No, Russia Didn’t Make People Hate The Last Jedi

One clickbait story that’s been making the rounds lately is how Russian trolls may have influence or been involved in the hate campaign against Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Naturally, these articles range from the more thought-out and cautious, to…eh…whatever the hell this is supposed to be. The reaction, especially in some of the cinephile groups I frequent, was, as you might imagine, pretty incredulous. It mostly amounted to people posting links to the more clickbait-y versions of the story with a comment like: “LOL! Looks like Disney is trying to blame RUSSIA for people not liking Last Jedi!”

The problem is, if anyone had bothered to look, this whole story is based on one academic paper by one Morten Bay at the University of Southern California. Moreover, even reading the description in the link shows that the thesis of the paper is nothing remotely resembling an accusation that the backlash against The Last Jedi was driven by Russian bots or trolls. It makes a comparison between the Russian information campaign of 2016 and some of the Twitter activity directed toward The Last Jedi and its director Rian Johnson, and it notes how the activities of some of the accounts involved in the backlash resembled those of known Russian bots and trolls, but when it actually gets to the topic of Russian involvement in the hate campaign, it in no way implies that they were driving it. In fact, from what I read it doesn’t even state anything conclusive on whether any accounts were confirmed to be Russian trolls or bots. Most important of all- I did a CTRL-F search and did not find the magic kill-word “Hamilton.” Any time I see “Russian bots are tweeting about (insert trending news story here),” I run that simple procedure and I get a hit, I close the tab and save several minutes of precious time.

Personally I find it odd that in an economy that revolves so much around advertising, the media hasn’t yet figured out why a bunch of Russian troll accounts would tweet or retweet things about a super popular Star Wars film or any other trending news story. It’s not rocket science- they’re trying to garner an audience. Those who are familiar with the history of the so-called Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg know that it initially focused on domestic audiences; it still is largely dedicated to this as far as we know. The purpose was to get Russians to rally behind Putin an his foreign policy aims. A typical tactic here would be to set up a social media account which posts about all kinds of mundane things like shopping or cooking, but which will, when needed, share or post some key government talking point. Imagine you follow some blog about recipes, but one day out of the blue there’s a post about how the CIA is supporting a Nazi coup d’etat in Ukraine. Many Twitter troll accounts act in a similar manner, sometimes going dormant for long periods of time before emerging with a different persona, for example.

One of the most important things for these trolls, of course, is to get followers, so naturally they’re going to be watching what topics trend and who’s following those topics. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to see that there was a huge buzz about Star Wars online, and apart from ideological affinities toward the far right, the Internet Research Agency (maybe I’ll just call them “The bad IRA” from now on) cannot have missed how easy it is to get a huge, dedicated following if you pander to the “anti-SJW/feminist” chuds. So you tweet something about how “Cultural Marxist SJWs are runining teh STAAAAAAAR WAAAAAAAAAARZ!!!!1” and voila! You have picked up some severely sexually frustrated but loyal followers.

And this gets back to what I’ve written about recently, about the real purpose of these information operations. They are not, as the grifters “narrative architects” or talking heads say, trying to “divide” America. This is the perspective from someone with privilege, power, and who is generally disconnected from daily reality for most Americans. Most Americans understand that we are extremely divided and have been for some time. The reality is that Russia’s influence operation is about creating unity, uniting polar opposites of the political spectrum around talking points or ideas that are in line with the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals and in some cases, its domestic agenda.

But before you can get anyone to start listening to your specially crafted talking points, you’ve got to get their attention and keep it. Hence the tweeting around trending topics, the hashtags, the memes, and so forth.

However, let us not lose sight of the biggest issue in all of this. Namely, that despite the fact that Rian Johnson had ambitious goals for The Last Jedi, he ultimately failed hard thanks to a number of mindbogglingly stupid decisions and poor writing, thus squandering all the film’s potential and possibly ruining the whole new trilogy. This, is of course, objective fact, and there is nothing the entire St. Petersburg troll factory could ever do to change that.

Don’t @ me.

