Online propaganda

Book review: ‘On Disinformation’ by Lee McIntyre

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How to fight for truth and protect democracy.

A few years ago, the US Army Cyber Institute stated that one of the biggest security threats came in the form of disinformation. So keen were they to press their point, they commissioned a graphic novel to outline the scenarios in which military capability and communication could be degraded by enemy disinformation. The idea was that everyone – particularly soldiers – would read a comic, while the serious messages on topics such as ‘microtargeting’ and ‘post truth’ were tucked away as articles between the pictures.

That’s how seriously Uncle Sam takes the Putin-approved troll farms pushing out disinformation about Western vaccines, social unrest and even elections, says Lee McIntyre in his latest extended essay on the topic. This propaganda is distributed to the more excitable of the American domestic media outlets who treat it as gospel, after which it finds its way into the echo chamber of social media, after which the military is powerless to do anything about it.

‘On Disinformation’ (The MIT Press, £13.99, ISBN 9780262546300) follows hot on the heels of McIntyre’s ‘How to Talk to a Science Denier’ (reviewed in E&T two years ago), in which the professional philosopher illustrated how difficult it is to argue with your enemy unless you understand how they think; in which he recommended taking even the most bizarre of opposing viewpoints seriously, if only to level the playing field.

In what feels very much like the next logical instalment of his discourse on living in a post-truth world, ‘On Disinformation’ builds on McIntyre’s earlier work by examining how ‘strategic denialism’ is created, amplified and accepted into fringe orthodoxy. Having worked out what your enemies think, says McIntyre, the next step is to work out how to prevent their ideologies gaining traction with those most likely to be influenced by them. Central to the spread of disinformation are digital media platforms such as (but not limited to) Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Central to gaining control over disinformation is to have some sort of algorithmic transparency and regulation.

One of the most dispiriting findings to emerge from ‘On Disinformation’ is our inability to learn from past. As McIntyre says, the destruction of facts – the information warfare that aims to make civilisation ungovernable – has been with us on a systematic basis for a century. Former US President Donald Trump’s ‘reality denial’ not only follows the same blueprint used by climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers: it emulates disinformation tactics created by Russian and Soviet intelligence dating back to the 1920s. There is nothing new in autocrats wielding disinformation to deny obvious realities. It’s just that there are so many outlets now that it’s hardly credible that a western superpower thinks that graphic novels could contribute any resistance. We need to elect the right people, says McIntyre, and then get them to regulate cyberspace before it’s too late.

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