The history of the past century is littered with episodes of anthropogenic evil: Armenia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. In their aftermaths, reverberated the collective riposte of “never again.” Only to be followed by Syria, awaiting its eventual transcription into modernity’s catalog of barbarism.
Seven years in the making, the internecine conflict has mutated into nothing short of a global catastrophe: culminating in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the postwar period, spawning a refugee crisis of unparalleled proportions, and fermenting a belligerent sectarianism where ‘disaster Islamism’ wound up thriving. As the world looked on in horror and outrage, it simultaneously resigned itself to the conclusion that the Syrian byzantine precluded any objective extrapolation; that it is far too “complicated” to acquire neutral information is invoked with almost chronic exhortation.
A sub-thread to this sophism of withdrawal is a rancid Assadist discourse that has colonized debate in radical circles; one reinforced by ideas promulgated by prominent figures lauded for their ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials. From intellectual luminaries to dissident journalists, the rot runs deep. Indeed, one of the greatest collateral damages the Syrian disaster has wrought has been their respective moral and intellectual decay.
Concomitantly, is a well-coordinated media disinformation campaign sustained by virtual echo chambers of self-referential feedback loops. The sheltering of Assadism under the canopy of ‘anti-imperialism’ has spurred on a lobotomized conspiracy baiting, nourished by a glut of ‘alternative news’ networks that churn out regime apologia across the ideological spectrum. In eschewing the standards of responsible journalism, this multilateral manipulation taskforce works to undermine any concrete public understanding of the revolution’s origin and the scale of barbarity exercised against it, while propping up the narrative of a despot that is the tormentor of millions.
The volatile machinations of war notwithstanding, what might explain a reckless plunge into the toxic realm of information nihilism? And how, in the face of overwhelming violence by one side, can such a moral cul-de-sac be arrived at?
In his docu-film HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis outlines a world deemed much too complex for our leaders to handle. Instead, they have assembled a simplified vision of reality and our place in it; one teeming with anti-systemic rogues ripe for elimination. Supplemented with this is a constellation of immersive apparatuses, wielding tools of manipulation in the service of a methodical enchainment to the illusory worlds of cyber-capitalism, as its algorithms trap us in a cesspool of narcissistic oblivion.
Reality is now simulated: synthetic conditions that are generated seem more “real” than the actual experiential act, what Jean Baudrillard identified as “hyper-reality”. At the heart of this is the notion that our contemporary experience is devoid of equilibrium. Artificial environments of learning, mobile devices, and interface VR or entertainment systems of communication and visual-sound displays have begun to reshape our perceptions and limbic system in ways we are yet grasp intelligibly.
Information has replaced the machine as the basic mode of production. New media exemplifies a profound fragmentation with its myriad streams of content, and when compounded with the disorientation of globalization, has inverted reality into the sphere of the incomprehensible. A departure into techno-fantasies is interwoven with insecurity: in the face of economic and social turmoil, we have fled to a more secure, wistful past on our screens. Neoliberalism’s mantra – the “dictatorship of no alternatives” as Roberto Unger called it – succeeded in terminating the possibility of future-oriented utopia, leaving a nostalgic utopianism to curdle in response.
The late philologist Svetlana Boym acutely observed the contemporaneous proliferation of nostalgia. She understood that “the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.” Boym diagnosed nostalgia to be a “historical emotion” of our age, whose attempts to create a “phantom homeland” realized through transhistorical restoration would only breed monstrous consequences.
According to Boym’s typology, a restorative nostalgia “is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots – the return to origins and the conspiracy.” And so we inhabit a landscape where MAGA hats, Little England, the Hindu Rashtra, and a mythical Caliphate have arrested imaginaries with a panoply of symbolic overtures; as it gestures towards the rehabilitation of a time and space that preserves tradition and absolute truth by zealously pursuing historical revisionism and purification of the social body from contagion.