…..

………

Okay let me just say something about this bullshit excuse where people say “What does it matter if Snoke doesn’t have a backstory? You didn’t question the Emperor’s backstory and they didn’t even say the name Palpatine in the original trilogy!” 

Mocking-Spongebob

“tHe eMpErOr dIdN’t hAvE a BaCkStOrY iN rEtUrN oF tHe jEdI! yOu’Re jUsT mAd yOuR sTuPiD fAn tHeOrY wAs wRoNg!” -Idiots

We knew in the original trilogy that the rebels were fighting the Galactic Empire, and empires are ruled by emperors. We naturally assumed an emperor had to exist and he’s mentioned throughout the trilogy! The First Order is not the Galactic Empire- in fact it’s not really very well explained what it is at all! Therefore it’s perfectly reasonable to want to know just who the hell Snoke is, why he’s leading the First Order, and why he’s so powerful. Also maybe explain why the hell the First Order has almost wiped out the rebellion almost immediately after said rebellion completely destroyed their massive home base in The Force Awakens. And why would you ever want to bring up fuel in a STAR WARS MOVIE?! None of this makes any sense! 

Goddammit, Rian! What were you even thinking?! 

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If I Did It…

So as some of you may have heard, Bellingcat, or for you RT fans out there, “Soros/State Department-funded regime-change SmellingCIAt,” blew the lid on the second Skripal suspect. SPOILERS: He’s not “Alexander Petrov,” the totally unassuming fitness supplement salesman and church spire enthusiast who might be secretly gay. Turns out he’s actually Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor with the GRU, and like his colleague Anatoly Chepiga, a winner of the easily-traceable Hero of the Russian Federation award. What more can you say except:

Where did they go so wrong? Journalist Andrew Roth put it succinctly on Twitter today:

This sentiment, which I too expressed in my earlier post about Chepiga, is confirmed by Bellingcat in their expose of Mishkin.

“The starting point for our research was a passport photograph of “Alexander Petrov,”as well as security camera photos and video footage from this person’s interview on RT.”  

Some might suggest that the interview was just another example of Kremlin trolling, like when Putin spoke about “local” self-defense militias in Crimea shortly before openly acknowledging they were Russian soldiers (the military vehicles and latest Russian uniforms and kit were a dead giveaway), or when he denied any involvement in the U.S. election but then made a quip about “patriotic hackers.” I can agree that perhaps this was the initial intent behind the RT interview, but it seems they were phoning it in from the beginning and everyone could see it. It’s almost as if they just ran out of energy to lie, even in the typical unconvincing way that they do. It’s almost as if they’re going to stop trying to conduct counter-narratives where MI6/CIA/Russian liberals/Pravy Sektor/White Helmets are possible culprits and instead just continually repeat “PROOFS! SHOW US PROOFS!” incessantly until you go away.

 

Seriously though, this is too big a screw up to attribute to trolling. If they were smart, they never would have let these men give an interview, and certainly not with Margarita Simonyan, who is the editor-in-chief of RT. As I suggested in a previous post, the smartest thing to do, if you can call their usual approach smart, is to continue putting out the endless alternative narratives while publicly announcing that the FSB and Investigative Committee are interviewing the two men to get to the bottom of these “totally boundless accusations from our British colleagues!”

There’s precedent for this as well. In December 2014 the Investigative Committee announced that it had an anonymous witness who was former Ukrainian military and stationed at an air base at the time of the downing of MH17 (i.e. 17 July 2014). Somehow this witness saw a Ukrainian Su-25 pilot (Captain Vladislav Voloshin, who committed suicide earlier this year) take off from the base and return with one air-to-air missile gone. Much later on, the Investigative Committee later revealed the name of this witness, but of course this was around the time Russia switched to swearing that their “investigation” (carried out mainly by Buk SAM manufacturer Almaz-Antey) conclusively determined that a Buk missile shot down the airliner. Of course if you missed those latest Russian claims which are totally true and accurate, RT and Sputnik got you and any other fans of the idiotic Su-25 theory covered, because in the end all that matters is that you believe anyone but Russia was responsible for this tragedy.

