Tag Archives: propaganda

Russia Clickbait

So given the fact that today’s Russia news cycle has been dominated by the positively insane interview between RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan and the two suspects in the Salisbury poisoning case, you probably missed the story about Russia targeting the Boy Scouts of America.

“Wait,” you say. “The Russians are trying to ‘hack’ the Boy Scouts?”

Well no. Not yet at least. But they could! And so someone had to write an entire article about it.

Ordinarily when I see one of these articles, I do a CTRL-F and search for the word “Hamilton.” If I get a hit on the so-called Hamilton 68 dashboard, I close the tab, secure in the knowledge that this article is unlikely to offer any real insight. In this case, however, I didn’t do the search. As I scrolled through the article, I saw a bunch of stuff we’ve all been aware of for at least a year now. Yeah, we know Russia has orchestrated information warfare campaigns. We know they target wedge issues. I kept wondering when this article would get to the Boy Scouts. Was there some kind of specific information campaign being aimed at the Scouts?

Nope. The author tells us that due to all the various controversies that have plagued the Boy Scouts for many years now, the Russians might tailor some disinformation campaigns targeting those issues. Seriously- that’s it. The whole article doesn’t get to the actual topic of the headline until the second to last paragraph, which I am quoting here in its entirety.

“In the U.S., the Boy Scouts could be a tempting target for Russians seeking to inflame social discord. Over the past 50 years, the organization has been embroiled in various controversies over social values. The organization has internally – and publicly – debated allowing women to serve in leadership roles, whether to let gay men and boys join and lead scout troops, whether transgender boys could join and, most recently, including girls in Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups.

All of those changes, raising legitimate questions about equality and humanity, involved heated discussions in the scouting community and the wider society. Now imagine that an outside group – one whose only goal was discord – jumped in to deliberately inflame the debate.”

Think about that for a second. No fake Russian Facebook pages about Boy Scout controversies were found. No hacking attempts on their website or computer systems. No fake astroturfed campaigns with Russian links. They literally just thought about an organization that has been at the center of some controversies and said “the Russians could try to make decisive propaganda about this.” They could have written this article about literally dozens of different topics, and more importantly, the article doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise. This was published on a site which boasts “academic rigor, journalist flair.”

This, folks, is clickbait. Literally anyone can skim the news about past Russian disinfo campaigns, then brainstorm until you find the latest bullshit culture war battle so you can declare that the Russians might target this issue for future disinformation campaigns. Do this often enough and open up a Patreon account, and you might be able to quit your day job.

 

 

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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!

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Lucky you, another post in the vein of why leftists should be concerned with Russian influence operations. I guess I’ll make this the last piece on the topic for a while and we can call this a trilogy.

First of all there’s a good article about the leftist case for embracing the Russia investigation I want to include here. I use the term “embrace” here because that’s what the author used, though I think it requires some qualification. As the response to one of my posts on this topic demonstrated, there are some people on the left who seem eager to deliberately misinterpret this concept into an absurd strawman that they can knock down with ease. Embracing, or better yet acknowledging the significance of the Russian intervention in American politics doesn’t mean going down the rabbit hole into Eric Garland and Louise Mensch’s Wonderland of Drug-Fueled Insanity. It doesn’t mean we need to praise “never Trumpers” like John McCain, David Frum, or the gaggle of ex-CIA directors who have been online registering their horror and shock at Trump.  Believe it or not, you can exercise moderation, critical thinking, and time management to devote the proper amount of energy and attention to this subject while still carrying on the everyday struggle against injustice.

If that seems too difficult maybe you should have a look at what  neocon hawk Bernie Sanders had to say on the topic:

“While we rightly condemn Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in Syria, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries. Such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda around the world, and empowers authoritarian leaders who insist that our support for those rights and values is not serious.”

What’s that, Bernie? You’re talking about the bad things the US government does and acknowledging that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal tyrant? What are you doing?

“Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.”

What are you doing, Bernie? What the hell are you even talking about?! This speech is all the US government needs to justify a full-scale invasion of Russia, Syria, and Iran, simultaneously!

All joking aside, I’m not going to pretend like Bernie is some kind of Ayatollah and his word is holy writ. Rather I’m just pointing out that we can talk about this issue without turning into a fanatical Hillary Lost Causer or worse- Louise Mensch. And believe me, we do need more awareness about Russian propaganda.

As I’ve written plenty of times before, the idea that Russia’s “information war” can somehow wreck “Western democracy” or “the liberal order” is, indeed, hysteria. The extent to which the Kremlin has managed to reach its tentacles into that so-called liberal order is more the fault of free market, profits-over-people dogma than clever strategy and sophistication on the Russian side. And while that liberal order sanctions Putin for his violation of Ukraine’s borders, their promises to lift the sanctions should he return to the pre-2014 status quo strongly suggests that they will turn a blind eye to the brutalization of Russia’s citizens within the Federation’s inviolable borders. But while the propaganda machine is no real existential threat to the liberal order, it is a threat to the radical left seeking to replace that order.

I have already written about the ways in which accepting “help” from pro-Kremlin or Kremlin linked sources can de-legitimize or discredit the left, and lead us into awkward associations with our sworn enemies on the far right. Outdated prejudices have also led leftists into falling for Russian narratives about events like Maidan, thus preventing international solidarity and squandering a great opportunity for leftist demonstrators to learn from that event and the activists who drove it (who, contrary to the Russian propaganda, were not mostly radical right-wing nationalists or neo-Nazis). But if we’re going to talk worst case scenarios, some leftists could lose far more.

Recently we learned that the so-called St. Petersburg Troll Factory (actually known as the Internet Research Agency) actually managed to organize a few real-world protests from abroad. One of them was basically a dud, but another managed to draw a few thousand protesters. Both events targeted more or less polar opposites of the political spectrum- an anti-Muslim rally to appeal to right-wing Islamophobes and an anti-police/anti-Trump rally aimed at Black Lives Matter and their supporters. It is important at this point to note that the Internet Research Agency has no interest in actually advancing one cause or another. A survey of its foreign-audience propaganda in recent years show that it is dedicated to causing “chaos” more than anything. Moreover, it is not, in any way that we can see so far, directly controlled by the Russian government or security apparatus. It is the project of one of Putin’s lower-tier sycophants, Evgeny Prigozhin. It is unlikely to go away anytime soon and it’s not going to stop its ever-evolving campaign of trolling and manipulation.

Taking into account those protests and the fact that this operation will most likely continue, do I really need to explain why it might be bad for leftists to attend protests or events that have been organized by anonymous people in foreign countries with no connection to the local community, no concern for the attendees’ safety, and whose goals include causing as much chaos in the streets as possible? If this project continues, it’s certainly reasonable to expect them to try to combine left-wing and right-wing protests in the same location so as to cause violent clashes. People on our side could be duped into attending events where they are caught unawares of the right-wing presence and dangerously outnumbered. The fact that this is a realistic possibility warrants spreading awareness of such propaganda methods. We should remember that within our own borders there are legions of online cowards who also attempt to cause chaos in the real world, and thus anything that enhances awareness of threats and security culture among activists would be a net positive.

But we don’t need to talk about nightmare scenarios to justify avoiding anything Kremlin-linked like the plague. For me, long before I started blogging, the main reason was a matter of dignity. Why should we defend or accept anything from people who despise us and our politics? Make no mistake that the people behind networks like RT and Sputnik, the people in the Kremlin-linked think tanks- they all hate and revile you. You see yourself as a dissident standing up to the crimes of your government, but they see you as nothing but a dirty traitor. Your dissent to them is a defect. Many of them consciously hate your political beliefs too. They hate “multi-culturalism,” “tolerance,” and “non-traditional sexual orientations,” but they’re perfectly willing to provide you with a platform if it serves their government’s geopolitical goals. Why would you let yourself be used like that?

Again, anyone who thinks tackling the Russian propaganda issue entails adopting and/or embracing xenophobic rhetoric about “the Russian other,” the insane talking points of characters like Mensch, Garland, or Schindler, figures like John McCain, or the US national security apparatus either doesn’t understand the topic or is being deliberately obtuse and creating a strawman. This isn’t even about Russia; it’s about the current Russian government. It’s about international solidarity instead of hopelessly outdated, hypocritical, and unrealistic forms of “anti-imperialism” that have been nothing but a proven failure. It’s about moral consistency in a movement that is supposed to be about a moral imperative.

And if this isn’t the kind of topic you prefer to discuss because you’re using up all your activist energy on other issues- fine. That’s a totally justifiable position. It doesn’t mean you can’t at least educate yourself enough to understand how the issue effects you. More importantly, there are ways you can help by not talking. Specifically, don’t share stories or links from Russian government sources or outlets that do. Don’t regurgitate Kremlin talking points about issues like Ukraine, Syria, or Russia’s internal opposition (this is not the same as looking at those issues with a critical eye). And most of all, don’t attack people for criticizing the Putin regime or people who do choose to talk about this issue.

In short, we have to be aware that now, in addition to manipulation from the authorities in our own countries, there is also an added component of manipulation from abroad. The Kremlin is just one player with the most effective propaganda at the moment (unless you count ISIS as an international player). There will probably be more in the coming years, I’m sad to say. Accepting this reality isn’t watering down our message or putting us in league with our own authorities and their security apparatus. It is simply an inherent part of the ongoing struggle.

What Do We Have Here?

Yesterday one of my long time readers sent me a very interesting link. Check out this video:

Notice anything, like how the narrator during the story sounds like a computer? Or take a look at the video description, where we see this:

“We report the daily’s breaking news, Top Stories and the Most Interesting News.
We report the genuine news and circumstances occurring the world over.
Genuine Reports that the predominant press doesn’t need you to think about!

We are your #ONE source for the most vital
world event and stories happening every day!
We always want to know what YOU think!
Stay tuned for updates.

Very excited to partner with other electronic newspaper pages.”

“The daily’s breaking news?” No Oxford comma (often used by Americans and taught in schools when I was young).  “Genuine news and circumstances?” Reporting things “the predominant press doesn’t need you to think about?”

All of this tells me it was not written by a native speaker of English. But this video is just the tip of the iceberg. Take a look at the channel page. As you can see it was created on 4 January 2017 and has about 96,000 subscribers and nearly 60 million views.

In the channel’s description it repeats the same poorly worded text you see in each video description. It derides the “predominant press,” yet has logos from mainstream media outlets all over its graphics.

 

Here’s what a sampling of its videos looks like:

youtubechannel

I’m guessing they don’t know what “Breaking” means in media terminology.

One thing immediately jumps out at you- all these stories tend to be pro-Trump and very anti-Obama. They also hype conspiracy theories and fabricated claims about protests, such as the 4th November Antifa Civil War (this conspiracy meme was originally started by American nutcase fantasizers):

Once again there’s that computer voice, which begs the question- if this is just some American or Western-based outfit trying to spread conspiracy theories with clickbait news stories, possibly for financial gain, why would you use a computer text-to-speech program? This would sound annoying and it’s probably much less efficient.

Of course you would use text to speech if you’re not a native English speaker and you have an accent, particularly a Russian accent. This is not the first time they have done this either.

This Youtube channel, dear readers, is almost certainly another idiotic project of the Internet Research Agency, better known as the St. Petersburg troll factory. And like all their content, it’s extremely amateurish, basically a regurgitation of American conservative conspiracy theories, and would probably only be appealing to your racist uncle who ruins Thanksgiving with his unfunny jokes about “ebonics” and rants about the lack of “White Entertainment Television.”

Still, the fact that it was founded this year tells us that for all their failures, the Internet Research Agency is still plugging away. And the predominant press doesn’t need you to know this!

 

 

Escape from Shawshank (of Stupid)

It’s been a couple days and I’m still overwhelmed by the stupidity that flows from the new think tank called “Investigate Russia.” As is the case with all charlatans in this internet age, the best its defenders can come up with is “LOL THEY MAD!”

