Late last year, Collins Dictionary named "fake news" its word of the year, citing an unprecedented 365 per cent upswing in usage in just 12 months. Given the recent ubiquity of the term, this was hardly surprising. While the left has used it to discredit the right, and the right to challenge the left, Donald Trump has turned the entire concept on its head, dismissing even the most credible criticisms of his actions as nothing more than malicious fabrication.
That the words "Antifa", "Corbynmania" and "echo chamber" also featured prominently on the Collins shortlist says even more about the febrile nature of contemporary politics. Inspired by this and a media landscape in which the likes of Breitbart and Infowars have become loud and frighteningly influential voices, the British electronic music collective The Black Dog have spent 18 months exploring the outer limits of a world in which facts appear to no longer matter and conspiracy theories reign. The result is a companion set of two full albums – Black Daisy Wheel and Post-Truth – soon to be simultaneously released on the UK independent label Dust Science.
Founded in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, in 1989, The Black Dog first gained widespread acclaim in the wave of "intelligent dance music" championed by the city's Warp Records. Tilting the propulsive rhythms of Detroit techno away from the dancefloor and towards the home-listener, the 1993 album Bytes remains a high-water mark of the style to this day. Now comprising original member Ken Downie and the producers Martin and Richard Dust, the group's music is still driven by a similar complexity and intellectual rigour.
Black Daisy Wheel is a darkly beautiful collection of ambient soundscapes. Often beatless and underpinned by acute melancholy, the track titles telegraph much of what is to come. The wraithlike Seroxat Smile references a drug frequently prescribed for a variety of obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders, while Lost to the Black Sun and Autohoaxer use crescendoing synth layers to evoke a steadily intensifying sense of isolation and foreboding. Post-Truth, on the other hand, veers between the brooding meditations of Nothing Ever Changes and Séance of Entitlement and the kind of grainily propulsive techno that is most at home on the dancefloors of cutting-edge Berlin nightclubs (see Cognitive Dissonance, MK Future and Technological Utopians).
Speaking over a crackly telephone line, Martin Dust explains how, in response to the brazen falsehoods at the heart of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, the group immersed themselves in the deepest and darkest reaches of online discourse. Starting from a point of natural curiosity, they quickly crossed the line between healthy questioning of received narratives and delusional obsession.
"I think someone like [the documentary filmmaker] Adam Curtis has done a good job bringing a lot of information to people," Dust says. "You watch his stuff and it's hard to believe that a lot of what he's talking about – governments, arms deals, things like ISIS, and how they all link together – is that simple and that stupid. It really is unbelievable that nobody's had the vision to anticipate what happens as a result of those things. In the conspiracy world, though, you end up in a strange place where people just say that all of the information that we are given is false, and then, when you debate these people, they've actually got nothing."
Joining the comment sections of obscure YouTube accounts and infiltrating a network of game-based voice-chat channels, The Black Dog have discovered a thriving community rooted in pseudo-science, fringe philosophy and paranoid mistrust of society at large. Along the way, they have met grown adults who insist that the Earth is flat, people convinced they are being targeted with electronic mind-control weapons by shadowy government operatives, and one man who believes the entirety of documented history is an elaborate hoax.
“When you look at the flat-earthers and the rise of that idea in the past few years – which is actually massive – it’s just a position of denial beyond belief,” Dust says.
“There are quite a few of them who are obviously [very unwell], and yet they’ve managed to start a little cult of people that follow them. Also compounded on to that, there’s now a whole generation of people who trust nothing and read nothing, but are experts on everything – who don’t watch or read any news and just get everything from YouTube …”
Conspiracy theories have existed since the days of the Roman Empire, and the term itself dates back to the late 19th century, but the kind we know today began in the early 1900s and hit the mainstream during the Cold War era. All have one thing in common – the belief that the world is being covertly manipulated by a web of interconnected secret organisations, united in their goal to dominate and enslave the masses. This can be seen in everything from the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to ideas of the Illuminati and the New World Order, from 9/11 "truthers" to the birther movement, which disputed Barack Obama's legitimacy as president, and the recent outlandish #Pizzagate claims.
What is new, however, is the proximity to each other that these ideas now exist within – and just how easy the internet makes it to jump from topics such as anti-vaccination propaganda and climate-change scepticism to false-flag operations and Holocaust denial.
As Dust says: "There's a point where they all blend into one ... also, a lot of the communities we've been involved in, they tend to move around, according to whatever idea is popular at the time. One guy we've talked to was a flat-earther, but he originally came from the Sandy Hook conspiracy – the people who said that the school shooting [in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012] was fake. They'll often use one topic as a gateway to see whether you're going to be receptive. It's a world that's completely subjective and they
don't want to hear any evidence whatsoever that conflicts with what they have to say ..."
Spending so much time in such murky waters is bound to have an effect on anyone, and this can clearly be seen in the contrasting moods of Black Daisy Wheel and Post-Truth – the first filled with pent-up, nervy energy, and the second a profound sense of sadness. For Dust, though, perhaps the most striking discovery was the loneliness and vulnerability of those he encountered.
"It's really simple," he says. "After talking to these people, you either ended up in a reflective mood or annoyed with the stupidity of it all ... the ideas and people we got exposed to went into the tracks. It was all down to who we'd been talking to while writing ... we spent a lot of time with them, then we'd go away, make some music, or get something to eat or drink. When we came back, they'd usually be there, still doing the same thing as when we left them. Some of them are spending 16 hours a day in front of their computers, having all their meals there and not doing anything else. It's where they live ... I often wondered about some of the people I made friends with and what it was like to live in that state of mind all the time. I do worry for them."