Skip to content

The Art of the Real

Disinformation vs. democracy

The concept of “the Big Lie”—a brazen untruth pushed so relentlessly in mass media that it’s eventually mistaken for truth—is hardly novel. As is the case with so many other wretched stratagems of its ilk, capitalism got there first with the PR technique known as FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD campaigns disseminate plausibly deniable aspersions on, say, the safety of a competitor’s products. Such a tactic works because the advent of mass media flooded public discourse with info gluts, bubbles, and echo chambers that can overload a person’s capacity to sort fact from fiction. Contrary to all the Luddite wailing about our social media insularity, biased news streams date back at least to the storied yellow-journalism career of William Randolph Hearst, and have been a fixture of salons and coffeehouses since Gutenberg. After all, there’s a reason some particularly venerable American newspapers are called the X Republican or Y Democrat.

So why has “post-truth” only now become the OED word of the year? Without question, something has shifted in our ever more postmodern world. What the KGB once called dezinformatsiya, and the Reagan administration named “perception management,” has now come to dominate public life. Everywhere we turn in the aborning age of Trump, we see the deliberate spreading of contradictory, misleading, and outright false “news.” The ceaseless fount of counter-information creates a general climate of mass confusion, causing even the most resolute auditors to doubt their senses.

This increasingly influential phenomenon is strangling both the internet and liberal democracy. What separates our brave new world of counterfeit information from the ideologically driven news outlets of the past, or even the late Cold War propaganda initiatives mounted by the United States and the USSR, is that this time, the Big Lies are bubbling up from grassroots internet cesspools—though these are increasingly in cahoots with powerful moneyed interests.

Donald Trump stumbled down his golden escalator at a particularly congenial historical moment. Fake news—the original, Facebook-enabled variety, not the casual slur trotted out against the press on a near-daily basis by the Trump White House—effectively dominated news cycles the week before Election Day, steeped in the same ethos that innervated the alt-right Nazis: chan culture. “Trolling” and online harassment campaigns rely on a brand of perception management that would have made Reagan’s State Department proud: targeting individuals or groups, causing them to doubt facts and reality, or even doubt their senses, but leaving them in a constant state of unknowing terror. These tactics, bred in a nihilistic and proudly apolitical world, were folded back into the realm of activism, absorbed into right-wing media, and have now made their way into the White House.

Just a Joke

“Emma, You Are Next,” blared the website’s URL. The website itself was a simple affair: a poorly cut-and-pasted picture of Emma Watson, the 4chan cloverleaf logo, and a clock counting down to the moment a batch of the actress’s nude photos was to be released.

The threat came in the fall of 2014, part of a misogynistic campaign seeking retaliation for Watson’s feminist speech at the United Nations that September—an oration that generated tremendous positive publicity. The threat seemed credible enough, coming as it did on the heels of a multiweek series of similar celebrity nude-photo leaks revealed and promoted on the troll message board.

Trolling happens to fit very neatly into an old fascist propaganda technique that relies on producing an unstable reality for democratic subjects.

When the countdown clock ran out, however, it turned out to have been an elaborate hoax. The site was replaced by a petition calling on President Obama to “shut down 4chan,” but this was another “joke,” perpetrated by a group of spammers. (Meanwhile, Watson was subjected to the successful 4chan leak of her intimate photos this past March.)

The net effect was terror, confusion, and finally a cynical kind of detachment. Don’t trust anything—especially on the internet, could well have been the moral of the story for many puzzled onlookers.

Around the same time, the online harassment campaign-cum-movement known as Gamergate got off the ground, providing a focus for angry videogamers who wanted to purge their hobby playgrounds of unruly women, queers, people of color, and feminists. Game developer Zoe Quinn and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, among others, were forced to flee their homes after death threats became ever more specific, complete with addresses, names of family members, and clandestine photographs.

The odds of actually being murdered by someone who threatens your life online are quite low, but who wants to take that chance? Is the man claiming to be standing right outside your parents’ window—whose address he has helpfully reminded you of—a fraud or for real? Is that a question you want to roll the dice on?

This is abuse, plain and simple. Part of the terror lies in the victims’ inability to predict the future security of their intimate space, making them doubt their senses and jump at every shadow, even if, objectively, they are never actually in danger. This type of harassment is specifically designed to rob its targets of all empirical certainty. Trapped within this cognitive netherworld, they can never know whether a dead squirrel left in their mailbox is a juvenile prank or the precursor to something much worse.

It’s useless to entertain the usual alibi offered by online harassers—that they think of this abusive treatment as a “joke” they’d never dare take any further. The fog of uncertainty surrounding such campaigns systematically denies victims control over their own reality, forcing them to live with the terrifying prospect of the worst-case scenario.

