Whilst bouncing around left wing Facebook groups I came across this article by Caitlin Johnstone. It makes the argument that we cannot discuss Russian disinformation on social media (the stuff that may have helped get Donald Trump get elected) without talking about how Western governments lied when making the case for the invasion of Iraq. Johnstone says:
“Any argument about the truth of what’s happening with regard to Syria or Russia which does not begin with an explicit and thorough explanation as to why this is completely different from Iraq should be instantly rejected as illegitimate.”
This made me think that we often talk about the propaganda spread on social media by Russia as inherently bad, whilst failing to explain why it is worse than the lies told by our own government or our "free" Western media.
I am not naive enough to believe that our government doesn't lie to us. I believe that blind and uncritical faith in your government is a bad thing. I am also not naive enough to believe that Russia doesn't have a geo-political agenda in spreading its own media narratives via social media. Russia Today is not criticising the monarch on the weekend of the Royal Wedding because it stands for making Britain a more egalitarian society.
I thought about the issue Johnstone raised and realised that the whole thing boils down to one question: "Why are other governments lying to us worse than our own government lying to us?" Answering this question took a considerable amount of thought. Below are the conclusions I came to:
Firstly, let's take the instances of Russian disinformation spread via social media. By disinformation I mean stories that challenge or contradict the accepted narrative of our domestic media.
I believe these are a bad thing. Not because I believe our Western governments are paragons of truth and virtue, but because I believe that this disinformation is not spread with the aim of building a fairer and more just society in the west. Disinformation that helps advance the cause of Vladimir Putin is not good. It needs to be said to everyone on the left, loud and clear, that Putin is not our friend. He may oppose Western foreign policy that we also oppose, but that doesn't make him one of the good guys.
Putin is an ultra-capitalist, supported by billionaire oligarchs. He suppresses free speech and opposition in Russia. He throws around his military weight as much as America does, and he has allied himself with very conservative factions in his society that attack the rights of LGBTQ people. He has people he doesn’t like killed.
The disinformation spread by Russia is not designed to educate people, but is designed to turn us against each other. It exploits the divisions in Western society (young v old, town v country, rich v poor, conservative v liberal, etc.) to make it difficult for our society to function because we are constantly fighting each other. Look at how well Russia was able to use social media to exacerbate the divisions in American society before the 2016 election. America is more divided now than ever.
This hostility and suspicion of each other cases us to lose faith in the institutions of government and democracy. Not just faith in one government, party or leader, but faith in the entire political mechanism. This will make it harder to change society for the better - something I very much want to do - via democratic means.
It must be said that the above also happens when Western governments abuse their power and/or lie to their citizens. Again, the Iraq War is a good example of this, as is the expenses scandal that has shaken faith in democracy.
Stepping aside from the all the bad effects of Russia lying to us, is it harder to address the question of whether a generic foreign power's lies are worse than our own government's lies? All lies undermine faith in the idea of an objective truth. I am critical of the idea of objective truth; what is one person's objective truth is another's subjective opinion. Again the war in Iraq is a good example. We were told an objective truth, that Saddam Hussein was attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and this turned out to be just the subjective opinion of the establishment with no basis in fact.
After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that the answer to the above question is no. Devoid of context, all lies are equally bad. However, what I also decided is that the question of whether generic country X lying to us is worse than our own government, misses the most important thing about disinformation.
We are lied to all the time: by Russia, by our own government, by newspapers in our own country. Pro-Brexit newspapers and politicians lied when they said that Brexit would be easy. Pro-Remain politicians lied when the said voting to leave the EU would trigger an instant economic meltdown. There are lots of lies out there, but the key question is why do we believe them? Also, why do we believe specific lies and not others?
The answer to these questions involves digging into the key issues in politics today. The answer is that because we are divided society, suspicious of groups who think differently to us. It’s because of rising inequality, which means that people in the same country, even the same city, live in vastly different economic worlds. It's because of the fragmentation of news media caused by technology and the rise of filter bubbles on social media sites. It's because we are becoming increasingly partisan in who we associate with and talk to.
If none of this were happening, then it wouldn't be so easy for either the Daily Mail or Russia Today to lie to us. Fully explaining these issues is too big a job to get into here, but I hope to dive into them in following blog posts. I will say that you need a leftist political framework to get to grips with them. You need a left wing political view to understanding rising inequality, social strife and the problems of big tech companies.
After all this thinking, and I like nothing better than having a good deep think about politics, I have determined that all of us on the left should be against Russian disinformation aimed at undermining democracy, but also have a healthy scepticism of our own government. To get to the truth of the big political issues, that disinformation exposes, you need to tackle them from a left wing perspective.