The regime change 30 years ago did not bring Havel's model of living in truth to fruition. Instead, a paranoid relationship between Central Europeans and the written and spoken word continues to persevere in society. Gossip and "alternative" news travels through the grapevine, dodging official channels, and stimulates a kind of rebellion.
“There was a total absence of information on the streets, so the public relied on gossip to find out what was happening.” This is what Maria Schmidt recently wrote to the New York Times, in a passionate defence Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s populist policies. While she spoke about communist-era Hungary, her quote also applies to the wider region of Central Europe.
How is it that today – 30 years after the regime change – some of the public still rely on gossip, to the extent they favour it over official reports? And why is not it only eccentric politicians and extremist parties that have become a source and disseminator of disinformation, but also governments themselves that have adopted it as political language?
Regime of lies, regime of truth
When we experience surprise about disinformation, arguably it is due to our expectations. The regime change of 1989 also should have brought an information shift, from a regime of lies to one of truth. Havel’s philosophical language convinced us that totalitarianism is a regime of falsehood, where even the smallest elements of the system are forced to lie.
To recall the iconic example of normalisation: there was a greengrocer who embellished his shop window with propaganda slogans, even if he did not think about their contents. For Havel, the anecdote illustrated the assumption that, in real socialism, citizens were forced to take part in the lie also by minor acts – such as the decoration of a shop display.
Although many did not pay attention to all these types of propagandistic folklore, it became something people do, like eating fish with salad for Christmas.
The removal of totalitarianism thus was meant to switch us to a regime of truth, where such emptied gestures would no longer be necessary. Since activities and words would be filled with real content, the truth would propagate itself.
Today, when dealing with the question of what to do with disinformation, we see that the situation is not at all as transparent and organised as Havel’s model of living in truth.
Critical Central European reader
We do not blame him but rather ourselves for being naive. Our expectations were based on large broadsheet newspapers and public television serving as the main sources of information. These times are long gone, and also have taken the Western public by surprise.
Now, they cope with how tabloid methods and false social campaigns have influenced the Brexit referendum, or the US presidential election, as well as the Dutch plebiscite on an Association Agreement with Ukraine.
However, the approach of the Central European public is specific. Because, despite what is said about neglected media literacy or critical thinking, the recipients of the information have kept from their previous political establishment a paranoid relationship concerning the written and spoken word.
The Central European takes reading between the lines for granted and readily assumes there is a bias.
It may seem striking that these stubborn news readers, who like to say there is no such thing as independent media, at the same time, often carelessly and trustfully deal with circulars they receive in the post, with photo collages or fake news that they encounter on social media. But also with party and government propaganda.
We might think that the Central European recipient has a prudent nature. He is accustomed to asking who speaks and what triggers such speech. He seeks behind-the-scenes motives and demands multiple points of view.
This attitude comes from lived experience under the previous regime. When one had to rely on gossip – as Maria Schmidt said – and a subversive reading, to somehow find an explanation for what was happening. And the Central European recipient undoubtedly transferred these skills to younger generations using family education.
But it is precisely this critical attitude that makes him more prone to disinformation, opens himself to internet gossip and “alternative” news. This corresponds to how one used to receive news.
The disinformation infrastructure effectively builds on the information habits of the previous regime.
Only this way – and not just because of inexperience with new media – can we explain how the recipients are not disturbed by the poor quality of some media portals, or their content, which rely on anonymous editors, improvised television studios and talk about “secret plans” to flood Europe with migrants.
This is not unlike samizdat – a form of dissident self-publishing – that travels among the conspirators.
Similarly, some e-mails draw attention to the health risks from “greedy pharmaceutical companies” or political risks from “world-government groups”, which are shared in communities of close acquaintances. Few are bothered by the fact that information came from someone who acts on the Internet under a nickname or from abroad. Because the information is intended for a narrow circle, the source must be covered.
Thus, in times of information-packed shelves, misinformation reaches the user as a scarce resource and therefore has the value of Tuzex “rare commodities”. Only good people know and will tell you. Rumours travel through the grapevine, hand to hand, between inboxes. They dodge surveillance, the official information infrastructure and simulate a kind of rebellion.
The recipient does not consider why he was given such special information. Certainly, we all feel that we deserve something extraordinary.
Disinformation as folk wisdom
Disinformation is popular not only because of its design but also due to its content. It appears homemade and spreads often among family and loved ones.
“Alternative” news also spreads across websites and channels through which subcultural information is being disseminated. Disinformation exploits formats such as esoteric knowledge, folk medicine and the exchange of tips and tricks. Well-meaning advice such as a recipe, a warning or a proverb could have been packed with political information and travelled through mailboxes and websites.
A whole system of folk medicine, as well as dirty jokes and user warnings, has created a fruitful environment for the spread of disinformation.
Folk wisdom is an even older bedrock than the unofficial information scene of late socialism. In a similar fashion, it has to do with the circumvention of official information, with rejected forms of knowledge and types of wisdom that have always existed somewhere outside.
This is outside of the establishment, beyond the mainstream. In this zone of subcultures, alternative lifestyles, and the underground, official narratives are taken as a priori elitist, while the fragments found in the gutter of the Internet are the material from which users compose their own information puzzles.
