Pot, kettle, black

I’ve theorized before that there may be something of a correlation between how loudly someone shouts about misinformation and how much misinformation comes out of that person’s own mouth. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order, while simultaneously having a rather tenuous hold on the truth themselves. A recent publication from the University of Calgary is a case in point.

Entitled ‘COVID-19 as a tool of information confrontation: Russia’s approach’, the piece comes under the banner of the university’s School of Public Policy, giving it the air of academic respectability. In reality, it’s an under-referenced, poorly produced rant, which doesn’t deserve wide publicity. Still, I think it’s worth referencing as an example of how the misinformation industry operates.

Author Sergey Sukhankin, whose work I have discussed before, argues the following:

As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-9, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. … Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to spread its lies and distortions. … Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West … COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.

It’s sounds terrible. The problem is that after two and half pages of introduction and historical filling, the core of the publication, which itself consists of just two pages, contains no evidence to back the assertions above. Note the claim that Russia is ‘churning’ out propaganda, suggesting a huge flood of the stuff. But Sukhankin fails to provide examples, let alone evidence of a process of ‘churning’. Note also the use of the word ‘Russia’, which seems to imply that everything any Russian says is somehow part of some centralized state plan. Again, no evidence is produced. It’s remarkably thin gruel.

What we do get is a complaint of crude disinformation being spread on Russian TV to the ‘least informed of the Russian masses’ by ‘Russia’s most notorious TV anchor, Yevgeny Kisilev’ (a rather embarrassing error, as Sukhankin surely means Dmitry Kisilev – Yevgeny moved to Ukraine in 2008). I have to admit that I don’t watch either Kiselev, so I have no idea what they’ve been saying about coronavirus. But what I do know is that Dmitry broadcasts in Russia, to Russians, not in foreign languages to foreign audiences. How then could he be part of some Russian plan to spread disinformation in the West? It doesn’t make sense. As for what this disinformation is, the only example Sukhankin provides is Russian TV showing pictures from the social media account of hockey star Alexander Ovechkin’s wife, showing empty shelves in American stores. Well, where’s the disinformation in that? (Besides which, most of us have probably seen similar pictures online from the USA and elsewhere from any other number of people – it’s hardly something extraordinary for them to appear on Russian TV).

I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much credence to this stuff. I’ll just provide one more example of Sukhankin’s weird form of argumentation. Apparently, ‘Russian intellectuals have concluded that the virus is a precursor of the coming end of the “liberal world order, and giving way to a new configuration in which old powers, such as the US … are giving way to the new leaders, including China and Russia.’ Well, yes, some have. But the idea that the balance of power in the world is shifting is hardly a uniquely Russian one (let alone disinformation, since it is obviously true), and the potential impact of the current crisis on the international order is a topic exercising intellectuals in the West just as much as in Russia. How is all this proof that Russia is ‘churning out propaganda’ to ‘subvert the West’ and deal a ‘powerful blow’ to the Western alliance? It isn’t. Not in the slightest.

‘Russian military-political elites consider COVID-19 as something that could and should be used to deal a powerful blow to the EU’, concludes Sukhankin, providing not a single reference to anything any Russian military-political leader has said to this effect. But don’t let the lack of evidence get in our way. Something must be done! ‘The Canadian government must take a tougher stance on platforms/agencies operating in Canadian information space and deliberately sowing panic or discord among the population’, says the final words of the report. And so we end up where we so often do, with a call for censorship.

