The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter has once again brought talk about Russian ‘hybrid’ and ‘asymmetrical’ fighting to the airwaves and the press. Targeted assassinations are unusual moves in this new form of warfare: more typical have been media and online campaigns in which ‘Fake News’ is disseminated by a million angry bots and parroted by anti-establishment parties which may or may not have been funded by the Kremlin, sowing doubt and confusion and undermining Western liberal democracies. Which is why the Economist briefing on Russian disinformation a few weeks back made such a fascinating read.
One thing really jumped out from the article: disinformation and propaganda was a mainstay of Soviet policy throughout the Cold War, but “mostly this had little effect”. Now it is working all too well. Millions of people believe conspiracy theories planted into public debate by Russia, and they act on them too, whether by turning out on the streets or by voting for Donald Trump and for anti-establishment parties across Europe (and perhaps for the UK to leave the EU). Or maybe the conspiracy theory is to assume that Trump and Brexit only happened because of Russian meddling? It doesn’t really matter: if your goal is to foster cynicism about the political process then who cares what people are confused about, as long as they are confused?
The Economist is not the first publication to point the finger at social media for creating the ideal environment for incubating lies and animosity. Maybe this is right. But I’m struck by the fact that we’ve had other moments like this – for example, the 1930s, or the late 1800s – when political norms were questioned and democracy wobbled, without the influence of Facebook or Twitter. For me the common factor is not the channel but the message: a sourness in public opinion reflected in and fed by politicians and the media, a feeling that the world is bad, it’s going to get worse, and it is all Someone Else’s Fault.
A common theme in political debates in the UK and elsewhere is that everything is the fault of the evil, uncaring, arrogant Tories or the irresponsible, stupid, obnoxious Labour Party. Substitute Republicans and Democrats and the same is true, if not worse, in America. This is ridiculous and also dangerous. Dangerous because having respect for your opponents, believing that they are trying to do the right thing but maybe in the wrong way, is a key democratic norm. Once this norm breaks down and politics becomes polarised democracy doesn’t work very well. And ridiculous because things really are not that bad.
Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of things that are nothing like as good as they should be and need to change. In the UK in particular housing is unaffordable for many. Public services are underfunded and, in some cases, disintegrating. Productivity is poor in many sectors and several regions, and infrastructure investment is often pitiful. Inequality persists, and bigotry, discrimination and abuse are still present even as we clap ourselves on the back for being post-modern and progressive. AI is about to throw us all out of work. And the world is still warming. There is plenty of for pessimists to be miserable about. And plenty of work needed to improve things.
Yet viewed from a longer-term perspective we live in a golden age, as people like Steven Pinker and Bill Gates regularly, and rightly, remind us. For most people in the world life is good; for almost everyone it is getting better. We live for longer than ever. War is still terrible, of course, but comparatively speaking we are living in an unparalleled period of peace. Diseases that used to kill millions are being conquered. Technology is reshaping our world, and giving us access to information and opportunities unimaginable only 20 years ago. By comparison to, say, 50 or 100 years ago we live lives of luxury and leisure.
But most politicians and the media just won’t have it. Pinker would say they (and we) are experiencing an “availability heuristic”, dwelling on the negative and taking the positive for granted. We are told that attention spans are dropping so stories are short, without any nuance, and told in black and white. And we are told too that disasters and exposés and gossip sell papers, and as media folk scrabble around for a dwindling audience the space for anything uplifting dwindles too. So we end up being fed an endless diet of gloom, painted in really broad brushstrokes.
Expecting the media and politicians suddenly to be sweetness and light is of course too much. But is it too much to ask for acknowledgement occasionally of a broader context. An individual crime is terrible, but you are far less likely to be the victim of crime now than for decades. The NHS has challenges, but we are all living longer and receiving treatments for diseases to which our grandparents would have succumbed. Some CEOs are overpaid, and a very few are corrupt or incompetent, but the vast majority are doing fine. A few people in Momentum are dangerous Trots with a hidden agenda, but most of those involved are passionately looking to change the world for the better. And so on.
Politicians and, I’m afraid, journalists cannot avoid their responsibilities. It’s not enough for either to say they are simply reflecting the mood of the times, that whilst they personally loathe partisanship and abhor Fake News in the end they have to dish up what the public or their party members want. That is so weak. Both have a responsibility to lead, to tell the whole truth, to explain the full context, and respectfully to listen to and report on opposing views – and by doing so do their bit to counter cynicism and divisiveness. Otherwise we will continue this spiral into self-loathing and mutual mistrust. And the Russians will have got exactly what they wanted.