A collage of images of people climbing up a fence, a crowd of people standing side-by-side, and a field on fire in the background.

Disinformation

Reimagining Borders Could Help Contain Disinformation


Disinformation around immigration has become pervasive over the last decade. With increasing numbers of refugees displaced by war and climate emergencies, resilience demands that we reevaluate the value of lines on a map.



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During my time as a border reporter, I was often struck by how those who have been deported use the phrase “over there” to refer to the United States.

Many people who have been deported tend to stick close to the border if they can, so that they have a chance to occasionally see their loved ones through the steel pillars and barbed wire, always under the eyes of watchful, paramilitarized border agents. The distance between them and the people they love the most is usually a matter of a few miles at most. It is also boundless, an endless separation that is measured in time rather than distance.

For many, the United States is the only place they have ever known. Once they are deported, the place they went to school, fell in love, raised a family can no longer be home to them. It has rejected them. Pain and distance make what was one word—home—now two: over there.

Deportation is a cruel business. In any case, being forcibly taken to an international border and dumped with only what you have in your pockets, sometimes at gunpoint, is harsh. But it becomes crueler still when you consider that most of the interviews I have conducted with deportees were in fluent, American-accented English. Many were brought to the United States as babies or children.

Sometimes, those deported have been friends I grew up with. They were part of my social fabric and of the same culture that made me—except that the hospital I was born in happened to be 20 miles north of the hospital they were born in, and for that, they are deported for infractions as diverse as rolling a stop sign or applying for a driver’s license without knowing that their parents had forged their birth certificates.

Hearing story after story after story like this has permanently changed my perspective on identity and belonging. Something is profoundly broken in our immigration system. It’s a brokenness that continues to be fed by disinformation, and I’ve seen it take hold of the fevered imaginations of many Americans who otherwise would have nothing to do with the border.

Where there is inequality and ignorance, disinformation reigns, and its purveyors have spun out of that a new Heart of Darkness, where hordes of people clamor together to “invade” the United States and indelibly change it for the far worse. And where there are border walls, there is inequality, which the walls exist to uphold.

The lies are obvious, yet dangerous. And those same narratives have spread across the world in recent years, egged on by social media platforms and the rest of the world’s worst entities, burning through populations and leaving racist populist leaders and border militarization in their wake.

Now, in 2022, humans are building more border walls than ever before, just as every country is riddled with more disinformation than ever before. So many of the weaponized lies involve immigration, borders, and that old reliable anti-Semitism, so useful in a xenophobic scare campaign because of the centuries of hysterical conspiracy theories about the Jew as the Other.

That corrosive and weaponized disinformation and the climate crisis arrived together is not a coincidence. The vehicle for the lies is social media, but while they made this all possible they are not the underlying reason for the waves of anti-immigrant disinformation campaigns coming at us right now.

That underlying reason is climate catastrophe.

What, didn’t you realize that the people coming to the border now are climate refugees and have been for years? Didn’t you realize we have had internally displaced climate refugees since at least 2005, with more each year and nothing to help them recover from all they have lost?

If you didn’t, then that means the disinformation worked.

***

Disinformation attacks and associated hybrid threats have dramatically reshaped the world in the last decade. Once-great geopolitical alliances have been reduced to embarrassing jokes. Once-close families are completely estranged. New loyalties and enmities rise and fall daily, thrumming to the beats of rumors mills and influencer botnets.

Now, thanks to the way power currently works, we live in a world created by the fevered imaginations of the very few, at least to a certain extent. And so, we sail ever further ever deeper into whatever world is on the other end of the climate crisis, they are working busily to reshape and redraw what is to come.

No one should have to deal with the fear, the uncertainty, the weaponized lies that we all live with in 2022. But as with so many other issues surrounding disinformation campaigns, attacking it head on, without dealing with the underlying causes, simply perpetuates the problems.

The overarching solution for the twin threats of climate change and hybrid threats is known as “building resilience,” a term that is used for both climate and information crises. Resilience, in this sense, means the ability for populations to recover from disasters that are impossible to otherwise prevent or mitigate. While it may seem strange on its face that the two terms are the same for such wildly different situations, the truth is that one feeds into the other and vice versa —because they’re the same issue.

But how do you build resilience in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, in the middle of a disinformation landscape that preys on human migration in response to ever heavier environmental and economic pressures? The answer in the current global situation is quite simple: Rethink borders.

This is not a plea for more border militarization and violence, which gets whitewashed as “security” in the disinformation age. This is the opposite of that. It is a plea to understand that the rules of the game haven’t just changed; we’re in a whole new reality.

We must learn to be more empathetic, more open to change, and we have to do it as soon as we possibly can. Whether or not the world realizes it yet (it doesn’t), the time of militarization and resource hoarding is over. The time of the global crisis has already begun.

Consider how much disinformation plays on xenophobia, the fear of the foreigner, and the foreign, and the odious phrase “mass migration” and slightly less offensive “chain migration”, which itself replaced the far more accurate “family-based migration.” Consider the amount of fear-mongering politicians across the nation have used around the topic of the American border wall.