Meanwhile, outside observers, from the police to online bystanders, are simply bewildered by the strange mix of sincerity and falsehood. It’s far easier to detach and write it off as “just the internet being the internet” than to take it seriously, lest you look like a fool when the next hoax comes along.

All of this is sometimes called trolling, though that’s a weak euphemism for what is, functionally, stalking and abuse. Yet there’s a reason the term is employed to provide cover for such aggression. Trolling involves the use of insincerity and deception to get a rise out of someone; you troll by saying things you don’t believe to people you know will be upset by them. It can be uproarious or nihilistically abusive depending on what’s being said and done. You can mischievously troll by posting about the superiority of airplanes on a train-fan messageboard, say.

Or more controversially, you might, as one famous 2006 4chan operation did, invade a social game popular with children and flood it with profanity and racism, supposedly in the name of fighting racism. Hearing that some moderators in the game Habbo Hotel banned avatars with darker skin, 4chan invaded with dozens of clones of the same suit-wearing black man with an afro. Then, they stood in the shape of a swastika to anger the moderators—it was ironic, you see.

How the Net Was Won

We should not attribute power to the neo-Nazis on 4chan and Reddit’s r/The_Donald that they don’t have. They did not create Trump or Trumpism; they didn’t even create the “alt-right”—a long-held concept in far-right and white-nationalist circles that certainly predates their dabbling in the dregs of internet culture. Trumpism isn’t the unalloyed brainchild of a clutch of online harassers, but a postmodern twist on some rather venerable geopolitical tactics.

The “troll” cultures of various online cesspools happen to fit very neatly into an old fascist propaganda technique that relies on producing an unstable reality for democratic subjects. The latter-day incarnation of 4chan, whose political arena is dominated by the white-nationalist /pol/ board, merely adapts these potent fascist tactics to the present circumstances. As Gabriella Coleman and her coauthors have noted, 4chan never had any one ideology, instead spanning generations of internet users and a wide variety of subcultures and attitudes that admitted both left- and right-wing political adaptations of 4chan’s online folkways. But a particular reactionary strain has proven exceptionally influential. It developed over the course of several years, manifesting in forces like Gamergate and the Twitter/Reddit wing of the white-nationalist alt-right, and has increasingly been co-opted by institutional powers across the globe. From the Republican Party to the Russian government to Marine Le Pen’s National Front, a host of canny political opportunists have seized on a battery of online reality-destabilizing techniques that can help sow the fear and confusion necessary to systematically undermine mass faith in pluralist, liberal democracy.

This process hinges on what trolls do best: saying and doing things to upset people because it seems funny. As it spread across the 4chan world and beyond, this trolling alibi of first resort soon became a rhetorical end in itself—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. It had become abruptly and firmly aligned with a reinvigorated, fascistic far right.

After a few initial experiments in message-distorting trolling (including some left-leaning offshoot groups like Anonymous), 4chan’s nihilism became all-consuming. The channers shifted from merely mocking the sincere world to wanting to bring it to heel. And the dominant theme of their actions was to torment those “snowflakes” they see as too naive to grasp the Hobbesian truth: the gospel of the selfish, brutish übermensch who can be hurt by nothing. Trolling posts from the openly Nazi /pol/ board gave it all a nakedly fascist spin, and much of the site became a self-reinforcing message board for what’s now misleadingly euphemized as the alt-right.

Sowing doubt and chaos for the purposes of anti-feminism and naked racism became the order of the day; the idea, as in other unruly reaches of the newly militant white-nationalist right, was to stick it to the arbiters of “political correctness.” 4channers made hundreds of fake social media accounts, posing mostly as black feminists, attempting to create hyperbolic, extremist personas (like people who would say it’s impossible for white women to be raped and that it’s somehow “racist” to suggest otherwise) to discredit black feminists in the eyes of a white liberal audience.

Many black women on Twitter rallied to humiliate the channers with the #YourSlipIsShowing hashtag, “outing” the fakes with almost perfect reliability and in many cases exposing how bad their “disguises” were. If nothing else, such concerted exposure campaigns provide a model for resistance going forward. They focus on truth, and are wise to the weak spots in progressive movements that chan-style trolling might exploit (in this case, the willingness of many white feminists to believe that the intersectional demands of women of color are “toxic” or “divisive”). Public exposure campaigns like #YourSlipIsShowing turn the viral internet against reactionary harassers, making a meme of their humiliation and exposing their fragility. This is crucial, since in this case—as with the many sock puppets posing as women and people of color in the Gamergate movement to lend it a patina of diversity—the larger point was to sow disinformation that would cause the left to break ranks. Thus exposed, the trollers’ ability to distort reality is severely curbed.

Nothing Really Matters

Where does Russia fit into all this? British documentarian Adam Curtis neatly summarizes the matter in a short film he made for the BBC a few years ago about how an avant-garde artist, Vladislav Surkov, became an influential figure in Vladimir Putin’s administration. Surkov showed how the same kind of weaponized propaganda that overtook the message boards of 4chan can work on a geopolitical scale: if you can make the news a baffling spectacle from whence no truth can be gleaned, then your political opponents are stymied and the public becomes docile.

This vision of “non-linear warfare” is postmodernist theory made bullet-riddled flesh. All signification floats on an endless sea of doubt and uncertainty. There is no capital-t Truth to be found. As journalist Peter Pomerantsev put it, this is “a new type of power politics, a breed of authoritarianism far subtler than the twentieth-century strains.” Its chief strength lies in what he calls its “strategy of power,” based on “keeping any opposition . . . constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”

Visceral terror and a growing propensity to doubt the evidence of one’s senses—the reliable cognitive legacies of reactionary Twitter mobs and 4chan-style harassers—are of a piece with the existential doubt that is ubiquitous in, say, Ukraine, or among Russia’s ethnic minorities. How much of this horror is real? Which threats are empty and which will effectively redraw the map of the world tomorrow? What do you protest against when so much is shadow puppetry? Is the guy commenting on this news article a concerned citizen or a government plant? Who can say? The Russian government, after using this tactic to great effect in Ukraine, imported it to the United States for revealingly selective use in Campaign 2016.

What has changed is that this culture of disinformation, which was historically the province of governments, is now a mode of extremist resistance coming up from the rancid grassroots of the internet’s hate communities. Spreading lies, pretending to be people you’re not (sock-puppeting), “concern trolling,” masking bigoted abuse with irony, digital hoaxes—it all overstimulates the audience’s critical faculties and short-circuits democratic machinery.

As The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen put it when he researched Russian trolls this past summer, “The real effect, the Russian activists told me, was not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space.” Again: fear, uncertainty, doubt.

It’s fitting that in the world of contemporary art, a videogame should present us with a most apposite insight. Funcom’s videogame The Secret World, set in a contemporary universe where all our legends and crackpot theories are actually true, features the Illuminati in all their conspiratorial splendor. One of their leaders, a sharply dressed businesswoman named Kirsten Geary, gives a speech that might seem familiar to the redditors and channers in her audience:

Stealth is not about hiding; it’s about inundating. We leak the truth. Then we leak whole zettabytes of other junk. Opposing data. Similar data. Nonsense data. Ad nauseam. Mesmerism by cat memes. Hypnotized. Apathy for the win. The human brain has only so much bandwidth. Critical thought can actually O.D. on input. Bury the ultimate secret of the universe in the shallow grave of the fifth page of a Google search, and no one would ever find it. Cover-ups are so passé.

At the moment, this is our world. To say that the problem with our media landscape stems from the “echo chamber” format or even the proliferation of “fake news” is, at the very best, only dimly right. The issue is far larger: this widespread, crowdsourced irony corrupts even alternative news sources, the things we turn to in order to puncture information bubbles or escape echo chambers. What’s more, this new brand of dezinformatsiya jams the lines; there are only so many hours in a day, so many journalists, so many fact-checkers, to correct lies and promulgate the truth—and when so many of the attempts to correct lies end up amplifying them, with mute chyrons in the background of the world’s airports spelling out outrageous lie after outrageous lie, even attempts to undo the damage can deepen it.

It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to give up on the truth altogether, to hide sincerity behind mass-produced Guy Fawkes masks of irony. Accommodating this in a liberal democracy, or in a free press, where exchanges of ideas are seen as vital, is like admitting a virus to the very heart of our system. Even news sources that purport to represent multiple points of view allow their deference to “fairness” to admit outright lies and Surkovian confusion into discussions, inevitably poisoning and rendering them useless.

In just one of the cases in which Republicans have repurposed 4chan troll techniques, Donald Trump’s baseless tweeted claims that President Obama had illegally conducted wiretap surveillance of the Trump campaign prior to the 2016 election actually prompted a House Intelligence Committee hearing. The resulting stout denials of such claims from FBI director James Comey and others only prompted another round of Trump-orchestrated claims that the “deep state” is arrayed against the president, and that the media is amplifying “dishonest” tropes, underlining the White House’s own fathomlessly cynical untruthfulness. Indeed, the president implausibly sought to troll the panel’s hearings via his Twitter account, misrepresenting Comey’s testimony as proof that no Russian interference in the presidential campaign occurred.

