The powerful have reasons for wanting to combat what they consider to be “disinformation” — they want their version of the truth to become ours, writes Stavroula Pabst.
By Stavroula Pabst
Propaganda in Focus
Why are we being bombarded by fact-checks and “anti-disinformation” efforts in our timeline scrolls? When reading the news, we too often find that so-called experts are behind whatever claim media professionals make, no matter how outlandish or disconnected from reality such claims may be.
Through his concept and exploration of spectacle, a totalizing, negating force over our lives that results in what is really “unlife,” French Philosopher Guy Debord’s famous Society of the Spectacle (1967) and his follow-up booklet, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), provide insights into these and related phenomena.
When it comes to “fact-checks” and “experts,” Debord is clear: in a society subjugated by the economy, where “everything that was once directly lived has faded into representation,” such professionals do not exist to provide us the truth — they exist to serve the state and media through lies and distortions spun into what appears as true. If the “experts” lose influence, it will be because the public learns and articulates that their job is to systematically lie.
“Disinformation” appears as one of the biggest bogeymen in today’s increasingly online world. Governments warn of the dangers it apparently poses to society and democracy, and mainstream media organizations in turn direct resources to counter-disinformation and to fact-checking. In the name of “being informed,” people cannot often go online without being bombarded by fact-checks or warnings about what content to consume and share with their social and professional networks.
While anti-disinformation efforts proliferate, what’s missing from the conversation is a discussion about power. The powerful have reasons for wanting to combat what they consider to be “disinformation” — they want their version of the truth to become ours. Many commentators observe as such, noting that so-called disinformation researchers, fact-checkers and experts are often partisan in nature who frequently disseminate things that are not true.
But a larger force is at work within the rise of fact-checking and other counter-disinformation efforts. That force is our society’s current arrangement of appearances, the totality of social relations mediated by images, or spectacle.
Spectacle, as elucidated in Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, is a concept that can help us to understand seemingly unconnected, yet deeply intertwined phenomena that have come to fruition as the economy has subjugated society to its needs (as opposed to the other way around), and thus to recover our ability to experience life directly.
As its dominance over our everyday lives grows complete, the spectacle has become powerful enough to turn our understanding of what is true upside down. Because spectacle replaces real life with a mere mediated representation of life that cannot be experienced directly, it provides a framework where mass deceptions and lies can consistently and convincingly appear as true.
Thus, spectacle is perhaps one of the most effective tools we have to explain how elite deceptions, including fabrications and lies about imperialist wars like those in Iraq and Syria, can consistently go unpunished and even unnoticed. As such, it follows that spectacle can help us understand how modern fact-checks and counter-disinformation initiatives can consistently do the opposite of what they claim.
This article examines spectacle’s current “lines of advance” as they appear in our news cycles, feeds and timelines, where “fact-checks” and “expert’s” claims are seemingly impossible to avoid.
This cannot be understood solely as a critique of media systems but must involve spectacle as a whole, which as a concept (as Debord’s book title, The Society of the Spectacle, suggests) pertains to all of society. Aspects of modern life are “not accidentally or superficially spectacular,” or otherwise excessive: rather, society is “fundamentally spectaclist.” Within a fundamentally spectaclist society, the rise of power-serving fact-checkers must be understood as inevitable.
What is Spectacle?
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” — Guy Debord
In Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle and its shorter follow-up booklet, the 1988 Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, the philosopher posits that modern life is mediated through images, or representations of life, in a state — a spectacle — that has turned into nothing less than objective and material reality. Our current reality, a society of the spectacle, is one where the world has been turned “upside down” because life can no longer be lived directly but instead only through mere representations of life. Such an organization of appearances facilitates a backwards unreality where truth, when it makes a rare appearance, does so as “a moment of the false.”
The spectacle, which “presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned,” exists to advance itself infinitely. As Debord says, its sole message is, “What appears is good; what is good appears.” Its manifestation in the world is a “visible negation of life — a negation that has taken on a visible form” which “keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence.”
The world this spectacle emerges in is one where the economy has subjugated society to its own needs. Having no use for anything but itself, and for advancing itself, the spectacle ignores the reality of practical and natural processes, like aging and rest, and tramples over humans’ need to connect in lieu of its own advancement.
A master of separation, it has recreated our society without community, and it has obstructed the ability to communicate in general. Such processes and their ramifications ultimately mean people cannot truly experience life for themselves: they have become spectators, bound to an impoverished state of unlife.
The Society of the Spectacle & Fact-Checking
As the spectacle advances its control, message and ultimately “unlife” over daily life, an obvious tool it uses is mass and social media, which take up growing portions of the average person’s waking hours outside work. Further blurring reality, as Debord claims in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, the spectacle’s undermining and destruction of history means “contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning.”
A corporatized media is a perfect medium for such a “fabulous” realm, where truth and reality alike are obscured beyond recognition. Amongst this backdrop of confusion, spectacle increasingly deprives people of physical reality, common historical reference points and community necessary to discuss or debate important political happenings and events. As a consequence, elite narratives permeate from their respective channels unchallenged, especially as dissenting voices find themselves shut out of corporatized, elite, and tech-dominated public discourse.
“Because spectacle replaces real life with a mere mediated representation of life that cannot be experienced directly, it provides a framework where mass deceptions and lies can consistently and convincingly appear as true.”
Debord explained that the spectaclist world is characterized by one-way, top-down communication, rather than meaningful dialogue. He writes that “the passive acceptance [the spectacle] demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.”
As they command increasing control over today’s mass media, those in power are interested in legitimizing their banter — thus reinforcing the spectacle that has awarded them their status — and aim to maintain “whatever is established.” They have an abundance of tools to do this, one of them being a class of “experts,” which Debord warns of in Comments, who superficially appear to provide genuine information to inform the public sphere, but in fact perpetuate elite perspectives to advance their careers and maintain income. In a world “truly turned upside down,” these apparent experts do the exact opposite of what they claim.
Within the context of an expert class, “fact checkers” and the growing phenomenon of so-called disinformation reporters and researchers are a kind of “expert” that act to guard the spectacle’s version of truth. Lay readers and television viewers, likely tired by the demands of their own lives, may look to such professionals to best understand reality and current events. But in practice, such fact-checking operations silence emerging news narratives that go against the grain, such as the once untouchable but now-proven likely Hunter Biden laptop story.
How did such backwards circumstances become reality? In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord explains that the economy subjugating society first presented itself as an “obvious degradation of being into having,” where human fulfillment was no longer attained through what one was, but instead only through what one had. As society’s capitulation to the economy accelerated, the decline from being into having shifted “from having into appearing.” With respect to knowledge, therefore, experts no longer have to be experts or have expertise, they only need to take on the appearance of expertise.
In other words, the “experts say” phrase that crawls unabated through news headlines and fact-checks can be rubber stamped onto just about anything to boost legitimacy because the appearance of legitimacy always trumps content.
As Debord writes in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle:
“All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organisation. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie.”
As Debord shows us here, experts only become experts according to the elite’s terms. And Debord’s observation that “former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil,” rings especially true in today’s world of corporate media, where journalists frequently face precarious work arrangements, mass lay-offs and low wages in an oversaturated career field. Increasingly, to stray from mainstream media narratives is to end up blacklisted from the field all together, leaving many unable or unwilling to rock the boat.
The conditions ultimately crystalize Debord’s “expert” class, which comprises a variety of persons whose societal roles ultimately exist to defend and perpetuate spectacle. Despite constant distortions and lies, their appearance of legitimacy gives the spectacle cover when anyone publicly questions the state of current events.
Because their role is not about legitimate fact-checking, but instead about advancing spectacle, fact-checkers and adjacent media professionals’ work on current events manifests in almost comical ways, including hyper-specific references and the ridicule of potential circumstances later proven to be true.
In 2018, for example, NowThis adorned with circus music a clip of German officials laughing at President Donald Trump over what it called “exaggerated” and “outrageous” claims made at the U.N. about Germany’s dependence on Russian oil. Yet only four years later, Trump’s concerns became reality when Russia cut off major oil pipeline Nord Stream 1’s access to Europe [citing maintenance work, before it was blown up].
Further, while mainstream outlets long hailed the Covid-19 “lab-leak theory” as conspiracy theory or as “disinformation,” thus legitimizing the mass ridiculing and de-platforming of those finding the theory plausible, mainstream media outlets Vanity Fair and ProPublica have finally considered the theory’s possible validity almost three years after the initial crisis began. [The day after President Biden announced an investigation into the lab-leak theory, YouTube lifted its restrictions on speaking about it.]
In these and countless other examples, fact-checkers worked, and continue to work, tirelessly to ridicule legitimate developments and smear them as false, further blurring reality and gaslighting an atomized population already reduced to living life indirectly.
“A corporatized media is a perfect medium for such a ‘fabulous’ realm, where truth and reality alike are obscured beyond recognition.”
