Follow-up: Devil’s Advocate

In yesterday’s post, I addressed the issue of Russian propaganda vs. “Western” propaganda, explaining why they aren’t the same. I realize that my conclusions and arguments might not satisfy some. Obviously I’m not going to pander to every audience out there, but I have a special place in my heart for the person who is a dissident in a Western country and who is ready to listen but still skeptical about appearing to be on the side of “the West.” I get weird feelings when I find myself on the same side of the fence as the US government. But then again if the US government says wearing pants in public is a good idea, I’m not going to start running around outside without the southern necessity.

Today I want to expand on the problem of taking the “anti-hegemony” side when it comes to Ukraine via a thought experiment. I also want to demonstrate why it is that I simply cannot in good conscience side with any Kremlin-supporting outlet or organization, knowing what I know now. The inspiration for the thought experiment came from an encounter I had many years ago, when I was foolish enough to engage in endless debates with 9/11 truthers. By simply questioning their claims, I earned the ire of a whole posse of the conspiracy theorists. One thing I started to notice was that many of these individuals had conflicting narratives of what supposedly happened that day. In spite of these contradictions, they never got into arguments with each other; everyone was unified against me. I started to get this idea that you could believe anything you wanted, as long as it was a conspiracy theory.

At one point, I was getting exasperated so I posed a question to my main opponents. Basically I told them that I gave up, that I was wrong and I was now convinced that 9/11 was an inside job. I just had one problem, though. I decided to believe one particular narrative of the conspiracy, but some of my other opponents had different narratives. For example, some said a remote-controlled plane hit the Pentagon, but others insisted it was a cruise missile and not a plane. Obviously I couldn’t believe both. So I wondered aloud as to what I should do when confronted with someone saying the towers were brought down by unmarked military planes replacing the airliners, holographic projections of planes in conjunction with “micro-nukes,” missile hitting the Pentagon vs. remote controlled airliner hitting it, etc. Wouldn’t you know, I never got an answer. They continued to attack me, accusing me of working for numerous intelligence agencies.

The question remains. What would I do if someone convinced me of their particular 9/11 conspiracy theory, and then I confronted someone with another theory which included things which conflicted with my narrative? Do I demand evidence from Mr. No-planer? I don’t really have any real evidence of the remote controlled planes theory, or the unmarked military planes theory. His “evidence” is going to be just as good as mine. And of course to him, me asking for evidence is going to sound an awful lot like someone who believes “the official story.” In fact, that’s basically what it is, because if his story isn’t right, he doesn’t have that esoteric knowledge of “what really happened.” I think this is why for the most part you will rarely see these people seriously debate conflicting theories in forums, and why people who advocate conflicting theories will put any and all differences aside to pile up on anyone guilty of believing the “official story.” To be sure, debates do exist within such movements, but they tend to be between authors or leaders of organizations, in other words, people with something to gain from their theory being the most popular. This is also why rather than debating, participants will usually accuse each other of being shills for the government or “disinfo” agents.

Thought experiment: I give up! You win!

Now let’s return to the present. Many of us on the left are told not to listen to the propaganda of the “Western” media when it comes to Ukraine. Ignoring for a moment how easy it is to find articles and other examples from that same media criticizing the actions of the Ukrainian government, talking about the right-wing aspect of Euromaidan, or allowing pro-Russian sources or politicians speak their piece, I feel I must first ask how we define “Western” media in the first place. I’m not playing a semantic game here based on the actual location of these media outlets. It’s been my experience that any media outlet which fails to tout the Kremlin line on Ukraine, including the few remaining independent media organizations in Russia, will be dismissed by the pro-Kremlin side as “Western,” or if not that, totally false and somehow connected to the CIA, National Endowment for Democracy, or whatever. If some of you more masochistic readers out there like debating RT fans online, I encourage you to play to test this hypothesis. For example, choose one media outlet that’s pretty evenhanded and ask for comments on an article that is very critical of Ukraine’s government. After they respond, present them with another article from the same publication(BONUS: same author), and ask them about that. Perhaps ask them if you think the publishing of two articles means that venue isn’t biased against Russia. Note the responses.

