Gullibility appears to be a universal human trait which can affect even the very greatest of minds. We may live in the information age – but it seems that when it comes to basic fact checking many people simply park their brains at the door.
Go to Facebook on any hour of any day and you will find – your family, friends and old acquaintances – sharing fabricated bullshit, while others ‘like’ the fabricated bullshit or comment favourably on it before, quite possibly sharing the bullshit again. Just this last week, I have seen a post claiming ‘only 55 people in 100 can read this’ with no supporting evidence of the fact, another about the Pope and a disabled child that completely distorts the truth as to why she is sitting next to him and a much pooled heart-warming image of a pack of wolves which a quick Google search proves to be intentionally miscaptioned. If you have a Facebook account you may well have seen these very stories or things that seem just so incredible or shocking that you feel obliged to share them – in an instant – without asking that critical question – “is it true?”
We’ve all done it.
The internet may be 30 years old, but it seems that many of us have learned very little in that time. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for example any number of fake stories circulated. There was the holiday snap taken ‘seconds before impact’ and Daisy the dog who miraculously saved countless souls from the towers. Neither of those stories were true but along with the much darker conspiracy theories about the destruction of the towers they have become part of the fabric of the event itself – and many otherwise sane people believe it.
Disinformation is of course as old as the hills, but the term was first coined by Russian leader Joseph Stalin when he set up a ‘special disinformation office’ in Moscow in 1923. The brief for the unit was to spread “false information with the intention to deceive public opinion.” The Soviets were certainly not alone in doing this – the British especially have a long history of doing much the same and were wonderful exponents of black propaganda in WW2. But the Russians have long been the undoubted, dedicated masters of it. As late as the 1980s the ‘special disinformation office’ was sowing mistrust and suspicion of the West and the US in particular. In July 1983 for example Operation Infektion was begun with the purpose of convincing the world that AIDS/HIV had been concocted in a laboratory by US scientists as part of an offensive biological weapons campaign. Many people believed it. Many people still do.
On the 4th of March this year former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a substance, later revealed to be Novichok – a Russian nerve agent developed in the 1980s – and were subsequently found collapsed in the streets of Salisbury. The obvious suspect was the Kremlin. Russian President Valdimir Putin is on record as saying that “traitors will kick the bucket” and this attack bears striking similarities to that on Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006.
Now of course when an event like this happens – all avenues should be examined before anyone jumps to conclusions. And they were. Scientists at Porton Down examined the substance and concluded it was “of a type developed by Russia.” The UK government gave the Kremlin the right to respond but given a chance to clear its name the Russian state, in the guise of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Maria Zakharova chose instead to denounce Theresa May and call the UK parliament ‘a circus show’ adding:
“The conclusion is obvious: this is another information and political campaign, based on provocation.”
As the deadline passed for Russia to account for itself, Mrs May announced that 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ would be expelled and that there would be no official UK representation at the World Cup, being hosted in Moscow later this year.
Almost immediately, in certain corners, suspicions were raised. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray wrote a blog and alluded to WMDs and Dr David Kelly and it was widely disseminated as proof that the UK government was lying. A research chemist called Clyde Davies proceeded to fairly convincingly take the case apart on twitter – but it was too late – the blog was out there and former ambassadors, however bonkers they might be or dubious their associates have a certain cachet that faintly anonymous experts do not.
Since then, things have been turned up a notch. “The Special Disinformation office” may no longer exist but its glossy descendant Russia Today and its many offshoots, journalists, associated twitter accounts do. These and a very large band of UK apologists have scrambled and fired off a barrage of tweets, stories and videos blaming everyone and everything apart from the Kremlin. These stretch from the faintly plausible ‘rogue agents’ theory to suggestions that the CIA, MI6 or even George Soros did it. ‘Sputnik’ the Russia Today vehicle of George Galloway yesterday reported that former UKIP MEP Richard Wood was of the opinion that the attack had been staged to keep the UK in the EU.
This angle seemed preposterous – even by the standards of RT and the Brexiteers – but incredibly the theory was taken up, particularly by Leave extremists and repeated across their networks, in calls to LBC and even on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Question Time – for which it was given a round of applause.
The greater the lie – the greater the chance that it will be believed?
Russian denials were further bolstered by Jeremy Corbyn who was seemingly unwilling to condemn Russia outright and called for a ‘robust dialogue’ instead. Now of course ‘all the evidence’ is needed before further measures are taken but as Clyde Davies pointed out in his deconstruction of the Craig Murray blog – “if it looks like a duck, swims and flies like a duck – it’s a bloody duck.”
RT has for years cultivated dissatisfaction in the UK and elsewhere spreading memes, conspiracy theories and sometimes downright lies that have played to the fringes of the left and right – from Farage to Corbyn. This modern disinformation that riffs variously on fears of globalisation, or immigration or Islam – or discontent with the Union – whether European or UK has attracted guests and hosts who might otherwise be denied a voice; many of them have hard left or right wing political viewpoints and are glad of an outlet for their talents and opinions – but in so doing they unwittingly help the Putin agenda.
The bigger problem is the 90k UK viewers themselves. Just as the people who clicked on all those Britain First memes about homeless soldiers helped the far right party grow and prosper – by switching RT on for the ‘alternative viewpoint’ these hapless folks are not just enabling the dissemination of propaganda but worse – allowing themselves to be brainwashed.
Now – if the Iraq saga taught us anything it is that our own government is every bit as capable of misleading us as anyone else. Accepting the weaknesses of our own state does not mean that we should switch off our bullshit detectors and immediately run straight into the arms of another – particularly when all the evidence suggests that much of the ‘truth’ spouted by Russia Today, is as watertight as a tissue bucket.
The internet has given all of us access to factually researched sources at the touch of a button. It is possible to check the veracity of your Facebook page and the veracity of your own and other governments’ dissemination of their version of ’truth.’ In the information war we all need a bullshit detector – and we need to make sure it is switched on. Question everything sure – but in so doing, don’t lose sight of the fact that if it is quacking and duck-like – it’s almost certainly – a duck.