Filtering of Dissent
This nostalgic drive expresses itself most powerfully on web 2.0 technologies. As populist contenders arise from the breakdown of existing economic and political arrangements, they have been largely successful in harnessing the power of social media to reach wider and more varied audiences than ever before.
Its business model compels digital platforms to accumulate users, foster sociality and popularity through filtering algorithms that maximize attention and retention, generate a social currency of engagement and approval, and boost advertising profits. Going viral is the Holy Grail. Given the democratic principles at the core of the Internet, ‘trending’ parades as a cybernetic equivalent of the American Dream in a sprawling marketplace of eyeballs. As the corporate media’s concentrated spectacle is transmitted via the diffused spectacle of social media, the ‘narrowcasting’ of content in many ways intensifies the docility of consumers, rather than enabling a genuine and sustainable alternative.
The governing protocols of interactive technologies present us with new dilemmas. Social media generates what Henry Jenkins describes as “affective economies”, in which users find legibility through diverse emotional registers. If legibility is contingent upon messages resonating at a particular frequency, then dissent becomes incompatible within the format; deviation cannot be tolerated because of the method user communities have come to discipline themselves. Furthermore, there is an inherent vulgarization of discourse that incentivizes convergence over divergence – participation is predicated upon accruing attention and approval, insofar as there is unchallenged congruity of thought. Such a configuration undoubtedly impedes the political potential of the medium in the long run.
The correlation between the ability of consumers to filter their own information by choice with the growth of echo chambers, while not wrong, is overstated. Less deliberated, is the individual’s automated extrapolation by algorithmic filters. Public discourse is increasingly mediated by proprietary software systems owned by a handful of major corporations, which run filtering algorithms to determine what information is displayed to users on their ‘feeds’. Far from being neutral and objective, these algorithms are powerful intermediaries that prioritize certain voices over others. Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser uses the term “filter bubble” to describe this phenomenon of narrowcasting on social media, which he attributes to the ‘personalization algorithms’ imposed by companies like Facebook and Google that end up deepening seclusion from contrasting viewpoints. The source of these bubbles on social media is a combination of specific filtering logics that have become predominant – especially those of similarity and social ties, which structurally reduce diversity by design.
Our new platforms of amity have also begun to automate friendship. Bernard Stiegler argues that technologies of sociality are evolving in tension with those more ancient technologies of the self: dialogue, love, intimacy. His concern, however, is not that authenticity is being expatriated, rather that the restructuring of friendship is proceeding in a regressive manner where it has become difficult to accommodate empathy.
The ontology of Twitter cultivates this affective retreat: the mixture of brevity and anonymity generated a rostrum for experiments in collective cruelty. The seductive appeal of the mob mentality thrives upon a user’s inability to sympathize with victims. With combat technologies such as Twitter, the first-person-shooter perspective countenances the disabling of proto-empathetic identification to permit the performance of otherwise offensive action(s).
This social callousness, while encouraged by the medium’s format, expresses a larger ‘feeling-state’ that stems from a thwarted agency under neoliberal atomization. As Kurt Newman puts it:
“That frustrated volition – that sense that our votes do not matter, that our work (if we can find it) is meaningless, that activism is merely an endless set of demonstrations that accomplish nothing – can easily become the charge that animates us as we power up our laptops and go looking for fights. We seek a way out of empathy, which is felt as paralyzing and castrating, in order to feel the thrill of doing things.”
We see this empathy-deficit play out quite brazenly in coverage of Syria. Whenever reports surface of regime atrocities, a venal chorus of war crime apologia reaches fever pitch: these have ranged from slandering the massacred as terrorists to vile expressions of schadenfreude in response to final tweets that besieged Aleppans gut-wrenchingly shared with the world that had forsaken them.
