Tag Archives: propaganda

The Russia Without BS Guide to Disinformation

Are you tired of being angry about things that aren’t actually happening? Are you tired of losing friends on social media because you keep posting bullshit stories from shady news sites based in some Balkan country? Well today you’re in luck, because after years of working in the field of counter-disinformation I’m finally presenting you with my list of tips for being less of a gullible rube online, or the guide to disinfo for short. 

I shouldn’t have to tell readers this, but these are general rules of thumb and if one or even a few of these points apply to a certain news item it doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake or misleading. Everything must be weighed on the merit of its evidence. There is no magic formula that makes it possible to determine fact from fiction or disinformation. Likewise, there is no source of news that is 100% reliable and accurate every time. 

The TRUTH!

Tip number one- if you see a news source, article, or video  that prominently features the word “truth” in its title, you should be suspicious. This is doubly so if you see it written in all-caps. One real-life example comes from an RT program called Truthseeker, which became the basis for one of the Russian broadcasters’ many sanctions by the British regulator Ofcom after they repeated the infamous “crucified boy” story from the war in Ukraine. Also, Russia’s propagandist and sex tourist Graham Phillips also ran a now-defunct personal blog called The Truthspeaker, which if you’re familiar with even a fraction of his work, tells you everything you need to know. Exercise similar caution with headlines or video titles that contain something like “The TRUTH about…” 

The reason this is suspicious is because if someone has done actual investigative work and they stand behind it, there’s already an automatic implication that the information is true. To understand the problem with overuse or inappropriate use of the term truth, just consider the following scenario: 

A person was supposed to deliver something to your office at a certain time and they are both late and the delivery is wrong. The person has a long explanation as to why this happened, and while they are giving it they pepper their speech with phrases like “believe me,” “trust me,” and “I’m telling you the God’s-honest truth.” Would you believe that person? Most rational people would say no or at least say that behavior is a major red flag. 

The corollary to this is if the story uses the word “lie” to refer to whatever narrative it is attacking. If a narrative is a lie, the article or video should be able to explain, in detail, why it is false or otherwise misleading. 

People Are Doing X…

One particularly annoying recipe for often unreliable clickbait stories is outrage fuel that is about “people” supposedly expressing their own outrage at something else, usually something innocuous. This is typically aimed at conservative audiences and will most often be about “college students” or “social justice warriors” supposedly getting “offended” by something seemingly trivial. These stories play to conservative identity politics about how they are thick-skinned, common sense-having, tough people while their opponents are limp-wristed, oversensitive, whiny snowflakes (yet they’re also somehow antifa super-soldiers about to launch a new civil war any day now). The Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik are also fond of such tactics, usually aimed at right-wing audiences in the West.

The problem with such stories is that, assuming they’re not entirely fabricated, they are typically based on a handful of social media posts, often on Twitter. Is there any proof these tweets are representative of any significant demographic? How many followers do those Twitter users actually have? Do their tweets even match the sentiments found in the story’s headline or copy? A really good example of how a tiny number of tweets can turn into “The SJWs are TRIGGERED by X” was tackled by the Youtuber Shaun, who debunked a fake outrage story about leftists supposedly being up in arms about a trailer for the game Doom: Eternal

A similar theme in this genre is “those college kids,” whereby we hear that spoiled, entitled, over-sensitive college kids are supposedly screeching with rage about something happening on campus. Right-wing grifters have made a killing off of this theme, which appeals equally to boomers as well as white millennial males who say dumb shit like “I was born in the wrong era.” It’s also been a boon to Never-Trump conservative columnists who find few outlets for their right-wing politics now that the field is dominated by defending Trump in scandal after scandal. 

