Introduction – Feb 18, 2019
What follows is rich with irony and it suggests that the authorities are getting seriously worried about the free exchange of ideas and information on the Internet.
After all the powers that be depend on a politically uninformed electorate to remain in power. Until recently a compliant media assisted this by ignoring, or at least downplaying, the more incendiary stories. It still does but the Internet has changed things.
The corporate media is no longer the sole avenue for news and information. The web offers a host of news websites, many of which are not entirely controlled by the powers that be.
This in turn has led to the proliferation of “fake news”, much of which is propagated by the corporate media themselves. So that ironically, like Frankenstein, what was created to smear independent news websites has turned on its creators in the mainstream news industry.
The proliferation of independent news outlets and commentators has now also led to what amounts to calls for censorship, which is what the following essentially is.
Of course, the word “censorship” isn’t mentioned because that would give the game away. Instead the writer, Julia Ebner, writes about the dangers posed by “conspiracy theorists”, how they “demonise Muslims and migrants” and how they “run increasingly sophisticated campaigns around critical junctions in national, regional and global politics.”
Implicit in all this is the suggestion that these “conspiracy theories” pose a threat not only to “Muslims and migrants” but also to democracy itself. Indeed you might think that Ebner was writing about some emergent new terror threat.
“Beyond inspiring attacks on perceived enemies, the spread of conspiracy theories can, in the long-term, sow societal divisions and undermine confidence in democratic processes, institutions and representatives.”
The article is accompanied by a picture with a caption that claims:
‘Theories that mix antisemitic tropes with new ones that demonise migrants and Muslims have gained huge traction. A stunning 60% of Brits believe in at least one conspiracy theory.’
So these “conspiracy theorists” are a real problem, or so the following would have you believe. After all, they call into question the motives of those in charge. And that was something that mainstream journalists were meant to be doing but haven’t done for decades now.
So we wouldn’t be surprised in the coming months to see independent news commentators on the web increasingly demonised. As the corporate media desperately tries to salvage what remains of its credibility in the face of increasingly influential independent websites and commentators. Ed.
Stop the online conspiracy theorists before they break democracy
Julia Ebner – The Guardian Feb 18, 2019
Organised conspiracy theorist networks have launched an all-out information war across Europe. At the heart of this is the QAnon movement. It expanded from the US to Europe and the UK at rapid speed, hijacking political debates on social media as well as mass protests in the streets in recent months. Our new analysis at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows that European conspiracy theorists run increasingly sophisticated campaigns around critical junctions in national, regional and global politics. They even carried out social media operations to influence voters in German state elections, including the 2018 election in Bavaria.
The QAnon community, which began on the message-board site 4chan, strongly overlaps with the support networks of far-right movements such as the EDL and Pegida. Most recently, it co-opted yellow vest demonstrations and boosted hardline Brexit campaigns and Tommy Robinson protests. By injecting conspiratorial narratives into these movements, its members can leverage existing networks and alter their political direction. A commonly used tactic is to combine conspiricist hashtags with those of viral campaigns and trending topics. The scale this generates is disproportional enough to distort public perception: In 2018, ISD identified close to 30m uses of the word “QAnon” across Twitter, YouTube and forums such as Reddit and 4chan.
Ahead of the European parliamentary elections this May, the virality of conspiracy theories about the EU and the political establishment provides a fertile playground for populist parties. Groups such as Q Europe, Q Britannia and Q Deutschland are already gearing up to influence voting behaviour in a crucial election that will determine the future of the European project.
QAnon adherents organise themselves on encrypted apps such as Discord and Telegram, linking the American-centred conspiracy theory to local contexts. Emotionally manipulative and tightly organised campaigns have allowed them to gather tens of thousands of supporters across Europe. They produce videos, disinformation databases and run trainings on meme creation and psychological warfare. QAnon even has its own currency called “Initiative Q”, which its founders want to turn into “the next bitcoin”.
Across Europe, conspiracy theories that mix old antisemitic tropes with new ones that demonise migrants and Muslims have gained huge traction since the refugee crisis in 2015. A recent study showed that a stunning 60% of Brits believe in at least one conspiracy theory. The ideas that a cabal of global elites run the world, that there is a plot to replace white English natives with Muslim migrants and that the authorities are covering up immigration numbers are among the most commonly held.
In QAnon forums, it is hard to overlook the holy mess of logical fallacies and contradictions. Its adherents link the MI6, Facebook and the Rothschilds to the Vatican, Hollywood, the Nazis, the Illuminati and aliens in order to explain that climate change is a hoax, the Holocaust never happened, the world is run by paedophiles, Satanists and cannibals and that the Queen is a direct descendent of prophet Mohammed. And yet this virtual cosmos of absurd stories can inspire real-world incidents: just last month, a QAnon supporter killed his brother, whom he thought was a lizard. “Can me and my pals Raid MI6 DVD & GO2 Offices in London ourselves please”, another QAnon believer suggested in a private messaging app.
Beyond inspiring attacks on perceived enemies, the spread of conspiracy theories can, in the long-term, sow societal divisions and undermine confidence in democratic processes, institutions and representatives. At a time when distrust in the political establishment runs exceptionally high, it is easy to tap into existing suspicions and fill information gaps with fabricated news and distorted statistics.
The architecture of social media platforms plays into the hands of extreme fringe groups by pushing users towards sensationalist content. The tech firms’ business models and algorithms are geared to maximise the time users spend on their platforms. Governments and big tech firms are slowly starting to push back against the systematic diffusion of disinformation. Last month, YouTube announced that it would change its algorithms to stop recommending so many conspiracy theory videos. Meanwhile, the NGO OpenAI decided that it would not release its “deepfakes for text” tool because its researchers feared misuse. And the release on Monday of the UK parliament’s DCMS select committee report demonstrates just how seriously the problems are being taken.
But solutions to these problems need to be identified. Policies should require greater algorithmic transparency and accountability from tech firms in order to protect future elections. Instead of focusing exclusively on the removal of extreme content and accounts, it will be necessary to regulate against harmful infrastructures and malicious behaviours. As early adopters of new technologies, extremists will otherwise continue to exploit the latest innovations of cyberspace.
- Julia Ebner, an Austrian journalist, is a researcher at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue