying the reputation of people and the significance of issues. Often, they feed into a persistent feeling of paranoia and are effective tools in manufacturing “public mood”.

The internet, especially social media, therefore abounds in a heady mix of morphed images, doctored videos, edited documents, vintage (to convey authenticity) looking scrolls, inside these fake stories. Images of massacres elsewhere are picked up and used in a fake story to show a local leader’s cruelty; images of great things being done somewhere are shown as the creation of infrastructure somewhere else. A report in India Today cheekily called various instances of use of fake news in the recent Lok Sabha elections, as “weapons of mass deception”. A buzzfeed compilation of the best fake stuff that was created during the 2016 US presidential elections includes these alternative facts: the Pope endorsed Trump’s presidency (so he was the favored choice of Christians), and that Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance in schools (he was therefore anti-national).

A thorough and detailed analysis of how anti-immigrant rhetoric is mainstreamed especially by the use of “dark social” platforms, conventional social media (twitter, influencers, memes etc.) has been developed by Davey and Ebner for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue in UK (ISD).

Sixth, in a troubling development, because powerful hardware and software has become so cheap, deepfake videos are coming. In these, you can make public figures say things they never said (abuse, confess). In a video, released in 2018 to demonstrate the power of the technology, Obama can be heard “abusing” Trump. Deepfake videos have already put celebrity faces into porn; it is a matter of time before public figures and leaders are incorporated. The fakeness of these products is becoming harder and costlier to detect.

Seventh, the preponderance of misinformation has now spawned an entire profession of fact checkers and fact checking websites (1, 2,3). Typically, they check for telltale signs of editing in an image or a video, hunt for similar resources on the internet to locate where the one in use may have been taken from, search old, trusted archives, and so on. But even this has resulted in debates like who will check the fact checkers because they themselves may have a bias in selectively certifying facts.

How it Gets Around

Eighth, to make matters worse, MIT research shows that fake information seems to travel faster than facts and humans more than robots help spread it faster.

Ninth, most people believe information toward which they already have a predilection. They try to reject what does not match with their existing beliefs. People will also usually believe whatever their group does. This is a gift of the “lazy brain”. A lie repeated many times becomes familiar and produces an illusion of truth. There is a general tendency to believe in more sensational material. Worst-case, negative scenarios are believed most.

Illegal immigrants are destroying this country!
Illegal immigrants are destroying this country! Source: Source: Boris Rasins’s Photostream

A predilection could be based on a rational analysis of a situation but more often than not it arises from ideas that get “seeded” — mostly emotionally and uncritically — because of conscious or unconscious background biases. Therefore, a person holding even a mildly racist worldview (who may have been brought up within a racist community) is likely to believe the false claim that Obama was not born in the US; many Germans feeling “national” humiliation after World War I, blamed the Jews for “backstabbing” the nation — this view was anchored on centuries of anti-semitic stereotypes that prevailed in Europe, and finally became an important trope in Nazi propaganda that vilified the Jews.

Tenth, the factor that actually motivates people to create and propagate false information is pervasive social polarization. This is driven by a severe crisis of inequality, unemployment and economic deprivation in classical forms of capitalism. It has spawned varieties of cultural nationalisms in many countries (UK-Brexit, US, Turkey, India, Hungary, Brazil …) that oppose the earlier, “globalized” political order. Cultural nationalisms tend to be majoritarian, and nurture many types of social divides where the majority becomes hostile to people who are “others” — from another race, caste, community, gender or class.

Ideological Silos

Most political narratives use false “facts” and misinformation in a big way to mobilize support. Such false stories are now the most potent weapon to polarize citizens on any issue be it competing nationalisms, race or caste discrimination or falsifying history. Whoever uses this weapon more, and more cleverly, will stay ahead in the winning stakes.

The creation and consumption of false stories have carved out and deepened ideological silos. These stories are driven by polarization and in turn create even more of it. It is a vicious circle.

Trump supporters believe that all mainstream media firms, with mainstream institutions as their allies, report untruthfully, and thus spread “paid news” created by the “corrupt elites”. They question the credibility of CNN or BBC and think that Fox News and Breitbart are credible sources of information. In India, cultural nationalists believe that Republic TV is credible but NDTV is not; that JNU or UoH are controlled by “anti-national”, “anti-people” liberals and leftists who are allies of the “corrupt elites”.

The counter-narrative is that cultural nationalists locate a social group and then falsely hold it responsible for all that is wrong with the “nation”. Typically, these “others” are immigrants, people belonging to another religion, race or caste. So Sanders’ supporters argue that there is no logic in blaming these “others” and that the state of society is determined by the mechanics of capitalism which breeds poverty and inequality. For them Fox News and Breitbart are media outlets that spread only falsehoods.

