Tag Archives: fake news

Role Reversal

Now that Russian propaganda and fake news has become the hot topic ever since Westerners learned it can affect their countries and not just Eastern European nations they don’t really give a fuck about, you’d think they’d take some time to strengthen their own practices in order to differentiate themselves from Russian and other state-owned propaganda outlets.

Well you’d be wrong. The New York Times, which seems to see itself as a bastion of true journalism, has elected to serve up “alternative facts” by hiring a climate change denier. Better sign up a Holocaust denier and a flat Earther to make sure we get all sides of the story, right?

And when it comes to other publications, it almost looks like they checked out the worst Russian state outlets like TV Zvezda and got jealous. Check this shit out.

dumbasses

Yes, apparently the “OK” sign is now a “white power sign” because the ADL says so. Look, as much as I loathe Cernovich (don’t really know Fairbanks but working for Sputnik is bad enough), the guy says more than enough heinous, idiotic shit on Twitter. There’s no need to imagine that he’s giving a secret white power salute. In fact, I don’t even think they were going for the “OK” sign. It looks to me more like they were trying to emulate their god-emperor Trump and his habitual hand gesture. I mean he only does it almost every goddamned time he gives a speech.

 

And it’s no secret that the particular gesture in question has become widely associated with Trump. Here’s Trump’s biggest fanboy Milo Yiannobodygivesafuck emulating his master’s mannerisms:

fuckhead2

“Wow! What a daring provocateur with such original fresh, controversial opinions and a British accent to boot! We have no choice but to fall all over ourselves to offer you free air-time and speaking engagements!” -Liberals

So uh yeah- I don’t think that’s a neo-Nazi code sign there. If only there were some other way to determine that these people are racists. Like…If they perhaps wrote their opinions on various topics and then published them somewhere for the whole world to see. Then we could bust them- preferably by giving them free media coverage with headlines like: “Meet the Fresh New Face of Ethno-nationalism.” Were it only that easy! I guess we’ll have to squint closely at their photographs and see if they’re wearing New Balance sneakers or straight-laces. But that’s why they call it investigative journalism, right?

 

An Onion of Stupid- The Philosophy of Fakes

One need not spend much time analyzing fake Russian news stories to notice that many of them were made with virtually no effort. Such fake stories are so horrendously bad that they fit the definition of “not even wrong,” which is what you call something that would require considerable improvement simply to achieve the status of “incorrect.” As such, dealing with such fakes is an exercise in philosophy. You must question and debunk every angle, and some answers only raise more questions.  To a thinking person, a fake story on this level is like an onion of stupidity; peel back one layer and there’s another below it.

As a case study let us look at a recently debunked fake story from the outlet that excels in producing effortless fakes- Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defense network. At first glance, it’s a pretty straightforward fake story. It posits that Ukraine has become so impoverished that it is threatened by mass hunger. So much so that people are actually stooping to the level of trying to steal bread crumbs from pigeons.

Let us begin with the general theme of the article, the skin of the stupid onion, if you will. We should already be suspicious about the fact that this article is about mass hunger in Ukraine. See, Russians have a habit of not caring about real mass hunger in Ukraine stretching back to tsarist times. That they are suddenly concerned now sets off alarm bells.

With that out of the way, we can get down to the juicy inner layers. Not the basic facts about the story, mind you, as StopFake has already debunked it. No, let’s ask the philosophical questions here. For example, the basis of the story is this photo of a woman who we’re supposed to believe is trying to steal breadcrumbs from a flock of pigeons. But without any context, does it not look like she is the one who is, in fact, feeding the pigeons? This is still too superficial, however, let us dig deeper.

What we need here is a thought experiment. Suppose we accept the premise that this woman is actually trying to steal crumbs from the pigeons. This one singular account is being used as proof of widespread hunger in Ukraine. But there’s a flipside the wily authors never thought of! Those crumbs did not get there by themselves; someone threw them. That means that Ukraine has at least one person so well-off that they can afford to simply throw bread away on the street. Surely if one person so hungry they need to steal from pigeons can be extrapolated as mass hunger in Ukraine, then one person who can afford to toss bread to pigeons can be similarly extrapolated to support the idea that Ukraine is full of people so wealthy that they are literally able to throw food away without care. Truly in a starving country there would be few willing to throw out still-edible bread.

So which is it? Crushing poverty and famine or middle class wealth and food waste? Truly the woman reduced to snatching crumbs from pigeons is canceled out by the person whose economic situation is good enough to allow throwing food away.

But we can go even deeper! The story goes on. In StopFake’s debunking story, we see that Russian media outlets also alleged that Ukraine is going to implement ration cards for basic food products. However, much of Russia is known to suffer from Soviet nostalgia, and the Soviet Union was forced to turn to rationing several times in its existence. During the Second World War this was quite understandable, but what about during Perestroika in the 1980’s?

Given that Russian families currently spend around 80 percent of their income on basic essentials like food, it seems like it isn’t Ukraine that needs to worry about rationing.

This is all good fun, but seriously speaking- what is the point of such blatantly fake stories? Readers who are less familiar with the Kremlin regime’s tactics and narratives might have trouble understanding why these media companies keep employing writers who put so little effort into their stories. This is what someone who cares about the concept of credibility thinks when confronted with blatantly falsified stories which are ridiculously easy to debunk. There is a strategy behind this, however.

First, one must understand that in the top levels of the Kremlin press there are people who believe that objective truth doesn’t exist. More importantly, they have convinced themselves that all media works this way, especially that media which criticizes the Kremlin or questions its claims. These people want to continually popularize that same worldview among the Russian population, hence stories like these.

It’s not that Russians actually believe these obvious fakes; they’ll often tell you they don’t. But what the Kremlin wants them to think is that all media is the same, and if the Russian state press makes up poorly veiled fake stories, then the foreign media must be doing the same thing. This process is duplicated by the Kremlin in other realms as well. For example, they do not deny that there is massive corruption in the Russian government- they just insist that it’s the same in every country. Censorship in Russia? Here’s a story about censorship somewhere in the West! The message is that free press, democracy, rule of law, etc. don’t exist anywhere.

When you look at it that way, that is when you finally peel away all the layers of the stupid onion, you begin to understand the function that even the most laughable phony story serves.

 

 

And the Hits Keep Coming

It looks like the fallout from The Washington Post’s horrible fake news story isn’t over yet. Adrian Chen, who’s done some real journalism when it comes to Russian trolling, wrote an excellent piece on the moral panic over Russian propaganda in The New Yorker. If you prefer a bit more edge, Matt Taibbi jumped in the ring to whack WaPo over the head with a folding chair. Sic semper bad journalism.

And it’s really good that this is happening too. Basically what WaPo did by citing PropOrNot as a legitimate source is akin to what Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik do all the time, although they at least tend to give you their sources’ names. But unlike RT and Sputnik, there’s actually diversity in the Western media, and so there’s been a backlash. While it still has many problems, free media is somewhat self-correcting, and it’s certainly been correcting WaPo lately.

The biggest failure in the story, of course, revolved around the shadowy group called “PropOrNot.” One thing even critics of the story seem to be unwilling to doubt is the idea that this is some kind of group, as the anonymous source himself claims. I highly doubt this. I am almost certain this is one guy, at most maybe him and a friend.

The idea that he must maintain anonymity for fear of Russian hackers is absolute bullshit. While I admittedly use a different surname, my face has been on TV, Youtube, and in publications which have published my work. Alexei “Noodle Remover” Kovalev makes no attempt at anonymity and he’s actually given public lectures in Moscow. The people behind StopFake don’t hide in the shadows. Bellingcat’s people have faced actual state-sponsored hacking attempts (this is based on notifications from Google about the attempts), but they are still using their own names and photos.

Put simply, PropOrNot has something to hide. Most likely it is the fact that it is one guy and not a group of 30 or so volunteers or whatever his ridiculous claim is. Once someone finds out it’s just one guy, they might quickly notice that he is utterly unqualified to speak about Russian propaganda or Russia in general. Then again, they might also find out that he’s actually a pro-Russian blogger deliberately attempting to embarrass the Western media. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve run ops involving ostensibly anti-Kremlin groups or individuals.

Whatever the case, the guy’s Twitter behavior should have been a major red flag for WaPo author Craig Timberg. To be fair, I write some rather over the top stuff on Twitter too, but if you check my profile it specifically says “humorist” in it. I’m also not claiming to be a group of 30-40 volunteers who scientifically analyze Russian propaganda. To sum up this point, PropOrNot is utter bullshit, and I’m sure writing that will get me added to the list in spite of the fact that this blog clearly does not fit his own stated criteria. I’ve heard he already added the Intersection Project, if that tells you anything.

So how bad is Russian propaganda, exactly? Should you be worried about it? Well I’ve designed a special test you can take to determine if you should be seriously worried about Russian propaganda. Here it goes:

STEP 1: Determine your location

Are you in Ukraine?

If the answer is “yes,” you have a good reason to be concerned about Russian propaganda.

If the answer is “no,” you probably don’t have a good reason to be overly concerned with Russian propaganda. You probably have plenty of dipshits spreading fake news in your country who have no connection with Russia whatsoever.

STEP 2: There are no other steps. You’re done.

At the end of the day, all this hysteria over Russian propaganda is essentially projection, and as others have pointed out this is very Putinist. Hillary and her supporters in the establishment expected her to win, and now that they lost they’re looking for anything and anyone they can blame. The white working class. Vote suppression (there’s some truth to this but it could have been overcome). Millennials. Putin. This is precisely what the Kremlin regime does. It tells Russians they live in a great country with strong traditional mores, but then when it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, the inconvenient phenomena or trends are blamed on the West.

