Had Professor Francis Fukuyama written his book The End of History today, he might instead have chosen the title ‘The End of Diplomacy’. That would be an accurate description of the status quo in which we find ourselves today.
Reports of a gas attack on 7 April in Douma, near Damascus, Syria, continue to dominate the international agenda, with global powers locked in disagreement over what transpired. Images and witness accounts point to casualties. Why is there such a macabre focus on the exact mechanism by which those people lost their lives? The fundamental cause is clear: the war that has been raging for over seven years has been accompanied by a parallel war, one of values and truths. But while the former has a direct impact on the course of history, the latter has the power to rewrite it.
We live in an age of digital diplomacy, digital reporting, digital emotion, digital political debate, and even digital humanity. Images depicting the horrors of war spread rapidly over social media, prompting public outcries that in turn spark political response. The much-needed space for cool-headed analyses of events, even horrific ones, is absent. What results directly from this is a very dangerous situation in the immediate future and the longer term. Complex narratives are simplified and key facts elided.
Images are circulated online that claim to be what they are not. We saw this with some #GazaUnderAttack images; UNRWA apologised for false labelling, and one ‘conflict picture’ that was heavily circulated online in fact came from a Lebanese music video. Politicians and officials in many countries stand accused of using photoshopped and fake images – without clearly signaling them as such – to amplify their rhetoric. Information is heavily edited, and ‘spun’ to reach particular ideological ends. The idea that combatants may be ‘bad guys’, but they’re ‘our bad guys’ – sadly persists.
Doubt and radically different perceptions define policy-making and public debate. And yet the body count in Syria is real – estimated at around 500,000, with a further 6.1 million internally displaced and 4.8 million seeking refuge abroad.
We are not quite at the point when a ‘fat finger’ mistake on Twitter could spark Armageddon, but we are closer than we were five or 15 years ago. Political decisions of the utmost complexity and gravity are increasingly made through the haze of tabloid headlines and emotive rhetoric. Digital diplomacy also plays a role, and the tone used in online platforms and in-person encounters sometimes seems to resemble street fighters more than official state representatives. But this is dangerous territory, as the line between peace and war seems thinner than ever.
We are no longer dependent on the extensively researched, accurately scripted, and carefully timed news-bulletins broadcast into our homes. The media market has changed. As the public’s attention and forms of delivery are limited information is condensed and, in the process, distorted. The political discourse becomes infantilised: simplicity and immediacy carry more weight than knowledge and analysis.
Our societies display a high degree of atomisation. Combined with economic precarity inherent in ongoing economic crises and the social disruption resulting from mass population movement, the already weakened political debate is further destabilized.
Disinformation and misinformation so permeate the public discourse in Europe and America that the term ‘Truth Decay’ has been developed. Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich at the RAND corporation identify the following features: cognitive biases; the rise of social media and other changes to the information environment; demands on the educational system that limit its ability to keep up with changes in the information ecosystem; political and social polarisation.
In today’s political discourse, influence is gained by understanding where people’s greatest emotional triggers lie. One key trigger is fear. Trapped in their own precarity, people are more likely to respond to threats and risks that would further destabilise what little regularity they have.
Two powers each stamping the other’s perspective ‘Fake News’ may seem hostile and unproductive. But in reality, their opposing actions combine to take the already partial narrative and spread doubt about what is real and what is not. That doubt is what gives the disinformation and misinformation campaigns the space to be successful. Previously, these processes of persuasion took a long time and delivered uncertain results.
It is hard to identify a way out. Moments of contemplation are what we need if we are to move from the hostile trading of accusations to an intelligent and meaningful debate about the highly complex issues we face.
Issues of fundamental human values, global power balance and security architecture, resource access and crisis response require something more than the condensed and infantilised form of debate we currently have. As Professor Sandel noted “I think there’s a great hunger among citizens to engage in more meaningful public debates about big ethical questions, including questions of values”.
Fake news is not a passing fad. Disinformation and misinformation are very old political tools. But today they spread at an alarming rate and have an extensive global reach. Sources can be difficult to trace and events hard to verify. Numerous parties have interests in promoting their own version of events.
We seem to be moving towards a point when the platforms are forced to acknowledge their role in this. Harvard Professor Sandel notes the “unaccountable power associated with the digital revolution” and argues that these platforms must choose to be either neutral – like an electric company, in which case they must submit to public regulation, or to be news distributors, in which case they must take responsibility for their content.
What has yet to be studied is how this ‘white noise’ will impact the study of history. Historians are better placed than many to unpick confused reports and interrogate primary and secondary material. But even they will struggle given the volumes involved. There is the very strong likelihood that many of these ‘claimed facts’ will be recorded as ‘verified or established facts’, rendering any change in the course of analysis virtually impossible and compromising our collective understanding of our history for decades to come.
As for Syria, the narratives different parties adhere to diverge to such an extent that efforts at deconfliction and conflict resolution, even under UN auspices, are difficult to initiate and harder to sustain. Yet this is what we must redouble our efforts to do – because our stability, peace, and economic prosperity relies on us continuing to be able to engage in dialogue.