Incidentally, that’s basically the same selling point RT uses– they show quotes of American and other Western politicians ranting about RT or Sputnik, and say “Look! We must be accomplishing something!” Then at some point they show Putin or someone from his administration and RT and Sputnik get another massive infusion of cash (much of which no doubt disappears into the pockets of the people at the top).

I don’t know where to begin or end with this idiocy, so I’m going to put forth some of my main points in no particular order.

First of all, I find it funny when some of these people scoff at their apparent lack of Russia expertise. After all, was it not the centrist types who bemoaned the lack of respect for expertise when it comes to issues like Brexit or Trump? Was not the failing of the American people in 2016 a failure to know and acknowledge the facts about politics, the economy, and so on? But of course when it comes to waging information war against a resurgent Russia that is supposedly using an innovative new hybrid war doctrine- who needs experts?

Another thing I find annoying is the willful blindness towards the state of American politics that these people seem to encourage. There is nothing I hate more than someone pretending not to know about events that happened in recent memory for the sake of making a partisan political point. We all know Republican voters, for example, who voted for George W. Bush twice, but called Hillary a “warmonger” in the last election. Many of those same people also pretended that the American economy was doing just wonderfully until Obama got in office (they forget that the crash happened in 2008, whereas Obama wouldn’t be president until January of 2009, and thus inherited all that).

Now what we’re seeing is Democrats or their sympathizers talking about how Russia has sowed discord and polarization into our political discourse starting in the last election. Did these people all just forget that even before Obama was elected president, right-wing media was calling him a Muslim extremist, a foreign-born citizens ineligible for the presidency, a Marxist, and a fascist? Did they forget that back in the early 2000’s, questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq was enough to get you labeled a traitor and, by some people, an “enemy of the state?” Please, centrists- tell me when you think American political discourse wasn’t incredibly polarized.

I’m sure some people with an academic background in American politics could show that it has ever been thus (our polarization today pales in comparison to the period running up to the election of Lincoln in 1860, for example). But if I’m trying to be practical and keep it relevant I’d say that what we see today is an outgrowth of 9/11. If 9/12 was the day we all came together, it seems like 9/13 is the day we decided that half the country was either going to nuke the world (Republicans) or surrender vast swathes of territory to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda (Democrats). It all went downhill from there. Back in the 90’s, talk about black helicopters and invading UN troops was fringe theory you would only hear at gun shows. By Obama’s election it had become mainstream.

And yet Team Anti-Deza and its legion of fans (who seem to be die-hard Hillary supporters still hoping there’s a magical way to overturn last year’s election) seem to be sincerely acting like they don’t know about any of this. They act as if none of this stuff was a big deal until last year, when they heard about RT and Sputnik for the first time in their lives. They actually seem to think that a significant amount of Americans might have switched their political views based on $100,000 worth of Facebook ads. I guarantee you that anyone who saw those ads reacted with “Yep! That’s old Crooked Hillary alright!” or “This is Republican bullshit!” and moved on. That’s where we were at that point, and that’s where we’ve been for a long time.

I’m starting to get tired of writing about this topic so I’ll sum up with something I alluded to in a thread on twitter the other day. Yes, Russia is waging an information war against the West, though not for the reason most people think it is. Defending against information war isn’t like defending against a conventional war. It’s more like counter-insurgency, perhaps even more complex. Imagine a war in which shooting the enemy actually makes them stronger unless you manage to shoot them precisely in the back of the kneecap or their right elbow. In such a scenario, it makes no sense to line up machine guns and pour into the enemy with a hail of lead. Information war requires nuance, deliberate strategy, and indirect approaches (OMG GERASIMOV DOCTRINE!!!). But what it requires most of all is something I’m afraid US leaders don’t want to countenance, and it might explain why they’re always going to be more amenable to listening to the likes of McKew or Max Boot.

