Contextual chains: how society shapes the disinformation landscape

Mar 1, 2024
social cohesion
Disinformation does not exist without context, but context can only be deployed with the right social, economical and historical circumstances.
notion image
Is it possible to talk about disinformation without the context that surrounds the situation where the process occurs? No, we cannot. Most of the time, as I've mentioned before, we think about disinformation as a group of bad actors lying to a specific audience, as if it were a bank robbery or some kind of fraud. But that’s not the case at all. The historical moment of a specific society is the “shaper” of the environment where disinformation thrives, and context is one of the enablers of the process. Doesn’t it say something about what we are doing wrong?
According to Emile Durkheim, society exerts a powerful influence on individuals, often beyond their conscious awareness or direct consent. This influence helps to shape individuals' roles, behaviours, and beliefs, contributing to the overall cohesion and functioning of the society. Although we like to think that we are free to do what we wish, the truth is that everything, from reality to which role we will have in society, is preset by the chains that mould the society itself. Naturally, the parts with more leverage (i.e. power or money) will exert deeper control over everything.
If you are a Marxist-hater, don’t hang up yet. Yes, the explanation is deeply linked to reasoning that comes from the same nest where Hegel and Marx went to shake the world, but there is nothing communist here. In simple words, society defines the roles, like police and thief (to put it very simply). These roles have to be filled, and the material conditions will determine who will do what.
A 2023 paper from a professor of the Amsterdam School of Communication Research discusses the relevance of the context and how it is central to the development of disinformation and its reach and strength. According to the authors, disinformation is a deliberate, context-bound phenomenon that involves actors covertly deceiving recipients through manipulation, contextualisation, or fabrication of information to maximize utility and mislead. Or, groups of bad actors sit down with the intent to deceive, and the damage is done from there.
The paper is not wrong, but for me, it has a narrow vision of the problem. Yes, the actual manufacturing of the disinformation by actors is as deliberate as suggested, but there is a deeper layer here that is much more powerful. What triggers the process is not the willingness to deceive but the need that the audiences develop following social and economic factors. A healthy society is “vaccinated” against disinformation because the fairness of its grounds makes any attempt to disinform virtually harmless. Conspiracy theories have existed since mankind walked the Earth, but they thrive only in specific moments - like the one we are now - or the periods before the two global wars we went through in the last hundred and a few years.
Still, according to the concepts of the paper, context is crucial for disinformation because it contaminates the environment with a virus that will leave the individuals in it “exposed” to the effects of the deranged information. However, the context can only be deployed if the right conditions are there. Which conditions? In a nutshell, decline in the life standards, uncertainty about the future, and the need to find an external scapegoat to throw the blame on. Think of the Jewish people between the wars or illegal immigration and “climate change lies” now. When such conditions are met, distrust starts.
Still adhering to Durkheim, the concept of “mechanical solidarity” refers to the social cohesion of pre-modern societies, where individuals share similar work, values, and lifestyles, leading to strong social bonds and a collective conscience. In such communities, the high degree of homogeneity and shared moral values can create a strong defense against external threats, as the community acts as a unified entity. Basically, when we are not alienated from each other, the group reacts to protect the individual. Now that communities have been dismantled by historical, social, economic, and technological reasons, a fear of the future drags everyone to the very opposite - the fear of each other.
The context that the paper discusses is right to the point, but its effectiveness happens due to causes that are far from the control of the disinformation actors (except in dystopian closed societies like North Korea). Social and economic pressure generated by inequality, fast development of technologies, and the nature of concentration that capital has make the squeeze that leaves the audiences ready for disinformation. In a way, for these audiences, disinformation is an efficient “solution” for the fear and frustration they have, because it nails down their fears into an external object that transfers their guilt to someone or something else. It’s the myth of the sacrificial lamb over and over again, majestically played in the “Judgment at Nuremberg” 1955 movie, by Burt Lancaster. Pre-war Germany is the ultimate example of a country ready to hear anything that drives fear and guilt away.
Video preview
Disinformation became a regular part of our lives not because Putin and its cleptocracy set up machines to spit lies in the Western world, or Trump to create a reality for his followers that is distorted beyond doubt. The problem is that Trump’s reality exist in the minds of the tens of millions of voters whose anguish led them to be desperate for a truth where there is a future for them.
As we are going towards the end of another capitalism’s phases, inequality, automation and other devices that are designed to concentrate capital are tearing the community’s fabric apart. Reality will not be changed by fact-checking or “facts” like news companies like the NYT or CNN prefer to believe, but by the acknowledgement that too many people have been left without a safety net, and their fear is what disinformation craves for. Context is fundamental, but only with the right environment. Right now, our society is delivering such environment by the book.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024