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MISINFORMATION and DISINFORMATION in Fiction


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Disinformation and Misinformation are Fake News. But More and More of it is Out There, and it's Often Hard to Tell the Difference Between What's True and What Isn't

This post is a little different than my usual posts—but I’ll try to explain my thinking on how the topic of disinformation and misinformation translates into fiction. Hear me out.


I participated in a podcast yesterday with a PhD candidate in Global Governance, who also holds an MA in International Politics & Security Studies and a Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Law. I won’t name the participant; I enjoyed the conversation/dialogue, but our views are quite different when it comes to global politics, leaders, and how to approach the challenges we face with regards to climate change and how the militaries around the world contribute to that climate change, which is roughly 5.5%, according to Reuters and other sources. We also spoke about misinformation and disinformation, which I’ve been studying and researching extensively over the last eight years as I’ve worked on a novel that revolves around it. My main plot focuses on who uses it and why, and how state actors use disinformation on their people as well as on the peoples of other nations to advance their causes, be they economic, political, to sow discord, incite distrust, provoke violence, or any number of other reasons, of which there are more than a few. I won't denigrate the person I spoke with, but let's just say I didn't agree with her assessment of Vladimir Putin or certain other political figures, but her arguments were compelling and I have received and will review information she sent to me afterwards about the propaganda she believes was put out there by certain governments that contradict the U.S. and it's allies' positions, as well as what she said was propaganda put out by the U.S. government.


You may be asking yourself at this point, Why are you discussing misinformation and disinformation in a blog post on a blog about writing novels? The truth is that, while we agreed on many things and were cordial and did not interrupt each other, the views of myself and the podcast guest split significantly when it came to what we believed to be true. The moderator interjected at points, but here’s what I can tell you about the guest on the podcast (I was a guest too, but I’m connected to the podcast as a ‘sometimes’ guest): we had the same information, could agree on a great many facts, yet we came to different conclusions based on the information we researched and how we interpreted that research. To be completely honest, I felt like I was speaking to either an authoritarian sympathizer or, perhaps, something worse. These are just my thoughts—I’m not saying this person is or isn’t those things, only that that’s what I felt speaking with them.

The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.

― Garry Kasparov


Now, I don’t want to disparage this person, because I believe they truly believe what they were saying. We agreed on subjects like the U.S. and the West allocating a little too much on defense, that climate change was a big problem that needs to be addressed by everyone around the globe, that all nations, in some form or fashion, use propaganda, and that that propaganda, even to us studying and researching it with open minds, can still fall prey to it due to our biases and the fact that propagandists are often damn good at what they do. Back to the fiction aspect of it all—the book I’m working on.


I started this novel eight years ago. I’ll let you do the math, but it should be obvious what the spark was that put the fire under my ass to write about this topic. Over those eight years, I’ve read countless books, watched innumerable documentaries, and watched countless YouTube videos by disinformation and misinformation scholars, and gone down disinformation and misinformation rabbit holes I thought I’d never get out of. But I love the subject and so for me it really is a labor of love.


I wrote the first draft of the novel in three weeks. I’ve been editing it ever since, putting it away for a while here and there as I wrote other novels and did other work. The book is currently 480 pages, and it dives deep into many of the events you’ve seen in the news and read in newspapers. Now, I’m sure plenty of novelists believe the books they’re writing are important, and in this case I’m no different. I primarily write literary fiction and historical fiction. My brain, as I write and research and edit this particular book, tells me that this is a work that needs to be written and communicated for the masses, which is a little different than how I normally think when I’m writing a novel. Normally, as I write, my thoughts are on character, plot, scenes, the musicality of the work, and so on. I have done the same with this novel, but I have, and to be as transparent as I can, done so with the goal of making the novel “accessible” to as many people as possible. What this means to me is that, for the sake of drawing a larger audience (more because I believe people need a broader understanding of what misinformation and disinformation is, rather than to get more sales if the novel is ever published), is that the writing requires sacrificing a little of the highbrow nature of typical literary fiction. I don’t stray completely from the tenets of literary fiction—this is not a diatribe against accessible fiction (popular fiction, genre fiction, etc.), but rather a confession of what I’ve done to both write a novel worth reading that pulls a larger audience in to, in my own way, inform the public while also making it worth a publisher’s efforts.


If you haven’t guessed, I have a big problem with misinformation (incorrect or misleading information), and disinformation (which is deliberately deceptive in order to mislead). Fiction, as we writers have come to know as a truism, is the lie that tells a truth. My friend and mentor John Dufresne had even written a book with that as its title). As writers, we try to tell stories that keep our readers reading—by writing compelling plots, heart-pumping scenes, great, insightful dialogue and exposition, interesting characters who want something and struggle, despite obstacles, to get whatever that something is, and they will come to a resolution, i.e., they “get” what they’ve set out to get or they don’t. We may not be “lying,” right, but we’re creating in our works things that aren’t necessarily true. We’re inventing a story with invented characters and action and pain and events that likely never happened, even if we’re basing our fiction on things that did. Like I said, I write literary fiction but also historical fiction, which gives me a world and events that have taken place throughout history and that I can then fictionalize in my own way to tell the story I wish to tell. My goal is to entertain my readers. The fiction told by propagandists is something quite removed from that. But it’s still fiction.