Often, fact-checkers are hailed as “independent,” presenting themselves as neutral and principled analysts of current events. In reality, their roles are often created and maintained by wealthy or otherwise-compromised individuals, organizations and governments.
How Fact-Checkers & Disinformation ‘Experts’ Crush Dissent
Fact-checking and related efforts are made to be considered vital to stopping “disinformation,” a recently-popularized term that Debord indicated primarily serves spectacle. Yet here lies another contradiction that exists openly in a spectaclist society: the entities most concerned with the so-called disinformation problem (i.e. governments, intelligence agencies and mainstream media) are the most likely to spread falsehoods themselves.
Debord outlined his understanding of the term “disinformation” in Comments, writing that disinformation “is openly employed by particular powers, or, consequently, by people who hold fragments of economic or political authority, in order to maintain what is established; and always in a counter-offensive role.” Of course, “fact-checks” often come out after controversial or power-incriminating news stories do, further fulfilling the counter-offensive role Debord insinuated they play to bury challenges to power.
Many prominent fact-checking media organizations and institutions have partnered with or been funded in some capacity by the U.S. government, suggesting their partial or full utility as proxy intelligence instruments.
So-called “trust rating” system NewsGuard Technologies, for example, partners directly with organizations including Microsoft, the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, and is even advised by former C.I.A. and NSA director Michael Hayden and former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogg Rasmussen.
Further, as Alan MacLeod reported in MintPress News, organizations including VoxCheck, the Poynter Institute and StopFake have received funding through the U.S. Embassy or the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. government-backed organization explicitly established during the Reagan era as a Central Intelligence Agency front group. Former NED Acting President Allen Weinstein even admitted in a 1991 interview that “A lot of what [the NED does] today was done covertly 25 years ago by the C.I.A. The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection.”
Perhaps to cover for their dubious funding sources and affiliations, fact-checking and equivalent operations often take on elaborate appearances, frequently employing “experts” who effectively act to bolster mainstream narratives. Examples include documented proxy British intelligence operation Bellingcat, an initially one-man-organization that, with heavy publicity, became one of journalism’s biggest names overnight. Through apparently sophisticated “open source investigations,” the organization has ultimately worked to protect mainstream news narratives about the wars in Syria and Ukraine, including labelling research critical of the Western-backed and terrorist-turned-humanitarian White Helmets in Syria as, predictably, “disinformation.”
Similarly, government- and Gates Foundation-funded Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) frequently smears reporters countering mainstream media narratives through their work, jeopardizing their targets’ careers. In its work to “revers[e] the rising tide of polarisation, extremism and disinformation worldwide,” the ISD calls for nebulous actions to regulate or otherwise disrupt the spread of “disinformation” that in fact leads to the censorship of dissenting voices and stifling public debate. In its “About” page, the ISD even brags about the number of social media accounts it has helped to ban.
But just as Debord’s spectacle allows for no real response to its actions — “its manner of appearing without allowing any reply” — the ISD often does not respond when asked for comment, debate or proof that their claims of “disinformation” hold water. Indeed, the ISD even changed its complaint policy to not “engage with complaints made by bad faith actors, or amplify disinformation, extremism or hate” after reporter Aaron Maté challenged their baseless smear attempt, in collaboration with The Guardian, against him. The ISD doesn’t have to provide proof or respond to rebuttals when they make claims about others: in a spectaclist society, their accusations alone can kill careers.
Debord wrote on the phenomenon, applicable to anyone who skirts mainstream narratives, in Comments:
“A person’s past can be entirely rewritten, radically altered, recreated in the manner of the Moscow trials — and without even having to bother with anything as clumsy as a trial. Killing comes cheaper these days.”
Further crystallizing the spectacle’s refusal of reply and the “killings” it facilitates, fact-checking and corporate-facilitated mass bans and delegitimizations of journalists’ social media accounts occur en masse, and are especially common for individuals and organizations providing information and content swimming against the current. By late May 2022, for example, YouTube had removed over 9,000 channels producing materials related to the war in Ukraine.
Smears, demonetizations and de-platforming with respect to journalists and outlets that stray from mainstream narratives, including hit pieces on Kim Iversen and Eva Bartlett as well as PayPal and Twitter de-platforming of organizations such as Mint Press News and Russia Today, are increasingly common. In many cases, such decisions about bans and de-platforming are based on conclusions made by “independent” fact-checkers who decide particular claims or research conclusions are incorrect or otherwise “harmful,” a nebulous term that can easily be used against dissenters because such an accusation requires no real evidence or proof.