It doesn’t matter where it’s from, the content and narrative matter. So if it’s pointing out the massive social problems in Russia, critical of the annexation of the Crimea, or fair to Ukraine, it’s nothing but Western propaganda which can be totally dismissed. At best, a piece that really strives to be evenhanded will be praised for everything but those parts which contradict or question the narrative of the Russian government. So basically, “Western” media can mean anything that isn’t the Kremlin’s narrative. With the definitions out of the way, we can get on with the main thought experiment.

It goes like this. Russia Insider, Sputnik, RT, you were right. I was wrong. Putin is a wise leader. Russia’s cause in the Donbass and Crimea is just. Russia is the right side in this battle against the global corporate hegemony.  I just have a couple of problems though. Maybe some of your “political analysts” can help me out.

The first is MH17. I now acknowledge, for no reason in particular, that all those investigations carried out by official European bodies, though they are almost entirely consistent and in at least one case also put some complicity on the Ukrainian military, were of course fraudulent and aimed at framing Russia. Obviously the Ukrainian government, with the complicity of the US, shot down MH17 in order to provide a pretext for bringing sanctions against Russia, sanctions which, according to the Russian government, media, and a lot of you guys are actually helpful for Russia while simultaneously being the reason behind any negative economic changes in the country. Okay that last bit’s a little confusing, but I’m really trying to follow along here.

This is my question. I’m ready to accept the narrative that anyone but Russia and its proxies in the Donbass was responsible for shooting down MH17. I support Russia’s alternative hypothesis. My only problem is which alternative hypothesis do I go with? First the Russian media said that it was shot down from the ground because the Ukrainians thought it was Putin’s plane. Shortly thereafter, a Spanish air traffic controller at Boryspil airport tweeted that he had heard something about a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the aircraft. Unfortunately, it turns out he never existed and Boryspil airport doesn’t employ foreign air traffic controllers. Next the Russian ministry of defense came out with a slick presentation, but even that said that MH17 could have been shot down by Ukrainian airplanes or a “Buk” SAM system operated by the Ukrainian forces. Then of course Russian TV showed a fake satellite photo showing a Ukrainian Mig-29 shooting at MH17, but the other plane theories all said it was an SU-25. In fact, the next theory came from the Investigative Committee and they said they had an anonymous eyewitness who told them a Ukrainian SU-25 shot down the airliner. Even more recently, the Russian government has voiced claims that a Ukrainian SAM shot down the plane, and the DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko said he personally saw two Ukrainian planes shoot down the airliner. Which one of these alternative explanations do I go with? It can’t be all of them.

If only it were just MH17. Russia’s role in the world itself is in question. If I join you guys and your global internet-based movement against the Anglo-American Atlantic hegemony, I can still be a leftist, right? As I understand, the neocons running the US and EU overthrew Viktor Yanukovych because he stood in the way of their plans to advance NATO to the borders of Russia, even though that already happened in 2004. According to some of your pundits, the Americans installed a fascist puppet government in Kyiv, and now racist, neo-Nazi thugs are establishing an authoritarian, discriminatory regime that will implement neo-liberal austerity policies. But I’ve read a lot of your side’s material, and some of you guys have been telling the world that Ukraine has been taken over by wacky European liberals who want to force gay marriage and gender-bending sex education on that country. Also I’ve noticed that a lot of the people on your side, especially the ones who talk about this, happen to be associated with far right parties in Russia and Europe. How am I supposed to square all that with my left wing politics? I thought that Kyiv is run by fascists, so why is it when I look around on the net, it seems almost all the actual fascists or far-right wing extremists I find enthusiastically support Russia? Why don’t they have their international conferences in Kyiv?

