Garbage in, garbage out

Every now and again the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) holds a seminar to which it invites outside ‘experts’. It then publishes a report on what was said, minus any names so you don’t know who was involved. I never get invited to these (I’m either insufficiently expert or prone to saying the wrong things), but I do get sent the reports. The latest volume arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and I have finally gotten around to reading it. Its title is ‘Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation’, and it summarizes the results of a seminar held in Ottawa last November.

Those of you who have been following discussions of this subject over the past few years will probably need to read no further than the title. You’ll already know what’s in the report: Western democracy is under threat from ‘Russian disinformation’, as the Russian Federation uses RT, internet trolls, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to subvert our populations’ faith in their own media and governments and to support Russia’s nefarious international policies. ‘Who Said What?’ does spend a little bit of time talking about other countries, specifically China and the Philippines, but the majority of the report is clearly focused on Russia since, as the Executive Summary claims, ‘The most skilled national purveyor of falsehoods is Russia.’ According to the report, Russia:

directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web. Their activities are intensified by the support of diplomats, state-controlled media outlets such as RT and Sputnik … Working together, these agents of the Russian state can create a false story and ensure it reaches the segment population most likely to be influenced by it through Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. They also appear to corroborate the story through news agency interviews featuring phoney experts, forged documents, and doctored photos and videos. … Russia stands out for its highly organised strategy of using disinformation to interfere with the political systems of other countries. … Operations against Western populations aim to weaken resistance to Russian state objectives. In supporting Syria, Russia has used disinformation to cover the brutality of its attacks on civilian populations. … Russian disinformation machinery is explicitly weaponised as a resource for future wars, weakening a target country’s sense of danger and diminishing the will to resist.

This is all fairly boilerplate stuff which has been said many times. What marks this report out, though, is some of the more extreme statements which accompany it, which give an indication of the type of experts CSIS has seen fit to invite. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

No good interest is served by representing the Kremlin’s activities as Russia versus the West. In fact, the Kremlin’s main adversary has always been, and still is, Russia itself. Virtually every type of action it has undertaken against the West was first implemented in Russia, against the Russian people, and against Russia’s many ethnic, national, and religious minorities.

Hmm. I’d be interested to see the evidence backing this claim, particularly the idea that the Kremlin views Russia’s minorities as ‘adversaries’. Certainly, one doesn’t get the impression that this particular ‘expert’ is a neutral academic researcher. The same could be said of the author of the next set of comments who remarks first that ‘Russia’s current disinformation campaign against the West is more dangerous and sophisticated than ever before’, and second that ‘Every Russian citizen … is now part of a centralized vertical responsible for the state’s information security.’ The second statement is a particularly bold claim, conjuring up a picture of Russia as a totalitarian state in which every citizen is participating as a robotic arm of the Kremlin’s information machine, a quite bizarre image for which no evidence is produced.

Other extreme claims include one that, ‘Coupled with breath-taking militarism … Russia’s measures in the domain of information security have transformed Kaliningrad into a laboratory for testing future warfare’. Another states that it is a ‘myth’ that Russia is fighting terrorism (including ISIS) in Syria, and also says that Russia’s military campaign in Syria was carried out with ‘great brutality and immense suffering. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it’. The report then goes on to say that ‘the verified proof … suggests that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals’. And so on.

Of course, one may wonder how it can be that ‘the verified proof … suggests’. Proof proves. It doesn’t ‘suggest’. And one may wonder also who is doing the disinformation here. Is it the Russians, or is it CSIS’s experts?

At the end of the chapter about Russia and Syria, the report says that ‘What is required is an approach that empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves.’ I’m all for allowing people to verify information. But that requires them to have access to a large variety of different sources, including those which challenge one another. Yet in a later chapter about Ukraine, somebody who is clearly a member of the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake relates with some satisfaction that, ‘An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels’ as well as ‘a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine.’ It appears that allowing people ‘to verify the information themselves’ does not include allowing them to verify the claims of those who are hostile to Russia; in fact people must be prevented from doing so.

Interestingly, the only attempt to define disinformation in this report is a sentence which says, ‘Disinformation … is aggressive marketing of information in support of political objectives.’ This is a very odd definition. ‘Marketing of information in support of political objectives’ is what all politicians and political actors do all the time. By this definition, all politics, all diplomacy, everything, is disinformation. It doesn’t even matter if what the Russians are saying is true. They are marketing information for political purposes, and that cannot be tolerated.

The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested. The report notes that, ‘Certain truths need to be inculcated in each generation, first among them that there is such a thing as truth – that there is an objective reality that cannot be wished away.’ I agree that there is an objective reality. The Syrian Arab Army dropped a barrel bomb full of chlorine on Douma. Or it didn’t. Both statements can’t be true. But it’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. We don’t know the truth until we observe it. And in a lot of cases, especially those concerning international politics, we don’t ever get to observe it, or at least any more than a small part of it, and we have to draw conclusions based on limited, often unreliable, information. And then, we have to decide which information is important, and which isn’t, and decide how to fit it all together into a coherent narrative. At that point biases inevitably come into play and ‘truth’ starts becoming a lot more subjective. In such circumstances, what’s dangerous is not a multiplicity of competing narratives, but rather people who set themselves up as holders of the absolute truth and seek to control information in order to stop others getting hold of ‘untruth’. That is the path to totalitarianism.

Alas, there’s more than a whiff of that in this report. About the only restrained element in the document is a chapter on Brexit which concludes that, ‘Analyses of the Brexit botnet did not find strong evidence of widespread “fake news” dispersion.’ Otherwise, the experts consulted by CSIS adopt extreme positions and are so certain of the truth of their own narratives, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme nature, that they are intolerant of alternatives.

For sure, there’s an awful lot of garbage on the internet, as well as on television, and in our newspapers. But I’m not inclined to trust those who would appoint themselves guardians of what I should and should not read, especially since my own research indicates to me that a lot of what they say is garbage too.

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10 thoughts on “Garbage in, garbage out”

  1. “directs an extensive network of Internet trolls and bot networks which generate and spread material across the web”

    It’s true, except in this context it’s projection. Western establishment bots are ubiquitous.

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  2. Politicizing of the special services in US-UK-FR is dangerous as the governments receive distorted pictures, and use that intel inevitably leads to failure or disaster

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  3. “That is the path to totalitarianism.”

    No, sir, professor, sir! That’s one of must haves during the War against Russia. In that case – it makes sense. The enemy must be demonized, slandered and denied to talk back. The minds (quantity over quality) of the Western enlightened citizenry(tm) are the battleground! In times like that Everyone Must Do Their Part(tm). Hopefully, you will remember that you are British, i.e. racially superior carrier of the White Man’s Multicultural Liberal’s Burden to the heathen and ignorant – in strict accordance to the applied social-darwinism, of course.

    Pip-pip!

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    1. This case shows that the worst enemy to Britain is a government itself which consists of freacks like Boris Johnson or political loosers like PM May serving the former colonies in America

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  4. If your analysis is shaped by prejudice if not outright hatred, you will never be able to understand the other side of the hill

    If all you do is use pejorative language to describe the other country then frankly you are not a researcher but a troll yourself

    If as an academic you act in an echo chamber – giving yourself and your bosses reassurance that their gut feel is correct rather than checking out facts and putting all views across (with your own view as a commentary) – you are not an academic but an advocate/ butt licker. Unfortunately dissenters and open thinkers tend not to prosper in this environment, because the powers that be don’t want to hear any alternative views.

    It is sad that a narrative like this has taken a total grip on the western political class – during a potentially dangerous situation one needs to understand the other guy, what their motives are and what their next move might be. Unfortunately the western political / media nexus has been taken over by a near racist hysteria about Russia and this could end very badly for ALL concerned

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    1. Everybody has this wrong. The American mainstream media promulgates fake news or they simply do not cover important stories if they do not fit the narrative of the day. My wife and I depend upon obtaining our information from multiple sources outside of the United States, including RT, Vesti, and its offspring, RUPTLY. One thing I find interesting is that all of them have depth in their stories in contrast to the US media which rarely offers andy depth to what they report.

      I read the open source document and if RT is guilty of anything, they told Americans the truth. They offered information that Americans really needed to hear. Ironically, the veracity of the stories was not questioned…it was the fact that they might influence the election that was of concern. In contrast, the US government works through NGOs, like Radio Liberty to push their propaganda during Russian campaigns. So, if there were bots, it is not like the US has clean hands.

      Lest we forget, it is the American government that has been bashing Russia since not long after the cold war ended. There has been continued encroachment of NATO on Russia’s borders, the US coup in Ukraine, accusing Putin of “annexing” Crimea, and the subsequent round of sanctions. How do you annex something that was historically always part of a country? Putin has frankly been pretty patient.

      We live in interesting times. If Russia helped keep Clinton from the White House, they did us a great favor. If only Americans understood that having Russia as a true partner, an ally, treating it with respect, we would have much to gain. We can only lose if US policy continues as it has.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “The reason it can’t be tolerated is because the West is good and Russia is bad. This is an objective truth which cannot be contested.”

    ‘Twas ever thus, Paul. Precisely the same thing occurred in the Anglosphere immediately after 1945. A perceptive observer at the time, a British Army officer who served on the British military mission to the USSR, minces no words.

    “Even in Russia, the land of immensities, it means that one in every twelve Russians alive in 1941, one In twelve men, women, and children, has died a violent death, in order that the others might resume their lives with a swing and, if possible, a flourish. And most of those fifteen million were adults.

    The survivors will not, of course, forget this. But we seem to have forgotten it. Because now, with this great country shattered, ravaged, and exhausted, with her people strained to the breaking-point, and with her adult manhood more than decimated-now, at this moment, there are many loud voices in the West crying out that another war is coming quickly and that this time the aggressor is Russia. And these voices, which cry out of a depth of imbecility, or ignorance, or unimaginativeness which is truly horrifying to contemplate, are widely believed.”

    Edward Crankshaw-Russia and the Russians, 1948, pgs 200-201

    Imbecility, ignorance, unimaginitiveness. Of a depth which is truly horrifying to contemplate.

    Hallmarks of the postwar Anglosphere foreign policy elite, from the get-go.

    And the Soviet leadership did not seek this original Cold War confrontation. Recall Michael MccGwire’s 1987 work on Soviet threat perceptions in the postwar period:

    “It is an axiom of Western politics that the actions of the Soviet Union created the cold war. So entrenched is this judgment that it carries a corollary with it: Soviet leaders must realize that the resistance of the West–the practice and philosophy of containment–is an inevitable result of their commitment to expansionism. It is difficult in Western perspective to imagine that Soviet leaders could seriously doubt this understanding of the past, however firmly the Soviets may deny it for the sake of public justification. The historical record suggests, however, that the Soviet Union neither intended nor anticipated the intense rivalry that developed.

    In the wake of World War II, Stalin saw a resurgent Germany in fifteen to twenty years time as the principal threat to Russia, and he sought to preserve a collaborative relationship with the United States as
    a means of containing the threat. It was not until 1947-48 that he acknowledged belatedly and reluctantly that the primary threat was an ideologically hostile coalition led by the Anglo-Saxon powers.”

    https://www.ucis.pitt.edu/nceeer/1987-800-05-McGwire.pdf

    That coalition of Anglo-Saxon powers hostile to Russia never went away. Their hostility was merely suspended by Gorby & Yeltsin’s abject submission, and the instant Putin in 2003 laid the foundation of Russia’s recovery by exiling/jailing oligarchs who still thought they could continue running Russia in order to bleed Russia, the Anglosphere demonization campaign against Russia and Putin personally was revived. It has culminated in the present insanity, but the process itself is no different from how the Anglosphere demonized the Soviets after 1945.