Thus the legislative branch’s critical role in executive-branch oversight is downgraded to the rough equivalent of a hapless forum moderator, lamely seeking to establish the durable truth value in a relentless blizzard of perception management, info-terror, and plausible deniability. Chalk it all up to one more victory for the moment’s Big Lie.

The spectacle of the views of reality-destabilizing trolls being entertained as even quasi-legitimate is enough to weaken a system that operates on a basic presumption of good faith. And in excruciating, inch-by-inch fashion, we’re now seeing that spectacle undermine the instruments of democratic governance itself.

A Post-Truth Presidency

One might suggest that Trump is sincere in his incompetence—that he’s a hyper-sensitive political naïf whose outbursts honestly reflect his mercurial emotions. This, one might think, is actually cause for comfort. Maybe he isn’t the evil psy-ops mastermind envisioned by all those pundits like Jack Shafer, who accused us of falling for Trump’s tricks when we paid attention to his immature attacks on the cast of Hamilton. Perhaps, just perhaps, he’s a whining baby rather than a maestro of disinformation.

But here’s the hard truth: it doesn’t matter. I personally believe that Trump’s antics have no rhyme or reason beyond ego. But whether he’s a master of distraction or an overgrown, spoiled brat makes no difference. In either scenario, the effect—the indiscriminate spread of informational chaos—is the same.

Trump happened to come to prominence at a political moment when his particular brand of self-important, hyper-fragile whining would be a neat fit for a hyper-mediated political world where nothing seemed real. His sincerely capricious whims—being for a policy one moment and against it the next, or speaking off the cuff about a major proposal he’s thought very little about, and then never bringing it up again—match the intentional cunning behind Putin-esque dezinformatsiya. Each has the effect of throwing traditional predictive models and punditry into chaos. “No one knows what he’s going to do next!” is the baffled rallying cry of this world. Many are horrified, others enticed.

Trump inadvertently feeds it, just by being himself: “I’ll keep you in suspense.” “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are.” Or in the way he lies about his own statements: “I never said that!” The contradictions that emerge from this morass serve much the same function as those that guide the more deliberate disinformation campaigns mounted by a strategic genius. Trump’s haphazard, reality-deranging pronouncements massage the truth out of all operational existence, just as the skilled authors of narrowly targeted agitprop might.

The discursive world that Trump inhabits is like a ruined theme park, where desolation has turned the bright colors of entertainment into something profoundly unsettling. He retains all the trappings of the clown he’s always been, but as president they bestow on him the power to haunt. Think of it as a uniquely authoritarian horror film: Family Guy meets The Purge.

No one knows quite what to believe, all interlocutors can find evidence for their own interpretation of events (especially those who desperately need to believe that Trump isn’t an autocratic dictator on the rise), and some people may just tune out because they believe there’s no truth to be found. Many ordinary citizens could be forgiven for thinking that their senses should no longer be trusted.

Nothing Left to Ironize

It may be tempting to think that these tools—irony, disinformation, trolling—can be reclaimed for the left in some fashion. But their political use inherently favors the status quo. Detached, nihilistic irreverence, à la South Park, tends to harm the powerless as a rule. The cynicism it inculcates and the unseriousness it demands are unequal to the task of changing the world for the better. But it’s the ideal gear for preserving the status quo, or promoting a kind of traditionalism that venerates the status quo’s latent bigotries. To change the world for the better, you have to care unironically; to help others, you must take their plight seriously. Troll culture lends itself to neither aim.

Is the man claiming to be standing right outside your parents’ window—whose address he has helpfully reminded you of—a fraud or for real?

To detach is simply to allow the world to go on as it has been. To seize it for political purposes, à la Gamergate or the neo-Nazis who’ve rebranded themselves as the “alt-right,” is to play into the conservative bias of any society. The destabilizing thrust of postmodernity is actually beneficial to conservative interests, which rely on the plausible deniability of prejudice while polluting any clear definition of concepts like “racism” or “sexism.” How many times have we heard something to the effect of “But why is that word racist? It could mean anything! You have to stop letting it have power over you.” This is indeed a discursive universe of floating signifiers.

The culture-jamming at work here is ill-suited to progressive ends, which tend to require a certain amount of moral clarity to ignite the flame of resistance. What’s more, the destabilization of reality is particularly dangerous for movements organizing against powerful institutional headwinds. It’s bad enough to have to fight the police, the government, traditionalism, and big business; to “fight fire with fire,” we would have to surrender even the power of clear goals and ideals. No, there’s no effective way to counter-troll our way out of this mess. It would demand we be unserious about precisely the things we must treat with reverential seriousness.

