Tag Archives: Stopfake

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.

 

 

The content of their character

One of the most common tactics of the Kremlin supporter is to impugn a source of information based on where they supposedly get their funding. It is also rather ironic, considering the fact that these same people often either work for or commonly site media that is entirely owned and paid for by the Russian government. But dealing with Kremlin fans inevitably means dealing with the most brazen hypocrisy.

In an age of PR-gone-wild, it makes sense to ask questions about funding. As the saying goes: He who pays the piper calls the tune. The problem is, however, that folk wisdom doesn’t really get you very far in the real world, where governments and individuals often have very complex, sometimes seemingly contradictory motives for funding initiatives or donating to non-profit organizations. Let us explore that a little deeper.

While this is a topic I’ve been wanting to address for a long time now, once again you have Anatoly “Da Russophile” Karlin to thank as a sort of catalyst for this post. He was apparently upset that Russia Without BS has some kind of “syndication” agreement with Stopfake.

First of all for the new readers out there, yes, there is a sort of “agreement” with Stopfake; I gave them permission to repost my work as they see fit. I am personally acquainted with the founders and many of the workers at Stopfake and I see no reason to apologize for this because Stopfake provides a much-needed service and on a personal level I find them to be dedicated, sincere individuals.

As for Karlin’s figure of 100,080 pounds per year, I’m not sure where that comes from (see update on this at the bottom of the post -JK). I was under the impression that they go grant-by-grant, somewhat like Hromadske.tv. In any case this is totally irrelevant. What matters above all is the content an outlet produces, not who funds it.

In this case, we may look back at the Russian media backlash against the Panama Papers for another example. As is typically the case, the super sleuths at RT and other affiliated blogs draw a line between the ICIJ, the Center for Public Integrity, and then yet another organization, and another, until they find funding from…THE US GOVERNMENT! Well then, the CPI might as well be Air America! Of course the CPI also gets some money from George Soros, but as it turns out they also covered Soros’ donations in their investigation of campaign financing.

So how do we judge if the CPI is just a US government front for information warfare, or an honest organization dedicated to real investigative journalism and questioning those in power. Well let’s just pop on over to their front page.

cpi

Hmmm…Nothing about Russia or Putin there. In fact nothing about any foreign country. And look! There’s a story about the dealings of Pierre Omidyar, the guy that Putin fanboy Mark Ames is obsessed with. And what of that article about the US prosecutor opening an investigation into the Panama Papers? Doesn’t even mention Putin or Russia. Today the front page looks a little hard on Sanders, but scroll down a bit and we get this story about defense contractors donating the most money to Hillary.

As I’ve mentioned before plenty of times, Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, is featured heavily in this documentary that deals with the topic of media manipulation and consolidation in the US:

 

I have also pointed out before how the CPI maintains an archive of over 900 false statements that led to the Iraq War, but hey- Soros! State Department! BLLLLEARGH!!!

And what about Stopfake? Well if someone really wants to attack Stopfake they could start by showing which stories they claimed were fakes turned out to be real. It’s also worth noting that Stopfake does debunk fake stories from the Ukrainian media as well. They probably would do so a lot more if it weren’t for a much larger, consolidated propaganda machine deliberately and explicitly waging “information war” against Ukraine. And this also gets right to the heart of the matter about grants and funding for organizations like Stopfake or Hromadske.tv. The programs which fund such organizations are dedicated to building up a functioning free press in nations where such a thing hasn’t existed before. As in Russia, Ukraine’s media doesn’t have stringent standards of journalism. In fact, many of the fake stories coming out of Russia aren’t deliberately concocted out of thin air- they are just repeated with no fact-checking whatsoever. If foreign-based Kremlin fanboys would actually bother to talk to the people who work at organizations like Stopfake or Hromadske, they’d probably learn that these are people who sincerely believe in good journalism and have no interest in being puppets of some foreign government.

Now one might ask why then should RT or Sputnik be dismissed as propaganda bullhorns due to their funding. My answer is they shouldn’t. While they are entirely owned by the Kremlin and managed by well-known supporters of Putin, we must always look at the content first and foremost. For one thing, RIA Novosti was entirely Kremlin-owned in the past, yet it managed to produce objective material. The Moscow News, which was under RIA Novosti, was also known for providing a diverse, pluralistic viewpoint that often criticized or questioned the Kremlin. Russia Behind the Headlines still clearly maintains more objectivity than the other state-run outlets.

By contrast RT and Sputnik, from what I’ve seen, have never challenged the Kremlin line on anything. When Putin said there were no troops in the Crimea, they said so. When he admitted it, they admitted it but said it was justified. When it comes to foreign policy they have carefully and dutifully stuck to the president and foreign ministry’s line on virtually every point. Moreover, as I’ve said in the past we never see any attempt to seriously challenge Putin or the foreign ministry’s statement on anything. There are no “fact checks” of his speeches, the sort of which we see all the time from Western media outlets about Western leaders. We are not given the opportunity to hear a variety of views from different Maidan participants to better understand what that event was really about. We don’t get to see how the Donbas “rebels” shell the very same people they claimed they were trying to protect from the “junta.” We get “analysis” on Ukraine and Russia from people who have very little prior background on either topic, if any at all. And what is more, we see a consistent pattern of cowardly, anonymous attacks on any journalists who challenge the Kremlin line in the Op-Edge section.

Now you add to that the Kremlin ownership and management by Putin fanatics and you see precisely why RT and Sputnik can be readily dismissed as propaganda outlets. It’s not just on the basis of those two facts; they behave precisely as you’d expect propaganda outlets to behave. I don’t have any problem finding material from the BBC that criticizes the British government or otherwise portrays it in a bad light. If I did have such problems, and if they seemed to be on a warpath against any outlet or individual who questions them, then I’d label them a propaganda outlet too.

And if you’re an RT fan or employee who’s reading this, keep in mind that it didn’t have to be this way. RT and Sputnik could have carried on the traditions of RIA-Novosti or The Moscow News, providing objective reporting with better coverage of the Russian government’s POV. But alas, that’s not what Ms. Simonyan and Mr. Kiselyov wanted to do. They wanted to wage “information war,” because they just told themselves that all media works the same way without every questioning this assumption. So what you ended up with is a propaganda machine that is increasingly becoming a global laughing stock.

Getting back on topic the point is simple. There’s nothing wrong with questioning who funds whom, but ultimately what matters is the content that gets produced. Moreover, the Kremlin fanboy tactic of guilt by association, no matter how stretched and tenuous the connections are, is getting real old, as old as their “whataboutery.” But hey, when you can’t be bothered to actually answer the accusations, investigations, and difficult questions, whataboutery, guilt by association, and poisoning the well might be the only tools in the box.

UPDATE: Karlin was kind enough to provide the source of that figure here. Nice of the UK government to be so transparent. As I suspected, it is not funded on a yearly basis but rather this was a one-year grant. Here is how the UK government site describes Stopfake:

“The purpose of this project is to help the StopFake project increase its impact in Ukraine and other countries targeted by disinformation campaigns. It focuses on improving reporting in Ukraine and abroad; promoting tools for fact-checking; easing tensions instigated by propaganda and misinformation; and enlarging the scope of true news spreading in social networks.”

As you can see, this is obviously a dastardly information warfare campaign aimed at expanding NATO and destroying Russia. In their Russophobic logic, it’s perfectly fine to label pro-Kremlin stories “fake” just because they happened to be untrue. Is there no end to Albion’s perfidy?!

Backfire

I’ve found that the best way to navigate the horror show that is life is to never lose your ability to laugh. Take today’s earlier post. It’s very serious subject matter. But as part of it concerns the notorious Azov battalion I couldn’t help but be reminded of another recent story, and in remembering that I noticed something rather funny that I just have to share.

As some readers already know, the Netherlands is holding a referendum on approving the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. Some consider this move highly unusual and ominous, but that’s another story. What’s important here is that after the announcement of the referendum, a fake video appeared online, disseminated by Russian sources, in which masked, armed men claiming to be members of the Azov battalion threaten acts of terrorism against the Netherlands should the Dutch people vote “no” on the referendum.

Apparently a second video was made:

Alright, the purpose of these videos seems pretty clear. Azov guys threaten the Netherlands with terrorism, and the Dutch people get insulted and decide they want nothing to do with Ukraine, thus voting “no” on the referendum by a landslide. That’s how it should work, right?

Wait a second. Just suppose for a second that Dutch people are total cowards, or at least a wide majority of them are.* After all, according to the Kremlin media isn’t the country the epitome of Gayropean tolerance, where you let Muslim migrants walk all over you in between orgiastic gay pride parades? So if this were the case, what if a majority of Dutch people were so frightened by those “Azov” men that they collectively said: “Oh dear! I don’t want to anger those guys! They might crash a truck full of horilka into Anne Frank’s house or something! I’d better vote ‘yes’ in this referendum!”

Of course if polls leaned that way, maybe the Kremlin media will have to release more “Azov” videos, in which our masked men inform the audience that they have changed their minds, they hate Europe, and the Dutch people had better vote “no” if they don’t want to be plagued with Ukrainian terrorist attacks. Of course that could backfire too, if Dutch people are not cowards but in fact really stubborn. “Threaten us? Well let’s just vote ‘yes’ and see what they do about it!”

Sure, it’s just a funny little scenario and those videos probably won’t have any bearing on the referendum, but it just goes to show how Russian propaganda messages often get so twisted that they can become garbled, incoherent, and possibly have an effect that is the opposite of the original intention.

 

*No, I’m not calling Dutch people cowards. I love Paul Verhoeven and I’ve seen Soldier of Orange twice. My favorite WWII film is still A Bridge Too Far. I know about the Anglo-Boer Wars. Take a hit off the bong and relax.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So don’t panic. Point and laugh.