Tag Archives: media

Yes to Alternative Voices, No to Bullshit

I have been very open about the fact that I like the work of Matt Taibbi. For one thing, I started reading his stuff long before I even knew that he worked at The eXile. Now obviously there is a lot of problematic things with that, but since then Matt has gone on to do some genuinely great work, and he’s got a very entertaining style as well. So naturally I found this recent tweet a little odd:

Naturally, Taibbi got a lot of flak for that, largely because of who he was retweeting. Johnstone calls herself a “rogue journalist” (translation: not really a journalist at all) who has become known for lecturing the American left (she’s Australian) about how they need to work with the “anti-establishment” right to defeat the “empire” or some such Duginist bullshit. Now in all fairness to Johnstone, she claimed she wasn’t in favor of leftists working with the alt-right, but rather working with figures like Mike Cernovich, who doesn’t identify as alt-right and is often feuding with some people who do. That being said, that argument is stupid and Cernovich is a total scumbag who supports Trump, alt-right or not. Don’t take it from me though, just look at what definitely-not-a-neocon Ben Norton had to say about this:

Now back to Taibbi, who said that people should consider the argument and not who made it, i.e. Johnstone. I wholeheartedly agree- almost anyone can be right on the busted clock principle alone so let’s just leave Johnstone out of this entirely and focus on the argument itself.

First of all let’s just toss out this notion that more diversity in the “mainstream media” would “silence RT.” RT, like Sputnik, are now money making schemes for people like Margarita Simonyan and countless other people on the take. Margarita is on record comparing RT to an information weapon. According to her, it needs funding for the same reason the Ministry of Defense needs funding, to protect the privileged status of Russia’s tiny elite to “defend” against the dastardly West that hates Russia for no reason.

“The information weapon, of course, is used in critical moments, and war is always a critical moment. And it’s war. It’s a weapon like any other. Do you understand? And to say, why do we need it — it’s about the same as saying: ‘Why do we need the Ministry of Defense, if there is no war?’ –Margarita Simonyan

Now I get that the argument in question is actually implying that if people in the West see more anti-war or let’s say “anti-establishment” voices on their mainstream networks, RT’s audience will dry up and then perhaps the Russian government will start cutting its funding and maybe shutting down bureaus. I can tell you this is bullshit just based on the words of Simonyan I alluded to above.

More importantly, RT doesn’t have a massive audience or following anywhere. Plenty of people have pointed this out in the past. This is why they constantly harp on their Youtube views, despite the fact that their top hundred most-viewed videos include maybe two that have anything to do with Russian politics, and all their channels combined are dwarfed by the audience of a racist Swedish moron who screams at video games.

No, it’s not a lack of audience or ratings that would kill RT’s funding. If anything keeps it in business it’s alarmist quotes from Western leaders and think tank “information warriors” that make it out at something to be feared. RT’s editors actually collect these quotes and celebrate them, as they did in the end of a video celebrating their 10-year anniversary in 2015.

This is not to say that opening up “mainstream” media to more diverse voices, especially anti-war voices when a possible war looms on the horizon, wouldn’t reduce RT’s audience; it just wouldn’t make RT go away. Even if they were bereft of a significant audience because viewers flocked back to “mainstream media” outlets in droves to see more “anti-war” voices, the Russian government would still need to get out its message in service of its foreign policy goals.

See without outside influence, a lot of American and other Western “dissident” types would tend to ignore many issues of great importance to the Kremlin. Were it not for a major Russian propaganda offensive, very few Americans would pay any attention to Ukraine, for example, because that is simply not important to them. In order to make sure people outside of Russia believe that Ukraine is run by gay Jewish Nazis or that the Russian domestic opposition is a CIA front (controlled by gay Jewish Nazi CIA handlers), the Kremlin would need to keep broadcasting its messaging. And so they would, no matter how few people are actually watching.

But as soon as we debunk that part of the argument we get into the bigger problem- what does it mean to give a platform to “alternative views,” including antiwar views? To dissect this we need to first understand that for the left at least, we still haven’t woken up to the fact that a lot of us have been viewing global politics via the prism of 2002-2003, i.e. the invasion of Iraq, for far too long. It was in the run-up to that war that we saw what future historians ought to call The Great Failure of the American Media (specifically American media since international media, including some international versions of US networks, was often more critical or even-handed). Pretty much everyone above a certain age knows this story- in the aftermath of 9/11 news networks didn’t want to appear “unpatriotic.” Fox News was banging the drums of war as loudly as possible and other networks began tailing them. This led to such disturbing actions such as the firing of Phil Donahue from MSNBC and deliberately stacking talk shows with pro-war guests.

But while US media outlets still have their biases towards military interventions of all kinds, one can’t pretend that the political landscape in regards to war is the same as it was under Bush post-9/11, because it just plain isn’t. In the last presidential election, Hillary Clinton was smeared as the “war-mongering” candidate, while conservatives actually started criticizing the Iraq War (to be fair the far-right paleo-conservatives always did that). Sean Hannity, a man who spent years spewing white-hot vitriol at anti-war voices under Bush and on occasion even claimed Iraqi WMDs had been discovered well after the US government reported that they had not, has become Donald Trump’s biggest defender in spite of his repeated isolationist statements. In fact if we go back to 2013, when Assad’s forces first used chemical weapons on a large scale, we see that while Republicans did mostly back the idea of military intervention to punish the regime, they seemed to be mostly in favor of cruise missile strikes or the use of other weapons that wouldn’t endanger American lives. In the end Obama couldn’t find support for any real intervention and ended up making a deal with Putin that obviously didn’t work. Less than a year later, the Obama administration advised Ukraine’s new government to stand down and not resist the Russian takeover of the Crimea even when Ukrainian forces could have spoiled the annexation plan. Even as Putin expanded his aggression with a war in the Donbas, the US administration held fast to its assertion that there was no military solution to the crisis. Putin clearly didn’t see it that way.

