Fake News? You Don’t Say!

So America just elected an incompetent, possibly insane billionaire president, and now it seems the media’s got a new coping strategy to adjust to the inevitability of a Trump administration. Oh wait, hang on, what I really meant is that they have totally flipped out and started a new moral panic about “fake news.” Naturally we have to pretend that fake news is a new phenomenon, because anything less might suggest we have some serious problems with our society- from corporate consolidation of media and the relentless profit-driven scramble for ratings and views, to the lack of critical thinking in education and the ridiculous idea that all opinions are equally valid. Just to be sure, some folks in the media would have us believe this is an external threat, specifically one coming from Russia. Put simply, this is bullshit, but I’ve got a lot to say about fake news so please strap yourself in.


American liberal, 2016

I guess the logical place to begin is by saying that fake news is nothing new. Liberals did virtually nothing to oppose the corporate takeover of AM radio in the 80’s and 90’s, which, along with the revocation of the “Fairness Doctrine,” essentially turned America’s talk radio medium into a non-stop sewage pipe belching out right-wing propaganda. Even big names like Rush Limbaugh weren’t averse to spreading conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. If you want to know the roots of some of the wackier Hillary-related conspiracies today, you really have to start with something called The Clinton Chronicles. For those of you too young to remember or not from the US, American politics during the 90’s basically consisted of outrageous scandal after outrageous scandal, and many conservatives were acting as if the US had been taken over by a radical socialist junta. The lexicon included terms like jack-booted government thugs, black helicopters, and New World Order. And then…in 1996…it wasn’t just radio anymore.

Fake news reached new heights with an actual fake news cable TV network, known as Fox News. While the claim that Russia influenced this most recent election is highly dubious, Fox News certainly swayed a US election within four years of its existence. An outside observer might think that American liberals rallied against a foreigner-owned TV network that engaged in all manner of dishonest tactics, but that’s not necessarily true. The documentary Outfoxed spoke of something called the “Fox effect,” whereby other TV networks moved to the right in order to get a piece of Fox’s action. This had disastrous effects during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, as one might expect, but hey- capitalists gonna cap.


It’s also worth noting that around this time, Alex Jones was building his media empire. In addition to Jones’ non-stop conspiracy mongering from 1996 onward, you also had sites like World Net Daily, founded in 1997. And in case you think I’m picking on right-wingers too much (as if that’s bad), remember Oliver Stone? JFK was a boring, conspiracy theory laden production which came out a few week after the Soviet Union broke up. These aren’t just pre-Russia Today; they’re pre-Putin. The simple but inconvenient (for some) fact is this: Virtually all Russian propaganda for foreign audiences is nothing but rehashed conspiracy theories, largely from the United States.

So why is the media and all of liberaldom panicking about fake news now? Well one thing is that for years, they dismissed it and made fun of it. Now, in a way, it seems to be upsetting their precious liberal order, and so they’ve suddenly decided it’s a problem. But as I alluded to in the beginning, admitting too much would require choices they don’t want to make such as free higher education or more critical thinking classes in school (I suspect liberals are too cowardly to face the inevitable conservative backlash over this). Thus, the threat needs to come from somewhere else, as this recent Washington Post article claims. 

Yet there’s something rather amusing about that article. It relies on an anonymous source (the reason they have given for their anonymity doesn’t hold water) based in the US. In other words- exactly the same tactic that actual Russian fake news uses all the time, i.e. misrepresenting a dubious source. And just like any other fake news story, WaPo‘s article got cited by other publications, such as Gizmodo. Way to fight fake news, guys!

There’s also a far more serious issue at stake when we allow charlatans to pin all their woes on Russian propaganda- they are in fact helping Russia’s propaganda war. Recently we’ve seen a perfect example of this with the EU resolution against Russian propaganda.

First of all, the resolution was proposed by Anna Fotyga, a member of Poland’s Law and Justice Party. In case you hadn’t heard, that’s the same party that wants to criminalize women for having abortions and recently dug up the remains of Poland’s ex-president to prove that Russia somehow caused his plane crash. Why is her proposal so hypocritical? Well as it turns out, the Law and Justice Party’s propaganda in many ways mirrors Russian propaganda about the European Union, i.e. Europe is nothing but gender-bending degenerates rapidly being overrun by Muslim migrants. What is more, the party’s politics in Poland are eerily similar to those in Russia. The media and courts come under attack for their independence. History is rewritten as “patriotic” and those who dissent by insisting on staying factual are punished. So to sum up this point, though it is a minor one, the resolution was proposed by the least qualified person to speak out against propaganda.