While independent, adversarial sources are left to try to produce work within increasingly prohibitive restraints, mainstream media channels and fact-checkers consistently parrot distorted or false narratives without consequence.
[Related: WATCH: PayPal, Censorship & Democracy]
Much of the media coverage of the conflict in Ukraine, for example, obscures basic facts, including the nature and reality of the Ukrainian military’s neo-Nazi elements, and especially the Azov Battalion, widely associated with neo-Nazism before the current conflict. This has led to controversy in places like Greece, where Ukrainian Prime Minister Zelensky’s decision to allow an Azov Battalion member to speak during his virtual address to the country’s Parliament in April 2022 resulted in widespread outrage.
And many mainstream news sources posited the recent missile strike in Poland was Russian in origin with little evidence, bringing international tensions to the brink. As news emerged that the missile was likely Ukrainian, updates were published and articles were rescinded — but not until after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called to further escalate the conflict. While the Associated Press (AP) journalist who broke the story after receiving false information from U.S. intel was fired, an event remarkable enough to make international news headlines, dozens of prominent outlets still uncritically repeated the AP’s initial claims that the missile was Russian.
Disingenuous media portrayals of current events are common. But the current arrangement, where mainstream media spreads disinformation unabated while those telling the truth face reprimand, is not an accident. Rather, many mainstream journalists and fact-checkers have their jobs because their words serve the state and spectacle alike.
Such a toxic media environment, of course, is self-reinforcing: any “fact checker” or “expert” who strays from their work advancing the spectacle knows they risk the very smears they now spout. In today’s world, likewise, everyone is subconsciously aware of this reality because they too could be “canceled” online or in real life with little chance at defense. Considering the Ukrainian government’s kill list against journalists such as Eva Bartlett and prominent figures including musician Roger Waters, one could say Debord’s “killing” has taken on a literal form, though of course fact checkers find such claims misleading.
At the time of writing, the relative ability of spectacular media narratives to sway or otherwise confuse public opinion, as current and recent events including the war in Syria, the Ukraine conflict and the coronavirus crisis demonstrate, is unprecedented.
Many are increasingly able to grasp, however, that some kind of deception or misdirection is often ongoing. Namely, the public is learning to understand the deceptive nature of the “experts” adorning their screens, as the flop and subsequent shutting of CNN+, a $100 million streaming service that only received about 10,000 subscriptions, shows. Trust in the media is reaching record lows in the U.S. and internationally: a July 2022 Gallup poll revealed only 16 percent of U.S. adults had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the reporting quality of newspapers and 11 percent in television-based news respectively.
“The current thing” meme surfacing and gaining traction over the past year, furthermore, articulates a collective sense that many news events, or their impacts, are somehow manufactured or sensationalized in ways that aren’t organic.
This collective, if un-articulated knowledge that the media is somehow wrong or misleading coincides with Debord’s claim in Comments that people subconsciously understand that, as the spectacle continues its upending of social relations, something fundamental has changed about life itself.
As Debord wrote in Comments:
“The vague feeling that there has been a rapid invasion which has forced people to lead their lives in an entirely different way is now widespread; but this is experienced rather like some inexplicable change in the climate, or in some other natural equilibrium, a change faced with which ignorance knows only that it has nothing to say.”
The spectacle’s totality of domination over our lives is an amazing yet shocking feat that forces those recognizing the phenomenon to reckon with the “un-lives” we live. Thus, while “ignorance knows… it has nothing to say,” overriding and dismantling the spectacle requires finding something to say: as Debord said, a “practical force must be set in motion.”
This “practical force” needs the meaningful dialogue that spectacle’s creep into our lives has largely eliminated, if not wholly erased, via phenomena including today’s fact-checking and anti-disinformation crazes. That dialogue and communication cannot be initiated by atomized individuals or by lonely crowds susceptible to spectacle’s influence, but by people who share community and a meaningful connection to what Debord described as “universal history,” “where dialogue arms itself to make its own conditions victorious.”
As Debord put it, “We can truly understand this society only by negating it.” If the “experts” lose influence, it will be because the public has rejected them outright, articulates that their role is to deceive on behalf of the powerful.
Selected References: Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Malcolm Imrie. London and New York: Verso Books, 1990.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb. Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014. Society of the Spectacle Annotated Edition.pdf.
Stavroula Pabst is a writer, comedian and media PhD student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece. Her writing has appeared in publications including AthensLive, Reductress, Passage and The Grayzone.
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