Brexit and Trump, leading from behind

Ilan Greenberg


As we are now all too aware, the fin de siècle obituaries for the anti-globalization movement were premature. What once roared in the late 1990s made little noise a decade later. The window-smashing Seattle WTO protestors in the 1999 ”Battle of Seattle” were among the first to use the internet as an organizing tool and are remembered for that milestone (and for their mania for breaking glass). But that week of fury at the forces of globalization — wealth inequality, the commoditization of traditional ways of life, the prioritization of the profits of capital over labor, the bad deal forced on poor countries by rich countries — is otherwise seldom recalled. When a few months later, Naomi Klein’s anti-globalization thumper “No Logo” captured book best seller lists, corporations like Nike went ballistic and the editors of The Economist demanded a live debate.

But then, for both the propopents of globalization and its discontents, the argument moved on, forever wars began, the whole proposition that globalization is a thing that could be grasped and be accepted or rejected seemed to fade.

When Brexit and Trump came along — and also trade tariffs and mass migrations and Facebook malfeasance and on and on and on and on — off we went, partying like it’s 1999. Soldiers again fill the globalization battlefield.

But what if the present-day meltdown over globalization is just prelude to something much bigger, stronger, more awful? What if the storyline that began, say, in 1999 isn’t traversing a 20-year arc but is on a much longer march, and today’s headlines are just midway exposition?

That’s my bet.

And if you saw some of the more startling stories published this week, you might be thinking the same. The New York Times published a sensational piece on how YouTube, in its unbending quest for the huge viewer engagement that drives revenue and profits for its parent company Google, is distorting almost every aspect of life in Brazil, thrusting far-right populism to power and even thwarting public health. “Brazil’s medical community had reason to feel outmatched,” wrote Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, the columnist duo responsible for the most consistently superb global affairs analysis published today. Harvard researchers found that YouTube’s systems frequently directed users who searched for information on Zika, or even those who watched a reputable video on health issues, toward conspiracy channels.

Disinformation had already seemed safely defined as a marker of globalization. But it, too, could be also just at the midway point. A hydra-headed information war that gained worldwide attention during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and remained a fixture in the U.S.-Russia relationship but eventually spread to every part of the globe and into every crevice of human endeavor, from politics to medicine, entertainment to scientific research to parenting.

Disinformation is metastasizing everywhere, into the smallest city-states. “Now we see a wide range of targets and attackers. Russia has mounted disinformation campaigns all across Europe; China is in the midst of a major disinformation campaign against Taiwan; and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have mounted a global disinformation against Qatar, to name just a few,” Jonathan Cristol, a Research Fellow at Adelphi University, told me.

“The sad reality of the moment is that certain state actors have realized that disinformation is a cheap way to achieve their political goals or weaken their targets — which now include Brazil, South Korea, Philippines, to name just a few — without risking military retaliation,” said Cristol. 

An academic study published last week by Jonathan Corpus Ong, Ross Tapsell, and Nicole Curato underscores how disinformation is fast entering the next stage of its globalization journey. In their study of elections in the Philippines, the researchers exposed a wider network of micro- and nano-influencers targeting smaller groups of voters and circulating manipulative stories designed to mobilize political supporters, including parody accounts, sexy online celebrities and closed conspiracy groups. Disinformation, basically, is individually targeting every group of people in the Philippines, no matter how small or obscure. For every door, a nano-influencer knocks.

Read Further

Richard Stengel’s book Information Wars drops on October 8th. Readers of advance copies report it to be an essential account of disinformation’s spread and global triumph as it moves through Russia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and beyond.

Read No Further

Unfreedom of the Press by Mark Levin has now spent 12 weeks on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Having hit number one, it now holds steady as the sixth highest selling nonfiction book in the United States. Levin is an unctuous charlatan who peddlers absurd and unsubstantiated rumors to stoke the limbic brains of his conservative viewers on Fox News and online. His book is to media criticism as filler is to cheese, which is to say, it isn’t, wrote Annalisa Quinn in a devastating review for NPR.

Five or six years ago, the book market for right-wing screeds, the sort written by B-list former governors or the likes of Mark Levin, was declared dead, or at least in severe decline. By flocking to conservative publishing houses instead of sticking to the mainstream publishers responsible for their initital successes, conservative authors moved into a ghetto of stale conservative ideas and embraced a warped model for selling books — at least that was the argument at the time.

The sales success of a malodorous harangue like Unfreedom of the Press suggests the obituaries for poorly researched, terribly reasoned right-wing books were premature. The marketplace for bad ideas, whether that globalization is the root of all our problems or that people such as Mark Levin can explain media, is resilient. 

Write me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @eggopolis

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.