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  6. You know, reading all comments under this and previous blogpost, I’ve experienced a combination of hardly to translate from Russian feelings of deep “умиление” and general “благорастворение”. It’s really heartfelt to read comments by the intelligent (and, I suspect, intilligent) people, who only strive for the mutual understanding and peaceful sky above us all.

    All of you live in the Blessed Democratic Valinor of the West, while I live in the Bloody Totalitarian Mordor of Russia. I’ve been told (even to this day) that you, in the West, have Real Democracy, Working Civil Society and Triumph of the Human Dignity. Pray tell me then, how come that you, in your Blessed West, have no way to influence your governments and societies to avert confrontation with Russia, to tone done official Russophobia and to improve bilateral relations? Don’t you have (as, again, I’m told again and again) “real”, not fake like in Russia, political parties with decades – even centuries of history behind them? Don’t you live in the countries with the governments “By the People and For the People”? Did you vote for “the People”, who launched missiles to Syria, who invaded Iraq, who annihilated Libya?

    Where was your functioning (real, not fake like in Russia) civil society when the West decided to engage in spreading the democracy at the missile point? Where is your Anti-War movement? Where are your calls to ostracize chief warmongers from the political and civil sphere? What, they are more likable characters – for you – than Weinstein and Spacey?

    Finally, I have to ask – what you (any and all of you) can do to change the situation in your countries? After all, you live in the Free World – so you ought to have more influence on your politicians than anyone else! What can all of you really do… besides writing comments here?

    When Andrew M. Baer (M.D.) wrote in his comment above “If only Americans understood that having Russia as a true partner, an ally, treating it with respect, we would have much to gain.” I laughed. I laughed till my sides hurt. Then I rested a bit, re-read his comment and laughed even harder. American is not interested to have Russia as “a true partner” or “an ally”. The US is interested to HAVE Russia – yes, in the double entendre sense as well. No sane power relinquishes a bit of egotistical opportunity in the name of the abstract “equality” and “respect” – especially such uber capitalist one like the US of A.

    Being America’s ally also means relinquishing one’s sovereignty. Some are more than happy to just that – they truly enjoy they own “50 shades of Democracy” with the US. It might surprise you – not everyone is beholden to this exclusively passive form of perversion. Mr. Baer, your intentions and feelings might even be genuine but they are too naïve for this world.

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  7. Speaking of disinformation, what else do you call the British allegation that Putin made threats to defectors and said ‘traitors will kick the bucket’? He said nothing of the sort. The allegation is based on a heavily truncated and poorly translated excerpt from the 2010 ‘Direct Line with Vladimir Putin’. At this press conference, he was asked whether, as President, he has ever authorised targeted assassinations of defectors. He responded that all intelligence units which assassinated Soviet defectors during the Cold War have been disbanded and no such operations are conducted today. He said ‘as far as traitors go, they will bite the dust of their own accord’ i.e. without any need for FSB involvement (что касается предателей – они сами загнутся). The Russian slang expression, literally meaning ‘they will curl up by themselves’, is difficult to translate but it is abundantly clear that Putin is not making any threats. The word ‘сами’ is key here. Instead, he elaborates that traitors will be overburdened by guilt. Unable to go back home and ashamed to look their children in the eyes, they will find their thirty pieces of silver becoming a spike in their throat i.e. a source of unhappiness (falsely translated into English as ‘they will choke on their thirty pieces of silver’). It is this self-inflicted grief that, according to Putin, will make them ‘curl up’/kick the bucket – not retribution from the FSB.

    Watch the full response here in Russian (relevant segment starts at 3:12:17): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DMP6hcFHjk&t=11632s

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