Tag Archives: propaganda

Rise of the Russia Grifter Class

If you ever need a quick example of how capitalism does not, in fact, direct resources to the best possible uses, you need look no further than the massive self-help or management consulting industries. Largely unregulated, any silver-tongued charlatan can hawk some kind of psychological snake oil and millionaires if not billionaires will bury them in piles of money. Product development is pretty easy. Just come up with deep-sounding platitudes, common sense advice repacked in your own unique way, folksy wisdom, and of course, counter-intuitive “facts.” The efficacy of what you’re selling cannot be easily measured, so the only way you’re going to fail is if your audience gets bored.

Those who peddle this bullshit may go by many names- consultant, guru, therapist, pundit, lobbyist. But there is a much more appropriate term for such people- grifters. We live in a world that is rife with inequality and arbitrary or unjust authority. As such, those with power require the services of those who help justify something that cannot be justified with logic or concrete evidence. They need people to reassure them that they are wise, politically savvy, and morally upright. They need these people as much as they need lawyers, courts, the police, etc., and for the same reason- they perpetuate and sustain the conditions of capitalism. Of course when we speak about the grifters this way it is a bit of an oversimplification. After all, the grifters themselves have agency and they are basically entrepreneurs trying to survive in a market society. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are peddling bullshit because the market actually demands, nay requires, a lot of bullshit to keep running.

Since 2016 we’ve seen the rise of a new grifter class, the “Russia expert” grifter. To be sure, they started to appear around 2014, when Western politicians suddenly realized that the Kremlin is hostile to their interests (because there was literally no way to notice this prior to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas). However, 2016’s big story about Russian meddling in the US presidential election signaled to grifters everywhere that there was money to be made in the Cold War 2.0.  Enter the instant Russia expert.

Probably the best examples of this would be Eric “Game Theory” Garland and Louise Mensch. The latter, being a politician, is a natural grifter. As for Garland, he’s some kind of management consultant, which means he’s definitely skilled in the art of bullshit. But for every big-name grifter you already know, there seem to be new ones popping up left and right. What are they after? Grants? Cushy think-tank jobs? More media exposure to hawk their services? And what services, specifically?

It seems that one new mutation of the instant Russia expert (often identified by a total lack of Russian language knowledge and/or significant experience in Russia) is the Russian propaganda expert. This is someone who claims to have special insight or expertise into Russian “information warfare” techniques. Since the US and EU both seem interested in some kind of counter-propaganda (because it’s relatively cheaper than actually fixing the problems that make them vulnerable to that propaganda in the first place), there’s definitely money on the table.

How do you know you’re dealing with one of the new Russia grifters? Well one thing to look for is an utter lack of new insight or revelation in their writing. Most of the time they are just rehashing others’ work. There’s never any meat to their explanations- it’s just safe predictions or blatantly obvious observations. For a case study look no further than this piece by Brett Bruen, for The Hill.

The first thing we need to look at is Bruen’s bio, which I quote in full here:

“Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.”

Hmmm… Solid academic credentials no doubt. But notice anything missing there? Russia? Eastern Europe? Europe? Now apparently he has diplomatic experience, but given that Obama’s foreign policy was not much better than previous administrations, I’m not going to be automatically cowed by that CV. The biggest warning sign is “D.C.-based consulting firm.” I smell a lobbyist. But let’s not judge too quickly. Let’s see what insight this guy can give us into Russian information war in the near future.

“Last year was just the start. Next year, Russia’s intelligence and information operations will kick it into high gear. There are several reasons I am making this prediction.”

What does kicking it into high gear even mean in this context? When exactly was it in low-gear? How do we even measure this? While Russian election meddling has had very mixed results, we can only assume that those responsible for Russia’s information war prefer to keep their lucrative positions, and will thus continue to fight for funding. Does this mean they’ll increase their activities? Maybe not. They may decide to use more subtle, efficient tactics. They may jettison a lot of poorly-performing propaganda techniques to focus on those which get more attention. Basically this prediction is meaningless.

“First, the congressional races are an even easier target.”

Are they, though? First of all America’s House of Representatives is largely the product of massive gerrymandering back in 2010. In general, Congress as a whole has a very low turnover rate. If actual American candidates have such a hard time challenging incumbents, how will the Russians challenge them? There’s also the question of why Russia would even attempt to influence the outcome, but of course Brett has an answer for this.

“Second, their outcome will largely determine whether current sanctions stay in place or if even stronger ones are enacted.”

Oh right! The Senate passed that bill to increase sanctions on Russia and require congressional review for any presidential proposal to remove or ease the sanctions! That’s it! The Russians will want to influence the midterm elections in order to get people into Congress that would approve of Agent Trump’s efforts to remove sanctions! It’s so simple!

Oh wait a minute…That recent sanctions bill passed the Senate with a vote of 98-2. Looks pretty bipartisan to me. The Magnitsky Act, arguably the first sanctions against Russia, was also a bipartisan move. The majority of Republicans seem more than happy to pass sanctions on Russia, and you know the Democrats are game since the party’s elite is still convinced that Russia is totally responsible for ruining last year’s planned coronation.

Now given these obvious facts plus everything I’ve already pointed out about incumbents, low midterm turnouts, and gerrymandering, tell me exactly who Russia is going to back in 2018. They’re not going to have a pool of Dana Rohrabachers and David Dukes on whose behalf they can intervene.

Let’s also not forget that apart from this new sanctions bill, foreign policy is typically the domain of the president. Therefore it would be extremely difficult for the Russians to even figure out who they should support, assuming they could even find a significant number of useful candidates (and they won’t).

Moving on…

“Finally, last year was an unmitigated success for Russia. Doubt and division across America’s democracy was pushed to new heights. If I’m sitting in the Kremlin, 2018 offers me the chance to continue to stir the pot and further undermine confidence in Western democracy.”

There’s a lot of people in high-up Russian circles who would definitely, if not publicly, dispute that “unmitigated success” characterization. For one thing, Americans were clearly capable of making American democracy look like a circus- just look at the Republican primaries alone. But while the Russians have definitely scored from the outcome of the election (and keep in mind nobody has come up with convincing proof that Russian meddling had more impact than poor campaigning or other domestic factors), they also stand to lose a lot. As Mark Galeotti has pointed out time and time again, Trump is unpredictable, and Russia’s biggest advantage was the predictability of its opponents. The continuation of sanctions and the surprise cruise missile strike on Syria were just two examples of how Trump’s unpredictability is a major headache for the Kremlin.

“The first element in this plan is for Congress and the American public to continue straight on our current path. Democrats crying foul, Republicans largely feigning concern and defending their wins. President Trump creating daily distractions. Most importantly, no real action being undertaken to manage or mitigate our country’s exposure to version 2.0. This allows Moscow to prepare mostly unfettered, an even bigger assault on much smaller targets next year.”

Oh hey, why am I quoting this paragraph? No reason other than to show that it is utterly superfluous. There is nothing of value in it whatsoever.

“The vulnerability of the congressional elections is seemingly obvious.”

Eeeehhhh…No. It’s actually quite the opposite for the reasons I pointed out above. See the Kremlin has to have candidates it wants to win in order to properly interfere in the election. See Wilders, Le Pen, etc.

“Instead of manipulating national and international media, you can focus on a few local outlets where voters in those districts get most of their news.”

Huh? Who assumes that people in small towns get most of their news only from local outlets? Big cities have local outlets, and people in smaller towns and cities still have internet, cable TV, etc.

“The key races aren’t fought in the cities. Journalists in small towns are often less experienced and more easily manipulated.”

What exactly is this based on? Local journalists have often uncovered serious scandals, often better than those working for big corporations with no local expertise and a shoestring budget.

More importantly, manipulating the news at this level might arguably be much harder, because smaller locales have a more tightly-knit community. Pizzagate, a ridiculous conspiracy theory that was cooked up by American morons on the internet, got traction because it centered around a restaurant in a hipster-ish (or so I’ve read) area of DC, a major city where many Americans have never been (I, for example, have only been to the airport for a short layover). Now just imagine someone trying to manipulate the local Smallville Weekly Examiner with a story claiming Ma and Pa Walton’s Country Home Family Diner is running a secret child sex-trafficking ring. As stupid as the Pizzagate conspiracy was, it’s much easier to believe terrible things about people when they are faceless others living far away in places you’ve never been.