In this way, after WW2, theorists began to think about popular culture. Not in the strict sense of folkloric culture, but a kind of urban folklore, which was created by combining various things, influences and rituals. The term bricolage was put forward by the anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, and it may well serve to better understand what is happening with information and how it becomes a building unit for creating identities in the contemporary world.
One cannot underestimate the element of joyful disobedience with which middle-aged Central Europeans sit behind their computers to politically rebel. To retaliate, they supply their acquaintances with scandalous geopolitical findings and partner on websites that warn them they will be banned. They go onto the Internet hunting grounds and bring back colourful pieces that they change for others.
Disinformation is a user-friendly, social game and an escape into the world of political superlatives and charlatan myths.
This is a world in which they can orient themselves, without knowing the constitution or understand how the state functions. Because it is a world inhabited by stereotypes and where everybody exaggerates and shouts. Even absurdities and kitsch have their place here in this crowded nativity scene.
The individual situations are repeated, so one can collect them into some kind of archetypical dreams: the moon landing, the fall of the Twin Towers, the business behind cancer, another Euromaidan or Merkel’s acceptance of refugees.
It is the conspiracy grammar of the world. Who gives comfort to those who understand little of the political process and social dynamics, but in this way they feel they can see it behind the corner. That they are not ignorant but know “how things go”. It is kind of, uh, a power of the powerless.
Not everything was bad
With regard to the problem of disinformation, there is a lot of talk about media literacy and public awareness about the youth. But the most vulnerable seem to be the elders. This is because they may have the greatest difficulty to place themselves in a post-transformation society and tell their own story. Who they were, who they are and what will happen to the world when they leave it. A crisis of identity has seized them.
In the virtual reality of disinformation, they can be a member of a club, part of a society of those who know, even superheroes. An elderly lady whose family has fallen apart and has lost her job as an unsuccessful whistle-blower can experience adventures through the disinformation scene. She was arrested at a demonstration, she continues to attend meetings organised by the Russian Embassy and collects a conspiracy magazine.
Involvement in the conspiracy scene gives them a sense of sectarian importance. Think about teenagers who are dependent on their pocket money and their results in school, but who can be members of a subculture in their free time. They have their own expertise, acquaintances and hence a world that confers much greater value on them than the official one.
But while the eccentric lady is a hardcore member, there are numerous bystanders who just want to keep nice memories from the past.
To maintain the feeling that they have not lived unnecessary or bad lives, they use sentences like “Not everything was wrong with communism”. Just as any subculture has, besides enthusiastic participants, it also has lukewarm members or bystanders who just like it.
This disinformation, even the coarsest propaganda of a Soviet crackdown on right-wing forces about to capture power in Czechoslovakia in 1968 suddenly sounds like something familiar to them. They have heard it, and now it is here again. It came back as a dress cut or hairstyle.
Now they may feel confused and inept, but they know the past. Soviet life, old songs, jokes and propaganda narratives. About Jan Palach, about the Americans near Vienna in 1968, or about a staged moon landing.
These intertwine with stories about UFOs, ancient extraterrestrial visits, or other crime or detective stories they were reading. Politics, geopolitics are thus approaching the pulp fiction or the yellow press. It is closer to life on the street and in the pub. It is no longer the domain of educated, experts and learned societies.
Disinformation brings back to politics its vibrant colours and poetic qualities.
Videos and manipulated news are virtual gossips, malicious defamers, and kitsch images of holy procession. And Central European politicians chose to use these attractions, even to make politics on them, rather than fight them. Instead of enlightenment, many chose to use disinformation as political steroids.
Decorative shop windows
We would expect the responsible politicians to be enlightened and to refute hoaxes or to provide a sensible explanation. Well, in truth, this is not how politics works. At least not in Central Europe.
Politicians have discovered the magic of alarming messages, slandering opponents beyond all taboos, evoking a sense of threat and relying on juicy stereotypes. To avoid rhetoric from the extreme right or from the extreme left trumping them, centrist politicians also have come to use a more colourful language.
And despite all the reservations about disinformation, it must be acknowledged that they have drawn the general public into politics. They also refreshed the interest of elites in explaining decision-making processes, the functioning of institutions and social problems to the general public.
Examples include information campaigns that substitute civic education and explain the EU to its citizens, bring discussions to the regions, or show videos about how the EU funds are spent.
When I asked Poland’s leading member of Solidarity Edward E. Nowak, what they would do differently, he said that “we should have spent more time explaining people what was happening”. Well, there was no time. Today we are returning to the need for explanation. And we find that without the involvement of the individual – remember the decoration of window shops – the system will not do. That truth alone is not enough if it does not have its bearers and advocates.
Finally, thirty years after November 1989, we also see that truth is not a natural state of affairs. It is not apparent and may not even be in demand. That the information regime of real socialism, where propaganda sounded and everything else was pushed off the radar, was not replaced by a rational discussion where the best arguments would gain the upper hand and lean to the general public.
The best example is mentioned in the introduction by Maria Schmidt. She called for the removal of the communist lie, but she herself was involved in building the Orbán system of propaganda, arranging the window shops and erecting slogan banners. It leads to the conclusion that we are finally forced to do exactly that. Arranging window shops, engaging in a political matter that we believe to be true and correct.
Because the greengrocer is doing politics today on his phone or computer; he decorates his social media wall, and forwards slogans, explaining to friends who really was responsible for the bombings in Syria. Politics is too much fun for people to give up. And the enthusiasm for disinformation is proof of that.