Nowadays the situation is quite different. One day we hear Trump is talking about pulling out of Syria as fast as possible, and then a few weeks later he’s launching cruise missiles at Damascus, but very politely warning the regime’s Russian allies well in advance. Before each of Trump’s strikes on Syria (2017, 2018), much of the radical left went into Iraq-era hysterics about war-mongering, often arguing against an Iraq-like ground invasion that nobody had even seriously suggested. I’m sad to say that around the time of the most recent strikes there was a Chapo Trap House episode on the subject that made me cringe because of the bad arguments. But it’s not their problem- the whole Western left, largely because it is stuck in the Cold War, the Iraq War era, or often a combination of both, just plain sucks when it comes to foreign policy. And here’s where we get to the whole problem of having anti-war guests on mainstream outlets.

You see, back in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq this was a pretty straightforward thing. You could find highly qualified critics of the Bush administration’s case for war who weren’t even necessarily motivated by an anti-war or pacifist ideology. It was a simple matter of the administration trying to make the case that Iraq posed a credible threat to the US and its allies due to its possession of WMDs and programs to acquire bigger, more powerful WMDs, ie nuclear weapons. Many of the claims they would put forth could be roundly debunked at the time, such as the case of the aluminum tubes. Sure they could have brought on ideological opponents of the war like Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges (who by my research appeared on Charlie Rose’s program prior to the invasion), but there were plenty of guests they could have brought on to debunk administration claims based on technical expertise alone. They did not, with disastrous consequences for the whole world.

Today, however, the situation is quite different. Today many people who call themselves anti-war, be they left or right, are often cheering for or at least excusing some other war, either in Syria or somewhere else. If a self-proclaimed “anti-war” guest engages in rationalizing Bashar al Assad’s violence (arguably aggression since he started retaking territory in 2016 rather than suing for peace) or Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, how can they honestly be called anti-war? Oh sure, they’re against the wars you don’t like, but you can’t call them “anti-war.” More importantly for the network, they can’t honestly claim such a guest is anti-war.

Another problem is that in contrast to the potential anti-war guests you might have had back in 2002 and early 2003, nowadays it’s often the so-called “anti-war” guests who, like Caitlin Johnstone, traffic in conspiracy theories that are often generated by the propaganda mills of the Assad regime or their Russian allies (or worseworse). Everything is now a “false flag,” with seven or eight “alternative” explanations being generated sometimes in the space of a week. How can a media company be more ethical by inviting on a person who bases their case against military intervention on a conspiracy theory put out by some Kremlin or Syrian government source, when one can find numerous other theories of the same event, some of which contradict that guest’s particular narrative? Should they maybe bring on two such anti-war guests, one that says there was no chemical attack in Douma and another who says there was a chemical attack but it was carried out by the White Helmets, and let them duke it out on air?

See the problem is that in the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration was making extraordinary claims and failing to provide adequate evidence. As such there were a lot of legitimate anti-war guests they could have brought on. Yet I don’t know any rational opponent of the Iraq War who insists that mainstream media outlets should have brought on 9/11 truthers whose “criticism” of the administration’s case for war was that it was based on a false flag attack carried out by the government itself.

And speaking of false flags, that brings us to another problem- why stop at anti-war guests? There’s no doubt a significant portion of RT’s audience that also listens to Infowars- should mainstream media outlets be inviting Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson on more often to steal some of that demographic from the green monster in Moscow? I know what they could do- next time there’s a mass shooting (there’s possibly one happening as I write this) somewhere in the US they could do a live call with a stringer on site and Alex Jones on the other line. The local stringer can pass on the first responders’ report on the incident while Jones explains how the inter-dimensional demons engineered yet another false flag attack to justify a total gun ban that they forgot to pass after the previous 132 mass shootings in the past few years. That would definitely sap some of RT’s audience!

And you know what? A lot of neo-Nazis and other assorted fascists also apparently love RT, so you know what that means! Now we’ve got to invite more Western neo-Nazis on mainstream media outlets to sap RT’s ratings even further. Well okay, the mainstream media has kind of been doing that already, but you get the idea.

Lastly, I should point out that these days you do see more anti-war or anti-government voices on TV, just not in any way that is helpful. Take Glenn Greenwald’s numerous appearances on Fox News, for example. Should leftists all flock to Fox News? Hell they’d probably be better off sticking with RT- watching five minutes of Sean Hannity has always made me want to punch through the screen whereas Mark Sleboda is just a really silly dude* who inspired one of the greatest memes among Russia watchers.

 

In all seriousness here, we need to address a much bigger problem in media these days, one that Matt Taibbi has actually written about for quite some time now. Namely, it is the problem of media reorganizing itself to provide consumers with precisely the version of reality they prefer. Taibbi has taken this conversation a step further taken this conversation a step further by writing about how Facebook is now arguably a “de facto media regulator.” Even long before reading that article I noticed how platforms like Facebook and Youtube would recommend pages and videos, respectively, that linked to highly questionable content. And of course if you clicked on any of that, you’d get more recommendations for similar content. Whereas with Fox News you might be forced to occasionally see something that challenges your worldview, the internet gives you the ability to totally block out any contradictory information to the point where you can be confident that the Earth is actually flat, or #QAnon seems like a plausible source of information.

 

My point is simply that we may have passed a point of no return where simply improving the diversity of opinion in the mainstream media won’t improve anything. RT’s head office could get sucked into a black hole tomorrow and we’d still be just as thoroughly screwed as we have been in the past few years. If anything the problem with people tuning into RT (I have never known anyone who regularly does this) is really just a symptom of that much larger problem. If they’re going to RT to hear the latest false-flag theory about MH17 or the Skripal poisoning, we’re not going to solve anything by airing such bullshit theories on CNN. All we’d be doing is further poisoning an already extremely toxic media space.

So would more anti-war voices help anything? Sure- I’m all for it so long as the anti-war guests are legitimately anti-war, and more importantly, if their arguments are based in reality and not bullshit unfalsifiable conspiracy theories. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

So I have to say I think Taibbi really swung and missed on this issue, but I know he knows better because he’s written entire books on this kind of problem.

 

 

 

 

*A silly dude who really wants you to know he has a CRIMEAN WIFE. Never forget, you Western pig whores!

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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?

 

At the Mountains of Madness

Between the Trump campaign and Russia’s “information war” I have begun to feel like I’m stumbling around blindly in a torpor, trying to understand the grave phenomenon that seems to be unfolding before our eyes. As a history buff I’m always cautious about doom-saying and lamenting the supposed “decay” of civilization. I’m fully aware that every age had its prophets of doom who warned that their current younger generation would surely be the last, just as I am aware that on the whole, humans live longer, better, more satisfying lives than in any other period of history. On the other hand, unlike the overly-optimistic liberal establishment I am not so naive as to think that progress is an uninterrupted, irreversible process. Or to put it in layman’s terms: Yes, we can totally fuck everything up.

What phenomenon am I speaking of? Well Peter Pomerantsev calls it “post-fact.” Rather appropriate term, I think. I’ve noticed a growing trend whereby a person is presented with irrefutable evidence that something did or didn’t happen, and yet this makes literally no impact on their beliefs or behavior. Now in case this sounds normal, let me tell you now that it isn’t. There definitely seems to have been a change, a growing trend.

Take politicians’ lies, for example. It seems like in the not-too-distant past, most political lying was what they call spin, or being “economical with the truth.” This would seem logical in an era of the internet and ubiquitous recording, because if you tell an outright falsehood someone would easily catch you. Observing the Bush administration and Fox News’ antics at the time, it seemed like the trend was getting away from factual arguments and into opinion and things which couldn’t easily be disputed or verified. For example, maybe Saddam didn’t actually have WMDs, but how could you be sure he wouldn’t get them eventually? Realistically speaking that claim is highly unlikely, but virtually impossible to disprove. And as you’re trying to make the case against that unlikely hypothetical scenario, your opponent would have moved onto some other topic, such as Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds.

To be sure, this is not ideal. It was downright annoying, to say the least. But now something’s different. It’s evolved. See the politician-style rhetoric starts with a conscious realization that objective truth exists, but it might not be on your side. Therefore what you do is grease yourself down and be as slippery as possible. You know that if you get pinned down, you’ll end up saying something that is verifiable, and if someone checks you’ll be found out. This new lying isn’t even lying, insofar as those telling the lies appear to sincerely believe in them. These untruths are stated confidently, in strong declarative sentences as though they were self-evident facts. It matters not how blatantly they are contradicted by material reality. It doesn’t matter if this person is opining on a topic they’ve never even heard of until recently. Once they find the talking point that fits in with their world view, it is “fact.”

It seems I cannot stress enough how insane this is. Imagine we’re co-workers and you catch me eating your lunch in the company break room. Next to me is the paper bag you put it in. It has your name written on it, on both sides, with big black letters. You point out that it’s yours and I, still chewing part of your pretentious gourmet artisanal sandwich, confidently tell you that you are mistaken. Not only do I insist it is mine, but I begin bringing up all kinds of other topics that have nothing to do with the ownership of the food in question. “Someone once ate my lunch from the fridge! Why don’t you talk about them? Some co-workers have shared food with me in the past!” Some of these things could be facts, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the bottom line, which is that I stole your goddamned lunch. My basic line stays the same: “No, it’s not yours. It’s mine. It was always mine. Your name is not Bill. I am Bill. You are Jim.”

Or suppose we change the scenario a bit. You’re upset because you heard your significant other was making out with another co-worker at a party. I tell you that this is physically impossible, because I was at the party from beginning to end and saw neither your significant other nor the person they were supposedly flirting with. In fact, that particular person was on vacation in another country at the time. I can’t speak for the fidelity of your partner, but it is literally impossible that they did what you think. This never happened. Now one would think that, assuming you had no other reasons to suspect such behavior from your partner, at the very least you would probably rethink the dramatic confrontation you had planned for later that night. If anything, you might want to confront the person who told you that yarn in the first place. Put simply- you would modify your behavior according to the facts you have received.

If you’re a Trump supporter, Putin fanboy, conspiracy theorist, or quite possibly all three, maybe you wouldn’t. At least you wouldn’t if you applied the same approach to reality you use online and in political matters to your everyday life. I wonder how such people would react if someone sold them an obviously broken product and claimed it was functioning perfectly. I wonder because again and again I see people like this confronted with concrete facts, sometimes provided by myself, and it has no effect on them whatsoever. They just double down until you basically have to block them because they begin to look as though they’re trying to convince themselves more than anyone else. I guess it takes effort to maintain the fantasy. As one writer put it: They don’t believe in these things because they’re stupid, they become stupid because they believe in these things.

Again, someone might say, with a fair bit of evidence, that this kind of thinking has always been around. That may be the case, but I think that there might be a qualitative difference simply because we live in the information age of the internet and mass media. As others have pointed out in regards to the internet, it creates the ability to construct one’s own echo chamber. Over the years I’ve also personally witnessed another strange phenomenon, whereby people seem to be playing a sort of real-life role playing game in internet discussions. Rather than debating with other people like themselves, they apparently see their opponents as representatives of their chosen enemy. Neo-Nazis will accuse you of being a Jew. 9/11 truthers accuse you of being a government shill. Anti-GMO people say you work for Monsanto or “Big Pharma.” Kremlin supporters say you work for the CIA or State Department, and Ukrainian nationalists and cheerleaders accuse you of being a “Kremlin troll.” Nobody can simply disagree with them. Nobody could possibly have more access to the facts or expertise on the topic than them. So the only explanation must be that they are some kind of evil agent, deliberately spreading disinformation on the internet.

