At a glance.
- Celebrating the Taliban online.
- Beijing's "firehose."
- Moscow's whispering.
- Dictator inflation as a common theme.
- The dark side of efforts against disinformation.
Islamists celebrate the Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Taliban's victory over the now deposed Afghan government has been widely cheered by Islamist sympathizers over social media, including sympathizers belonging to the surviving rump of al Qaeda. Relations between the Taliban and ISIS, some elements of which have sought to establish themselves in Afghanistan, have been more competitive than cooperative, the two groups having long been at odds over control of territory.
As social media platforms consider how to respond to the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan, the Washington Post says that the Taliban itself seems to be punctiliously toeing the line drawn by those platforms' terms and conditions. While their account isn't blue-checked, Taliban publicists used Twitter to announce their assumption of control in Kabul, and in general, the Verge reports, Afghanistan's new rulers have been quick to embrace social media and establish a presence there. They've gone so far as to circulate WhatsApp numbers (Ars Technica describes them as a kind of helpline) that former regime supporters can call to express repentance, conversion, and a desire for amnesty.
Some of the platforms have sought to interdict the Taliban's use of their services. WhatsApp has tried to block Taliban accounts, but it's finding that difficult to do, Vice says, because the service can't read their texts and so isn't readily able to shut them down. “As a private messaging service, we do not have access to the contents of people's personal chats; however, if we become aware that a sanctioned individual or organization may have a presence on WhatsApp, we take action,” a spokesperson told Vice.
Facebook is also taking down Taliban content "proactively," as Bloomberg quotes the social network, but here too such content is likely to prove quicksilver, as difficult to catch as the most fugitive meme. In any case, the Taliban have clearly been thinking about how to use social media for some time. The Washington Post alludes to expert opinion that believes the new Islamic Emirate is receiving professional PR advice from some competent consulting firm. That's certainly possible; it's happened elsewhere before.
Two styles of authoritarian disinformation. First, a "firehose..."
WIRED calls it that, anyway, and it's apt enough given the targeted volume of the material being pumped out. Recorded Future concludes that the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP for short, the attribution is "probable"), displeased with the BBC's coverage of the ongoing repression of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs has been putting a "gloom filter" over news concerning China. The CCP was also energized by the BBC's reporting last month of Beijing's active recruitment of foreign agents of influence to push the party line on this and other matters. As has been the typical Chinese style in disinformation, the goal is positive persuasion, convincing the audience that Chinese policy is not only right, and on the right side of history, but is also being slandered by foreigners.
The alleged "gloom filter" is not intended metaphorically. It's said to be a literal filter the BBC is accused of applying to photographs of China in order to render the appearance of Chinese life drab, sad, unfulfilling, and so on. The BBC of course denies doing any such thing, and indeed this sort of accusation is often projection, seeing the adversary doing the sorts of things that would occur to you. Recorded Future writes:
"There have been over 11,000 references of the Mandarin-language term for 'gloom filter' across open sources in the past 6 months, with over half of them occurring in the last 30 days. English-language mentions of 'BBC underworld filter' have also spiked over the past several weeks, totaling over 56,300 in 6 weeks. Since the 'stringers' have started spreading Chinese propaganda, English-language references to the 'gloom filter' have increased dramatically.... We are confident that this uptick results from recent pro-China influencers amplifying the 'gloom filter' theory.
...second, whispered insinuation.
Operation Secondary Infektion remains in business, Recorded Future reports, "consistent but stagnated." Its goals are fundamentally opportunistic and entropic, aimed at exacerbating fissures in American and Western European civil society. Recent activity has sought to encourage anti-Muslim sentiment and COVID-19 skepticism among susceptible audiences on the political right. The messaging has no essential connection, simply trying what it appears may work. So far, consistent with its assessment that the campaign has stagnated, Recorded Future sees little evidence of its achieving successful, widespread amplification. "Secondary Infektion largely remains ineffective in penetrating the mainstream (including social media like Reddit, and prominent news outlets)," the report concludes, "in part due to the rigor of platform-based suspension features, the alertness of forum moderators, and the visibility of these tactics to the broader research community."
Where's the common authoritarian style?
They all want to be the 1927 New York Yankees, not the 1967 New York Mets (two years before they became the Miracle Mets). That is, they want to be seen as the inexorably successful top dog, not the lovable underdog. Foreign Policy sees the world entering an era of "dictator inflation," where the boss is ten feet tall and can make the foreigners dance to whatever he's piping (cf. Moscow and Beijing, for respectively the entropic and negentropic tunes).
A contrarian caution on the urge towards information control.
A long essay in Harpers (by BuzzFeed reporter Joseph Bernstein) describes what it calls "Big Disinfo," a think-tankish industry devoted to winkling out and frustrating disinformation. (It's not, as its name might be taken to imply, a cartel that pushes lies and misconceptions; rather the opposite.) The essay sees the foundations of Big Disinfo in the founding myths of the post-Second World War advertising industry, especially in those myths' sheen of scientific support.
"Big Disinfo can barely contain its desire to hand the power of disseminating knowledge back to a set of 'objective' gatekeepers," the author argues. In this the myth it appeals to is a prelapsarian one: before there was Madison Avenue, we lived in a benign curated garden administered by major newspapers, a couple of wire services, and a handful of broadcast networks. And social media have mechanistically manipulated us to dance to their promptings. The desire of Big Disinfo is a return to that garden.
You can be as hostile to lies and error as Arnauld and Nicole were when they wrote The Port Royal Logic, but like them recognize that lies and error are unlikely to yield to regulation or administrative fiat. The regulators and administrators may in principle be on the side of the angels, but they're not themselves angels, just the same more-or-less imperfect people as the rest of us.