Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Russia Without BS Guide to Disinformation

Are you tired of being angry about things that aren’t actually happening? Are you tired of losing friends on social media because you keep posting bullshit stories from shady news sites based in some Balkan country? Well today you’re in luck, because after years of working in the field of counter-disinformation I’m finally presenting you with my list of tips for being less of a gullible rube online, or the guide to disinfo for short. 

I shouldn’t have to tell readers this, but these are general rules of thumb and if one or even a few of these points apply to a certain news item it doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake or misleading. Everything must be weighed on the merit of its evidence. There is no magic formula that makes it possible to determine fact from fiction or disinformation. Likewise, there is no source of news that is 100% reliable and accurate every time. 

The TRUTH!

Tip number one- if you see a news source, article, or video  that prominently features the word “truth” in its title, you should be suspicious. This is doubly so if you see it written in all-caps. One real-life example comes from an RT program called Truthseeker, which became the basis for one of the Russian broadcasters’ many sanctions by the British regulator Ofcom after they repeated the infamous “crucified boy” story from the war in Ukraine. Also, Russia’s propagandist and sex tourist Graham Phillips also ran a now-defunct personal blog called The Truthspeaker, which if you’re familiar with even a fraction of his work, tells you everything you need to know. Exercise similar caution with headlines or video titles that contain something like “The TRUTH about…” 

The reason this is suspicious is because if someone has done actual investigative work and they stand behind it, there’s already an automatic implication that the information is true. To understand the problem with overuse or inappropriate use of the term truth, just consider the following scenario: 

A person was supposed to deliver something to your office at a certain time and they are both late and the delivery is wrong. The person has a long explanation as to why this happened, and while they are giving it they pepper their speech with phrases like “believe me,” “trust me,” and “I’m telling you the God’s-honest truth.” Would you believe that person? Most rational people would say no or at least say that behavior is a major red flag. 

The corollary to this is if the story uses the word “lie” to refer to whatever narrative it is attacking. If a narrative is a lie, the article or video should be able to explain, in detail, why it is false or otherwise misleading. 

People Are Doing X…

One particularly annoying recipe for often unreliable clickbait stories is outrage fuel that is about “people” supposedly expressing their own outrage at something else, usually something innocuous. This is typically aimed at conservative audiences and will most often be about “college students” or “social justice warriors” supposedly getting “offended” by something seemingly trivial. These stories play to conservative identity politics about how they are thick-skinned, common sense-having, tough people while their opponents are limp-wristed, oversensitive, whiny snowflakes (yet they’re also somehow antifa super-soldiers about to launch a new civil war any day now). The Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik are also fond of such tactics, usually aimed at right-wing audiences in the West.

The problem with such stories is that, assuming they’re not entirely fabricated, they are typically based on a handful of social media posts, often on Twitter. Is there any proof these tweets are representative of any significant demographic? How many followers do those Twitter users actually have? Do their tweets even match the sentiments found in the story’s headline or copy? A really good example of how a tiny number of tweets can turn into “The SJWs are TRIGGERED by X” was tackled by the Youtuber Shaun, who debunked a fake outrage story about leftists supposedly being up in arms about a trailer for the game Doom: Eternal

A similar theme in this genre is “those college kids,” whereby we hear that spoiled, entitled, over-sensitive college kids are supposedly screeching with rage about something happening on campus. Right-wing grifters have made a killing off of this theme, which appeals equally to boomers as well as white millennial males who say dumb shit like “I was born in the wrong era.” It’s also been a boon to Never-Trump conservative columnists who find few outlets for their right-wing politics now that the field is dominated by defending Trump in scandal after scandal. 

In reality, most of “those college kids” stories are in fact bullshit. Trigger warnings and safe spaces? Just another moral panic. No-platforming speakers? An actual detailed examination of the phenomenon finds that conservative student organizations often protest or request to disinvite speakers on political grounds, something you never hear about in “campus free speech” pieces. Moreover, the fact that students, right or left, protested a speaker or tried to have them disinvited often doesn’t mean they were successful. More often than not, “PC Campus Crybabies Protest Speaker Who Offends Them” stories could be more accurately distilled as “Some Customers of an Institution Voice Their Objection to a Speaker They Disagree With.” Of course if they were worded that way, people would quickly see how non-newsworthy they are. 