That, I think, is the factor that wasn’t present in past societies. Sure, there were plenty of political parties that demonized their enemies and may have offered their members some kind of adventure to spice up their dull lives, but these movements existed in the real world. You had to join them, interact with their members, learn their ideology, and engage in activism. If you were trying to recruit someone on the street and they said they weren’t quite sure about some of your claims, you couldn’t just point your finger at them and start screaming “SHILL!” The internet makes this all too possible.

In the same vein, if you joined one of these organizations in the past, you usually had to face the consequences of your actions and statements. If you engaged in long rambling speeches about things that never happened you’d be dismissed as a crank and become a public laughing stock. Or if you engaged in a public debate with someone far more knowledgeable and experienced on the topic at hand, you would be easily embarrassed. As soon as you get stumped on a few basic questions the audience would see through you, and you’d know it too.

None of this is the case online. Online you’re a revolutionary fighting for Western civilization against the “Cultural Marxist social justice warriors.” You’re an “anti-imperialist” waging war on American hegemony and globalization. You’re standing up to Putin’s “neo-Soviet Union” and his legion of “trolls,” i.e. anyone who disagrees with your claims or fails to present information that falls in line with the fantasy narrative you’ve created. It’s so much more exciting than reality!

Recently I’ve taken up reading Matt Taibbi’s book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough from what I’ve read so far. In the introduction, Taibbi speaks of millions of Americans so befuddled and burnt out by politics that they seem to check out of reality altogether and construct their own alternative realities. Against this backdrop he documents the corruption and cynicism within the US government, and while those who have checked out of politics see themselves as some kind of “resistance” to the system, in actuality their abdication of their civic responsibility means the system has even more freedom to be as corrupt as it can. As you read his words you think about how accurately this describes 2016, and then you have to remind yourself that this book was published in 2008. In other words, we’ve exceeded the level of insanity we describe.

I wish I could offer some kind of solution here, but my usual recommendations probably wouldn’t even cut it if they were implemented. What’s the use of teaching people critical thinking skills  when they’ve long since graduated school and quite possibly suspect that the very concept of critical thinking is some kind of Marxist mind-control plot? Who would the teachers be? Who’s to say they won’t claim the teachers are shills for Monsanto or the US government? What about fact-checking projects like Stopfake or Politifact? These won’t sway the alternative reality crowd one bit. The former will be labeled a US government front and the latter is probably controlled by Soros or the Illuminati.

It seems to me in the short term, the only possible solution is to just shut these people down and block them out. I’m not talking about censorship; I’m talking about individuals. In the past I’ve tended to disagree with those who say you should never debate conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, creationists, etc. I tend to disagree. These debates help sharpen one’s own knowledge and rhetorical skills, and they also show audiences that those on the side of truth can stand up to challenges. This, however, refers to actual debates- rules, standards, perhaps a moderator, and an agreement on basic facts of the matter.

Maybe the best response to bold, declarative statements devoid of any supporting evidence and arbitrary dismissals of contrary evidence is to simply say: “Sorry, but that’s incorrect,” and move on. I mean do we seriously need to sit down and “debate” as to whether or not the Earth is a flat disk? “No, the Earth is not a flat disk. No, sorry, but the sun is not a giant space-whale testicle floating in space. That’s wrong, you moron.” Or more relevant: “What’s that? You’ve never been to Russia or Ukraine and yet you’re going to lecture me on these topics and tell me what sources are reliable or unreliable because you have an internet connection?  No, sorry. You are wrong. Your opinion is frivolous and does not matter. Come back when you’ve put in the time and the work.”

Of course this only works for individuals and it is still a stop-gap. After all, the real work is for governments. Based on my own experience and what Taibbi and others have written, what I see is extreme alienation of large swathes of the population in industrialized countries. They’re suffering from things they don’t understand and can’t easily see, so they make up their own villains. This is why I keep saying that the real response to this so-called Russian “information war” must first start at home. Take care of your own people first and you will deny bad actors (including home-grown ones) from leading them astray. Whereas the Russian foreign-language media basically says “Yes, we’re bad, but everybody’s bad so don’t judge us,” the Western, especially publicly-funded media ought to be saying, “Yeah, things are really bad, here’s what you can do about it, here’s what others have done about it.” People often use fantasy as an escape from unpleasant reality, therefore we need to somehow make reality more appealing.

 

UPDATE: If you want to see an example of how unpleasant reality makes people receptive to bullshit, take a look at an excerpt from this article:

“During a discussion on the links between Brexit-backers and the Trumpian proletariat, NPR’s economics reporter Adam Davidson offered the following explanation for right-wing populism’s current appeal:

I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.
[…] The threshold for wages has gone up. There was a long period in the 20th century where, simply being willing to go to a building reliably everyday for eight hours or 12 hours and do what you’re told was worth a lot. […] And you didn’t need to read, you didn’t need to write, you didn’t need to have any kind of education. Those jobs are all but fully gone. […] So in this country, we don’t have demand for the high-school-only graduates and the high-school dropouts we have, and that’s a big population. Something like 80 million people.”

 

Margaaariiita!

Oh how we Russia watchers love RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan, the Other Iron Lady, the Gourmet. I’ve even given her a theme song, if only because this gets stuck in my head any time someone mentions that name too many times or when I order the drink.

Whenever Tungsten Maggie gives an interview you can almost set your watch to it. Today’s interview was with Financial Times. I was expecting whataboutism, and she delivered! Rick Astley would let me down before she ever does. Check it out:

“We are far less critical of western policy than western media are critical of Russia. When was the last time you read anything good about Russia? Anywhere? Name me one publication,” she says. “That’s why this cliché that Russia Today is an anti-western channel brings a smile to my face.”

