What seems yonks ago, I excused my failure to engage with the harm being reeked via the COVID narrative by way of a self-centred concern about what people might think of my doubts. I got over the feeling or did I? In the last few months, I’ve found myself in danger of being in the same place re the Ukraine. All the more so as commenting on what were initially fast-moving events felt pompous and pretentious. Now we are 120 days in. There’s something about offering your thoughts on what’s going on in the world that suggests you are some sort of self-styled expert or a tiresome anorak, who has too much time on their hands; or someone, who is detached from everyday existence yet claims to understand it better; or indeed someone, who is deep up their own rectum.
No doubt I do spend too much time prostrate before the computer, suffering the relentless assault on my thoughts waged by the powerful before searching assiduously for alternative interpretations. In both cases, I try as best I can to be both critical of the competing sources and content, self-critical in terms of my own history, assumptions and prejudices. I try not to be a useful idiot in anyone’s pocket.
Outside of this political obsession, strange, though, it may seem, I do have other interests and concerns, many of them very ordinary. I was going to say normal but the word has latterly taken on a different emphasis. It is said to require capital letters, the New Normal, towards which we are being propelled – a world of increased surveillance and control for ‘our own good’. To think in terms of a return to lower-case normal is perceived as backward, whilst believing that perhaps there might be a liberating future Abnormal, within which the world is turned upside down, is scoffed at as mere utopianism.
And ordinary normal is. of course, contradictory. It is an expression of accommodation and resistance to the capitalist imperative, to relations of power. It can be both, at one and the same time, lifeless or lively. It is what on the ground makes the world go round. Thus in the last few weeks, to my astonishment I’ve celebrated with some caution my birthday in our beautiful garden, wallowing in the unique sound created by Maria Manousaki and the Hot Club de Grece – wonderful musicians confined to barracks for most of the last two years. Folk evidently enjoyed themselves. At the same time, I’ve observed believers in masks and social distancing, given the green light by the authority to whom they have been obedient, returning to some semblance of sense, casting off the muzzles, hugging one another, yearning to be human. I’ve accompanied Glyka, our ageing dog, morn and eve, on her leisurely and olfactory rambling, never a smell to be ignored. What tales she could tell. And, true to my long-standing athletic obsession, I’ve continued, aching joints aside, to walk, cycle and occasionally run along the olive-lined lanes beyond our house with only the bleating sheep and gymnastic goats for company. And, I continue to sing, of a fashion.
Our John, my son, is well-known for his frustrated turn of phrase, ‘it’s doing my head in’ when faced with the welter of contradictions life throws up. I share his exasperation. One minute we are told we are fighting a war against a life-threatening and cunning virus. Yet, in the time it takes to be jabbed, the advocates of COVID’s deadliness beat a tactical retreat. In the next moment, it’s said we are fighting a war against a demonic and cunning dictator. For now, a tragic stalemate hangs over the Ukraine. Almost seamlessly one tortured narrative of intertwined fear and anxiety, intertwined compassion and intolerance replicates the other. Rainbow NHS logos are replaced on Facebook by the colours of the Ukrainian flag. How many of those signalling their virtue defended the NHS against privatisation or indeed had until yestermonth not a clue about Ukraine’s whereabouts, never mind its turbulent history and politics. To question the unanimity of the orchestrated consensus around COVID or Ukraine, being relayed 24/7 everywhere from the supermarket to the sports stadium, is to expose oneself as an anti-vaxx conspirator or a Putin pawn. Or as the favoured fatuous and contemptuous dismissal of doubt goes, ‘don’t you care, people are dying?’ In some mysterious way, those signing up to the dominant orthodox narrative are touched with a sensitivity to the human condition denied to those of a marginal heterodox disposition. Only the former really care. Only they shed tears of authentic concern. As for analysis or indeed its conspicuous absence, I am told with a patronising sigh, empty of any meaning, that the world is crazy, more specifically to clinch the argument that it’s all down to Putin being a deranged narcissist. To be sure he’s mightily fond of himself and yet……
A simple Manichean scenario is proposed. Good is battling with Evil so what to do but side with the Good? Case closed, debate rendered superfluous. Forgive the repetition, to chat critically is regarded as deviant.
Yet, to an inquiring mind, aren’t there reasonable questions.?
- Is it possible to grasp the contemporary situation in the Ukraine without an informed feel for a country’s turbulent history, which, as best I can see, is far from that of a freedom-loving democracy?
- Was the dramatic 2014 change of government in the Ukraine an emancipatory ‘velvet’ revolutionary happening or an orchestrated anti-Russian coup supported by the CIA with the involvement of influential Far Right/Nazi forces?
- Isn’t it stretching things to see the USA/NATO configuration as defensive and benign? Back in 2019 the Rand Corporation, widely regarded as the most influential think tank in North America, partially funded by the USA government itself, published a report entitled, Overextending and Unbalancing Russia, which argues a range of options necessary to keeping Russia in its place when it comes to the World Order. Is it ridiculous somehow to suggest that the USA/NATO military alliance appears to have been edging ever closer to encircling Russia with all its possible consequences?
