28 March 2022

As war rages, the West is mired in the fog of news

By

Unlike many people, I had ‘Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine’ on my 2022 bingo card, but only because I’ve had ‘Russia invades Ukraine at some point’ on my bingo card since about 1994. 

My first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, is set in Ukraine against a background of that country’s tragic and bloody history, particularly the 1932-3 Ukrainian Famine (Ukr: Holodomor, ‘extermination by starvation’). Researching and writing the book made it clear to me Russia has always considered Ukraine part of itself, much as China sees Tibet and Taiwan as part of itself. It’s why, for both sides, the current conflict is existential. This means, since February 24, I’ve done the studio rounds explaining aspects of Ukrainian history, culture, and literature. So far, so predictable.

No-one believes you!

What I didn’t have on my 2022 bingo card was just how much of my commentary would not actually be about Ukraine itself, but responding to something that’s become pervasive across the developed world since 2016. That is, many people no longer believe what anyone in authority tells them. This isn’t simple scepticism of politicians or governments, either, which in my view is healthy. The most intense rejectionism is directed at the media. Never popular at the best of times, journalists have now fallen below used-car salesmen, estate agents, and shyster lawyers in public estimation.

I’ve written elsewhere how I thought a lot of it has to do with poor quality, censorious ‘in the tank for authoritarian public health’ reporting during the Covid-19 pandemic. Apart from promoting policies inimical to civil liberties, the media showed itself to be at least inaccurate and sometimes untrustworthy. Masks were bad until they were good; Covid-19 came from a bat in a wet market until it didn’t; lockdowns were bad until they were good and then they were bad again. In addition – and as a matter of routine – media factcheckers and journalists evinced chronic innumeracy, rendering themselves figures of fun on all sides of the Covid debate. 

‘Maybe we should give Vladimir Putin the Nobel Prize for Medicine,’ my ever-cynical partner says, ‘given he clearly found a cure for Covid’.

However, since that piece was published, I’ve come to the view that public rejection of everything that proceedeth from the media’s mouth is not, by and large, something for which the public can be blamed, and isn’t just about the pandemic. Long before Covid, the media did what little reputation it had for truthfulness irreparable harm through dishonest reporting of Brexit, Trump, and BLM. And the thing is, once trust is lost, it’s hard to regain. A couple may stay together after adultery by one of the pair, but the relationship is never the same.

This means we now have an information crisis backing onto a military crisis, and it often operates independently of politics. People who’ve told me to my face the Ukraine war isn’t real and everyone in Mariupol is a crisis actor are not necessarily pro-Putin. Russia-boosters are also a symptom of an unhealthy media ecosystem, although none of them, so far as I’m aware, deny there’s an actual war. 

This distrust means Putin has scored direct propaganda hits on his Western targets, no bots or dodgy dossiers required. His observation last Friday that J. K. Rowling wouldn’t be cancelled in Russia for her views on trans rights set Western dogs and cats against each other nicely, forcing Rowling to point out, not only does she stand with Ukraine, she’s donated millions to support the country since the invasion. The response from many woke leftists (‘TERFS endorse Putin lol’) does suggest, while divide and conquer may be one of the oldest military strategies there is, it nonetheless still works.

Of course, missed in all this is the fact Ukrainians wouldn’t have tried to cancel JK Rowling either: while notably more liberal than Russia, it’s still a conservative Catholic and Orthodox country. I called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in advance but must admit I certainly didn’t have J. K. Rowling v Vladimir Putin on my 2022 bingo card. Maybe von Clausewitz was wrong, and war is shitposting on the internet by other means.

It’s notable how the transgender debate — even more than Covid or BLM — is at the epicentre of media dissembling. A recent and egregious case concerns NBC photoshopping Lia Thomas’s face after a recent swimming victory, not only smoothing out wrinkles but narrowing the jaw and obscuring the Adam’s apple. Photographer Ian Miles Cheong (cited in the linked article) is correct to point out that ‘journalists used to get fired for airbrushing news photographs. Now they’re airbrushing Lia Thomas (for obvious reasons) and apparently that is journalism’.

Is it any wonder we’ve got Ukraine War Truthers?

Now it’s broken legacy journalistic funding and advertising models, social media has made everything about our current information ecosystem worse. I’ve wondered, lately, why I can’t seem to get exercised about the Online Safety Bill, beyond being opposed to it in a diffuse sort of way. I suspect social media’s role in the destruction of accurate reporting is the reason. We’re currently mired in the fog of news as much as the fog of war, and I struggle to see how letting social media outfits mark their own homework rather than having Ofcom do it makes much of a difference.

We have been here before

There’s a similarity to how the arrival of computer technology in many workplaces over the last 30-40 years (from PCs in offices through to computerised production lines) has not had a measurable impact on the rate of economic growth. Computers in offices don’t clearly improve worker productivity compared to earlier innovations like typewriters, for example. It may be that social media and computer technology will one day increase workplace productivity or enhance civil society rather than undermining both, but it’s going to take decades before we know one way or the other.

One useful comparison is with the introduction of electricity. Electrification started in the 1880s and was largely complete in Britain and the United States by the late 1940s. It did not have a measurable impact on economic growth for most of this period. Economist Tim Harford thinks (and I agree) this was because it took a long time for electricity to prompt wider change in industrial organisation.

Pre-electric factories had a single steam-powered engine which powered a series of belts running through the length of the building. These belts were connected to large machines on each floor, tended by workers on a rota. At the beginning of electrification many owners took out their steam powered engine and replaced it with an electric one. The costs and benefits of doing this mostly balanced out (they ran more cheaply but broke down more often) so there was little impact on growth.

It wasn’t until much later people realised that each machine could have its own power source, doing away with the belts altogether. But then the whole factory floor had to be redesigned, and workers needed special training for each machine — on and on it went. It took such a long time for the full implications of electrification to be realised that the dividends it paid in economic growth only started to appear after WWII, by which point it was allegedly already finished.

It’s quite possible that, far from computerisation and social media interconnectivity being finished processes, we are still in the early stages of realising the full implications for workplaces and civil society more widely. It’s possible those implications may be wholly or mainly negative; at present social media is a giant nonsense vector. It’s too early to tell.

Basic computerisation is a process that started in the early 1970s, mostly in universities and large companies. The arrival of AI, peer-to-peer networks, and similar innovations – together often grandly called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ by some commentators – is comparatively very recent. And it’s not a revolution at all. It’s just the latest attempt to reformat our workplaces and social organisation to realise the full potential of computers and networked communications. 

And the sobering fact is, if it succeeds, it will be the first success.

Meanwhile, ladies and gentlemen of the press, sort yourselves out. There’s a bloody war on.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, 'The Hand that Signed the Paper'. Her latest novel is 'Kingdom of the Wicked'; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.