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Bullshit, the noisy conqueror of the information space

November 30, 2020

In 2018, we wrote about a special kind of pro-Kremlin media content: infoshum.

The word infoshum has its roots in the internationally known term “white noise”, i.e. random and meaningless noise, or otherwise known as “info-noise”. It is in the grey zone between information and disinformation. And we have evidence that it is actively being pushed by pro-Kremlin media.

An important concept to help us understand infoshum is bullshit.

Interestingly, there actually exists a theory of bullshit and it has implications for disinformation.

This theory was presented in the book “On Bullshit”, by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. The very first lines are:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.”

According to Mr Frankfurt, bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without any concern for truth. This lack of concern distinguishes the bullshitter from the liar. The bullshitter is more radical.

The liar knows and cares about truth, and this is precisely why he tries to cover it. The bullshitter however, does not care whether he utters truth or lies. His focus is solely on persuasion.

Frankfurt does not claim that there is more bullshit in society than in the past. Instead, he explains that all forms of communications have increased, leading to more visible bullshit.

Think about this. Frankfurt published the book 2005. Already then, he wrote about the amplification of bullshit. However, this was years before the spectacular rise of social media. In 2005, the most valuable companies of the world still managed oil and money, instead of information; and Facebook had meagre 6 million friends, mostly US college students.

Fast forward to 2020, bullshit has become a lot darker than even Frankfurt perhaps predicted. Sometimes, it seems our democracies drowning in bullshit. Sadly, our database covers quite some bull.

A recent and extravagant example is the Danes being painted as zoophilians.

Aleksey Zhuravlyov, member of the Duma, stated that facilities for zoophiles have been opened in Denmark, where one can go and “rape a turtle.” This resonates with earlier narratives, in which the Danes were portrayed as zoophiles. It also fits a larger narrative of the moral decline of the West.

There are more examples. What should one make of “the time Russian TV claimed gay couples could buy an actual baby at a fair in Brussels?”, or when it was claimed that the “Council of Europe was trying to divide men and women of the Russian delegation into 6 sexes”?

Occupying the information space

Why would anyone spread bullshit? In the end, the goal is to occupy the information space.

As we flagged in February, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kremlin-funded think tank, published an essay titled “Securing Information for Foreign Policy Purposes in the Context of Digital Reality”. The paper claimed that:

“A preventively shaped narrative, answering to the national interests of the state, can significantly diminish the impact of foreign forces’ activities in the information sphere, as they, as a rule, attempt to occupy “voids” [in the information flow].”

This strategy points to the ambition to take away attention from a certain truth. Therefore one who applies this strategy is a liar, not a bullshitter.

However, both the tactical liar and the bullshitter share an attitude. Substance is secondary, and the primary goal is to flood the information system.

With this perspective, even false information that does not seem to be directly harmful, is dangerous because it occupies space, hurting the general conditions to establish truth.

In this regard, it is in itself telling that in Russia, almost half of all political conversation on Twitter is conducted by bots.

Researchers proved that this is also the case with regards to Covid-19. They scrutinised more than 200 million virus-related tweets worldwide and concluded that since January about 45% of the tweets were sent by accounts that behave more like computerised robots than humans.

In 2018 Facebook deleted 835 million fake accounts – that’s almost ten percent of the earth’s population.

Steve Bannon once notoriously said: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

The falsifiability of bullshit

If you want to flood the information system, bullshit is a fine instrument, because it might be harder to falsify than a lie.

The well-known philosopher Karl Popper called this falsifiability: the capability of a claim to be contradicted by evidence.

For example, “all swans are white” is falsifiable. You need only one black swan to disprove it.

Whereas, “this human action is altruistic” is a non-falsifiable statement. This is because we have no instruments to decide, whether or not an action is driven by self-interest.

In the disinformation context, this works the same.

For example, if you push the narrative that the BBC claims the MH17-flight was downed by a Ukraine fighter jet, this can easily by disproved. The documentary was clearly misrepresented.

It becomes more challenging, however, if you want to refute the following claim: George Soros is the driving force behind a secret society supporting colour revolutions, their hidden intent is to overthrow all nation states, to make space for a world government.

This can never be disproven completely. However, that does not make it true. Rather, it strongly suggests we are dealing with bullshit. And as we know bullshit is not innocent.

But wait a minute, isn’t it a strange coincidence that Soros was a student of Karl Popper?!?! Very strange indeed…