The Roman poet Juvenal was a curmudgeonly old sod. Rome was going to the dogs, he thought. Things were better in the good old days, when men were men, people had a sense of duty, and there was an all round understanding of the importance of public morality. Foreigners, women, homosexuals – you mention it, Juvenal disliked it (one has to wonder if it’s still permissible to get students to read him nowadays). He also wasn’t too fond of soldiers, and in his final (incomplete) satire complained that it was impossible to get redress against them. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’) he asked, and never has a more pertinent question be posed.
As I’ve mentioned before, the fight against alleged Russian disinformation, electoral ‘meddling’, and so on, has led to the creation of a large and well-funded disinformation industry devoted to controlling what the rest of us can read and hear, in accordance with the industry’s own understanding of reality. Canada, where I live, now has its own branch of the industry in the form of an organization called Disinfowatch, which is reported to be funded by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the US government.
So, who watches Disinfowatch?
I do! And these particular guardians of the truth certainly need some guarding. For the thing is that a lot of these self-appointed disinformation warriors, not just here in Canada but in general, are not objective, unbiased observers of reality. Of course nobody is, but these people are all too often driven by strong ideological and political agendas that make them entirely unsuitable for the role of censor.
Disinfowatch, for instance, is the plaything of the Russia-bashing, Baltic diaspora leader Marcus Kolga. I have no doubts about Kolga’s commitment to liberal values, human rights, and all the rest of it. All very admirable. But when it comes to anything to do with Russia, I wouldn’t trust him an inch. He’s just not a fair and unbiased observer, in short not the kind of guy one wants dictating what you, me, and everyone else should be allowed to read.
Disinfowatch was in the news today, in the form of an article in Canada’s leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, entitled ‘Canada target of Twitter accounts closed for Kremlin links.’ This tells us that Disinfowatch has examined a set of accounts recently closed by Twitter for alleged connections to the Russian government and for supposedly ‘undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability’. Why the latter is considered a reason for censorship, I cannot imagine – is the existence of NATO not a subject one is allowed to question?? But that’s by the by, the key point is that when it looked at the closed accounts, Disinfowatch discovered that, SHOCK, HORROR, between 2009 and 2021 they had mentioned Canada a grand total of 327 times!
Think of what that means. In all the billions of Twitter posts in the twelve years between 2009 and 2021, accounts allegedly connected to the Russian government mentioned Canada 327 times! 327 times. Be afraid, very afraid. As Kolga told The Globe and Mail, the Tweets ‘clearly demonstrate that the Russian government has been targeting the Canadian government, elected officials and issues of Canadian national interest.’
Actually, it seems to me that 327 Tweets in 12 years shows that the Russians hardly give a damn about us. But for Kolga it’s a reason to demand that ‘the Canadian government expand efforts to counter foreign information operations and influence operations.’ Because Canada is obviously so frail and vulnerable that 327 Tweets threaten our very way of life.
But that’s just a matter of numbers. What was in these deadly examples of foreign influence peddling? The Globe and Mail tells us:
One Twitter account called then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland a ‘shameless warmonger’ a few weeks before the 2019 federal election. Another used an expletive to say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t care ‘about the lives of indigenous children.’ Another account, attacking Ottawa’s criticism and sanctions against Venezuelan officials over their undemocratic conduct, said ‘Canada is really showing its war criminal colours as a colony of the United States empire.’
I admit that this is somewhat intemperate language. I’m really not a fan of Chrystia Freeland, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling her a ‘shameless warmonger’. And, likewise I’m not a fan of Canada’s policy towards Venezuela, but I don’t think that we are a ‘colony of the United States empire’ (although I do think that our current leadership is altogether too subordinate to our southern neighbours).
But here’s the thing: the comments aren’t disinformation, because they are not statements of fact, but opinion. No doubt Disinfowatch disagrees with those opinions, but they are not per se disinformation. Moreover, although the language is extreme, the basic sentiment behind them is quite legitimate and certainly within the confines of reasonable democratic debate. After all, the Canadian government’s support for the Ukrainian government, its policy of supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia, and its sanctions against Venezuela, that have contributed to the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people, are surely something that not only Canadians, but also people outside Canada (including Russians) should be allowed to criticize.
In any event, The Globe and Mail and Disinfowatch are being rather disingenuous in saying that it was Russian Twitter accounts who were saying these things. If you look at Disinfowatch’s website, you find something very different. For what you see there is this picture showing a woman at a meeting in Toronto holding a sign saying ‘Freeland is a warmonger in Venezuela, Haiti, Palestine, Eastern Europe, Yemen.’ Some alleged Russian account has then posted this picture with the comment, ‘Today in Toronto, conscientious Canadians told Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland that she is a shameless warmonger.’
Which is true, because as the picture shows, that’s what happened. It’s not Russians saying that Freeland is a warmonger, it’s Canadians!! Are they not allowed to say this?
Disinfowatch also has a go at the Valdai Club, a high-profile Russian think tank that invites guests from around the world, including respected academics and members of the mainstream Western media. The Valdai Club’s Twitter account was among those banned, and Disinfowatch includes the following picture of Valdai Club Tweets as evidence of its wrongdoing:
As you can see, once again what you have is not disinformation, but opinion, and fairly uncontroversial opinion at that: some comments to the effect that the Magnitsky Act ‘is unlikely to achieve the desired results’ (100% true, in my opinion) and that it is ‘a textbook case of seeking power without responsibility’ (debatable, but definitely not out to lunch). What exactly is wrong with any of that? How does that undermine Canadian democracy, threaten the country’s national interests, or any way harm Canadians? I cannot imagine.
In short, it’s much ado about nothing, but a nothing that is being used to paint Canada as under serious attack, and to demand government action in retaliation. As such, we ought to be decidedly concerned about it.
Beyond that, it’s also all rather silly. ‘Tweets from the suspect accounts sometimes push narratives with no proof,’ complains The Globe and Mail. Good God, you don’t say! People on Twitter say things without proof. Whoever would have guessed?? Come on guys, people, including yourselves, say things without proof all the damned time! If we cancel everyone who says something he or she can’t prove, we’ll have to cancel everyone, yourselves included.
And there we have it. The world of the disinformation watchers verges on the ridiculous. Unfortunately, as the Globe article reveals, our media prefers to repeat their claims without question. In the process, the media seems to have given up on its job of guarding the guardians. It’s up to the rest of us to do their job for them.