Of itself, this publication doesn’t matter a jot. It’s just the ramblings of one guy in Calgary – a true scholar, I guess, not one of the ‘supposed scholars’ he denounces. But this stuff spreads. For instance, Canadian military historian David Bercuson, a Calgary U professor emeritus, took the opportunity of Sukhankin’s publication to pen a piece in the National Post, spreading fear of Russian and Chinese disinformation. On almost a daily basis, stories and op-eds appear claiming that the Russians are using COVID-19 for geopolitical purposes. The aid Russia has recently provided to Italy and the United States is a case in point. Take a look at these recent headlines:

‘The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy: how the Kremlin is using Covid-19 crisis to undermine NATO and the EU.’ (Coda Story, 2 April 2020)

‘Coronavirus: what does “from Russia with love” really mean?’(BBC, 3 April 2020)

‘Beware of Bad Samaritans: China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic’. (Foreign Policy, 30 March 2020)

‘Russian aid to Italy leaves EU exposed’. (New York Times, 26 March 2020)

‘Russian mercy mission to Italy is a front for intelligence gathering, British expert warns.’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2020)

Having read these, now ask yourself a couple of questions: who exactly is using COVID-19 to spread propaganda? who exactly is exploiting the current situation to raise tensions and stoke conflict? To me, the answer is pretty clear. It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

22 thoughts on “Pot, kettle, black”

    1. Patrick, interesting. Would need deeper studies.

      As ciitizen of one of the five eyes ground forces, would you say the EU is the tail directing the master/dog?

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  1. Excellent piece, Paul – deliciously biting. We are seeing a daily-changing refinement of journalistic product, in which it is no longer necessary to provide substantiation – you are expected to take the author’s word for it. An excellent example is the venerable BBC’s contention that ‘the Kremlin’ has ‘dubbed its mission to Italy, “From Russia With Love”. There is no evidence anywhere that Moscow officially ‘dubbed’ it anything. It is merely a device introduced by the BBC as a springboard to sarcasm.

    China has begun clinical trials of an experimental vaccine, received by the first volunteers March 16th. They hope – I know hope is not a plan, but they seem to be actually moving ahead with research rather than just dithering – to have a working vaccine available for public distribution in six months.

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  2. Hollywood? I have a movie pitch for yah. Ultra-mage-super-blockbuster. Hot takes. DRAMA! ‘Murika saves the world. Everything you like rolled into one big steamy pile of bu…rritos

    Act 1

    Excerpts from the abovementioned (paywalled, cuz they are assholes) NYT article:

    “WASHINGTON — China and Russia have both seized on the novel coronavirus to wage disinformation campaigns that seek to sow doubts about the United States’ handling of the crisis and deflect attention from their own struggles with the pandemic, according to American intelligence officials and diplomats.

    Kremlin-aligned websites aimed at Western audiences have trafficked in conspiracy theories to spread fear in Europe and political division in the United States, the officials said, noting that Russia’s diplomats and state-run news media have arguably been more restrained

    Russia and China as well as Iran have sharply increased their dissemination of disinformation about the coronavirus since January, even repeating and amplifying one another’s propaganda and falsehoods, including anti-American conspiracy theories, said Lea Gabrielle, a special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center at the State Department…

    …China has adopted Russia’s playbook for more covert operations, mimicking Kremlin disinformation campaigns and even using and amplifying some of the same conspiracy sites.”…

    “Chinese officials appeared to have relied on borrowing falsehoods pushed by anti-American organizations cultivated by the Kremlin that already have an audience in Western countries. Some of the sites have received Russian money, according to experts.

    “China’s own initial failures in fighting the virus prevented its government from mounting a propaganda campaign of simply promoting its own achievements, forcing it to embrace Russian-style disinformation, said Matthew Kroenig, a former C.I.A. official and the author of a new book on the growing competition between China and the United States, “The Return of Great Power Rivalry.”

    “Part of the reason the Chinese are copying the Russian playbook is because they mismanaged the crisis,” Mr. Kroenig said. “But they are also learning from the Russians.”

    In order to distract from the TOTAL lack of evidence to support any of these claims, I suggest employing:

    – Loud alarming music.
    – Michael Bay-style “MURIKA IS IN DANGER!!!” visual snapshots.

    Act 2.