HA HA HA HA! No. When it comes to criticizing government policy, RT is 100% anti-Western, almost exclusively anti-American. Take a look at their Op-Edge page some time and you’ll find article after article slamming America’s leadership, foreign and domestic policy, the supposedly monolithic “mainstream Western media,” etc. Westerners are useful to RT only insofar as they attack their own governments without ever turning the same scrutiny to the Kremlin.

Now as for Margarita’s challenge, it took me less than a minute to find not one, but two positive stories about Russia. One from Bloomberg and another from The Guardian. In fact while writing this I remembered a piece from The Daily Beast of all sources, which seems to echo Russia’s line on Syria so closely that it was actually cited by Russia Insider. In fact, my own reprinted article in The Guardian seems to have been interpreted by the Russian state media, including RT’s Russian site, as a positive piece on Russia for shattering stereotypes about the country.

Now it is true that you’re apt to see more bad news out of Russia than good from most Western publications, but there are two simple reasons for this. One reason is that even now, most Westerners, especially Americans, do not care about Russia. If I write a story about say, the wonderful benefits of Moscow’s recent craft beer revolution there’s a very limited audience there. On the other hand, if I speculate on how Trump might be a secret puppet of Putin, warn about an impending world war, or accuse Putin of destroying the liberal world order, I’m not only more likely to get published, I’ll probably be offered a staff position at a major publication.

magicmargarita

But there’s another good reason why the Western media is often hostile to Russia. Margarita might not yet be aware, but Western media publications have correspondents in Moscow who speak Russian and they have access to Russian experts. We know about how the Kremlin portrays the West as an enemy bent on taking over Russia for some idiotic reason or another. Europeans know that your domestic media is calling them limp-wristed perverts and reveling in their misfortune. Westerners know about how often Russian leaders or media personalities talk about reducing their countries to “radioactive ash” or otherwise imply that they wouldn’t hesitate to start nuclear war if they don’t get their way. They saw Russia’s tantrum when it lost Eurovision this year, and they know about the doping. We know how your leaders live in unimaginable luxury at the expense of their own people, and yet they blame all of Russia’s problems on the US State Department. We can see you. We can hear you. Now you combine that with the annexation of another country’s territory in violation of international law and several treaties signed by Russia, and a war which Russia’s leadership doesn’t have the guts to even admit after overwhelming evidence of their involvement. When you look at the big picture, is it really so hard to understand why Western media coverage of Russia tends to be negative?

But Margarita’s complaint fails on another level. Yes, Western media outlets tend to report negative news about Russia, but that’s what they do everywhere. Here’s a little trick you can try, one which apparently escapes Ms. Simonyan and the entire fanbase of RT. Using this wonderful site known as “Google,” take a major international sporting event in the past decade or so, type in its name, and add something like “problems” or “controversies.” Some of you have probably already seen examples of this regarding the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. You no doubt remember it from the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. If you focus on all these articles about problems and controversies associated with such events, you’d assume they must have been disastrous. In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, also held in Brazil, the media coverage alone would make you think that mass upheaval would take place.Some powerful favela gang leader, possibly with the assistance of a professional marketing team, promised a “World Cup of Terror” ahead of the games. It would seem the launch didn’t go so well. And in the case of Sochi, corruption was a major issue and the facilities were rife with amusing deficiencies, but it was nowhere near the disaster that some people predicted prior to the games. And here we’re only talking about sports, something that ought to be non-political.

Western media, which contrary to Margarita’s belief is not monolithic, is constantly focusing on the negative everywhere. Terrorism, violent crime, and in particular sex crimes get top billing. Look at it this way- over a period of about 30 years, a significant portion of Americans have become convinced that they live in what is rapidly deteriorating into a Third World shithole, contrary to nearly every credible statistic one can find. Where did they get that idea? Almost entirely from the American media. Forget Russophobia- Americans are far more afraid of each other than anyone else save Islamic terrorists and illegal immigrants.

Not only does the news media criticize society (often unfairly- just look at the coverage of “millennials”), but it also criticizes government policy and leaders as well. This is a key distinction between RT and the “Western media.” While RT’s news department doesn’t ignore bad news coming out of Russia, go back to that Op-Edge section and see if you can find anything seriously critical of Russia’s leadership and their policies. As I’ve noted before plenty of times, any speech by a US leader is almost instantly followed by “fact checking” articles which take apart their claims. Do we see something like this from RT after Putin’s direct line or annual press conference? Do we see RT actually investigating the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine to see if their president is lying? If you name a NATO or US action somewhere in the world, I guarantee you I will find critical voices on it from some major, trusted source. It’s simply impossible for any US effort abroad to be without some negative effect. Yet if we look at how the Russian state media relates to Putin- what a surprise! Turns out he’s the one politician in the world who actually never lies, nothing is his fault, and he’s picked on for no reason!

magicrt

And this is all without getting into the political divide in Western countries. For example, I can find all the scathing criticism I’ll ever need against Obama simply by heading over to the Fox News Channel’s website. Now at this point, an RT defender might be inclined to object. “But that’s not fair! Fox News is a conservative network, a media wing of the Republican party! Of course they would viciously attack Obama and the Democrats! They’re supporting their party. They want their party to win elections!” And my reply to that or any similar argument? Yes, exactly. As the “Western media” is almost entirely privately owned, various networks and outlets do have biases towards certain political parties. Some are comfortable admitting it as well.

It’s called diversity of opinion, and it’s proof that there is a significant difference between the two systems in question. When a US president somehow buys up all the major news outlets in America and uses ever-tightening regulations to squeeze out independent voices (including popular blogs), and when those independent outlets that remain are continually labeled treasonous and subject to harassment by unknown assailants who are never caught or punished, then we can start comparing Russia’s media to that of the US.

