This article will be part of a series on the use of propaganda, the internet, and social media to influence the political narrative in Europe, the US and Russia. It’s a work in progress, so check back for more articles in the near future.
In the late-90s there was a television show on Channel 4 in the UK called For the Love of…. Each week the show’s presenter, Jon Ronson, of The Men Who Stare at Goats fame, would tentatively guide panel discussion with a group of people who had a strange or unusual passion.
While some episodes covered niche topics like cataloguing radio-transmission towers or trees, the best episodes dealt with bizarre theories like the lunar conspiracy, or alien abduction. Episodes titled For the Love of…Ghosts, For the Love of…Cryptozoology, For the Love of…Diana Conspiracies, and For the Love of…Alien Abduction were among some of the show’s most exciting for an impressionable teenager such as myself.
Each episode Ronson would sit slouched in a comfy chair, cigarette smoke twisting around the sparse studio, asking questions of his guests in a soporific northern accent. But it was the way he encouraged the panel to interact that made the show. On a modern TV show the host would shoot questions at the guests highlighting or ridiculing their beliefs; instead Ronson encouraged them to share their interests, to feel they were in a space in which they could openly discuss topics that in normal society would invite derision.
It was great television, and I often go back to watch bootleg episodes on YouTube to enjoy this little slice of 90s culture and watch with fascination as five people relax, discuss the death of Princess Diana, while chain-smoking on national television.
It was these little capsules of counter culture that fascinated me as a teenager and introduced new ideas — no matter how ridiculous — which I would otherwise never have come across. The fact that there were people who believed that they had been abducted by aliens, or that the man hadn’t landed on the moon, or that ghosts were real, was amazing. Where else would you have heard of these shocking revelations?
During that time, as I’m sure most teenagers did, I searched out ideas which challenged the social norms. Often these controversies would come from a library or Sunday morning television where some poor programme scheduler found he could fill 45 minutes or air time with a cheap America UFO documentary or an hour long special on the JFK assassination; and I suspect it’s these fictions presented as fact that got me interested in science fiction.
The Universal Megaphone
For the Love of… put niche beliefs in front of a large audience and amplified the message a thousand times. It put people with strange and controversial ideas into a friendly setting, legitimised them and gave them the appearance of authority.
The show, and those like it, were analogues of modern internet culture encapsulated in the form of a 90s television show.
The problem now is that while on television these fantasies and obsessions were harmless fun — the discussions controlled and filtered by a production company — on the internet there are no such controls. On the internet controversial ideas don’t disappear after the show’s finished; they can take hold and twist and warp into horrifying delusions.
The “classic” conspiracies like alien abduction, the Government covering up alien visitations, Rendlesham Forest and Roswell are all pretty harmless. No-one is going to get hurt by believing that an alien spacecraft landed in East Anglia and the US army covered it up, and at the very least they’re entertaining stories. But the internet allowed a new generation of conspiracy theories to ferment and, without the filter of a television production company, film studios, and the cleansing light of society, the dark side of conspiracy theory has emerged and are now being taken advantage of for political gain — and that isn’t just another conspiracy theory.
The Black Hole of YouTube
Search “Conspiracy” on YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of hours of videos on a thousand different topics ranging from fun, to bizarre, to shocking and disturbing.
Take the amateur “documentary” Loose Change as an example. This film began life as a student project to create a video using real television news clips. The idea was to weave a fictional story that the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York were a false flag operation carried out by the US government. While this video wasn’t the genesis of the conspiracy, Loose Change has since been watched by millions of viewers on sites like YouTube, and has helped to develop an online community of like minded people. And unlike the alien abduction stories,
Encouraged by social media and online forums, this type of conspiracy theory has enabled relatively small groups of people to incubate dangerous and disturbing ideas and amplify them to the point where they become mainstream. The internet allows people to spread horrific ideas anonymously.
During the 2016 US presidential election, troll farms funded by the Russian government took advantage of this same distribution method by planting stories through social media by pushing their own conspiracy theories ideas that were designed to affect the outcome of the election. I’ll write more about this in a future article, but the outcome was that false stories such as reported failing health of Hilary Clinton, the organisation of race protests by US citizens, and far worse became mainstream news; and more importantly, created a fog of disillusion that still hangs over the United States.
But this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Weaponised propaganda, forced into the mainstream — conspiracy theories made real — have been used across Europe to encourage discontent and the rise of right-wing political organisations by the Russian government and intelligence services.
The internet has allowed small groups of people to gather unchallenged within their own self-reinforcing bubble of beliefs. People are now able to associate anonymously, based on ideas and political views rather than their geographic location, and this makes it very easy to manipulate conversations and carry out influence operations.
The result is that a layer of confusion has been laid over a large enough section of the population to influence their thinking and political decision making. We’ve seen this across the western world, in the UK, the US, France, Poland and other parts of Europe. These are all tactics that the Russian government have used on its own people and during and after the invasion of Ukraine.
The era of “fake news” is upon us, and it’s used by those who wish to maintain political influence.