In reality, most of “those college kids” stories are in fact bullshit. Trigger warnings and safe spaces? Just another moral panic. No-platforming speakers? An actual detailed examination of the phenomenon finds that conservative student organizations often protest or request to disinvite speakers on political grounds, something you never hear about in “campus free speech” pieces. Moreover, the fact that students, right or left, protested a speaker or tried to have them disinvited often doesn’t mean they were successful. More often than not, “PC Campus Crybabies Protest Speaker Who Offends Them” stories could be more accurately distilled as “Some Customers of an Institution Voice Their Objection to a Speaker They Disagree With.” Of course if they were worded that way, people would quickly see how non-newsworthy they are. 

For more examples of campus free-speech grifting, check out Robert Evans’ Behind the Bastards podcast, which did a special episode on this subject. Or for a good video on the related term “cancel culture,” check out Cody Johnston’s Some News. 

The Mainstream Media Won’t Show This! 

Grifters love to hook rubes by convincing them they’re offering them esoteric, forbidden knowledge “they” don’t want you to know about. This comes in a lot of different forms, but the general idea is that this person or outlet is offering you a look behind the curtain and if you want to be a “free-thinker” unlike all those “sheeple” out there, you’ll listen to them. 

First of all, the term “mainstream media” is ill-defined. What exactly is “mainstream” anyway? Sure, it could be large media outlets, but is the BBC mainstream in the United States, for example? Russia’s RT loves to bash the “mainstream media,” but it is yet another state-owned media enterprise in a country where the state controls most major media outlets (and heavily restricts independent ones). 

When confronted with “mainstream media isn’t covering X,” the first thing to do is run to Google and type whatever “X” is in the search bar. If the story is actually accurate and newsworthy, chances are major outlets have reported on it, and they have probably done a better job than the people who claimed they weren’t covering it. If the only results that come up are tabloids, government media outlets from authoritarian states, or sites with names like “The TRUTH Defender,” it’s probably bullshit. 

Sure, sometimes there might be important stories that aren’t on the network evening news or they are just blurbs in the paper, but the fact that a particular story isn’t front page news or the news anchor doesn’t give you an in-depth rundown of the ideological variations between the major Syrian opposition groups each evening doesn’t mean the mainstream media is trying to cover something up. There’s a difference between headline news and investigative stories. Yeah, as it turns out if you want to be informed about something you’ll actually have to read, a lot. Someone on TV or running a blog (yeah, including this one) can’t just spoonfeed you an understanding of complex events. Plus, there might be a logical reason why an outlet focuses more on one event in a certain place and not a similar event in a different place.

In any case if you were really serious about understanding some complex issue like a war or the politics of a foreign country you’re not going to be looking at your newsfeed or cable news; you should be reading books by recognized experts in the field. 

Sources

As a corollary to the above, grifters who overuse the term mainstream media derisively often try to cultivate the idea that certain sources can be automatically trusted on anything, while others can be dismissed out of hand, specifically any source they designate as “mainstream.” Russian media often uses a variant of this whereby bad media that’s unfair to Russia labeled “Western media,” and of course you can’t trust Western media to report the truth! This labeling seems to convince some people because the West is portrayed as this US-led hegemony and Russia’s posited as opposing it. But consider that there are also plenty of non-Western media outlets which report on things like Russia’s role in MH17 or the Skripal poisoning. Are Al Jazeera or Daily Sabah “Western” now? In reality, “Western media” in the Russian press typically means “media reporting things that contradict the narratives of the Kremlin, foreign ministry, defense ministry, etc.” Same goes for “mainstream media,” “corporate media,” etc. These labels say nothing about the quality of the outlet’s reporting or the veracity of any individual story. 

The idea that there are sources you can consistently trust on everything and those you should dismiss all the time is, to say the least, naive. You have to look at the outlet’s reputation, how they’ve responded when they got something wrong, and how thorough their reporting on a topic is. And even then, that’s just one source of news. It’s not necessarily going to make you informed on certain topics. 

