Last week I went to a conference on misinformation at SOAS. It was hosted by Dan Nightingale and Amir Massoumian – both PhD students in anthropology (at UCL and SOAS respectively). The aim of the event was to discuss how anthropologists can contribute to a better understanding of misinformation and the issues around it. Or, as Dan put it, “the aesthetics and dynamics of the issues themselves”. (“Misinformation” itself is “not a helpful term”, said Dan. “We’re trying to get away from it”.)

Conference is probably too grand a word, because there were only about 20 of us. But this made for some great discussions. It was all very informal, and the speakers were friendly and open. The day was made up of two panel debates, with lunch in the middle. The morning panel looked at aspects of misinformation in the UK’s political scene. The afternoon session was about putting misinformation into a wider anthropological context.

Misinformation (part 1)

There’s a lot of material, so I’m writing two blog posts. This one covers the morning session, which addressed misinformation at grassroots level across UK politics. I originally titled it “the awake versus the woke” because this was one observation of what seems to be happening.

To the right of the political spectrum, there are people urging the rest of the population to “wake up” – to realise that the government, the mainstream media and other established institutions are not only lying but deliberately covering up a greater, more sinister, political plan. Meanwhile, on the left, we have actors who may be derided or praised as “woke” (depending on your political persuasion), but who generally pride themselves in being alert to social injustice. They want to call out prejudice and discrimination wherever they see it. These arguments have been seen collectively as part of the culture wars. And misinformation is a key player on both sides.

Of course, this is a simplistic way of describing the status quo and I’ll leave it up to each of the morning’s speakers to describe their research in more intelligent terms.

The UK freedom movement

The first speaker of the day was Campbell Thomson (UCL). He talked about his research with the UK “freedom” movement – which isn’t so much a specific movement as a loose coalition of hundreds – if not thousands – of broadly aligned campaigning and discussion groups. Campbell said he wanted to research this topic because public trust in liberal institutions is at an all-time low, and he was interested in “popular imaginaries of the dangerous conspiracy theorist spreading misinformation”. (Imaginaries is a sociological term meaning the sets of shared values, laws and practices that bind communities together.)

Misinformation conference - screenshot of UK freedom movement related groups on Telegram

Screenshot of UK freedom movement related groups on Telegram – Campbell Thomson

Campbell did most of his fieldwork on Telegram. He found hundreds of relevant groups there. Mass forwarding of messages is prohibited on WhatsApp but allowed on Telegram – and most of the messages in these Telegram groups were mass forwards. In terms of the aesthetics (tone and feel) of these messages, there were “lots of ‘destroys’ and celebrating humiliation”. Campbell saw this on both the left and the right of the movement – for example, cheering when someone had won an argument with a journalist in a mainstream media interview.

Campbell joined a real-life meetup in a popular London pub where he was told to look out for copies of The Light newspaper. The sheer diversity of views he encountered is interesting. For example, we might presume that all “freedom” enthusiasts support Q-Anon, but one person told Campbell that Q-Anon was a “classic psy-op” – a psychological trick created by those in power to discredit Pizzagate (which that person believed to be true).

The UK political left

Alex Kirby-Reynolds (University of Sheffield) has been carrying out an experimental ethnography of the UK political left on X (formerly Twitter). He is interested in people’s everyday experience of ‘politics’ within this space. And also in what political sociology can learn from political anthropology. He has data from 20 sessions of observations, each containing around 15 “half events” comprised of thousands of tweets, and 13 in-depth interviews. His PhD thesis is a series of vignettes and reflections (inspired by the format of Kathryn Scanlan’s novel, Kick The Latch).

Alex gave examples of popular memes as well as talking about the practice of “sh*tposters” (people who post negatively about others) and “grifters” (people, in this case specifically politicians and political commentators, who profit financially from dishonesty). As examples, he showed first how (Labour Leader) Kier Starmer’s decision to support culling an alpaca led to new variations of the Alpacalypse Now meme. Secondly, he talked about a Twitter pile-on of a political journalist whose tweets were seen as evidence of the fundamental corruption of UK politics. The journalist didn’t help by doubling down and fighting back – defending his position throughout the attack, and thus prolonging the negative response.

The far right

Amir Massoumian (SOAS) is researching the entanglements of nationalism, nostalgia, misinformation and ethics in London pub culture. He has carried out his fieldwork at 55 Tufton Street and UKIP as well as some London pubs. Organisations like 55 Tufton Street and UKIP are interesting because they don’t want to be in power, says Amir. Their “entire intent” is to push the UK Conservative Party to the right. They believe that the only way the West can recover from its current malaise is by bringing back traditional values. Their main objective is to disrupt, to stir things up with the message that “something’s wrong and we need to go against the liberal, mainstream, woke hegemony”.

But Amir has found that, in their personal lives, the people he’s been speaking to never come from traditional backgrounds. Like Campbell, he noticed an “obsession with humiliation…maybe because they themselves feel humiliated”? The lived experiences of these people is one of “pain and suffering and trauma”. They always have to present themselves as victims of the mainstream, he says.

Amir follows many right wing accounts on Twitter and says that the narrative is so predictive “it’s almost like an algorithm”. He cites the current allegations against Russell Brand as the sort of input with a predictable output (Ie: concerns that a popular free-thinker is being silenced by the mainstream media). There needs to be a “re-routing” away from that form of rhetoric: “I don’t know the answer but it’s not counter-information”.

(Counter-information has been a popular tactic used to address misinformation. For an example, see this TED talk by Alphabet’s Yasmin Green).

Misinformation conference - morning panel

Morning panel (l-r): Amir Massoumian, Ben Bowles, Campbell Thomson and Alex Kirby-Reynolds

Pollsters and psephologists

Dr Ben Bowles (SOAS) is interested in populism, post-truth and polarisation, specifically the work of political pollsters and psephologists (political analysts), who he says are often seen as “the technocrats of misinformation”. These people who specialise in predicting election outcomes are interesting because they’re doing lots of political work – translating what politicians think and say to what people easily understand.

Through local politics you can see how disengaged and cynical people in the middle actually are, says Ben. He’s from central Bedfordshire where, he says, “anyone running as an independent will get elected”. But independent politicians come from a diverse spectrum: some are left of the Green Party, while others are “former tories who’ve been kicked out for being extreme”. These independents tend to be be particularly active on Facebook, where they like to share misinformation that is hyper-local, says Ben. A lot of these people are very well educated, some are academics. The reason people think this way is not down to ignorance, says Ben. “It’s the way in which our personal experience has led us to that point”.

Ben recommends The Face of Peace by Gwen Burnyeat – an ethnographic study of public disinformation and the failure of a peace plan in Colombian politics. The peace agreement made sense, but it was derailed by misinformation.

Coming up…

There were more great speakers after lunch. It’s worth pointing out that although misinformation is common at the grassroots of UK politics, it is not always malevolent or even intentional. The afternoon panel looked more broadly at the contexts and motives behind misinformation across social media. See part 2 link below!

Photo by Ochir-Erdene Oyunmedeg on Unsplash

Part 2: The anthropology of misinformation