I could go on with this little thought experiment, but I think it’s clear enough for the reader. Once you actually know Russia, and more importantly once you know how their media spits out multiple, often contradictory narratives as fast as an MG42 spits out bullets, it becomes virtually impossible to believe that side. At that point, you have to make a conscious decision not only to ignore any and all evidence which contradicts the Kremlin’s line, you have to pretend as though the Kremlin itself isn’t putting out conflicting versions of the particular narrative you went with.

Whenever one gets to that point, the stupidity takes root, and they begin to look increasingly ridiculous. This is the point where you start believing more and more absurd things not because you are stupid, but rather you have to become stupid in order to believe. In my lifetime I have believed some pretty stupid things. But once I learned I was wrong, I had to discard those ideas. I will not deliberately remain stupid for the sake of a belief. And that’s why I can’t side with international Putin fan club. Sorry, guys.

A potential solution

In another recent article about the so-called information war, I threw out an example of what I feel is a more effective way of countering the propaganda of the Russian media, compared to some of the proposals that have been floated recently. This method consists of cataloging and condensing all Russian narratives according to topic, both those stories intended for foreign audiences and those in the Russian Federation. Essentially what we’re talking about is like Stopfake.org on crystal meth. The crucial difference would be that whereas Stopfake.org posts fake news stories as they come, this resource would not only present the latest claims, but it would have everything organized by topic.

Here’s how it would work. Someone sees a Youtube video produced by a pro-Kremlin source on the topic of MH17. It’s got CGI graphics, “experts,” etc. But let us imagine this person is a bit skeptical because they never knew much about the case. So with some Googling they come across this hypothetical resource, and they see the section on MH17. When they go to that section, they are confronted with a summary of all Russian MH17 stories to date, complete with examples, explanations, and links to the real investigations. Ideally, of course, a person would run across this site first, before seeing any conspiracy videos, of course.

The idea is that many people will get drawn in to conspiracy theories when they don’t know the basic details of an event in the first place, and then they see something promising to impart hidden knowledge “they” don’t want you to know. The deal is sweetened if pitch contains messages that resonate with their political beliefs. But what happens if they’re confronted with the fact that the video they just watched or the article they just read isn’t in fact “the” alternative explanation? What if they learn that it’s one of potentially dozens of different hypotheses, many of which are contradictory? They can’t all be “what really happened,” particularly when some of the mutually exclusive hypotheses are actually coming from the same source. Lastly, they will be even more skeptical when they find out that these claims are aimed at different audiences, including those whose political beliefs are diametrically opposed to their own.

Hopefully when more people are confronted with concrete evidence that they are being lied to, they will have no choice but to reject pro-Kremlin propaganda or look incredibly stupid. One thing is for sure, however, and that is no one should risk looking ridiculous by deliberately adopting foolish beliefs simply because they are afraid to be on the same side as a government they disagree with, including their own. It is precisely that fear of looking like a “sell-out” that has led many self-proclaimed and actual leftists in the West to make utter fools of themselves. I understand that if one made one’s career off of criticizing everything the US does, they stand to lose some fans should they admit that there’s an even worse government out there, though it supposedly “opposes” America. Personally I think those supporters are expendable. The worthwhile people will respect someone who stands up for truth and reason. As I said in that recent article, if you still feel uncomfortable because it looks like you’re taking the side of the “Western” media, blame the Kremlin for producing such sloppy, incoherent propaganda as to make Western governments and their media organs look far more credible by default.

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10 thoughts on “Follow-up: Devil’s Advocate

  1. A.I.Schmelzer

    Well, as someone who was berated as a “rapid Putin apologist” and nastier names elsewhere:

    There are completely valid reasons to no buy into the official western narrative, especially since it also started with major lies. There seems to be the assumption that, whenever Russia says something which was not true it is a despicable lie, while whenever a western news outlet does so it is an “honest mistake”. Most people who point that out in the internets get insulted quite vapidly by a number of western commentators, and basically the aggregated sum of the received invective pushes many all the way to a clear “pro Russian” side.
    The “western look” is very very “filtered”, and not just concerning events happening under the fog of war, but also events which happened in the past which are incredibly important to understand this crisis. For example, in how many news pieces did we read that Ukraine solemnly declared its everlasting military neutrality (which certain forms of EU membership, and any aspirations of Nato would violate) in its very own founding documents?

