As populism rises in the West, so do crackdowns on narratives that deviate from those of the state.
When US President Joe Biden announced on April 27 that a new Disinformation Governance Board would serve the Department of Homeland Security, it was just the latest turn of the screw on freedom. This time, it’s an affront to citizens’ right to a diversity of information.
It’s one thing to correct inaccurate information, but this new entity seems more oriented towards narrative-policing that cracks down on the interpretation of information rather than the accuracy of it. Headed by a former communications advisor to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Nina Jankowicz, one of the board’s first responsibilities will be to address “disinformation coming from Russia as well as misleading messages about the US-Mexico border,” according to CBS News. Interesting that these two issues – immigration and foreign conflicts – are currently viewed as two of Washington’s most significant failures, which have given rise to populist dissent. Make no mistake, it’s the dissent that’s the ultimate target.
The fact that a former Ukraine government spin doctor was viewed as the best person to head up the new initiative tells you everything you need to know about its true purpose. Jankowicz published a book in 2020 whose title suggests that she believes the West to be in an online war with Russia. ‘How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict,’ portrays Western narratives as truthful and Russian narratives as “fake news.” Doing so obscures the fact that the mainstream Western media has not been immune to propagating narratives peddled by the state that could retroactively be considered fake news or war propaganda. Meanwhile, Russian media has often provided a platform for those seeking to express – or access – dissenting analysis or information that falls outside of the Western media bubble. Clearly, there are some ‘democracies’ that are bothered by this.
The appetite of Western nations to ensure that their citizens are only fed information that they control through their own highly concentrated government or corporate subsidized media isn’t new. It’s just getting more voracious. Perhaps it’s because the more authoritarian their agenda becomes, the more populist sentiment increases and gives rise to events such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, as well as trends such as opposition to US-backed conflicts, the rise in popularity of various populist political parties in Europe, and demonstrations against pandemic mandates, which just happen to be associated with government-issued QR codes.
Dissent is the enemy of authoritarian ambition. Supposedly free countries have manipulated their citizens into believing that censorship of certain views is for people’s own safety and security – hence why the military in Canada, the UK, and France, and now Homeland Security in the US, are involved in narrative policing. In reality, their efforts seem to be more about ensuring citizens’ compliance with their own agenda.
The fusion of domestic security and disinformation came to light as early as 2016, when the European Parliament grotesquely conflated Islamic terrorist propaganda with Russian media, in what seemed to be itself a propaganda effort to undermine the Russian media by equating these two totally unrelated things. But one by one, Western governments have placed free speech under national security control.
France, for example, handed off responsibility for online information arbitration to its domestic intelligence agency (the DGSI) and has reportedly considered involving defense-funded startups in the effort.
Canada has also turned to its security apparatus to shape Canadians’ information landscape – at least twice. The Communications Security Establishment, the country’s electronic spying agency, has been tweeting its own interpretations of disputed events occurring in the fog of the conflict in Ukraine as indisputable fact, while routinely denouncing Russia’s interpretation as invalid.
But Canada’s security establishment isn’t at its first rodeo in attempting to prevent citizens’ thinking from deviating from the state’s messaging. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the country’s armed forces deployed a months-long, military-grade propaganda campaign, which employed tactics honed during the war in Afghanistan, to mind-bend unsuspecting Canadians towards Trudeau’s Covid narrative, CBC News reported last year.
Not to be outdone, the psychological warfare specialists of the 77th brigade of Britain’s armed forces have also worked to shape messaging both in favor of the government’s Covid policies and against anything contrary out of Russia. “One current priority is combating the spread of harmful, false and misleading narratives through disinformation. To bolster this effort, the British Army will be deploying two experts in countering disinformation. They will advise and support NATO in ensuring its citizens have the right information to protect themselves and its democracies are protected from malicious disinformation operations used by adversaries,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said last year.
The fact that public safety and disinformation have suddenly become routinely conflated should be worrisome to defenders of whatever remnants of democracy that we still have left. Terrorism, health and now disinformation have all served as pretexts for the rapid erosion of our freedoms – all under the guise of protecting us from bad actors. But are we really safer? Or are we just increasingly less free?