But far more important was the fallout of the resolution. If you read RT or Sputnik’s reaction, you’d think they’re totally pissed about this resolution, but I assure you they are not. Shortly afterward Putin actually congratulated Russia’s “journalists” in response to the news. Do you know what that means? It means no funding cuts for a while.

See the only performance metric RT and Sputnik have is basically “Look! The West is afraid of us! See how angry they are?” They almost literally say exactly that in their own material meant for Russian consumption. Every panicky op-ed demanding that the EU do something about this Russian propaganda is liable to be snatched up by the propagandists themselves so as to justify their already inflated budgets in this time of crisis. So you can imagine how the Kremlin reacts when they find serious public figures in the West actually claiming that Russia swayed the election in favor of Trump. As immature and childish as the RT/Sputnik performance metric is, the widespread panic over Russian propaganda says “This is working. We’re winning. Let’s keep going and see what else we can do.”

What then, is the right way to respond to the threat of fake news? First of all- it’s domestic. Deal with it. Second, fake news and echo chambers are a symptom of our capitalist society. If this last election taught us anything, it’s that the ruling class on both sides of the political spectrum is extremely out of touch with much of the country, including their own constituents. If someone doesn’t start addressing the social causes of this, then Americans will continue checking out of real politics and tumbling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and fringe politics. So what is to be done?

In counter-insurgency warfare they have this term called the “population-centric” strategy. While it’s hard to find historical examples of purely population-centric strategies and not every population-centric strategy resulted in victory, in general this strategy tends to work much better than its opposite, known as “enemy-centric” strategy. The current Western approach to Russian propaganda could be termed as an enemy-centric strategy. Every proposal comes down to responding to the Russians, which is problematic because as we have seen, the West can’t control Russia’s actions (though I suspect they don’t want to).

What I propose is a sort of population-centric strategy, meaning that the focus is put on American and Western societies. It means opening up more dialog, addressing controversial issues, and actually resolving those problems that alienate people and perpetuate cynicism. This isn’t going to be easy. It means we’re going to have to start talking to people with bizarre politics, many of whom may display traits of cult-like brainwashing. But there is ample research to suggest that attacking someone’s beliefs, however absurd they may be, only causes them to double down and retreat further into a bubble. Meanwhile if Western institutions do more to address people’s needs, provide more tangible, visible stability and prospects for advancement, and also show accountability for their past actions, many people will open up and be willing to talk.

Do I believe that Western governments will adopt such a strategy? Personally I’m skeptical, because doing so threatens the status quo even more than Russia ever could, but at least we could say we warned them.



19 thoughts on “Fake News? You Don’t Say!

  1. AndyT

    Indeed – everyone and their grandmother can waste days and days babbling about Facebook’s echo chambers – but the real “chambers”, the most dangerous ones, can be found offline.

    We have the Silicon Valley routinely celebrating itself and its accomplishments, with little to no concern about their impact on the real world.

    We have geopolitical experts writing 24/7 about Russia’s “information war”, China’s “hybrid warfare”, etc., even if most people couldn’t care less (maybe they’re too busy trying to make a living…).

    That’s how they get out of touch with reality.

  2. Jae-hyeon

    A few lists worth taking a look at (the points are expounded upon in the links):

    From Euromaidan Press’s “A guide to Russian propaganda. Part 1: Propaganda prepares Russia for war”:


    Seven strategies of domestic Russian propaganda:

    1) To weaken critical thinking
    2) To create an image of the enemy
    3) To link all internal problems to external factors
    4) To emphasize the consolidation of society in the face of a military threat
    5) To create the image of Vladimir Putin as the only leader capable of withstanding the military threat
    6) To prepare for the inevitable hardships of “wartime”
    7) To create an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war

    From Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”:


    Rule #1: Believe the autocrat.
    Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
    Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
    Rule #4: Be outraged.
    Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.
    Rule #6: Remember the future.