For more examples of campus free-speech grifting, check out Robert Evans’ Behind the Bastards podcast, which did a special episode on this subject. Or for a good video on the related term “cancel culture,” check out Cody Johnston’s Some News. 

The Mainstream Media Won’t Show This! 

Grifters love to hook rubes by convincing them they’re offering them esoteric, forbidden knowledge “they” don’t want you to know about. This comes in a lot of different forms, but the general idea is that this person or outlet is offering you a look behind the curtain and if you want to be a “free-thinker” unlike all those “sheeple” out there, you’ll listen to them. 

First of all, the term “mainstream media” is ill-defined. What exactly is “mainstream” anyway? Sure, it could be large media outlets, but is the BBC mainstream in the United States, for example? Russia’s RT loves to bash the “mainstream media,” but it is yet another state-owned media enterprise in a country where the state controls most major media outlets (and heavily restricts independent ones). 

When confronted with “mainstream media isn’t covering X,” the first thing to do is run to Google and type whatever “X” is in the search bar. If the story is actually accurate and newsworthy, chances are major outlets have reported on it, and they have probably done a better job than the people who claimed they weren’t covering it. If the only results that come up are tabloids, government media outlets from authoritarian states, or sites with names like “The TRUTH Defender,” it’s probably bullshit. 

Sure, sometimes there might be important stories that aren’t on the network evening news or they are just blurbs in the paper, but the fact that a particular story isn’t front page news or the news anchor doesn’t give you an in-depth rundown of the ideological variations between the major Syrian opposition groups each evening doesn’t mean the mainstream media is trying to cover something up. There’s a difference between headline news and investigative stories. Yeah, as it turns out if you want to be informed about something you’ll actually have to read, a lot. Someone on TV or running a blog (yeah, including this one) can’t just spoonfeed you an understanding of complex events. Plus, there might be a logical reason why an outlet focuses more on one event in a certain place and not a similar event in a different place.

In any case if you were really serious about understanding some complex issue like a war or the politics of a foreign country you’re not going to be looking at your newsfeed or cable news; you should be reading books by recognized experts in the field. 

Sources

As a corollary to the above, grifters who overuse the term mainstream media derisively often try to cultivate the idea that certain sources can be automatically trusted on anything, while others can be dismissed out of hand, specifically any source they designate as “mainstream.” Russian media often uses a variant of this whereby bad media that’s unfair to Russia labeled “Western media,” and of course you can’t trust Western media to report the truth! This labeling seems to convince some people because the West is portrayed as this US-led hegemony and Russia’s posited as opposing it. But consider that there are also plenty of non-Western media outlets which report on things like Russia’s role in MH17 or the Skripal poisoning. Are Al Jazeera or Daily Sabah “Western” now? In reality, “Western media” in the Russian press typically means “media reporting things that contradict the narratives of the Kremlin, foreign ministry, defense ministry, etc.” Same goes for “mainstream media,” “corporate media,” etc. These labels say nothing about the quality of the outlet’s reporting or the veracity of any individual story. 

The idea that there are sources you can consistently trust on everything and those you should dismiss all the time is, to say the least, naive. You have to look at the outlet’s reputation, how they’ve responded when they got something wrong, and how thorough their reporting on a topic is. And even then, that’s just one source of news. It’s not necessarily going to make you informed on certain topics. 

Another reason the dismiss “mainstream media” approach is bullshit is because virtually every individual or outlet who does this inevitably ends up citing the same mainstream media they regularly dismiss in their stories or basing entire stories around the idea that “even the mainstream media is acknowledging this!” Either they are acknowledging what the truth-to-power writer is claiming, which thus contradicts their claims about media coverups on that topic, or they are misrepresenting what the outlet they’re citing actually said. Even in the latter case, they’re still attempting to cite a source they would otherwise dismiss were it not for the idea that a major outlet reporting on something gives them credibility. And that’s just it- they do this because they know that no matter what you say about not trusting “mainstream media,” a part of you still trusts that enough to give more credence to them as a source. 