Something similar could have been done with Chepiga and Mishkin, AKA Boshirov and Petrov. The Clown Committee could release a typical boilerplate statement about how it is opening a criminal investigation into the matter of Boshirov and Petrov, and Putin could have said he was ordering them to take the matter under “special control.” Basic elements of the story we saw in the RT interview could have been published in a “report” a week or two later, without all that bullshit about the spire and the roads choked with snow.  Maybe, a very short, much better-rehearsed interview could have been shot with an ordinary employee of Rossiya 1 or First Channel.

And with that- you’re done. It’s still largely bullshit, it’s still not exonerating anything, but just enough plausible deniability that you won’t force the Kremlin apologists who still give a shit about appearing to have a shred of credibility to wear themselves out doing mental gymnastics.

Damn. It really tells you how badly Russia’s intelligence and propaganda agencies have screwed up when I’m the one practically giving them free advice on how to do their jobs.

Anatoly Chepizdyets

Anatoly Chepiga, AKA Ruslan Boshirov, just can’t get a break it seems. Ever since Bellingcat identified the self-proclaimed small businessman/tourist as a probable decorated GRU agent, things have just spiraled from there. While Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov and Russian Foreign Ministry officials sound completely dumbstruck, multiple international news outlets (BBC, WaPo, Kommersant,)    have found several individuals from Chepiga’s past, openly identifying him and in some cases confirming that he worked in some kind of covert ops. Recently, some info has surfaced suggesting he might have had a hand in helping Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yushchenko escape to Russia. While there’s no corroboration for the latest story yet, what evidence exists does suggest that Chepiga was at least involved in some kind of covert activity in Ukraine in 2014.

Honestly I’m kind of surprised by how badly the Kremlin screwed up in this case. From the beginning of the Salisbury scandal, they seemed to outdo their past attempts at damage control by kicking it into high gear and putting out a rapid-fire stream of alternative explanations. Estimates range from around 37-38 different alternative narratives, all pointing in every direction except Russia, within the first few weeks of the initial poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. This, incidentally, was some of the best evidence pointing to Russian involvement prior to the revelation of “Ruslan Boshirov” and his accomplice “Alexander Petrov” (Petrov hasn’t been identified yet, though his documents show some key similarities to Chepiga’s). Had the Kremlin and its media just shut the fuck up and kept demanding some hard evidence, they might have got the benefit of the doubt from more people outside the online conspiracy theorist/St. Petersburg troll demographics.

But if they didn’t screw things up by flooding the information space with too many alternative narratives too quickly, the reveal of Boshirov and Petrov in their disastrous RT interview was just icing on the stupid cake.

Had the Kremlin’s information warriors not been complete morons who owe their positions to loyalty and not talent, they might have come up with a far better cover story for these two. For example, they might have claimed that they were being interviewed by the FSB or Investigative Committee, and some of the answers they gave in the actual interview could have been included in a partial report published by Russian authorities. But instead we were told that these guys just rang up RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on her personal cell phone and then in their interview they told the world of their dream to see the 123-meter spire of Salisbury cathedral.

Even Russia’s own propagandists couldn’t avoid showing their own disdain for this idiotic narrative. Several of them, including Margarita herself, subtly implied that Boshirov and Petrov were a gay couple trying to hide a very unusually-booked European getaway (apparently the way it works with assassinations is if you succeed, you become a Duma deputy, and if you fail, you may be protected from extradition but you will be labeled a homosexual). Even Graham Fucking Phillips couldn’t accept the story as told in the RT interview.

Needless to say, the extra visibility provided by the interview no doubt helped Bellingcat and The Insider track down details on the two alleged assassins, and by extension helped them discover the identity of Mr. Chepiga. What I have found most amusing about all this is that Russian officials, and more hilariously foreign Kremlin supporters, have been contorting themselves in ever-more extravagant mental gymnastics in an attempt to explain away all the inconsistencies in their narrative. And yet now it has never been easier for the Kremlin to totally discredit Bellingcat for good.