    Reference:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20100111101705/http://gska2.rada.gov.ua:7777/site/postanova_eng/Declaration_of_State_Sovereignty_of_Ukraine_rev1.htm

    Or that the often quoted Budapest Memorandum refers to the Helsinki declaration, which would forbid interference in internal affairs of sovereign nation (the Russian propaganda overstates the degree of interference by the US, but it was considerable, and frankly no self respecting state should allow this kind of interference)?

    As for MH17, my take is that the most like possibility is that the Seperatists shot it down on accident with a captured BUK, and that the Kiev goverment used Civilian air liners as de facto living shields. Rerouting civilian air traffic into an air space from which you do bombing runs is pretty drat evil. As for the seperatists, with a captured BUK launcher, the decision to shoot or not is something you do in about 1-2 seconds. They propbably had both the Jet and the SU-25 on their radar, though “Oh shit, an SU-25, it could find our Radar and bomb the fuck out of us (as in, personally) so shoot it first!” and hit the much larger Jet due to inexperience with the system.
    You also have to be aware that the early SBU statements were even more lunatic then anything that officially came out of the Kremlin. By the way, the ridiculously bad quality of the SBU evidence fakes kind of rules out an Ukrainian false flag. If someone does a false flag involving triple digit deaths, the faked evidence would be faked on a reasonable level of competence in advance.
    An accidental shoot down by an Ukrainian BUK cannot be ruled out. This happened before, Ukraines armed forces are/were in a bad shape, and there was some buzz about the seperatists having air planes. However, all the factors that make an accidental Ukrainian shootdown likely also apply, and apply more strongly, to the Seperatists, and the possible seperatist BUK crew was under lethal threat, so a mistake by them is more likely.

    Ukraine also foolishly lied when it claimed it had neither planes nor SAMs in the area. The Russians could easily prove that this was untrue. In addition, Ukraine would have to be utterly retarded to not have SAMs there, since Russia establishing a “no fly zone” Lybia style was very much a possible threat, and having ready SAMs in the area would have increased the costs and thus deterred Russia (or give some Ukrainian units a fighting chance to retreat).

    Now, this may be personel, but a reason why RT is somewhat competetive is that their PR is so bumbling and incoherent that it does not appear to be very threatening, in the way far more sophisticated western PR apparates are.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Are you aware there is no evidence that Ukraine redirected MH17 or used it as a “flying shield?”

      Also the reason why people treat lies of both presses differently is because Russian press literally makes shit up. I mean they get caught deliberately fabricating things. We’re not talking about an editor saying; “No need to follow up on that” or some journalist failing to trace the source’s funding. I mean they straight out fabricate stories, often with poor photoshops, actors, or similar techniques.

      Obviously you could find equivalents in the “Western” press, but those are usually rightly treated as tabloids. See the Daily Mail for example. What is more, when journalists for major, legitimate Western firms get caught lying or even just failing to properly check something out and thus embarrassing the network, they are typically fired. This doesn’t happen in Russia.

      Reply
  2. A.I.Schmelzer

    The course was different from that of earlier flights, roughly 200km northwards, and that the Seperatists had weapons capable of hitting airplanes in that area was iirc also established before.
    http://www.businessinsider.com/malaysia-flight-17-took-different-route-2014-7?IR=T

    And no, I found a lot of pretty drat wrong propaganda errors in very “serious” German media outlets such as Spiegel, Zeit or FAZ. Spiegel actually got a “reprimand” from what counts as the german goverment media watch dog for its MH17 coverage, heck utterly fraudulent Ukrainian PR appeared before the house of congress.
    http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4528166/senator-inhofe-shows-fake-photos-ukraine-war

    There is btw. something about the “whataboutism” that some people dont get. If Russia is like “but China/Saudi Arabia/Britain” is doing that, then the whataboutism charge is valid. If they refer to the US, well, international law is something made up by the hegemon(s), since there is no other enforcing authority.