The net effect of Trumpian/chan troll culture is to make democracy impossible. If no one can agree on the truth, and if there’s social pressure to appear too cool to care, good work can’t be done. Reform demands a certain earnestness, after all—if only to sustain the belief that things can change. Troll culture, regardless of whether it’s branded right- or left-leaning, ultimately dissolves into a bewildering array of postures and ironic affects; good for incisive mockery, but not for improving our condition. It’s useful for crowdsourcing the kind of animosity that’s sparked countless hate crimes across the United States since Trump’s election; its shape-shifting meanings, written into executive orders, are good for inciting immigration officers to unleash their implicit biases at border crossings. But because liberationist politics is based on an ethic of care, the outrage that trolling provokes is of only marginal use.

The larger logic of counter-trolling runs counter to the demands of movement-building. Our politics demands that we build something as well as diminish the opposition’s social-media brands. That requires unironic action, not just posturing and memes.

Joke’s on You

Fighting our way out of this morass will require greater, not diminished, moral clarity. It will mean refusing to speak on the new right’s terms (for instance, by appending Nazi to “alt-right,” as I have, to better reflect the truth) and refusing to give “equal time” to lies or treat concerted disinformation as “just another opinion.”

It will also mean refusing to accept the purported logic of “trolling.” After a backlash to his Nazi conference in Washington, D.C., Richard Spencer told journalists that the Sieg Heils and Nazi salutes at the conference were done in a “spirit of irony and exuberance.” This excuse is a match for former Breitbart editor and Nazi-apologist Milo Yiannopoulos’s insistence that the obvious racism of the “alt-right” is actually just the ironized jouissance of youngsters who wish to offend their parents’ “PC” sensibilities. Another Breitbart writer, John Binder, reinforced this bankrupt reasoning by mocking the media for getting “trolled” by the conference. Questioning the humanity of Jews, calling white people “children of the sun,” dubbing the press the Nazi epithet “lügenpresse,” performing the Nazi salute—all just an edgy joke, and you fell for it. Lulz.

Don’t believe this. Take these people at their word, and do not allow them to use the power of hateful signs while claiming that they somehow mean something else. You must resist the temptation to give in to this cultural confusion, which is devised only to allow Hitlerian extremism back into the mainstream while masking it as indefinable performance art.

This exact stratagem duped New York Times public editor Liz Spayd into rebuking journalist Sopan Deb for posting a harmless tweet referencing the parody site “Breitbark News”—provoking arch Nazi-alt-right and Gamergate/Pizzagate troll Mike Cernovich to mobilize his vast online following to, as he put it, “let human trafficking orgs”—and of course Spayd—“know that @SopanDeb and NYTimes think slavery is hilarious.” Sure enough, Spayd took the bait and swallowed it whole—without once referencing the Cernovich trolling offensive, nor the hypocrisy of such charges coming from a Nazi-adjacent figure who once wrote, “Have you guys ever tried ‘raping’ a girl without using force? Try it. It’s basically impossible. Date rape does not exist.”

Reactionary trolls simply feign moral outrage in order to trouble the lives of their targets, cause chaos, and create busywork for their opponents. Nothing more or less.

Having a spine at this moment means pushing vigorously back against the vicious undertow of the trolling world. We must resist the temptation to compromise with—or accept the terms of engagement set by—the political equivalent of flat-earthers. Half of a falsehood is still a falsehood, and helps no one. We must likewise resist the temptation of glib rhetorical solutions like blaming “identity politics,” when what we’re confronting is a rightist blizzard of lies whose motivations and justifications change with transparent expediency.

For all the uncertainty of our time, for all its postmodernist chicanery and misdirection, hard truth will endure. People can let themselves see whatever they like in Trump, since his bewildering array of public utterances can admit any number of plausible interpretations if you stare long enough. But policies will be enacted whose effects are decidedly concrete, and we must be ready. The rapid response to Trump’s inaugural Muslim ban is a heartening model: activists, lawyers, and local governments immediately pierced the chameleon rhetoric of the administration and stood to fight the practical effects of the ban, refusing to dive into Trump’s discursive whirlpool.

The only hope now is to build on that clarity, to define the truth by the lived realities of those hurt by this administration. That truth is the new political story we must tell to replace the supine politics of our recent history. That, right now, is our best hope. As what’s left of society threatens to collapse around us, we must realize that we cannot live on irony alone.