Another reason the dismiss “mainstream media” approach is bullshit is because virtually every individual or outlet who does this inevitably ends up citing the same mainstream media they regularly dismiss in their stories or basing entire stories around the idea that “even the mainstream media is acknowledging this!” Either they are acknowledging what the truth-to-power writer is claiming, which thus contradicts their claims about media coverups on that topic, or they are misrepresenting what the outlet they’re citing actually said. Even in the latter case, they’re still attempting to cite a source they would otherwise dismiss were it not for the idea that a major outlet reporting on something gives them credibility. And that’s just it- they do this because they know that no matter what you say about not trusting “mainstream media,” a part of you still trusts that enough to give more credence to them as a source. 

Russian state media does this all the time with their term “Western media.” They know that their domestic audience doesn’t trust them, so while they’ll dismiss any Western media outlet’s negative reporting on the Kremlin regime, they’ll often enthusiastically cite “Western media” whenever it appears to go along with what their messaging. Of course this often means turning some obscure blogger into “Western media.” In fact, in one case they took something of mine that had been reported in The Guardian and twisted the meaning considerably before presenting it as a “Western journalist” attacking other “Western journalists” on their Russia reporting.

Identity Politics

A tell-tale sign of bullshit is when you get the feeling that the article is trying to say something about  your personal identity depending on whether you agree or disagree. Does the outlet or the author of one of their pieces imply that you’re a truthseeking free thinker if you believe their version of an event, as opposed to a mindless member of the “sheeple” if you don’t? Perhaps you’re not “patriotic” if you take the wrong side in the article, or maybe you too are a censorious, fragile snowflake if you think maybe those college students had a point when they protested against something? 

If the answer is yes to any of that- it’s most likely a manipulation tactic. Obviously if it’s an opinion piece that sort of thing is more appropriate, but not in a news story. 

Politically Correct/Incorrect

If you see these words invoked unironically, increase the skepticism. These terms don’t mean anything. For example, in the manufactured outrage over Colin Kaepernik, nobody attacked Kaepernik’s critics for being PC snowflakes. Nor did the people who typically proclaim themselves politically incorrect praise him for also being politically incorrect. Opponents of same-sex marriage didn’t get labeled as politically correct when in fact their position was basically the definition of that until relatively recently. 

In short, this is just a snarl phrase where PC = bad and un-PC = good, cold hard truth (often not true at all). 

When In Rome – Leave

This one may seem oddly specific, but bear with me. Any time you see some American commentator saying our country is about to “fall like the Roman Empire,” that’s a fairly good sign you shouldn’t pay attention to them. Doubly so if they attribute that fall to “decadence.” Most likely that person’s sum total of knowledge on Rome amounts to having seen Gladiator once or twice. The decline of the Roman Empire was a long and extremely complex process that was due to many factors, and typically the “collapse” they’re thinking of is only the fall of the Western Empire, while the Eastern one continued on for nearly another thousand years. 

In short, “aMeRiCa iS lIkE rOmE” is an example of stuff that sounds smart to stupid people, much like “we’re a republic, not a democracy!”or “the Nazis were socialists!” 

Constant Complaining About ‘Bias’

This one is pretty straightforward- if an outlet is constantly complaining about other outlets being “biased,” it is probably biased itself in favor of a particular point of view. American conservative media is a major offender here. Anything not reporting their version of a story, no matter how idiotic or fabricated it is, is “biased.” This is a nice way of actually avoiding the need to provide evidence for your claims and explain why the other claims are false. 


Terribly sorry, but reality tends to have a certain bias. The Earth is round. Vaccines save lives. Trump is objectively a moron. Russia shot down MH-17 and poisoned the Skripals. Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons multiple times. To take just one of those examples, that of MH17, it is a matter of comparing what has basically been one, more or less unchanging narrative of events (Russia shot it down), to numerous, changing, often impossible or mutually exclusive alternative explanations. Perhaps if the Russian side had decided to carefully craft one alternative narrative and present evidence only for that explanation, they might have produced something worthy of serious consideration. But alas, they deliberately decided on a strategy of simultaneously promoting dozens of easily-debunked fake stories even as the debris was still smoldering. Nobody made them do that; nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to put out a stream of bullshit via multiple channels. Therefore there’s no bias in saying they have zero credibility on that topic and people aren’t unfairly biased against them for not trusting what they say about it.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Eyes to See

What is the worst combination you could possibly imagine? Skittles on Chicago-style pizza? Mayonnaise Pop-Tarts? Automatic weapons for toddlers? I’ve got a pretty good contender. How about the worst film genre in existence, i.e. romantic comedy, and Russian propaganda about the Crimea? Not sold just yet? What if I told you this very real rom-com was scripted by none other than RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan? Yes. You read that correctly. Yes, I am going to subject you to this. I know about it, so now you must know about it. This is happening.