There’s another problem with trying to manipulate local media and interfere in congressional races- first of all there’s a lot of them, and second, there are a lot of local issues to learn about. One thing we’ve seen with Russian trolling efforts is that they are often laughably poor. Casey Michel on Twitter has often provided numerous examples of the hilariously bad English seen on a pro-Russian “Texas separatist” Facebook page, for example.

 

“Moreover, just a handful of races can tip the balance of power. Russia will concentrate their power in those places. This also allows them avoid the exposure a national influence operation involves.”

Again I’m forced to ask how they’re supposed to get around the gerrymandering issue and who are they planning to back, because so far this looks like a pretty shit plan to me. It’s important for me to point out here that I’m not saying they won’t try to interfere in the congressional elections. I can even see the value in interfering simply to cause disputed elections and more domestic chaos. But the author is clearly implying that the Russians will try to interfere with a specific goal of achieving certain outcomes and he has ignored so many basic features of the 2018 elections that if I hadn’t read his bio, I’d assume he was a foreigner. Russian perhaps?!

So far what we have here is something that was clearly intended to sound like analysis, but which is utterly devoid of any real content and utterly lacking in any sort of insight. It would have been much better if he’d just written “They interfered in the last election and they’ll probably keep doing it because it causes a lot of problems.”

“Having coordinated America’s first modern campaign to counter Russian propaganda in Europe, I’m all too familiar with how they work.”

I feel like if this is what his background is, I should have at least heard of him so far. In any case, Europe and America were way behind Ukraine in countering this propaganda. Furthermore, much of the counter-propaganda effort has boiled down to nothing more than fact-checking. While this is useful, it doesn’t really do much to rollback the effects of the propaganda. The main reason for this is that the West has no suitable counter-narrative. They don’t even seem to think a counter-narrative is even necessary, beyond some platitudes about human rights, democracy, and a “rules-based order.” But that’s a topic for another article.

In any case, being in charge of such a new effort doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. In this case I’d actually argue that I have more expertise with such propaganda having been in several target audiences for Russian propaganda, plus my experience in Russia and my connections who work or used to work in the Russian state-run media.

“The potency of their tradecraft is found in its successful manipulation of facts.”

Tradecraft! One hundred intelligence points awarded!

Seriously though, is the successful manipulation of facts really an exclusively Russian propaganda feature? This is one of those cases where it is definitely not whataboutism to say that tons of actors, from politicians to pundits manipulate facts. If anything Russian propaganda, in certain contexts, is unique in the sense that it will often totally invent stories almost out of thing air, and then continually repackage them until you can’t easily determine the original source and thus can’t tell whether they are real or where they came from. Even this is not terribly original. I’d say the most unique thing about Russian propaganda is the fact that they will do this often with very poorly concocted stories which are easily debunked. They seem to believe there is some value in the continual use of such poorly constructed stories.

“They then use their own of affiliated media outlets to ensure the information gets traction. Yet, they don’t expect most voters to tune into Russia Today. Instead, they are betting a blogger, an activist group, or local journalist will report on it or share on their own networks. This tactic can be used independently or coupled to their intelligence work, as it was in the presidential race. “

Here there is some truth to this, but what is new or insightful here? What do we learn from this? It’s nothing that hasn’t been said by plenty of people for the past two or three years now. Also he’s ignoring how much of RT’s content actually comes from mining Western conspiracy theories. It seems zero effort has been made to attack homegrown propaganda. Gee, I wonder why that might be…

“There will be hacks. Yet, the damage won’t come from the information their intelligence service will expose on campaign plans or questionable stuff staff were saying and sharing. The new danger comes from that ability to manufacture seemingly authentic material. Emails you didn’t write that insult key constituencies will suddenly appear on Wikileaks. How can you disprove them? Even if you do, time and credibility will be lost. More importantly for the Russians, confusion will be created.”

So the country that has acquired a reputation for cyber-attacks will keep doing them. Okay. Could have saved some words there. Also, earlier he points out that important races will be decided in smaller towns where people get their news from local sources (his assertion). Now we’re supposed to believe these people will be browsing Wikileaks? Will local reporters see the material on Wikileaks and report on them? That’s possible. But it’s also possible that for the reasons I stated above, it will be easier for them to investigate and find out they are false.

“Many will say that we have seen this before. Yet just as in France this year and in our own presidential campaign last year, the size, scale, and sophistication of this information operation will be unprecedented. Its potency will be far greater in 2018.”