    Now, that the “free people” are scared brainless, time has come to offer a cure (anti-Russian edition):

    “…In retrospect, it would have been better for the United States to live with RUSSIAN propaganda and to train its attention on exposing state-sponsored bias (as well as any more nefarious activities by RUSSIAN staff) than to deliver an illiberal regime new causes or justifications for its own crackdown on free speech and reporting. Unfortunately, America has repeated this pattern of playing to MOSCOW’S advantage — or stooping to its level —across various fronts in its competition with RUSSIA.

    “Washington’s first goal should be to establish itself as a “trusted brand” rather than just another voice. Fair-minded observers in friendly, liberal nations should not have to struggle to discern whether American or RUSSIAN leaders are more likely to stick to objective truth-telling, as has too often been the case during Trump’s tenure. Doubts on that score undermine the U.S. position at every turn. Although sophisticated disinformation and propaganda campaigns can be extremely powerful, the United States has no comparative advantage over its illiberal adversaries in deploying such tools.”.

    [Short intermission granted for you, to stop laughing… I said… I… Okay, take your time…]

    ”Conversely, an abiding commitment by American leaders to facts, greater transparency, and the defense of free media would pay dividends over time in ways that REGIME leaders in MOSCOW — or illiberal actors elsewhere — will never even attempt to match. The United States government should stand firmly with the newspapers that have been expelled from RUSSIA and should champion their own efforts to force a rethink in MOSCOW. Yet this is only a narrow slice of the wider campaign for media freedom that should also be central to America’s global competition with RUSSIA.

    “Washington’s second main goal should be to keep the door propped open for high-quality journalism and free speech around the world, and to maintain and expand platforms by which news can be reported even in undemocratic societies. The United States should be perceived as a committed partner to overseas and foreign journalists who are natural and essential allies in exposing the costs of illiberal and authoritarian rule. As other analysts have pointed out, this project is harder than it was even just a few decades ago. We have witnessed backsliding among democracies while illiberal states have armed themselves with new tools of repression.

    In this context, it will not be enough for Washington to criticize MOSCOW’S on its handling of American journalists or call out RUSSIA’S (or CHINA’S) disinformation campaigns. The United States should also work to enable high-quality journalism by foreign media outlets. In places where American media training and education are still possible, the United States should redouble its efforts to make them accessible. In locations where journalists face technical barriers to their work imposed by illiberal regimes, the United States should partner with software and other technology providers to deliver safe workarounds. Washington should also make its high-quality scholarship available to academics throughout the world, partnering with American universities to enable free and anonymous access to libraries and databases for scholars who are now limited by financial or political obstacles. These are all areas where the United States enjoys a built-in competitive advantage over RUSSIA that it should exploit…

    “In addition… Washington should place greater emphasis on areas where it enjoys a competitive advantage, such as investments in human capital: healthcare, education, and job opportunities. These can also pay huge dividends in promoting economic development in other societies. As a part of this effort, the United States should make its universities and high-tech industries more accessible to international scholars and experts, and their families, by easing visa restrictions rather than tightening them, and subsidizing educational exchanges…

    “In addition, the United States should work together with its allies and partners to offer effective and sustainable solutions to practical challenges felt around the world. From Italy to Islamabad, local audiences care far less about where the virus started (or what it is named) than about where they can secure vital resources like masks and ventilators. In time, they will undoubtedly require assistance in their own economic recovery efforts. For poor and developing states, the novel coronavirus is merely the latest in a steady stream of crises they are woefully ill-prepared to meet on their own.

    “The United States should show itself a leader in all of these efforts. All along the way, U.S. leaders should also remember to play to America’s strengths rather than stooping to RUSSIA’S level.”

