the real world today

Virtual Reality State: news media, power and the Twitter files

The Twitter files scandal is exposing media deception. This week Matt Taibi revealed the organised disinformation about ‘misinformation’ produced by bots for the Hamilton 68 group. This group was an active slur measure to defame independent media outlets as ‘Russian agents’ or Putin puppets. It was a means to shape the battlefield for an information war that a strange cabal of security agencies, media organisations, corporations and political operatives would launch against the demos.

There is a slow trickle of reports exposing other deceitful disinformation. RussiaGate is utterly discredited, with the latest piece of falling rubble being the charges against a key FBI investigator who allegedly was being paid off by a Russian oligarch, who in turn presumably had an axe to grind. New revelations come every day about public health information. And, of course, there is the decaying propaganda concerning Ukraine, whose radioactive half-life appears to be less than 24 hours.

Yet there are never corrections, and never rectifications. Some beliefs founded on these disinformation campaigns persist. If such fundamental deceptions, such as the USA President is ‘a Russian agent’ or Ukraine is ‘the beacon of democracy’, becloud the voting public, how secure are our political institutions, our halls of public reason, or our means of public choice?

It is raising difficult questions about how democracy relates to the ‘information space’ of contemporary news media, and how much intimate collaboration there is between politicians, officials and ‘reporters’.

I am starting to address these questions in a planned book that builds on the speculative hypothesis that democracy does not die in darkness, as the Washington Post claims, but that democracy died some time ago in the bright lights of the legacy media studios. In other words, we who were brought up to believe that we live in liberal democracy, have discovered we are living in lies. Like the dissidents of post-totalitarian communist states, such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, we are waking up to the truth that we now live in a post-democratic society.

I wrote about the post-democratic society on the blog some time ago, and I revised this essay and included it in my recently published book, From the Burning Archive: Essays and Fragments, 2015-2022. Please buy my book, and explore this idea and other themes. I will have a lot more to say on it when I finish the current planned book, about mid-year. My writing is entirely reader-supported so I would be grateful for your support.

But one key idea in the new book is that the state and the news media have merged into a kind of ‘theatre state’, or you could call it the ‘virtual reality state’. It is politics as a kind of spectacle, a version of the Hunger Games, which has drifted far from the dull reality of practical judgment in the art of government.

Power served pomp, not pomp power

Clifford Geertz

This term, ‘theatre state’ was devised in 1980 by the great anthropologist, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. It describes a kind of political state in which the normal functions of warfare (or security) and welfare (or redistribution) take second place. First place is taken by the performance of drama and ritual. Princely status or pomp, is displayed or acted out each night in the lavish theatre and rituals sponsored by the court. In Geertz’s concise phrase, ‘Power served pomp, not pomp power.’

The forms of performance and ritual in today digital communications information space are different, but the functions are the same. The post-democratic society only knows democracy through the virtual reality, the spectacle of power and pomp, displayed each night on panel shows, news stories, twitter storms and so on.

The state and the spectacle (once known as mass media) are now one.

The people control neither state (power) nor spectacle (pomp).

In the modern theatre state, power serves pomp.

One day the stage will burn down.

Even then, the people will not take the stage.

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Image SourceThe Hamilton 68 dashboard graph illustrating the spread of misinformation by bots controlled by a group claiming to protect democracy

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