Did someone forget to tell him that Russia’s efforts to do this in France failed miserably this year? In fact, Macron’s team even found a way to play the hackers at their own game.

“Having refined their tools and tactics, we can expect a much more dangerous version to emerge. They will be firing from their asymmetric arsenal of influence at small town and suburban America, where the key races will take place.”

Again. Gerrymandering. Candidates hostile to Russia. How are they going to deal with any of that? Are they going to somehow get voters to write in some local Putin-loving defective en masse? What’s the plan here?

“It will be like the Cold War era movie I remember watching as a kid, “Red Dawn.” Except this time, it will be massive armies of Russian propagandists landing in Middle America. We will need more than the spunk of a teenage Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen to defeat them.”

Um no, it will be nothing like Red Dawn, especially since even if this did actually happen as you say, the Russian propagandists don’t literally come to America at all. The only sense in which this analogy works is that this article is analogous to the kind of right-wing paranoia that inspired Red Dawn.

“So where are the preparations for this new Russian assault? Why are the government, political parties, and the news media not preparing more countermeasures?”

Gee, Brett, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I bet you do, and you’ll happily tell our government what to do, for a modest fee of course!

I’m going to leave Brett for a bit and just say that this Russia grifter class is not just a group of harmless wannabe spies. Apart from the money and resources they suck from governments, they actually aid Russian propaganda efforts in two ways. One way is by portraying Putin as being more powerful and influential than he actually is. Putin’s domestic propaganda, which is the propaganda most important for his survival, incidentally, is almost entirely dedicated to portraying the Dear Leader as a defender against Western encroachment. Not only does he stubbornly oppose them, but he trolls them while doing it. Another way is by the propagation of Garland/Mensch-like conspiracy theories. These tend to generate a lot of low hanging fruit that can easily be picked off by pro-Russian writers. A favorite tactic of the RT Op-Edge is to pick on the easily debunked claims of some Western journalist, and then imply that all Western coverage of Russia can be dismissed for its Russophobia.

The other way it helps Russian propaganda is by securing and increasing funding for outlets like RT and Sputnik. As Alexei Kovalev has pointed out many times in the past, Western government hysteria about these outlets has become a kind of performance metric for them. They collect quotes of Western leaders angrily railing against RT and Sputnik and then use them as proof that they are doing something. This, of course, is basically just scamming the Russian government, but in terms of information war the effect helps the Russian propaganda machine.

So if they don’t actually turn back Russian propaganda and basically help it both indirectly and directly, why are these grifters the darlings of the Western establishment these days? Why can’t someone like me get in on this Russian propaganda-debunking business, given my experience?

The draw for the grifters lies in the fact that they tell Western leaders what they want to hear. “All those social problems you refuse to deal with? That’s not your fault. It’s Russia. They’re exploiting those problems.” This is particularly pleasing because it means that people who keep talking about those problems, activists, for example, can be tarred as Russian propagandists, doing the bidding of the Kremlin. You know, that almost reminds me of this other government I know, but I digress.

 

Bullshit self-help gurus succeed because they tell their clients something they want to hear. Sometimes, the therapy works. Many times it doesn’t. Most of the time it’s impossible to measure.

So it is with the Russia grifters. They’ll keep spitting out lots of intel-speak like “tradecraft” and “active measures” and they’ll keep raking in the dough until there’s a new big threat on the horizon. We’re witnessing the decline of the phony Islamic terrorism expert (see Sebastian Gorka)  and the ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. I’d imagine the next incarnation will most likely be the phony Chinese propaganda expert, but looking at Chinese foreign-language propaganda so far, it looks like it will take a while before Western politicians can be successfully duped into seeing it as an existential threat.

 

UPDATE: I’ve updated the piece regarding the Senate vote, as a source I read today said it was 98-2 and not 97-2 (I’d seen the figure somewhere before and assumed someone abstained). Also it appears the new sanctions bill discussed in this article is floundering in the House, with the opposition coming from Republicans. They’re claiming that it’s a constitutional issue, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s really going on- all House Republicans are compromised Russian agents!

The Importance of Being Ideological

For better or worse, this blog can be characterized as a “debunking” site. After all, it is called Russia Without BS and it was originally created to deal with myths about Russia. Of course since 2014, the biggest source of BS about Russia has come from the Russian state press and the Kremlin, and thus the blog turned from the debunking of myths and stereotypes to refuting propaganda.

