Tag Archives: media

Alexei Kovalev: Why I’ve got no love for Margarita Simonyan

 

Translated from the original by Jim Kovpak

Frequent readers have no doubt noticed my, shall we say, “special” feelings toward Russia Today (RT) and MIA Rossiya Segodnya chief editor Margarita Simonyan. I’ve decided that it’s finally time to explain them in more detail, and frankly I just wanted to get it off my chest.

First I must say thanks to Margarita. I am sincerely grateful to her, because she (or more accurately her deputy) freed me from a difficult dilemma. I could remain in a good position within my agency (I was head of a department within RIA), but under her direction- not a good trade-off. Or I could leave with pride, slamming the door on my way out.  I never had to make that choice. As soon as Margarita was firmly established as the head of a new agency (and consequently, as my boss) in early 2014, she immediately fired nearly all of the old management, including myself. To be sure we were not formally dismissed, but rather our contracts were not renewed after all RIA employees had been cut following the decision of the liquidation commission. But I’ll spare the reader the technical details.

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It all happened very calmly, prosaic even.  One day in April of 2014 I come to work in the orange newsroom on the second floor of a building on Zubovsky boulevard, and there sitting in the office of my now-former boss was one of Simonyan’s deputies. I say hello, introduce myself, explain that my contract has expired, and I ask what we’re going to do about it. They tell me there is nothing to do; they have no intention of renewing my contract. There is no other way. Thank you and goodbye. Then as is typically the case when employees are dismissed, I went through the clearance procedures, got all the necessary signatures, and received my severance compensation according to the labor code.

In short I have no claims against Margarita Simonyan or her subordinates, nor do I have any tales of personal vengeance (this does not mean however, that other ex-employees of RIA don’t, as I have heard. Perhaps I was just lucky). And dear readers, I must say I really abhor these personal attacks on Margarita, about what she eats or whom she allegedly sleeps with. What disgusts me the most are the xenophobic attacks directed against her nationality. I don’t care how much she gets paid, how she spends her personal money, or whose children she allegedly bears. And all these stupid jokes about beavers have been done to death. This beaver has become an obsession to some of you out there. I also love cooking and am no stranger to culinary experimentation. I’d try eating beaver meat and I don’t see any joke in this.

So here’s what I really don’t like and in fact despise about Margarita Simonyan- her duplicity, hypocrisy, and constant lying. Margarita is an extremely intelligent person with a well-tuned moral compass. The only pity is that she shows this in all the wrong ways. In every interview Margarita loves to lecture about journalistic ethics, addressing both her Russian colleagues and Western counterparts. The problem is that all her moral preaching would best be applied to herself. Besides that, she’s continuously lying. I’ve already written so much about that and still she continues to lie. It’s almost like some kind of disorder. Moreover I can perfectly see that Margarita or at least her employees have read all of this. Links from Noodle Remover routinely go through RT corporate email. For every post I can see where visitors are coming from.

I know that she’s lying; she knows that I know, and so on. And yet it goes on as though nothing has happened. Take any of her interviews, TV appearances, or commentary- wherever you look you’re sure to find a ton of lies so primitive that they can be easily refuted within a few minutes search on Google. Here’s a fresh example that illustrates what I’m referring to.

Margarita went on the program “The Right to Know” on TVC (aired 6 February), and at 24:48 she said the following:

“We do what is interesting for the audience. Here’s an example: when the Occupy Wall Street protest started, we were the first to tell people in the States about it. For two weeks even the key news agencies were silent about this.”

 

I honestly don’t know how she manages to pull this off every time. A simple search on Google news for the two weeks following the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in New York reveals plenty of coverage of the event from all the major US and international publications. This is directly from the first day, 17 September 2011, when the first protesters appeared in New York’s Zucotti park:

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Here we have an example from the Fox News channel, which Margarita loves to contrast to RT. There are photographs from the Associated Press:

 

occupyfox

 

Are those not “key news agencies?”

Here’s RT’s own page from the first day of Occupy. Not a word about the protests.

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And these examples were just from one broadcast. Again, we’re talking about lies which can be easily refuted by a simple internet search. Here’s something I found entertaining when I was sitting on the second floor of the building on Zubovsky boulevard and Margarita was on the fifth:

“If the US media coverage of Manning were at least 10% of their coverage about our Pussy Riot, I’d believe in democracy.”

“Margarita, you can’t do anything without this, can you? NYT: Bradley Manning: 3,520 results. Pussy Riot: 2,170 Results.”

 

“A British blog has published research on why RT is beating the BBC. I will tweet a few quotes.”

“Here’s the BBC’s coverage from the first day of Occupy London. Who beat whom?”

You get the idea. I have a whole collection of these. It all ended when she blocked me on Twitter (and then fired me- ha ha!).

banned

Then there was the time when Margarita wrote a column complaining about the British communications regulator Ofcom:

ofcom

“There are direct threats to revoke our license. Recently we have had nine warnings from the British media regulator. They do not like us at all. I would understand if they found we had broadcast actual lies, incorrect facts, or something concretely wrong. But they didn’t find any of that. Indeed they don’t have to. It’s enough for them to accuse us of lacking objectivity. For example, in the case of Ukraine, from Ofcom’s point of view our television channel “did not adequately reflect the position of the provisional government in Ukraine.” Or in the case with our coverage of Libya, there was an accusation that NATO’s point of view was not presented. As if the BBC ever “adequately reflects” the Kremlin’s point of view on anything.”