I realize some readers can’t fully understand that trailer, but rest assured it is a delightfully romantic romp that involves flagrant violations of international law as well as human rights! What’s next? A German rom-com where two star-crossed lovers are reunited in East Prussia when the Third Reich invades Poland? After all, Germany was merely trying to protect the German civilian population from a right-wing nationalist Polish government whose troops attacked several German border posts and a radio station!

But if this weren’t bad enough, the film apparently contains a subplot about the Crimean Tatars, and, as you might expect, it’s pretty ugly. Here are a few excerpts from the above-linked article.

“The film offers an unlikely take on the issue of Crimean Tatars. It opens with a young Crimean Tatar boy named Damir recalling how the original Kerch Strait bridge, a temporary wartime construction, was destroyed by winter ice in early 1945.

The scene is improbable at best, since the entire Crimean Tatar population was ruthlessly deported from the peninsula in 1944 by Stalin. In fact, Simonyan’s masterpiece was filmed just a few dozen kilometers from the Arabat Spit, where the last pockets of Crimean Tatars who had escaped deportation were loaded onto a boat that was then scuttled in the Sea of Azov, drowning all aboard.

Damir, however, grieves because the destroyed bridge separates him from his wartime love, a Russian girl named Raya, who has gone missing.

Damir is a forgiving type. At one point, discussing his own family’s fate under Stalin, he says simply, “They were sent away — that means it had to be.” At other points in the film, he has approving words for Stalin.”

Needless to say, not only was the situation for Crimean Tatars in the past very different from what is portrayed in the film, but the present is as well. Since the annexation Crimean Tatars have been subject to all manner of human rights violations, including torture and in at least one case, death. The whitewashing of both eras is a perfect example of how the Muscovite chauvinist regime views non-Muscovite nationalities within its grasp. “You will have your history dictated to you, and you may keep your culture and language so long as it doesn’t offend us.” 

The word ‘disgusting’ simply doesn’t suffice to describe this subplot.

As for the rest of the film, let’s just say this isn’t Russia’s first rodeo when it comes to feature length propaganda films about the Crimean annexation. There was also this piece of shit:

As bad as this may be, at least it’s not a rom-com; it’s clearly just a comedy. On the other hand, that 2017 film wasn’t written by Margarita Simonyan.

Now I know a lot of people, Americans included, will chime in with something about propaganda in Hollywood films. Sure, they certainly do (although in my opinion it’s more a matter of steering clear of certain taboo subjects more than anything), but rest assured modern Russian cinema blows them out of the water in terms of on-the-nose messaging. And whereas Hollywood will often liberally reinterpret real events to tell a better story, films like this basically invent a story out of thin air. If the examples above don’t convince you of this, check out the trailer for this upcoming Russian film, seemingly trying to capitalize off Ukraine’s Cyborgs, called Balkan Line.

In case you’re too young or not familiar with the 1999 Kosovo conflict I’ll help you out- none of that shit happened. It’s as if the Russian producers looked at Cyborgs, saw how well it did, and decided they just needed their own war film about an airport under siege. And since they couldn’t find a real one, they just made one up. In real life, the Russian airborne contingent who rolled into Pristina airport was totally isolated, and the whole situation was defused with the help of James Blunt. Yes, James “You’re Beautiful” Blunt. And it’s a good thing the Russians didn’t try anything because if you’ve ever seen Blunt on Twitter you know he’s no pushover.