After all, this Anatoly Chepiga is a Hero of the Russian Federation winner. Although Putin’s regime hands out medals like candy, the title of Hero of the Russian Federation is still rarely bestowed. Plus Chepiga’s name appears on a monument to Heroes of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation. Therefore all Russia has to do to totally destroy this narrative and take Bellingcat’s reputation down at the same time is produce the real Anatoly Chepiga and provide a few details about his award and military career. It could also provide proof of “Petrov” and “Boshirov’s” fitness/supplements business (many Russians run online stores if they don’t own brick and mortar shops). At least some of this could have been accomplished literally within hours of Bellingcat’s Chepiga story breaking, and yet now it has been several days and we have seen nothing of the sort. In fact, Russian official PR flacks like Peskov and Zakharova have been unusually evasive on this issue, leaving foreign Putin fanboys with the burden of having to come up with some kind of plausible explanation.

And to think, all of this happened because they just didn’t know when to shut up.

 

 

Real True Story That Actually Was Happened!

Once there was liberal Ukrainian Banderite professor teaching in university in St. Petersburg. He wanted to teach class in gay studies or history of Nazi Germany but because is Russia they made him teach history of Great Patriotic War. He did not like this so he decided to teach his own way.

Each day he would teach things like how America won Second World War or how Hitler and Stepan Bandera were heroes. All the students hate him but he was really loud and unpleasant so they say nothing.

Then one day he asks if anyone in class thinks that Russia won the Second World War, and all students raise hand. So he stands on box next to podium and says: “If Russia won Second World War, and not Stepan Bandera, let Marshal Zhukov come in and knock me off this box!”

All students look around and nothing was happened. The professor smiled with his eyes closed and there was only silence. But just then, one student in the class got up. His name was Tolya and he was member of Russian naval infantry, Baltic Fleet. He had just returned from deployment in Syria where he was fighting with American-supported Islamic State* terrorists.

Tolya did not say single word. He got up, walked up to professor, and punched him in face so he fell off box. Then Naval Infantry Tolya spoke.

“Marshal Zhukov was busy, so he sent ME!” 

Professor then started to cry and admitted that Crimea was always part of Russia.

And whole classroom stood up and clapped! Is true story!

Please share with friends and family!

 

 

*Islamic State is illegal in Russian Federation!

Finally!

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about this New Yorker article about a new book called Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Unfortunately due to time constraints I wasn’t able to get around to reading it for a while and only now have I got the time to actually give my take on it. While I haven’t been able to examine the book’s arguments in detail, I have to say that this seems to be the first time I’ve seen anyone actually try to attempt to measure the influence of Russian propaganda on the 2016 election with some semblance of scientific rigor. Those of you who follow this blog know that I have often complained about how many of those pundits and politicians who express such confidence that Russia swung the election to Trump seem to avoid expending even minimal effort to try to substantiate their claims. Specifically, nobody seemed to be interested in going out to those key battleground states to survey voters who changed their votes to Trump, a third party, or who decided not to vote at all, and then try to determine the extent to which these people had been exposed to Russian propaganda, e.g. via Facebook.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Jamieson’s book does that specific thing, but it does present an interesting case. For one thing, it points out that in those key Midwestern states where Hillary lost unexpectedly, the deck was stacked against Hillary when it came to getting votes. Anyone trying to influence the election against her had an advantage because they didn’t need to push people to vote for her opponent or a third party but rather they could just as easily convince people not to vote at all. This is reminiscent of an old axiom about guerrilla warfare- the insurgent doesn’t need to win; they just need to not lose.

If you look at a lot of Russian propaganda surrounding the election, you’ll notice that a good deal of it is aimed at people who are either left wing or at least left enough to reject Trump. But the Russian propaganda on Facebook, for example, seems to be aimed at keeping those people from voting for Hillary. Some stuff could be construed as anti-GOP or even anti-Trump, but I’ve yet to see anything from that period which is pro-Hillary, or more accurately, anything that would support the idea that as bad a candidate as she is, she’s at least better than Trump.

