A Brief History of Disinformation

Stephen Squibb on the tactics of untruth, from Martha Rosler to Hito Steyerl

BY Stephen Squibb in Features , Thematic Essays | 15 SEP 20

‘All people desire knowledge by nature.’ So begins Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Early in the Politics, we get another familiar homily: ‘People by nature are political animals.’ People, by nature, desire knowledge; also, by nature, we are political and animal. Here is a recipe for disinformation.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, the artist Martha Rosler fished a videotape out of a dumpster behind the building where CBS News was televised and recorded, on the west side of Manhattan. The tape included two partially erased copies of an identical broadcast about Nicaragua, where the US was engaging in covert war against the Sandinista government. This broadcast concerned the Reagan administration’s claim, made on the night of the president’s landslide re-election in November 1984, that the Soviets had sent MiG fighter jets by ship to the port of Corinto in Nicaragua. Over the following weeks, the story led the headlines, while the White House, maddeningly for the media, denied ever suggesting that these events had happened. At the time, all major news broadcasts were submitted to the Federal Communications Commission as ‘air checks’, to make sure they didn’t contain profanity, after which the tapes were erased through a process of demagnetization and discarded. Demagnetization imposes a magnetic pulse straight across the reeled tape, causing a break in the signal, after which the player picks up the recording again, only to run into the next spot of broken signal; this repeats cyclically as the tape is played. Interweaving both demagnetized copies of the broadcast might theoretically reconstitute it, providing there was enough information left. The tape Rosler found was an uncanny rhythm of information drifting in and out of intelligibility: clipped phrases about weapons shipments, statements from the Reagan administration, the Soviets and other televised speculations. 

Martha Rosler
Martha Rosler, If It’s Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, 1985, video stills. Courtesy: © Martha Rosler, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich 

This found recording became the basis for Rosler’s 1985 video If It’s Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, wherein she added scrolling supertitles to the fragmented language, emphasizing breaks in the narrative. After the first version of the broadcast, Rosler placed a segment from Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union speech announcing the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ of military intervention. She added an actual, complete CBS News segment after the second, before concluding with an advertisement for the US Army Guard. The tape was originally supplemented by an installation of newspaper articles.

At the beginning of the video, we try to follow what is going on but, eventually, we get tired and our minds wander. We start thinking about what we are doing later, what we want to eat and why much video art is so relentlessly difficult. Then, the dispatches feed into an advertisement for a Canon A-1 camera, also subject to erasure: something about spirit, something about the ability to control the depth of field. Suddenly, we see Reagan in full clarity. He tells us that Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista dictatorship, with full Soviet bloc support, is oppressing its people and the church, denying a free press and launching communist terror attacks on neighbouring states. Reagan is handsomer than we remember as he says that support for freedom fighters is consistent with the United Nations charter.

Then we are back to the interrupted transmission, with more fragments about administration officials, planes, missiles, the Canon A-1 and its excellent depth-of-field control. The CBS News segment appended by Rosler features US military exercises in Puerto Rico, shots of tanks and marines rolling ashore, file footage of Soviet war planes. This is followed by remarks on the connection between Cuba and Nicaragua – based largely on the visual similarity between the countries’ flags – which gives way to a segment on Cuban drug trafficking, illustrated by a graphic of dollar bills flowing from the US into Cuba. We see the first part of a commercial for the Army Infantry Reserve – white men leaping off helicopters and shooting machine guns at an unseen enemy – as a jingle plays in the background. Then, the tape ends.

Martha Rosler
Martha Rosler, If It’s Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, 1985, video stills. Courtesy: © Martha Rosler, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich 

The literary critic Philip Fisher once told me that reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) reproduced, in the adult mind, the peculiar confusions of childhood, when our grasp of language teetered on the edge of comprehension and despair. We think we understand, then we don’t, then the narrative carries on anyway. Something similar happens with Rosler’s video, which re-creates in the attentive viewer the feeling of disinformation, in advance of its analysis. (Rosler’s work has always been more open ended and suggestive than her more bad-faith critics imagine.) The news itself is muddled and confusing; we try to follow along, but we can’t. We imagine that if we could hear the whole thing, it would all add up. But, when we do encounter an unerased broadcast, it’s no more comprehensible than the erased one, which at least has the decency to advertise its incompleteness. Still, the juxtaposition between the two elements preserves and sharpens the desire for information itself.

