On 29 July, the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee released its report on ‘fake news’ and its implications for the imperialist order.
Quite understandably, the MPs contributing have found themselves feeling rather threatened by the ever-growing traction of various independent news sources critical of imperialism and its political establishment, so it’s no surprise that a concerted effort is being made to try and warn the public away from any source that doesn’t adhere to the rulebook on matters of importance regarding public perception of the ruling class and its interests.
Conservative MP Damian Collins, who chairs the committee, said in a BBC interview:
“When you look at some of the studies done on fake news, particularly on sites like Facebook, you see that some of the most widely shared real news stories are getting less coverage or being less widely shared than the leading fake news stories, and it’s been presented in such a sophisticated way that readers often find it difficult to distinguish whether a story is real or fake, and that, I think, becomes a crisis for democracy, particularly at election time.”
He then went on to describe how concerted campaigns of disinformation flare up during election periods, and claimed that some of these campaigns are being coordinated by Russia.
It must be explained that the current scare with respect to the concept of ‘fake news’, which has become ever more shrill since the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 US presidential election, is in reality a reaction of the most powerful sections of the international bourgeoisie against the growth of information exchanges operating outside their control.
In a preparatory note to an article entitled ‘Talk to me about Russiagate, ha!’ published on the Greanville Post website on 28 July, writer Luciana Bohne encapsulated the situation:
“The system’s mind managers and their numerous shills and advisers did not quite anticipate it, but the rise of the internet as a platform for free-wheeling opinion and information, and later the formation of social media, have allowed some extremely cogent voices to be heard.
“Their audiences are still (and likely to remain in the near future) painfully small, despite the urgency of their messages, but – here’s the problem for the establishment – they are nonetheless expanding, getting traction, while the mainstream media’s hold on the public mind continues to erode at alarming speed.”
Essentially, it has come to imperialism’s notice that the Pandora’s box of internet communications is able to undermine the official ‘correct’ narrative surrounding global affairs and politics, which, for the most recent historical period, has been almost entirely in the hands of the capitalist class and its servants.
Making the predicament all the more humiliating for the ruling classes of the US and Europe is the plainly obvious fact that imperialism allowed this situation to develop throughout the period of capitalist triumphalism that followed the disintegration of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, 1989-91.
Of course, in those days, it would still have been considered acceptable to label those literate in the use of information technology as ‘boffins’, ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’; intelligent and useful but ultimately belonging to an unconventional subculture with little influence over society and even less contact with the majority of its members.
Not so now, at a moment when millions upon millions of people carry a miniature yet incredibly powerful computer in their pocket at all times, with the ability to connect to the internet at the touch of a screen, and scan through all manner of online content at the swipe of a finger.
In the intervening years, the world of online communications has developed rapidly – on a par, you might say, with imperialism’s ravaging of the post-Soviet world.
But it has created with it a palpable technological leap in the development of communications technology, connecting ordinary people across continents and educating masses of working people the world over in the use and application of that technology.
The commercial technological developments making this level of access to information possible have rapidly evolved to the point where now, people with no training or vetting are capable of producing their own journalism to a fairly polished standard, without much need for anything more than a smartphone, a laptop and some rudimentary editing software.
The ease with which individuals can set up their own YouTube account through which to publish their work means that content is uploaded in such vast quantities and at such a pace that the efforts to moderate it would be totally insufficient, were it not for users themselves taking responsibility to report abusive or offensive material to the hosting company on their own initiative.
Of course, via these same platforms and methods, there is being produced a plethora of content that further serves to distract and misinform workers, but it would be ridiculous to take the view that this is what compels the capitalist class in its crusade against ‘fake news’.
The reaction, of course, stems from the understanding (on the part of the bourgeoisie) that the situation has slipped out of its total control. Not only have capitalist conditions fostered the development of technologies that enable large numbers of people to broadcast their varied opinions and thoughts on all matters, great and small, to anyone who’ll listen, but the nature of the digital domain has meant that the peoples of western imperialist countries, as well as the peoples of the oppressed countries and those of imperialism’s allies, have access to the journalistic output of its enemies; particularly Russia, as well as Venezuela, Iran, China and others.
This stage of development of internet communication has created conditions whereby the traditional levers of the bourgeois propaganda machine can’t react fast enough to counter criticisms coming from independent voices, and the system itself often proves incapable of calibrating its various organs well enough to deliver a coherent response (as evidenced in the Salisbury ‘poisoning’ media circus, which succeeded in making a laughing stock of the British security services, parliament and press to a far greater degree than it managed to convince workers that Russia had attempted to commit outrageous acts of extrajudicial killing on British soil – see elsewhere in this issue for more info).
