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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #212

One of the many things about the propaganda war, if we want to call it that, is the apparent relevance and weight afforded to social media. I have seen amazed by the huge amounts of commentary on websites like Twitter or Instagram about the war in Ukraine. Everyone has an opinion. They are entitled to express their opinions, of course; but personally I don’t read them. I have a Twitter account, and you can follow it but all I do with it is post links to these diaries. Some people scroll through all this stuff while they are sitting on their own in coffee shops or restaurants or bars. I see them doing it all the time. Younger people, and even older ones, seem to use this social media as a source of their news. There are all sorts of opinions out there about the war in Ukraine and some of them may be interesting or legitimate but a lot of them are simply rot. I am astonished by how much attention these forms of communication are given, and how much debate there is about them. Soon a rumour on social media can become established lore or affirmed truth. The problem with social media is that there is no real filter; anyone can say anything. Wikipedia is an example of social media in this regard: an encyclopaedia that anyone can edit but without fee.

Inevitably people acquire their own incentives when they contribute to so-called “open source” social media content. They may well not be fair or impartial in what they are writing, because nobody is paying them or otherwise giving them an incentive to be fair or impartial. Instead they may have their own axe to grind; or they may be grandstanding; or they may have an explicit agenda to subvert, provide disinformation and to distribute falsehoods. The Russian government is notoriously good at this, taking Western open-source social media platforms such as Wikipedia or Twitter and then bombarding them with materials that promote, more or less subtly, a pro-Russian point of view. Alternatively there are overt slurs, political attacks or defamation of people that the Russian government may not like for whatever reason. I have been the victim of this kind of thing myself, and it is very frustrating because it can take an age to get this sort of thing removed - if you ever can. I have found myself arguing with administrators of social media platforms for weeks, trying to get defamatory materials about me removed. It is intensely frustrating.

It ought not to matter, of course. Nobody should seriously take open source social media materials of this kind that anyone can write or edit as reliable sources of truth or information. Instead we have respected newspapers and media sources with journalists with professional standards, to distil good quality reliable news from mere rumour and speculation. But in the face of the torrent of information that is available for free on social media, it seems that we no longer rely so much upon professional journalism and instead we pick up our news from sources that are likely inherently to be biased and partial and with specific agendas and that is really what social media is all about.

Indeed the contents of social media appear to be so important, and people place so much weight in it, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine in which every military movement, every minute political decision in any country, is blown out of all proportion on social media, and unleashes a blizzard of different views and contradictions and disputes, that huge energy is now made to counter materials perceived to be pro-Russian. Of course a great deal of this material may well be the product of Russian propaganda machines; Russia is known to invest a lot in IT capacity to infest the internet with nonsense. Other apparently pro-Russian may be the ravings of cranks, and there are a lot of them out there. And some may be legitimate debate, for example about whether funds being disbursed to the Ukrainian government are being spent wisely and whether there ought to be more oversight. Amidst the melée of social media, all of these things get confused.

I’ve also noticed that people take all of this social media material very personally, and furious debates occasionally break out, even on things like instant messaging groups in which international civilian volunteers share ideas with one-another. Personally I always try to stay polite and constructive and helpful in these forums, and not to take anything to heart.

All I want to say is that this is an extremely unusual way of acquiring knowledge and news. When I want to find out what is going on, I either ask a trusted or respected person with privileged knowledge; or I read a reputable newspaper that I know fact-checks its sources (many of them don’t); or I go to the websites of experts that prepare reports based upon detailed and impartial research. Some organisations have a reputation for independent work; others don’t. I don’t peer into the annals of social media for my information.

Nevertheless it’s extremely popular. President Zelenskiy himself as an extremely active Telegram channel. It pumps out multiple messages daily. They are messages to the Ukrainian people and to the international community. He is a good communicator. He uses short sentences, often without verbs. “Ukrainian people! Major advances today. Our troops in Kherson. Fine soldiers. Difficult times. Glory to Ukraine!” I like his clipped style. It is wonderfully entertaining, but it doesn’t actually tell us much. Sentences without verbs seldom do. As for the Russian propaganda, what we all need to do is to ignore it, and don’t get so upset about it. But sometimes we need to fight to protect our reputation, because in this world of global information there is a lot of false rubbish floating around the ether of the internet.

War is full of propaganda, but it teaches us all an important lesson in life: that in fact propaganda is everywhere, particularly in politics, and the world is full of people spewing partial or unfair opinions or false facts and we all need to learn to bring a careful eye of scrutiny to anything we read or are told. It is as though critical thinking - inherent scepticism about things we are told, and a determination to employ the scientific method to assess the veracity of information we are given - has faded. This was a principal intellectual notion of the Enlightenment: don’t believe propaganda; don’t believe nonsense just because the politicians or the priests tell you; think for yourself. Have we lost these lessons in this corrupted post-modern world and in particular amidst the horrors of war? I think we may have done.

Amidst this information overload, with so much information we are all bombarded with from every direction 24 hours a day, we have lost the capacity to distinguish sense from nonsense. Who talks about the Enlightenment or the scientific method anymore, as enunciated by the distinguished philosopher of science Karl Popper? Nobody. This is something I find profoundly worrying. Ukraine, emerging from the tyranny of Russian quasi-totalitarian oppression of truth and ideas, might be a good place to start. Perhaps they should start teaching courses of the Enlightenment, critical thinking, the scientific method, and robust news reporting, in schools, to counteract the tendency on the part of the youth of today to unblinkingly absorb all this nonsense with which we are deluged in social media.

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