It does not matter one whit that those who push these narratives claim to oppose Putin and regimes like his. If you spread the same kind of thinking, in the end you end up with more net authoritarianism, binary thinking, paranoia, distrust, cynicism, corruption, and so forth. Just look at Poland’s current government to see how “anti-Putin” and democratic are by no means synonymous.

The only way to do something about the spread of authoritarianism and “post-truth” is to turn inward and address the roots of the problem. The fault, dear readers, is not in Putin but in ourselves, that we are besieged by morons posting fake news.

Not With a Bang But a Stupid Whimper

There’s been a new development in the autopsy of the last presidential election. Apparently, viral fake news stories managed to outperform actual news stories on Facebook, leading to a public scandal for owner Mark Zuckerberg while also stimulating a discussion about social networks turning into echo chambers of misinformation. Years ago it had already been hypothesized that the internet, in spite of providing unprecedented access to information, won’t necessarily lead to a more informed public because it also gives people the ability to filter out any news that contradicts their preconceived worldview. Incidentally, that phenomenon seems to explain how I get most of my detractors. Social media, however, has added another component, because it utilizes algorithms to automatically show a user certain links based on past engagement.

No doubt many of my readers have repeatedly seen Facebook suggest pages, stories, or groups which do not interest them in the slightest. On Youtube, woe be unto the user who, possibly by accident, clicks on a conspiracy theory video or anything with the word “feminist” in the title. In the former case, your recommendations will suddenly consist of Infowars and other assorted pseudo-intellectual bullshit, and in the latter you’ll be treated to young men who have figured out the secrets of civilization by the age of 23 and have determined feminism and “political correctness” to be the bane of mankind.

The effect of all this is that even people who might not be ideologically inclined to this crap can eventually become influenced by it if it keeps coming up in their news feed day after day. This is especially true because let’s face it- most Americans and in fact most people don’t really hold coherent political beliefs. They tend to lean one way or another, but with the right message and the right delivery you can get self-described conservatives to endorse government intervention in the private sector or leftists to endorse a nationalist right wing regime. The recent presidential election is proof of the former and the common radical leftist position on Russia is evidence for the latter.

This being the case, the reader can imagine how people who don’t normally think about politics or who might be thinking about them for the first time (think teenagers, college freshmen) can be influenced over time if they are continually exposed to fake news, regardless of the political slant. A left-leaning person may reject claims about an impending crackdown on American Christians, but they might totally buy into a story about nefarious Monsanto corporation. Then come more group suggestions and story suggestions about how “Big Pharma” is poisoning us, and at some point they start seeing the inevitable memes about the Rothschilds. Another mind is lost.

guyfawkes

A pic found on Facebook- it’s the root problem encapsulated in one picture. 

It seems that America truly is becoming more like Russia, where the regime doesn’t try to convince you that it speaks the truth, but rather that you can’t know truth at all because there is no objective truth. While some have been tempted to blame the impact of fake news on Russia and their foreign-language propaganda outlets such as Sputnik or RT, the truth is that this was entirely homegrown. If anything, the Russians learned from us.

Don’t give up hope just yet. As disastrous as this election has been, it has produced some positive side effects. Igniting a discussion about fake news and how people get their information is definitely one of those silver linings. MTV may have stopped playing music videos a long time ago, but just this morning I ran across this spot-on article. Long-time Russia watchers will find some of its points very familiar. Have a look at this excerpt:

“One of the conditions of democratic resistance is having an accurate picture of what to resist. Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.”

That looks like something you’d read about Putin’s propaganda machine (or any other authoritarian regime’s media apparatus), yet I can’t find any evidence that the author, Brian Phillips, has any background in Russia or Russian politics. If that is indeed the case, it tells us that Brian understands what’s happening to America. He gets it. The more people understand what’s going on, the faster we can start working on a strategy to fight back.

Those who prefer to laugh off the phenomenon of fake viral news and “tin foil hat” conspiracy sites do so at their country’s peril. While America has no Putin-like figure who can consolidate most of the media under his control, Donald Trump has given us a taste of what an authoritarian reactionary figure can do when he’s supported by media outlets who aren’t terribly concerned about facts. What is more, Trump and his media backers are liable to introduce a form of lying common to dictatorships, with all that entails.

When we look at Hillary Clinton, Obama, or even the last Bush administration, we see politicians who told lies to varying degrees, but who also cared about the concept of credibility. Even if we take the Bush administration and its lies on the matter of Iraq, we see that those responsible for selling the war carefully limited and qualified their claims for the sake of believability. In fact, I’m quite confident that many of those who opposed the war, if they could somehow be transported into a room with Colin Powell in late 2002-early 2003, would be unable to refute many of his claims about Iraqi WMDs or ties to Al Qaeda. That is because the case for both was purposely designed to be difficult to debunk with certainty. Yet debunked the claims were, and we know this because eventually the administration was forced to admit they were incorrect.