These two groups now mostly engage with each other in battle mode, by hurling charges and abuses, on television and on social media. As these ideological “bubbles” evolve and harden they have become separate universes. The bigger universe determines who will get the “peoples’ mandate” and what will be the cultural meaning of nationalism. The power of polarization — cultivated intensely through misinformation — in creating an all pervasive, background “buzz” of ideological civil wars should not be underestimated.

the Walls that Liberals have built
The Walls that Liberals have built (as the other side views them). Source: SS&SS Photostream.
Trump’s Obsessions and Issues
The Mess of Trump’s Obsessions and Issues (as the other sees them). Source: Source FolSomNatural Photostream.

Driving Blind

In such an environment, we are spiralling rapidly towards an information chaos where people do not know what to trust, and ultimately will not know how to evaluate the credibility of what they are seeing, hearing or reading.

Imagine these scenarios. It is 2019. A student is trying to learn about the Indian republic’s first leaders, on her own. She watches biographical videos on the life of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1, 2, 3), but also come across other videos that suggest that he was a philanderer, a “muslim-lover” and a good-for-nothing who died because of sexually transmitted diseases (1, 2); she also sees exchanges on Twitter and posts on Facebook. In order to resolve these conflicting inputs she tracks other resources, on the web or stocked in libraries, national archives, old camera footage and films to confirm what kind of a person Nehru was and whether he died of sexually transmitted diseases or not. She is likely to conclude that Nehru was a tall leader of the freedom movement, and someone who developed a comprehensive idea of India.

Now fast forward to 2035. Another student wants to do a similar exercise. She finds too much material on the internet; genuine information is lost within heaps of misinformation, like a needle in a haystack. Even if located, it is hard to establish its credibility. She is drowned in so much contradictory material, that it is impossible to resolve it in any direction.

Now, what will she do?

We could soon be living in a world where misinformation has engulfed the truth; people cannot distinguish between science and superstition; every explanation is a conspiracy; no one is able to figure out which national statistics are correct and which are fictional; history has become a wasteland of actual happenings, fictional narratives and myths entwined into strands of folklore.

What Does the Future Hold

Misinformation cannot be fought with facts alone. Facts are not sufficient to overcome emotional bases of beliefs. Calls to be rational, to assess credibility, to fact check will fall flat when misinformation overwhelms real information. This debate on the The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online, enriched with numerous opinions, remained inconclusive two years ago. But I find, based on what is happening in sci­ence, and politics (1, 2, 3) that things have worsened. Optimism, that this problem will be solved by technological fixes or basic human goodness, seems to me to be misplaced, in a world full of resentments and rage.

Yet the fight must be waged against a culture based on untruths.

Media consumers must be encouraged to use fact-checking services so that this becomes a mainstream norm. News sites should provide quick access to their primary sources, if possible, so that users can themselves assess the credibility of what they are seeing. Digital literacy courses that teach users how to spot fake news and how to guard against it should be introduced in educational institutions as a part of the curriculum. This will enable the development of critical media consumption habits and to identify partisan, emotional hooks.

We need to have laws that make it mandatory for news organizations, channels, platforms to perform aggressive fact checking, give warnings about dubious material, and be subject to severe penalties for propagating falsehoods. Even more than that, we need genuinely autonomous regulatory agencies that can shield us from the excesses of state power and the self-serving opportunism of the market. There are deep conundrums here: who will define what is fake and what penalties must be applied? Populist leaders who thrive on misinformation and declare real news to be fake would want to use these laws to reign in a “free” media. Technology companies, on whose platforms this misinformation plays out, are happy with the traffic and advertisements revenue these humongous “battles” generate. In any case, should not private corporations only have limited responsibilities of fact checking and following “community” standards but never the power of censoring free speech rights?

Projects that study the reasons for social resentments must relentlessly expose the emotional manipulation being exploited by the fabricators of fake news. Ultimately, the misinformation menace will reduce significantly in volume in a more just and equal world where the motivation to create false information withers away.

Aldous Huxley thought civilization will be threatened by irrelevant knowledge drowning out the relevant. Little did he imagine that the real will be swallowed by the fictional.

“A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in their calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.” (Aldous Huxley in “A Brave New World”)

This is a longer and updated version of an article published earlier (July 26, 2019) in Scroll.in.

Post-Publication Updates & Notes:

  1. More political instances of how misinformation overwhelms facts, and confounds attempts to ascertain the truth. Added on Feb 22, 2020.

2. India just got it’s first election campaign featuring deepfakes. Added on Feb 22, 2020.

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