The leg work

One thing I’ve noticed about many people with a conspiratorial worldview is that they rarely seem interested in actually doing any kind of investigation into the things they believe, even if it isn’t necessarily hard to do so. They’d much rather park themselves in front of trusted sources of information, i.e those that confirm their previously-determined view, than go out and verify something they’ve heard. There seems to be no concern over whether their sources are lying to them. Obviously the feasibility of investigation varies depending on the individual and the event or issue being discussed, but I find it odd when people claiming to be journalists seem utterly uninterested in doing any investigation of their own to refute what they say are biased claims of “the mainstream media.”

A perfect case of this is the recent wave of news about the Kremlin’s paid “troll armies” on the internet. “Recent” in this case refers to the English-language news, because in the Russian-language press the story is much older. Naturally the Putin fanboy press is calling bullshit and dismissing it all as propaganda. Former workers coming forward? Lies! Photos and the address of the building where one of the largest troll farm operations takes place? Propaganda! But there’s just something funny about the rapid, off the cuff dismissals from these Kremlin fans, and that is that they never seem willing to actually do their own investigation even when it ought to be easy to do so.

Let’s start with this troll army story. This piece in the The New York Times is the latest and one of the most detailed stories about the operation. Then we have two additional pieces from RFERL (Link 1, Link 2), one of which also has a photograph of the same building that appears in the NY Times article and names the same street. What we see in all three articles is a more or less consistent story about how the operation runs.

Now naturally the Russian Insider and Sputnik News crowd would dismiss this as coming from “the mainstream media” in the case of the NY Times piece, and naturally RFERL is straight up CIA in their book. The thing that gets me though, is in this case it would be so easy to refute these stories by doing one’s own investigation. Numerous articles have photos of the building in question plus the street address. We’re talking about a place in St. Petersburg, which is roughly four hours from Moscow if you take the new Sapsan train. How hard would it be to investigate this building and monitor it in the same way that the other journalists did? Wouldn’t this be the best way to come up with bulletproof evidence that the evil Western media is lying? Actually I think there’s an even better way.

Russia’s information warriors constantly insist that the Western media lies about Russia. Most of the time they make little effort to actually confront the claims in question, but rather they prefer to pull a Glenn Beck and explain how the authors are supposedly connected to the CIA or Western NGOs. They never address the fact that Russian media gets routinely busted for producing obviously fabricated stories either. Nonetheless, they insist that it’s the “Western” press, i.e. any press that doesn’t agree with Russia’s line, that lies and fabricates claims against Russia rather than vice versa.

Remember when NBC used poorly-faked satellite photos on the news and nobody was fired for it? Me neither.

Remember when NBC used poorly-faked satellite photos on the news and nobody was fired for it? Me neither.

The thing that strikes me as odd about all this is why, after all these years of claiming that the Western press is nothing but propaganda, none of these truth warriors have ever bothered to prove their point by doing an inside investigation. These days a lot of major news outlets use freelancers. Why don’t they try pitching a totally fabricated story, perhaps something about MH17 for example, to various news agencies? If the pitch is accepted without question, then we have proof that they don’t care about fact-checking. If they ask about verification, our investigator can “admit” that it’s unconfirmed, but then point out how this would make a really good anti-Russian narrative or words to that effect. I’m betting they’ll be shocked by the reaction. Welcome to actual journalism, pal.

After a brief and nightmarish stint in a state-run news agency of a country that makes Russia look like a model of sound governance, and having numerous close friends or acquaintances who work in the news media, I’ve come to realize that a major part of the problem when it comes to this conspiratorial thinking is that most people simply have no idea how the news is made, and how media works. Anyone who actually does their research can rattle off dozens of real-life examples of the “Western” or let’s say American press getting things wrong. The reasons are manifold. Sometimes it’s about preserving access to official sources. Often times it’s sensationalism winning out over fact-checking and sober analysis. Sometimes it’s an ambitious journalist crossing the line and fabricating details.

