But beyond documenting and archiving and debunking disinformation, what can be done? How do we respond to this emergent property, an artistic movement born of the digital age?
The knottiest problem in disinformation theory is Brandolini’s Law: “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.” But you cannot “refute” an art form at all. To try is to fail.
Art asks uncomfortable questions and sparks difficult discussions. Adversaries of disinformation must take the same approach by entering into the field as artists. We need to think creatively about solving problems and have tough debates in the open: Are we willing to bend a few rules, break others, subvert some more? Do the ends justify the means?
At this level, we need less policy thinking and more design. We don’t need military minds; we need creative minds. Tamers, Larpers, musicians, comedians, painters, filmmakers, dreamers, activists, and so many more must join forces with the other missing link—psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists.
The scientific model has been hugely democratized by the internet, with amateur activists passionately beavering away in their spare time to geolocate, chronolocate, and track Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine. We need to do the same for digital disinformation. Like any art, there will always be some creators who get paid or are institutionally sanctioned, but the most innovative, the edgiest success stories are likely to come from enthusiastic amateurs who do it because it is their passion.
Amateur artists don’t have to adhere to the decorum required of those who take on more formal government work. If they are edgelords, so be it. They can go after the disinformation artists with clever, funny methods those under contract can’t employ. Free agents may be guided and mentored by people like myself, but they will always outstrip me in creativity.
We are seeing green shoots of innovation through major events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some of the best counters to Kremlin disinformation have been through the likes of the Ukrainian Memes Forces, whose recent art includes a fake Pornhub page. The page features a video of the Kersch bridge bombing with the tag “Former KGB officer received an unexpected birthday present on the bridge.” Other content they’ve produced includes “disturbing facts by Skeletor” about Russia’s invasion and a portrayal of Russia as Pennywise the Clown. Governments would never sign off on these, and yet they don’t just blunt the Kremlin’s information warfare, they cut it to the bone.
The Ukrainian government—famously run by younger comedians and artists—might not get to commission these efforts, but officials are very happy to promote the content through state channels. They understand that digital disinformation is memetic, psychological, and emotional, and that government is none of those things.
Ceding control to artists outside of warfare is a complex political strategy—the relationship may become strained when creators start criticizing the government. But giving artists license, backing, and no-strings-attached support is the only way any government is going to succeed in fighting a problem as amorphous as digital disinformation.
It is not just a solution to disinformation, it is likely the only solution we have right now. Tech approaches have failed, and there’s no incentive for that to change. The laws have failed, and it’s likely they will never be able to keep up. Cold facts fail because they don’t speak to the soul. If artists have caused this problem, then it’s up to artists to solve it.