9 days after US senator Herman Cain attended President Trump’s rally in Tulsa on June 20th without a mask, he was diagnosed with COVID19. Admitted to a hospital two days later he died on July 30th. In an unbiased, fact-based, truth-oriented world, this single incident – there are hundreds of others - should have been enough to convince Americans of their leader’s disastrous coronavirus handling.
Instead – despite all his pandemic and other failures – President Trump has been narrowing Joe Biden’s lead in the Presidential elections to an extent that pundits think he can still pull a win out of his MAGA hat, a la 2016. If I can survive COVID19 anyone can: is Trumps message and people are buying it even when they know Trump survived due to medical intervention no single individual on the planet had got, and despite him barely tweeting for 3 days (Oct 2 - Oct 5) perhaps because he was so weak he didn’t have enough strength to even move the thumb to retweet enough.
As if that wasn’t enough, he openly emboldens armed right-wing nuts, normalises racism, bigotry and misogyny and whether he wins or loses, November 3 could mark the beginning of a new civil war in the USA as the president knows at least a third of Americans will cheer him on to their own deaths. How many more deaths that would cause, is anyone’s guess.
The old mantra was - you can’t fool all the people all of the time. The new tech-age mantra is: you can fool most of the people into becoming your fanatics with the right technological tools.
The tool here is censorship. Not the pre-tech, stifled free-speech censorship. Today, truth is censored by a bombardment of disinformation. A lie can travel halfway across the world while the truth is putting on its shoes: satirised Jonathan Swift. Imagine if instead of one lie to counter a truth, you have hundreds, even thousands. Inside such a blitzkrieg, no truth – however strong – can hope to survive.
This is the basis of psywar – psychological warfare – that spy agencies indulge in during wars. What autocrats have figured is that it’s as effective outside a war and can be deployed all the time to attack opponents. You can undermine an enemy nation and bring it down on its knees without firing a single bullet. All you have to do is fan the radical, lunatic fringe and let it become the mainstream.
Why not go a step further and deploy psywar on your own citizens to attack political and ideological opponents? Like they do in India where BJP’s troll factory produces and disseminates a blitzkrieg of fake news everyday, neutralising facts and truth before they have a chance to reach people.
While a lunatic far-right and far-left fringe has always existed and sought power in every nation, in the pre-tech era they took decades to come out of the shadows. Take the case of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - RSS in India which was reviled post-independence in India but worked diligently for half a century before they first came to power. Despite this, they truly came on their own only during the technological revolution of this decade, their rise to power fuelled not by the hard work of cadres anymore, but by a web of lies and misinformation created and spread via the internet, especially social media.
A very close, woke, vegan, MBA, animal rights activist friend had told me a few years ago that Jawaharlal Nehru died of AIDS because of his debauchery. I told her AIDS wasn’t discovered until two decades after his death. That didn’t matter to her. She said she felt it was true.
Turns out how she had reached this ‘feeling’ were via videos of Rajiv Dixit – a far-right conspiracy nut from India’s right-wing who is a global pioneer of lies and disinformation wars. In the few years that he was on YouTube, he created many videos peddling conspiracy theories, most of whom are still in circulation and continue to influence millions. Ironically, he is alleged to have been killed by a protégé, who – true to his guru’s teaching – created the first coronavirus cure.
His gems include: Nehru died of an STD (allegedly syphilis, not AIDS as my friend believed) he contracted from Edwina Mountbatten; eye infections, pancreatic cancer, radiation poisoning… indeed anything can be cured by cow urine; Tagore was an unpatriotic stooge of the British etc. Rajiv Dixit has spawned an entire industry of fake news and his direct or tacit acolytes include – besides politicians holding the highest offices of power - some of the most prominent news channels in India, who do what Dixit did, but with finesse and better production quality, thus becoming much more believable. They lined up to praise to the sky Dixit’s allegedly killer protégé who made the fake coronavirus cure.
One of the biggest targets of Rajiv Dixit acolytes is Jawaharlal Nehru, who – despite some glaring flaws – by almost every single metric you can use to measure, was the best PM India ever had so far. Different conspiracy theories claim that Nehru was: born in a brothel, called Subhash Bose a war criminal, fathered Amitabh Bachchan, had ancestors who were Muslims… the list is endless and if you have a creative mind, you can add a few of your own. Nehru, like Mohandas Gandhi, is fair game in 21st century India. Nobody threatens rape or lynching no matter what you say about them.
Told with conviction and produced with flair, these lies catch people unawares. I have an uncle in Assam who asked if it’s true aliens land and roam in our streets freely in human shape and if the government encourages this while keeping it a secret. I told him it was true, but only in the film franchise named: Men in Black. This uncle is a middle-aged teacher in a government school. When I enquired I realised how he got influenced. A year ago he had bought his first smartphone with internet and had, by accident, clicked a video on a conspiracy theory on YouTube. The YouTube algorithm did the rest and sent him spiraling down a rabbit hole of misinformation and lies so huge, you’d think it’s been produced by comedians of The Onion. Irony stabbed itself to death as many parodies made by Onion and other satirical sites have been believed to be true.