What’s important to remember however, is that there are limits to how bad it gets. Journalists who fabricate stories get fired- some get publicly humiliated. Years of biased right-wing cable news created a niche market for “liberal” media to counter it. Though it leaves much to be desired, the system has elements of self-correction. This is simply not the case with Russian media. If they get busted, they will usually admit that they had no evidence for the story, but they don’t apologize and they don’t stop. In fact RT is proof of this; there are tons of ridiculous stories which appear on Russia domestic media, but none of them will appear on outlets like RT unless they are heavily refined first. This is why, for example, the flash about Ukraine shooting down MH17 thinking it was Putin’s plane was quickly pulled from RT’s site after it appeared, and why they didn’t do an English-language story about the mysterious satellite photo of the Mig-29 shooting at the Malaysian airliner. Since RT has to compete with real news organizations, they can’t just be a non-stop bullshit factory like a Russian domestic channel.

News will always have bias, but not all bias is equal. What I don’t get is why so many of these truth seekers are so quick to dismiss journalism as lies and propaganda without actually doing any themselves. It seems like the easiest thing in the world for someone who has been working for a Russian English-language media outlet for years to set up an inside investigation of a “Western” media outlet and see how readily they accept unconfirmed reports that make Russia look bad. Better yet, see how willing they are to endorse a story that is a total fabrication.

In fact, let’s do a quick thought experiment on that right now- A Kremlin-supporting expat “geopolitical expert” and myself each write fabricated news stories. Mine is anti-Ukrainian, his is anti-Russian. I pitch mine to Sputnik News, they pitch theirs to The Guardian, NY Times, Al Jazeera, or whatever other organization is now part of the evil “Western media hegemony.” Be completely honest- Which story is likely to be accepted without question or at least with virtually no confirmation? Anyone doubting the outcome I’m implying here is welcome to try the experiment themselves. You’ve got nothing to lose but time, and if a major Western publication publishes your bullshit story, imagine what a coup that would be.

So in the end- yeah, we get it, all those Western hacks aren’t “real” journalists. Then you go out and be a real journalist, goddammit. Show them how it’s done. I’ve caught all kinds of flack from leftists who have never been to Ukraine or Russia because of my stance on the Donbas, once I had sufficient facts. And yet unlike them, instead of just countering their news links with my own, I eventually decided to take some of my hard-earned money, got on a damned plane, and went there without guides, a fixer, or anyone to see what was going on. And you know what? If all goes well in the next few months I’ll probably go back and get more info and opinions from the locals. That’s not exactly Pulitzer material, but it’s a lot closer to “real” journalism than the textwalls of crap you get from the office chair-bound “truth seekers” out there.. If I’m kicking your ass in the investigative journalism department, you’re not a journalist.

4 thoughts on “The leg work

  1. RK

    I like your comment esp re people who have never been to Russia or Ukraine simply knowing that how they see it is right. Prior to going to Kyiv/Kiev I had imagined that everyone spoke Ukrainian etc – when there I was surprised at how widely Russian was spoken. Now I don’t take that to be unchanging but it helps when one reads articles by people who have claimed for the last year (ie months before I went) that some kind of linguistic genocide was going on. But then lots of these keyboard warriors know what they know, so why do they need to travel to see if it’s right.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Absolutely. I was expecting Ukrainian to be more popular in Kyiv post Maidan, but it was still as Russian-speaking as it always was, except for wait staff in one restaurant. I actually regretted that I didn’t get more speaking practice on account of this.

      Obviously this wouldn’t be an issue in L’viv, but there’s little reason for me to go to L’viv. All the stories are in the east.

      1. RK

        yes – when I was working in the UK as i do on some Ukraine related business I wondered why all the names of people were rendered in the Russian spelling by a translator from there, but now I understand, so if folk are Russian speakers I don’t insist on rendering their names Halyna or patronymics as Hryhorovych etc

  2. Shalcker

    I think conspiracy theories are something akin to “local optimums” in truth-seeking. Their most common thread is that they fit each and every fact they mention. If you see that you should be always suspicious that there are facts missing that would detract from it, or that some facts presented as truth are in fact false.

    Real theories generally have things like “if this is true, then this is most likely explanation”. Conspiracies generally go with “only explanation”, and use common knowledge (which is not always true) because process of their spread requires them to be understandable by common people. Some go with one or two (usually wrong) assumptions requiring specialized knowledge to disprove and then pile common sense on top of it.

    And since “everything fits” human mind tends to stop right there. Real “scientific rigour” is pretty unnatural process that has to be trained, it never comes naturally.


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