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

--Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Chief


I’m not a true activist. I don’t go to rallies, I don’t write letters to my representatives (unless you call the responses I post to their idiotic social media posts “letters,” nor am I a member of my local Democratic Party in that I participate or canvas or even show up to meetings. I haven't as of yet (as far as I know) put my life at risk, the way some other writers have, writers who have experienced the dangers of being a writer with a message they wanted to tell. But I vote in every election, of course, but my “activism,” if you can call it that, is my writing. I don’t necessarily write about Democrats and Republicans (although my current book delves into that more than anything else I’ve ever written); I write about people in extraordinary times doing extraordinary things. My previous novels (the as of yet unpublished) are about a bomber pilot during WWII, a young girl trying to reunite with her brothers during the Spanish Civil War, and a woman with mental illness’s recollections, which lead to her (and the reader) understanding why her mental illness potentially developed. I have other novels, but the topics I’ve listed are within the realm of the subjects in these books, so I won’t bore you with a list of each novel’s synopsis.


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Don't Grow Complacent on What You Read, Watch, or are Told to Believe. Do Some Critical Thinking and Research

Misinformation and disinformation have become (and have been, in many ways) deliberate tools used by governments, state actors, businesses, and individuals to achieve their goals throughout history. The internet and social media have made spreading the lies much, much easier. Thousands of disinformation campaigns go viral every day. About war. About politicians. About elections. About individuals. There are plenty of statistics about the negative or nefarious disinformation campaigns, including when trolls, bots, and others boost certain companies and political candidates and their policies for those people and entities’ benefit. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve studied and researched these things for eight years, seven to eight hours a day, often seven days a week, and was compelled eight years back to fictionalize much of what I’ve learned in order to contribute to the conversation. My hope is that someone (actually many) will read my novel and enjoy the ride while also learning about how bad people influence them without their knowledge. This is how I participate, in my mind, how I contribute, in my own way, to boosting the awareness of how we, as people, are manipulated through fiction that is presented as fact.

All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.

--George Orwell


We have become a polarized society, not just in the U.S. but globally. Bad actors don’t just use ballistic missiles and Kalashnikovs, F-35s and the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons to fight or control their “enemies.” Good, well-meaning actors don’t just use economic incentives and bilateral agreements and détente to try to engender peace and collaboration and cooperation. Misinformation and disinformation, primarily through computers these days but also via inserts in foreign newspapers, skewed newspaper articles, news reports written with specific agendas, books, radio and television shows, and even movies, are all fair game.


Now, the title of this post, “Misinformation and Disinformation in Fiction: When Activism Infiltrates Your Work,” is not exactly what this post is about. Yes, I am working on a novel that includes misinformation and disinformation, and for me, at least, it’s an attempt at activism, because my ideal view is that the novel will be published, people will get a better understanding of how we’re manipulated through misinformation and disinformation, and we’ll be thus educated on the tactics and strategies of the entities using such propaganda.


Once we are, my hope is that more people learn about the topic, how to recognize disinformation, and, eventually, educate others to it. If I were to stick to a more literal storyline that’s more aligned with the title, I might dive into different novels to hold them up as examples of how the authors used misinformation and disinformation to tell their stories. And while there are a good many novels out there that deal with propaganda, the majority of books are nonfiction. I won’t list out novels here, because I find the debate on what is and isn’t propaganda in novels tedious and subjective. Not all of them, but a great many. I’ll leave you to make up your mind, if novels based on this subject interest you in any way. But I’ll just say this: everything you read is not necessarily true, both in fiction and nonfiction (books, the news, etc.). Fiction is written by writers, and those writers may, at different times throughout history, be “encouraged” to use disinformation and misinformation in their writings. Some writers actually worked for spy organizations within their governments. John le Carré worked for MI5 and MI6. Frederick Forsyth worked for MI6. The great Peter Matthiessen worked for the CIA. Ian Fleming worked for British Naval Intelligence. Well-known writers all.

 

The novel I’m working on shows and highlights how disinformation and misinformation works in real life and well-documented circumstances. My writing about it is my activism. Whether or not I’ll succeed is yet to be seen. But at least I’ll be making art leveraging a topic which interests me greatly. As the popular (and exceedingly relevant) author George Orwell said, “All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.” An insightful quote indeed.

 

Cully Perlman is an author, short story writer, blogger, and Substantive Editor. If you have a novel ready to be edited, he can be reached at Cully@novelmasterclass.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Mar 26
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Love it! Thanks for posting. It's a topic I have been interested in for some time. Thanks!

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