Russian state media does this all the time with their term “Western media.” They know that their domestic audience doesn’t trust them, so while they’ll dismiss any Western media outlet’s negative reporting on the Kremlin regime, they’ll often enthusiastically cite “Western media” whenever it appears to go along with what their messaging. Of course this often means turning some obscure blogger into “Western media.” In fact, in one case they took something of mine that had been reported in The Guardian and twisted the meaning considerably before presenting it as a “Western journalist” attacking other “Western journalists” on their Russia reporting.

Identity Politics

A tell-tale sign of bullshit is when you get the feeling that the article is trying to say something about  your personal identity depending on whether you agree or disagree. Does the outlet or the author of one of their pieces imply that you’re a truthseeking free thinker if you believe their version of an event, as opposed to a mindless member of the “sheeple” if you don’t? Perhaps you’re not “patriotic” if you take the wrong side in the article, or maybe you too are a censorious, fragile snowflake if you think maybe those college students had a point when they protested against something? 

If the answer is yes to any of that- it’s most likely a manipulation tactic. Obviously if it’s an opinion piece that sort of thing is more appropriate, but not in a news story. 

Politically Correct/Incorrect

If you see these words invoked unironically, increase the skepticism. These terms don’t mean anything. For example, in the manufactured outrage over Colin Kaepernik, nobody attacked Kaepernik’s critics for being PC snowflakes. Nor did the people who typically proclaim themselves politically incorrect praise him for also being politically incorrect. Opponents of same-sex marriage didn’t get labeled as politically correct when in fact their position was basically the definition of that until relatively recently. 

In short, this is just a snarl phrase where PC = bad and un-PC = good, cold hard truth (often not true at all). 

When In Rome – Leave

This one may seem oddly specific, but bear with me. Any time you see some American commentator saying our country is about to “fall like the Roman Empire,” that’s a fairly good sign you shouldn’t pay attention to them. Doubly so if they attribute that fall to “decadence.” Most likely that person’s sum total of knowledge on Rome amounts to having seen Gladiator once or twice. The decline of the Roman Empire was a long and extremely complex process that was due to many factors, and typically the “collapse” they’re thinking of is only the fall of the Western Empire, while the Eastern one continued on for nearly another thousand years. 

In short, “aMeRiCa iS lIkE rOmE” is an example of stuff that sounds smart to stupid people, much like “we’re a republic, not a democracy!”or “the Nazis were socialists!” 

Constant Complaining About ‘Bias’

This one is pretty straightforward- if an outlet is constantly complaining about other outlets being “biased,” it is probably biased itself in favor of a particular point of view. American conservative media is a major offender here. Anything not reporting their version of a story, no matter how idiotic or fabricated it is, is “biased.” This is a nice way of actually avoiding the need to provide evidence for your claims and explain why the other claims are false. 


Terribly sorry, but reality tends to have a certain bias. The Earth is round. Vaccines save lives. Trump is objectively a moron. Russia shot down MH-17 and poisoned the Skripals. Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons multiple times. To take just one of those examples, that of MH17, it is a matter of comparing what has basically been one, more or less unchanging narrative of events (Russia shot it down), to numerous, changing, often impossible or mutually exclusive alternative explanations. Perhaps if the Russian side had decided to carefully craft one alternative narrative and present evidence only for that explanation, they might have produced something worthy of serious consideration. But alas, they deliberately decided on a strategy of simultaneously promoting dozens of easily-debunked fake stories even as the debris was still smoldering. Nobody made them do that; nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to put out a stream of bullshit via multiple channels. Therefore there’s no bias in saying they have zero credibility on that topic and people aren’t unfairly biased against them for not trusting what they say about it.

Formula for Disaster

Since my Youtube channel is currently dedicated to more entertainment-related topics, I figured I might as well do a little serious writing here for the time being (typically I publish that sort of material at Nihilist.li these days). It just occurred to me that apart from scattered tweets, I never really gave a comprehensive opinion on the so-called “Steinmeier formula” that’s been dominating news in Ukraine lately, which is of course another argument against using Twitter. So in case you were wondering, here is my position on Steinmeier, which is inevitably going to piss off a lot of people because Ukraine. 