    – Hopeful music in the background gets louder and louder.
    – A wing of F-35 [courtesy from our generous sponsors] fly by past some all-American landmark with the US flag feautering prominently in the background.
    – End with something like that:

    Act 3

    Ex ungue leonem pingere:

    Roll the credits:

    I promise you – this new movie gonna be YUUUGE, successful and loved by critics and viewers. Like the “Independence Day: Resurgence”

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    1. Lololol 🙂

      May I bring to your consideration the crackpot scheme of Mr. Gunther Fehlinger “President” of the so-called “Europeans for Tax Reform” movement,

      (whose platform seems to be to call for more neoliberalism in Europe)

      Secretary General of the “CEE-BC” so-called Central & Eastern European Business Council, with a glorious career as “trade & business advisor” since the 90’s in Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, and since 2016, K(yi)iev – and thus absolutely no track record of highly dubious employment in the most corrupt Eastern and Southern European shitholes. He knows how to “lick” Russia, does Mr. Fehlinger:

      No, really:

      Of course this should be pursued in parallel with continued EU expansion to form the EU-37 by integrating Ukraine, Central Asia, and the remaining unclaimed bits in the Balkans….

      …And realize that it is on roughly the same level as the “esteemed” “newspaper of record” NYT. 😛

      I do like the idea for a film. I hear they don’t much like bold new ideas so you’ll have to make it work as part of an existing “franchise” 😉

      Like

    2. They can also feature in a new season of “Stranger Things” on Netflix. In which Russia-China combo create a horrific virus to destroy the Free World; but those amiable teenagers manage to thwart them, using weird superpowers and their innate American goodness.

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      1. An arguably more believable SciFi movie, presents the world in another dramatic change, where some species could or go the way of the dinosaur – something which has (in some instances) happened.

        This movie can highlight how idiot neocons and to a lesser extent neolibs, thwarted international efforts to counter the actual threat to humanity.

        With the recognition that this script has aspects which aren’t PC compatible with present day Hollywood.

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  3. It seems like this sort of stuff has gotten more extreme over time. But I was wondering, how effective is it actually? I know there has been a lot of media consolidation in the West after the internet started making former business models non-profitable, and now there are just a few major voices which seem to follow the geopolitical line of the government. Despite the internet news revolution, all the new news outlets and blogs are considered somehow ‘non-legitimate’ in a way, so something has to be published in the National Post for it to be ‘true’ to the general public.

    I think ten years ago there would have been more push-back, but now the people who would do that are just gone or write in ‘non-legitimate’ outlets. After the Russiagate scandal, how susceptible are the Canadians to this type of (let’s face it, ‘crude’ is the right adjective) propaganda?

    I know it doesn’t really work in Germany all that well from reading comments from readers below similar articles. They are now trying to sneak in small tidbits to work the crowd down. For instance, just today I read an article in Die Zeit about how there is uncertainty in numbers and they were talking about how you don’t know how many people are infected because not everyone is tested, and even the Diamond Princess tests could have been administered after some people became well after the infection ran its course, the numbers of deaths is also uncertain since not everyone who dies with pneumonia symptoms gets a test. And three paragraphs from the end they said, ‘by the way, you can’t trust data from North Korea, China, or Russia’. I thought to myself, “really? the article is not about them at all and you just said you can’t trust numbers from Italy. Why don’t you say you say you can’t trust numbers from Ukraine or Turkey, both of which seem to be less transparent than Russia?” But because the article is about something else, everyone comments on the main stuff and puts the Russia thing to the back of the head, where I suppose it adds to a steady narrative that Russia is a police state that fakes all of its statistics.

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    1. I don’t think it is effective at all.

      Some years ago there was some real fear in Sweden about Russian assertiveness. It is rather gone now, among the great public. More are afraid of the US than of Russia, according to gallups this year.

      I suppose people simply have read too much of the same kind of rants as the abovementioned one in Swedish newspaper, and that they have recognized it as what it is.

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  4. Professor, that stuff about the stores in America having empty shelves – that’s not Russian propaganda! Or, if it is, at least it’s factual propaganda.
    I live in the U.S. and sadly it’s all true.

