I saw an excerpt from an American TV program on YouTube a while back. It was one of those shows in which a number of presenters sit around a table interviewing a celebrity. In this case, the celebrity was Russell Brand. They were talking about their guest in the third person, as if he wasn’t there. Like he was an exhibit in a museum.
Suddenly Brand turned. “All these people are at work are they?” he said, pointing. He was looking off stage to what was going on behind him. The camera panned to follow his gaze.
There was a bunch of people there, maybe a dozen or more, not more than 10 feet away, sitting at desks with computers, furiously engaged in some activity. A couple of them looked towards the camera as he spoke, obviously aware they’d been noticed.
“Work more quietly,” he called jokingly.
“They’re Facebooking,” said one of the hosts.
“They can tweet, they can Facebook?” asks Brand, surprised.
“They have to, that’s part of their job,” says one of the hosts.
“They are probably tweeting right now,” says another.
It was like an invisible wall had been broken. Suddenly we were seeing behind the scenes. These people were being employed to write complimentary tweets and other social media posts about the program in order to increase its online presence. They were a group of fake grassroots influencers paid to promote the interests of the corporation making the program.
Like so much in the online world, what’s trending on social media is often fake. No doubt the group were fed buzzwords and phrases to use before the program started. They were employees of the company, probably contracted to work over a number of hours. It didn’t matter what the content of the program might be, their opinions were entirely in the hands of the people who paid them. There was nothing objective about their observations, nothing honest or truthful, nothing reflecting the real-life beliefs of the individuals concerned. They were hired tools of the corporate mind, no more.
The Internet is being gamed. These days you wouldn’t even need to employ real humans to do the work for you. It can all be done by robots. There was a good program on the BBC the other week. It was called Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True History. In it he traces the fake news phenomenon back to its roots in the growth of mass circulation newspapers in the 19th century. Fake news isn’t new. A number of newspapers engaged in it. They didn’t care that it was fake: and neither did their readers. It sold. He gives a number of examples, including one where a newspaper claimed to be citing a report in a scientific journal about life on the Moon. Someone had trained a very high-powered telescope on the surface of our nearest neighbor, and through that was able to see its inhabitants and what they were up to. The Moon was occupied by miniature bison, unicorns and flying man-bats. This was in an age when astronomy was still in its infancy. Many people believed the story. It was the talk of New York and made the newspaper in which it appeared, the New York Sun, a lot of money.
From that he traces the history of fake news to the modern day, taking in a number of examples which most of us will recognize. Fake news has been used to start wars. There can’t be many people who reached adulthood before 20th March 2003 who aren’t aware of this. It was fake news about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that started the war that still shapes our world today. The irony is that a number of people now complaining about fake news online were themselves responsible for spreading that particular piece of disinformation, both people in power, and those whose job it was to supposedly report the news.
Come in Tony Blair, your time is up.
In fact if you were to trace the origins of the current rash of fake news, that particular story would rank very high on the list. How many of us, realizing that we were deliberately lied to in order to start a war that never should’ve happened, can trace our scepticism to that one example? Once you start to disbelieve what the mainstream media is telling you, you’re left with no option but to find other sources. It’s the proliferation of such sources online that has led to our current predicament. How much of is true, and how much is just complete nonsense?
Ian Hislop is an affable and generally reliable informer. The examples he gives range from the ludicrous to the scary. New technology makes it possible to fake former president Obama calling his successor “a total and complete dipshit.” It looks real. It’s fake. We see Hislop performing an elaborate, and very energetic, dance; something he’s almost certainly not able to do in real life. This is down to a face recognition program, downloadable from the Internet, called Deepfake. Anyone with a top-notch gaming computer could reproduce these effects. The implications are worrying. If you can start wars with fake news about weapons of mass destruction, based on crude cut-and-paste research on the Internet, what more could you do with software that can make it look like someone is doing something they’re entirely incapable of?
Another thing he points out is how persistent these stories can be. One example is the famous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a piece of fake news from the first years of the 20th century. It purports to be the minutes of a meeting of Jewish leaders revealing their plan for global domination. It was exposed as a fake by the Times in 1921, which showed that large parts of the text were plagiarized from earlier, mainly fictional, material. The book is still widely believed and disseminated.