    The US is the undisputed hegemon, when the US breaks international law, it, in real terms, actually changes it instead of breaking it. By repeatedly choosing winners in internal civil wars (Yugoslavia and Lybia) and by outright invading Iraq on flimsy made up premises it changed the de facto international law in a way that allows anyone (who can get away with it) to do as the USA does. In addition, Ukraine is a conflict where the Hegemon is opposing Russia. One can hardly expect that Putin of all people is bound by international law, while his opponents can receive advantadges from breaking it.
    It is akin to the difference between “other people are criminal too” which is not a very valid excuse, to “the judge prosecutor and executor (USA) did the very same thing, and they are gunning for me” which is a lot more valid.

    The crux with that argument, and why it is not public, is that this argument requires to accept the real extent of western hegemony, which Russia (and China) are unprepared to do in public.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Here’s the summary of a report which handles the question of course changes for MH17: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2015/05/31/mh17-forensic-analysis-of-satellite-images-released-by-the-russian-ministry-of-defence/

      As for the whataboutism thing, first of all, the idea of US as hegemon is simply outdated. Until Putin started his recent antics, US forces in Europe were at all time lows, compared to several hundred thousand in the Cold War era. US forces have been drastically reduced in Afghanistan, with Obama announcing that the era of big military operations(e.g. an invasion of Iraq) are over. The US did not invade Syria after the use of chemical weapons, and not only do they not even consider military action to defend Ukraine, but they won’t even weapons to the country. This is not the old US.

      Russians keep whining about a “multipolar world”, yet the world is multipolar- they just aren’t a pole. Why is that they case? It’s their fault. They prefer to steal from their people instead of giving them the freedom to make the country prosperous.

      Now getting to the question of whataboutism, the Russian arguments typically fail because a lot of times they either mention things that are very old, ignoring the fact that we don’t live in the same type of world, or more often than not they mention things that they condemn the whole time. For example- What about Kosovo? Oh Russia didn’t say anything negative about NATO action in Kosovo?

      See if they are equal, than everyone should shut up about each case. In fact that’s what Russia’s leaders actually want. They don’t give a shit about Serbia or Libya or the fact that the US supports Saudi Arabia. What they really want is everyone to shut up so they’ll be left alone to steal from their people and enjoy the profits in London, New York, and the south of France.

      As for China and the Western hegemony, forget it. China’s position stems from a mutually beneficial relationship with the US. Now they’re establishing a colonial relationship with Russia via their credit deals with strings attached. In an effort to defy countries which never had any territorial claims on Russia, Putin has rushed into the embrace of a more powerful country that does have such claims. Once again, Putin is incompetent.

      Reply
  3. A.I.Schmelzer

    Pardon, but Bellingcat has its issues. I have, at length, tried to convince him that the chemical attacks at Ghouta were a pretty murky business, and that “Only Assad could have done this” fell flat on a number of grounds. IS was busy doing a pretty thorough and massive infiltration campaign starting at least autumn 2012 if not earlier [1], its top cadres feature considerable parts of the former Iraqi Baath Secret services, and it did have sufficient access to chemcial plants as well as the chemical know how.
    Even the Australian goverment meanwhile believes that IS (which at the time of Ghouta, under other names, already quite active with their massive infiltration campaign) has the capacity to manufacture Sarin[2].

    This analysis you have cited is by the way bellingcats worst work until now, and has been in parts strongly refuted by a number of forensic experts with absolutly no Russian ties [3], [4]. The actual Russian propagandists of course had a field day. The owner of the site which provided the fotoforensic tool also made his displeasure known in no uncertain terms [5].