Now before anyone suggests that this is setting up an excuse for the Hillary campaign, take note that if Russian influence played a decisive role, it could only do so because the election was so close, far closer than it should have been. Judging from the article, one of the main factors in swinging the election was the hacking of the DNC emails, which contained a lot of material relating to Hillary’s political baggage. In other words, a candidate without such baggage would have been harder to bring down. So there’s no letting the Democratic party off the hook even if this book is 100% correct in its hypothesis. If Russian influence swung the campaign it was almost certainly because the weakness of the party and its candidate made it vulnerable to such influence in the first place.

Like I’ve said about Kremlin propaganda dozens of times before- it is effective only where vulnerabilities exist. Corruption, lack of accountability, inequality, and a refusal by politicians to address any of those problems inevitably spreads the rot in which the bullshit of RT, Sputnik, and the Internet Research Agency take root and sprout. Address those aforementioned problems, and people will see the propaganda for what it is- nonsensical fringe crap from a corrupt, authoritarian, desperate regime that has nothing of value to offer the outside world.

And am I sold on the idea that Russia swung the 2016 election, after all this? Well I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what happened. Too much time has already passed and we have much bigger issues to deal with. What I will say is that the idea that it had an impact can no longer be discounted.

The Ties That Bind

If there’s one common theme we hear from grifters narrative architects about Russian influence operations, it’s that the object is to “divide” American society in order to weaken it. The proof, we’re told, is in the fact that much of the material put out by Russian soft power organs like RT and Sputnik, as well as the social media content from the St. Petersburg “troll factory,” is aimed at both far-right and far-left audiences. This allegedly means the Russians want to divide society by promoting polarized narratives. I’m sorry to say, but this is bullshit.

This delusion lives on because it is pleasing to certain people among the political class. It speaks to their unrealistic vision of an America where people may disagree on a few core issues, but at heart share much in common. In other words it’s Obama’s “there’s no red or blue America” speech. In reality, America has been very divided for quite some time, and while it may seem like Russian propaganda is aimed at further polarizing society, I’d say it’s more about unifying certain elements more than anything.

Over the past few years, regular readers have noted my increasing concern over red-brown activity, i.e. the coordination, both witting and unwitting, between the far-left and far-right. Historically the far-right has always tried to appropriate concepts from the left and co-opt leftists movements, but since the end of the Cold War certain actors have strove to embrace and advance this convergence for a number of aims. Where Russia is concerned, the neo-fascist Alexander Dugin appears to have made red-brown organizing a conscious strategy, one that has become a pillar of Russian soft power.

In short, Russian influence operations do not, in fact, aim to divide society in other countries, but rather unify certain elements against others. Where it cannot create actual alliances, it aims to get disparate groups to agree on certain talking points even if they may espouse them for different reasons and with different intentions. The fact that the propaganda being put out has polarizing messages is beside the point; it is designed that way simply to find a loyal audience. The main goal, once people of certain political views are hooked, is to turn them toward the Kremlin’s position on certain foreign policy goals.

We see this constantly not only in America but in other countries as well, such as Germany. Whether far-right or far-left, even in those countries where such people are often involved in bloody streetfighting, we see curious uniformity when it comes to certain issues that are near and dear to the Kremlin. Supporting Ukraine is a “proxy war,” brought on by a NATO-inspired “coup.” It matters little whether the person receiving and hopefully regurgitating the message believes that Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis or liberal crypto-Jews; all that matters is that the audience is hostile to Ukrainian independence, identity, and territorial integrity. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether the same person supports Russia’s claims on that country because they identify it with the Soviet Union or as a champion resisting the neoliberal hegemony or because they see it as the last hope for the “white race” and “Western civilization.” What is important to the Kremlin is unity- unity around that key point.