One recent example of this was its use by conspiracy theorist David Icke in his 1994 book, Robot’s Rebellion. I interviewed him at the time. If you read the interview, you’ll see I was generally sympathetic. I think this is because he’d been through a very public humiliation at the hands of Terry Wogan and I felt sorry for him. I liked him. In fact, if you watch the Wogan interview you’ll see that Icke is trying his hardest to say nice things. His is a message of love, not hate. It’s only later that he starts regurgitating material which some people have identified as hate speech.
He’s wearing a turquoise tracksuit in the interview, the higher vibrational color of wisdom and love, he says, and he decries black as the color of hate. We all laughed at him for that, but if you watch him on his second Wogan interview, 15 years later, you’ll see he’s dressed in black now, and that no one is laughing at him any more. It could be said that we got the Icke we deserved. Maybe if we had listened with more sympathy and tolerance to his earlier message, he wouldn’t have felt so compelled to inflict his darker fantasies upon us.
What was clear to me doing my interview was that Icke wasn’t an anti-Semite, despite his use of a notorious anti-Semitic forgery. For “Elders of Zion” he said, read “Illuminati,” his own preferred brand of worldwide conspirators in the alleged plot. In fact, he told me, he’d laid his hands on his copy only weeks before the publication of his book and had shoe-horned it into the text on the basis that it confirmed his view of what’s going on in the world. And it’s here that we see the basic problem, not only of Icke’s method, but the whole topography of conspiracy theory itself: confirmation bias.
As Hislop says in his program: “People are more likely to believe a lie if they want it to be true.”
Conspiracies are everywhere, and we’re all subject to confirmation bias. Any two people sitting in a room making plans, which they then keep to themselves, are engaged in a conspiracy. If those people are rich and powerful, chances are the conspiracy will have equally powerful real-world effects. Likewise we all live in a construct, a model of the world, which we have a tendency to reinforce by our prejudices. We seek out the news we want to see. This tendency is amplified by social media companies, whose algorithms direct us to people and news platforms whose purpose seems to be to confirm us in our belief.
We’re all living in conspiracy bubbles of our own making. That’s not to say there’s no such thing as facts, just that the line between fact and fiction has become more porous of late. An example of this is the QAnon conspiracy. This is the very weird idea that there’s a nest of blood-drinking, Satan-worshipping pedophiles in the top levels of government in the United States, who ex-president Trump was dedicated to overthrowing.
Anyone who had read Icke will recognize the plot. It’s not far off the story that he has been promulgating these last 30 years, given an even more surrealist twist by making a narcissistic reality TV show host president of the United States the unlikely hero. You couldn’t make it up: and that’s just the facts.
I read an interesting article about QAnon, by Reed Berkowitz, which I’d also recommend. The writer is a game designer. What he points out is that the QAnon format bears an uncanny resemblance to a particular form of online gaming called Alternate Reality Games, in which people are given clues which they then have to find answers to in the real world. This is exactly what QAnon does. It never lays out the conspiracy overtly: it drops hints and suggestions and urges its followers to seek the answers. The answers, of course, are pre-seeded around the Internet. Google the key words and you’re bound to come up with the expected result. What this does is to reinforce the seekers’ confirmation bias while offering them a reward. The reward is the feeling that they’re on to a secret that other people can’t see. They think of themselves as “researchers” rather than players in a game, but that is effectively what they are. The difference is, they’re not playing the game, the game is playing them.
One troubling aspect is the number of people who are going along with this, or similar online conspiracy tropes, and how quickly their rhetoric mutates into far-right propaganda. If you read Icke, you’ll see his books always start at the same point: the mystical experience in which he perceived himself as the son of the godhead. It’s this claim that had his audience laughing, but it’s a claim that many people make. Having downloaded a series of prophesies direct from their divine source, Icke feels he doesn’t need to justify his conclusions. The facts present themselves to him in the form of coincidences. This is how he came to the understanding that the world is run by dynasties of shape-shifting, reptilian aliens: a tranche of revelations led him to that understanding. It was divinely inspired.
For those of you who think he’s referring to Jews here, and that this is a disguised form of anti-Semitism: chief amongst the bloodlines he refers to are the British Royal family, along with the entire nobility of Europe, as well as the Clintons, the Bushes and a host of other families, most of whom aren’t Jewish. It’s the presence of the Rothschild banking family amongst them which tends to feed the counter-conspiracy notion that this is all a code for Jews. His use of sloppy and unguarded language, and frequent references to “Rothschild Zionists,” doesn’t help.
