In an insightful piece for Harper’s Magazine, Joseph Bernstein, a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News, questions the idea that disinformation spread on social media platforms in the last five years, rather than long-term societal conditions, is responsible for the crisis of faith in democratic institutions that has swept the West in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump. For example, he argues that “the mosaic of experiences that form the American attitude towards the expertise of public-health authorities” is a better explanation for vaccine and mask hesitancy, than the hypnotic power of Facebook. “Why have we been so eager to accept Silicon Valley’s story about how easy we are to manipulate?” he asks.
Bernstein traces the presumed power of social media companies to dubious mid-century academic studies, citing sociologist Jacques Ellul who in the 60s wrote that such studies tended to “regard the buyer as victim and prey”. However, conspicuously missing, especially as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, is the tale of how this view has been supercharged by America’s 20-year Global War on Terror. In a very real sense, this is chickens coming home to roost.
The idea of “radicalisation”, “counter-radicalisation” and “de-radicalisation” is built on a similar assumption of the manipulability of Muslim societies and people. Rather than consider that there could be specific grievances underlying the resort of a minority to terrorist violence, the US and the West preferred to blame it on “radical” preachers spreading anti-Western propaganda – the Facebook of the Middle East, one might say.
Faced with a rejection of the image of Western benevolence and, at worst, honest though tragic innocence, broadcast by mainstream media, governments and academics in Europe and North America found comfort in portraying Muslim populations as simple-minded and easily entrapped by the spells cast by angry, bearded clerics in flowing robes. This is the same view Bernstein is seeing being reproduced in the West itself to understand their own non-compliant populations, a minority of whom also pose serious terrorism threats.
Governments with an authoritarian bent in the non-Western world have also latched onto the idea of “radicalisation” to obscure the real grievances of their subjects over their policies. The Kenyan authorities, for example, who for the last six decades have continued the colonial policies of marginalising and oppressing the country’s Muslim and especially ethnic Somali population, paid little more than lip service to this history – which has been extensively documented by a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission which collected more than 40,000 witness statements – when confronted with discontent and terrorist attacks committed by local actors. Even though 90 percent of such attacks occurred after the invasion of neighbouring Somalia in October 2011, there was little acknowledgment that may have something to do with it. Instead, the history was flipped on its head and the invasion justified on the basis of what it inspired. Further, the government, with the media in tow, took its cue from the US and blamed “radical” preachers for the violence, even targeting some for extrajudicial execution.
This is not to say that radical preachers extolling violence have no effect – they clearly can influence a small minority of their followers to do terrible things. However, similar to disinformation on social media platforms in the West and elsewhere, their impact has been greatly exaggerated, and their audiences infantilised, by those with an incentive to do so. Again citing Ellul, Bernstein argues that propaganda or incitement would not be effective without “pre-propaganda” – which he equates to the entire social, cultural, political, and historical context. One can think of this context as the soil in which the violent ideas spread by the clerics can take root in particular individuals. Ignoring this and focusing solely on Fox News or radical preachers can lead to perverse “solutions” that entrench problems and privilege “acceptable” propaganda.
In her excellent talk on the limits of media literacy at the 2018 SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas, Danah Boyd, founder of the research institute Data & Society, points out that “fundamentally, misinformation is contextual” meaning what constitutes propaganda depends on who is labelling it. “The difference between what is deemed missionary work, education and radicalisation depends a lot on your worldview and your understanding of power,” she says. She argues that the culture wars waged between “progressives” and “conservatives” in the US are actually arguments over epistemology – how you know what you claim to know – that cannot be resolved through fact-checking or compromise. She sees the efforts of many liberal elites to debunk the beliefs of Trump voters as “assertions of authority over epistemology” and the propagation of a single, acceptable truth or worldview.
On the global stage, where the Global War on Terror has transmogrified US culture wars and the methods used to wage them into what Samuel Huntington called “a clash of civilisations”, this assertion of a singular truth channelled through Western prophets that negates the experience of much of the rest of the world, has been at the root of de-radicalisation efforts. Yet, they can have the opposite effect. As Boyd puts it, “nothing can radicalise someone more than feeling that you are being lied to.”