“I would understand if they found we had broadcast actual lies, incorrect facts, or something concretely wrong. But they didn’t find any of that.” What do you take us for, Margarita? Not only did they find brazen lies, but there was even the modern blood libel of the so-called “crucified boy.” RT itself admitted as much when they deleted the episode of Truthseeker which contained the story from their site. Here is the relevant quote from the Ofcom newsletter, in which the claims against this (and several other episodes) can be found, along with RT’s reaction.

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“Horrific and wild claims” – this, among other things, and the title “Eyewitnesses: KIEV ARMY LITERALLY crucify babies in captured towns and forced their mother to watch” (i.e. the very same “crucified boy” story from First Channel).

truthseeker

 Caught in a lie, they were made to remove it and ordered to issue an on-air retraction. They still haven’t done the latter, meaning that Ofcom’s complaints have the status of “upheld,” meaning they are still active. This, according to Margarita, means that the British regulator just “doesn’t like” RT at all.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that RT lied, Margarita went and lied to RBK about the incident in an interview, where she claimed the story had never been aired.

Interviewer- How does the situation with the sanctions and Ukraine influence the development of RT and Rossiya Segodnya?

Simonyan- On the whole, the situation in the mass media does influence our development. I don’t need to mention, perhaps, the fact that there isn’t one significant Western media outlet that hasn’t written us off as scoundrels. Anyone writes anything about us, and then it goes down in print and the rest reprint it. The biggest problem is that 99% of the mass media lies. For example, Anne Applebaum wrote about RT and said that this is the mass media that aired the story about the crucified boy. But we didn’t have any crucified boy!

Margarita loves to attack the “mainstream media,” hypocritically accusing them of lying. Her favorite example is the story of how the New York Times actually provoked the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This story was based on the fact that in 2002-2003 the paper put out a lot of material which supported the claim that Saddam Hussein had a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. These articles were later cited by Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice as a casus belli for the invasion, yet it was later revealed that much of this material had come from unreliable sources- for example, the biased founder of the anti-Hussein Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi.

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What Margarita is silent about is the fact that the New York Times has admitted their mistakes in this matter numerous times (on their site there is a whole section dedicated to refuting their earlier articles about Iraq), the reporter who wrote those articles was fired after the scandal in spite of the fact that she was a Pulitzer prize laureate, and still the New York Times’ general reputation was irreparably harmed by the incident. And what about RT and the “crucified boy?”  Simonyan is simply lying, and the host of the Truthseeker program, Daniel Bushell, is still quietly working at RT.

In principle, a pathologically lying journalist is not a unique phenomenon. We’ve encountered them long before Margarita came along. There are several famous, or infamous stories such as that of Jayson Blair, a reporter for the New York Times, and Stephen Glass from The New Republic, who began with inventing small details and then ended up fabricating entire stories and interviews with non-existent people. If you watched the acclaimed TV series The Wire, you might remember that we meet such a character in the final season. The collective image of the reporter is that he is a resourceful liar.

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The Wire, HBO

The moral of that story, of course, is that such cases represent a pathology, and they are used as a negative example of how not to be a reporter. And of course in the history of journalism there doesn’t seem to be a single known case where a pathological liar was the head of a country’s largest news outlet.

This is the most horrific thing about this situation. RIA used to have a reputation not only in Russia or the Soviet Union, but in fact the whole world, for being one of the most reliable sources of information. This reputation was built up over a whole decade. Then Margarita, a pathological liar, came to RIA and it began to assault audiences with the most outlandish, primitive nonsense, “hanging noodles on your ears” as the Russian colloquialism goes. The problem is that RIA is not only the main source of information for its own audience, but also for other publications as well. If RIA publishes something, then it’s true, and one can publish their own news citing them as the source. The main news service of a country couldn’t be lying, could they? Oh wait…

***

Here’s another example of duplicity- Margarita simply idolized Julian Assange. She calls him her friend, he had his own TV show on RT, and almost every day the channel reports on virtually every step taken by this courageous fighter against the American intelligence community in the name of freedom of information. It leads to curiosities such as this:

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“A crowd waits for Julian Assange to emerge from the Ecuadorian embassy in London”

The tweet with this photo and the headline about the “crowd” was later removed, but the message was clear- Assange is a hero if not an idol. However, if Assange were just an ordinary employee of RT and not a star personality and a personal friend of the chief editor, and he had tried to tell the world what goes on behind the scenes at the TV network, he would have received the following letter from the management:

letter

“Colleagues!                                    

I want to direct your attention to the mandatory rules of proper behavior on social media. I remind you that every one of us has signed a labor contract and a confidentiality agreement. In accordance with both of these you do not have the right to distribute or discuss information about your work with the channel or co-workers in open sources during the time you are employed by the channel and for the three years after you leave. Any social network, regardless of the type of account (e.g. one with highly restricted access), is considered to be an open source.

We have been forced to enact such policies after numerous occasions when posts from employees were used by malicious people in order to spread lies about RT and those who work there.”