 

My opinion is as follows: Steinmeier, both the man Frank-Walter Steinmeier (seriously who hyphenates their first name?!), and his “formula,” suck. Powerfully. That being said, Zelenskyy’s position on the matter isn’t necessarily the cause for panic that some see it as. The question is whether Zelenskyy sticks to his guns about the manner in which it is to be implemented. Zelenskyy says he insists on control over the border and foreign troops out of Ukraine before holding elections, which must be held according to Ukrainian law. This is different from what the “formula” originally states.

 

As presented in 2016, the plan could be extremely problematic because it calls for elections to be held before restoring control of the border to Ukraine. While they must be certified as free and fair by the OSCE, there’s nothing specifying exactly what degree of “free and fair” they must achieve to be considered valid under the formula. The OSCE’s ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) does not simply rate elections in a black and white, pass/fail style basis. This means that Russia’s proxies could potentially rig the elections in such a way that they get their people in key positions in the region but not so much that the OSCE declares them invalid (Russia would also no-doubt send their typical delegation of neo-Nazi and backward Communist “election monitors” who would declare the whole process free and fair). 

 

On the other hand, if Zelenskyy insists on return of the border and removal of troops first, then it is possible that actual free and fair elections could be held on those territories. The catch in this case is that Russia would most likely refuse to abide by the plan because they aren’t going to risk losing their foothold in Ukraine without some kind of guarantee that they’ll have their agents well-entrenched in the political system. So if Zelenskyy doesn’t go back on his promises, Russia is likely to refuse to cooperate and we stay at the long bloody status quo. 

 

Personally speaking, as bad as the status quo is, it is preferable to any scenario which could be presented as capitulation by the Kremlin and its propaganda organs. Apart from the demoralization in Ukraine, Russia would inevitably use such a “victory” to lobby for the removal of all sanctions related to their involvement in eastern Ukraine by severing them from those covering Crimea. This is why I think it’s good that people came out and protested the matter, if only to remind Zelenskyy not to cave to Russian or European demands. It is of course unfortunate that right wing fifth columnist organizations like the National Corps are trying to capitalize on and monopolize this protest movement, but grifters gonna grift, after all. 

 

On the other hand I can’t help but see a lot of the anger being misdirected at Zelenskyy when there are others far worthier of ire. The Poroshenko dead-enders, for example, seem to forget that St. Petro himself had endorsed and tried to push through similar “special status” laws back in 2015. Those moves also provoked major protests and a bomb attack that killed four people. Earlier he’d even voiced willingness for a referendum on federalization, one of Russia’s main demands, back in 2014. Sure, he said he personally was against the idea, and he had to have known the majority of Ukrainians would vote it down, but Ukrainian politics are a minefield where saying the wrong thing or even saying something innocuous with the wrong wording gets called out as ZRADA! (treason), and some of his fans seem to be forgetting these actions, quite conveniently. Furthermore, Poroshenko and his fans seem to forget that they have been pushing the “no alternative to Minsk” line this whole time. This crowd never ceases talking tough about the war and labeling any opponent as being in favor of “capitulations,” but I know from personal experience that when you press them on what their great military solution is they retreat to mumbling about Minsk, “isolating Russia,” and poorly understood military history about Croatia’s Flash and Storm offensives of 1995. It’s all just empty posturing, and Ukrainians see through it. The majority, in fact. 

 

It seems to me that the most anger should be directed at, after the Kremlin of course, Europeans like Frank-Walter Steinmeier. One of the most infuriating things about the behavior of Ukraine’s so-called “friends,” the OSCE, etc. is the constant both-sides tone you hear in their statements and recommendations. Obviously being the victim of military aggression isn’t a license to wantonly engage in any kind of morally reprehensible behavior, but in the case of this war Ukraine has demonstrated great patience and restraint given the circumstances. If there were a will, Ukraine could be fighting this war far more dirtier than it currently is (Yo, Ze, hit me up!). Yet despite this, European states and their leaders, and at times even the US government, still often act as though peace in Ukraine is equally on the shoulders of Kyiv as much as it is on Moscow. Even Emmanuel Macron, who won an election in which he was the only major candidate without an obvious soft-spot for Putin, was recently demonstrating his desire to reintegrate Russia in the West.

