One of the problems when discussing communication is that we don’t recognise that communication is not primarily about exchanging accurate information. Communication is about persuasion, power, and building group loyalties and bonds so that cooperation occurs and things can be done. In the 1930s Malinowski described communication as phatic, by which he meant it was primarily about building relationships. While Malinowski concentrated on the positive side of this, building relationships can also involve destroying other relationships. We can reinforce our ‘ingroup’ by showing that some people (our ‘outgroup’) are evil or inferior. By doing this we show that they do not share our values, do not understand us, and they become less persuasive. We no longer have to waste time trying to understand them, we can get on with the action that is urgent.

Communication is primarily a social phenomena rather than a purely informational phenomena.

If people use communication to build bonds with those in their ingroups so things can be done, then they will tend to exchange ‘information’ that does precisely that. If they are building say political groups then they will tend to exchange information which confirms their identities and portrays those who criticise their point of unity as being outsiders, ignorant, stupid, slaves of hostile authority, whose information does not have to be taken seriously.

As people online have very little else (such as physical force, contact, unambiguous presence) to maintain unity, then these symbolic political factors become increasingly important to maintaining both group bonding/identification with a degree of trust and mutual recognition, etc. so communication is possible in the first place.

We can see the same process in climate ‘discussions’ online. People hostile to climate action will accuse those in favour of it of deceit, stupidity and political motivation, and usually appear not to have not read anything from their opposition. The same is often true of people supporting climate action – they routinely denounce people who oppose them as ignorant, stupid, and politically motivated. Neither position encourages discussion, but it does encourage righteous closure, identity group reinforcement and a tendency to accept almost any information if it comes from our own side. “Those [opponents] are really rude and won’t listen. They are bad people. We are good people.”

Therefore information which supports my and my group’s position is more easily seen as accurate or good (even if faked, because it still symbolically points to truth), and information which supports the outgroup’s position is more easily seen as lies.

Another problem with communication is that it is symbolic, it can be an expression of things that the person has no words for, but must point to or imply. At the best this leads to poetry, but at the worse it leads to incoherence. A person may express their sense of marginality, for example, by expressing their dislike of an outgroup which is even more marginal than them. They may talk about protecting their nation from some imprecise or unlikely threat. Much communication may offer this kind of expression, which is unlikely to be accurate in the normal sense of the word.

These kinds of conditions lead to high levels of suspicion of fakery. One way people have of dealing with this is not to see misinformation issued by our ingroup as disqualifying that side, but to say all sides are equally fake, or the other side is even worse. So even when we realise your side lies or is mistaken, then we can still stay with it. This position also demonstrates our media savvy, that we are not being taken in, and therefore demonstrates to that we are correct in supporting our side, because we can say we know when they are wrong!

These dynamics do not mean that both groups are equally inaccurate. It just means good communication does not happen, war is reinforced, and all becomes fair in war (including faking). Again this does not mean that both sides are equally prone to faking, just the conditions for such fakery are being established.

My own feeling, which is obviously caught in this tension, is that what we call polarisation encourages, or naturalises, this kind of bad communication, so it is handy for those who want to build support to encourage the idea that opponents are evil and will play any kind of trick.

In this view, the completely pro-corporate side of politics is promoting policies which cannot deliver what they promise, but do deliver misery, lousy conditions, and political marginalisation for the vast majority of people and huge profit for others. Consequently they have pretty deliberately used what we know about human communication to promote these splits and to keep their voters onside and immune to counter information.

The problem then becomes that this mode of communication and its fake news becomes normal; the mechanisms of generation spread everywhere, and nobody really knows (within a range of doubt) what is actually happening. So few policies can be based on reality any longer, few people can know what is really urgent and group reinforced faith and symbolic expression becomes the major determinate of truth. There are few to no places outside the information mess from which to make accurate judgements all the time. In which case, the plan to reinforce political dominance of the established corporate sector undermines it’s success in inaccuracy.

Communication happens all the time. It is primarily about building groups and persuading people to cooperate. Good accurate communication is difficult, when these other factors get in the way.