Postmodern relativism is a dangerous tool in the hands of authoritarian regimes. They are willing to undermine public trust within democratic institutions by spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories. One of the most vulnerable target group is the tech-savvy generation Z that is known to be “digitally native”. However, this generation's lack of critical media consumption and the homogeneous climate of opinion generated by social media makes them prone to political manipulation.

We are way beyond the era of techno-optimism when the biggest fans of social media argued that new technologies would help to overcome political polarisation and hate speech. Yet, techno-pessimism has not prevailed since Donald Trump started to “weaponise” Twitter.

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard was an early pioneer of thinking about technology’s role in society. In the 1980s, he claimed that we were entering a new era of history in which society was moving to a neo-capitalist cybernetic order that aims at total control. Baudrillard considered that when structures are lacking, nothing remains solid in a society.

As a result, most important things do not happen in reality but in a digital reality, therefore, as Baudrillard argued, hyperreality has replaced the social reality. This hyperreality is a mere simulation of life (“simulacra”).

In his book entitled “The Gulf war did not take place”, Baudrillard claimed that the war against Iraq was “a masquerade of information: branded faces delivered over to the prostitution of the image, the image of an unintelligible distress. … It is not war taking place over there but the disfiguration of the world.” Thus, hyperreality is the name of a specific condition wherein reproductions and representations of reality have overtaken the real, much like Disneyland.

Almost 40 years later, his critical ideas on “the proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity” are manifested in the age of post-truth. But this mere relativist approach of postmodernism can easily backfire on multiple levels. Relativism is quite suitable to undermine trust within democratic institutions and exploit democratic political discourse.

As Peter Pomerantsev rightly noted, “Russia has taken a much more ‘postmodern’ approach in a sense that it uses many of the techniques associated with postmodern art and philosophy: pastiches of other’s narratives, simulacra (i.e. fake) institutions, and a ‘society of spectacle’ with no substance.”

As a practical result, according to the German Marshall Fund, almost all European countries have been targeted to some extent by information operations of the Kremlin in order to externally influence political decision-making in democratic processes since 2013.

Spreading discord

What we have learned in the last decade is that the primary goal of the Kremlin’s disinformation strategy is not to convince people of narratives that are important to Russia. It is sufficient to spread discord. To undermine trust in the Euroatlantic alliance and European integration in Central and Eastern Europe, the Russian toolkit relies on an army of paid trolls; hackers; sites run with the aid of business or secret services, all to spread interlinked geopolitical narratives that benefit the Kremlin.

Official Russian state-owned mouthpieces, such as RT and Sputnik International, help us to determine what the official Russian narratives are in any given period. They undermine the very concept of scientific research and fact-based expertise.

Besides foreign malicious influence, domestic political actors in Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Orbán regime, are often willfully spreading subversive conspiracy theories favoured by the Kremlin or China.

One of the latest primary examples of this phenomenon was the presentation of the fire accident in Notre Dame. Hungarian pro-governmental mouthpieces have adopted fake images from Russia’s Sputnik about the accident such as Muslim radicals have been celebrating in Europe to destroy our Christian way of life. Shocking videos and headlines about the decaying symbol of the Christian civilisation went viral in the Hungarian media controlled by the harshly anti-immigrant government.

The Fidesz governments’ anti-West, anti-immigration, pro-Russian rhetoric built on fake news and conspiracy theories dominates the political discourse, due to media capture. This rhetoric frames independent NGOs and the political opposition as enemies of the state. Nevertheless, part of the Hungarian opposition also exploits this new form of knowledge related to technological progress in social media that significantly narrowed the gap between political outsiders and insiders.

According to a 2017 survey by the Globsec Policy Institute, as a result of this global phenomenon, more than 10 million people in Central and Eastern Europe regularly consume disinformation and read news from “alternative media” which are deliberately disseminating fake information.

Flying blind on social media

One of the most vulnerable target group is the tech-savvy generation Z that is labelled as “digitally native”. However, their lack of critical media consumption and the homogeneous climate of opinion generated by social media makes them prone to multiple political manipulations. Our project NATOversity has conducted focus group discussions with 149 young Hungarians and Poles to learn more about their media consumption, among others.

Unsurprisingly, the Internet and social media have gained ground as the preferred sources of domestic news among both national groups. Although almost all groups admitted that they had encountered fake content on the internet, only a few were aware of the concept of disinformation in the broad sense.

Both Hungarian and Polish respondents claimed that they follow news shared by people they know on social media (colleagues, relatives, and friends). Thus, navigating throughout dual filtering (i.e., through algorithms and acquaintances) significantly increases the weight of credible individuals and opinion formers in this particular environment.

While those with increased, multiple media consumption (consuming news from diverse sources) were familiar with “clickbait” content such as fake information related to celebrities, they admitted that they are not fact-checking when it comes to political content posted or reshared on social media.

Verifying deepfakes

The vulnerability of young Poles partly stems from their low level of trust within mainstream media. While the majority of the respondents considered image-based information much more reliable than any other content, they also admitted that they are rarely or never verify memes and gifs. This provides a smooth sailing and a comfortable environment for malicious manipulation and subversive influence on the internet, especially on Twitter that is quite popular among Polish youth, in contrast to their Hungarian counterparts.

Deepfake images

While not all of them were familiar with the concept of “deepfake,” they admitted that they had encountered the phenomenon, stressing that “deepfakes” can be used not only by foreign services for subversive purposes, but also by Polish politicians for domestic purposes.

Moreover, one opinion raised during the Hungarian discussions indicated that “very strong censorship prevails in the Western media”. However, the conclusion that “there is a dictatorship in the German media, where censorship could prevail even stronger regarding migration and terrorism” reflects a pro-Russian narrative about the untrustworthy liberal media. This line is often echoed by the Hungarian government.

Meanwhile, Polish respondents claimed that professional journalists are not to be trusted, and they preferred news posted by other internet users. Hungarian respondents also raised concerns about biased journalists. Yet, their lack of trust within journalists partly stems from their concerns regarding state propaganda.

The above-mentioned complex preconditions provide a comfortable environment for an authoritarian subversive influence that promotes anti-Western, anti-democratic narratives for a future generation that has no living memories about threats totalitarian regimes could pose to their freedom.

Therefore, one of the most pressing issues in Central and Eastern Europe is to develop media literacy and raise awareness in schools to build democratic resilience. Virtual classroom initiatives such as Checkology are a great model to help teachers educate students not only by letting them distinguish between political propaganda, advertisements, fake news and real news. In addition, teachers can show them how to handle sources and to start a conversation on journalism ethics and transparency.

A need for optimism

Postmodern relativism appears as a threat to democratic resilience. Today’s hyperreality asks for an optimistic approach to technology’s role in society, as shown by examples of media literacy training in schools.

If postmodernism was less destructive, it could be perceived as a continuously developing theory that holds the potential to deconstruct crises, ethnocentrism, to decentralise power, redesign political discourse and give up the illusion of a single universal culture.

Contrary to this, it has provided an extremely pessimistic vision about the impact of science and technology. These have become self-destructive tools in the hand of power players who are expropriating knowledge and global resources.

At this historical conjuncture, when a younger generation’s anxiety about their future is fueled by increasing automatisation, we should rather employ a more affirmative and open approach towards science and technology.

Postmodernism could be much more constructive in terms of proposals on how to reconstruct society in order to achieve a brighter future.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Political scientist and visiting lecturer at the Center for Europe at the University of Warsaw. PhD student at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Science. Focusing on illiberalism in Hungary and Poland and the constraining role of the European Union


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