    Was joking with a fellow-Russian friend, how our lives in the U.S. now mimic Soviet realities from, say, the 1970’s, when people used to go out foraging, carrying their avoskas and hoping to find some scarce item to buy. But even in Soviet times, toilet paper was plentiful! Nowadays many Americans will do just about anything or stand in line for hours, just to score a couple of rolls, oi…

    But wait! In this quickly-changing reality, avoskas have been banned! Since August Americans got used to carrying them, when stores got rid of plastic bags. Now they are banning avoskas (because personal shopping bags can get contaminated by you-what-know), so it’s back to one-time-use plastic bags.
    Poor Greta Thunberg, she must be having a cow!
    🙂

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  5. P.S. I posted this one last week , about Russia’s help to Italy.
    Those propagandists you cite are being completely unfair, Russia was very nice to do this for a fellow European nation. The Italians were getting nothing except scorn and a kick in the teeth from the EU. From what I have read, they were rather grateful to get this aid from the Russian military.

    There are times when everybody needs a helping hand.

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  6. “very thin gruel” ooof. I remember when I got that feedback I went into a 24 hour frenzy to redraft from the bottom up what I had submitted. My second draft was much better received. I doubt the author will see your feedback and if he does think ‘I had better hop to it to make my work more substantive.’

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  7. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order,

    True. But are they comparable to the media “experts” we encountered concerning the, Great, I think it was, “War on terrorism”? I wonder? A space of new economic opportunities?

    Sergey Sukhankin

    Not on first sight. But? … We are all one but some are not as us?

    “A2/AD and its interpretation in Russia,” Well yes, some of us would like to know more about that too. In a nutshell from Cold War to Cold War 2, from a unilateral to a multilateral world security system. Back to nationalism?

    Corona matters in this context too?

    Maybe it does, in a size the moment way. Shaping people’s minds:

    https://www.axios.com/netanyahu-coronavirus-iran-video-pandemic-fake-8cb168c3-99f7-4949-b3fe-bf0c1a57ae62.html

    *********
    Superficial babbling response. Otherwise, interesting deeper topic.

    In the early GWOT times I received a longer article about a curious combination of “evils” via an academic list written by a prominent Harvardian. The first evil was the generation of 68. In its extreme the Red Army Fraction, the Bader-Mainhoff-Group. The second evil seemed to be interdisciplinary approaches? American Scapegoat: Postmodernism? Cultural Marxism? I didn’t quite understand. Questions remained unanswered. Generation 68 was heavily antisemitic, collectively, that much I understood. But what exactly was wrong with interdisciplinary approaches? As someone that quite frequently wandered off into other disciplines I didn’t quite understand. The Threat.

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    1. 2 points:
      (1) Gen ’68 extremists (especially the ones espousing terroristic tactics) were heavily infiltrated by the security forces of their respective governments, just sayin’. There were genuine Marxists as well, of course, but nothing can be taken at face value.
      (2) Yeah, what’s wrong with inter-disciplinary approaches? Isn’t that the preferred approach of Arts and Humanities studies? Science is inter-disciplinary as well. I would think it’s a good thing.

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  8. “It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.” No, not actually. That only works if both the pot and the kettle are essentially the same. But the United States and Russia are not behaving the same way at all, as you undoubtedly know.

    The United States is threatening more sanctions on Iran and other countries, and trying to block Cuban medical assistance to other nations, things which exacerbate the situation with regard to the corona virus, not to mention something less connected to the health situation, the push to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty. How is Russia behaving in comparison?

    So in essence I agree with your article, but an exception needs to be made to the title. The pot and the kettle, in this instance, are not the same color.

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      1. I realize from your comment that there are two ways to interpret the phrase. One is that the pot is making an unfounded accusation against the kettle. The other, which is the way I’ve always understood it, is that the pot is accusing the kettle of having a flaw when in fact both of them have it.

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    1. Go back and check yourself, sometimes this is necessary to stay sane. And then compare what you considered fitting concerning German media Propaganda vs comment dissent. Any trace of North Korea in there?

      Like

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