Lying: An Industry

The digital turn gave rumors a technological boost. It is no longer necessary to meet someone in the café and whisper things in his or her ear. The Internet combines the durability of the written word with the anonymity of oral culture. The monster thus produced has undermined the very notion of truth, replacing it with something that is better described as post-truth.

In November 2016, the EU Parliament voted a resolution to counter Russian propaganda. Putin’s reaction was immediate: he said that Western mentors had been repeating for decades that censoring information goes against democracy, and what do we see now? It is the EU Parliament itself that calls upon banning dissenting voices. Thus pluralism of opinions and open discussion, which were once used by the West against communist Moscow, seem all of a sudden to become arms of Putin’s authoritarian regime.

So how does such “pluralism” operate? A couple of days before, Russia Today published an information “from a reliable source” that a passage had been added to the mentioned resolution, according to which Orthodox Christianity was becoming too influential world-wide, thus the EU should start fighting against it. Pro-Russian media in Bulgaria immediately retranslated the news in utter indignation, stating that even under Ottoman slavery Orthodoxy was not banned, and that European bureaucracy wants to oppose Bulgaria to its historic friend and protector, Russia. The lie was taken up by social networks, web-trolls, and political activists, and brought to a crescendo.

Curiously enough, the principle “If you lie to me once—shame on you, if you lie to me twice—shame on me,” no longer seems to apply. The same indignation machine was put in motion to scare Bulgarians by leaking information about the plans of the EU to prohibit tripe-soup, distillation of brandy, and even traditional dancing, for the supposed risk of spraining one’s ankles. The more some liberal intelligentsia tries to denounce such scoops, the worse it is, as people simply detest those educated haughty people they call “elites.”

If you think this is but an exotic phenomenon in a peripheral country, consider the election of Donald Trump, based on shameless lies (like the serious illness of Hillary Clinton) going in fact as far as declaring her dead mid-campaign. Some of these stories were leaked by Russian sources, others by right-wing media like Fox, yet others by the supposed whistleblowers of WikiLeaks; they were then exaggerated and amplified by naive users of social networks, web agitators, and trolls.

The indignation machine has become part of everyday life in politics, it does not even astonish us. The primaries of the French right in November were almost naturally accompanied by the rumor that Muslims allegedly organized to support the candidate “Ali” Juppé, known for being more temperate on cultural topics: it mobilized the right-wing hard-liners to vote for his opponent. Similarly, no Bulgarian voter was surprised when copies of a supposedly falsified diploma of the candidate Tzatcheva started circulating the web. Lies have become a part of normal life of modern societies. I mean, lies have always accompanied politics, but for the first time we seem to be at such a loss about them.

Under communism, rumors were used by the secret services to discredit dissidents, but not only. Consider the semi-serious legend that the dictator Zhivkov would be in fact the illegitimate child of the last King Boris III. Or that the fortune-teller Vanga had prophesized that the 21st century will be dominated by the Slavs, i.e. Russians and their allies. Too good to be true, isn’t it? It is difficult nowadays to find out to how such stories spread around: to what extend there was a centralized decision, and to what individuals, maybe jokingly, furthered such stories. Consider it from a semiotic point of view: the rumor about the department of rumors—a vicious circle with no way out.

The digital turn gave rumors a technological boost. It is no longer necessary to meet someone in the café and whisper things in his or her ear: you upload the story with a simple gesture, then it can circulate around the web forever, immortal and indestructible. The Internet combines the durability of the written word with the anonymity of oral culture. The monster thus produced has undermined the very notion of truth, replacing it with something that is better described in aesthetic categories like plausibility, emotional impact, viral potential. No wonder the Oxford dictionary society declared the word of 2016 to be post-truth.

Modern societies counter the eroding influence of non-institutional knowledge in three ways. The oldest way is censorship, as it is done in China, where you risk up to 3 years in jail if your false piece of news is clicked 5000 times or retweeted by 500 followers. Developed democracies invest in prestigious national institutions like academies or public media (e.g. the British BBC) that would be an impartial arbiter in controversial matters. Finally, a new development is the strategy adopted by regimes like Putin’s: not to contain, but actually to boost post-truth by actively multiplying false stories until the audience is utterly confused, leaving the leader do what he thinks best.

The first two strategies are problematic nowadays. Censorship is ever more difficult to carry out in a world of intense global exchange, but also because it is practically impossible to control the Internet. Moreover, prohibitions actually enhance rumors, as an important part of them is denouncing authorities and demystifying official information.

As to impartial national institutions, they are suffering an unprecedented collapse of trust. The press can serve as an example. Three quarters of UK citizens no longer trust traditional media; almost half in Germany have been persuaded around the events in Cologne that the Lűgenpresse (lying press) is hiding something because of the so-called political correctness. As to Bulgaria, a tiny 12% think media are free and objective—down from 17% in 2015. There are various reasons for this catastrophic development that touches parliaments, courts, universities, and so on. Maybe the least discussed is the aspect pointed out by Frances Fukuyama: authority declines because of transparency. People see how things function and do not like it. Let me put it this way: trust implies secret and distance, and in the digital world all mystery of authority is gone.

The third strategy seems to be the winning one, as if it was based on Nietzsche’s principle: Was fällt, das soll man auch noch stoßen (“That which is falling should also be pushed”). If there is no way to stop lying, let us lie more than they do. The new propaganda is not based on censorship but proliferation, from Bulgaria to the UK and from Russia to the US it consists in amplifying digital entropy and thus making reasonable civil action and resistance meaningless.

The technique essentially redirects attention from an inconvenient political critique towards some passionate story provoking indignation. Say, put under pressure for not carrying out of the promised reforms, the last right wing Bulgarian government would all of a sudden vote for a law prohibiting burqas, deemed to be a serious threat to national security, even if such type of head-cover is practically non-existent in the country. In other cases they will start demolishing illegal Roma houses or starting a criminal investigation of some minister of the former government. This is the world of electronic media: the new message wipes out the previous one; keeping a memory is too much of an effort for the consumer of infotainment.

But there is more to it. Besides the new forms of “hybrid” propaganda acting in concert with the distorted image of the world produced by filter bubbles in social networks, there is a real industry that has emerged: the industry of lying. The first person to use paid Internet trolls was Milošević, who in the 1990s employed young people to enter discussion forums and defend the Serbian cause. Today this is a trivial way to earn some money for my students: some work for political parties, others write fake customer reviews, yet others glorify an individual sponsor. Here, too, is man replaced by machines and you can buy Internet robots by the thousands to like, rate, and even produce opinions on various topics. Having shattered the advertising industry, such devices nowadays are ever more undermining the notion of public opinion.

Here are some examples. The Italian Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo is secretly connected to a complex network of seemingly independent sites that produce the raw material of populism: indignation. For instance one of them, called TzeTze, regularly argues that the refugee crisis is not about people escaping war, but a strategy of the US to destroy Europe; this particular revelation has been taken from the Russian Sputnik. A similar network of sites and media is to be found in Bulgaria, converging around the businessman and politician Delyan Peevski. He is called “Mr. Who?” because his property is hidden behind various off-shore companies and men of straw. The technique consists in launching a fabrication from one source and than reiterating it throughout the network, creating thus a wave-effect (for instance: the leader of the liberal right Radan Kanev does not travel to the US in order to discuss politics, but has a secret homosexual lover there, hidden from his wife).

NPR managed to lay hands on the biggest fake-news entrepreneur in the US for an interview, Justin Coler. Having created Disinformedia in 2013, today he runs 25 sites, earning 10 000 to 30 000 dollars a month, with advertisers queuing for his service. According to Coler, he started producing fake news in order to expose falsehood in the traditional media and help people get out of their filter-bubbles. Then he found out that right-wing users are eager for his stuff and forward it like mad. So he, a registered Democrat, started to produce stories to be consumed by potential Trump voters. For example, the story about the mysterious murders around the Clinton family was entirely invented by him.

Even stranger than that: lying industries are nowadays outsourced, as it is done with call centers or computer services. Who do you think invented the shocking story about Michelle Obama being a man? Of Hillary pedophile? It is hard to believe. The web sites were based in the cozy Macedonian town Veles, where, as the BBC reporter was told, as many as 200 people make their living off the new industry, beyond legal control and taxation, possibly working for larger global networks. If Veles fights on Trump’s side, could there be doubt he will win? To make it even more surrealist, it turns out that some of the stories are invented by 16-17 year old boys, who say that besides money, they run the sites for fun, as there is nothing to do in this dull province.

Three possible endings to this depressing story:

Nietzschean. We resign ourselves to the view that there are no facts, only interpretations. The strong ones destroy the week ones, the stronger among the strong destroy the weaker among the strong and so on, until humanity is no more.

Socialist. States re-nationalize media and start controlling the production of knowledge by licensed operators.

Liberal. Media information is regulated the way advertisements were in the early years of modern capitalism. Fake news come with a warning: this story has been produced for your entertainment, not for your information. Please consume with care.

Ivaylo Ditchev

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He has been teaching abroad, mainly in France and the USA. He is also an editor of the journal for cultural studies Seminar BG.

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