On Tuesday 22nd October 2019 I was lucky enough to have been able to attend this interdisciplinary one day symposium at The National Archives in Kew, organised in collaboration with The Institute of Historical Research and Digital Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, with some of my CityLIS classmates.
The term ‘Fake News’ has become so common in recent years that for many it no longer holds much value. It performs its traditionally understood role of shining a light on unreliable information, but is also used to discredit and undermine reliable information that individuals, groups or governments do not want to deal with or face. So, as nobody really knows how ‘truthful’ the term is in any given situation or context any more, and as the issue itself of what is true and fake on the internet, and even in some mainstream media sources, is unclear these days (and arguably subjective anyhow), it has become a discredited term. The issues seem, to many, to be so monolithic – who governs the internet anyway, and who is accountable for these unstable times – that we simply do not know where to start, if we are to begin unpicking what is ‘reality’ or ‘fact’ and what is not.
We were invited to consider that for as long as humans have existed, there has been propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy thinking. Before the computer the methods of spreading these untruths were forged letters, subversive leaflets and orally, as well as other forms of communication – and not just by individuals either, but sometimes as coordinated and well funded ‘national interest’ campaigns by various governments (see Ministry of Information in the UK and Department of Agitation and Propaganda in Soviet Russia, to name just two), and a multitude of political groups and activist groups throughout the ages also. It is a collective behaviour, as Helena Webb of the University of Oxford said, so surely it follows that as long as humans continue to exist, there will probably always be propaganda, disinformation and conspiracy thinking. It is simply a part of human nature to question, doubt, subvert and spread rumour.
Rachel Hoffman of the University of Cambridge talked us through how, when societies are existing in unstable times – with doubt and discord thrown about randomly by the very institutions they are meant to be able to rely on for stability and security – it is perhaps to be expected that disinformation and misinformation takes root and is seized upon perhaps more avidly than it might be otherwise. So as a result, we are seeing the rise of citizen-journalism, as “skepticism towards institutionally propagated truths grows.” This is a good thing, as it democratises news and information, and increases participation in who exactly shapes ‘the truth’ – but on the other hand, our growing reliance on citizen-led technologies and methods of sharing also leads to phenomena such as deepfakes, troll farms and email hacking. This led me to think (as I live-tweeted at the time) that instead of just focusing on the dis- (or mis) information itself, we also need to interrogate the socio-economic, cultural, political and historical context in which it sits, too. Nothing happens in a vacuum. As I wonder whether it isn’t the existence of propaganda that is the issue, but the intent behind it and the context in which it is both created and absorbed – “propaganda only takes root when it beds into existing beliefs”. If you have a populace that is disaffected, mistrustful, socio-economically disadvantaged and/or pitted against each other, then is it not far more likely that trust in institutions, or truth-holders, erodes?
As Rachel asked of us, “let’s read much more, and take conspiracy thinking seriously instead of dismissing it – even consider whether it is a necessary part of democratic discourse.” If a society has the ability to air opinions, doubts, frustration and theories, then not only are we are giving a platform for these be proven or disproven within an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding, but in doing so we include everyone. To me, reading is probably the least overwhelming and arguably most effective first step we can take – as individuals, at least – towards dealing with the spread of dis- and mis-information in society.
I am very grateful to The National Archives for allocating me a free ticket as a student – and I am looking forward to continuing these dialogues and lines of enquiry both in my studies and in my personal onlife too.