Wandering around Salisbury in a hazmat suit, supposedly to spoil the World Cup
In Merchants of Doubt, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, the authors demonstrate how the science concerning the carcinogenic effects of smoking and the existence of anthropogenic global warming was called into question by a cabal of Cold War scientists who were not experts in either area. They didn’t do this gratuitously; they were paid to do so. This was part of a strategy by vested interests, to whit the tobacco industry and Big Oil, to defer worldwide belief in these concepts, namely that smoking kills you and that we are all responsible for climate change and need to do something about it.
In both cases (and the book cites others), the strategy was to sow the seeds of doubt by denying the value of the work of those who had spent professional careers researching these subjects. As soon as a counter narrative exists, the media feel it is their duty to give it some exposure in the interests of balance. It doesn’t matter that 95% of people feel that A is the truth, the opinion of the 5% clinging to B still needs to be reported. The media normally fails to report these percentages, largely because they are unknown. Nor does it divide up its articles proportionately between the two points of view, even if one is largely predominant.
This is an ideal situation for the purveyors of the counter narrative. It means that no matter how ludicrous their thesis, it will still probably be reported and will thus appear to have a weight that is completely disproportionate to its veracity. In the USA, there are places that have tried to force schools to give an equal amount of their curriculum over to creationist theories as they do to teaching evolution. One theory is based on a tangible fossil record, the other on religious mumbo jumbo. You will remember that there were periods in history where you could be put to death for believing that the Earth was a globe, or that that globe was not the centre of the universe. Vested interests will always struggle to maintain their power.
The sowing of doubt to influence events has become something of an art form of late. The idea is to make it as hard as possible to arrive at the truth by fabricating a web of untruths. The more, the better. Thus, the truth becomes only one of a number of possible explanations for events or experience. The more explanations or theses you can generate, the more completely you can hide the truth. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how unsubstantiated your thesis, its mere utterance immediately gives it a certain threshold credibility which then requires it to be examined.
Donald Trump is a past master at this. He will voice any inanity, totally devoid of any substantiation, as an unassailable fact. One example of this was the amount of people who attended his inauguration, which he claimed was greater than for any president in history. This was palpable nonsense and was indeed highly unlikely from the off as both he and Hilary Clinton were extremely unpopular presidential candidates. The Americans voted for whomever they hoped was the lesser of two evils. Ahem. Nonetheless, you can be sure that a large proportion of his supporters believes this travesty of history. The mere fact of his inventing it has called this narrative into being. And then, of course, column inches and effort have to be dedicated to demonstrating it to be pure fallacy. Most people won’t be bothered to invest this effort to reappraise what they were initially told. And thus, the lie takes root.
Russia has adopted the same strategy. Indeed, who is to say that Trump isn’t following some pre-agreed strategy which may even have had some Russian input? Russia will flatly deny any accusation of wrongdoing and immediately supply an alternative explanation, devoid of facts, to counter it. No, there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. No, Russia did nothing to speed the annexation of Crimea. Russians had nothing to do with the downing of the Malaysian airliner by Ukrainian separatists in 2014, and Russia once again had nothing to do with the attempted murder of the ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia attempts to influence international opinion by supplying farcical theses, based on thin air. Never mind that Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent that Russia invented and only Russia produced; never mind that they had a motive as Skripal had betrayed them in the past. No, according to Russia, the likely culprits are the British themselves who have attempted to smear Russia (as if this was necessary) by spreading a nerve agent around an affluent cathedral city. You couldn’t make it up, except that you could, if you are the Russian government.
And then, like the balanced media, Jeremy Corbyn jumps in to give Russia the benefit of the doubt. There is no proof, he claims, that Russia is to blame. Where is the smoking gun? Well, of course, without Putin actually admitting to the crime, he has a point. But then Al Capone was never jailed for being a Mafioso boss; he was put away for tax fraud. That’s all they could get him on because he made sure that his prints were on nothing that could be pinned on him. Are we to suppose that Capone was wronged and that he was a normal citizen who filled in his tax returns poorly? The Panama Papers made it abundantly clear that Putin is a kleptocrat who has stolen billions from the Russian people. That’s dollars, not roubles. But his name appears nowhere in the Panama Papers. It’s just that all his close childhood friends are now billionaires, such as the cellist Sergei Roldugin, whereas he, as head of the Russian state for years, has, apparently, never made a bean. Indeed. In the face of such brazen mendacity, why would you believe anything he says? Why would you give him the benefit of any doubt?
In the internet age, it has never been easier to spread propaganda. Anyone can write lies on Facebook or Twitter and have them disseminated all over the globe in minutes. Remember, you don’t have to prove your point, you only have to articulate it. You will immediately appeal to anyone who thinks that your utterances are the gospel truth per se, or anyone who has a beef with those who are presenting the opposite point of view. Through its mere articulation, your story immediately achieves a sort of credence with a large number of people. And you can get more professional about this. You can create a “trolling factory” with employees to invest and infect social media to boost false narratives, such as the Russians organised in St. Petersburg. You can take out carefully targeted adverts on internet sites, especially if you have managed to steal a sizeable chunk of personal data previously. You can start a propaganda TV channel, like Russia Today, and pay venal celebrities to appear on it to give you credibility.
Naturally, people aren’t completely stupid; they suspect that something is afoot. But people are lazy, and they won’t be bothered to find out what. They will default to the simple “We can’t know the truth” or “You can’t trust so-called experts”. This is the ultimate cop-out. What it means is that as soon as some spurious counter-narrative is produced to explain events, it gains as much credence as the truth. Part of the problem is that people no longer want to pay for professionals to establish the truth. Who reads papers these days? Who actually pays to consult their websites? Far cheaper to just get your news from anyone who has a vested interest in shouting loudly and putting it on social media. Organs with hundreds of years of history behind them are suddenly no more credible than the first idiot to tweet. And of course, those self-same organs are also guilty of always going after the story, rather than coldly presenting facts in depth.
You might be told that road deaths decreased by 5% last year, the inference being that whatever repressive techniques the government is employing to “calm traffic”, they are working. Well, they may be, but how can you know, unless the paper or TV also supplies graphs showing the decline in road deaths over at least a decade, and correlates this with miles driven, cars on the road, and improved passive safety measures built into cars? The truth is complicated. It needs examination. You don’t get to it in a soundbite. Even supposing the graphs were supplied, how many people would be capable of interpreting them, and how many of those would be sufficiently interested to bother? Brexit was a case in point. You just plaster a bus with a big number supposedly being paid to the EU and pretend that if Britain wasn’t a member, it would all be spent on hospitals instead. You can rely on the fact that most people won’t bother to ask, what, in that case, was going to happen to all the deprived areas that were beneficiaries of EU money?
No. Far simpler to say that you can’t trust the experts, that no one knows and think about something else entirely or start another game of Candy Crush (assuming that anyone still plays it). So, if it suits your agenda to make up any old bullshit, get it out there. You can rely on people’s apathy and willingness not to interrogate their pre-conceived ideas to believe it.