“Not to control content, but to create context”
Metal Gear Solid and the Flow of Malinformation
By Sebastián Sanhueza Rodríguez
The relevance of a great dystopia is not measured by how far-fetched—how far from the real world, as it were—it is, but how close to home it hits. Like great science fiction, dystopia comprises graphic representations of where human society is heading. Projecting such futures or alternative realities requires taking a hard theoretical look at human nature in general and to the way in which human beings interact in the social world in particular. Measured by the previous standard, the long-running video-game series Metal Gear Solid—for most of its run, creatively helmed by Hideo Kojima—ranks high alongside other classic narratives (e.g. 1984 or Brave New World), as it examines themes which directly relate to the moral question of how far society should bind or limit the freedom of its citizens.
Set against the backdrop of fictionalized geopolitical conflicts like the Cold War and the War on Terror, the series depicts the tribulations of two generations—one turning on the protagonist/antagonist Big Boss and one led by Big Boss’s genetic clone, Solid Snake—facing a world controlled by the AI-system known as The Patriots. The Patriots are not presented as a malevolent agency or ideology which operates out of self-interest: neither are they primarily inclined to bend people’s will or to rewrite reality—and hence, truth—in a way fitting to their own selfish objectives. Instead, they crystalize and safeguard human interests by modulating the flow of information within contemporary complex societies. These guiding principles are concisely described in the third act of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where two supporting NPCs, Rosemary and Col. Roy Campbell, reveal themselves as human-like representations of the Patriots. They explain the Patriots’ motivations as follows:
Campbell: The mapping of the human genome was completed early this century. As a result, the evolutionary log of the human race lay open to us. […] But there are things not covered by genetic information. […] Human memories, ideas. Culture. History. […] Is it something that should not be passed on? Should that information be left at the mercy of nature? […] But not all the information was inherited by later generations. A small percentage of the whole was selected and processed, then passed on. Not unlike genes, really. […] But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible. […] All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate.
Rosemary: It will only slow down social progress, reduce the rate of evolution. […] What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context. […] (Kojima 2001)
Published in 2001, this game not only coincided with the 9/11 attacks, a tragic irony which in fact forced last minute changes to the game’s final set-piece, as it depicts a devastating attack on Manhattan. It also posed issues about freedom and surveillance that echoed some of the themes driving the ensuing war on terror. The Patriots’ control of information turns on a phenomenon idiosyncratic to the age of digital information, namely, the proliferation of information in amounts that could not coherently or meaningfully be integrated at a human scale. Biologically limited as we are, human beings rely on networks of beliefs that fail to comprehend reality—or parts thereof—in all its complexity. Again, while such networks strive to stand in some general form of reflective equilibrium, the internal coherence among their individual elements is not airtight. To the extent that the digital age opens a door to an informational “overload” that potentially compromises the stability of our individual and collective systems of belief, the Patriots are thereby set up as a tool to filter or modulate what is otherwise an unmanageable amount of information. As Campbell himself puts it a bit later, the Patriots’ particular form of informational control is motivated as a selection for societal sanity.
In spite of its rather fantastic narrative set-up, the Patriots’ statement of purpose certainly summarizes one kind of paramount challenge faced by contemporary democracies. As illustrated by treatments of delicate issues like war and the pandemic in politics and the media, there is constant pressure to monitor and censor informational channels, even to the point of criminalizing information that is regarded as either untrue or inconvenient. To focus on this point, consider a recent but increasingly popular distinction between misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation (cf. Baines & Elliott 2020). An academic distinction now widely echoed in mainstream venues—including media outlets and even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (cf. “National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin” (February 07, 2022))—it reflects different ways in which the flow of information may be corrupted: in simplified form, misinformation consists in the unintentionally deceptive transmission of false information; disinformation refers to the intentionally deceptive transmission of false information; and, finally, malinformation opens the possibility of transmitting true information in an intentionally deceptive way. The notions of misinformation and disinformation are relatively familiar and intuitive. But what about malinformation? How is it possible to malinform or to present an individual with true information in an intentionally deceptive way? Here is precisely where context comes into play. The deceptive intentionality of the informational source becomes apparent in the manipulation of the broader context in which the relevant —even if true—information is provided, so as to motivate the formation of beliefs that the same information would not trigger in other contexts.
