Gossip, rumors, fake news

Ilo Trajkovski

It’s summertime, so let’s discuss a lighter topic. I wouldn’t want to spoil the mood of readers who, with their mobile phones in hand, can easily browse through multiple websites at once. And summertime, along with the annual holiday experiences, it’s the time for gossip. Gossip is said to be one of the greatest pleasures of the simpleminded. A late friend of mine used to say: “Little gossip, great pleasure!”
But still, the topic is not so benign. Considering that the Macedonian government is spending a lot of time on it, then it must be a serious political issue. And that is exactly the dimension I wanted to avoid in these summer days. But there is no way to avoid it. Everything is politics here, even gossip and rumors. In fact, our politics and the public are largely based on these two, as I’d like to call them, social skills – gossiping and rumor-spreading. The breakthrough of information technology, especially the explosion of social media, is also changing the communication techniques. In these new conditions, gossip and rumors are gaining not only new forms but also new powers. They are now officially treated as spreading fake news, half-truths and misinformation. All the governments of the world have turned against them.
Fake news and misinformation about current governments prove to be a specter. Against it, as Karl Marx wrote at the time when the specter of Communism started haunting Europe, “All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter; Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police spies”. So, a few days ago, Macedonian authorities also joined this hunt. The government, through the Prime Minister himself, has announced his draft plan for decisive action against the spread of misinformation and attacks on democracy. The title itself acts as a very strong communication vector. He calls for decisive action, as if it were a question of one’s survival and defense against attacks on democracy.
Government officials in charge of this issue said that misinformation threatened the survival of the government, and thus democracy. Similar arguments are used by other defenders of governments around the world and it is quite logical, since it is what they are paid to do. In politics, as well as in physics, the law of inertia does its thing – each object strives to maintain its starting position. But is defending the power of a particular government automatically defending democracy? It was this government that came to power over the waves of the downfall of the previous government that enslaved the state and destroyed democracy. So it is not anti-democratic to overthrow any government. And vice versa, not every draft plan for decisive action to defend a particular government is automatically a plan to defend democracy in that country. On the contrary. A plan that portrays the survival of a particular government as a question of the survival of democracy in a given country can be turned into a plan for a new captive state. To avoid this, the Plan, or its planners, must do their best to understand the dialectic between disinformation and fake news policy and the fight against that policy, on the one hand, and the sociology and psychology of gossip and rumors, on the other.
It is indisputable that politicians today (from government or opposition) and their followers (smaller or bigger fanatics) everywhere in the world, and even here, use misinformation, half-truths and fake news. Machiavellianism is a well-known technology that has long been used in the fight for power. Spreading misinformation, half-truths and even lies is just one of the many tools of Machiavellian arsenal. However, today, with the decline of confidence in public institutions and especially politicians, this phenomenon is taking on an acute dimension. And that is why the authorities are intimidated. They are well aware of the power of public opinion, as well as its susceptibility to manipulation. That is why action is taken in all countries and at many interstate levels to combat misinformation and fake news. Appropriate platforms and bodies are set up at the level of the Council of Europe, within the European Union and beyond. Such efforts by the authorities are legitimate. But in order to promote democracy, and not just maintain power, they need to conform to the fundamental assumptions of democracy.
And democracy is the rule with the participation of the people (demos). It could mean many things, but here I turn my attention to two cultural assumptions. First, it means adopting policies (all, including that of decisive action against misinformation) through democratic deliberation, democratic rethinking, not inauguration. Unfortunately, the deliberative democracy in this country has not yet found its own promoter. Second, popular thinking presupposes conversation, argumentation, dialogue between citizens with different communication skills and habits. Democracy is alive where the people are not silent but talk, discuss. People talk about political projects, political events or politicians. What will become the subject of discussion depends on the situation of society and the level of political culture and citizen awareness. That is why we have the popular saying: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”.
When people talk, they also gossip. Democracy, as we know it, is susceptible to manipulation. In democracy, power comes with the ‘voice’ of the people. And the people cast their votes to the ballot boxes and on the basis of rumors, gossip, information and misinformation, truths and half-truths circulating in public unceasingly. Who can stop people from talking and gossiping about hearing and spreading rumors, misinformation, half-truths and even lies – colorful lies that no one believes in but listens to and spreads them!? Not even in the most negative utopia described, for example, in “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the dissatisfied find a way to express their disagreement. Even with a whisper. That whispering and unyielding politics is subversive.
The people’s talk is also gossip, chitchatting. How many bitter and sweet conversations start with the call “Why don’t you share a gossip…” How long before the “Racket” scandal, for instance, the rumors that this or that businessman was a victim of racketeering were treated as gossip, that racketeering and corruption by the current government’s representatives are on the same scale and are executed by the same people as before.
In this sense, gossip, rumors, half-truths and even fake news, instead of sanctions, should be prevented. It is not done with a program of decisive, or even the most decisive fight against misinformation, but a program of combating crime and corruption as the main sources of gossip.
Gossip and similar phenomena are not negative in themselves. It is an integral element of the human race and an important social skill. There was gossip, there still is, and will exist in the future as well. But in some social circumstances it becomes a major institution. This is especially the case with the smaller societies on the threshold between traditionalism and modernism. In them, those who have not developed this skill are not a ‘good’ company and are often the subject of gossip.
Macedonian society is exactly like that. In it, gossip about people is a much more important selection criterion than public speaking of their actions and policies. Therefore, besides programs for fighting misinformation, we need support for long-term educational work on media literacy of citizens as an integral element of civic education programs.