In the 20th century, we thought human beings were unique, that our feelings are what makes us better than any Artificial Intelligence. It turns out – as any advertiser will attest - feelings are as easily malleable as wax. Sometimes all that’s needed to twist or create non-existent emotions is a little heat of fake news.
Truth is, every single one of us is a personal fake news generator. We make and reorder memories to fit a narrative or emotion we believe in at that moment. A secure, positive-minded person dumped by a cheating partner will think – good riddance and that there are many more fish in the global pond. An insecure person, given to negativity will store only negative bits of the relationship and seek to throw acid – physical or social – on the abandoning party.
This happens because human reality – not unlike Schrodinger’s cat – is dualistic. First is what really happens at a particular space and time, and the second reality is how we see it, how we record it, how we reorder the memory, and how we narrate it over time. We often – especially in the hypersensitive age today – reinterpret even the already reinterpreted memories, to suit the dominant personal, social or political narrative of the day.
The personal, it is said, is political. Now turn this ability to recreate personal reality to the political sphere and imagine what a spy in a big country with the knowledge of how to execute a psywar will do. Imagine him coming to power. What would you have? Why - you’d have a global war on truth?
That’s exactly what former KGB spy Vladimir Putin has done. Russia’s greatest import today is not ideology or culture or art as it used to be under its Communist flag. Its biggest manufactured import is misinformation that influences nations and changes their destiny. In the 20th century, the USA spent billions to send an army of spies and soldiers to topple governments. Today any nation can do it with a small platoon of cyber warriors without firing a single bullet and at a tiny fraction of the costs.
In this war on truth, on one side you have journalists, writers, researchers, etc. spending months and years to painstakingly dig out the truth, up against trolls who literally make stories up from the top of their heads, throw it at you with such regularity that the bombardment to your senses makes you so numb that when the well-researched truth amassed with years of research is put before you, you don’t care about it anymore. Your emotions and senses have been neutered by this barrage of lies and disinformation.
It's a blitzkrieg, a tsunami that often the strongest find hard to resist. And the one aiding and abetting this global war – irony be damned – is technology that was supposed to liberate us.
In the past, a man screaming conspiracy theories in the village square would be ignored as a lunatic by all. Today, he finds believing minds across the world. One man with one crazy conspiracy theory will blind a million others across the world thanks to the ‘democratic’ internet, especially social media. It’s very open nature is causing the world to close down. If globalization or the world as a global village was the mantra of the pre-social media age, right when the internet has truly made the world a global village – the ‘village’ folks say ‘F**k the world’. Minds that were expanding after the big bang of technology, are contracting with alarming speed.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rise and sustenance of the political brand of Donald Trump. A man who should be in prison – least of all for tax fraud – is governing the strongest military nation and spends every day creating and/or spreading fake and unsubstantiated things (can’t call them news), turning them into news by his very endorsement. It doesn’t matter to him that his countrymen are up in arms – literally – against each other. One wrong bullet fired at the wrong time could send the nation spiraling down into the chaos of a civil war. If the world’s most powerful democracy with an endless arsenal of checks and balances has been unable to defend itself, imagine what chance a haphazard democracy like India or others have.
When the net is free to spread anything, lies will spread much faster. Today while the truth is wearing shoes, the barrage of lies has not only traveled the world and thus minds of people multiple times over but also killed the news cycle. When the truth stands up to race, she finds the race is over.
The warlords of this new war on truth, are leaders of some of the greatest, biggest nations of the world on both sides of the left and right of the political spectrum. Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsanaro, Xi Jinping are leaders who not only rule over nearly half the world but are lynchpins of fake news – some openly, others tacitly – who have flourished because of it and hence promote it causing death and destruction in their wake with the only ones standing in their way; they kill, imprison or render ineffective using more lies and disinformation and the occasional poison.
And you, poor consumers of targeted garbage masquerading as news, will helplessly consume it. You will believe that a band of dumb religious bigots like the Tablighi Jamaat are spreading the coronavirus even when the world doesn’t yet know the virus well, that masks are useless because coronavirus is fake because you’ve watched a slickly made documentary called Plandemic, that cow dung will protect you from nuclear radiation, that 5G spreads coronavirus, that a molester President is taking on a cabal of pedophiles just because of an anonymous QAnon ‘drops’ grammatically incorrect absurdities on some forum.
You will believe these and when you do, power will be taken away from you in its wake: the power to know the truth, the power to fight for your rights, and when the time comes - the power to defend yourself and everyone you love.
Herman Cain rose from the dead two weeks after his death to give Americans a message on Twitter: “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.” The greatest irony of 2020 won’t be a dead man Tweeting that what killed him isn’t deadly, but that the man who almost literally was responsible for his death and of hundreds of thousands of others of his countrymen this year has a fair shot, at re-election.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)