While certainly not the meat of the interview, it seems every story on Simonyan has to include her making highly questionable claims about the network’s exposure. This time she said this:

“RT is also proud of its presence on YouTube, where it was the first news channel to crack a billion views. “Let’s be fair, we don’t have cats and Beyoncé, but politics and news stories,”

I don’t mean to sound like a dick here, but I’m not sure many major satellite networks put as much emphasis on their Youtube channel. Whenever RT brags about their Youtube success I can’t stop thinking of Pewdiepie, the Swedish man who screams at video games and has over 46 million subscribers on his channel. Also, we’ve already established that defending RT means losing the ability to use search engines, so Alexey Kovalev did what must have been literally three seconds of “research” to discover that RT’s Youtube channel does apparently have “cats.” A lot of cats, 136 in one story in fact.

 

Now she’s absolutely right about one thing- they don’t have Beyonce. Just one clip that is six years old, apparently. That is a shockingly low amount of Beyonce. If RT was a person and Beyonce was vitamin C, the conspicuous deficiency of Beyonce would cause RT’s teeth to fall out.

I really feel like I’m going around in circles with these people. We never get anything new out of Simonyan or her boss Kiselyov because, I’m sorry to say, journalists never press them enough. Like most Kremlin supporters, these people make a priori judgments about the world in order to justify their own actions in advance. “The Western media lies and they’re not objective, so it’s okay if we lie.” Rarely do they actually put it that bluntly, but that’s the gist of it, and no one who speaks with them seems to challenge them on their assumption. I mean this is a measurable, quantifiable thing. We can count negative stories. We can look for heavily distorted or even totally concocted stories. We can look for and count the number of stories that criticize a certain leader or his policies. This is by no means entirely subjective. Even when they do manage to seize on a poorly reported story from a particular outlet, you often find that firstly, the journalist in question suffers in some way, and secondly, another media source attacks or debunks the claim. Remember that infamous story from the first Gulf War, the one where an ambassador’s daughter testified to congress about Iraqi soldiers stealing incubators from hospitals and leaving the infants to die on the floor? Guess who debunked that- the mainstream media in the form of ABC and The New York Times.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and again as long as I have to. Yes there are serious problems with our media. Yes they failed us again and again. In this post alone I pointed out how the American media has managed to convince a significant portion of the population that they are living in a rapidly declining country when in fact the opposite is true in almost every aspect. There are plenty of think tanks, independent media outlets, journalists, and academics all throughout the West (and some in Russia as well) who raise these issues and talk about solutions. One thing that definitely isn’t a solution is relying on a network whose staff believe it’s alright to lie and spread propaganda because they just arbitrarily decided that the rest of the world media does the same. Fast food may be bad for you, but the alternative isn’t eating out of the dumpster in back. Like following a healthy diet, being properly informed means going beyond headlines, looking at a diverse array of sources, learning about how the media works and how news is made, and using critical thinking. Uncritically accepting anything claiming to be non-mainstream or peddling information “they don’t want you do know” is going to the dumpster buffet.

 

 

 

How Kremlin propaganda (doesn’t) work

Many readers no doubt remember the massive volcano of buttrage that erupted in Russia after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su24 that had allegedly violated Turkey’s airspace (this turned out to be highly specious). Almost immediately thereafter, Russia’s consumer watchdogs suddenly “discovered” contamination in Turkish chicken imports. Russia’s media made even more shocking “discoveries.” For example, they suddenly found out that the Turkish government had been collaborating with ISIS, something that had been well-known in many circles for at least a year, including December of 2014 when Putin visited Turkey and announced the construction of a new gas pipeline (which promptly fell flat). Barely a month after the shoot-down Sputnik News “discovered” that there were at least 100 Turkish mercenaries fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbas. Their source? The ever trustworthy “Donetsk People’s Republic” press secretary Basurin, whose word is apparently good enough for Sputnik.

Among the many passive-aggressive means used to get revenge on Turkey was a ban on package tours to the country. For those who don’t know, along with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Turkey has long been one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians, so much so that one resort in Antalya actually as a mock-up of St. Basil’s Cathedral next to its swimming pool. In better times, such package tours were widely accessible. After a recent reconciliation of sorts between Russian fun-size dictator Putin and Turkish litigious dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the ban on package tours to Turkey was lifted.

Of course the Russian public wasn’t going to buy into this. They would not soon forget Turkey’s “stab in the back,” the latest in a series of slights and crimes dating back centuries. No, Russia’s public doesn’t trade national pride and patriotism for a cheap package tour. That’s why the bulk of Russia’s tourists chose to visit the Crimea instead…

Just kidding! Three days after the ban on Turkish package tours was been lifted, Russians made Turkey the number one Russian tourist destination.  Sales are reported to have started immediately after Putin approved the lifting of the ban. I’m sure the Turkish tourism industry is happy to take Russian money, but on the flip side it means they’ll once again have to deal with more of this:

If you don’t speak Russian, well, let’s just say the general tone of the conversation was not good.

Back to the topic at hand, I noticed some fellow writers on Twitter seemed a bit perplexed by the 180 on Turkey. One of them considered it a tribute to the Russian state media that it can apparently make people who previously loved Turkey hate it, then forgive it and fork over their money to the Turks by the wheelbarrow. While acknowledging that there is indeed a lesson about Russian media efficacy here, I must respectfully disagree. It’s not that the media manipulated Russians into thinking one way and then another, but rather Russians never fully bought into the anti-Turkish hate to begin with, or at least not enough to actually modify their behavior accordingly. That is to say that had there been no ban on Turkish package tours this whole time, Russian tourists would probably have continued to visit the country without any noticeable changes. This, in spite of what many of them might say about Turkey when asked about politics.

Supposedly a holdover from the Soviet era, many Russians have mastered the art of saying one thing and doing another. For example, you say you are a patriot and then use your state position to skim off wealth for yourself, which you then turn around and hand over to Western corporations or real estate agents. Or if you’re an ordinary person, it might mean cursing Turkey in public while taking your entire family there on a package tour. Personally I don’t buy into this being an exclusively Russian trait, but it’s just that some folks here seem to have refined it into an art form.

