Tag Archives: propaganda

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.

How Kremlin propaganda (doesn’t) work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

RT and Sputnik commentators may be replaced by homeless men due to budget cuts

MOSCOW- Ronald B. Wallace, once a homeless man in his native Baltimore, finally has a roof over his head. Thousands of miles away in a residential district of Moscow, Wallace has been provided with a room in a small flat that also doubles as a studio for his own news talk show. Pacing back and forth across the old Soviet parquet floor and muttering to himself, he is mentally preparing to “go live” and begin a new career in TV journalism.

“You see people, it’s all there,” Wallace says at one point, going over his own script that he wrote in a coffee-stained spiral notebook. “They’ve had this planned out since 1776, maybe longer. The New World Order is here, I’m telling you. Open your eyes.”

Wallace is one of several dozen homeless Americans lured, some say kidnapped, to Moscow as part of a new pilot program of the state-run media. Because Russia’s foreign language media such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik News often require foreign staff and operate outside of Russia, their operational costs are considerably high, and worse still- numbered in hard currency such as dollars or euros. Faced with budget cuts in the wake of Russia’s worsening economic situation, some enterprising officials in the presidential administration believe they have found the solution. Vladimir Frolov, one of the Kremlin’s so-called “political technologists,” is one of those.

“Basically the problem is this- we need to maintain Russia’s soft power throughout the globe, but with the collapse of the ruble and the economic downturn it’s difficult to justify the huge operating costs that go with such efforts,” Frolov explained.

“I was tasked with evaluating the content of outlets such as RT and Sputnik, and suddenly it hit me. Why are we paying these foreigners such ridiculous salaries when I knew for a fact that we could find other foreigners, even native English speakers, who will do the same job for far less money and no noticeable decline in quality?”

An idea made in the USA

Frolov’s found his inspiration while on his annual family vacation in Miami, where he owns a luxury condominium.

“I was waiting for my Uber ride near a bus stop, and there was this dirty homeless man waving a tattered book in one hand and ranting at anyone who passed by. I heard him talking about the NWO, secret plans to rule the world, and he was constantly referencing the CIA and NSA. That’s when it dawned on me- this guy sounded just like one of our pundits! I offered him dinner at a nearby fast food establishment and the rest was history.”

Frolov took several additional weeks off to do research at bus stations, libraries, and public parks up and down the East coast. When he’d finally seen enough, he pitched his new idea to his kopeck-pinching superiors.

“Why pay some useless long-term expat 200,000 or 300,000 rubles a month to write long, incoherent rambling op-eds full of 9/11 conspiracy theories, alleged CIA plots, and lavish praise of Putin as a defender against the global hegemonic Anglo-American-Zionist imperialist NWO, when I can just stick some of these homeless guys in an apartment and hook them up with some booze and hot food from the nearest McDonald’s or KFC? What’s even better, about half these guys don’t even realize they’re in another country,” Frolov explained.

Escape from the CIA

Wallace was chosen for the project back in April and said that he initially had some misgivings about the project.

“I was on the street corner telling the truth, the truth that those in power don’t want you to hear, that which remains untold, and suddenly these guys come out of the bushes and grab me,” Wallace said,staring at the floor as he spoke. “I screamed that I was being taken by the CIA. I’d been waiting for this moment. I was sure they were the CIA Conein division; those are the guys that do all the black ops and wet work. I kept screaming this but nobody came to my aid. They are sheep, still trapped in the Matrix.”

Eventually the Russian operatives were able to convince Wallace that they were not, in fact, CIA agents, and Wallace agreed to be taken to their “secret arctic underground base,” where he was assured that he would be kept safe from what he dubbed the “Conein division.”

“You’ve got to understand, the CIA Conein division has been after me for years- decades even,” Wallace explained. “So when these men told me that they work for Vladimir Putin, the only man in the world who would know how to stop them, I naturally agreed. For once I can sleep soundly at night.”

Showtime

During the pilot, Wallace sits behind an IKEA desk with a green sheet draped behind him. To the viewer the broadcast would appear not far removed from a typical program on RT. The producer gives a signal, and Wallace begins his program without the aid of a teleprompter.

“Good evening and welcome to The Hunt for the Truth,” Wallace stares into the camera with laser-like focus, still clutching his ragged notebook in one hand.

“I’m your Paul Revere. I’m Prometheus. I’m Morpheus. I’m here to tell the untold, the knowledge they don’t want you to have. The CIA Conein division boys have been hunting me for years because they know what I know- I know all about the population control, the mainstream media Matrix, the chemicals they’ve been adding to our food and water to make us mindless, dull consumers who can’t care about anything but reality TV and professional sports. But thanks to Vladimir Putin, the NWO’s number one most hated opponent, I can broadcast the truth into your homes and none of their micro-jamming satellites can block the signal!”

Throughout the broadcast, Wallace dazzles his audience with complex diagrams explaining what he calls the “Luciferian New Genesis Agenda,” a conspiracy which has allegedly been in progress for centuries, if not millennia.

“Most experts, almost all of whom have been assassinated throughout history, acknowledge that this conspiracy goes back at least 300 years,” Wallace says, standing in front of a white board which he uses to map out the various connections between world events and leader involved in the alleged plot. “But it may go back even further, to the times of ancient Egypt or even earlier. There’s evidence to suggest that the Biblical Lucifer was in fact a man, and the legend about him being cast out of heaven was actually allegorical. Since then, Lucifer and his followers have been attempting to create their own ‘Garden of Eden.’ That Eden is the NWO- the New World Order.”

Winners and Losers

Not everyone is pleased with Frolov’s new cost-cutting measures. Some Western expats who work for the state media see the writing on the wall. Adam Tudesky, a frequent guest commentator on the Kremlin’s international satellite network, had dreamed of getting his own talk show but now says that he’s “in the sights of the cost-cutters.”

“I have always been an admirer of Putin’s style of rule and leaving the decaying, degenerate third world America for a resurgent Russia was the best decision I ever made,” said the 25-year-old political analyst, who moved to Russia in the summer of 2014 after leaving graduating college with a degree in Russian studies.

“I started talking to some people about NATO aggression against Russia, the fascist CIA coup in Ukraine, and color revolutions- all these things I’d heard about on RT. Two months later I’m a geopolitical expert and a little later I become a board member of the Institute of Eurasian Geopolitics and Hybrid Warfare, a prestigious Russian think tank.”

But Frolov’s new project has got Tudesky worried.

“I mean who are these guys, really? Are they real patriots? Could the CIA slip one of their agents in here as a homeless guy and start a color revolution? What if one of them says something on the air which casts doubt on Putin and his brilliant foreign policy? What then?”

Apart from concerns about the quality of the broadcasting, Tudesky admits he has his own personal interests as well.

“I’m not going to lie. I feel threatened by this move. If they go through with this my choices are teaching English to little kids or doing the unthinkable- moving back to the US and trying to figure out how I’m going to survive when the dollar collapses. Hopefully when that happens I can use my speaking skills to assist Putin in creating a Russian enclave on the continental US, but I don’t know what I’m going to do in the meantime.”

The next generation

Wallace admits he feels sorry for expats whom he might replace if the project get the go ahead, if only because they will, according to him, “no longer be safe from the Conein division.” But he also said this wouldn’t stop him from performing what he considers a “duty to wake people up.”

“People need to know the truth. They need to wake up and break free of the Matrix. When the UN troops show up on your doorstep to drag you off to the FEMA population control camps it’ll be too late. That’s why I do what I do. I’m sounding the alarm.”