Imagine if the Bush administration, till George’s last day in office, claimed that they’d found all kinds of chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq. Imagine they said they had concrete evidence that Bin Laden was at one point hiding in Iraq and being sheltered by Saddam Hussein. What kind of precedent would this set for future administrations? Credibility doesn’t just limit what leaders can say, it also limits what they can do. If they know that they can make up stories out of thin air, what’s to stop them from engaging in all kinds of authoritarian behavior?

Within days, Trump and his supporters have already made claims about paid protesters- every dictator’s favorite explanation for popular anti-government demonstrations. This is one of the most egregious political insults I can imagine, and I’m sure many Maidan participants know the feeling. Essentially what this claim says is that you do not actually have any beliefs or values. You don’t really care. It’s just that someone promised you twenty bucks to stand around shouting and possibly getting pepper-sprayed or even beaten by police. I realize that some of my readers are conservative types who may be propagating these claims themselves. Here’s a tip- don’t. If you can make that claim about others, they’ll eventually make that claim about you.

Last week’s election was by no means the end of the Republic. If anything it’s the beginning of a new era. Though there are obviously major challenges ahead, there are opportunities for an outcome better than anything we might be able to imagine now. If we’re going to reach that goal, we need to launch an offensive against fake news. We can no longer pretend it’s only a problem for people living under authoritarian regimes or in countries threatened by them. Americans must start taking fake news and conspiracy theories as seriously as the Ukrainians have learned to take them.

Phony news and conspiracy sites promise readers esoteric knowledge and insight. They are comforting by simplifying complex issues. They stroke the ego by allowing the believing reader to think they are more enlightened than the “sheeple.” In reality, however, these people are not only less informed, but their ability to take part in rational discussion is severely impaired. In short- fake viral news is literally making people dumber on a certain level.

When we think of technology bringing about the downfall of mankind, we typically think of nuclear weapons. Now it seems it might not be nukes, but viral memes that will be our undoing.

UPDATE: Here’s a list someone’s compiled of fake or otherwise questionable news sources. It’s supposed to be updated in the future.

As a general rule of thumb, if the news source or story features a Guy Fawkes mask, you can probably dismiss it.

 

Backfire

I’ve found that the best way to navigate the horror show that is life is to never lose your ability to laugh. Take today’s earlier post. It’s very serious subject matter. But as part of it concerns the notorious Azov battalion I couldn’t help but be reminded of another recent story, and in remembering that I noticed something rather funny that I just have to share.

As some readers already know, the Netherlands is holding a referendum on approving the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. Some consider this move highly unusual and ominous, but that’s another story. What’s important here is that after the announcement of the referendum, a fake video appeared online, disseminated by Russian sources, in which masked, armed men claiming to be members of the Azov battalion threaten acts of terrorism against the Netherlands should the Dutch people vote “no” on the referendum.

Apparently a second video was made:

Alright, the purpose of these videos seems pretty clear. Azov guys threaten the Netherlands with terrorism, and the Dutch people get insulted and decide they want nothing to do with Ukraine, thus voting “no” on the referendum by a landslide. That’s how it should work, right?

Wait a second. Just suppose for a second that Dutch people are total cowards, or at least a wide majority of them are.* After all, according to the Kremlin media isn’t the country the epitome of Gayropean tolerance, where you let Muslim migrants walk all over you in between orgiastic gay pride parades? So if this were the case, what if a majority of Dutch people were so frightened by those “Azov” men that they collectively said: “Oh dear! I don’t want to anger those guys! They might crash a truck full of horilka into Anne Frank’s house or something! I’d better vote ‘yes’ in this referendum!”

Of course if polls leaned that way, maybe the Kremlin media will have to release more “Azov” videos, in which our masked men inform the audience that they have changed their minds, they hate Europe, and the Dutch people had better vote “no” if they don’t want to be plagued with Ukrainian terrorist attacks. Of course that could backfire too, if Dutch people are not cowards but in fact really stubborn. “Threaten us? Well let’s just vote ‘yes’ and see what they do about it!”

Sure, it’s just a funny little scenario and those videos probably won’t have any bearing on the referendum, but it just goes to show how Russian propaganda messages often get so twisted that they can become garbled, incoherent, and possibly have an effect that is the opposite of the original intention.

 

*No, I’m not calling Dutch people cowards. I love Paul Verhoeven and I’ve seen Soldier of Orange twice. My favorite WWII film is still A Bridge Too Far. I know about the Anglo-Boer Wars. Take a hit off the bong and relax.