 

Zelenskyy himself is something of a mixed bag, but given everything I’ve covered above, it’s hard to imagine him seeing any alternatives. Since 2015 the world as well as Ukraine’s own president had been saying the only way out is Minsk, and Steinmeier is basically a simplified version of key points of that agreement. And bear in mind they were singing this refrain of “no solution but Minsk” even as the very first point on that agreement was flagrantly violated on a daily basis for years, even up to the present. Ukraine’s establishment and its supposed allies all demanded that the corpse called Minsk II be worshipped, insisted there was no substitute, and now people are supposed to get angry that a former comedian is basically acquiescing to that very notion? 

 

If one wants to rage against Zelenskyy over this, by all means do so, but don’t exclude those that came before him and set the rules of the game. Better yet, don’t engage in chest-beating posturing only to seek refuge in “fulfill Minsk!” whenever someone asks about your supposedly non-capitulationist position. At the moment I hope Zelenskyy sticks to his guns, causing the Russians to refuse, and maintaining the status quo, as bad as it may be. However, because I have a bit more imagination than “Minsk II then Operation Storm somehow,” I can see plenty of opportunities for Ukraine to strike back even if they did accept the formula as is and gave Donetsk and Luhansk  “special status.” But whatever happens, perhaps instead of pointing the finger at this or that Ukrainian politician it would be better to attack the bigger problems such as Minsk II and the broken, capitalist international nation-state system that leads Ukraine’s so called “allies” to treat Ukraine equally to Russia when apportioning blame for the war while chomping at the bit to reconcile with Tsar Putin. Ukraine’s hope was never going to come from some president. 

 

FREE AT LAST!

I know this isn’t going to reach all of my readers, but some of my long time followers are probably aware that my old Twitter account got permanently suspended last week. In the past month it had twice come under malicious mass-reporting attack; suspect is a cowardly, right-wing pro-Kremlin account (it poses as anti-Russian but its behavior gives it away). The fact is that when you have a certain amount of followers over so many years, you’re going to make a lot of enemies, and Twitter is extremely vulnerable to malicious activity. Honestly I’m surprised the troll factory had left me alone as long as it did.

Evading a Twitter ban for someone like me is laughably easy, given that Twitter is arguably one of the dumbest tech companies in existence. But unlike the last time I caught a 1-week temporary ban, I haven’t yet created an alternate account (at least one that I actually use). That decision is deliberate, as well, because as much as I hate to get personal on the internet, I must admit- getting banned from Twitter was the best thing that could possibly happen to me right now. 

How can I describe the feeling? I think this nails it:

shawshank

To give you an idea of how much more I accomplished when I didn’t have Hellsite distracting me, let me give you one simple example. When I was off the site for that week, I went back to this screenplay I’d been writing before I took time off from that, mostly to write a book pitch. I’d had about six pages, roughly three short scenes. I’d been meaning to get back to it after I submitted the aforementioned pitch, but I just never got around to it. Without Twitter, I end up adding another 20 pages to it, including the most crucial scenes of the first act. They unblock my account, and I got distracted again. The very next day after that, I got to page 65 and it’s in the third act. Going by the rule of thumb of one page equals roughly one minute of screen time, that’s over halfway through a feature-length film, soon to be my first completed work.

And of course that’s not all. I’ve had time to continue learning about graphic design, video production, and editing, and managed to release my longest video yet, the first using green screen effects (I realize this seems mundane to people versed in editing, but I’ve only just started studying this, totally on my own). For years I’d had this Youtube channel and done virtually nothing with it, even after things like free time and lack of a stable income were no longer issues for me. Now I’m actually doing something with it.

Lately I’ve had a lot of other ideas for videos and now, with fewer distractions, I’ll actually be able to complete them. Plus I managed to complete a lengthy theoretical article on recent events in Syria that should be published in the near future.

And that’s not all- an added bonus is that Twitter seems to have scrubbed my past tweets, which means it’s going to be a lot harder for someone to cherry-pick some out-of-context tweets from several years ago and try to pull a James Gunn on me (it helps that I didn’t make the kind of “jokes” that Gunn did).

Addiction is a strange phenomenon. A person can be addicted to nearly anything, and what has zero pull on one person might completely destroy another. I’ve never understand, for example, an alcoholic’s need to drink. I’ve tried some pretty hard drugs without feeling the slightest need to take them habitually. On the other hand, I struggled with nicotine addiction for years. Social media addiction may sound like some kind of trendy, made-up condition, but anything that releases dopamine can become addictive, and social media can certainly do just that.