    He may be on with something with the reference analysis based on historic googleearth pictures with different timestamps (there could be some issues with that), and none of the actual experts claim that they know that the pictures are not manipulated (quick way to spot a Putin Propagandist is to check if he thinks that Bellingcat being wrong means that pictures are real, this does not follow) but the ELA and the EXIF angle of Bellingcat have been completely debunked.
    Would you trust a source with a pro Russian bent with an analysis of which 2 out of 3 subjects have been objectively debunked?

    [1]http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html
    [2]http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jun/06/islamic-state-has-expertise-to-build-chemical-weapons-says-julie-bishop
    [3]http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/expert-criticizes-allegations-of-russian-mh17-manipulation-a-1037125.html
    [4]http://life.lanzone.eu/?p=30
    [5]https://twitter.com/les_politiques/status/606431374141177857/photo/1

    Reply
      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        The flight aware data was showing a deviation, but after some extra reading that may have perhaps been due to projectional 2D/3D issues (basically, earth curvature interferes with linear projections). Even if not rerouted, I for one strongly believe that an air space from which someone is conducting close air support missions against opposition in possession of sophisticated air defence weaponry should be rerouted if possible, and iirc this would be the normal course of action (f.e. Georgian war, Desert Storm, Iraq-Iran war where a similiar incident happened).

        In some metrics, this was actually a more dangerous area for air liners then one over a fully conventional war area, since the rebels lack access to a number of insitutional ties (like, actually knowing where the civilian flight corridors are, an interface with civilian flight controllors etc.) that could be used to minimize such incidents. Still, Ukrainian BUK is possible, but less so then rebel BUK.

        Russia has meanwhile taken over the air defence aspect, pretty transparently with modern Pantsir systems, and while the usual suspects complained, this is vastly preferable to some barely trained rebels doing it with defective captured Buks.
        These Pantsirs also shot down some ballistic missles Kiev launched, and I fully support stopping ballisitic missle launches, especially if their trajectory implied a targetted urban centre.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        The biggest problem with the “It’s Ukraine” story is that Ukraine had no need for anti-air defense. I’m sure they had some AA units ready in case of a full-on invasion but the idea that they’d be alert and prepared to shoot down a slow-moving plane coming from the West is bizarre.

  4. A.I.Schmelzer

    The thing is, Ukraines air defence was very much needed as a deterrent/contingency, and Russia going in “No Fly Zone Lybia style” was very much a realistic threat.
    Just like everything else in Ukraines armed forces, it was in dire need of training and exercizes, and if some military unit is not actively fighting it should be training.

    Perhaps even more so then most other things, because iirc live fire exercizses for AD units in Ukraine were greatly reduced after the Siberian air lines tragedy in 2000, while their deterrent role was of vital importance.
    In the event of Russia officially playing rebel air force, the priority for Ukraine would have been to maintain its army as an army in being, and strive to save the core of their professional forces from destruction by Russia.The Buks would have been absolutly vital for that.

    Btw. if you search for a not yet used historical analogy to annoy pro Russians with, try comparing/referring to the Russian intervention as large scale bay of pigs (as it was originally conceived). I really wonder how active the Russians are in recruiting, training and outfitting refugees from East Ukraine, if I were “megamachiavelli” Putin, it is something I would be doing on a pretty massive scale.

    Reply
  5. A.I.Schmelzer

    There could also be some extra shenangians involved with the rebels lighting up, via radar from another Buk they captured, the plane, and an Ukrainian missle fired at an exercize target locking in on that radar target and hitting the air plane or vice versa (the rebels would have been trying to fire at the Su-25 instead of at an exercize target).
    It is a bit of a long shot, but cannot be fully ruled out in a situation were formally linked systems are used against each other in very haphazard ways.

    It does say something about Russian propaganda that the most realistic scenarios with Ukrainian culpability were not the most commonly proclaimed ones.

    Reply

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