Doubt is the commodity and uncertainty the infrastructure: epistemic problems in disinformation theory

How accurately can you describe the point of view opposing yours on an issue that is core to your sense of who you are? I’m not talking about a nice debating position but for example if you think that Scottish Independence or Unionism is fundamental to your sense of self, how far are you able to accurately describe the reasons the other side have? When it’s something that makes you angry or baffled. The answer to this question tells you about the extent of the epistemic divide in your society. This isn’t a call to all just get along because that is part of the problem: we aren’t grasping the power of vertical integration of self, context and information spheres.

Lecturing recently about the commodification and marketisation of disinformation I drew a lot on the work of Thomas Rid (2020) who has written an accessible history and theoretical study of information operations. As he shows overall disinformation operations are about the intent, rather than the form, of the operation. For that reason tactical moves like disclosing a campaign’s existence can be effective if the aim is to generate uncertainty. According to Rid (2020) what they do is attack the liberal epistemic order. This order has some features: that facts have their own life, independent of values and interests: that expertise should be independent of immediate political and strategic interest. That institutions should be built around those principles – a relatively impartial media, quiescent trade unions, universities, even churches and other private institutions, are part of the epistemic matrix undergirding liberalism. 

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this order has been eroded from multiple angles over the past decades by processes that have nothing to do with information operations. Independent media institutions like established newspapers have become uneconomic and replaced with a click-driven, rage fuelled, tribalist media. Increasingly the old institutions mimic the new. So the Independent newspaper evolved from a staid, slightly dull, irritatingly liberal, paper to a outrage driven, highly partial, publication reliant on a high throughput of offence driven eyeballs. The independence universities and the professions has been similarly eroded by the imposition of market driven governance on higher education, the NHS, and other bodies. 

It also doesn’t take a genius to note that the liberal epistemic order was always less than it was cracked up to be, as studied in the work of the Glasgow University Media Group among others. If we look at the history of trade union politics in France and Italy we see a fractured information order without a public square consensus. The erosion of this may be overplayed – for example, most UK citizens still get their news from the BBC. However survey data notes that there is a definite loss of trust among supporters of specific political viewpoints (Brexit, Scottish Nationalism being two). The liberal epistemic order was therefore neither as robust nor as liberal as it proclaimed itself to be and may have been contingent on a specific configuration of post-World War Two Bretton Woods governance. My view is that there’s something there that matters (in terms of the erosion of the public square and the deliberate use of IO to interfere with public life) but also that what is being attacked had already systematically weakened itself or been weakened.

The focus on fake news can mislead from the extent of informational control in digital capitalism. We can point to some specific developments more recently: the financialisation and datafication of disinformation markets, and the vertical integration of political power with distributed media which makes use of of a distributed labour infrastructure which is agile and available. This uses some of the same infrastructure of doubt and uncertainty which is employed by spam and ransomware operations. The same creation of a supply chain and use of financialisation processes such as auctions for services. These methods underpin a doubt infrastructure that can be deployed expose the information economy and polity to attempts to manipulate information for strategic ends as well as everyday annoyances. They deploy semiotic tools. Rather than generating propaganda, these methods generate confusion. The recent history of disinformation strikes at a number of question at the intersection of information science, sociology of markets, sociology of technology and the philosophy of knowledge: how can disinformation be defined, recognised and how can systems be made resilient against it. There are several thorny ontological and epistemological questions e.g. between the politics of knowledge, preference falsification, technical and social verification. We don’t easily know what disinformation is when we see it so we need agreement that we are in fact talking about the same thing. 

One way of doing that is to reframe the issue. It cannot be about pure information (no such thing) or uncontested knowledge (undesirable) but creating local, critical spaces where communities can decide on the informational priorities that matter to them. Returning to my starting point, we need to understand an epistemic contradiction: the most liberal viewpoints demand the most closure when they attempt to grasp the motives of others. People who voted for Britain leaving the EU have a much more accurate understanding of the Remain side’s motives than Remainers do of theirs. My hypothesis is that epistemic gap is due to the Remain side having a much more socially integrated multi layered knowledge structure which operates through everyday spaces (work, university, neighbourhood) in ways that the Leave side does not. The reason the EU vote was a surprise to many was that this conceptual integration around Leave is more fragmented, less socially/culturally powerful, but still there.

Rid T (2020) Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email Tweet @angusbancroft

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