Just as someone can become addicted to opioids when they a prescribed as a treatment, I believe my social media addiction was caused by certain aspects of expat life, which at times is very isolating. Even when I had a regular job it was usually about twenty hours a week, leaving a lot of free time. Starting with Facebook, social media was a vital tool to keep in touch with friends and family in the English-speaking world, and that has added value when you’re living in a place where expressing yourself in your native language isn’t always possible on a daily basis.

I think like a lot of people I came to see Facebook as basically only useful as a rolodex to keep in touch with contacts, and I was gravitating away from the platform when, in December 2014, I got on the Hellsite, i.e. Twitter. In the beginning it made sense; people were just starting to pay attention to Russia Without BS and I was getting work in journalism for it. It was great for networking, and I certainly derived some benefits from it, but the rapid feedback and frenetic nature of the site clicked with my brain in ways that I knew were not exactly healthy.

Twitter can seem like a creative outlet but in reality it’s just a crutch for doing actual work. The only people I can think of directly making money off of Twitter are grifters using premium private Twitter accounts like John Schindler or Eric Garland. If you look at where the money is when it comes to content, it’s in videos, vlogging, podcasting, and yes, even articles. Even where monetization via ads is difficult or impossible, Patreon can make these things profitable. Sure, I may have got a few patrons out of Twitter, but there was no chance of attracting masses of patrons just for tweeting every day. I’m happy that my jokes seemed to have brought joy to a lot of people, but in the back of my mind I knew that this was distracting from so much more.

I might also add that Twitter is definitely a crutch for comedy. It’s simply too easy to rattle off jokes in reaction to other tweets. Sure, they may make a lot of people laugh, but that doesn’t make you a comedian and it won’t lead to acting or writing jobs. Killing it on Twitter is like being funny among your close friends and acquaintances; to some people it just comes naturally. Real comedy takes thought; a lot of work goes into it. I naturally get all kinds of funny ideas every day, and there was a time when some of those would stick and I would go home and write a post on here about it. But a shitpost on Twitter would get a massive rapid reaction, making it feel more rewarding.

That’s not to say that Twitter was responsible for the decay of this blog. A lot of that had to do with my rapid, unplanned return to the States, my relocation across the country after that, my extremely strict fitness/martial arts regimen, researching ways to help Ukraine from overseas, and finally, this year, my general fatigue for Ukraine and Russia-related issues. By the same token, however, I cannot pretend that what little free time I had was often being eaten up by posting. If you add it up, it was still a lot of time and energy spent dunking on people who are often incredibly easy targets anyway. And I knew it was a problem. One reason I never installed the app on my phone is because I didn’t want notifications from social media annoying me all day. I tend to read a lot on my phone and I never would have read as much as I do had I been getting notifications popping up every few minutes, if not seconds.

I would advise anyone else starting to work in a creative field to be mindful of how you’re using social media. These days much of your work requires you to be at your computer with an internet connection, which means you’re often forced to work with a lot of potential distractions. There was a time for me when Twitter was something I just used to promote posts on this blog; then posting on Twitter became an end in itself. Twitter personality is not a career, period (okay Dril, maybe). I would also encourage anyone reading this who has had similar problems with social media, Twitter or otherwise to feel free to share their experience in the comments. You may help others or get help for yourself.

I realize that as I complete these new projects of mine, eventually it will become necessary to return to the Hellsite (Sorry, Jack, but there’s nothing you can do) in order to promote some of them. But the key word there is complete- I do not plan to return until I have a new body of work to promote, and all activity will be restricted to such promotion. Otherwise, that tab stays closed. Of course in the mean time any fans on Twitter are welcome to share and promote any videos they enjoy on the Youtube channel or this blog post for that matter, and I would greatly appreciate it. But I’m not starting a new account until I have real content to post. Till then, people can reach me through the contact info in the about section of this site.

Perhaps the funniest thing about all this is that it was quite possibly thanks to a pro-Kremlin troll that I was freed from something that had been holding my career back for years. And I will actually be able to benefit financially from this development, especially if that screenplay gets optioned or, inshallah, sold. I guess I should say to them, spasiba, suckers!