But yeah, American Sniper sucks, but just imagine that almost every Hollywood film is American Sniper x 100, and your tax dollars are used to churn them out. Sounds great, right?

Honestly though, I’m wondering how far Margarita will go in the world of screenwriting. At the same time, I wonder how far the Russian film industry will go in the world of making up shit that never happened. Perhaps next we’ll see a film about how the Soviets actually landed on the moon first. The sky’s truly the limit when your film industry is a state-sponsored money laundering vehicle!

The New Default

Lately I find myself writing more and more about how modern America is starting to resemble Putin’s Russia. Yesterday seems to confirm a new milestone.

As some of you are no doubt aware, on Friday authorities arrested a man suspected of mailing package bombs to a long list of Fox News rogues gallery villains such as George Soros, the Clintons, and Barack Obama. Now even before the suspect had been arrested, it became pretty clear based on the targets alone that the guy was clearly a right-winger. Occam’s Razor in this situation would tell us that if a man shows open support for Trump, belief in right-wing conspiracy theories, and targets the main villains in those conspiracy theories, he must be a true believer who has become radicalized, i.e. a home-grown, right-wing terrorist.

But this, of course, is 2018, and Occam’s Razor has been totally thrown out the window by a huge segment of the population. Now, when someone actually acts on all these conspiracy theories by engaging in some kind of violence or threat of violence, the default for all the other chuds that spread this bullshit is, you guessed it- FALSE FLAG!

Mass shooting? False flag! Terrorist attack? False flag, unless it can be used as an argument against immigration or Muslims. Chemical attack? False flag! Once again, another sign that modern-day America is becoming more and more like Putin’s Russia. There, for many years, whenever some scandal leads directly to the Kremlin, the state-press repeats the mantra, Кому выгодно? (Qui bono?)

Again, just another sign we’re sinking deeper and deeper into unreality, where the truth is whatever you want it to be at any given moment so as to preserve your sense of identity. Strap yourself in, folks. This isn’t going to end well.

A World of BS: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Denial

So by now we’re all aware that the Saudi government almost certainly killed and dismembered a famous Saudi journalist in their consulate in Istanbul. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has provoked an outrage among U.S. politicians, typically deferential to Riyadh, that is almost unprecedented. Naturally, instead of using this as a potential last straw to finally start shifting the American public’s attention to our country’s morally reprehensible relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Western left is fumbling the ball by saying things like “Saudi Arabia did 9/11!” and “What about Yemen?!” The latter is of course referring to the bloody, criminal war carried out in that country by Saudi Arabia and the UAE with military support the US and UK, a war that no major Western media outlet reports on, except for Washington PostNY TimesGuardianCNN, NBC, ABC, Vox, Voice of America, and BBC.

Of course since I’m taking a break from US left politics at the moment, I wanted to highlight another interesting phenomenon that we’ve seen in the wake of the Khashoggi case. Looking at the response from both the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry as well as its media, one cannot help but notice eerie parallels with Russia’s response to scandals such as the Skripal poisoning, interference in the 2016 election, and the downing of MH17. To be fair, Russia has a bit more experience in this field, and as laughable as their denials can be at times, they have at least developed a certain style that is less awkward than that of the Saudis.

Compare:

demise

“Demise is the outcome of these weak endeavors” needs to be the next “Your industry can burn!

 

As you can see, there are some stylistic differences. What is curious, however, is the similarities. For example, note the expression of concern for the victim.

Remember how much the Russian government complained about not being granted access to Sergei and Yulia Skripal (after her recovery Yulia said she was aware of the Russian consulate’s offers, but declined to meet with them)?

Also, note the Saudi use of the classic Russian tactic- “Let’s not point fingers and wait for the investigation to be finished!”