But this is the problem: whether you think that Icke is personally anti-Semitic or not, the fact is his worldview is a variation on the Nazi-inspired Jewish-Communist conspiracy. It feeds into far-right narratives. Racists, white supremacists and anti-Semites follow him. Identify anyone as not-human, and you are already in dodgy territory. So what are they—demons? That’s exactly what he’s saying. So they deserve to be sacrificed. Naturally.
You also wonder where he gets his material. Someone must have passed him that copy of the Protocols that played such a large part in the construction of his theory; you have to wonder who that might be? Back in 1994 I was very generous in my view of Icke and what he was trying to say. These days I’m more wary.
What all this brings me round to finally is another piece of fake news that has acquired currency: the idea that the British Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, was institutionally anti-Semitic. And this is where we find that targeted propaganda isn’t confined to the darker reaches of the Internet: it’s perpetrated by the establishment, our rulers and their friends in the media, in the full light of day. A lot of attention is given to the obviously false story that Donald Trump is a Christian hero on a mission to rid the world of Democratic Party pedophiles, a lot less to how the establishment are gaming us using exactly the same methods.
Towards the end of his program Hislop admits that the British establishment has told lies. In WWI a Foreign Office department used disinformation as a weapon of war, seeding fake stories of German atrocities around the world. It was called the Department of Information, although its purpose was disinformation, and it was the model for all propaganda agencies since.
Hislop closes this segment with the observation that “The British State no longer runs disinformation campaigns abroad…Or at least so we’re told.” But the British State does run disinformation campaigns at home. An example of this is the so-called “Integrity Initiative,” a secret government-funded operation used to spread disinformation about Jeremy Corbyn during his time as Leader of the Opposition. Ironically the Integrity Initiative’s original purpose was to combat fake news. Combating fake news by perpetrating it.
This wasn’t the only source. Corbyn was smeared from the moment he was elected. He didn’t support the England football team. He was a Czech spy. He was a Marxist. He referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. He thought the death of Osama bin Laden was a tragedy. He stole sandwiches meant for veterans at a Battle of Britain memorial service. He did a jig on his way to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. He didn’t bow his head with the required amount of respect. He didn’t sing the national anthem. And on and on: a heap of lies and distortions, based upon selective readings of things he’d said, and in some cases, on fabricated evidence. Corbyn is by far the most smeared politician in recent British political history. Up to 75 percent of press coverage misrepresented him. Fortunately the British public, in the main, didn’t buy into the narrative.
However, one accusation did stick: that Labour under Corbyn was institutionally anti-Semitic. The attack was sustained and it was relentless, and came from every part of the media, from Jewish organisations and from opponents in his party. Sometimes it was based on no more than insults as, for example, the time when Margaret Hodge called Corbyn “a fucking anti-Semite and a racist” in the House of Commons. She offered no proof, gave no sources, didn’t justify her attack, yet the episode became front-page news and sealed the idea in the British imagination that the Labour Party was a hotbed of anti-Semitic prejudice, with Corbyn as its cheerleader. This is despite the fact that a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into anti-Semitism in the UK in 2016 found "no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party."
Repeat an accusation often enough and it becomes true. This is a tactic straight out of the QAnon playbook. The mere accusation is enough to fix the idea in the public mind. Likewise, the very act of denying the accusation can be read as proof of its veracity. When Corbyn tried to defend himself, after the Equality and Human Rights Commission report said that Labour broke the law by failing to stamp out anti-Jewish racism, that was taken as evidence of his anti-Semitism, and he was suspended. Since then hundreds of Labour Party members, some of them Jewish, have also been suspended in his wake for expressing support.
It’s an ongoing issue, with arguments and counter-arguments. The Wikipedia entry on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party runs to 17,000 words. The EHRC report is 130 pages long and is itself subject to criticism. The debate is far from over. But one thing’s clear: the argument is one that rages within the Jewish community itself, between those who support the state of Israel, and those who oppose it, and its adoption by large segments of the British establishment, in order to undermine one politician, is itself an example of an anti-Semitic trope: the idea that within the Jewish community there is a single, monolithic opinion that can be invoked whenever the actions of the State of Israel are brought into question.
Is it fake news? Should Hislop have included it in his program? I think so.