- Of course, my questions reveal a deep-rooted suspicion of the motives of American imperialism that dates back to Chile and Vietnam. Given the USA’s track record of blatant, oft barbaric interventions into the affairs of countries far from its shores, to mention only Libya and Iraq and its history of pursuing regime change whatever the cost, I do feel nauseous faced with the stench of hypocrisy emanating from the White House, the Houses of Parliament, the National Assembly, the Bundestag or its namesakes. None of this excuses Moscow’s aggression but it refutes the right of any party involved to be claiming the moral high ground.
Now, if anyone of import, perhaps one of either an ‘influencer’ or a fact-checker had the slightest interest in my observations I might well be outed as a purveyor of misinformation and/or disinformation. As I understand it, if I’m misinforming you it’s down to me getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. It’s a matter of ignorance or stupidity. If I’m disinforming you I am deliberately leading you astray up the proverbial garden path. It’s calculated deceit.
At this very moment, the European Union has published guidelines. entitled 2022 Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation.
“Disinformation related to the coronavirus crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine clearly show that we need stronger tools to fight online disinformation. [Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency]
It was very tempting to presume the code of practice was bureaucratic bollocks and be done with it. To my credit, eternal or otherwise, I downloaded and started to read. Forgive me, but I didn’t get to the end, the 48th page of painstaking instructions to relevant and compliant signatories. Not least indeed because it was in fact bureaucratic and disingenuous bollocks. Conspicuous by its absence was any definition of what constitutes disinformation. That is, apart from this really helpful explanation – ‘Disinformation, which for the rest of the Code is considered to include misinformation, disinformation information influence operations and foreign interference in the information space.’ However, do not fear, tucked away in a cascade of footnotes is to be found the following. ‘the notion of “Disinformation” does not include misleading advertising, reporting errors, satire and parody, or clearly identified partisan news and commentary, and is without prejudice to binding legal obligations, self-regulatory advertising codes, and standards regarding misleading advertising.” Fair enough I might be short of a few slices to fill a sandwich but, at first glance, I’m none the wiser. Isn’t all of this a contradictory mess? Of course, I’m being naive, this is the name of the game – creating confusion rather than clarity, being opaque as opposed to being transparent.
Other officious initiatives are also muddying the waters. In the UK we find something called ‘the counter-disinformation unit,’ set up by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. The task of this unit is to identify ‘misinformation’ and then liaise with social media companies to make sure this content is removed. It appears all it takes for the unit to brand something as ‘misinformation’ and press the tech companies to censor, is that its staff find the content therein to be ‘inappropriate.’ I’ll resist lapsing into obscenity. This is banal and ludicrous – inappropriate in what sense? Over in the USA, the Biden administration put in place what it called a ‘Disinformation Board’, housed inside the Department of Homeland Security. Glenn Greenwald, dissident lawyer and commentator asked, under what circumstances is a domestic law enforcement agency allowed to decide what is true or false? Politico’s Jack Schafer wrote:
Who among us thinks the government should add to its work list the job of determining what is true and what is disinformation? And who thinks the government is capable of telling the truth? Our government produces lies and disinformation at an industrial scale and always has. It overclassifies vital information to block its own citizens from becoming any the wiser. It pays thousands of press aides to play hide the salami with facts….
In the event, the draconian initiative, following a vociferous backlash, is now ‘on pause’.
Over in New Zealand Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM), a research group that receives Centre of Research Excellence government funding came up with the notion of ‘dangerous speech’, rhetoric that is a threat to us all. In essence, this catch-all concoction sought to silence any criticism of Jacinda Arden’s Zero-Covid policies. To return to the EU the bottom line of its Code of Practice is the necessity to cut off funding to what it deems to be ‘malicious actors’. Its goal is to demonetise dissident opinion. In terms of doing any disinforming not a single word of criticism is aimed at the mainstream or ‘legacy’ media. Not a single dilemma is raised about the financial and ideological control imposed on the mainstream by a handful of billionaire capitalists.
When push comes to shove ‘disinformation’ is whatever state or corporate power decides is at odds with their version of the truth. All else is ‘fake news’ – a meaningless construct if ever there was one.
The hardly hidden objective is to buttress government pronouncements and their sustenance by the mainstream media while systematically curtailing freedom of expression and critical analysis wherever it rears its awkward and annoying head. Obviously too it desires to prevent grass-roots financial support for dissent.
As to how we monitor what is right or wrong, a self-evidently simple task, the EU has the answer. It is the supposedly independent International Fact-Checking Network set up by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Amongst its impartial funders are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, along with Omidyar Network. With this army of fact-checking journalists, Jack and Jills of one trade, masters and mistresses of none collaborating with Facebook, Google and company in defence of the truth, we can rest easy in our beds.
Enough is enough for now. I am weary from trying to keep up with the many sides of what’s going on. In the end, I am left thinking that I need return to what is meant by propaganda. How this concept relates to the discourse of ‘informations’? Not so long ago Propaganda Studies was a recognised field of intellectual and political exploration. It sought to scrutinise the contesting opinions on offer in the public sphere.Today this method of inquiry is rendered redundant by the rise of an army of ‘disinformation graduates and scholars’ whose raison d’etre is to define the boundaries of debate in accord with what is acceptable to the ruling class and its minions. I will endeavour to pursue.