    From Mark Galeotti’s “Surviving the Trumpocalypse: first thoughts…”:


    1. Let’s not exaggerate Trump’s actual impact on the world.
    2. It’s winter in Central Europe.
    3. The Kremlin’s glee must be tinged with a degree of nervousness.
    4. Syria will burn.
    5. History restarts, and democracy loses some of its force of appeal.
    6. The security concerns are global.
    7. Some hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box.

  3. Mr. Hack

    Your rant here is a bit discombobulated in that you seem to blur the line between who the author of this attack on Russian journalism is and the empire accross the pond? It wasn’t just Poland I suspect that was behind this bill, but surely Germany and even France too. It’s understandable how such a resolution might emanate out o the EU at this time of great vulnerability and confusion. My own feelings are that the real underpinnings of such measures are to place dangerous ultra rightis movements, like the Hunarian Jobik party in check from trying to set the EU asunder. Victor Orban’s positions towards Brussels and his support of Putin are well known, including his close ties to the Jobik party. It’s no secret that Putin has been supporting these ultra right movements in Europe for quite some time now. His propoganda assault on Europe is rift with this sort of support.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Anna was the one who proposed the bill. Also her party acts just like Jobbik or the Kremlin, only it’s at least in part ideologically anti-Moscow…for now at least. A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea of Polish right-wingers supporting Russia, but there is now such a phenomenon.

      The problem with the resolution is that it doesn’t really do anything so far, but it garnered so much attention that the RT and Sputnik people seized on it. It’s exactly what they need to defend their funding during the next round of budget cuts.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I should also point out that I mentioned Anna first because this is a minor point about the resolution. The bigger danger is making RT and Sputnik look relevant.

      Remember, the Russian government views RT and Sputnik as propaganda organs. They’ll keep funding them as long as they see some results. If they were ignored and mocked, they’d be on the chopping block very quickly. RT first, then Sputnik (because the latter is cheaper).

  4. Mr. Hack

    It’s outlets like RT and Sputnik that represent Russia’s propoganda efforts towards the West and already are the recipients of generous proping from the Kremlin. Any efforts to discredit their efforts is welcome, as far as I’m concerned. Your own efforts of working in conjunction with Ukrainian sponsored ‘Stop Fake’ have not gone unnoticed and have served a useful purpose. I don’t think that a European or American version of ‘Stop Fake’ will bolster Russia’s propoganda efforts any more than Ukrainian ‘Stop Fake’ efforts. It’s good to highlight and expose the lie, wherever it’s being propogated, it’s what a healthy democracy and good journalism should be all about.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Actually both RT and Sputnik have had budget cuts in recent years. This is why they’re desperate for attention. They may still face cuts in the next year, if not after that. As things are going right now, Russia will expend its reserve fund by the end of 2017. They’ve also started dipping into their National Welfare Fund. This is simply to cover budget deficits. Who knows what idiotic thing they’ll do next year that requires them to dig even deeper, more rapidly.

      But as for Stopfake, I think what needs to happen is not something directed specifically at Russian propaganda, but rather the extremist movements that propagate conspiracy theories. They are killing our political systems, and RT and Sputnik are just repackaging that crap.

  5. Mr. Hack

    Why not something specifically directed at Russian propoganda? Not everybody is interested in, nor has the time to dally into what propoganda is coming out of the Philipines or out of North Korea. There’s plenty of room within the blogosphere to feed all sorts of appetites. Even your own blog is primarily focused on Russia and Ukraine, not Germany nor Ireland. You’ve spoken quite well of Ukrainian ‘Stop Fake’ and seem to endorse its efforts, which deal primarily with exposing Russian propoganda efforts.

  6. Mr. Hack

    Indeed, even your own blog is a sort of ‘StopFake’ directed primarily towards Russia (and sometimes at Ukraine). I applaud your own efforts in this field of inquiry

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Thanks. I think the best thing is to basically attack conspiracy theories and PR of all sorts, because this way you build up an immunity to phony news in general.

  7. sglover

    Whenever I hear the phrase “fake news”, the first thing I think of isn’t Russia, it’s Iraq. And in that light, it’s hilarious beyond words that the NYT & WaPo, of all corporate institutions, are “concerned” and “troubled” about the Master Puppeteers in Moscow.

