To deal with fake fem­i­nism, just pour cold wa­ter in its lap

The Guardian - G2 - - Pass Notes | Shortcuts - Zoe Wil­liams

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.

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