Great headline the NYT gave my new piece on misinformation & intellectual orthodoxy. Those of us who grew up in authoritarian states are used to being told that what we see isn’t reality. https://t.co/tPgHpPZ9K0
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) June 3, 2021
People who were born behind the old Iron Curtain are often described as having paranoid tendencies. As a member of this group, I can only say we had a lot to be paranoid about.
Growing up in Baku, in what is now Azerbaijan, I watched as the all-powerful Soviet state lied right to our faces, every morning in the paper and every night on the news. As I began my climb up the chess Olympus, I realized that every sports official, fan or neighbor was a potential informant; perceived disobedience could result in the loss of your job, your freedom or your life.
As the doomed Communist economy slowed in the 1980s and our standard of living fell further behind that of the free world, domestic repression and propaganda only increased. The contrast between what the authorities said and our observable reality became absurd. “There’s no news in the Truth and no truth in the News,” went the line about the leading Soviet newspapers Pravda (“Truth”) and Izvestia (“News”).
It’s easy to connect an all-powerful state — be it the Soviet Union, the current Chinese Communist Party or Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984” — to the dissemination of false narratives with the goal of social control. Dictatorships have the means and motive to twist reality into whatever serves their purpose, and a track record of doing so.
Some individuals living under such a regime truly believe the official story, despite what their eyes may tell them. Others pretend to believe, out of fear. Then you have those who may or may not believe, but who are nonetheless ambitious, bent on not only surviving, but thriving. Demonstrating what a good believer in false narratives you are can provide a ladder up in those environments, especially if you rush to display your purity and conformity by accusing others.
In writing “1984,” Orwell was inspired, if that’s the right word, by a novel called “We,” a futuristic portrait of a totalitarian state by the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin. Banned in the Soviet Union, “We” had first been published in English, in 1924. In the novel, Zamyatin took precise aim at the true goals of ideological zealots and their endless pretexts for centralizing control of every aspect of society.
“The way to rid man of criminality is to rid him of freedom,” says D-503, the loyal, but increasingly conflicted, spaceship-building protagonist of “We,” pleased by his own mathematical logic. The same logic can easily be applied to speech: You cannot spread prohibited thoughts if you cannot speak. In such a world, the heretic is to be burned, jailed or lobotomized. Or at least deplatformed.
In Western countries today, there is no state monopoly on misinformation. Falsehoods spread instead from every nook of society. Thanks to the power of the internet, anyone — elected politician, businessman or private citizen — can be a propaganda minister from the comfort of home. Social media can quickly fan errant sparks into raging wildfires. Online tribes of conspiracy theorists can influence and even merge with political parties, often encouraged by hostile foreign state actors that appreciate the potential damage such groups can inflict.
It’s well established that fake news and outrageous lies spread faster than boring truths. Everyone enjoys the idea of being the holder of a secret others don’t know. And facts are outnumbered in this fight. There are a million ways to lie, exaggerate and elide, but still only one lonely truth.
The democratization of misinformation holds fewer obvious dangers than the control of information under a dictatorship, but the consequences are real. Today, false narratives often thrive in communities that are fragmented and difficult to reach by conventional means. Membership in such groups is a potent substitute for loyalty to a political party, and far less predictable in terms of outcome.
I have personal experience with authoritarian rule that has no respect for human freedom or human life. My own news site, Kasparov.ru, has been blocked in Russia for years. And I have closely followed as thousands of my fellow Russians were beaten and jailed in recent months for peacefully protesting the Putin regime. Having witnessed how easily dissent can be criminalized, I am always quick to point out the absurdity of American pundits and politicians decrying censorship after someone loses a book deal or Twitter account for sharing hateful views.
My life experience, however, is also why I am so concerned about a phenomenon that more subtly threatens the free flow of ideas in Western societies: the rise of an unchallengeable majority view, able to turn regular people into silent witnesses, informants and ambitious zealots like the ones I grew up with in the Soviet Union.
Such intellectual orthodoxy doesn’t have the authority of a state behind it, but online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be just as effective in enforcing adherence to the new “party” line. Consider the conversation around the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
Earlier in the pandemic, some experts — including Luc Montagnier, a Nobel Prize-winning virologist — suggested that the virus might have been the result of an accidental leak in a Chinese laboratory. The theory, however, was soon enveloped by an increasingly polarized discourse. In attempting to sharpen his rhetoric against China, President Donald Trump and his supporters openly promoted the possibility of the leak, while critics of his administration reflexively rejected it as a false narrative. Silicon Valley titans swiftly removed news articles amplifying the theory; mainstream media labeled them as misinformation.
Yet, at the time little information was available to confirm or contest the validity of the argument. The theory’s dismissal was not the result of a thorough scientific investigation; it was a move based on politics and driven by the dominant voices shaping the conversation in the public square. (In recent months, with Mr. Trump out of the picture, the World Health Organization and several scientists have stated that the laboratory leak hypothesis calls for further investigation.)
Disloyalty to intellectual orthodoxy in our free world doesn’t bear the grim consequences it does under totalitarian regimes. No one will be sent to the gulag for failing to toe the line. But we cannot successfully fight misinformation without the ability to think and speak without fear. How can we discard bad ideas if we cannot discuss and refute them? It is all an attempt to rid us of crime by ridding us of freedom.
As Zamyatin wrote, “There are ideas of clay and ideas molded of gold, or of our precious glass. In order to know the material of which an idea is made, one needs only to let fall upon it a drop of strong acid.”
Our metaphorical acids are education, the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to think, speak, be wrong and learn without fear. Protecting these principles does not mean putting up with intolerance or promoting hatred, but it does require courage — courage to admit doubt, to challenge others and be challenged.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and a former world chess champion.