Another thing to consider is that when you see public outpourings of rage against a certain country or group, the participants are often paid and the event is organized by someone with ties to the state. If you’re reading Russian-language commentary on social media, there’s a chance you could be reading the words of a troll farm worker. You can certainly hear many of the media’s talking points regurgitated by people on the street, but it’s typically not as widespread as you might think it is if you were looking at the internet. The fact is that most Russians actually don’t care about politics at all. I doubt any were totally unfazed by the destruction of a Russian jet and the killing of one of its pilots, but few get upset enough to deny themselves one of the few pleasures left to many Russians today.

So when considering the role of the media in Russian society, while it certainly is true that propaganda shapes politics and public opinion, if the regime wants action from anybody it needs to pay. More importantly, one shouldn’t assume that Russians actually believe the kind of nonsense their TV puts out. If anything it’s the opposite- they don’t believe any media at all. Sometimes you’ll hear Russian media figures tacitly admit to making propaganda, but then they’ll say the “Western media” does it too. Only those Russians who can access that foreign media are able to dispute that. Overall, “you can’t really know what’s true” isn’t a great slogan to mobilize people to action, but it certainly works when you want to keep people confused, cynical, and generally non-trusting towards each other.

 

 

Blind spot

So this morning I was reading a very timely and necessary article criticizing liberal tolerance for violent fascist groups. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the debate and don’t have time to read that article right now, it goes something like this:

Fascist: “We’re going to take control of your country and then use the state to suppress people we don’t like by force.”

Radical leftist:”I’d like to see you try, punk!”

Liberal: “Both sides are wrong! There’s no difference at all!”

In case that’s not clear enough, you could phrase it as liberal tolerance for intolerance. This sounds like a joke but it’s actually a very simple concept. Tolerance means that if you’re following the law and not harming anyone, you should have all the rights and freedoms of any other citizen. But what happens when you have someone who doesn’t want to follow this simple rule? They want to place restrictions on certain groups of people based on factors that have nothing to do with their individual behavior. They want to privilege certain groups while persecuting, maybe even eliminating others. And all the while, they want to use state power, i.e. a monopoly on legal violence, to enforce this system. This is something that should not be tolerated, and nobody should feel obligated to do so.

All in all it was a good article, until I got to this point…

“The current Ukrainian government used nationalists as shock troops to depose Viktor Yanukovych.”

Uh…No. No it did not. For one thing, the current Ukrainian government didn’t exist in any form until after Viktor Yanukovych deposed himself by running away. Second, the nationalists had their own parties, both of which found themselves shut out of the government as soon as new elections were held. And lastly- radical nationalists were a minority in the Euromaidan protests, which they did not initiate. A very loud minority capable of garnering more media attention, but a minority still. And I might also note that this is phrased in a way that makes it seem as if Yanukovych hadn’t deserved being driven out of power after years of rampant theft and an attempt to severely curtail people’s civil rights.

Overall I get the point the author was going for in that paragraph (you really have to read the context), and on that point I agree- reactionary right wing politics are on the march all over the world. I don’t think the author had any intention of deliberately spreading Kremlin propaganda. I think the problem is that even after two years of being in the world spotlight, Ukraine is still a media blind spot, more obscure and inaccessible in some ways than Russia.

Russia is obscure largely due to physical accessibility (you need a visa just to visit) and the language barrier, but anyone wanting to write about Russia will find their work much easier for a number of reasons. First of all, there are plenty of Russia experts out there but few Ukraine experts. Among the latter, you’re bound to encounter a few, shall we say, eccentric academics from time to time. Russian politics, as bleak as they can be, are simplified by Putin’s dictatorial system. Russia’s ruling class is for the most part rallied around Putin, the head of the state which serves as their feeding trough for wealth. By contrast Ukraine’s ruling class is fractured into groups with competing interests. Lastly, learning the Russian language is no small feat, but there are far more resources for doing so compared to Ukrainian. Although knowing Ukrainian isn’t necessary to communicate in Ukraine if you already speak Russian, it is essential for monitoring the Ukrainian press as well as chatter on social media.

With Western media attention leaving Ukraine even as fighting continues to escalate in the Donbas, we can be sure that coverage will continue to repeat the same cliches we’ve come to know and hate over the past few years. “Ukraine is a divided country consisting of the Ukrainian-speaking West and Russian-speaking East, Ukrainians literally died to join Europe,” and so on.

Children in charge

Let’s start with a little story time. A long time ago, when I was probably about seven, I had a little spat with some of the neighbor kids that shared the same after-school babysitter. At some point I unleashed my nuclear option at the time- I flipped them the bird. The two kids immediately said that they’d tell my mother that I’d used the rude gesture when she arrived to pick me up. Yeah, pathetic little snitches, I know. Of course this was a pretty serious threat in those days so I had to come up with a plan.

The first part of the plan was a little hazy, but I think I remember trying to spot my mom’s approaching car and get into it in the driveway, hopefully avoiding the two tattle-tales. As I remember this part of the plan worked, but for some reason she actually had to go visit the babysitter’s apartment, and that’s when I needed a Plan B. With the tactical thinking of a seven-year-old Sun Tzu, I came up with a brilliant gambit. I informed my mother that these two kids, who she would probably see in the apartment, were planning to lie to her about me, claiming that I gave them the middle finger. Jimmy, you magnificent bastard!

Of course this was met with skepticism.

“Why would they tell me you flipped them off if you didn’t do that?”

“We were arguing, and then they said they’d do that,” a basic paraphrase of my defense.

“Okay but why would they say you did that?”

