Submitted by otherreposter in Anarchism

In case it's not obvious, one of the primary reasons I'm following the Russian invasion of Ukraine so closely (along with myriad other contemporary conflicts, before someone leaps in to perform the Yemen-Palestine two-step) is the incredibly high level of information warfare we're witnessing.

On the one hand, there's the weaponisation of racism by the Russian state as a way of both justifying the invasion and drawing attention away from it. This vile and cynical appropriation of legitimate issues has a long history: the conspiracy theory that HIV was invented in a US laboratory, for instance, which was packaged with claims that those arguing for its origins in Africa were pushing an inherently racist line, was spread by the Kremlin in the 1980s, and the role of Russia's 'Internet Research Agency' in diverting attention from Russian interference in the 2016 US elections by creating and orchestrating a number of Black Lives Matter related social media groups, online personalities, websites and even protests (they also created numerous right wing groups at the same time in order to amplify tensions) has been exhaustively reported on.

In the current moment, it's pretty simple to guess how this is playing out by examining which talking points are being boosted through a sprawling, complex network of troll farms, Russia-controlled media outlets and organic signal boosters in left spaces and progressive media: racist Nazis in Ukraine, racist border treatment across Europe and the white exceptionalism of the mainstream West. All of these are, it goes without saying, incredibly important issues. There are some Nazis in Ukraine (although probably far less than in Russia, Poland or, indeed, the US), European border policing is notoriously racist and the media and white liberal establishment are without a doubt responding differently to the situation in Ukraine than they do to ongoing conflict in places like Western Tigray, Mali (where Russian soldiers collaborated with the state to murder 300 civilians recently) and Palestine. We are right to draw attention to these disparities in treatment, and to the highly racialised lens through which suffering is so often viewed, evaluated and responded to, even by major bodies like the United Nations. At the same time, however, if we allow the mere invocation of these issues to silence conversations about Russian imperialist expansionism, or to somehow morally justify the murder of thousands of regular people, we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated by the deeply sociopathic deployment of a highly sophisticated propaganda apparatus. Walking the narrow line between downplaying noxious European racism and indirectly amplifying Russian manipulation of public discourse is undoubtedly incredibly stressful, and it's easy to see why most people have opted for the comforting moral certainty of the latter.

On the other hand, there is the wilful distortion of reality through the weaponisation of conspiracy theories, which Russia has a similarly long history of disseminating, often, as with the HIV conspiracy in the 80s, coupled with racially charged rhetoric. The recent scientifically ludicrous claim that Ukraine is, in collaboration with the US, creating 'ethnicity-based bioweapons' is exemplary here, especially considering how widely this Alex Jones level claim was shared in countries like South Africa (including, notably, by the EFF). Of particular interest to me here, as should be obvious to anyone who has followed my posts over the past month, is how a certain section of the left has lapsed into a kind of left QAnon-ism, obsessively repeating the most tenuous, easily debunked conspiracy theories, engaging in prolonged bouts of intellectual dishonesty and sealing themselves off within self-justifying closed-loop epistemologies in a similar fashion to what we've seen with pandemic denialism over the past two years. Again, this has a long history. Some of the same people resorting to specious claims that the Bucha massacre was 'staged' or 'committed by Azov', for instance, are the ones who could previously be seen denying Srebrenica, Assad's use of sarin gas against his own people and the Tiananmen Square massacre (yes, there really are people on the left who refuse to believe that Tiananmen happened). I've been reading a book called 'On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left' by Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth that goes a long way towards explaining how ideology can so easily trump reality in these cases, to the extent that sane, well-intentioned people with strongly egalitarian political convictions can shamelessly deny genocide, torture and brutal repression in exceedingly blunt and facile ways simply because it doesn't align with their highly religiously charged politico-ideological investment in 'socialist' regimes.

The popular image of cults is that they tend to involve charismatic charlatans wooing hippies into intentional communities and brainwashing them with sleep deprivation and psychedelics, but the left is in fact awash with highly cultish behaviour, something the authors examine through the dynamics of numerous Marxist-Leninist organisations, including several they themselves participated in. These dynamics include "authoritarianism, conformity, ideological rigidity, and a fetishistic dwelling on apocalyptic fantasies", and the authors make a strong case for the tendency for vanguardist forms of politics specifically to lead to cultic outcomes. As they argue, "the notion of a vanguard revolutionary party inherently predisposes its adherents to view themselves as the pivot on which world history is destined to turn. Revolution is seen as the only route by which humanity can avoid annihilation, but revolution is only possible if a mass party is built around a group of "cadres": that is, devotees of the party with a particularly deep insight into its ideology. Members become possessed by a tremendous sense of urgency and a powerful conviction of their group's unique role in bringing about the transformation of the world. They develop delusions of historical grandeur. Religious zealotry soon follows."

