AN information war is raging. Many people regard the state, institutional science and BBC as dependable sources of information. A sizeable minority, though, distrust government and approved experts, instead turning to critics. During the purported pandemic of Covid-19, parallel realities emerged. This two-part article was inspired by a special edition of Scientific American, titled ‘Truth v Lies’, containing more than 100 pages of intellectual rationale for tighter information control. We shall explore the concept of misinformation from two angles. First, as epistemology: how is knowledge created and validated for public consumption, and politically incorrect information discredited? Secondly, we shall delve into the ideological motives for propaganda and censorship.
KNOWLEDGE is power, explained Michel Foucault, and the powerful are unwilling to share it. Consider the allegedly lurid activities of President Joe Biden’s son, lurking on his misplaced laptop. Consider the multitude of VIPs who visited underage sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s island (the trial of accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell was not televised, and the clients for whom she trafficked victims has remained secret). Consider use of the Emergency Act to quash the Canadian truckers’ protest, and the redacted documents provided to the official inquiry on this extraordinary decision. We, the ordinary people, are only an edited version of truth.
On the outbreak of Covid-19, all debate was quashed. This is illustrated by the recent Spectator revelations of Isabel Oakeshott, who helped former Health Secretary Matt Hancock to write his account of the unprecedented public health regime. With a growing resistance movement holding large rallies in Trafalgar Square, in September 2020 Hancock implored Michael Gove to ‘kill it off’. Meanwhile Hancock worked behind the scenes to deplatform eminent scientists Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan of Oxford University, whose lockdown scepticism he slated as ‘absurd’.
Epistemology is the study and application of knowledge. The Enlightenment, facilitated by the printing press, was a liberating development, leading to mass literacy and enfranchisement. But authoritarians always strive to manipulate information to their advantage, while suppressing opposing evidence or opinion.
Then came the cyber revolution, and the summit of ‘Mount Freedom’ came into view. However, as the faltering Arab Spring showed, the internet is a double-edged sword: it is useful for building a movement, and for state surveillance. Nowadays optimism has faded, as governments collaborate with Big Tech to stifle inconvenient truths. New laws are criminalising wrong-think.
The establishment uses rhetorical devices to preserve its epistemological hegemony. In the 1960s the CIA devised the term ‘conspiracy theory’ to discredit alternative truths circulating around the assassination of President Kennedy. Melinda Wenner Moyer’s 2019 article in Scientific American on believers in conspiracy theories denies conspiring by people in power. Whether she is being naïve or partisan, for Moyer conspiracy is a comfort for people who fear progress.