Appropriately enough, the Wikipedia entry for disinformation does not seem entirely free of the phenomenon in question. It credits the term to Joseph Stalin – as a translation from the Russian dezinformatsiya. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former head of communist Romania’s secret police, is reported to have said that Stalin made the term sound French on purpose, to ascribe it Western origins. The online encyclopaedia goes on to say that: ‘The US did not actively counter disinformation until 1980, when a fake document reported that the US supported apartheid.’ But, of course, the US did support apartheid well beyond 1980, and given the pre-existence of ‘dislike’, ‘discord’, ‘disagree’ and ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, it seems unlikely that anglophones would need Stalin’s help in coming up with ‘disinformation’, either literally or figuratively. If disinformation is everywhere marked by this character of formal dissymmetry – patchwork intimations of truth alongside seamless fantasy – it also can’t help but maintain the taste for knowledge. We like to think that truth and untruth appear in the same basic format – like a statement, say, or an equation. One equation is true, another is untrue, but both are equations; this statement is false while that one is not, but both, nevertheless, are statements. Rosler’s video reminds us that untruth is a format all its own. Even inaccurate information can be interrupted and erased, while what is opposed to it remains full, robust and complete. Lived experience is a contrast between a limited, interrupted pseudo-realism and a smooth, unlimited epic that is less gratifyingly false than it is gregariously indifferent to any criterion at all.

The function of disinformation is not to brainwash you into doing something you wouldn’t otherwise but to paralyze you with what is known as fear, uncertainty and doubt, or FUD. To FUD something is not to disprove it; rather, it is to flood the surrounding landscape with enough disinformation that making any judgement begins to feel uncomfortable, partisan and strange. Buried within this unhappy consciousness is the awareness that judgements are still necessary: why go to all this trouble to impede them otherwise? The strange experience of disinformation includes an element of inverted flattery and this is often the hardest part for the average citizen to accept. Disinformation flatters us that our opinion matters by going out of its way to corrupt and influence that opinion. Even when we are thoroughly convinced of our own powerlessness, disinformation reminds us that our thoughts matter more than we imagine. 

Bani Abidi
Bani Abidi, Reserved, 2006, video stills. Courtesy: the artist and Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata 

Disinformation stimulates the will to truth in order to mislead it. It is the public performance of what is explicitly or self-consciously unconcerned with truth that, counterintuitively, establishes the criterion of veracity for everything else. What makes a lie a lie is not only that it is not true but also that it is not art. So long as art is absent, it is possible to finesse the question of what is true and what is not. This is why art makes power anxious: it begs the old schoolyard question: ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ Anxiety arrives, Alain Badiou writes in Theory of the Subject (1982), when we allow the real to kill the symbolic, instead of splitting it. And this is how authority regards art: as something that kills its symbolic effectiveness instead of just splitting it. 

Bani Abidi’s video Reserved (2006) – originally commissioned by the Singapore Biennial and currently included in ‘Signal: The Politics of Video’, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – splits the symbolic by capturing a city’s preparations for the arrival of an unnamed dignitary. Children are lined up with paper flags, bureaucrats shuffle their papers, audience members fidget in seats marked ‘reserved’ as cabbies light cigarettes for one another from behind a barricade. Everything is exceptional and frustrates the ability of those in power to grasp the character of everyday life under their command. In a sense, the first audience for disinformation is the empowered authoritarian. (The need for the responsible leader to go undercover to find out what is really going on in his or her domain is a perennial feature of folk tales around the world.) It is comforting to think, perhaps, that US President Donald Trump controls Fox News, and Fox News controls his supporters. But the reality is that Trump watches Fox News to be told what to do, rather than the other way around.

The dissymmetry of disinformation preys on our desire for order and equality, which underpins the fantasy that reaction and revolution both have arguments, and that individuals are free to choose between them. The trouble with this reassuring symmetrical faith is that it fails to consider what is different about each of the two camps. Reaction doesn’t need to win an argument to succeed because it already has accumulation on its side, the spontaneous momentum of which is usually sufficient for its purposes. Weapons can be bought, mercenaries hired and public relations retained without having a position in any intelligible sense. There is no right-wing theory: there is only reactionary strategy and fascist tactics. This is why you never find conservatives engaged in parsing the finer points of a reactionary like Joseph de Maistre against conservative thinker Edmund Burke. Only leftists do that sort of thing – which is why the left is an ostentatious galaxy of sects, splinter groups and factions. The left needs theory to survive, while the right cannot survive theory. Capital does not argue: it exists. There is more debate in a freshman political-science class than the entirety of a right-wing think tank. The aesthetics of disinformation are an aesthetics of imbalance and dissymmetry, where one side has all the resources, pacifically, and the other side has all the ideas and fights about them constantly.

Hito Steyerl
Hito Steyerl, Robots Today, 2016, single-channel video still. Courtesy: © Hito Steyerl,

Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Esther Schipper, Berlin, and DACS, London

In practice, this means that the left is afflicted by a desire for novelty whereas the right is not. Disinformation is effective not least because repeated exposure to the same information robs it of its status by making it redundant. No longer informative, it no longer satisfies the criteria for information. Not so untruth, which remains equally untrue, each and every time. The more often the same instance of information is trotted out, the less informative it becomes, eventually losing its potency entirely. Disinformation can afford to wait out the market for the real thing. In light of this dynamic, it is perfectly understandable – if never advisable – to attempt to radically attenuate the market for information by limiting who has access to the language of understanding. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics can be illustrative in this regard. It turned, among other things, on who should have access to the language of the Bible, and on whether it was just a stupid book that should best be ignored. Nevertheless, the puritans smashed stained glass because they wanted, reasonably enough, to decide for themselves, while the image could only be an instrument of disinformation in the absence of generalized literacy. If you still think that what is shiny, loud and figurative is always untrue, you might be a Protestant without realizing it. If you think abstract, quiet and matte is how provincial powerbrokers lie to themselves, you might be a Catholic. It is not that one of these tendencies is more elitist than the other; rather, it’s a question of which part is for everyone and which part is for the elect. In Catholic aesthetics, the figurative images are for everyone and the words are for the few. In Protestant aesthetics, everybody gets the words but what abstract images there are can only be understood by the chosen, and often require a pile of Latinate terms to decipher.

The artist Hito Steyerl – who is German by way of Catholic Bavaria – makes work that is remarkable not least for the way it combines something like a Protestant momentum towards vernacular language with a Catholic concern for figure and image. Her Hell Yeah We Fuck Die (2016) inflated the five most frequently appearing words in English-language songs into glowing, full-size sculptures and nestled them alongside videos of robotic figures being subjected to all manners of torment. Don’t get it twisted, Steyerl pointed out: it’s not as though the anti-figural legacy actually succeeds in replacing the popular with the elevated, it’s just that now your words are monumental, instead of your figures.

‘In Defence of the Poor Image’, Steyerl’s landmark essay from 2009, effectively brought to a close the era inaugurated by French philosopher Guy Debord’s masterpiece The Society of the Spectacle (1967). For Debord, to be an image was always already to be dead, rich and a lie. ‘All that was once lived’, he wrote, ‘has receded into representation.’ This was plausible enough in a world where most of the population watched one of three television stations. But complaints about a postlapsarian humanity controlled by a centralized codex of icons are much older than any recently developed image-dissemination technology. The comforts of Debord’s spectacle lay in how familiar it felt to campaign against a vertically integrated, Technicolor image system – a 20th-century form of stained glass. Today’s counter-revolutionaries are no longer so consolingly centralized. There is no more mass-cultural trash to sift through, as Rosler did, panning for perfectly metaphorical refuse. Steyerl’s ‘poor image’ reflects instead the emergence of online micro-cults, provincial shrines to local deities, digital confessors and local, networked sacraments. It is the unstable, oscillating mixture of technology and freedom within the mode of representation – as distinct from similar cycles within the mode of production – that feeds analyses like these, just as it did their more explicitly ‘religious’ predecessors. The good news, Steyerl reminds us, is that we no longer need to pretend we don’t like beautiful things. We are free to fight against disinformation with whatever means we choose. But fight we must, now that the aesthetics of disinformation are as atomic and penetrating as everything else under our miserable and indifferent sun.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline ‘Splitting Symbols’.

Main image: Martha Rosler, If It’s Too Bad to Be True, It Could Be DISINFORMATION, 1985, video stills. Courtesy: © Martha Rosler, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich 

Stephen Squibb is a writer. He lives in Brooklyn, USA.