The War on Disinformation
Also: Swiss anarchist watchmakers, a day in the life of the 18th-century Bank of England, and more.
This is a publication of books, arts, and ideas, so I would like to lead today with Jacob Siegel’s long—and I do mean long—essay in Tablet on the United States’ supposed war on disinformation. His idea is that the “old human arts of conversation, disagreement, and irony, on which democracy and much else depend,” have become “subjected to a withering machinery of military-grade surveillance—surveillance that nothing can withstand and that aims to make us fearful of our capacity for reason.” This started on December 23, 2016, when Barak Obama “signed into law the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which used the language of defending the homeland to launch an open-ended, offensive information war”:
Something in the looming specter of Donald Trump and the populist movements of 2016 reawakened sleeping monsters in the West. Disinformation, a half-forgotten relic of the Cold War, was newly spoken of as an urgent, existential threat. Russia was said to have exploited the vulnerabilities of the open internet to bypass U.S. strategic defenses by infiltrating private citizens’ phones and laptops. The Kremlin’s endgame was to colonize the minds of its targets, a tactic cyber warfare specialists call “cognitive hacking.”
Defeating this specter was treated as a matter of national survival. “The U.S. Is Losing at Influence Warfare,” warned a December 2016 article in the defense industry journal, Defense One. The article quoted two government insiders arguing that laws written to protect U.S. citizens from state spying were jeopardizing national security. According to Rand Waltzman, a former program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, America’s adversaries enjoyed a “significant advantage” as the result of “legal and organizational constraints that we are subject to and they are not.”
The point was echoed by Michael Lumpkin, who headed the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), the agency Obama designated to run the U.S. counter-disinformation campaign. Lumpkin singled out the Privacy Act of 1974, a post-Watergate law protecting U.S. citizens from having their data collected by the government, as antiquated. “The 1974 act was created to make sure that we aren’t collecting data on U.S. citizens. Well, … by definition the World Wide Web is worldwide. There is no passport that goes with it. If it’s a Tunisian citizen in the United States or a U.S. citizen in Tunisia, I don’t have the ability to discern that … If I had more ability to work with that [personally identifiable information] and had access … I could do more targeting, more definitively, to make sure I could hit the right message to the right audience at the right time.”
The message from the U.S. defense establishment was clear: To win the information war—an existential conflict taking place in the borderless dimensions of cyberspace—the government needed to dispense with outdated legal distinctions between foreign terrorists and American citizens.
Since 2016, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on turning the counter-disinformation complex into one of the most powerful forces in the modern world: a sprawling leviathan with tentacles reaching into both the public and private sector, which the government uses to direct a “whole of society” effort that aims to seize total control over the internet and achieve nothing less than the eradication of human error.
The result, Siegel argues, may be a new kind of totalitarian state:
What is coming into being is a new form of government and social organization that is as different from mid-twentieth century liberal democracy as the early American republic was from the British monarchism that it grew out of and eventually supplanted. A state organized on the principle that it exists to protect the sovereign rights of individuals, is being replaced by a digital leviathan that wields power through opaque algorithms and the manipulation of digital swarms. It resembles the Chinese system of social credit and one-party state control, and yet that, too, misses the distinctively American and providential character of the control system . . . In a technical or structural sense, the censorship regime’s aim is not to censor or to oppress, but to rule. That’s why the authorities can never be labeled as guilty of disinformation. Not when they lied about Hunter Biden’s laptops, not when they claimed that the lab leak was a racist conspiracy, not when they said that vaccines stopped transmission of the novel coronavirus. Disinformation, now and for all time, is whatever they say it is. That is not a sign that the concept is being misused or corrupted; it is the precise functioning of a totalitarian system.
That may sound far-fetched, but it won’t after you read the article.
In other news, Alexander Stern reviews Cyril Schäublin’s 2022 film, Unrest, on Swiss anarchist watchmakers in the Jura mountains in Commonweal: “When Kropotkin first arrives in town, ostensibly to make a map of the region, he is prevented from crossing a road by two police officers who are helping stage a photo shoot for the factory’s new catalogue. ‘We are in the middle of a sales crisis on an international, even global level,’ the officers tell him, as if they work for the watch factory themselves. ‘We have to fight against it.’ The copy for the new catalogue is to read: ‘Nowadays, one cannot imagine a man without a watch in his hand.’ This, in a sense, is precisely what Schäublin is asking viewers to do: imagine human beings unburdened of time and other technologically manufactured realities.” Watch the trailer here.
Why did the Reformation spark a sudden interest in personal genealogies? Alexandra Walsham’s new book provides an answer. Matthew Lyons reviews:
Memorial culture in the late mediaeval world had been a mutual, collective activity bound by spiritual affinities and bonds of duty and care. Remembering the dead in prayer was undertaken through an extensive range of institutions, including monastic houses, chantries and guilds.
The scale of this work was staggering. One surviving list of those held in perpetual memory, created in the 1530s for the guild of St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral, contains 51,000 names, neatly organised into extended family lists and groups. As Natalie Zemon Davis noted, the mediaeval dead were “an age-group”, a powerful demographic deeply embedded in daily ritual life.
In destroying that culture, the Reformation hurled people into a world in which generations might rise and fall in a perpetual cycle of forgetting. As Alexandra Walsham writes in her magisterial new book Generations: Age, Ancestry and Memory in the English Reformations, “at a stroke, the dead were consigned to an absent past to which grieving relatives no longer had access”. The obsession with genealogy was one way to shore your family’s name against oblivion.
Jesse Norman reviews Anne L. Murphy’s new book on a single day in the life of the 18th-century Bank of England:
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Prufrock to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.