Speaking for America, our politics have devolved to where they are now because for decades, both parties have shown almost open contempt for their constituencies. The Republicans openly praise policies which fork over more public resources to the super-rich and leave Americans destitute, while the Democrats assure us they’re very upset about all that but any attempt to change the system would be essentially demanding a multi-colored flying pony. In the 1990’s, the GOP decided to go full culture war, making anyone who disagreed a degenerate traitor. In the same election the Democratic party, under the leadership of Bill and Hillary, happily threw the working class under the bus and embraced all manner of neo-liberal policies as well as “compromise” with the Republicans. In 2016 we could see the disaffection on both sides. Trump’s victory in the primary was a revolt against slavishly pro-business policies; GOP voters wanted a politician who spoke like the talk radio pundits they listen to on the radio, the people who get them fired up. Democrats also rebelled by voting for Sanders, but the Clinton machine won and, contrary to the abject lies of some of her supporters, the overwhelming majority of Sanders supporters held their nose and voted for Hillary (much more than Hillary supporters who voted for Obama in 2008). And though Trump won, I get the feeling that nobody in America at this point is really satisfied with the result.

I look around at my old city, and while I see improvements, I also see ominous signs. A centrally-located shopping mall that used to be the mecca of my youth is now dying. On one street I see block after block of stripmalls with just a few businesses open- the rest are just vacant, their tenants long gone. We’re far from Rust Belt level degeneration here, but when I left this was one of the fastest growing cities in the US. These conditions, especially when paired with a political system that seems openly disdainful of the population, build anger, resentment, and cynicism. Here we have fertile soil for Russian propaganda to take root. Or if you prefer another analogy I’ve made in the past- our immune system has been compromised, allowing the virus to spread.

Our media is also contributing to the rot. It pretends to care about the issues I raised above, but instead they blamed poor working whites for Trump when in reality it was largely middle to upper-class whites who supported him. This message just tells rural and working class whites that they are to blame, that they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them, and that they’re basically beyond hope because their cities and towns are dying with no solution in sight (Hey! Just learn to code!). And after the media moved on from the poverty porn, they went into full Russia! Russia! Russia! mode. Do you have any idea how infuriating it is for a working class American who’s concerned about the state of the country to turn on the TV and see endless babble about Russia? You might as well be talking about Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe. Yes, Russia did interfere with the US election, and yes there are serious improprieties in the relations certain members of Trump’s campaign had with Russians, but this is one story. I’d also argue it’s one part of a much larger story about the influence of money in politics and the way capitalism puts profit above things like ethics.

Now this might seem like a digression, but everything in those three preceding paragraphs goes to explain why our governments prefer to listen to people like McKew and not people who actually know what they’re talking about. The McKews, the Schindlers, the Mensches- they don’t tell the government they have to change. It’s basically perfect the way it is. Russia is just a foreign policy issue- and American foreign policy can never actually be wrong, only misguided. According to their narrative, America has every right to cry to the world about Russia interfering in its election without ever acknowledging that the US has a long history of doing this same thing, often more egregiously and with fatal results, without apologizing for this behavior, and without voicing a commitment to ending this kind of foreign policy all around.

And what about the polarization of American politics? It’s certainly not the fault of the Republican party’s long history of courting extremist groups and conspiracy narratives. It’s certainly not the fault of the Democrats continually throwing their constituency under the bus, breaking promises, and lecturing their voters about how real change isn’t possible so they should be satisfied with means-tested unpaid internships in New York City-based startups. No- American political discourse was totally rational and refined until RT showed up. This is what our leaders want to hear; it absolves them of both guilt and any responsibility. The Russia grifters are basically selling miracle diet pills to people who don’t want to get up off the couch and stop eating junk food all day.

Whatever these grifters peddle as solutions, you can bet they’ll have nothing to do with improving American education, healthcare, or living standards. If anything we’ll probably see some Silicon Valley-sourced bullshit like an AI algorithm designed to “fight Russian fake news on social media,” but which inevitably ends up weeding out countless stories which are factual, yet critical of US foreign or domestic policy. Beyond that, we’ll probably see a whole plethora of fact-checking sites which will basically be copy-pasting stories from already existing fact-checking sites, as if anyone who believes Soros is funding antifa to start a civil war in order to justify a UN military invasion is going to be swayed when a government-funded website tells him that story is confirmed “FALSE.” This is the kind of idiocy our politicians will happily piss away our tax dollars on. That and salaries for grifters, of course.

And naturally, the grifters are easily spurred to anger when someone endangers their grift by questioning their expertise or their claims. So expect to be labeled pro-Russian or worse, a Kremlin agent, if you question any of these people. Meanwhile the real Kremlin agents will continue having a field day making fun of these grifters, picking that low-hanging fruit, and using their idiotic output as material from which to weave their narrative about “Western Russophobes and their paranoid hysteria!” This is largely why the entire Russian state press is apparently laughing their asses off about the Morgan Freeman video.  This is also why I suggest Team Anti-Deza ought to be labeled for what they actually are- unpaid Kremlin PR.

Durp Impact

I’m going to be busy for the next few days, I think. Take a look:

I’ve already made some preliminary responses to the video on Twitter, but there is a ton of stuff to unpack here. What is disturbing is the apparent lack of expertise one sees in the advisory board of the organization which put poor Mr. Freeman up to this.

How bad is their “investigation” so far? Well earlier this morning my friend Alexey Kovalev caught this gem:

He’s wrong though- this is Valery Gerasimov. Shapeshifting maskirovka to disguise one’s identity is a core tenet of the Gerasimov doctrine. If you say otherwise, it’s obviously because you’re a subtle propagandist dog whistling that Russia isn’t a threat and Putin is just a peace-loving leader who wants to cooperate with the West to solve global problems. That is an entirely rational thing to imply.

Anyway, you can catch the rest of the reactions here. Freeman’s video demands a much more detailed response from me, and as I am apparently still jet-lagged (earlier I thought otherwise but I was wrong), that will have to wait a bit. For now let me just say that Freeman is mistaking Hollywood for history and politics. He’s given us a movie pitch instead of actual insight into Russia’s ruling regime and why and how it interfered in America’s politics.

Lastly, so I don’t have to put it at the front of my next piece on this subject, let me just remind readers that saying “the threat isn’t what the hacks are saying it is,” is in no way equivalent to saying “Russia’s not a threat” or “Russia is for peace.” The problem with these grifters is that while they play up the threat, they also offer poor solutions, if any. If I believed Russia was as dangerous and powerful as these people say it is, I think I’d be coming up with more radical solutions that what I’ve seen from the grifter community so far. In any case, if you believe you’re “at war” with Russia, and Russia is the enemy, then you ought to be study the enemy as it is, and not what you wish it to be.

I also know that some members of Team Anti-Deza would chafe at my population-centric solution proposals. To that I must say- If you have the money to spend on high-tech “anti-propaganda” computer programs, NATO military exercises, and fact-checking projects, surely you could spare a little for healthcare, education, or literally anything that might make more Americans think that their government actually gives a little bit more of a shit about them than say, Saudi princes. Russian propaganda channels have mastered the art of appealing to disaffected, disenfranchised Americans and other Westerners. If you don’t want to speak to them, RT and Sputnik are more than happy to do so.

Stay tuned and we’re going to deal with Morgan Freeman’s movie pitch very soon. It brings me neither joy nor pleasure to do this. Would that this day never have come, but it has been forced upon me.

 

 

 

Clearly You’re New Here

In the latest chapter of America’s Ongoing Struggle to Explain Trump Without Acknowledging its Massive Problems With Racism and Wealth Inequality, we learned that Facebook took $100,000 from shady Russian companies for political ads targeting the US. According to some claims, the ads had a potential audience of 70 million Americans, so theoretically, the Russians might have done more to reach certain voters than the Hillary campaign.

But seriously though, there are some huge problems with this latest bombshell, some of which are addressed in this article in Vanity Fair, which points out:

“The psy ops campaign described by Facebook, however, mostly predates the D.N.C. hack. Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said in a blog post later Wednesday that most of the 3,000 Russian-linked ads it sold between June 2015 and May 2017 didn’t reference the election, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. The ad buy was also relatively small, relative to the impact of fake news posts and misleading information in the media. Only about one quarter of those were geographically targeted, and of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016. But they wouldn’t have needed voter data to be effective. According to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia wasn’t initially focused on boosting Trump specifically but rather sowing discord in the early months of the election. That tracks with Stamos’s conclusion that the Russian ad buys “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum.”

There is a much bigger question with this story, however. Speaking about the potential size of the audience is meaningless without looking at what that money actually bought and how effective the ads would be. So what did these Russian buyers get for their money? Here’s a fine example:

hillarysharia

Now if I read my audience correctly, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to explain that the quote and claim in this meme are obviously false. This thing doesn’t even have a verification code!  But I ask you now- who would be convinced by this thing? More to the point- who among those who at the very least were considering voting for Hillary in 2016 would have been convinced to change their vote or stay home based on seeing something like this on their Facebook feed? If you want to see more, have a look at this gallery of ugliness.

It’s pretty clear that the majority of these “memes” closely resemble the kind of crap your elderly relatives often share, which is the “Web 1.0” equivalent of forwarded chain emails. If you were fortunate enough never to receive one of those, they were typically fake photos or stories about some God-fearing Christian Marine humiliating a pompous atheist professor. These stories, like their social media descendants, are basically designed to confirm conservatives’ worldview. I’ve never heard of someone viewing such material and actually changing their political views based on it. I could see it happening to a younger person just forming their political views, but only after a long period of only consuming this messaging with no alternatives. Otherwise this kind of propaganda wouldn’t convince anyone.

Basically the sensible centrists are acting as if they didn’t know America’s politics have been ridiculously polarized for decades now. They’re acting like it wasn’t just eight years ago when the mainstream conservative media was either implying or explicitly declaring the Democratic president elect to be:

-Not a natural born citizen of the USA, thus ineligible for office.

-An attendee of a madrassa! 

-A Muslim Marxist Fascist who attended a bad Christian church.

-A possible anti-Christ, who was destined to confiscate Americans’ guns, institute socialism, and give away the United States’ sovereignty to the United Nations or some other “New World Order” global government.

Eight years later, Obama hadn’t done any of the things conservatives had been screaming about for years, but do you think that changed their minds? Do you think any of them said “I was so terrified that Obama was going to bring in UN troops and deputized street gangs to come take my guns and send me to a FEMA reeducation camp to turn me into a gay transsexual Muslim, but he didn’t even attempt to do any of that! All that hatred and anxiety for nothing! My face sure is as red as the flag I thought Obama was going to fly over the White House!” Of course nobody said that. They went from “Obama’s going to bring the Marxist Sharia Apocalypse” to “Hillary’s going to bring the Refugee Sharia Apocalypse” without blinking an eye. Hell, they even called Hillary a warmonger. Many of these people are the same folks who would call you a treasonous coward for opposing the Iraq War during the Bush administration, but in 2016 it was fine for them to play Chomsky.

I could go on, but I think this suffices to show how liberals, especially those freaking out about Russian-bought memes, don’t really understand how conservatives think after all these years. Liberals think that most conservatives are just uneducated and unaware of the “facts.” If someone just provided them with facts instead of right-wing memes, they’d see that Hillary is the obvious choice, and the Democratic establishment is totally right when it comes to policy and the party needs no significant changes. But alas, Russia added to the already bloated supply of right-wing memes and thus these people voted for Trump.

In reality, even if Facebook had cut these people off from nearly all their sources of “fake news,” whether domestically-produced or imported from Russia, these people would most likely not have been swayed toward Hillary. They would just use some other medium with which to share their “memes.” These people get a high out of hating “liberals” and “leftists,” by which I mean the caricature of those types they have in their heads. Facts are not going to sway them, because if they accept a fact that contradicts their belief, that forces them to acknowledge that the pansy-ass, latte-drinking, elitist, Social Justice Warrior Cultural Marxist beta cuck was right, and they were wrong. If you believed that such people imperil “Western civilization,” which you think you’re trying to preserve, would you agree with them? Would you admit your mistake and apologize? Of course not- this is war.

