If knowledge is power, ignorance is an effective tool of disempowerment. With fake news polluting an already burgeoning infodemic, the truth is becoming increasingly obscured. In turn, our perception of reality is, too. The third edition of Akademi Mag’s Love, Pavemented newsletter explores the practice of disinformation in an attempt to understand how it shapes our experience of the world, as part of our small contribution to the fight against it.
Dezinformatsiya, a Russian word, was first used by KGB spies in the 1920s to deliver ‘black propaganda’ intended to create the impression that it was created by the very people it was discrediting. In 1930s Germany, Hitler’s associate Goebbels used choreographed provocation to spread Nazi ideology via his Ministry of Propaganda. In the 80s, the US famously leaked false information about Gaddafi, claiming that the Libyan dictator was going to be ousted. According to the New York Times, at least 70 countries have engaged in disinformation campaigns over the years.
Historically, disinformation - the deliberate sharing of inaccurate information - has been used as a form of psychological warfare. The recent pervasiveness of social networking allows it to take on new forms, increasing the number of target audiences and stakeholders and complicating ethical concerns.
Powerful people are invested in public deception because the ability to mold reality translates into the ability to influence public behaviour. Commercial activities, electoral politics, and big tech practices are rife with data-driven manipulation - and this is not a tough game when social trust is underlined by cognitive biases that make us believe what we want to believe. Today, ‘truth’ is nothing but an individual perspective, reiterated by algorithms that create little universes of polarizing belief within our phones. For stakeholders, these artificial bubbles are a matter of power and profit. For our brains, they mean convenience and reinforcement of biases.
In a 2018 video, Vox addressed the Firehose of Falsehood - a bombardment of lies by propagandists. Researchers have found that rapid, continuous, and repetitive lies that make no commitment to objective reality have never been about persuasion - they are, and always have been, demonstrations of power. Such disinformation makes us believe that the people who spread it are not constrained by reality and that everything we believe in can be challenged. In positional warfare, whoever has objectively more power owns ‘reality’.
The more comprehensive the scope of disinformation is, the more destructive its impact is. We amplify and multiply circular reportage of incorrect information because it is designed to lure us into a reactionary participative process. Disinformation becoming a cultural phenomenon also means that genuine news loses credibility with all information being subject to questioning. This is dangerous because when the lens with which we view the world is blurry, we lose the confidence required to challenge seemingly elusive aggressors. When we’re never sure of what exactly to believe in, the truth starts losing power, and our minds - ability to discern, avoidance of biases, and all - become fatigued and more prone to exploitation.
With the Indian government shaping public narratives through OpIndia and Republic TV, the UAPA and the IT cell, induced voluntary silencing and WhatsApp propaganda, emotional warfare and anti-intellectual ‘Urban Naxal’ tirades, our own personal brand of disinformation keeps us confused, divided, and tightly controlled - not in the ways we imagine, but in the ways that matter.
Whether disinformation comes from state-sponsored media, bot-farms bolstering foreign interference, research funded by companies with vested interests, microtargeted ads, or a relative’s single Facebook share, the way we interact with information is a matter of serious public, personal, and political concern.
The first step towards tackling mass gaslighting is acknowledging our own misconceptions - not just those of people on opposite sides of our ideological spectrums. (Daniel J. Boorstein puts it most succinctly, saying - the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge). Next, we must be critical, vigilant, and attentive, making an active effort to believe those who share lived experiences and speak truth to power.
I also like to think that encouraging difficult conversations about the complex issues that surround us is an unusual but effective antidote. When we understand the nuanced truths of each other’s lives better, the resulting solidarity helps lessen the impact of disinformation. More transparency between social media users, platforms, and governments, regulations that don’t curb freedom of expression, and more accountable democracies are imperative. Most importantly, we must empower ourselves with contextualized, ‘whole’ knowledge through sustained engagement with issues that we care about, so that our faith in the truth - as a representation of reality and as an idea unto itself - is protected.
Want to know more?
Watch NYT’s video on ‘Project InfeKtion’, one of the world’s first formally organized disinformation campaigns by KGB spies, which painted AIDS as a biological weapon.
Watch Vox’s explainer on the Firehose of Falsehood and why obvious lies make great propaganda.
Read this guide by The Verge on how to fight lies, tricks, and chaos online.
What's Happening in the World?
A lot has been happening in the world. Here’s some stuff worth knowing:
South Asia is flooding. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal’s torrential monsoons and landslides have created a humanitarian crisis for many. UNICEF
June and July saw protests around the world. Reasons include global climate strikes, extradition laws in Hong Kong, a new criminal code in Indonesia, farmers’ rights in Netherlands and France, dissenter prosecutions in Russia, crumbling governments in Peru, Haiti, Thailand, Egypt, Iraq, and Zimbabwe, government control over media in Hungary, economic instability in Lebanon and Israel, Black Lives Matter in the US, and more. Business Insider
China and the US seem to be headed towards a cold war - they’re already in the middle of a trade war. They recently shut down each others’ consulates, and have both been acting against each other in terms of defense, trade, tech, and human rights. BBC
Due to COVID-19 lockdown, human production of seismic noise - vibrations that propagate into the ground - is seeing the longest and most prominent reduction known to man. As the world falls silent, this is being labelled the 2020 seismic noise quiet period. Science
Did You Know?
In the 1970s, a psychiatrist, an investor, and a college-dropout began a therapeutic boarding school on a sprawling 33-acre campus in Maine. It claimed to treat children with behavioural problems, and was a certified member of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools. The kind of institution that Elan School claimed to be is not uncommon - many exist today. Parents would send children who were prone to misbehaving, or charged as juvenile delinquents, to Elan in the hope that they would be disciplined. Even the New York State Education Department gave it favourable reviews, and it was generally considered effective in its practices.
Over time, Elan started finding itself in the middle of serious controversies. People were alleging that ‘treatments’ given to children included public humiliation, staff-organized fight clubs, sleep deprivation, isolation rooms, monitored contact with families, and more. Students were experiencing a distorted reality, sometimes staying there for years - and their parents had no clue. This went on for decades until 2011 when Reddit users anonymously shared their experiences at Elan. A horrific truth was uncovered - it was never actually a boarding school - Elan was a fully-functional cult that had led to the irreversible trauma, brainwashing, and death of young people. The revelation led to Elan School finally being shut down, after years of abuse and manipulation.
An ex-student created a webcomic based on his experiences. 46 chapters in, Elan.school continues to be updated today, and is a unique, compelling tale about the experience of being brainwashed by a cult.
Gem from the Internet
The digital world is not just supplemental to our physical world anymore - it is a centerpiece in our lives, a uniquely fragmented idea of home. A new New York Times podcast called the ‘Rabbit Hole’ addresses a question we should all be asking about this space that we have claimed: What is the internet doing to us? Tech columnist Kevin Roose follows the lives of people who are shaping, and being shaped by, the internet.
Roose feels like we’re caught in a ‘machine drift’, and wants to know what makes the pull of the internet so powerful for people like you and me - through stories about politics, conspiracy theories, and more. Started in April 2020 and currently eight episodes long, this podcast is available for free on NYT and Spotify.
Message to the Reader
A message to the reader from Raghu Karnad, award-winning journalist and founding member of The Wire:
“I think a lot about what you might call the paradox of information – it figures in national affairs, but also in our personal lives.
I remember, ten years ago, how easy it was to criticise the national government. So everyone did. We think of the UPA as especially corrupt mainly because it let a system of public scrutiny do its job. And it allowed accountability to cause its own defeat.
Our new leaders saw that, and decided it wouldn’t happen to them. Their ideal is Kashmir 2020: Everything’s OK because no bad news comes out.
So that’s the paradox: A system, a community, a person that is growing accountable will reveal their flaws first. It’s a factor in how intimate violence is reported; or how mental health is discussed. Disclosure of flaws can be what progress looks like. This calls for real wisdom: To address new flaws without lashing out – to preserve the progress that allows bad news, and not fall for a regression that offers only silence.”
What's Keeping Me Occupied
Deepak Peace’s ‘Anti-National Hero’ is a song about how the Indian politico-media complex devalued and curbed free speech over the years. He proclaims that if the truth is anti-national, he’s an anti-national hero. Peace says that his music is more satirical than political, but the addressal of Shankar Guha Niyogi (an influential labour leader from Chhattisgarh who was assassinated in his sleep), Afzal Guru (whose hanging was famously known as a stain on India’s democracy), Operation Green Hunt (the controversial paramilitary movement against Naxalites), nationalism and more makes it an important archive of Indian dissent.
“News channel ke anchoron,
Sachh ke dukaandaron,
Democracy ke perhedaron,
Main hun anti-national hero’”
If you liked this song, you may also like Step Into Desi’s playlists ‘Indian Protest Music’ and ‘Tunes of Activism Continue’. They curate local indie music playlists from Nepal, Pakistan, Kashmir, Assam and other Northeast states. SID’s collections include ‘Musical Environmentalism’, ‘Desi Pride’, and ‘Desi Women of India’.