To deal with fake feminism, just pour cold water in its lap
A woman boards the St Petersburg subway, carrying a bottle. She is beautifully groomed, in an anti-feminist manner, and yet she is about to commit an act of feminism. She approaches a classic manspreader, a guy casually occupying a seat and a half in homage to his gigantic tackle, and pours what we discover is diluted bleach all over his crotch.
When a video of the incident inevitably went viral, media outlets asked: “Has she gone too far?” And broadly speaking, most people thought she had. Wherever his punishment fell on the spectrum from getting wet to permanent injury, it was disproportionate.
And I swear I thought, with less than 20 minutes’ hindsight, this sounded like bollocks. It didn’t pass the smell test – would I ever do such a thing? – but then, such “news” never does at the moment. More importantly, it was too neat. There probably is a feminist, somewhere, right now, going too far. Maybe she has forgotten the difference between performance art and arson, or she is yelling at a plumber when that really isn’t what he meant. But would she choose manspreading, one of the biggest internet cliches, to make sure everyone saw her going too far?
I have been around the traps of activist meetings and almost always there is someone saying: “That sounds a bit mean.” I couldn’t imagine the meeting in which they would wave through such an overtly aggressive act.
It fell into place when the St Petersburg magazine Bumuga tracked down one of the “manspreaders” in the film and discovered he was a paid actor. Bits of the story were still missing: paid by whom? The Kremlin? Putin himself? But at least it was now within the realms of the comprehensible, slotting comfortably into the new Russian export business: socially divisive meme production, and trollbots with unpleasant yet improbable opinions.
I can’t vouch for the reliability of Bumuga. It’s all in Russian, so I don’t even know which facts I would check if I had any way of checking. All I have found is a version of reality that makes sense within the universe I already believe in. This must be how all the “alt-right” anti-feminists felt when the video first began to circulate: reinforced; appalled yet strangely soothed.
And so fake news is perpetuated through the anxieties of its consumers. In Silicon Valley, they’re making detailed plans for the end of democracy; it could survive war and famine, just about. But not the sheer weight of people who will believe any old nonsense, because the alternative is to be constantly checking things and revising opinions.
Missing from that doomsday analysis, though, is the fact that propaganda is not a new invention. People will believe far-fetched mudslinging for a while – Germany is about to win the war, your neighbour is listening to insurgent radio programmes – but scepticism always kicks in eventually, via the simple wisdom that anything that sounds at all astonishing most probably didn’t happen. We just need to rediscover our mild disappointment. Fake news has a timeless, Wizard of Oz foe: cold water.