The Danger of Disinformation and the Rise of Ochlocracy
As an increasingly dangerous threat to society, guest blogger Alessandro Gagaridis, takes a closer look at disinformation, fake news and the rise of mob rule, or ‘ochlocracy’ as it’s also known.
Disinformation is widely recognised as one of the most prominent threats to the preservation of sound and stable democratic societies. The phenomenon is nothing new: The intentional diffusion of selective, misreported or outright false information to deceive and manipulate the target audience for political purposes is a recurrent trope throughout History; and it has become more and more frequent as technological innovation made available new and more effective means of communications like printed newspapers, the radio, television and lastly the internet. Like twin brothers, disinformation and information developed together, the former being the shady and twisted side of the latter; often employed to fuel and justify repression, persecution, genocide and other nefarious acts.
Following this historical trajectory, disinformation has reached its climax with the diffusion of the internet. In a digital age of widespread access to the web, social networks and instant messaging, news can spread across the entire world within hours or even less – no matter whether they are accurate, partially true or utter fabrications.
In the vast, ever-changing and largely uncontrolled cyberspace, false information and ‘fake news’ have proliferated; and disinformation as a method to influence public opinion has become a favourite tool of extremist political groups, terrorists and autocratic governments to spread their views and promote their interests – with detrimental effects for the well-being of democratic societies. This has sparked an intense public debate on how to best counter disinformation and contain its effects, which has, in turn, resulted in multiple expressions being used in reference to it. These are epitomized by the much-used but poorly-defined terms ‘hybrid warfare’ and ‘hybrid threats’ – buzzwords whose legitimacy, consistency and intellectual rigour are dubious. Yet, as much as governments are concerned over the destabilizing activities of external state and non-state actors, the greatest danger lies within.
Nowadays, virtually any aspect of political and social life is subject to disinformation. Elections, diplomacy, finance, military operations, terrorism and other domains are all affected by disinformation; be it the result of an organized campaign by a central authority or the by-product of crowd-sourced rumours disseminated throughout the world via tweets and Facebook posts. The ongoing COVID19 pandemic, by itself a merely scientific phenomenon, became almost immediately the object of unfounded (and often completely absurd) conspiracy theories that spread faster than the virus itself across the cyberspace – and then to the minds of users (‘netizens’).
The disinformation process consists of four essential elements. The first is the source, the actor who initially creates and then diffuses the disinforming message for reasons that range from state-to-state destabilisation attempts to militants supporting a given political-philosophical view – often an extremist or conspiracy-based one. The second is the message itself; a given set of selective, distorted and/or made-up facts aimed at influencing the perception of the target audience. The third is the vector, by which the message is spread to the intended public. The fourth and last component is the target audience itself, the final recipients of disinformation, those whose hearts and minds are to be manipulated by the disinformation attempt.
Countering disinformation implies acting upon these four aspects, but in today’s ever-connected world – and especially in democratic societies – three of them become almost impossible to affect.
Addressing the source presents various problems, as in many (if not most) cases it is not clearly traceable. This may be due to the presence of multiple sources, to masking measures to avoid identification or simply to the fact that it vanishes in the sheer mass of ‘background noise’ it generates. Consequently, the source is often out of range.
It may be even impossible to eliminate because of jurisdictional and practical reasons, as in the case of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Finally, once a piece of false information is released and starts circulating it is already too late to tackle the source; except to stop its activity and avoid further disinformation.
Acting upon the vector is equally challenging. Today, the most common – and powerful – mean of disseminating false information is undoubtedly the internet. To quote a famous line from the iconic cyberpunk animated film Ghost in the Shell, ‘The Net vast and infinite’: Due to the web’s open nature, it is impossible to control it and how information spreads.
As for the message itself, it can hardly be eliminated once it reaches the internet, since the reposts of thousands of users scattered all over the world ensure its propagation by giving it the ability to reproduce and perpetuating itself. And while it is possible to counter it by presenting correct and verifiable information, this requires a complex and time-consuming deconstruction (‘debunking’) effort which would probably arrive too late as the beliefs of the audience may have already changed; possibly even to the point of constituting what cognitive psychology calls ‘core beliefs’, the fundamental and hard-to-change frameworks shaping a person’s perception of the world.
Moreover, in democratic societies (and here is why they are especially vulnerable) there are considerable legal concerns about removing – and therefore censoring – information, even when it is inaccurate or false. As much as this twisted information is harmful to a democratic society, acting through censorship conflicts with the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and information which are at the basis of democracy; and is legally possible only in the most extreme cases like terrorist propaganda. Paradoxically, the open nature of democracy makes it vulnerable to disinformation and makes it almost powerless against it.