More recently, and due in particular to the growing concern about Russian meddling in various Western elections, Western media outlets have given increasing attention to groups like StopFake (for which I’ve been working recently) and initiatives like the EU Disinfo Review. Journalists, Western politicians, and think-tank types love this idea of fact-checking and debunking. This is basically how the West chooses to fight against Russia’s information war. Unfortunately for those liberal centrists politicians and think-tank academics, fact-checking and debunking, while necessary and extremely helpful, cannot actually defeat the kind of propaganda Russia and certain other states disseminate. It’s not because we’re living in a “post-fact” world; we’ve long been living in a world where facts don’t matter.

First it must be said that debunking/fact-checking initiatives are extremely necessary. They catalog false claims so that politicians, activists, and journalists know what claims are floating around out there and they can respond to them. Facts do matter to some people who might be listening or watching an exchange, so being able to answer some conspiracy nut’s claim in public is extremely valuable. Also, by cataloging the long list of fake claims from various “news” outlets, it destroys their credibility. The sheer number of totally fabricated stories from Russian state outlets like First Channel or NTV makes them worthless as sources.

Unfortunately fact-checking has very limited value beyond that, and for an example we may look at a site like Snopes.com. Snopes, of course, was originally dedicated to debunking urban legends about all manner of topics, most of them non-political. Snopes became increasingly political as it began tackling chain emails, many of which had a conservative bent. The typical example would involve some US Marine punching out an atheist professor or maybe a female Muslim immigrant berating a good, wholesome American cashier until she’s put in her place by -you guessed it- an American serviceman or maybe their family member. There were certainly leftish chain emails as well, but most of those with political content were of a conservative bent. This only increased with the advent of social media.

Whereas in the old days if that uncle or aunt sent you a chain email you’d just send them a link to Snopes, that won’t work today. The American mouth-breather of today simply dismisses Snopes as “left-wing” or perhaps “funded by Soros,” and that’s it, you lose. Basically the prevailing mentality these days can be encapsulated by “It said the thing I want to believe is not true, ergo I decided it must be lying.” Now based on that, imagine trying to convince Europeans who have at least some skepticism about the EU that something called “The EU Disinfo Review” is on the level. Remember we live in a world where millions upon millions of people believe that instinctively and categorically distrusting their governments and the authorities is a key part of their personal identity.

And identity is a crucial issue here. In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains why facts don’t matter to most people. What matter are psychological frames, which are very much connected to people’s personal sense of identity. If facts do not fit one’s frames, they are ignored, discarded no matter how undeniable they are. I have personally seen this in action, most notably when some leftist Putin-apologists with zero knowledge of Russia or Ukraine repeatedly ignored a certain article I posted numerous times. It’s not that they dismissed the article as “Western propaganda” without reading it- it’s that they acted as though I’d never even posted it multiple times. They did not even react to it. Thanks to Lakoff, I learned why- it didn’t fit their frame.

Lakoff as I understand, currently works as an adviser to the Democratic party, but I’m not sure they’re taking his knowledge to heart. Democratic failures in the past few years, culminating in the embarrassing loss last November, largely revolve around this obsession with facts while rejecting ideals. One could argue that Obama tried to go the ideals route, if only superficially, and it paid off. But it seems this lesson was lost on the party. Matt Taibbi provides some good insight into this deficiency in a review of the book Shattered, which is essentially an autopsy of Hillary Clinton’s disaster of a presidential campaign. Here’s a key excerpt:

At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem.

“All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it,” they wrote. “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”

Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:

“I would have had a reason for running,” one of her top aides said, “or I wouldn’t have run.”

The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – “I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason” – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: “I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.”

Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?

The centrists of the so-called “liberal order” in the EU suffer from the same problem. While they talk about “European values” we can see each and every European country violating those values on a daily basis. Meanwhile the best argument a lot of these politicians have going for them is that they’re not (fill in the blank with some far right-wing populist candidate who probably wouldn’t have gained so much popularity were it not for the incompetence of the previous administrations). Centrist leadership is seen as “technocratic,” devoid of ideological slant (even if this is highly debatable), and this is a problem because while they may sometimes manage to stave off the populist monsters they created, the latter still remain a constant and increasingly severe threat.

