The saying goes that appearances can be deceiving. But not always. You don’t have to be a scientist to suspect that something is burning when you see smoke. However, it is up to science to explain not only causes and effects but also why things happen one way or another. According to Marx, if the appearance and essence of things coincided directly, science would be unnecessary. For him, science means the effective knowledge of reality, beyond appearances, without us ignoring them. Thus, rather than supposing that appearances (always) deceive and looking for truth in an essence that does not appear, it is a matter of unveiling the reason and the movement by which things appear as they appear, sometimes deceiving, sometimes not, sometimes both at the same time. On purpose or unintentionally.
The essence of things, in this approach, has nothing ultramundane about it. It refers only to what it actually is, and that includes what it appears to be, what it appears to us who observe it. Charlatans and swindlers are successful because they appear trustworthy, but a person can appear honest and, in fact, be essentially honest.
How to tell the difference?
Long before the appearance of language, including its thousand forms of lies (deception, hoax, swindle, charlatanism), nature itself already had a rich arsenal of tricks that confused essence and appearance, at least as far back as the plant kingdom. Let us think of carnivorous plants and their stratagems to attract insects, for which they are essentially deadly, even if they look attractive and harmless.
The spider webs are very fine, but proportionally very strong, and chameleons know how to be masters of camouflage to defend themselves or to attack. And there are river turtles that remain immobile underwater, with their mouth open, from which a worm-like appendage emerges to attract unwary fish. The appearance of the appetizing worm hides the voracious turtle, which will devour them.
In the seas, there are also delicate seahorses that resemble algae in the midst of which they hide and protect themselves. However, no one beats mollusks, squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses, which change color, shape, and texture depending on whether they want to hide from their predators or deceive their victims.
But none before humans.
Disinformation is so old that it predates the human species itself, but it is human disinformation, probably as old as humanity itself, that interests us here. It is a game of appearances and essences, from its crudest form, the outright lie, to the most subtle, made of half-truths, decontextualization, and other resources.
However, despite being so old, it is not always the same, since it presents historical, geographical, rhetorical, and socio-technical nuances and modulations that prevent us from affirming that nothing has changed. And there are, recently, new movements underway: the radius of reach of digital social networks (since they became popular), their capillarity and the speed of their operations are unprecedented.
The costs of message dynamization are relatively modest compared to the press and broadcasting. Communicational precision is, in turn, greater, due to the aforementioned capillarity and the knowledge of public tastes on the part of broadcasters and mediators, thanks to the monitoring of everyone’s browsing, omnipresent on the networks. This set of factors has substantially altered the known communicational environment, but with consequences that are still unforeseeable, given the relative novelty of the phenomenon.
I call the set of contemporary disinformative modalities that are born, flow, overflow, irrigate, feed the post-truth scenario, and feedback on it, digital disinformation on the network (hereinafter, DDR). The notion of DDR refers to the set of disinformation actions transmitted on various digital networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram, TikTok, and alike. It does not refer, therefore, to face-to-face conversations, the old press, or broadcasting, although it certainly feeds and is nourished by them.
It is important to point out this specificity because of the relatively low cost of its operations compared to traditional media. Its immense and personalized reach, in addition to the scarce and difficult regulation of these actions in technical and legal terms, have favored DDR to become, almost everywhere, a very influential element of the ideological superstructure emerging within the digital network infrastructure and, at the same time, a (marginal?) investment in it. This infrastructure, in turn, is a precious commodity and property of the main fraction of today’s big capital (along with finance and the arms, pharmaceutical, and energy sectors).
The boundaries between legality and illegality are blurred in this environment to the point that the British Parliament, which, strictly speaking, cannot be characterized as an expression of radical critical thinking, accused Mark Zuckerberg’s company of acting like a digital gangster.
The publicity surrounding DDR’s actions comprising Cambridge Analytica, both on Brexit and on the election of Donald Trump, certainly contributed to the popularization of the terms fake news and post-truth. Indeed, in the midst of the DDR universe, one of the most sensitive aspects is the impact of fake news on the formation of post-truth, in a vicious circle or, rather, in a kind of vicious feedback spiral, apparently centrifugal.
A substantial part of contemporary disinformation is marked by reactionary, misogynist, racist, homophobic, and, at the limit, neo-fascist elements. The mobilization of fears and prejudices acts as a Trojan horse carrying in its belly neoliberalism, which no longer dares to expose itself frankly after decades of driving wars, environmental destruction and growing social inequality.
The corollary of all this is hate speech, flat-Earth beliefs, anti-vaccine movements, and countless conspiracy theories, more or less dangerous, that turn the healthy distrust of authorities, characteristic of modern thought, into an indigestible mixture of skepticism towards the rule of law, science, the press, and with dogmatism toward those of the postmodern type.
Conspiracy theories always have a background of reality mixed with layers of fantasy. Their designers and propagators fantasize with simplistic explanations and solutions to real-world problems. Real conspiracies do exist. Proof of this is conspiracy theories themselves, fantasy fabrications produced by real conspirators and spread by careless individuals, from the most innocent to the most dangerous.
Who wins? Who loses? In what way? What is the gradient between the sociopath and the useful innocent in this sometimes deadly game of win-lose? What can be done to overcome this scenario?
*This text is a summarized version of the Introduction of the book A Era da Desinformação: pós-verdade, fake-news e outras armadilhas, published in 2022 by Editora Garamond, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. See: https://www.garamond.com.br/loja/a-era-da-desinformacao
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva