Few words have as great a hold on the contemporary imagination as ‘disinformation.’ Few words are as ubiquitous in contemporary discourse or as pervasive in political mud-slinging. Donald Trump castigates the ‘fake news’ media for perceived bias against him; Hillary Clinton blames foreign influence operations for her election loss. Disinformation, propaganda, lies: whatever you wish to call it, it’s the bogeyman of our age, a convenient repository for all our sins.
There is a reason for this. The author Shoshana Zuboff has correctly observed that information technology brought with it a revolution that reordered capitalism. Human experience – as found in data, which is how we now harness information – became the ‘raw material’ for wealth creation. Information (or data) is now the world’s primary resource: those in closest proximity to it, the Silicon Valley tycoons, are our new overlords.
Once information becomes a resource, like gold or iron ore, it can be deployed accordingly. As a blacksmith hammers steel into a horseshoe, digital technologies have allowed us to mould information into the most potent of weapons. And it has levelled the playing field. States like Russia, which have no chance on the battlefield against the likes of the United States, now seek to challenge the superpower. Now they can use cyberspace to attack the heart of its political system, permeating far beyond the uterine comfort of national borders.
Right now the disinformation peddlers are thriving. Coronavirus has stupefied and stultified the world. Fear dominates international relations. Confusion is rife. It’s a perfect storm: we live in an era already destabilised by an information revolution and its bastard offspring – disinformation. The eruption of a global pandemic, unprecedented in modern times, has made everything worse. A cause of worldwide panic in which accurate information is scarce but speculation rampant, Coronavirus enables those who wish to divide and demonise.
And they are doing it globally. Just last month, al-Alam the Iranian TV station and propagandist mouthpiece that broadcasts across the Middle East (with a focus on neighbouring Iraq) published an article entitled ‘Coronavirus… a secret weapon with a political flavour’. The pandemic, it claimed, is a ‘weapon’ in the war between pro-US ‘paid media’ in Iraq and Lebanon on one side, and China and Iran on the other. The temporary closing of the border between the two countries, as well as the grounding of flights were, it trilled, the result of US embassy demands. Coronavirus was, in fact, only the latest excuse to undermine Iran-Iraq relations at a time of ‘increasing rapprochement’.
Meanwhile, reports are emerging that Russian pro-Kremlin media have mounted a ‘significant disinformation campaign’ to exploit coronavirus in the West, specifically aiming to destroy confidence in the emergency services. Sources claim the goal is to stoke ‘confusion, panic and fear,’ as part of a broader strategy to ‘subvert European societies from within.’
From Tehran to Moscow coronavirus is at the heart of disinformation narratives. This was inevitable. For a start, if you’re a propagandist then piggy backing onto a subject that has the world transfixed ensures that you won’t struggle to be read.
Then there’s the fact that information spaces are conforming to the propagandists’ needs. As Alicia Wanless, co-director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observes: ‘Many people are already pushing low quality information, not to wreak deliberate havoc, but rather to try to make sense of a stressful and uncertain situation.’ In a world saturated with pollution, your emissions become just another part of the landscape. As Wanless also notes, part of the problem is that we as people do not cope well with ambiguity – the same part of the brain that processes fear is also activated in ambiguous situations – and we seek information to address that uncertainty. When ethical sources can only admit they do not have all the answers, unethical ones will step in to provide for us – with their own added twist of course.
But coronavirus’s greatest gift to the propagandist is its immense plasticity. Because it’s invisible, coronavirus can take on the face of any enemy your narratives need. It is, as my friend the author Peter Pomerantsev declared to me this week, ‘the ultimate empty signifier. You can project whatever you want onto it.’
So, for Iran, coronavirus is a US ploy to divide it from its neighbouring Shia brethren. For Russia, it’s an opportunity to further its information war against the West. For China, it’s an opportunity to ‘prove’ that domestic autocracy (where you can really put people into isolation) is preferable to foreign democracy. For the right, it highlights the dangers of the refugee camps within Europe’s borders (a simple update of the centuries-old trope that refugees are carriers of contagion). And for the left, it showcases the callousness of a right-wing government.
Coronavirus is everywhere and it is everything we want it to be. Beyond the virus itself it is the damage wrought by the lies surrounding it that will threaten us in the weeks and months, and perhaps even years, to come.