Looking at Russia’s role in all this, we see a similar problem of values and framing. While I’ve often pointed out that the Kremlin really has no actual ideology, it fervently pretends that it does. Its propaganda makes ideological appeals. Kremlin foreign-language media isn’t trying to actually get people to believe that any one of its forty-seven alternative MH17 theories is true, based on facts. Rather, the idea is that the viewer will accept any or all of those theories because they think that Russia is on their side, that it opposes the domestic politicians they despise, that it upholds their values, or some combination of any of those. In other words these people’s reasoning, to the extent it can even be called reasoning, is basically thus- “My government has accused Russia of shooting down a civilian airliner. I hate my government, and they hate Russia, ergo Russia must be telling the truth.” Whichever alternative explanation this person appropriates to support that conclusion is irrelevant. They may pick more than one no matter how mutually exclusive they are.

Russia actually has a huge advantage in this information war because the Westerners they are trying to reach have no knowledge or experience of real life in Russia. You’re typical American conservative is convinced that he lives in a country of immoral degenerates, and he finds examples of this every day. Meanwhile he hears Russia is all about conservative Christian values and with no actual knowledge or experience to tell him otherwise, in his mind Russia becomes the opposite of America in this degenerate/moral dichotomy. Meanwhile the leftist who sees nothing but contempt for anything labeled socialist in their own country looks at Russia’s over-the-top Victory Day parades and RT’s “anti-corporate” propaganda and comes to see Russia as a check on “American hegemony.” The conservative doesn’t know about the corruption and prostitution while the leftist doesn’t know about the staggering wealth inequality and the promotion of right-wing, even fascist thought by the state. Trying to convince such people with facts alone isn’t going to work because for them, believing those facts goes against their identity as a conservative, a leftist, or whatever.

Buzzwords like civil society, rule of law, and democracy cannot compete with the ideological-based appeals of Russia. Nobody says “I’m a rule-of-law-ist;” the concept in itself cannot be someone’s political identity. Leading Western parties and politicians would have to once again adopt some form of coherent ideology and try as best as possible to adhere to it in order to attract real supporters. Unfortunately I don’t see this happening and I doubt they’ll ever even try. I see the West as being dominated by over-educated, out-of-touch think-tank types who are still dumbfounded by Russia’s ability to run circles around them. They mistake fact-checking and propaganda debunking, which are useful tools, for the cure.

This is only one of many reasons why this liberal centrist order cannot deal with the monster it created in Moscow, and why those of us who sincerely hold values and care about the future of humanity must take up the burden of dealing with Russian propaganda from a values-based, ideological position. We must realize that this is a two-front war, first against the authoritarian kleptocratic dictatorships like Russia and Turkey, then against the incompetent bumbling fools who enabled the former.

An Onion of Stupid- The Philosophy of Fakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fake News? You Don’t Say!

So America just elected an incompetent, possibly insane billionaire president, and now it seems the media’s got a new coping strategy to adjust to the inevitability of a Trump administration. Oh wait, hang on, what I really meant is that they have totally flipped out and started a new moral panic about “fake news.” Naturally we have to pretend that fake news is a new phenomenon, because anything less might suggest we have some serious problems with our society- from corporate consolidation of media and the relentless profit-driven scramble for ratings and views, to the lack of critical thinking in education and the ridiculous idea that all opinions are equally valid. Just to be sure, some folks in the media would have us believe this is an external threat, specifically one coming from Russia. Put simply, this is bullshit, but I’ve got a lot to say about fake news so please strap yourself in.

lies

American liberal, 2016

I guess the logical place to begin is by saying that fake news is nothing new. Liberals did virtually nothing to oppose the corporate takeover of AM radio in the 80’s and 90’s, which, along with the revocation of the “Fairness Doctrine,” essentially turned America’s talk radio medium into a non-stop sewage pipe belching out right-wing propaganda. Even big names like Rush Limbaugh weren’t averse to spreading conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. If you want to know the roots of some of the wackier Hillary-related conspiracies today, you really have to start with something called The Clinton Chronicles. For those of you too young to remember or not from the US, American politics during the 90’s basically consisted of outrageous scandal after outrageous scandal, and many conservatives were acting as if the US had been taken over by a radical socialist junta. The lexicon included terms like jack-booted government thugs, black helicopters, and New World Order. And then…in 1996…it wasn’t just radio anymore.

Fake news reached new heights with an actual fake news cable TV network, known as Fox News. While the claim that Russia influenced this most recent election is highly dubious, Fox News certainly swayed a US election within four years of its existence. An outside observer might think that American liberals rallied against a foreigner-owned TV network that engaged in all manner of dishonest tactics, but that’s not necessarily true. The documentary Outfoxed spoke of something called the “Fox effect,” whereby other TV networks moved to the right in order to get a piece of Fox’s action. This had disastrous effects during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, as one might expect, but hey- capitalists gonna cap.

 

It’s also worth noting that around this time, Alex Jones was building his media empire. In addition to Jones’ non-stop conspiracy mongering from 1996 onward, you also had sites like World Net Daily, founded in 1997. And in case you think I’m picking on right-wingers too much (as if that’s bad), remember Oliver Stone? JFK was a boring, conspiracy theory laden production which came out a few week after the Soviet Union broke up. These aren’t just pre-Russia Today; they’re pre-Putin. The simple but inconvenient (for some) fact is this: Virtually all Russian propaganda for foreign audiences is nothing but rehashed conspiracy theories, largely from the United States.

So why is the media and all of liberaldom panicking about fake news now? Well one thing is that for years, they dismissed it and made fun of it. Now, in a way, it seems to be upsetting their precious liberal order, and so they’ve suddenly decided it’s a problem. But as I alluded to in the beginning, admitting too much would require choices they don’t want to make such as free higher education or more critical thinking classes in school (I suspect liberals are too cowardly to face the inevitable conservative backlash over this). Thus, the threat needs to come from somewhere else, as this recent Washington Post article claims. 

Yet there’s something rather amusing about that article. It relies on an anonymous source (the reason they have given for their anonymity doesn’t hold water) based in the US. In other words- exactly the same tactic that actual Russian fake news uses all the time, i.e. misrepresenting a dubious source. And just like any other fake news story, WaPo‘s article got cited by other publications, such as Gizmodo. Way to fight fake news, guys!

There’s also a far more serious issue at stake when we allow charlatans to pin all their woes on Russian propaganda- they are in fact helping Russia’s propaganda war. Recently we’ve seen a perfect example of this with the EU resolution against Russian propaganda.

First of all, the resolution was proposed by Anna Fotyga, a member of Poland’s Law and Justice Party. In case you hadn’t heard, that’s the same party that wants to criminalize women for having abortions and recently dug up the remains of Poland’s ex-president to prove that Russia somehow caused his plane crash. Why is her proposal so hypocritical? Well as it turns out, the Law and Justice Party’s propaganda in many ways mirrors Russian propaganda about the European Union, i.e. Europe is nothing but gender-bending degenerates rapidly being overrun by Muslim migrants. What is more, the party’s politics in Poland are eerily similar to those in Russia. The media and courts come under attack for their independence. History is rewritten as “patriotic” and those who dissent by insisting on staying factual are punished. So to sum up this point, though it is a minor one, the resolution was proposed by the least qualified person to speak out against propaganda.

But far more important was the fallout of the resolution. If you read RT or Sputnik’s reaction, you’d think they’re totally pissed about this resolution, but I assure you they are not. Shortly afterward Putin actually congratulated Russia’s “journalists” in response to the news. Do you know what that means? It means no funding cuts for a while.

See the only performance metric RT and Sputnik have is basically “Look! The West is afraid of us! See how angry they are?” They almost literally say exactly that in their own material meant for Russian consumption. Every panicky op-ed demanding that the EU do something about this Russian propaganda is liable to be snatched up by the propagandists themselves so as to justify their already inflated budgets in this time of crisis. So you can imagine how the Kremlin reacts when they find serious public figures in the West actually claiming that Russia swayed the election in favor of Trump. As immature and childish as the RT/Sputnik performance metric is, the widespread panic over Russian propaganda says “This is working. We’re winning. Let’s keep going and see what else we can do.”

What then, is the right way to respond to the threat of fake news? First of all- it’s domestic. Deal with it. Second, fake news and echo chambers are a symptom of our capitalist society. If this last election taught us anything, it’s that the ruling class on both sides of the political spectrum is extremely out of touch with much of the country, including their own constituents. If someone doesn’t start addressing the social causes of this, then Americans will continue checking out of real politics and tumbling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and fringe politics. So what is to be done?