In response to these two overlapping issues I think it's urgent that all of us develop a much better understanding of the contemporary disinformation landscape, which is unprecedented in its reach, speed and sophistication. Simultaneously, those of us in left/radical/anarchist circles who have not succumbed to left cultism need to develop more effective ways of dealing with this widespread issue. This includes critically engaging not just with the well-known authoritarian left cults I've drawn attention to in recent posts, but with any group or individual that has drifted into a cultic belief system. This is no easy task. As the authors of the aforementioned book observe, "political cults are built around complex and self-contained belief systems. These provide the impetus for frenetic levels of activity and the creation of high-control environments, in which the authority of the leader expands in all possible directions. Cults promote a doctrine of exceptionalism toward their own belief system, in which nothing can be criticized, combined with incessant attacks on other ideologies, organizations, and leaders. Such exceptionalism gains a hold over the minds of many precisely because our thinking tends to be distorted by a number of logical fallacies. These include the following: Theory often influences observation, rather than the other way round; Anecdotes are regarded as a good basis on which to declare a new "science.”; Scientific language is assumed to denote a science (e.g., 'scientific socialism'); Bold statements carry more conviction than admissions of uncertainty; Heresy is often confused with correctness (in periods of disillusionment a novel theory has a head start over its weary rivals); Failures are rationalized (Cults do not frame their theories in the form of predictions that can be falsified, and that might call their underlying propositions into question. Evidence that might challenge a theory is deemed epistemologically invalid in advance, e.g., 'that's just bourgeois propaganda'); Hasty generalizations are the norm." I've seen every one of the above dynamics play out in interactions with otherwise level-headed and politically astute individuals in recent months, just as I've watched numerous friends and comrades become increasingly algorithmically drawn into left QAnon echo chambers and shut off from critical engagement in a way that's eerily similar to hardline conspiracy theorists. Suffice it to say that the centrality of digital reality to the lived experience and social worlds of huge numbers of people, including those with political aspirations, is an incredibly recent and underexamined phenomenon, possibly understood far better by malicious state propagandists than by everyday consumers of digital technologies. In many ways we are right at the beginning of the unfolding symptomatology of the Algocene, and we underestimate the scale and potential consequences of this new reality and its weaponisation at our own peril.

  • AE


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Styx wrote (edited )

At the same time, however, if we allow the mere invocation of these issues to silence conversations about Russian imperialist expansionism, or to somehow morally justify the murder of thousands of regular people, we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated by the deeply sociopathic deployment of a highly sophisticated propaganda apparatus.

There is nothing sophisticated about it. Russia herself has an aids epidemic, ever since at least the late 1980s, and no one is talking about it, least of all Russians.

Also, the whole 'eUrOpE iS So RaCisT' (which it is it, don't get me wrong, just bear with me here) coming from Russian trolls is really hilarious. Russia considers herself to be European, geography notwithstanding. Furthermore, if there is a country more racist than the most racist European countries combined, it's Russia. Some years ago when I was in Moscow, every single fucking evening when I got off at my tube stop, right there, where the trains stop, were a bunch of policemen singling out Central Asians and lining them up to check their papers. Every fucking evening for a whole month that I was there. And not once did they pick a 'European'-looking person, only Central Asians.

Even the great white suprematist Putin's critic Navalsky got in hot waters a few years ago after he had declared that the Central Asians can't even recite Pushkin, as if they hadn't had Russian culture imposed upon them by the Soviets.

So yeah, this supposedly sophisticated propaganda apparatus is not sophisticated at all. It's just good ol' Soviet projections updated for the 21st century.


__0 wrote

Great post!


bellezeeboobs wrote (edited )

My response to this is to be taking every news coming out of Ukraine and Russia with the same grain of salt, as on both sides you got huge disinfo campaigns aimed at justifying their national interests. Neiter is the incoherent gas-lighting Zelensky has more credibility than Putin, or vice versa. They both champion their own authoritarian visions, and I don't get how antiauthoritarians can see a personal stake in this fight... this doesn't make any sense, especially when it comes to putting your life on the line.

On the other hand, if we're talking about provinding help to or defending civilians on the ground, that's another story.


ukuleleclass wrote

very well said.. it’s so difficult to describe, theorize, etc. the digital landscape. thanks for taking the time to write this !