So. After Action Review time. Clearly the preemptive denial was a bad idea, because in the mind of an adult it’s suspicious when their child says that other children are planning to falsely accuse them of some very specific offense. A better plan probably would have been to keep my mouth shut until my mother finished whatever business she had with the babysitter. For one, the children might have given up on their snitching plans, given their typically short attention spans. But had they told, I could have just feigned exasperation at their claims, as though I had no idea what this so-called “middle finger gesture” meant. It could have failed, but it had a much better shot than my proactive course of action.

The lesson learned? If you’ve done something bad, and you know someone’s about to expose it, don’t call attention to it and deny it in advance. This only invites suspicion. Of course I learned that at the age of seven, but what happens when you have a country whose leadership displays the mental age of a seven year old? Well you get this.

If you follow Russia on Twitter, you’ve no doubt heard about Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s recent warnings about a pre-planned “information attack” that was going to be launched by the “Anglo-Saxon” media (these guys?) against Russia and in particular, president Putin. Since then there has been some speculation as to exactly what Peskov was referring to, but today we see one possible example. Reuters, which has already broken a major story about corruption and Putin’s daughters, recently published another story that deals with corruption and the president’s family.

Typically the response of any Kremlin official to any revelation of their corrupt dealings is to blame America, specifically the State Department. Investigations such as that published by Navalny about the dirty deeds of prosecutor Chaika and his son are alleged to have been “ordered from abroad,” which of course means America. Naturally nobody ever comes forward to try an debunk any of these charges, nor do they ever present evidence that people like Navalny are working in conjunction with the US State Department or intelligence services, something that should be a piece of cake for the FSB. This time, however, the game plan had changed. Peskov and some other Russian “experts” were openly predicting an “information attack” against president Putin, as though everyone in Russia doesn’t already know that there’s corruption surrounding the president. In other words: “The West is going to say a bunch of mean things about our Glorious Leader and corruption, but don’t believe him because it’s just an information attack.” It didn’t work for seven-year-old me, and it hasn’t worked for the Kremlin either.

I could just end it here, but there are a couple more examples in that TASS article which demonstrate what I mean when I say that the country is in the hands of people with the minds of children. In that article, the author makes the case for their US government-ordered “information attack” by drawing a link between the Center for Public Integrity and one of its funders, the MacArthur Foundation. In the minds of pro-Kremlin “experts,” all you need to do is find a link between one thing, another thing, and then yet another thing that has some connection to the US State Department and then- BINGO! The whole investigation is nothing but a government-sponsored information attack!

In adult land, however, it’s worth taking a look at what this mysterious Center for Public Integrity organization actually is. The Center for Public Integrity was founded by ex 60 Minutes producer Charles Lewis, and its stated mission is “to reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty by powerful public and private institutions in order to cause them to operate with honesty, integrity, accountability and to put the public interest first.” Hmmm…I don’t see anything about “fuck Russia” in there. But let’s dig deeper, starting with their home page. As of the time I was writing this, I didn’t notice any stories about Russia on the entire front page.

What are most of the stories about? The vast majority are about problems with American politics, and they certainly live up to their claims of being non-partisan. In fact, the CPI achieved fame early on for exposing the Lincoln bedroom scandal under the Clinton administration, and Bush’s insider trading in connection with Harken energy. How did I know about that, you ask? I’ve known it for years, ever since I watched this documentary that heavily features commentary from Charles Lewis and material from the CPI:

 

Yeah, there’s a real neocon film for you! That’s exactly the sort of thing the State Department would be associated with. Of course I’m just kidding. It’s obvious that this 2003 documentary, which is extremely critical of Bush’s Iraq invasion among many other US government policies, must have been nothing but an early information attack constructed by Vladimir Putin’s fledgling propaganda machine. They were just jealous because of America’s successful conquest and pacification of Iraq!

Obviously I jest, but that does seem to be the way many of these pro-Kremlin people think. Because their media system is largely a state-controlled top-down structure that sees information war and propaganda as its mission, a priori deciding that objective reality doesn’t exist, they assume, or I should say project the same idea onto the rest of the world’s media. They actually believe that journalists all around the world deliberately make up negative stories about Russia, when “negative” includes anything that contradicts the Kremlin’s narrative, and of course their editors are happy to publish those phony stories without question. Why not? This is how it works at First Channel; it must be how it works everywhere! It has to be, because otherwise feelings of guilt and uneasiness might arise. Best to believe everyone’s doing the same thing.

Let’s get one thing straight. There is bias in foreign media when it comes to Russia. If you pitch two stories to an editor, one about the vibrant new life one sees in Moscow’s new pedestrian areas and the other about some random Russian politician’s empty threats about nuking some country, we all know which one is more likely to get published. Add to this a very bizarre obsession with prostitution and mail order brides, particularly in the British press. But on the other hand, if you come to an editor and say you have a story about Russian soldiers butchering children in Donetsk, and when they ask you about your source and you reply that it’s just “some guy” but that the story should be published because it makes Russia look bad and we’re in an information war, you’ve got until the time that editor realizes you’re not joking before getting sacked. You’re done. Forever. In the Russian state media, however, this just doesn’t happen. If your story turns out to be bogus, you just shift the burden of proof to the viewers and say they must show that a certain little boy wasn’t crucified in Slovyansk.

It’s child-like thinking, and it’s just another reason why people really need not panic about this Kremlin propaganda offensive. It’s own internal contradictions essentially guarantee its demise, especially considering how much money is being spent on such an ineffective project. Any dissent within the system will almost inevitably be seen as disloyalty, and as is the case everywhere else in the power vertical, flattery and sycophancy get rewarded. The best they can do is confuse and spread cynicism, and if they’ve had any success at all it is largely due to the failure of Western governments. What sort of leaders let themselves be bested by children anyway?

Then again, maybe we got Peskov wrong all along. Maybe there is a bullshit story about Putin coming out of the West. Perhaps he was referring to this story that claims Putin is now dating Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng. But hey, if it’s true I say good for him. Deng really sticks up for her man: