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No Tern Unstoned: Disappearing down the ‘rabbit hole’ of Fake News

If you want to know the truth about what’s really going on behind scenes don’t fall for every conspiracy theory or fake news story but take the time to do your own research, think for yourself and draw your own conclusions, writes Lush Times columnist, Miles King.

Fake news is back in the news again - but it never really went away. As the strange and terrifying story of the first ever chemical weapons attack on British soil continues to unfold, it seems there are plenty of people who will prefer a conspiracy theory rather than believe what all the evidence points towards.

Fake news - or propaganda as it is also known - has been around forever. Spreading falsehoods, about an individual, a town, a country or an empire, is part and parcel of politics at all scales. It underlies and acts as a justification for all manner of prejudices. Just the other day we were reminded of that, with the old story about Max Mosley (fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley’s son), who in his early days worked for the post-war neo fascist Union Movement. During a particularly nasty by-election campaign, he published a leaflet claiming that "coloured immigrants" spread  "tuberculosis, VD and other terrible diseases like leprosy."

Of course propaganda and disinformation have their positive uses, particularly in times of war. Parachuting dolls and dummy tanks were used to disguise the actual location of the D-day landings. And the Nazi V2 rockets that rained down on London were nicknamed "flying gas mains" because, long after Londoners had worked out what they were, the authorities continued to describe the explosive carnage they created as accidental gas mains ruptures, in order to avoid damaging morale.

Sometimes a conspiracy theory can take on a life of its own - like the infamous MMR scandal. A doctor claimed to have found evidence of a link between autism and the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine. The story took hold, was widely publicised in the media, and continued to be believed, even after the evidence was shown to be groundless. Twenty years later, particularly in the USA, there is a entire anti-vaxxer movement, given credence by the Conspiracy-theorist in chief, President Donald Trump.

In more recent times, evidence continues to grow that fake news, or propaganda, or disinformation, has been used to attempt to (and perhaps succeed in) subverting democratic processes - notably the EU referendum (remember that poster about Turkish immigrants?) and the US Presidential Election.

Evidence points in two directions - the main one being to Russia. Journalist James Patrick has chronicled this disinformation campaign for independent news website Byline.  Patrick has shown how Kremlin operations on social media have skewed public discourse. Carole Cadwalladr, writing in the Guardian, has focused on both Russian disinformation, and the influence of American billionaires, such as Robert Mercer, on the libertarian right - most recently in a devastating series of articles published yesterday.  And Peter Geoghegan, working often with colleague Adam Ramsay and writing for Open Democracy, has investigated in-depth the links between pro-Brexit groups and unaccountable funding, particularly “dark money” funnelled into the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to pay for propaganda in Britain.

It is in the very nature of those who use disinformation, to cultivate a swirl of conspiracy theories, in part to mask their own behind-scenes activities, but mostly to obfuscate what is actually happening. Which brings us right up to date, with the Skripal incident.  

Doubt continues to be cast on the culpability of the Russian state in the incident, despite the fact that the attack was carried out against what the Russians regard as a Traitor, was carried out using a nerve agent that only the Russians had developed, and was carried out at just the right time to nurture nationalist feeling in Russia in advance of a Presidential election. Perhaps the single most damning indication of responsibility, was that the Russian response to being accused of the crime was....sarcasm.

But the swirl of conspiracy theories is now fully part of our new media landscape. When there were a few newspapers and a couple of TV channels, opportunities (other than for the State) to spread disinformation were limited. Now social media provides unlimited opportunities, which have been enthusiastically adopted. The Kremlin is the undisputed master of disinformation - as this article about the Skripal incident documents.

This is not helped when the Leader of the Opposition (and in particular his spokesman Seamus Milne) parrots the same stories. Indeed his followers have jumped on this bandwagon with glee - making false comparisons with the Iraq war “dodgy dossier”, with some even blaming the intelligence services for creating a "false flag" incident. (False flag actions are carried out in such a way as to point the finger of blame at someone else.) Others point to the undeniable fact that the attack occurred just a few miles away from the Chemical Weapons Defence centre at Porton Down, notorious as having been the testing ground for offensive chemical weapons in the past.

Let's just explore this particular hypothesis: that the attack was carried out by agents acting for the UK, with material provided by chemists at Porton Down. This would require approval from the Prime Minister, with the knowledge of other members of the Government. It would require those chemists to synthesise a chemical warfare agent, against the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention (and their own ethics). And it would require British intelligence operatives (or special forces) to release that agent into public places just a few miles from where it was made. Then the army and emergency services would be called in to clean up this operation, without any of them finding evidence leading back to the perpetrators. Further, there would have to be more covering of traces, to avoid the OPCW (the international agency charged with enforcing chemical weapons bans) from tracing the material back to Porton.

If we are really going to explore all the possible conspiracy theories, I'd like to suggest an alternative, perhaps more plausible scenario. Regardless of where the agent came from or who used it, the intelligence community is quietly promoting the false-flag theory (outlined above), in order to discredit Corbyn with the voting public. After all, they have a very long history of operating to prevent Socialist Governments from gaining power in Britain.

Unlike a chemical weapons attack on British soil this has happened before. The most famous case was the Zinoviev letter, but in more recent times there is good evidence that fanatical anti-communist elements within the military and intelligence communities were plotting against Harold Wilson in 1974 and 1975.

There's a certain irony in the thought that all those Corbyn supporters circulating “false flag” conspiracy theories, are actually helping to discredit him with the voting public.

What can be done to tackle the new scourge of online fake news? The Government setting up an anti-fake news unit is not one of them, especially when they are regularly criticized for disinformation themselves.

Taking action against propaganda and disinformation outlets will certainly help - Russia Today and Sputnik being obvious candidates for being closed down, but Social Media platforms need to be more closely regulated. The far-right group Britain First has only just been banned from Facebook, after years of successful extremist propaganda activity. And now there is very good evidence that Facebook was effectively weaponised by Cambridge Analytica, to influence the EU Referendum and US elections.

It's up to all of us though to take action in our own lives, to be more sceptical about whether we believe what we read, to explore and weigh up the evidence. Take time to spot the propaganda outfits, whether they are on the right or the left, in the UK or abroad. Look into who is writing, who they are writing for, and whether they are transparent about who pays them. Many "think tanks" are secretly funded and may actually be promoting lines they are being paid to push. Yet these secretly funded organisations provide a great deal of what eventually become news stories.

Fake news will always be with us. That doesn't mean we are destined to disappear down every conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10


It's up to all of us though to take action in our own lives, to be more sceptical about whether we believe what we read, to explore and weigh up the evidence

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