No doubt the best example of this unity is in the case of Syria, where many leftists have so easily bought into the Kremlin/Assadist narrative that they find themselves in bed with literal fascist parties and even neo-Nazi icons such as David Duke. Again, from the Kremlin point of view it is utterly unimportant whether the reason for backing Assad or at least opposing his removal is “anti-imperialism” or the belief that he fights against a “Zionist New World Order.” All that matters is that the talking points are repeated- Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria. The rebels are either all al Qaeda-linked Salafist jihadists or at least such people would surely dominate any future Syria without Assad.

Of course when it comes to the extreme right and left in many countries, they will often come close to such positions on their own, typically due to reasons inherent in their respective ideologies. But without direction, these groups might not always find their way to positions that benefit the Kremlin’s foreign policy aims. For example, while Russia clearly won the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to neo-Nazis and Ukraine, easily wooing more far-rightists to fight for their pseudo-states in the Donbas than the Ukrainian far-right was able to win to their side, the latter did manage to get some recruits. Were it not for the Russian propaganda machine, the split might have been more even. The same goes for recruitment of the far-left, as many more open-minded leftists around the world were supportive of Maidan for its revolutionary, anti-corruption aspects. Russian propaganda aimed at both ends of the spectrum helps guide disparate, even diametrically opposed sides to the same conclusions on key issues, though they may take different paths.

So in the future let’s put aside the idea that the aim of Russian disinformation is to divide society- our societies are divided and in many cases for very good reasons. After all, we cannot have unity with political groupings or tendencies that seek to strip away the civil rights of others. The key to understanding Russian influence operations (and doubtless those of other countries), is to understand their unifying aim. What are they trying to get disparate political tendencies to agree on, one way or another?

Russia Clickbait

So given the fact that today’s Russia news cycle has been dominated by the positively insane interview between RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan and the two suspects in the Salisbury poisoning case, you probably missed the story about Russia targeting the Boy Scouts of America.

“Wait,” you say. “The Russians are trying to ‘hack’ the Boy Scouts?”

Well no. Not yet at least. But they could! And so someone had to write an entire article about it.

Ordinarily when I see one of these articles, I do a CTRL-F and search for the word “Hamilton.” If I get a hit on the so-called Hamilton 68 dashboard, I close the tab, secure in the knowledge that this article is unlikely to offer any real insight. In this case, however, I didn’t do the search. As I scrolled through the article, I saw a bunch of stuff we’ve all been aware of for at least a year now. Yeah, we know Russia has orchestrated information warfare campaigns. We know they target wedge issues. I kept wondering when this article would get to the Boy Scouts. Was there some kind of specific information campaign being aimed at the Scouts?

Nope. The author tells us that due to all the various controversies that have plagued the Boy Scouts for many years now, the Russians might tailor some disinformation campaigns targeting those issues. Seriously- that’s it. The whole article doesn’t get to the actual topic of the headline until the second to last paragraph, which I am quoting here in its entirety.

“In the U.S., the Boy Scouts could be a tempting target for Russians seeking to inflame social discord. Over the past 50 years, the organization has been embroiled in various controversies over social values. The organization has internally – and publicly – debated allowing women to serve in leadership roles, whether to let gay men and boys join and lead scout troops, whether transgender boys could join and, most recently, including girls in Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups.

All of those changes, raising legitimate questions about equality and humanity, involved heated discussions in the scouting community and the wider society. Now imagine that an outside group – one whose only goal was discord – jumped in to deliberately inflame the debate.”

Think about that for a second. No fake Russian Facebook pages about Boy Scout controversies were found. No hacking attempts on their website or computer systems. No fake astroturfed campaigns with Russian links. They literally just thought about an organization that has been at the center of some controversies and said “the Russians could try to make decisive propaganda about this.” They could have written this article about literally dozens of different topics, and more importantly, the article doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise. This was published on a site which boasts “academic rigor, journalist flair.”

This, folks, is clickbait. Literally anyone can skim the news about past Russian disinfo campaigns, then brainstorm until you find the latest bullshit culture war battle so you can declare that the Russians might target this issue for future disinformation campaigns. Do this often enough and open up a Patreon account, and you might be able to quit your day job.