This is because, in times of great change, nation-states consolidate resources and power and reshift alliances. Borders are markers of physical power, showing where the limits of a country begin and end. Because our borders are vestigial remainders of the industrial age, they are physical barriers and walls, an evocation of force in the service of protecting wealth.

But borders aren’t physical anymore. We are in the age of the “net state,” the world’s resources are not what they were, and our centers of power have shifted. So, too, has the meaning of the geopolitical term “security,” just as has the meaning of “threat.” That means when officials are using these terms, much of the public isn’t hearing the meaning they intend and associating them with issues that no longer exist.

That gap in understanding between how the world now works and what the world once was is where disinformation holds all its power—and it is enthusiastically being exploited by corporations and politicians with skin in the game. In our new world, “security” doesn’t mean living behind a fortress. It means having enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. It means not being murdered in your bed by law enforcement or vigilantes. It means being able to raise crops to feed your family without being devastated by a single out-of-season flood.

In this new landscape, “threats” are anything that might destroy that idea of security, meaning information (or lack thereof) is often the most important factor making the difference between life and death. That makes the internet a front line in our new wars. It also means that those first to fight are not always soldiers, but often journalists, academics, and debunkers – which is also why those of us working on the information fields have been so relentlessly smeared and attacked for so many years.

What disinformation purveyors are doing is using weaponized narratives in order to turn the myriad ills that come with a severely changing ecosystem against the public at large. These narratives are called “threat multipliers,” and they are used against populations deliberately and to bring about specific outcomes.

It’s difficult to explain the concept of “threat multipliers” without illustrating it with real-life examples. Here is one: The American West knows very well what it is like to live through a wildfire. The skies turn black. Animals panic. Houses burn down. People die, sometimes people you know and love. Panic and chaos reign.

Now add in disinformation.

Weaponized narratives have added new dimensions in the Disinformation Age. Consider the 2020 Oregon wildfires, when white supremacists, armed to the teeth and addled with deliberately false narratives and their own fevered beliefs about “antifa vigilantes” and “illegals,” set up checkpoints on highways to pull over anyone they deemed suspicious – which fed into existing weaponized narratives about anti-fascists and immigrants and neatly obscured the true driver of the massive wildfires, climate change.

Here’s another: A global pandemic has laid bare festering, enormous social inequalities in every region. Disinformation purveyors everywhere blame “foreigners” for the virus, settling old scores and plying new grifts, and in doing so sparking waves of violence that drive the stories about revelations of inequality straight off front pages and out of the national and international discourse.

If we drastically rethink borders, so many of these narratives that are leveraged to occlude reality lose their power. The “One World Government” and “New World Order” conspiracy theories. The “infiltration by immigrants” conspiracy theories. The “white genocide” conspiracy theories. All of these use atavistic fears of the unknown as their raw material, and not a single one of them can exist in its current form without the hypermilitarized, explicitly eugenicist, completely false narratives around international borders.

Recently, very loud and hostile bands of “anti-mandate” activists caused chaos in several countries around the world, more or less simultaneously. One group managed to temporarily shut down significant portions of the economies of at least two countries, and generally got exactly what they wanted – attention, disarray, a change in the international national discussion, national paralysis – before they were finally, noisily tossed out of Ottawa.

Their rhetoric and lists of grievances and demands were all very similar (and equally vague) no matter what the country. You could chalk up that and the rest of the convoys all over the world to groups of disaffected people who opposed vaccine mandates, just as they said they were. Or you could say that it was a rogue band of white supremacists and anti-vaccine activists who wanted nothing more than attention. Neither of these interpretations is strictly inaccurate.

But I would like to offer an alternative perspective. Yes, these were anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists hopped up on their own racist fantasies, and certainly they consider themselves to be disaffected.

But they are something more than that, which perhaps might only be visible to people who have spent their lives in the liminal regions of the world. They are representatives of a rogue state, one that is entirely non-physical because it was constructed online, but which has real-time, drastic effects in the physical world, bound together by nothing but ideology.

Despite the tenuous nature of their nationality, if you consider cyberspace to be a territory or a region, they are a nation. Call it Conspiracy Island, or Boogalandia, or QAnon Country, or Kekistan, or all of the above.

Still don’t believe me? Consider this: They have their own government and leader, military and general, media ecosystems and cultures. They have religions and legal systems. They even have their own flags that represent different ideological states within that hostile nation. That they may think that they have built these alternative structures “ironically” does not change the fact that they exist and that they tried to occupy the capital cities of several states across the world simultaneously in what could under very slightly different circumstances be considered a coordinated show of force.

They are colonizers in a new territory: the communication space we created. The only thing they don’t have, as a matter of fact, is borders. And they’re coming for ours.

Now more than ever, in a time of massive migration and diaspora that will only deepen alongside the climate crisis, national identity must be unwound from geography as much as possible in order to create the seeds of a new world, a better world, one characterized by global solidarity and cooperation rather than economic self-interest and lies.

That is the only way to build and seed the ability to spring back from the changes and attacks that will now be roiling around us for as long as the climate crisis continues – so at least for the rest of our own lives, and probably the next generation’s as well. It is the only way we can survive what’s to come.

We already live in a world that’s rethought borders. It’s time to catch up.

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