It is not difficult to appreciate that the practical applications of the previous notions could be problematic. Since individuals and institutions capable of policing informational channels do not typically meet the Patriots’ ideal standards of omniscience and impartiality, the control of information easily lends itself to the manipulation of reality and truth in the name of specific agendas or ideologies. The rapidly extended use of the idea of malinformation in the public sphere, for example, suggests this kind of suspicion. Let me expand on this point. In spite of all their challenges, the notions of misinformation and disinformation may be reasonably used in systematic ways: after all, they crucially involve the delivery or transmission of false information, where the latter may be corroborated through fairly intersubjective or context-independent procedures. By contrast, the notion of malinformation is far less transparent—and hence, more prone to weaponization against the public—to the extent that it does not crucially rest on the corroboration of true or false information: by definition, it refers to the possibility of conveying correct information in an intentionally deceptive way, where the relevant deception takes place at the level of context, not at the level of content. The phenomenon of malinformation does not thereby concern whether a piece of information is true or not, but whether its underpinning context is accurate or not. How do we, as a society, go about confirming whether a particular piece of information has the right context, though? Barring the intervention of strongly controlled informational channels, it is by no means obvious how complex societies in the digital age may reach a reasonable consensus regarding the latter type of question. Or again, to put the same point in terms of a rather crude question: could context be specified in a context-independent way? Let’s say that a particular piece of information has been verified as true or accurate. Now, is it likely that this very same piece of information will be interpreted or contextualized in one unique way by every individual within a given informationally complex community? Or, instead, is it more likely that the same piece of information could trigger a wide number of varying but equally valid interpretations or contextualizations? In an open society, I believe that the latter scenario is more plausible. The wide range of contexts under which one and the same piece of accurate information could fit, grounds the potential ambiguity of the notion of malinformation. At the same time, such a variety of informational contexts also opens the door to the possibility of criminalizing the dissemination even of possibly accurate information under the pretense of concerns for the spread of “harmful” information.
While the dangers of information control at the heart of the Patriots’ motivations or the use of malinformation in mainstream media seem relatively intuitive, it is by no means obvious what shape an argument against controlling the flow of information should look like. But that’s precisely what philosophy is for! Taking us from broad intuitions to finer-grained arguments. I’m afraid that this short piece cannot provide such “systems of thought-defense”, but I do wish to close this reflection with some tentative considerations aiming to stimulate individual reflection and collective debate.
Bertrand Russell—a great mathematician, philosopher, and public speaker—examined the moral relationship between the individual and society (cf. Russell 1949). His remarks on the subject are relevant here, as they target a general line of reasoning that typically motivates the case for information control. Whether voiced by the Patriots or by actual public or private institutions, manipulating the flow of information is often grounded in the belief that inaccurate information potentially harms society. Russell suggests two lines of criticism against that thought. First, is society the kind of thing that could be harmed? That is, it would be a mistake—or at least something in dear need of defense—to assume that society is a subject of mental phenomena—e.g. thoughts and pains—only because it is constituted by individuals who are in fact subjects of mental phenomena (cf. Russell 1949: 87). Of course, taking this assumption for granted would be an instance of the more general fallacy of automatically ascribing properties of certain elements to the whole those elements are part of. Furthermore, it intuitively seems incorrect. Individuals and societies are not organisms in the same sense: when you have a back pain or a toothache, it is the whole person, the whole of you, who suffers; when tragedy befalls a particular citizen, her comrades—especially the ruling class—do not undergo the same suffering. The dangers of the previous assumption should be relatively obvious. If society becomes an organism the security of which is prized over every other individual value, then its welfare could potentially trump the well-being or happiness of its individual citizens. It is not difficult to see how the previous line of thought paves the road to totalitarianism.
Secondly, Russell makes the plausible claim that society and its welfare belong to the realm of means rather than to that of ends. What does this mean? Ethics and moral philosophy are concerned with what we owe to ourselves and what we owe to each other in order to have the best human lives that we could reasonably have. Ethics and moral philosophy thus acknowledge the fundamental fact that life has meaning only to the extent that it is a life where one can pursue certain unreservedly worthwhile ends. That said, society itself is not one of such ends, but a framework against which particular individuals may pursue the goals they deem worthwhile. In other words, society is not so much an ingredient of happiness as a condition or a means that make its pursuit possible. Against this backdrop, information control seems problematic because it potentially undermines the individual’s life projects on behalf of the social framework that was precisely intended to make such projects possible.
A world where the powers that be create context as a means of informational selection for social sanity, doesn’t seem far off. As a public thinker who abandoned the academic ivory tower to defend those freedoms that allowed its very existence, perhaps Russell provides a model of civic duty in order to defend an informationally open society. Before it’s too late, that is… or is it?
Sebastián Sanhueza Rodríguez is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Concepción.
Baines, B. & Elliott, R. (2020). “Defining Misinformation, Disinformation and Malinformation: An Urgent Need for Clarity during the COVID-19 Infodemic,” Discussion Papers 20 (06) (Department of Economics, University of Birmingham).
Kojima, H. (2001). Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Tokyo: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan.
Russell, B. (1949). Authority and the Individual. London: Routledge.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2022). National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin. Available at <https://www.dhs.gov/ntas/advisory/national-terrorism-advisory-system-bulletin-february-07-2022>.