These traditional arms of propaganda, such as the BBC, ITN, Channel 4, Sky News and other corporate media entities, do of course have their own strong presence online.
But online, they do not have that monopoly that they have enjoyed throughout their many years operating in the service of imperialism – they have to compete with all manner of garish clickbait distractions from, and alternative takes on, the very subjects on which they are endeavouring to provide an ‘official’ narrative.
Back in 2015, the BBC’s Daily Politics invited the presenter of RT UK’s Going Underground, Afshin Rattansi, to be a guest on the show. Whilst the intention was obviously to give host Andrew Neil the opportunity to poke fun at RT’s (then relatively new) UK channel, a most unwelcome side-effect became apparent when Rattansi raised the point that, percentage-wise, by far the majority of RT’s output as a broadcaster was being viewed online, rather than through the Freeview service on people’s television sets.
Neil’s petulant reaction, insisting that he would not accept viewing figures on such a basis as YouTube channel views, laid bare the issue facing the traditional imperialist media with regards to emerging forms of online broadcasting.
Capitalism could not help but cultivate the commercialising of the online world as a digital market, but all the data-harvesting, algorithm-utilising ways that seek to tailor the content people see in their social media feeds and ‘recommended’ suggestions on video sites such as YouTube, with the aim of generating advertising revenue and expanding profits, have actually undermined the bedrock on which ruling-class control of public opinion currently stands – ie, having pretty tight regulatory control over the content deemed acceptable for public broadcast.
So what are the findings of this cross-party committee in its investigation into ‘fake news’?
According to the BBC news website: “The report said people were increasingly finding out about what is happening in the country, local communities and the world through social media – rather than through traditional forms of communication such as television, print media or the radio … People were also less likely to question information shared on social media because most trust their friends and family.”
Terrifying stuff! And further: “The MPs said this is where malicious actors come in to try to influence the billions of people who use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter … Fake news can come in a wide spectrum of forms, from satire and parody to fabricated images or propaganda, the report said.”
So essentially, in the eyes of these parliamentary defenders of the status quo, the methods employed by ‘malicious actors’ are simply a small number of the methods employed by the bourgeoisie over the last century or so in its own incessant campaign to influence billions of people into seeing things their way.
Unfortunately for the parliamentary committee, there isn’t really an effective way to solve the problem without completely disregarding all pretence of adhering to the principles of bourgeois-democratic liberty through which the ruling class claims legitimacy.
Stuck in this position, it is only natural for corporate media to gnash and howl, desperately declaring that every viewpoint it can’t stomach is evidence of Kremlin influence, and accusing every voice critical of the political status quo of seeking to ‘destroy us all’.
Our tasks in this environment
As communists, we should be prepared to play our part in this often tedious battle. After all, we have these tools at our disposal and so should be able to use them to spread political understanding from a class perspective.
We’ve continued to support, share and encourage the sterling work of independent journalists such as Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett and others in their ceaseless fight to expose the warmongering propaganda of imperialism in Asia, the middle east and elsewhere, and now we also have our own regularly updated party news website at cpgb-ml.org, where the content of our party press can be accessed and shared online.
Without falling down the rabbit hole of wasting our own time in endless debate with self-identifying ‘leftists’ inhabiting Facebook chat groups and the like, we should be sharing and propagating our articles through whatever form of social media we use frequently as individuals.
Whilst the amplified warnings of ‘fake news’ directed at workers from on high contain a large amount of misinformation and fabrication themselves, it is important to remember that the vulnerability of imperialism in this sense is not by any means imaginary.
The sowing of confusion amongst resistance movements, the leaking of damning revelations concocted by western intelligence agencies, and the spreading of falsehoods and lies throughout communist and socialist movements are a stock-in-trade for the imperialist ruling class and their propagandists.
We have the advantage that, unlike the imperialists, we have no need to fabricate damning revelations regarding the ruling class. The evidence of its degradation, and its conflict of interest with those of the vast masses of humanity are all around us, and with it, the knowledge that the real threat to British imperialism comes not from ‘Russia’ but from the workers and oppressed peoples it oppresses at home and abroad.
Every piece of information that may jar ordinary workers out of passively accepting the bourgeois outlook has the potential to upset the status quo.
Clear Marxist-Leninist class analysis, presented in an accessible format and across as many media as possible, has the potential to lay the ground work for getting rid of imperialism completely.