To be fair, advising everyone to hold their judgment until an investigation is finished is not in itself a terrible thing, except in cases where all the evidence almost immediately points to one particular culprit and there are no other suspects to logically consider. More importantly, it is pointless to demand people wait until the investigation is complete if you’re just going to claim the results were biased after the fact, as Russia has done in the case of MH17, several chemical attacks by the Assad regime in Syria, and the Skripal poisoning case. If an objective investigation is carried out, and all its findings point directly to Saudi Arabian government officials, it seems almost inevitable that they will declare the investigation to be politically motivated and thus void.

Saudi-owned media like Al Arabiya is also running interference. Here we can see editorializing right in the first paragraph of this article, which also shares a similarity with Russian state media by starting its headline with “US media expert.” The article’s lede refers to “rumors” about Khashoggi’s disappearance, and contains the term “doubtful information” and “wrongful accusations.” This is even more egregious than some recent RT articles which do things like refer to “staged chemical attacks” in Syria, as though they’ve ever managed to show any evidence of a staged chemical attack there.

There are even closer parallels in some cases. After a Turkish newspaper released photos of 15 men believed to be Saudi government operatives suspected of being involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance, Al Arabiya claimed they were just tourists, prompting one Twitter user to say they were “pulling a Putin.” Also, much like with the Russian playbook, the Saudis have already started to suggest alternative explanations, one of which is that the killing might have been carried out by rogue agents in its intelligence service either intentionally or during an interrogation gone wrong. This half-admission resembles Putin’s talk about “patriotic hackers” amid flat denials about interfering in the US election in 2016. And just like with Putin’s denials about interfering in the U.S. election, Donald Trump seems totally ready to buy the Saudi King’s story.

This is the world we’re living in today. The Kremlin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Bashar al-Assad, Brexit, China, TPUSA- all of these regimes, politicians, movements, etc. have all come to power, survived, or advanced their interests by propagating unreality. Unreality is beyond lies or propaganda; it’s dependent on a receptive audience. Unreality is the idea that you no longer have to live in material reality at all, and instead can just make up your own narrative to explain everything. Living in unreality is like a being an adult who still believes in Santa Claus. Nothing you were taught in school about physics or anything you observed for at least a quarter of a century can convince you that Santa Claus doesn’t fly around the entire globe on 25 December and deliver presents to good Christian children- that he in fact does not exist at all. You know he exists. You want him to exist. So he exists, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise or even bring up any facts which might contradict your belief is a dupe, a shill, or a paid agent of the anti-Christmas lobby (Bet George Soros doesn’t celebrate Christmas, does he?).

In similar fashion, many people want to believe that Assad doesn’t gas people or that Russia didn’t shoot down MH17, so they will go through the most Olympic Gold Medal-winning mental gymnastics to explain why they’re dismissing all manner of concrete evidence while never applying the same skepticism to other claims that they either agree with or just don’t care about. Either that, or they just dismiss something offhand based on claims about the funding of its source, be it a media outlet, think tank, or NGO. And because it’s unreality, that same outlet, think tank, or NGO can be presented as totally legitimate any time it releases a information that supports or seems to support the unreality-dweller’s worldview.

When pondering on this topic I’m reminded of the words of one of my personal role models, James Randi, who described a particular type of person he often encountered in his lifelong struggle against con artists and quacks.

“There exists in society a very special class of persons that I have always referred to as the Believers. These are folks who have chosen to accept a certain religion, philosophy, theory, idea or notion and cling to that belief regardless of any evidence that might, for anyone else, bring it into doubt. They are the ones who encourage and support the fanatics and the frauds of any given age. No amount of evidence, no matter how strong, will bring them any enlightenment. They are the sheep who beg to be fleeced and butchered, and who will battle fiercely to preserve their right to be victimized… the U.S. Patent Office handles an endless succession of inventors who still produce perpetual-motion machines that don’t work, but no number of idle flywheels will convince these zealots of their folly; dozens of these patent applications flow in every year. In ashrams all over the world, hopping devotees of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi will never abandon their goal of blissful levitation of their bodies by mind power, despite bruises and sprains aplenty suffered as they bounce about on gym mats like demented (though smiling) frogs, trying to get airborne. Absolutely nothing will discourage them.”

