Navigating a world of alternative realities and weaponized data

Navigating a world of alternative realities and weaponized data

Baria Alamuddin

Wherever I am in the world, people tell me they simply no longer know what sources of information to believe. So much of the information we are bombarded with is politicized propaganda that it’s easy to end up buying into, whatever version of reality we’d like to believe.
The internet era was supposed to have consigned propaganda and censorship to the dustbin of history. The 2011 Arab revolutions were rocket-powered by social media, and dictators such as Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar Assad and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali supposedly no longer had a monopoly on truth. But somehow the internet has ushered in a post-truth dystopia in which whole demographics enthusiastically participate in transmitting and elaborating on the lies they themselves have been fed.
With elections on the horizon, Lebanese citizens are subjected to relentless propaganda from the same old corrupt factions who can suddenly promise everything under the sun. But the multimillion-dollar Hezbollah propaganda steamroller trumps them all with its TV channels, study centers and social, cultural and educational branches, as it seeks to control people’s minds and thoughts. Unfortunately, Hezbollah’s rhetoric is still stuck in its “divine victory” of 2006 in which thousands of Lebanese were killed and maimed; “Hizb-Al-Shaitan” offers no solutions for the dire situation facing Lebanese citizens today.
QAnon is another example of these extreme alternative realities, insisting that America is run by a “deep state” of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles. It is worthwhile taking time to listen to these people’s views, purely to glimpse the outer reaches of what the human mind can believe.
I watched video footage of QAnon supporters convinced that the “good-guys” — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping — were secretly cooperating to rid the world of bioweapons hidden in Ukraine and Taiwan that would otherwise deluge the planet with new pandemics. A high proportion of Trump supporters buy into various combinations of QAnon ideas, and about two-thirds of Republicans believe the myth that the 2020 election was stolen.
Ironically, many of these deranged elements have embraced Russia’s equally insane war against Ukrainian “neo-Nazis.” Commentators such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson echo Kremlin talking points, and clips of Carlson’s provocations are replayed on Russian TV – both parties reinforcing each other’s alternative reality.
Ukrainians with Russian family members have discovered that the latter would rather believe Moscow’s state TV than what their own relatives in Ukraine are telling them. That would seem scarcely credible, if we had not already seen the cancerous alternative-reality cult of QAnon ripping apart American families.
Having a reputation for peddling untruths can also backfire. Take-up of COVID-19 vaccines has been particularly low in authoritarian states such as Iran, China, Turkey and Russia, where citizens are accustomed to assuming that official propaganda is largely untrue. Iran sent nearly a million vaccine doses back to Poland because they were manufactured in the US. Such self-defeating acts of stupidity cost thousands of lives. China, Iran and Russia have gone farthest in weaponizing the internet as a propaganda ecosystem. Chinese censors are terrifyingly efficient at eliminating “deviant” memes and narratives. Kremlin troll factories seek less to be believed, and more to prevent audiences trusting anything they hear.
In the UK, xenophobic tabloids and self-serving politicians stampeded the British public into disastrously exiting the EU, in a climate of anti-refugee hostility at the height of the Syria conflict. Now Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who boasts that he “got Brexit done,” likens it to Ukraine’s struggle for freedom — even though one of Ukraine’s greatest aspirations is to embrace the freedoms, rights and benefits of EU membership.
As globalization takes its dying breaths, it is becoming perniciously normalized that different nations subscribe to entirely different and incompatible narratives, making a new crop of global conflicts increasingly likely as populist media organs incite populations against each other — just as extremist politicians in Rwanda, Myanmar and the former-Yugoslavia exploited the media to command audiences to go and slaughter fellow citizens.
Last week North Korea fired its longest-range ballistic missile to date, complete with a bizarre Hollywood-style video featuring Kim Jong Un in sunglasses celebrating this progress toward his long-sought capability of firing nuclear warheads at the US mainland. This should focus minds at a time when Western leaders must consider the possibility that Russia could react to its military debacle in Ukraine with a nuclear strike —while Iran grows closer to achieving nuclear capability and its Houthi puppet’s missiles rain down on Saudi Arabia. It is no exaggeration to say we are living in an age when a few careless errors could trigger Armageddon.
However, all is not lost. An aging supreme leader in Tehran raises the possibility that radical political change is around the corner. Despite Beijing’s anti-Western rhetoric, it is not impossible that China’s leadership will learn some important lessons from the Ukraine fiasco, such as the limits of naked force and the need for leaders not to lock themselves away in self-congratulatory echo chambers.
Though they may not know it yet, thousands of Russian mothers have already lost sons in Ukraine. Just as America found during the trauma of the Vietnam war, the propagandists quickly lose all credibility when thousands of citizens return in body bags, or never return at all. A shattering and defining moment for the Arab world, and for the cause of Arab nationalism, came on June 11, 1967. After six days of Voice of the Arabs radio proclaiming glorious victories against Israel, the region awoke to discover that a ceasefire had been signed after the abject defeat of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies.
The lies and distortions of propaganda eventually come down to earth with a painful bump for those who peddle them, and they can do so only for as long as we the people are willing to buy into them. All we can do as citizens is approach the world with open and questioning minds.

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