Then there is Bana Alabed, a seven-year-old girl who symbolized the suffering that children faced daily in the conflict, tweeting amidst bombs raining upon East Aleppo. Even she was not to be spared from a barrage of antagonistic crosshairs. The ruthless Aleppan siege was wrought with informational volatility – with a dearth of independent journalists available, social media filled the documentation gap. Amongst the devastating deluge of images, Bana’s tweets would catapult her into the media limelight as an object of fascination. Being a witness to the regime’s cruelty combined with considerable western attention, naturally won her little sympathy in Assadist quarters. Her account experienced sustained attacks by those seeking to undermine it by employing a range of abusive comments to fake accounts set up to discredit her. Such venomous trolling to mock those trapped in a warzone, let alone a child, is sadism that knows no bounds.
Instead of ushering a new age where access to the truth becomes progressively democratized, the digital revolution – in its determinate filtering of dissent – has unvaryingly facilitated half-baked beliefs to spread like wildfire into an ever-expanding cascade of disinformation.
The Nietzschean maxim “there are no facts, only interpretations” is warped into something of a postmodern platitude, whereby events that transpire are merely narratives to be inferred through one’s subjective lens. Lies can effectively masquerade as ‘alternative points of view’, as harmonious tones are amplified and transmissions that solicit painful dissonance are drowned out. Hence, “facts possess a liberal bias” or Kremlin propagandist-in-chief Dmitry Kiselev’s can declare, “there is no such thing as objective reporting.”
Arguably, no debate over the years has exemplified a descent into the rabbit hole of information relativism more than Syria. The regime’s mass tortures, starvation sieges, barrel bombs, use of chemical weapons, targeting of hospitals and aid workers have been challenged (and in some cases, flat out denied) to foster a ‘balanced’ account of events. If one thing can be agreed upon, is that no one can agree upon the parameters for honest dialogue, the facts aside.
In the period of ascendant ethnocentrisms and authoritarian impulses, an alleged ‘post-truth’ universe has become affixed to our turbulent socio-political landscape. On the surface, an old formula of slick, duplicitous stage management by the ruling class is not novel in itself. Politicians have always spouted falsehoods and cynically maneuvered to preserve their interests. To the policy wonk, what distinguishes the zeitgeist is a feature of the neoliberal consensus responsible for manufacturing and preserving consent – the technocratic impulse to fact check – is plagued by discursive impotence, as the ruling order ruptures and its ideological edifice deteriorates. In this context, ‘fake news’ is but a symptom of our information ecologies responding to fractures in big media’s monopoly over content.
So when Putin flagrantly annexed Crimea and tells us there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine; when the Brexit campaign sponsors a bus with the statement that the EU siphons £350 million a week which could then be appropriated towards the NHS; when Trump declares that the Mexican government deliberately funnels its criminals into the Republic – it appears as if the act of lying is not being performed as much as the belief that ‘truth’ itself is considered expendable and infinitely pliable.
While persuasive, this argument is hindered by a fundamental misunderstanding: to retroactively dispense with ‘truth’ would be to subscribe to a categorical fallacy of presentism – as if the invasion of Iraq or the financial crash occurred in a time where duplicity was less prevalent. Rather, it is a faith in conventional techniques for gauging reality, signposted as facts (and signaled as a placeholder for truth), that has waned. When one’s economic future becomes compromised, facts are less persuasive coming from institutions of authority responsible for that anxiety.
The seeds of this degraded political and linguistic horizon can ultimately be traced to the vacuum produced by the post-Cold War, whereby a sequestration of the future provided a crucible for misanthropic reaction to coagulate. Competing projects of rational progress had gone by the wayside. Facts became estranged from politics as PR spin-doctors began shaping the narrative. The tyrannical bind of technocracy, in producing a panoptic regime of governmentality administered by a labyrinth of datum-hurling sycophants (see: experts), proscribed any desire for change under the injunctions of a sterile managerialism. The aftermath of the credit crunch splintered public consensus with elites unable to maintain ideological consent, laying waste to their epistemic hegemony. A wellspring of ‘alternative media’ doyens in their assorted iterations benefited from communicative fissures, exploiting new technologies and old techniques to effectively compete on the plane of truth telling.
‘Wilderness of Mirrors’
For a certain crop of observers, many of the sources that indict the Assad for war crimes are compromised de jure, emanating as they do from media outlets embedded in imperial metropoles. The discourse has become a polarized nebula of partisan hackery, chomping at the bit to dismiss any material that goes against their established dogmas. Devoid of credible sources in an expanding ocean of distortion, it becomes virtually impossible to decipher the realities on the ground, with dishonest obfuscation contributing to a stultifying public and political apathy.
Disinformation and psy-ops are timeworn methods of warfare, and the control of narrative an essential element of its modern format. Silicon chips have broadened the theater of conflict beyond the battlefield and into the cognitive realm. The Russian army adheres to what is referred to in certain quarters as the “Gerasimov Doctrine”: a hybrid approach that combines military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural tactics in order to challenge its rivals; increasingly over control of the ‘psychosphere’. The psychosphere has come to represent a nonlinear terrain upon which the domain of information has become the object of struggle: no longer an auxiliary in war but an end in itself.
Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s former senior economic advisor, called the Kremlin’s misdirection over the annexation of Crimea “an introductory chapter” in the “the Fourth World War” (World War Three being the Cold War as per Stalin) which was being waged by Russia against the world. The DNC hacks during the 2016 U.S. elections, and similar cyber attacks across Europe point to this emergent cybernetic vista: the weaponization of information. Digital technology augmented maskirovka, a prominent tool in Russian statecraft involving denial, camouflage, and deception. Former CIA chief James Angleton summarized this ambiguous concept: “The myriad stratagems, deceptions, artifices, and all the other devices of disinformation…confused and split the West [with] an ever-fluid landscape, where fact and illusion merge, a kind of wilderness of mirrors.”
Spreading disinformation online is economical compared to traditional broadcast and print venues, and can be rapidly multiplied and efficiently spread across borders. Designed to affectively manipulate the receiver, it deals in visual disorientation through a litany of memes, parodies, and videos. Anonymous social media commentators and factories churning out armies of paid ‘trolls’ are employed as part of a strategic info-war that attempt to influence a target user’s opinions, attitudes and actions so as to align them with a state’s political goals.
An illustration of how disinformation is funneled into the alt-media universe can be observed following Trump’s missile strike launch aimed at the Syrian government, ostensibly in response Assad’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. As #SyriaHoax began trending, a trail leading directly from Al-Masdar News (run by Assad loyalist Leith Abou Fadel) to conspiracy-peddling vendors such as InfoWars and Global Research was uncovered by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The hashtag itself was apparently retweeted some 3,000 times by 40-odd Twitter accounts, including fake ones operated by Twitter bots programmed to aggressively pump out propaganda. DFR Lab believed the hashtag might have originated with a month-old, pro-Russia account with a grand total of 18 followers.
In the arena of narrative control and information manipulation, the most skilled practitioners are without a doubt the Israelis. Known as hasbara (Hebrew for “explanation”), this technique embodies a public-private partnership which links information warfare with the strategic objectives of the Israeli state. Multifaceted and tailored to the digital age, it is deeply aware that perception shapes reality. While rooted in earlier concepts of agitprop and censorship, hasbara does not look to jam the supply of contradictory information to audiences. Instead, it willingly accepts an open marketplace of opinion. What it seeks to do in this context is to promote selective listening by limiting the receptivity of audiences to information, rather than constricting its flow.
In 2012, Israel would announce its war against Gaza on Twitter. During Operation Pillar of Defense, as Israeli-funneled talking points saturated conventional U.S. media outlets, hasbara also made heavy use of the more distilled communication channels of social media. It further exploited browser functions, search engine algorithms, and other automated mechanisms that controlled what content were presented to viewers. In the process, Israel designed a narrative of itself as the innocent victim of Palestinian terrorism accorded with the sovereign right of defense against existential assault. This despite the fact of having initiated the escalation, possessing advanced aerial power against an adversary without one, and unloading more than one thousand times as many tons of munitions on Gazans.