Of course as the above quote shows, Randi was referring to believers in various spiritual doctrines, pseudo-scientific claims, and the paranormal. But in our age, unreality has become…dare I say it…weaponized by governments and politicians, and now we have perpetual believers in these secular cults.

No doubt the Saudi Kingdom will have its own share of believers around the world, although in the West I suspect most of them will simply be lobbyists on the payroll. Apart from Donald Trump and his entourage, most Westerners find Saudi Arabia too alienating and its soft power too awkward to be attracted to it the way they have been attracted to propaganda from, say, Russia.

Whatever the case, we are as a species stumbling further into unreality- perhaps because we can no longer face reality. Basically, we’re living in a world of bullshit.

Finally!

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about this New Yorker article about a new book called Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Unfortunately due to time constraints I wasn’t able to get around to reading it for a while and only now have I got the time to actually give my take on it. While I haven’t been able to examine the book’s arguments in detail, I have to say that this seems to be the first time I’ve seen anyone actually try to attempt to measure the influence of Russian propaganda on the 2016 election with some semblance of scientific rigor. Those of you who follow this blog know that I have often complained about how many of those pundits and politicians who express such confidence that Russia swung the election to Trump seem to avoid expending even minimal effort to try to substantiate their claims. Specifically, nobody seemed to be interested in going out to those key battleground states to survey voters who changed their votes to Trump, a third party, or who decided not to vote at all, and then try to determine the extent to which these people had been exposed to Russian propaganda, e.g. via Facebook.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Jamieson’s book does that specific thing, but it does present an interesting case. For one thing, it points out that in those key Midwestern states where Hillary lost unexpectedly, the deck was stacked against Hillary when it came to getting votes. Anyone trying to influence the election against her had an advantage because they didn’t need to push people to vote for her opponent or a third party but rather they could just as easily convince people not to vote at all. This is reminiscent of an old axiom about guerrilla warfare- the insurgent doesn’t need to win; they just need to not lose.

If you look at a lot of Russian propaganda surrounding the election, you’ll notice that a good deal of it is aimed at people who are either left wing or at least left enough to reject Trump. But the Russian propaganda on Facebook, for example, seems to be aimed at keeping those people from voting for Hillary. Some stuff could be construed as anti-GOP or even anti-Trump, but I’ve yet to see anything from that period which is pro-Hillary, or more accurately, anything that would support the idea that as bad a candidate as she is, she’s at least better than Trump.

Now before anyone suggests that this is setting up an excuse for the Hillary campaign, take note that if Russian influence played a decisive role, it could only do so because the election was so close, far closer than it should have been. Judging from the article, one of the main factors in swinging the election was the hacking of the DNC emails, which contained a lot of material relating to Hillary’s political baggage. In other words, a candidate without such baggage would have been harder to bring down. So there’s no letting the Democratic party off the hook even if this book is 100% correct in its hypothesis. If Russian influence swung the campaign it was almost certainly because the weakness of the party and its candidate made it vulnerable to such influence in the first place.

Like I’ve said about Kremlin propaganda dozens of times before- it is effective only where vulnerabilities exist. Corruption, lack of accountability, inequality, and a refusal by politicians to address any of those problems inevitably spreads the rot in which the bullshit of RT, Sputnik, and the Internet Research Agency take root and sprout. Address those aforementioned problems, and people will see the propaganda for what it is- nonsensical fringe crap from a corrupt, authoritarian, desperate regime that has nothing of value to offer the outside world.

And am I sold on the idea that Russia swung the 2016 election, after all this? Well I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what happened. Too much time has already passed and we have much bigger issues to deal with. What I will say is that the idea that it had an impact can no longer be discounted.

The Ties That Bind

If there’s one common theme we hear from grifters narrative architects about Russian influence operations, it’s that the object is to “divide” American society in order to weaken it. The proof, we’re told, is in the fact that much of the material put out by Russian soft power organs like RT and Sputnik, as well as the social media content from the St. Petersburg “troll factory,” is aimed at both far-right and far-left audiences. This allegedly means the Russians want to divide society by promoting polarized narratives. I’m sorry to say, but this is bullshit.