Liberals simply can’t understand this because they can’t imagine how anyone could ever believe such things. They must be duped, confused, or stupid. For them, the age of ideology ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and what triumphed is a system that’s based on cold hard facts, data, and GDP growth. Sure, some people get screwed or killed by the thousands in this system, but we’re making omelettes here. This isn’t to say that the bizarre beliefs Trump supporters have are correct or even that they’re not incredibly stupid. But it’s a lot easier to woo people to your side when you tell people you care about them and their plight, that you’ll be their voice, than it is when your message is basically “drop all your expectations; the best you can ever hope for is extremely modest, incremental change over a period of many years.” In a sense, the liberal centrists’ “moderate” or “realistic” worldview can be just as delusional and inaccurate as the Trumpling’s belief that building a wall will restore America to full-employment. Apart from understanding why Americans won’t be swayed by “the facts,” the liberals ought to ask themselves why so many Americans have become so cynical and mistrustful of the media that they would find the most ridiculous conspiracy theories plausible.

Without being able to answer or even understand that question, the Democratic party elite comes off even worse, because the implication is that a massive amount of Democratic voters or at least Democratic-leaning voters changed their votes to an extremely repulsive candidate simply because they saw some Russian made memes with over-the-top, racist rhetoric. In reality the Russians just created more of something that had already been there- right-wing propaganda. There’s zero reason to think it was any more effective than the already-massive right-wing media machine that has existed for nearly three decades now. Even the messages the Russians used were just ripped off from already existing right-wing talking points. I could write another dozen pages on how idiotic this whole affair is, but I doubt it would help. These days questioning the efficacy of Russian attempts to influence the US election is automatically equated with denying that they interfered at all. Saying the Russia doesn’t do things one way is similarly equated with saying “Russia isn’t a threat.”

Sure, Russia intervened in the election and it does pose a threat (though the threat it poses to the US is far less than to Ukraine or Georgia), but this isn’t cause for America’s self-professed leaders to start acting like America’s politics haven’t become incredibly polarized and radicalized in the past decade or so. And speaking of which, do these geniuses truly believe that things would have been much better on that front had Hillary won? The whole point of Russian interference was to put the legitimacy of her victory under suspicion, and Trump himself was telling his rabid supporters the election would be “rigged.” If you’re not busy pretending you can’t remember the past eight years, think about how the right reacted to Obama’s victory in 2008 and then imagine how they’d react to a Hillary victory in 2016 after the DNC email leak plus the Orange Loser screaming about three million illegal votes. Then again, I can understand why many Hillary supporters can’t imagine the bloodshed and domestic terrorism that would result, seeing as how some of the same people were seriously advocating that the electors give their votes to Hillary instead of Trump.

At the end of the day, folks are missing the lessons of this whole Facebook ad scandal. The first is yet another lesson about the danger of money in politics. Prior to this election, there was a lot of talk about the so-called Citizens United ruling, which prohibited many restrictions on political ads and led to the creation of Super PACs, which might have a bit more sway over American elections than a St. Petersburg troll factory.  Now, however, we’re talking about Facebook taking $100,000 from Russia- and nobody else it seems.

The other takeaway is that the Russians were able to find an audience in the US because they learned how to talk like all the other angry conservatives. They saw an opening and they charged through it. America’s immune system is weak after decades of bad domestic and foreign policy, and it shows in both spheres. How do you build up that immunity again? You do it by focusing on the American people instead of whining about how your precious “qualified” candidate didn’t win. You need to present a better vision of the future and when you manage to get any power at all, you need to work towards that goal and produce concrete results. Or you can go on blaming a foreign government for your failures, and start advocating for restrictive laws that could just as easily hurt or otherwise restrict American citizens. And then you will have fulfilled the message of Putin and his state media- you’ll have made America like his Russia.