On more than one occasion I have complained about the all-too prevalent habit of smearing people as ‘Kremlin proxies’, ‘Russian agents’, and the like, simply because they happen not to share the belief that Russia is at the root of all the political turmoil recently experienced by Western states. As I pointed out in a post last March, this habit reflects a view of the world in which ‘people who disagree … about Russia can’t be doing so be doing so because there are some genuine reasons for a different opinion or because they just have a different conception of their country’s national interests. It must be because they are ‘witting or unwitting agents of influence”.’ However, ‘This is, of course, nonsense. People do what they do for their own reasons, not because the Russian state is directly or indirectly impelling them to do so. And calling people ‘agents of influence’ is indeed defamatory.’
It’s also harmful, both to society as a whole, due to the fact that it suppresses constructive debate on important issues, and to individuals, because of the negative impact such accusations have on those defamed. As I reported last year, one Swede ‘went so far as to declare that, “my life changed”’ as a result of the accusations made against him.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped the flow of statements from individuals, think tanks, and public institutions identifying ‘Russian agents’ and peddlers of Russian disinformation in an effort to put a stop to their allegedly subversive actions. Sometimes these statements consist of direct accusations; other times, they are merely insinuations. Either way, the intent is the same – to blacken the reputation of those accused, to deter similar voices, and to silence opposition. ‘If only genuine purveyors of “disinformation” and “foreign propaganda” were to be caught up in this censorship,’ I wrote last April, ‘one might not be too alarmed. But recent experience has shown that numerous innocent actors have been accused of being foreign “agents of influence,” “proxies,” “Trojan horses,” “extremist conspiracy theorists,” and so on.’
Now, some of these actors are striking back.
Back in October, I recorded how the New York Times attempted to smear Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, telling readers that her platform ‘reminds some Democrats of the narrative pushed by Russian actors during the 2016 presidential campaign’,and that some see her ‘as a useful vector for Russian efforts to sow division within the Democratic Party.’ As I noted, this was ‘smear by insinuation’. Hillary Clinton, however, was more direct .Without actually naming Gabbard, but clearly referring to her, Clinton remarked that the Russians were ‘grooming her [Gabbard] to be the third-party candidate … She’s the favourite of the Russians … she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset, I mean totally’.
Two days ago, Gabbard responded, announcing that she was suing Clinton for $50 million for defamation. As her lawyers put it, ‘she has seen her political and personal reputation smeared and her candidacy intentionally damaged by Clinton’s malicious and demonstrably false remarks’. According to Time magazine, ‘legal experts are split over whether Gabbard can win the case. I guess we will just have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, a similar lawsuit hit Canada this week. For the past year or so, there’s been quite a large campaign to whip up fear of Russian ‘disinformation’, ‘electoral interference’, and the like. This included a think tank report which defamed this blog, a report from the University of Calgary, and late last year yet another report, this time from Communications Security Establishment (CSE – the Canadian equivalent of the NSA and GCHQ). It is this last which has now resulted in legal proceedings.
The CSE document argued that Canada was the target of a cyber campaign undertaken by foreign powers with the purpose of causing ‘reputational damage’ to leading ministers, notably Chrystia Freeland. Although the document was secret, the Global News network somehow or other (a deliberate leak??) got hold of a copy and revealed its content. According to Global News,
The cyber-campaign directed by Russia involved distortions of facts and was timed, targeted and, according to the CSE, ‘pushed the narrative that Freeland’s family immigrated to Canada as part of a wave of Nazi collaborators.
The first attack was a February 2017 report in the ‘online Consortium News’ followed ‘in quick succession’ by pro-Russian English language and Russian-language online media, the CSE report says.
If Global News’s depiction of the report is accurate, then CSE’s analysts are guilty of sloppy work, given that the story about Freeland’s grandfather was actually true and thus did not ‘involve distortion of facts’. But more importantly from Consortium News’ point of view, the statement that Consortium News’ article about Freeland was ‘the first attack’ in a ‘cyber-campaign directed by Russia’ strongly implied that Consortium News was acting on behalf of the Russian state. In fact, it’s quite hard to interpret the two paragraphs above any differently.
Now, like Gabbard, Consortium News has struck back, with lawyers acting on its behalf sending libel notices to both CSE and Global News. Consortium’s editor-in-chief Joe Lauria justified the action by saying that,
The CSE and Global News, with this report, are portraying critical journalism as directed by a foreign power, as if legitimate and indigenous dissent cannot exist on its own.
Their report takes place in the context of a broader campaign by powerful interests to link their critics to Russia as a way of discrediting them and protecting themselves. It is reminiscent of the Cold War campaign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, revived in the 2016 presidential election and persisting, evidently, until today.
It strikes me that these legal cases are a double-edge sword. If Gabbard and Consortium lose, then no doubt those who like to smear their opponents as Russian assets will feel emboldened to go on doing so. If they lose, however, it may become a whole lot harder. A lot hinges on the outcome.