In counter-insurgency warfare they have this term called the “population-centric” strategy. While it’s hard to find historical examples of purely population-centric strategies and not every population-centric strategy resulted in victory, in general this strategy tends to work much better than its opposite, known as “enemy-centric” strategy. The current Western approach to Russian propaganda could be termed as an enemy-centric strategy. Every proposal comes down to responding to the Russians, which is problematic because as we have seen, the West can’t control Russia’s actions (though I suspect they don’t want to).

What I propose is a sort of population-centric strategy, meaning that the focus is put on American and Western societies. It means opening up more dialog, addressing controversial issues, and actually resolving those problems that alienate people and perpetuate cynicism. This isn’t going to be easy. It means we’re going to have to start talking to people with bizarre politics, many of whom may display traits of cult-like brainwashing. But there is ample research to suggest that attacking someone’s beliefs, however absurd they may be, only causes them to double down and retreat further into a bubble. Meanwhile if Western institutions do more to address people’s needs, provide more tangible, visible stability and prospects for advancement, and also show accountability for their past actions, many people will open up and be willing to talk.

Do I believe that Western governments will adopt such a strategy? Personally I’m skeptical, because doing so threatens the status quo even more than Russia ever could, but at least we could say we warned them.

 

Not With a Bang But a Stupid Whimper

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

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

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

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

guyfawkes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At the Mountains of Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

It wasn’t you

Hey remember that time Sunday news host Dmitry Kiselyov ran a story accusing Alexei Navalny of being either a CIA or MI6 agent using the code name Agent Freedom?  And remember how I said this country appears to be run by children? Well guess what- you’re about to see another reason why I get that impression.

In case you weren’t following the case, Navalny responded in two ways. He announced that he would sue the Russian state network for slander, and he also publicly asked the FSB to investigate his alleged ties to foreign intelligence (they categorically refused, indicating that they are either convinced his is not a foreign agent or they are laughably incompetent- you decide). You’re probably no going to be shocked when you learn that the court rejected Navalny’s suit earlier this week. Just wait until you learn why, however.

You can read the story here (or from Navalny himself in Russian), but essentially the representatives of the network claimed that…brace yourselves…that the piece they aired was not about Navalny, and secondly, that the part which accuses not-Navalny of receiving money to overthrow the constitutional order of Russia (something they can easily prosecute you for) is not defamatory. They claimed that “labor relations are allowed” in Russia. While slander can be difficult to prove in some Western courts, you can usually bring in witnesses to help make your case. As is typical in politicized Russian cases, Navalny was not allowed to call his witnesses or enter any documents as evidence.

I say let the viewer be the judge- even if you don’t speak Russian, watch at least part of this video and decide whether or not someone might get the impression that this story is about Navalny.

Now do you see what I mean when I say that this place seems to be run by children? But let’s ignore that for a second, because now that the Russian media company VGTRK has been vindicated in court, there are a couple of important conclusions we can make.

The first and most important conclusion is that based on the decision of the Russian court, the FSB, and the Russian state-run TV network, Alexei Navalny is definitely not a foreign agent. So if you ever hear anyone claiming that he is, you can kindly remind them that the Russian judicial system and its main domestic intelligence service both categorically disagree.

The second conclusion, and this is a very important one, is that Dmitry Kiselyov and his media empire are full of shit. Just recently Kiselyov was interviewed by the BBC, when he pulled the typical whataboutism argument in response to the charges that he is a propagandist. You can watch that video here:

While he manages to score one minor point about the creative use of visuals to create a certain mood about public figures, Kiselyov’s argument fails because no, actually the BBC doesn’t put out propaganda, at least nothing comparable to what he has done. While Western media has often fallen for hoaxes or shown itself to be too reliant on official sources, when has the BBC deliberately produced a story accusing someone of being a Russian spy based on poorly translated documents? Where is the BBC’s “crucified boy?” And when asking these questions, it’s always helpful to remember there is to date no evidence of any big shake ups or firings in response to any of the infamous fake stories Russian state press has run. The answer is always the same. Either it’s our job to prove that it didn’t happen, or “you do it too,” even when you clearly don’t. Again, these people are children.