 

All employees at RT are forced to sign something called the “non-disparagement agreement.” This means that they are not only obligated to refrain from discussing the channel while they work there, but up to three years after they leave. It’s interesting to think about what Julian Assange would have to say about this. And there is something to talk about. Paranoia reigns at RT, where denouncing and intimidating dissidents is encouraged. This is what I’ve been told by one of a few former employees who spoke to me on the condition that they remain anonymous:

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“The silence is easy to explain. Employees who write about forbidden topics, even under invented names, are later called in for a discussion about values. I personally know one of these people. Margarita Simonyan loves Assange, who sits in London and slings mud at America, scoring points for RT. But she does not tolerate Assanges in her ranks. So you must understand that you are talking to people that have the basement of the Lyubyanka looming before them.”

Julian Assange, who regularly appears on the channel, might be curious to find out that Russia Today is one of the most opaque media outlets in the world. The fact is that most of the state media in Russia, such as “MIA Rossiya Segodnya,” VGTRK, and others are legally classified as Federal State Unitary Enterprises (FGUP in Russian). Therefore they regularly complete and detailed accounts on their activities. All this data is publicly available- you can find out how they spend each and every kopek they get from the Ministry of Finance under the heading “Mass Media.”

Russia Today is a different case. The owner of RT is an ANO, “Autonomous Non-commercial Organization” i.e. a non-profit or charitable organization, called TV-Novosti (news). Here’s what kind of subsidies the richest non-profit organization in Russia receives:

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Where any of this money goes is utterly incomprehensible. How much, for example, was spent on the luxurious RT office in London, the one with a view of Big Ben? Nobody knows. But these are our taxes. After much head-butting against the Ministry of Justice, to whom all Russian non-profit organizations including TV-Novosti must report, lawyers from “Team 29” managed to get some kind of report from RT, but it looks like some kind of ambiguous mockery. The report on the expenditure of 11 billion rubles is just one page with two lines:

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1.1.1 Founding and broadcasting for television channels in English, Arabic, and Spanish. 1.1.2 Founding and broadcasting of a television channel in the French language

Such a report to the Ministry of Finance from any other non-profit organization in Russia would have earned them a fine, but Margarita got away with it. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars which belong to us are cast into a bottomless pit which requires more and more. Margarita constantly moans about how most of her expenses are in foreign currency, and the dollar is growing so please give more. But what she does with that money she does not want to tell us for some reason. If only some story about some shadowy Israeli attorney and millions of dollars deposited in Luxemburg bank accounts would leak out. If only there were some Assange or Snowden to tell us the whole story. But Assange is a hero only on the air at RT, and behind the scenes of the network Margarita wages a ruthless struggle against Assanges.

***

This is why I don’t like Margarita Simonyan. It was not because she fired me; as I mentioned in the beginning I was actually grateful to her for that. It is because she is a pathologically lying, dishonest, and duplicitous person who is a disgrace to the profession of journalism and who is destroying the once-great reputation of the best news organization for which I was proud to work.

About the author- Alexei Kovalev was head of InoSMI for RIA-Novosti before the latter was liquidated in 2014. He currently heads up the project Noodle Remover, which scrutinizes propaganda and bad journalistic practices in the Russian media. 

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Karma

Did you hear about the fanatical woman who decapitated a four year old? No, no, not in Ukraine! In Moscow. Yes, this actually happened, and it is every bit as horrifying as it sounds. Of course if it had happened in Ukraine, the Russian state media would be all over it. Hell, they’d be all over the story if it never actually took place outside the imagination of some random “Donetsk People’s Republic” official’s imagination. But although Russian state media often isn’t shy about sensational crime stories, they were silent on this one yesterday.

This morning an explanation has emerged as to why the state news agencies kept silent about the barbaric crime of this obviously deranged individual. According to RBK, one motivating factor for not airing the story was the fear inciting ethnic hatred among the viewers, as the woman in question was a hired nanny from Uzbekistan. Now that brings up a few interesting points.

First of all, the Russian media was more than happy to not only stir up ethnic hatred towards migrants, but to do so with a completely fabricated story- so long as this was done outside of Russia’s borders. For those not in the know I am of course referring to the story of Liza, a 13-year-old Russian-speaking girl living in Berlin. As their story lacked any evidence, a major component of the narrative was that the Berlin authorities were deliberately engaged in a cover-up for the sake of deterring racist reactions.

Second, in a way the Russian state media chiefs are rightly concerned about how the story will be received, but for a horrible reason. Some of them must be conscious of the fact that their own media has for years slandered Europe using racist themes, specifically those about hordes of Muslim immigrants displacing and dominating the native population. They might also realize that they have promoted the most primitive worldview, whereby any misdeed by one member of a large group justifies hatred, even violence, towards any other member of that group. We’ve seen this in action in recent times, when Turkish citizens working in Russia suddenly reaped a wave of harassment just because their government shot down a Russian plane which was taking part in a foreign war. Years ago, race riots in Moscow and other parts of Russia typically followed an alleged crime committed by a non-Russian, typically a Caucasian. All Caucasians are expected to answer for the crime of any Caucasian. It’s idiotic in the extreme, but the Russian media played a role in stoking such tribal concepts.

The sad thing is that authorities actually help fuel racism by not publicizing stories like this and making sure everyone knows the circumstances and details. While the Russian state media didn’t report on the killing, it was all over Russian Twitter, and no doubt on VK and other Russian social networks as well. People with ideological motivations also tend to use the internet, so rest assured plenty of people saw what happened. When it comes to far-right, racist narratives, attempts to suppress facts relating to nationality are perceived as a deliberate cover-up by the authorities. This is by no means unique to Russia; authorities in several European countries have had policies about not releasing ethnic or religious details about suspects out of fear of stoking the far right. The problem is that the far right inevitably finds out, often invents their own details, and then uses the “cover-up” as proof that they are being persecuted.

The cat’s out of the bag, whether the Russian state media acknowledges it or not. I’m sure they’ll report on it eventually, assuming they haven’t already started as I write this, but I’m quite certain that they’re all secretly wishing this had happened in Ukraine instead of Moscow.

Yup, they mad: Russian foreign language media can’t take the heat

RT has been feeling the heat as of late, from critics in the West to Russians fed up with seeing so much of their state’s wealth pissed away on propaganda aimed at foreigners. The response to these critics has come largely in the form of anonymous hit pieces on RT’s website, as well as from RT chief Margarita Simonyan herself on her Livejournal account.

I’ve read plenty of these responses and they’re typically filled with bizarre logic, unsubstantiated claims, and insinuations about the motives of their critics. Personally I’ve found RT’s reactions to be rather amusing because they present a paradox- RT is supposed to be so successful, yet it has to constantly run articles about how popular it is, while its staff, including senior people and even the network’s own chief apparently spend considerable time attacking critics.

Imagine, if you will, that this entire blog was about how much CNN sucks. I highly doubt anyone from CNN would post a special op-ed on their website attempting to refute my claims. I’m quite certain the head of the network wouldn’t bother. I’m damned sure they wouldn’t attempt to smear me as some kind of paid agent, perhaps working for MSNBC. Naturally this is quite laughable, because big successful networks, even those which suck like CNN, don’t feel the need to defend themselves against such criticism.

Now lately I’ve been thinking of making a rule, more accurately a hierarchy, which describes the quality of Russian foreign language media. It goes RT>Sputnik>Russia Insider. And now days, if RT does something stupid, Sputnik’s going to lower the bar considerably. And that’s exactly what they did in this article.

In case you hadn’t heard, or in case you just don’t use Twitter, there was a parody account based on Sputnik that became famous for being near-indistinguishable from the real thing. If you want to see how indistinguishable, try your hand at this quiz. Recently the parody account was shut down for violating certain regulations in Twitter’s Terms of Service agreement, but it was quickly resurrected under a different name.

So what did the real Sputnik do? Well Sputnik is just so successful and widespread that they just had to dedicate an entire article to the parody account, claiming that it is proof of Sputnik’s popularity. This was a real genius move, as it duly informed otherwise unaware readers that there was a parody account. That in turn begs the question as to why there is a parody account in the first place. But that parody account was shut down and the article mentions this, right? Yeah, and it also mentions that it was restored. Just look at this:

“In what could be testament to the growing popularity of this website, Sputnik nevertheless attracted not one, but several parody accounts.
Unfortunately for the people running it, the account violated Twitter’s impersonation guidelines and was deleted, although a new one soon popped up.”

Hmmm…Your serious news site has, according to you, several parody accounts, one of which was so similar it was taken down for “impersonation.” So yeah, that could be a testament to the growing popularity of your website. But it could also be that your content is so redonkulously batshit insane that numerous individuals derive great entertainment out of satirizing it. Again, it begs the question as to why this site has so many parody accounts and why are they often difficult to distinguish from the real thing?

It gets even better though. Sputnicians vow to get to the bottom of this:

“Out of genuine curiosity, we here at Sputnik decided to carry out one of those “open source investigations” employing “digital forensics” to find out, with varying degrees of certainty, who is behind the account.”

Yes, the super popular serious news site conducted an “open source investigation” into the people behind these parody accounts. In other words, they’re doing the same thing they claim is utter bullshit when Bellingcat does it. But then again, they’re not really using the methodology of Bellingcat, which becomes apparent when you see the results they came up with.

“The preliminary results turned out to be pretty uninteresting: an American expatriate in Kiev, who also has some sort of vendetta against Russia’s president; a Finnish systems administrator, who has too much free time at the community college where he is employed; a Russian blogger, who in the recent past was involved in the killing and dismemberment of cats.”

An American expat in Kyiv with a “vendetta against Russia’s president.” I don’t know who this could be, but leave it to Sputnik to call criticism of their glorious leader a “some sort of vendetta.”

Next there’s the systems administrator who “has too much free time on his hands.” First of all, he’s a systems administrator, so the fact that he has time to tweet stuff from work shouldn’t be too surprising. Also it’s a little rich accusing him of having too much free time when these people are claiming they did an actual investigation into the people behind a Twitter account. Maybe they ought to be sending out some people to run down the story behind that hand grenade attack (originally thought to be an IED) at a bus stop on Pokrovka last night.

Lastly I don’t know about the cat-killing Russian blogger, but since no names are given for anyone and only the slightest details appear, we can’t really trust that bizarre claim. If the guy actually killed and dismembered cats I’ll be the first to condemn him, but as it is this just isn’t convincing.