As such, only the audience remains. While it is not easy to leverage on the target public of disinformation, constituted by a large de-centralised mass of people, it still remains the best choice because anti-disinformation measures can reach it with relatively more ease and with greater effectiveness. One of the most frequently used terms when discussing how to properly address a given threat is ‘resilience’, the structural capacity to withstand a dangerous contingency. This concept can – and should – be applied to anti-disinformation policies as well, and even become their cornerstone.
To understand why it is necessary to consider the nature of democracy and of a democratic polity. The word ‘democracy’ comes from Ancient Greek, and is composed of demos (‘people’) and kratos (‘rule’). Plato and Aristotle considered it as one of the three possible forms of governments together with monarchy and aristocracy. Yet, in the Hellenistic Era, Polybius coined another term to describe the degenerated form of democratic rule: ochlocracy. This word, whose etymology derives from ochlos (‘mob’), indicates the rule by the instinct-driven crowd.
Just like information and disinformation, these two terms are the juxtaposed faces of the same medal, with ochlocracy being the degenerated form of democracy which arises when the people fall prey of the misleading statements of demagogues and consequently stops exerting power autonomously on the basis of its own self-aware judgement. The most striking example is probably the First French Republic in 1793-1794 when the ideals of the Revolution slipped into the Terror instigated by Robespierre. Historical examples aside, the distinction between democracy and ochlocracy, in spite of being more than 2,000 years old, it still of fundamental importance. The reason is that democracy is as good as the demos constituting it. And unfortunately, our society is degenerating from democracy to ochlocracy; because our demos – largely due to its own inaction – is slipping into intellectual atrophy, therefore turning into an ochlos exposed to the dangers of disinformation.
The fundamental reason why this is happening can be reconducted to an ultimate conclusion: With increasingly alarming frequency, people are no longer exercising doubt and critical thinking. This is partly the failure of governments – via the education system – to train people since the youngest age to exert these two mental faculties that play a crucial role in countering disinformation; and part is the consequence of an intellectual impoverishment deriving from the combination of stresses and comforts of the contemporary world, the former exhausting people’s energies and the latter offering culturally-poor entertainment that frequently results into mental passivity and does not stimulate active autonomous thought. In the words of Ray Bradbury, the famous American writer best known for the anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451, “The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. […] Everything just falls off your mind.” We never had so much knowledge at our immediate disposal as we have today, and yet ignorance is prevailing; all because of the inability to practice critical discernment and scepticism (a word derived from skeptomai, ‘to think, to question, to enquire’).
This incapacity is at the root of the menace posed by disinformation, but at the same time, it is also the key to mitigate its deleterious effects. The reason is that the best defence against disinformation is prevention; which implies making the demos resilient to its threat. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, our citizens need the intellectual instruments to recognize that the shadows projected on the wall are nothing but an apparent reality, its deformed and void representation; and on the basis of this self-realization, to break free from their chains, escape their dungeon and see the truth in the actual world. The demos can be designated as such only if it is composed of well-instructed citizens, for a person is a ‘citizen’ only if he/she is self-aware and educated.
And here comes another fundamental point: Rather than waiting for top-down policies, the demos need to save itself. If it does not awake and regains its own self-consciousness, it will inevitably cease to be a well- functioning demos and therefore to exert its democratic sovereignty. People must escape the intellectual atrophy of passively listening to information provided by others and embark in an active quest to seek knowledge. They must learn and think, inform themselves, critically assess information and then formulate their opinion, express their judgement and take conscious decisions – especially, but not exclusively, when casting their votes and assessing political matters. Only in this way, our societies will become resilient and capable of resisting disinformation, which at that point would largely lose their effectiveness.
The danger lies within, and the matter is becoming even more urgent as advances in new technologies like artificial intelligence enable the creation of ‘deep fakes’ – forged but seemingly- real mediatic material. Technology should be the driving force of progress, but if we continue along this path it risks to become the vector of false beliefs and pave the way for a perverse technology- disinformation nexus, thus raising the serious risk of plunging into an ‘Age of Disinformation’ and wicked techno-obscurantism where technology becomes the vector employed to undermine our democratic society by corrupting its basis, the demos itself. And if the demos fall, democracy falls with it.
Written by Alessandro Gagaridis
27th April 2020
See more from Alessandro: http://www.strategikos.it/