    One bright spot: This hysteria is likely to backfire very badly on the hoaxsters. I think my own reaction is orders of magnitude more common than the American “news media” can even imagine.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      That’s a bad comparison though. For one thing, the media fucked up royally with Iraq but it wasn’t that they fabricated stories, as Russian outlets (and other state news outlets) actually do. What they failed to do was properly question and challenge the administration’s claims. Still, I doubt Bush would have backed down on Iraq. He was surrounded by arrogant fanatics.

      The other problem with that analogy is that while it was little comfort, there was serious fallout in the media due to Iraq. NYTimes ended up writing something about how wrong they got it. It helped lead to new outlets like Vice and Buzzfeed that were more objective. Even WaPo can be objective; they just really went over the line with this one.

      1. sglover

        “That’s a bad comparison though. For one thing, the media fucked up royally with Iraq but it wasn’t that they fabricated stories, as Russian outlets (and other state news outlets) actually do. What they failed to do was properly question and challenge the administration’s claims. ”

        Well….. OK, sure, the corporate media perhaps didn’t **generate** the fabrications, they merely promulgated and broadcast them. That’s an awfully fine distinction, wouldn’t you say?

        “The other problem with that analogy is that while it was little comfort, there was serious fallout in the media due to Iraq.”

        I can’t agree. Sure, after some years the NYT came out with its mea culpa, and there was a spate of hacks — especially “liberal” hacks — cranking out gas along the lines of “I was wrong, but it was for good reasons, and it still doesn’t mean that people who were against the war from the beginning were right.”

        Many of these liars and fools are still treated as though they know something. I can’t think of a single Iraq war shill whose bank account has suffered a bit. As far as I can tell, they have all managed to do very very well. Most people I know would love to endure “serious fall out” like that.

        This is by no means confined to the Iraq issue. If you’d relied on the NYT, WaPo et al for economic advice round about 2007, you might be happily signing up for a glamorous new McMansion. Never mind that practically the only source of ad revenue the papers had left was from real estate flyers in their Sunday editions — that could **never** get in the way of their “integrity”, oh no.

  8. Josh

    Great piece. Just want to add a couple points:

    1) That anonymous group quoted in WaPo article has put together a list of 200 sites they claim are associated with Russia, including some longtime and quite well respected alternative outlets. Basically a smear campaign. As someone who writes a good deal myself, they could have have easily taken quite a few of my columns from major outlets and put me on their list. Lord knows Trump frightens the crap out of me, but I do nevertheless find certain aspects of his challenge of former policy orthodoxy to be deliciously subversive.

    2) Correct. Hillary didn’t lose because of the Russians, but because her campaign made terrible decisions on resource allocation and her broader message. Her strategists arrogantly assumed PA, MI AND WI were in the bag, and therefore she spent minimal time and money there until final days. That was Robbie Mook’s call, not Putin’s. And instead of “stronger together”, a better slogan would have been “jobs jobs jobs.”

    1. Asehpe

      Josh, do you really think that if Hillary had concentrated on WI, MI and PA (or even FL), she would have gotten better results? The point I’ve seen repeated in several places is that Trump basically convinced his supporters in those states basically from day 1, and they simply never changed their minds.

  9. Asehpe

    “It means we’re going to have to start talking to people with bizarre politics, many of whom may display traits of cult-like brainwashing. But there is ample research to suggest that attacking someone’s beliefs, however absurd they may be, only causes them to double down and retreat further into a bubble.”

    But is this a good thing — especially now that some of these conspiracy theories are getting more and more supporters? Retreating into the bubble could be worrisome if their bubble is huge and full of people.

    I’m personally quite worried about the fact that there is no real dialogue. People who live in echo chambers just don’t accept as valid whatever comes from outside — and as more and more people choose this domicile (the current overreaction to Trump’s victory is perhaps an example of this ‘retreating into the bubble’ gone mainstream), I’m not sure that we win anything by confronting them and forcing them in. They’d concentrate on expanding the bubble to include more people — and that’s worrisome.

    In the end, I think the final battle will be fought around the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which conservative bubblers will immediate accuse of being ideological, not a ‘skill’ but a ‘poison’. In a society where so many sources of ideas are delegitimized, what can we do then?

  10. Pingback: And the Hits Keep Coming | Russia Without BS

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