To find the fault lines in society, follow the bots. Fake social media accounts crawl all over the issues that divide us, spreading lies and confusion. For every human being with a genuine grievance on Twitter and Facebook, there is an army of automated outrage amplifiers. For or against, left or right, it doesn’t matter when the goal is maximum polarisation. The bots identify the material that triggers the most passionate reactions and spread it to the widest audience.
Before scientists had pinned down vital facts about Covid-19, the internet was crawling with lurid conspiracy theories. One US study looked at 200m tweets discussing the coronavirus, and found that about 45% of comments came from mechanised accounts. Of the top 50 tweeters found to have the most network influence in the study, 41 were fake. Other social media platforms are similarly infested.
The busiest engines pumping disinformation down the pipeline are Russian, but Iran and China are big players, too. The top Kremlin-sponsored theories are that Covid-19 was cooked up in a Chinese or American biological weapons laboratory and that it doesn’t exist (the symptoms being caused by 5G mobile phone masts).
Further downstream, that material washes up as placards wielded by anti-lockdown protesters. Thousands of them gathered in Trafalgar Square over the weekend.
Obviously, not everyone who complains about draconian public health measures is dancing on a string tugged by troll-puppeteers in St Petersburg. There is plenty to dislike about the way the UK government is restricting social activity, and grounds to query its foundation in science.
Forcing pubs to shut early might be counterproductive, driving groups of friends to drink at home. Making that illegal raises questions about state intrusion into our private lives and what constitutional safeguards should operate when ministers can criminalise banal behaviour overnight. You do not have to be a wild-eyed anti-vaxxer to think governments should clear some kind of democratic hurdle between Sunday night and Monday morning if they want to make it illegal to sing with friends in a restaurant.
Reluctance to let Boris Johnson rule by decree is driving a Tory backbench rebellion ahead of Wednesday’s Commons vote on renewing emergency powers mandated by coronavirus legislation. The objection is twofold: first, no prime minister should have such authoritarian levers; second, definitely not this prime minister.
The rebels are a mixed bunch. The hardest core are ideological libertarians, who presume the state does more harm than good even when it is trying to protect citizens from a nasty illness. Their numbers are swollen by more traditional Conservatives who feel the venerable old legislature really ought to be consulted on banning people from visiting their neighbours.
The insurgency is animated by resentment of Johnson’s inept handling of the pandemic from the start and spiced by the bitterness Tory MPs feel towards a haughty Downing Street operation, and Dominic Cummings in particular, who holds parliament in open contempt.
Johnson’s personal position is a mess of insecurity and prevarication. His instincts are with the libertarians. If he were not imposing the restrictions he would be writing newspaper columns complaining about them. He is also torn between fear of what restricting activity does to the economy and fear of repeating the mistake of the spring, when hesitation cost lives. He gets conflicting counsel from a chancellor who frets about depleted Treasury coffers and a health secretary focused on stretched hospital wards.
The problem of devising good emergency public health measures operates on different axes. There is a balance to strike between efficiency and accountability – prolonged debate of new measures drains their utility if it delays implementation. There is a question of what government measures cost, which is as much philosophical as political. Lost jobs and the misery of social confinement matter, but how can they be weighed against the physical ravages of a disease?
Disentangling those issues enough to choose wisely, then winning public confidence in those choices, requires a level of rigour and honesty beyond Johnson’s repertoire. That weakness is felt more in a climate where the scientific foundation on which the decisions are made is under assault from weaponised mumbo-jumbo. Even if MPs wrest some control away from Downing Street, it seems unlikely that the paranoid wing of the lockdown “sceptic” movement will defer to parliament’s judgment of what is good for the people.
Demonstrators who cheer a speech by David Icke, self-appointed scourge of the conspiracy of world-subjugating lizard people, are unlikely to be tugged back to reason by new procedures in the Commons. Brexit fanatics on the Tory benches can take a portion of blame for that mistrust, having connived in the denigration of the legislature, trashing its credentials as a representative institution because they didn’t have a majority in it, and calling dissent treason.
There was a period in the first phase of the pandemic when a national appetite for solidarity seemed to swallow prior political differences. That mood soured abruptly, around the time that Cummings’ jaunt to Barnard Castle was exposed, although any consensus would have been hard to sustain. The opposition could not let ministerial blunders pass without interrogation. Some reassertion of partisanship was necessary.
But there is a category difference between debating pandemic response and disputing the virulence or existence of the virus. One is an argument within the political system, conducted on the basis of facts. The other is a campaign against the system, tunnelling underneath the fact base. The boundary between the two is less secure than it should be and the prime minister has no moral authority to police it. He might defer to scientists in an epidemic, but he will never be a plausible stickler for empirically verifiable truth in any other field.
Divisions in a polarised society are not invented by trolls and bots. Disinformation is salt that stings because it is applied to open wounds. The technique works by stirring mistrust, corroding a sense that political differences can be contained and managed within a collective national enterprise, making it hard to find agreement on anything.
Britain might have travelled this road without foreign help. Downing Street knows the dark arts of sowing schism for tactical gain and the prime minister spreads confusion in press conferences even when he is trying to bring clarity.
But the failure to cultivate solidarity during a pandemic is worrying for the longer term. The virus did not have to inflame every site and organ of the body politic. That could just be an isolated and unlucky bout of bad government. It could also be a warning that Britain is becoming ungovernable.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist