Tag Archives: Russia

Disinformation Kills

Propaganda takes all sorts of different forms, and serves a variety of interests. Does the latest scientific knowledge undercut your fundamentalist religious or political beliefs? Does the upcoming election pit your preferred candidate against one who is espousing more popular measures? Are you frantic because “those people” are asserting their entitlement to rights equal to your own, or because those you consider “real Americans” are losing their privileged  social or cultural positions?

Lie. Target those lies to an audience likely to be unsure or unaware of the facts and thus receptive to your preferred version of reality. Examples emerge daily. Allow me to share a few.

From Axios, we learn:

In March 2020, when everything changed, roughly nine in 10 Americans, regardless of their preferred media outlet, said they trusted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within weeks, though, that trust was plunging among Americans who mostly watch Fox News or other conservative outlets, as well as those who cited no source.
By the end of last month, just 16% of those who said they get most of their news from Fox or other conservative outlets still said they trust the CDC, compared to 77% of those who favor network news and major national newspapers and 87% of those who primarily watch CNN or MSNBC.

People who primarily got their news from Fox or other conservative media outlets were also more likely to be unvaccinated, and to report that they had tested positive for COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic.

An essay from the New York Times pointed out the under-appreciated damage being done by those despicable Rightwing “groomer” accusations.

As we head into the 2022 midterm elections, calling someone a “groomer” or a “child abuser” has become the conservative attack du jour. What once felt like language reserved for the followers of QAnon, a fringe community united by a central conspiracy theory that America is run by an elite ring of pedophiles, has seeped into the mainstream. The use of these terms has even sparked the anti-gay slur “OK, groomer,” a play on the phrase “OK, boomer,” which is often used by young people to disregard or mock retrograde arguments made by baby boomers…

If the politicians making those accusations were actually concerned about ending child abuse, the kinds of institutions they would be challenging would include religious organizations, youth sports and even the nuclear family — systems that exert control over children and their bodies. These are the venues where child sexual abuse commonly occurs. The misuse of these words is not about stopping abuse, but rather a reassertion of homophobia, gender hierarchy and political control.

The author of the essay, a survivor of actual childhood sexual abuse, points out that in the real world, this indiscriminate and dishonest accusation is “dangerous and corrosive to the very real and devastating experience of sexual abuse. To use these words in this way voids them of their real meaning and desensitizes civil society to bodily harms.”

It isn’t only America’s frantic culture warriors. Russia is fighting back against growing global ostracism by concocting a wholly-invented threat posed by Ukrainian “bio-labs.” That claim, according to NBC, has been eagerly seized on by the American Right.

Russia’s early struggles to push disinformation and propaganda about Ukraine have picked up momentum in recent days, thanks to a variety of debunked conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine. Much of the false information is flourishing in Russian social media, far-right online spaces and U.S. conservative media, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News…

 Most of the conspiracy theories claim that the U.S. was developing and plotting to release a bioweapon or potentially another coronavirus from “biolabs”’ throughout Ukraine and that Russia invaded to take over the labs. Many of the theories implicate people who are often the targets of far-right conspiracy thinking — including Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden — as being behind creating the weaponized diseases in the biolabs.

We don’t know how many people died as a direct result of COVID disinformation, or how much real damage has been done by ludicrous “grooming” charges. We cannot calculate the percentage of wartime deaths in the Ukraine that can be attributed to the fact that several GOP Senators adopted the biolab fantasy and delayed the sending of critically-needed aid.

But there is one death from persistent disinformation that we can easily see: the death of civic discourse and Americans’ ability to govern ourselves.

I used to tell my students that if I say a piece of furniture is a chair and you say it’s a table, we will never be able to agree on its use. If you prefer fantasy A to uncomfortable but demonstrable fact B, or “alternative facts” to reality, that preference is deadly to the democratic enterprise. 

 

 

 

A Lesson From Ukraine?

I’m a longtime reader of the Hedgehog Review, and was reading  a review in the current issue of a book I’ve recently purchased but haven’t yet read: The Dawn of Everything. The review was  very positive–the reviewer was a longtime fan of  one of the co-authors, who recently died–but  the final paragraph of that review brought me up short.

[The authors’] one undeniable achievement, it seems to me, is to show what a dangerous tool common sense can be. As more than a few people have pointed out lately, no government in the history of the world—not even Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany—has ever had anywhere near the force needed to repress all of its people at once. States have always depended on their people to repress themselves. When most people—most anthropologists, even—deny that we can have iPhones and equal freedom at the same time, the chances of revolutionary change dwindle to zero, and glib cynicism becomes the new wisdom. “The moral basis of a society,” John Lanchester has written, “its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’” The Dawn of Everything says, in essence, “This isn’t the way the world has to be. There are literally thousands of other ways.” It’s high time we give some a try.

The “common sense” to which the reviewer alludes is the frequent, confident assertion that hierarchies are inevitable in a technologically-advanced society. (Evidently, the book includes a number of historical exceptions to that “common-sense” rule). More striking, however–and definitely more thought-provoking–is recognition of the undeniable  reality that no government can repress all of its people all at once.

We do, as the reviewer asserts, repress ourselves–and although the author didn’t elaborate on how or why we do that, it seems to me that there are a some rather obvious causes of that self-repression: propaganda that encourages beliefs grounded in falsehoods, tribalism that encourages conformity with “our” positions, and civic ignorance. They combine to reinforce the conviction that individual citizens are powerless. Even people who recognize that Fox News and its clones are promoting lies tend to believe there is little or nothing that can be done about it–or about the gerrymandering that they think makes an effort to cast a ballot worthless.

It’s just “common sense,”  that the forces that have distorted our democracy and impeded the passage of policies desired by large majorities of Americans–big money, big Pharma, the NRA, et al– are too powerful for mere citizens to vanquish.

Ukrainians are challenging that conviction.

After all, it was also “common sense” that the Russians would easily overpower Ukraine. Russian propaganda–quite probably even believed by Putin–assured its audiences that Ukraine was filled with Russian sympathizers who would greet invaders with flowers (a belief with some uncomfortable resonance with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Even if there were no flowers, however, most of the West shared the “common sense”  that Ukraine would quickly fall to Russia’s greater military power. 

The people who didn’t buy either form of that “common sense” propaganda were the Ukrainians. Thanks in part to their recent history, they knew better.

 I previously posted about a documentary chronicling the Ukrainian’s 2014 uprising against the Russian puppet President who had refused to sign an agreement tying Ukraine to the EU. Despite an unbelievably brutal response by the Russian-dominated government to initially-peaceful protests, they prevailed.

As I noted in that post, what was amazing to me was the Immense size of the Ukrainian protests, the enormous numbers of ordinary citizens–teenagers and grandparents, labor and management, men and women– who joined in the demand for change, took to the streets, and actively participated in the ensuing deadly combat with government forces.

The Ukrainians who are having surprising successes battling Putin’s army learned a great deal from that 2014 experience: that politics matters, that citizens have agency,  and that “common sense” opinion is often very wrong.

Those are lessons Americans (and especially Hoosiers) need to learn.

 

 

 

If This Is Even Partially True…

Everyone has his or her theory about the roots of Americans’ current political and cultural hostilities. Most of those theories are rooted in history or sociology, but I recently stumbled across a very different analysis, offered in a lengthy letter from a Finnish reader to Talking Points Memo

The writer linked the growth of America’s internal divisions to a very external culprit: Russia. In his view, Russia has used America as a “tool”–a Western backdoor to its goal of weakening Europe and NATO

Since Western Europe and the USA together (in the form of NATO and otherwise) has been too strong for Russia to expand, and since the USA is the greatest military backup fortress of NATO/Europe, they simply circumvented Europe and went to the core of the power using the kitchen door, the internal political structure of the USA.

I understand you would like to see your heroic country as the navel of the world and as the main focus of any operation, but I am sorry to inform that, in this case, you are only cheap tools. You had to be weakened (and Britain manipulated to Brexit etc) in order to facilitate invasions to Ukraine, Belarussia and a list of other neighboring pieces of land in Putin’s future Menu.

So, as a KGB officer would plan, they came exactly from the opposite direction than where they were expected. They professionally built an operation web among the rural redneck cowboys, evangelical christians, the NRA, the most republican of all republicans, your law enforcement, some military people, big business etc etc. They popped up to the surface from within the “core americans”, but their long dive before that was planned and had started from the Kremlin’s operation board.

The writer goes on to say that the Russian plot nearly succeeded on January 6th, one of several efforts to incite and coordinate  seemingly “spontaneous” protests and prop up  “corrupt politicians like a welding flame to the same point and to the same moment.” He then adds, ominously, that “They just barely failed – for the time being!”

Had Trump succeeded to keep in power, the march of Putin to various targets in the Eastern Europe would have been more like an easy summer parade. NATO would be partially paralyzed by his loyal friends in the White House (who likely would have got their personal share of the profits).

It was no coincidence that some crucial (and criminal) incidents of the Trump term had to do with the Ukraine. It was one of Putin’s main targets already then. Trump was because of Ukraine, not vice versa! GOP (short for “Girlfriends Of Putin”??) just blocked any consequences for him.

After laying out this theory of Putin’s/Russia’s strategy, the writer comes to his major concern about what he clearly (and maybe correctly) sees as the fecklessness of the United States. We have yet to hold Trump or any significant member of the GOP accountable–and meanwhile, “the GOP is working in three shifts to make the next election even more rigged than the previous one. And you are just going to let it happen.. Tralala!”

So, if you really want to do something for the Ukraine, for the Europe and to any other decent country or person, please also Do. Your. Own. Homework! Show to both your home audience and to the rest of the world that also the western flank of Putin’s army, the one located in your country, is kept accountable! No special treatment, just f**king enforce your old existing laws to ultra-rich/influential white dudes, as well! You are just tools, but you are very important tools for Putin also in the European front. Don’t let him use you.

The letter ends with a declaration that, by our collective inaction, we Americans are facilitating the bad things that are happening in the whole world.

My reaction to this analysis–this diatribe, actually–is mixed. Geopolitical events are almost never reducible to simple “cause and effect,” after all. But it is impossible to ignore the basic outlines of our Finnish friend’s accusations, because most of the grounds of those accusations have been confirmed by U.S. Intelligence, journalists, and the January 6th Committee. We know that Russian bots influenced the 2016 election; and we know that they have been effective in disseminating conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media.

We also know that it is very unlikely that Russian activities in cyberspace were undertaken independently–i.e., without Putin’s knowledge or direction.

There is one area where I am in total agreement with the gentleman from Finland: the pressing need to hold Trump and his enablers accountable–and soon.

 

 

A New Way Of Reporting

It’s called “Open source intelligence,” and we’re learning about it thanks to Vladimir Putin and his savage assault on Ukraine.

Here’s the lede from the linked Time Magazine report

The ability of anyone with a phone or laptop to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold in almost real time—and to believe what they’re seeing—comes to us thanks to the citizens operating what’s known as open-source intelligence (OSINT). The term is shorthand for the laborious process of verifying video and photographs from Ukraine by checking everything about the images, establishing what they show, and doing all this work out in the open, for all to see.

The article focused on one of the individuals who pioneered this effort,  Eliot Higgins , who had what was described as a “boring office job in the U.K. ” during the war in Syria. In addition to examining social media posts, he also analyzed YouTube videos  that had been uploaded from phone cameras .

Although he had no training as a journalist, he set out to decipher the credibility/accuracy of those uploads by noting things like the serial numbers on munitions, and using online tools like Google Maps. While he was engaged in that exercise, he compared notes with people who were also trying to figure out what was accurate and what wasn’t–and in the process of  blogging about his efforts (under the alias “Brown Moses”)–he built a reputation as an “authority on a war too dangerous to be reported from the ground.”

In 2014 Higgins used Kickstarter to found Bellingcat (the name refers to resourceful mice tying a bell to a cat), a nonprofit, online collective dedicated to “a new field, one that connects journalism and rights advocacy and crime investigation.” Three days after its launch, a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over the part of Ukraine held by Russian troops. Bellingcat proved the culprit was a Russian surface-to-air missile, by using largely the same array of tools—including Google Earth, the social media posts of Russian soldiers, and the passion of Eastern European drivers for posting dashcam videos—that hundreds of volunteer sleuths are now using to document the Russian invasion of Ukraine in granular detail.

It’s an extraordinary turn of events—and a striking reversal of fortunes for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in the past deployed disinformation so effectively in concert with its military that NATO refers to “hybrid war.” In Ukraine, however, Russia has been outflanked. Its attempts to establish a pretext for invasion by circulating video evidence of purported “atrocities” by Ukraine were exposed as frauds within hours by Bellingcat, fellow OSINT volunteers, and legacy news media outlets that have picked up reporting tools the open-source crowd hands around.

Higgins has written a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, in which he describes–evidently in great detail–the time-consuming process needed  to produce an airtight case for the conclusions they reach. It was Bellingcat that ultimately assessed responsibility for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17–but it took a full year. In Ukraine, reporting has been much faster, thanks to what Higgins calls parallel team operations.

We’re also then setting up, at the moment, two teams. One is focused on more editorial, journalistic-type investigations, where you can get that stuff out quite quickly after the events have occurred. But another team that runs parallel to that is focused purely on doing investigations for accountability.

The importance of what Bellingcat is doing can be seen via a  CNN report on two videos that Russia circulated  before its invasion. The videos  purported to show  Ukrainian attacks. Both were exposed as frauds  by the online open-source community–and the network also cited its own analysis, using online geolocation methods pioneered by the open-source community, to prove that the videos had actually been filmed behind Russian lines.

The analytic tools developed by Bellingcat and other open-source detectives are now being used by a network composed of hundreds of nonprofessionals–and tools such as geolocation have saved open source analysts hundreds of hours of work. These new tools and the growing network of volunteer sleuths have undermined Russia’s once-masterful ability to spread propaganda. As Higgins says:

This is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.

The most important war currently being waged is the war against disinformation and propaganda–and open source intelligence is a new and very welcome weapon.