This delusion lives on because it is pleasing to certain people among the political class. It speaks to their unrealistic vision of an America where people may disagree on a few core issues, but at heart share much in common. In other words it’s Obama’s “there’s no red or blue America” speech. In reality, America has been very divided for quite some time, and while it may seem like Russian propaganda is aimed at further polarizing society, I’d say it’s more about unifying certain elements more than anything.

Over the past few years, regular readers have noted my increasing concern over red-brown activity, i.e. the coordination, both witting and unwitting, between the far-left and far-right. Historically the far-right has always tried to appropriate concepts from the left and co-opt leftists movements, but since the end of the Cold War certain actors have strove to embrace and advance this convergence for a number of aims. Where Russia is concerned, the neo-fascist Alexander Dugin appears to have made red-brown organizing a conscious strategy, one that has become a pillar of Russian soft power.

In short, Russian influence operations do not, in fact, aim to divide society in other countries, but rather unify certain elements against others. Where it cannot create actual alliances, it aims to get disparate groups to agree on certain talking points even if they may espouse them for different reasons and with different intentions. The fact that the propaganda being put out has polarizing messages is beside the point; it is designed that way simply to find a loyal audience. The main goal, once people of certain political views are hooked, is to turn them toward the Kremlin’s position on certain foreign policy goals.

We see this constantly not only in America but in other countries as well, such as Germany. Whether far-right or far-left, even in those countries where such people are often involved in bloody streetfighting, we see curious uniformity when it comes to certain issues that are near and dear to the Kremlin. Supporting Ukraine is a “proxy war,” brought on by a NATO-inspired “coup.” It matters little whether the person receiving and hopefully regurgitating the message believes that Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis or liberal crypto-Jews; all that matters is that the audience is hostile to Ukrainian independence, identity, and territorial integrity. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether the same person supports Russia’s claims on that country because they identify it with the Soviet Union or as a champion resisting the neoliberal hegemony or because they see it as the last hope for the “white race” and “Western civilization.” What is important to the Kremlin is unity- unity around that key point.

No doubt the best example of this unity is in the case of Syria, where many leftists have so easily bought into the Kremlin/Assadist narrative that they find themselves in bed with literal fascist parties and even neo-Nazi icons such as David Duke. Again, from the Kremlin point of view it is utterly unimportant whether the reason for backing Assad or at least opposing his removal is “anti-imperialism” or the belief that he fights against a “Zionist New World Order.” All that matters is that the talking points are repeated- Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria. The rebels are either all al Qaeda-linked Salafist jihadists or at least such people would surely dominate any future Syria without Assad.

Of course when it comes to the extreme right and left in many countries, they will often come close to such positions on their own, typically due to reasons inherent in their respective ideologies. But without direction, these groups might not always find their way to positions that benefit the Kremlin’s foreign policy aims. For example, while Russia clearly won the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to neo-Nazis and Ukraine, easily wooing more far-rightists to fight for their pseudo-states in the Donbas than the Ukrainian far-right was able to win to their side, the latter did manage to get some recruits. Were it not for the Russian propaganda machine, the split might have been more even. The same goes for recruitment of the far-left, as many more open-minded leftists around the world were supportive of Maidan for its revolutionary, anti-corruption aspects. Russian propaganda aimed at both ends of the spectrum helps guide disparate, even diametrically opposed sides to the same conclusions on key issues, though they may take different paths.

So in the future let’s put aside the idea that the aim of Russian disinformation is to divide society- our societies are divided and in many cases for very good reasons. After all, we cannot have unity with political groupings or tendencies that seek to strip away the civil rights of others. The key to understanding Russian influence operations (and doubtless those of other countries), is to understand their unifying aim. What are they trying to get disparate political tendencies to agree on, one way or another?

Russia Clickbait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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