And so those are the results of their big investigation. The article ends with the typical RT-style gloating and obliviousness to irony.

“It may seem like a worthwhile pursuit for three strangers, bored on the Internet, to entertain pundits, in essence becoming a second-rate version of them. Let’s hope that they learn the rules on trademarks and impersonation, or at least gain aspirations to go beyond small-time Internet fame.”

Once again, Sputnik is so successful, unlike these dorks with too much free time on their hands, that it must do an investigation, write and copy edit an article, all in order to not really expose three people who might be behind a Twitter parody account. Not website mind you, Twitter account.

This is all pretty funny because unlike RT, Sputnik doesn’t really have as much reason to panic and defend itself with bizarre polemics and hit pieces. RT has suffered budget cuts and scrutiny over its performance and expenditures. Sputnik on the other hand received an increase in funds. Sputnik is far cheaper than RT as well. Dumping RT entirely would save the Russian government massive amounts of money, and Sputnik would be more or less just as effective. RT’s responses to critics are stupid and often inaccurate, but it’s logical as to why they engage in these tactics. They are indeed exaggerating their popularity and they require a massive budget. What is more, RT’s responses aren’t aimed at parodies but rather serious pundits, analysts, and journalists. The information war narrative remains intact.

Parody is another matter however. The fact that Sputnik found this matter so important as to write an article about it, risking the inevitable discovery of its parody accounts, is because parody and satire are extremely effective. Before I explain why, let’s look at what isn’t effective.

Remember how we heard about the “weaponization of information” and how the EU countries needed countermeasures? There were numerous conferences, meetings, and lectures on this topic. The EU’s solution was to create a sort of “mythbusters” outlet that would debunk Russian propaganda sources. Now this thing actually exists, and here’s what it looks like. Wow.

I found some interesting resources in this and previous releases, but that’s me, a writer, long-term resident in Russia, in short, someone who deals with this kind of crap on a near-daily basis. If you’re a layperson or new to the game, it seems this wouldn’t be very informative. And if this is supposed to convince Russians living in Baltic countries as one of the stated goals was, forget about it. Comments like “No evidence for these allegations given” aren’t going to convince any of them.

The infuriating thing is that this project must cost money, and I shudder to think how much was spent on it. Compare these reports to Stopfake, which survives off grants and consists of about a dozen or so people. Which would you rather read? Which is going to give you more context and background? Stopfake shows what self-organizing people can do on their own initiative.

Just as Stopfake is more effective than dry, state produced reports and documents, parody is effective because it totally deflates the Russian propaganda machine, any propaganda machine really. Already some Russian foreign language media outlets have hurled themselves across the line into self-parody. Russia Insider, for example, did it with this gem about Putin’s Christ like qualities.  RT did it by publishing articles from that very same author, as well as whatever the hell this is supposed to be. Sputnik’s people must have been rightly scared at the idea that their brand was becoming indistinguishable from a parody account. What if someone more educated on Russian propaganda and the Kremlin’s political ideology were to create another parody? What if dozens of such people did?

RT, Sputnik, and the rest are very effective at attracting disaffected Westerners who don’t know much about Russia, its system, or its media. Russia’s propaganda machine paints itself as a voice of truth, a revolutionary voice against Western hegemony. Yet this image is as shallow as a teenager wearing a Che shirt and having no idea who he is. What is more, these people might have their convictions, but when they see that the Russian outlets are all followed by clusters of parody Twitter accounts or websites they’re going to start wondering how trustworthy these sources are. People don’t want to look stupid and thus they’ll be less inclined to associate with sources whose content is routinely mocked.

Panicky speeches about the “weaponization of information” and “information war” in conjunction with “hybrid warfare” only help people behind the Kremlin’s media. If they can show Western academics and leaders in hysterics over the information war, this not only confirms that the information war is a real, objective fact, and that the Russian efforts in information warfare are effective and thus worthy of their inflated budgets. On the other hand, if the Kremlin wants to see results and those results are laughter and mockery, the higher ups might be more than happy to pull the plug on an expensive budget item. Domestic propaganda in Russia is crucial, but foreign language propaganda is expendable.

So don’t panic. Point and laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The leg work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distractions

Recently I was thinking about how folks love talking about how the media “distracts” us with celebrity gossip and sports while not reporting on major issues. In a way, that is true. Of course many times if you ask why this is, the real reason is monetary. The fact is that the media puts this out there because people watch it, and people watching things is how they make their money. What is more, hard-hitting news is likely to contradict someone’s worldview, thus turning them off and ensuring that they won’t go to that source for news anymore.

Seeing as how many of the people who make this criticism of media tend to be a bit more politically radical, however, I sometimes wonder if they are guilty of indulging in another form of sensationalist, frivolous, and ultimately distracting news. Let’s start big, with Alex Jones. Here he is screaming about how the media distracts us with Justin Bieber.