It is unsurprising then that Assadism has successfully incorporated the hasbara playbook into its arsenal. In a tragic twist, many voices that are acquainted with Israeli deflection and denialism on Palestine likewise emit a deafening silence towards the Assad’s counter-revolution against Syrians. Negation is couched in terms of ‘security’ and ‘counterterrorism’, lesser evil and Islamophobic rationalizations, while routinely leading to conspiratorial allegations in desperate attempts to exonerate a bloodstained rump state.
A veiled hasbara current loiters around the debate by going agnostic in reserving judgment by feigning willful ignorance. Masking evasion with pleas towards ‘impartiality’, their logic rest upon the conflict’s convoluted manifestation, where all actors are deemed to be morally culpable in equal measure. Anti-war activist Mary Scully brands this political beast “the reluctant Assadist”. The reluctant Assadist won’t overtly admit their sympathy for the regime nor will they acknowledge Assad’s carpet-bombing of civilians. Even as reports chockfull of evidence point the finger at Assad’s systematic usage of Sarin gas, denialism is doubled down on, because Human Rights Watch.
As their derangement plumbs the vapid depths of perfunctory anti-Western posturing, millions of Syrians are duly evaporated along with any agency to articulate let alone authenticate their hellish reality. Solidarity with a revolution withdrawn; a right to resist denied; their humanity negated. A principled stand against the regime’s savagery is usurped for an account that chooses to tar the opposition as a monolithic amalgam of US-Zionist-Gulf sponsored and trained jihadi regime change outfits that Assad is justified in opposing come hell or high water, because anti-imperialism.
Where military intervention did not decisively turn the tide for Assad, a formidable PR machine has been put to the task of spreading counter-narratives in the international press. An unceasing campaign of disinformation, centralized through and disseminated by state-run news outlets like RT, Press TV, and further distilled via digital platforms from MintPress News to Zero Hedge, have flooded social feeds with opinions disguised as facts, blogs standing in as credible sources, and tin-foil paranoia for trenchant analysis. In ordinary times, if they ever did exist, such odious quackery would be met with outright ridicule.
A frequent target of conspiratorial derision has been the White Helmets, the first responders who regularly pull Syrian bodies out from the rubble of airstrikes. The rescue organization’s members wear body cameras and thus have emerged as a leading source of evidence of air strikes against civilian infrastructure. Because of this, both Russian and Syrian governments launched a smear crusade. Vanessa Beeley, in an article for RT, labeled them a “terrorist support group and Western propaganda tool”, while the Kremlin wire Sputnik referred to them (and also quoting Beeley) as a “controversial quasi-humanitarian organization” which was “fabricating ‘evidence’ of Russia’s ‘disastrous’ involvement in Syria”.
Meanwhile, journalist and Palestine activist Max Blumenthal, in his fixation on hypothetical U.S. intervention, dedicated a hit-piece on the White Helmets as his lone substantive commentary on Syria to date. Almost indistinguishable from regime accounts recycled throughout the pro-Assad media pipeline, it is Beeley once again in the thick of things, claiming to be Blumenthal’s indirect source on the organization. That Syrians do not even seem to be deserving of a generous mention in his article speaks volumes. It also didn’t help that when the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office decided to publish a video of members participating in a viral social media trend known as the Mannequin Challenge in order to raise public awareness, Assadist social media accounts would go into overdrive reposting the video wrenched from its original context, as undeniable evidence of the White Helmets being an elaborate western-financed PR stunt in service of regime change.
When discerning the Middle East, a traumatic kernel subsists within the 21st-century anti-imperialist’s worldview. An obstinate conviction fundamentally grips imaginaries on both sides of the ideological divide: that the Arab Spring was a vast, coordinated regime-change operation from the outset (the sinister phrase “Arab Sting” comes to mind), rather than the region’s wretched of the earth bellowing for the downfall of their despotic rulers.
