The manifestation of what has been termed a 21st-century ‘information disorder’ is not without a precursor. Disinformation has featured in human communication since Antony met Cleopatra. Octavian waged an information campaign against Antony using short, snappy slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets. Octavian hacked the republican system once and for all and became the first Roman Emperor through misinformation. The Gutenberg printing press followed in 1493 and amplified the dissemination of disinformation. By 2016, Trump deployed the phrase “Fake News” for the first time and changed the world for ever.
The notion of a Ministry of Truth popularized by George Orwell in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is responsible for every necessary falsification of facts. The Public Administration of Misinformation requires the Ministry to manufacture truth by doctoring accounts to reflect a government-approved version of events. One of the three slogans emblazoned high on the façade of the Ministry proclaims: Ignorance is Strength.
Below the Ministry of Truth are memory holes. Here, documents are redacted, repainted, varnished and others vanish. Those that are retained paint the past with the starry brush of van Gogh’s surrealism. These memory holes are devoted to: inconvenient truths, Facebook pages, embarrassing documents, salacious photographs, Instagram messages, Tweets, websites, emails, documentaries on Netflix, taped conversations, payments to women for silence, sealed court cases and other archival material.
Oscar Wilde, in his essay The Decay of Lying observed that “life imitates art” and so it is not unusual that the Orwellian Ministry of Truth has foreshadowed the Troll Farms and Web Brigades of today. Everywhere we turn we are ensnared by the falsification of facts and we are presented with perspectives that make us wonder whether accounts are simply Untrue or Post-Truth.
The indictment prepared by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III unravels the actions of the St. Petersburg Troll Factory, operating at No. 55 Savushkina Street, Russia. The building is an unremarkable four storey concrete edifice next to an apartment complex. The company that operated there was named the Internet Research Agency. Mueller alleges that the function of the agency was to create troll accounts to stir up trouble and “sow discord” in the political system and to address divisive issues via groups and pages unfaithfully claiming to represent US activists.
Troll Factories and Web Brigades are new well feathered industries. They are the new Ministry of Truth tasked to perform the Orwellian function of falsification. The St. Petersburg factory had hundreds of operatives and a monthly budget of $1.25 million dollars with cross border infrastructure. The factory worked every single second of each day.
Lifting the “sow discord” slogan out of Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pay Pal and Instagram have launched the first-ever social media preemptive strike, deplatforming hundreds of thousands of accounts for this inchoate offence. The Digital Forensic Research Lab in Washington analysed the activity of 10 Facebook pages and 14 Instagram accounts in 2018. They found that these accounts posted voluminous conflict-ridden political content that nurture distrust. One Facebook page had logged more than 13 million video views and another had garnered 500,000 followers.
FireEye, a cyber security firm, blamed Iran for pushing political web content to users in the US, UK, Latin America and the Middle East, prompting Facebook, Twitter and Google to collectively remove hundreds of suspicious accounts. “Coordinated manipulation” has caused Twitter to scrap 284 accounts, while Facebook deplatformed 254 pages and 392 accounts across its flagship platform and its Instagram service. Google also terminated 39 YouTube channels linked to state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).
In the US, PayPal decided to revoke accounts linked to the “Proud Boys” and “Antifa” to make it difficult for them to use crowdfunding ahead of planned protests. These anarchists published innumerable posts that “sowed discord” via acrimonious and vituperative discussions on race relations and political persuasion. Twitter permanently deplatformed nearly 1,000 accounts to combat a range of abuses of its rules and citing concerns that “Chinese bots” were “sowing discord” in Hong Kong (HK) after months of forceful protests.
HK protesters claim that some Tweets undermine the legitimacy of the protest movement. The social media Ministry of Truth however has become progressively open about what constitutes “actionable disinformation”. Bevies of pro-protest Tweeters swarm any utterance made by Mike Pompeo with passionate pleads for intervention charging “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” emanating from the mainland.
It was only when a pink-haired Whistleblower revealed that, unbeknownst to millions of innocents, Cambridge Analytica probed their preferences and other drivers relevant to understanding their purchasing decisions and matched these data with first-party research not dissimilar to a poll, using the OCEAN five-factor taxonomy of personality traits that privacy advocates and Facebook users became incensed. Facebook’s market capitalization lost $119 billion in a single day.
Fabrication of misinformation is old. What is new is the technology to effectively disseminate propaganda. The devil is free inside democracy. The UK is therefore considering that all online political campaign material should include information on the organisation that published it and who paid for it, alongside the establishment of a public registry for political advertising.