Sure, celebrity gossip, entertainment news, and sports are not serious issues and people should try to avoid spending undue amounts of attention on any of them, but who is Alex Jones to judge here? Alex Jones distracts the populace by talking about serious issues and distorting them into idiotic conspiracy theories. At other times he talks about issues that don’t even exist. What is worse than with the mainstream media and their celebrity gossip, Jones is telling his audience that they are informed, in fact more informed than the rest of the populace. Jones’ conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve actually distract people from learning about how the Federal Reserve and monetary policy actually work. Conspiracy theories about 9/11 don’t teach people about decades of shortsighted American foreign policy and the various ideological struggles in the Middle East. While people are busy “prepping” for the upcoming economic collapse/FEMA concentration camp roundup, they are ignoring all kinds of real issues they could actually have an impact on if they took the time to find out what they can do and went out and did something. They could do this, but instead a few of them will occasionally attend unrelated protests with signs reading “INVESTIGATE 9/11” or they will stump for Ron Paul. The vast majority of Alex Jones fans don’t do jack.

Of course the American mainstream media is more selective in its conspiracy theories. Aside from those you will see on Fox, most of the conspiracy theories you see will appear on supposedly “educational” channels like the History Channel. These American networks can’t risk alienating viewers with 9/11 conspiracies, but a lot of other things are fair game, from Nostradamus predictions to Templar-linked secret societies.

Russia Today, of course, isn’t necessarily bound by the same concerns as American media corporations. The conspiracy theories you see peddled on RT are but a small fraction of those which appear on Russia’s domestic TV channels, but despite this one can’t help but notice that many of the “alternative” viewpoints or conspiracy theories on RT aren’t necessarily related to Russia’s foreign policy goals. This is the case with domestic Russian TV as well; it’s not all political. Why is this the case?

My guess is that conspiracy theories, paranormal stories, and pseudoscience are basically just an equivalent to celebrity gossip and sports. If you aren’t into the latter, the former will get you. Of course unlike sports and entertainment, these materials serve another purpose- they break down critical thinking abilities. Like RT says, question more. But it doesn’t necessarily mean challenge things critically. I like to interpret it as “question reality.” As myself and others have pointed out before, Russian propaganda isn’t about getting you to believe a different viewpoint, but rather it is about destroying the very idea that any viewpoint could possibly be right.

Clearly the men who devised this kind of strategy consider themselves to be very clever. Indeed various Russia-watchers seem to stand in awe of their “information warfare.” I’m not going to doubt its efficacy, at least at the moment, but in the long run it will fail. Russia’s war on reality won’t simply lead to its downfall, but it will prevent it from creating a coherent political, cultural, and social system for quite some time. Like the child who keeps lying about their schoolwork, that report card is still coming.

In the mean time, I suggest people stop looking at chemtrails, fed conspiracy theories, or 9/11 “truth” as being anything significantly different from celebrity gossip or major league sports. And to the latter’s credit, at least it doesn’t break down your critical thinking skills and make you think you have superior knowledge to everyone else. Ultimately, you’d be better off watching the news about Justin Bieber than taking people like Alex Jones or networks like RT seriously.

On Deaf Ears: The Wasted Potential of Russia Today

Finally I have had the time to write my response to Peter Pomerantsev’s article in The Atlantic, entitled “Russia and the Menace of Unreality.” The author examines the nature of Russia’s new media, and how there is no longer any concern whatsoever as to the credibility of their coverage. Russian media, particularly that aimed at foreign audiences, isn’t concerned so much with presenting an alternative point of view, but rather a myriad of different points of view until the waters are sufficiently muddied. Instead of presenting a lie as truth, the strategy seems to be to make truth unknowable by bombarding audiences with multiple, sometimes mutually exclusive theories or claims.

The downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine was a perfect example of this. RT and other Russian media sources posited numerous different explanations of the event, including:

-The first claim, that Ukrainians shot down the plane believing it to be that of Vladimir Putin. Of course no evidence was presented to support this theory and it was quickly taken down.

-Another claim, from the Russian defense ministry, alleging that a Ukrainian military plane shot the airliner down. Oddly enough, they claimed that the plane in question was a SU-25, a ground attack aircraft and not an interceptor. Why any military aircraft would have been sent to intercept a plane which had spent some time in Ukrainian airspace and flew in from the West was never really dealt with.

-A claim that the airliner was indeed shot down by a Buk SAM system, but that it was the Ukrainian army’s SAM and not that of the rebels.

-A claim which admits that the rebels shot down the plane, but only because it was being escorted by Ukrainian fighter planes, implying that they thought it was a military flight.

All of this serves to distract from key questions such as how the rebels managed to get their hands on this system and operate it in the first place. If they did have the know-how to properly operate it, it suggests Russian military involvement. If not, then they were negligent.  Even if we accepted the unlikely idea that the Ukrainian military downed the plane, this would not change the fact that the rebels were responsible due to a conflict they started and continued even after the first cease fire and the offer of peace talks which went unanswered.

So it is with Russian media. Rather than actually present some coherent, alternative message, the new direction seems to be aimed at merely confusing every new story until nobody has a clue what is going on.  If Russia is called out for wrongdoing and they can’t concoct any conspiracy theories to explain the accusations away, the response is typically whataboutism- not because the Russian government is terribly concerned about the rights of people living in Detroit or Ferguson, but simply because they trying to say, “Yes, we are bad, but everyone else is bad too, so we should all just mind our own business and continue being bad.”