With catastrophic post-9/11 interventions still raw, there has been a hardening of a propensity to comprehend the region’s vicissitudes through this debilitating lens. In ascribing an overriding analytical primacy to the shadowy machinations of the CIA-MI6-Mossad nexus, the grand theater of power plays between states violently abstracts away Syrians for the reductionist chessboard of geopolitics.
The late Syrian Marxist Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm excoriated this campist disposition, bluntly stating that the Left’s “first priority is not Syria or its people in revolt to restore the republic, their freedom, and their dignity, but the game of nations at the global level of analysis and the side that they want to win.” Forget that Assadism in practice has been a faithful collaborator with imperialism, Zionism, and neoliberalism. Forget that anti-colonialism was ever a multi-pronged project to be conducted simultaneously against both the internal and external oppressor.
One has only to recall similar dilemmas that confronted the Left during the Cold War: Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, and Poland. Post-USSR, this residual Stalinism survives under the guise of a professed ‘open-mindedness’ and ‘skepticism’ to hegemonic media narratives. The influence of what Domenico Losurdo dubbed the “lie industry” (an integral part of the western imperialist war machine) had become totalized over daily life. Given the pervasiveness of information distortion, a higher degree of suspicion and historical revisionism began to incubate.
Gradually, what ended up blossoming was a peculiar ideological formation: red-brownism, a radicalism comfortably marinating in the putrid politics of reaction. Not quite Strasserism, but a tactical tolerance of the far-right’s nativist anti-establishment logic to accelerate the dissolution of the ruling order and bring about a transitional phase preceding social transformation. However, by eliminating the dimension of the international from its purview, what remains is a strikingly non-radical relativism. Its underlying logic is one that is infused with a colonial unconscious; a conviction that Western agency is the eternal subject and locus of motion – the prime mover of History.
Today, vulgar anti-imperialist analysis dovetails with the isolationist rhetoric of ethno-nationalism. “Cui bono?” (“Who benefits?”) is their rallying cry. False flags are unequivocally declared before facts can be established. The canard “Why would Assad do so-and-so?” is dutifully employed in bath faith. It is sophistry that seeks to defend the indefensible. The Assadist is animated by a paranoid worldview; it is no surprise that an overlap with 9/11 trutherism exists within their ranks – many of the sites frequented are hubs for conspiracy theories run amok – and this is the nexus between apparently disparate audiences, whether Stalinoid or crypto-fascist in hue.
It is one thing when a charlatan par excellence like Alex Jones picks up on a story from the Damascus-Kremlin pipeline that slots into an impervious schematic of ‘globalism’. But when so-called progressive outlets engage in similar click bait headlines, it speaks to an opportunistic marketization of dissent. It ultimately fosters a queasy ideological ecology that appears indistinguishable from a loopy right-wing conspiratorial milieu. Self-styled woke netizens, in propagating material that aligns with anti-democratic regimes, end up peddling the very propaganda they claim to spurn. In downplaying crimes of anti-western dictatorships, they actively participate in promoting repugnant imperialisms akin to their corporate media counterparts.
A purblind refusal to accept reality in all its messy contradictions, combined with an unyielding tribal conformity that manifests online routinely prevents a critical self-correction process as facts become evident. Algorithmic filters, social platforms of self-valorization, and opportunistic apparatuses of venal state-siphoned propaganda exacerbate this proclivity during an era of fragmented media networks. Truth is smoothly re-sculpted and digitized into a full-blown participant in war. Ours is an epoch where command of the informational environment is as important as control of the battlefield. If Ukraine was the laboratory in which experiments in cyber-manipulation were initially conducted, then Syria demonstrates how their techniques have been successfully honed, scaled, and marketed in service of a regime that is nothing less than the purveyor of untold barbarism.