Of course the obvious parallel to RT, in the US at least, would be Fox News, but this is somewhat inaccurate. First of all, while Fox is known for neck-breaking political line shifts from time to time, the overall message is pretty much always consistent. Fox is a conservative network. It champions supply-side economics, deregulation, and neo-liberalism by gift-wrapping these concepts in patriotism, nostalgia, “family values,” and other trappings of American conservatism. How radical Fox News can be seems to be based on the party of the administration in the White House, but there has always been limits for Fox. The network will only follow libertarian populism so far. Its pundits have publicly repudiated birtherism.  Fox News promotes a sort of worldview which is, while invincibly stupid, quite simple and coherent. It generally consists of the following concepts:

-Liberals are destroying America and undermining its values.

-Religion, particularly Christianity, is under attack by secular humanists.

-The world is full of evil people who are trying to kill you, rape you, or possibly invite your daughter to a rainbow party.

-Look at this outrageous act that some liberal did!

-Certain people(wink, wink) are trying to cheat you by leeching off welfare. Also they like to play the knockout game.

-Guns are awesome and owning them makes you manly.

-MUSLIMS! OH NO!

I could go on, but by this point you could probably fill in the blanks yourself at this point.  Sure, Fox can be contradictory. When Bush was president we were told it was wrong, if not treasonous, to criticize the president during wartime. It was wrong to question the expansion of government surveillance; if you had nothing to hide there was no reason to worry. And anti-war protesters were limp-wristed cowards who wanted to see our troops lose. Then Obama was elected and the line reversed. It was patriotic to criticize the president. We were only a few precarious steps away from a full-on dystopian tyranny. And the pencil-neck hippies of the Bush years suddenly transformed into goose-stepping union “thugs” who were poised to form Obama’s new paramilitary force, designed specifically to root out Christians and strip them of their firearms.  Contradictory, indeed, but look closely. Positions shifted, but the general line is intact. Conservatives are under siege by godless liberals and their Muslim allies. They went from defense of Bush’s administration to an offense against that of Obama, but the narrative remains consistent.

Not so with Russia Today. RT’s line often varies from story to story. There is only one consistent feature. Everything is anti-Western. Whereas Fox News at least claims to stand for something, RT and much of Russia’s media, if not the Russian state itself, can only present itself as standing against things. None of these institutions actually stands for anything. Even when its ideologues babble on about “Russian civilization” or the “Russian world,” the words have no meaning. A few years ago it was “Eurasia” or “Russia’s special unique path.” Whatever the words, it’s always the same. They all boil down to being “anti-something;” it’s never about what Russia actually should be, but rather what it shouldn’t be. When you take that message to foreign audiences, you are setting yourself up for problems. This is particularly so in Russia’s case, where the type of propaganda which is needed to woo Russian citizens tends to clash ideologically with RT’s main foreign audience.

It’s no secret that RT mainly appeals to conspiracy theorists, right wing populists, neo-Nazis, fascists, and terribly confused leftists. Each of these groups sees in Russia some kind of champion for their cause against their own government, which they hate. From RT’s point of view, as well as those in the state who hold the purse strings, this seems like success. Nobody can deny the success of the network in terms of exposure, ratings, views, and followers. But as is the case with so many Russian government ventures, short term, low-value gains are favored over real substance. In other words, RT sets the bar low to attract masses of people who are largely useless to Russia’s interests, while simultaneously turning off anyone in the West who could exert influence on their governments in a manner more conducive to the interests of Russia.

RT’s main audience is numerous indeed, but largely ineffective, marginal in their own society, self-defeating, self-isolating, and ultimately impotent. On the internet, these people tend to be extremely vocal and active, creating the idea that there are masses of fed up Americans, Canadians, and Europeans who will at some point exert pressure on their governments. It has been theorized that some ideologues in Kremlin circles believe that they can create enough dissent in Western countries so as to bring down governments or at least highly cripple them and prevent them from blocking any sort of Eurasian ambitions of Russia. If they indeed believe this, they are at best naive, and at worst totally delusional.  For as loud as those “dissidents” are on the internet, I can say from experience that the vast majority of them are totally worthless from a political point of view. Think about it- If someone has thousands of posts and comments on multiple forums, often carrying on endless debates and arguments with random people from around the world, how much time do you think that leaves for real world activism. HINT: None.

Most of these people don’t get out in the streets, and they often have a myriad of excuses as to why. If they do anything in the real world, it usually involves joining some organization which inevitably consists of a handful of men who meet at a local restaurant once a month to bitch about how the world is screwing them. They feel marginalized, and they act marginalized. Some of them have achieved modest financial success, but a great many of them are either unemployed or work in dead-end jobs. Now I want to say at this point that I am not pointing that out in a pejorative sense. Whatever their beliefs and however abhorrent we may find them, the fact is that these people are highly alienated by life and that alienation is often what attracts them to bad ideas in the first place. But I point out their economic status because let’s be frank- We live in a capitalist society which puts more faith in the words and ideas of financially successful people than it does in those of people who work at Subway.

The other failure of RT is ideological. One thing about RT that I always found to be hilarious is that it is so beloved by libertarians in spite of being a state-run TV network. Libertarians have often served as guests on RT, and some even had their own segments. Libertarians as a whole reject the free-market, corporate-dominated Western media, preferring instead the state run network of a country which has a massive state sector, lots of government regulation, and even state-owned enterprises. Now I realize that any libertarian could simply say that it isn’t their concern as to what system Russia actually has, but this does not change the fact that they prefer what must be, according to their definition, a product of a “socialist” society. Furthermore, the libertarians and similar ideologues who so deeply adore RT do not acknowledge the contradiction between Russia’s system and their beliefs.

These people will typically dismiss any talk of Russia’s lack of freedom as propaganda, and then go on to insist that living in the US is real tyranny. Look, I’m the last guy who likes throwing the word freedom around without qualifying or defining it, but Russia is objectively less free than the US and many other countries. People have been investigated and sometimes arrested here, simply for writing the most innocuous things on their personal blogs. Some unfortunate individuals have been actually jailed or beaten by unknown assailants. I’m terribly sorry but this generally does not happen in the US or other Western countries. The Westboro Baptist Church enjoyed the protection of the First Amendment. The National Socialist Movement has often enjoyed police protection for its marches on dozens of occasions. Alex Jones runs a highly successful business based on telling people to prepare themselves to resist the government whenever they get around to implementing martial law and rounding people up into FEMA-run concentration camps. The two dipshits who made Loose Change, essentially accusing the government of murdering 3,000 people on 9/11, are still alive and well.

Meanwhile, in Russia, an activist was jailed for running a social media page demanding the same federalization rights that the Donbass rebels demanded in Ukraine. That’s right, you can be jailed for demanding the same kind of autonomy Russia was demanding for the Donbass and the Crimea, according to a law that was actually approved after the whole separatist mess started.  So no, I’m terribly sorry Mr. RT viewer, but it isn’t the same in America. As far as I know, nobody from the anti-government militia known as the Disciples of the New Dawn has been arrested for their Facebook page, one of many anti-government militia pages on the social network. None of them will be arrested until they actually break a law.

Props to Russia for not putting up with bullshit like this.

Props to Russia for not putting up with bullshit like this.

Another ideological conflict comes up when it comes to treatment of the Soviet Union. In Russia, the authorities haven’t managed to fully come out against the USSR. Of course their reasons for this have nothing to do with sympathy towards socialism. On the contrary, Russia has a reactionary regime with staggering wealth inequality and workers have few avenues to air their grievances. The government treats ordinary people with utter contempt. What they glorify in the USSR is the authoritarian side, the Cold War, and basically all the bad sides of the Soviet Union which eventually compounded until its demise. Of course this glorification creates unease with RT’s mostly right-wing audience, many of whom aren’t just anti-Communists but open neo-Nazis. If it weren’t for the tragedy that has taken place in Ukraine, one would almost be amused at the utter confusion of Western fascists as they observe the ongoing conflict with absolutely no background understanding of the two factions or their history. Indeed, watching them discuss it calls to mind a group of people watching a foreign film with no subtitles, in a futile effort to determine what is really happening. Which side do they choose? Sure, the Western media is always bashing Russia, meaning Russia must therefore be good, but then again Russia glorifies the Soviet Union and claims to be fighting fascists, specifically fascists who wear their old anti-Communist symbols and even Waffen SS insignia in some cases.  But Russia is, of course, bigger, and it’s anti-Western, anti-EU, anti-NATO. Which country is run by Jews, Ukraine or Russia? Which one is more under the control of Jews? And one need not be a neo-Nazi to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the Soviet Union and Communist symbols. Indeed, it must take a great deal of fortitude for many RT viewers to side with the country that laments the destruction of Lenin statues and Red Army monuments, both being symbols that they hate.

All in all, RT’s audience consists largely of an incoherent mob; it is an alliance of convenience and little else. Russia has staked a lot on RT, and does seem to be putting more into its foreign news services, and therefore it is all the more tragic that these resources are so readily pissed away. RT could have been a decent alternative to networks like CNN or the BBC, which quite frankly are often biased on many issues.  Most American networks, for quite some time, have become utterly enthralled to the official press release, and there is a genuine fear, at least in the US, of challenging official information lest a network’s reporters be cut out of the loop for asking too many difficult questions. Up until recent times, Russia was an up and coming player in the world, with legitimate positions to put forth, and RT could have been the vehicle to articulate those positions. In the end, RT could have reached a new generation of movers and shakers, people seen as successful and influential in their respective societies, as well as people who are perceived to be intelligent by their peers. RT could have also broadcast a more realistic view of Russia, its problems, and its potential for success.  What a pity that this isn’t what we got.

No, what the Kremlin got for its money, indeed what they got for the Russian taxpayers’ money, is the network which willfully and enthusiastically chases the most useless, ineffective people. Worse still, it doesn’t offer anything to enlighten those people. It doesn’t present an alternative viewpoint, but rather it just spreads utter confusion among an audience consisting of people who spend most of their time on the internet and who are constantly angry about anything and everything. They are not critical thinkers, nor are they people with any influence, much less influence which could help Russia in some way. They certainly do not “question more,” to use RT’s motto, as they unquestioningly swallow anything that confirms their prejudices and is presented to them as counter-mainstream.  Hence, RT’s potential to benefit Russia was wasted when it could have been useful, and now it looks as if it has passed a point of no return. It will still rake in the ratings, the views, and the likes, but none of those loyal fans will be there to save the regime’s ass when the inevitable collapse happens.

Also…This.