Tag Archives: Information war

Undermining democracy

Knowing what somebody else has done, is doing, or is capable of doing can be hard enough. Knowing why they are doing it, or what they intend to do in the future is an even more difficult task. Understanding intentions requires a deep and sympathetic knowledge of other actors’ motivations, interests, and mentality, of the constraints under which they operate, and of the manner in which they view the world. That requires one to drop all one’s own preconceptions and adopt fully those of another, which can only be done by studying them, their surroundings, and their history intimately. And even then one can never truly ‘know’ somebody else, as it is impossible to get inside their head. All statements about intentions are at best assessments. They can never be considered fact.

None of this, of course, stops people from proclaiming confidently that ‘Putin wants this’ or ‘Russia wants that’ as if their claims were proven. Rarely are these assertions backed by solid evidence; hardly ever do they refer to what Putin or other Russian officials have actually said that they want; they are simply guesses disguised as facts.

An example is a new report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), entitled Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions. This is the product of two meetings of an ‘expert group’ organized by CSIS. The report makes bold claims about Russian intentions. But going through the list of ‘experts’, I could find only one with any expertise specifically on Russia rather than security and intelligence more broadly. How the experts came to their judgements on Russian intentions is never made clear.

The report begins with a foreword which states in startling terms that:

American democracy is under attack from Russia. … Putin’s objective is to weaken us by sowing chaos and discord, and to undermine the appeal of democracy itself. If he can show that American-style democracy … is incompetent, illegitimate, and hypocritical, he can use that to undermine its potential appeal among Russia’s population and in other countries around the world where we compete for influence.

This is an assertion concerning Vladimir Putin’s intentions, not his actions. Nevertheless, underpinning it is an assumption about actions – namely that Russia has indeed been waging some sort of ‘information war’ against the United States. It is indicative of the current state of affairs that this assumption is simply taken for granted, even though some people might consider it unproven (and if it is indeed unproven then everything else which follows falls apart). However, let us put that aside for the moment, and return to the issue of intentions. If it is true that Russia has done any, or all, of things of which it is accused, what does it have in mind?

The CSIS experts are confident that they know the answer: the aim is to ‘sow chaos and undermine trust in the liberal democratic order,’ ‘to erode trust in Western governments and sow confusion and discord,’ and ‘to exacerbate existing divisions in society … to weaken democracy.’ The report concludes that:

The Russian government is engaged in a covert and overt campaign to weaken Western democracies, with the express intent of promoting an illiberal order dominated by Moscow and like-minded states.

I have to wonder where this idea of an ‘express intent’ comes from, because I have never read anything by any Russian official expressing such an intent – never. Take, for instance, Vladimir Putin, whose speeches I have read in detail and on which I have published a couple of academic articles. You will read his speeches in vain for any criticisms of democracy as a form of government, any expressions of a desire to weaken democracy in the West (or in Russia for that matter), or any desire to ‘sow chaos’ around the world. On the contrary, you will find multiple expressions of support for democracy, of support of order and stability, and of support for better relations with the West. Of course, you could argue that his actions tell you something different, but the fact remains that he and other Russian officials have never stated the intention being assigned to them.

The CSIS report doesn’t say how it came to the conclusion that Putin wants to undermine democracy. It doesn’t produce any actual evidence to support its claim. It just asserts it. Moreover, it asserts it as a proven fact, failing to make clear that this is just what a bunch of security experts who don’t know too much about Russia happen to think is the case. Any suggestion of uncertainty is entirely absent. That does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, but it does mean that the confidence with which it is asserted is entirely unjustified and that the report therefore misleads by failing to make the degree of uncertainty clear.

Furthermore, there are points in the report where the ‘expert group’s’ lack of  knowledge of Russia becomes clear and makes one seriously doubt their right to be able to claim to understand what’s in Vladimir Putin’s head. In particular, the report says:

The Experts Group discussed the perception of Russia as the ‘3rd Rome’ among an increasingly broad constellation of groups and individuals. Russian nationalists, with the encouragement of the Russian government, have promoted the idea of Russia as the heir to the Byzantine and Roman empires. … Russia is the sole protector of ‘legitimate’ conservative values: homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

But what is the evidence that the Russian government encourages ‘3rd Rome-ism’ and Russian nationalists, let alone ‘homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism’? In reality, nationalists and the government don’t get on very well, and most of the former regard the latter with undisguised hostility. The issue of homophobia is somewhat contentious, but on the other matters I am completely unaware of any actions or statements by the Russian government promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Indeed, if you read Putin’s speeches, you will find numerous condemnations of such things along with a repeated emphasis on the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian nation (which is one of the reasons Russian nationalists don’t like him).

Underlying all this is a rather odd idea that Putin is bent on spreading an illiberal authoritarian model of government around the world, rather like the Soviet Union tried to spread communism. But this is an idea which is entirely unsubstantiated, and in my view entirely fictitious. Likewise, the claim that he wishes to spread chaos rather ignores the damage that such chaos would do to Russian interests, which rest largely on having a stable international order. It seems to me that the CSIS ‘experts’ are locked into a Cold War mode of thinking which they have failed to adapt to contemporary realities.

There’s another segment in the report which also struck me as very odd. This says the following:

The Russian government has advanced its strategic influence in Eastern and Central European countries by gaining influence, and in some instance, control over specific sectors: energy, banking and finance, real estate, transportation infrastructure, and media … First, Russia state-owned enterprises purchase assets … The purchased entity then gains influence with local officials … Simultaneously, the Russian government creates or sponsors local nongovernmental organizations … Finally, supportive local officials are placed in national governments … Collectively, these activities in some countries result in state capture.

It strikes me that there is a certain amount of projection going on here, as what is described could very easily be said, with rather more justification I suspect, about the United States. But in any case, what is the evidence for this claim? What country in Eastern and Central Europe has Russia ‘captured’? Which one? I can’t think of a single example. The claim concerning ‘state capture’ is is pure fiction.

The CSIS report ends with a series of proposals for what the United States should do to protect itself against the Russian threat. Some of these are uncontroversial. The report, for instance, calls for better cybersecurity measures. One can hardly argue with that. But Russia doesn’t have much to do with it. Better cybersecurity is required regardless of whether Russia is waging some sort of information war. Other proposals, though, are more problematic. For instance, we are told that:

Internet platforms and democratic governments must work together on technological and policy measures to increase barriers to entry for disinformation campaigns and make it easier for citizens to differentiate between legitimate and false information.

‘Legitimate’ information? What is that? And who is to determine what it is, and tell us that we shouldn’t have it? I find this sort of thing a little creepy, and don’t really think that it is for the state or private corporations to tell us what we should be allowed to read or what we should think.

At the end of the report, the authors note that ‘increasing public resilience against the kind of techniques used by Russia may ultimately be the most effective countermeasure.’ In particular, ‘participants emphasized that a sense of shared narrative is perhaps the strongest defence against Russian threats to our democratic institutions.’ This is possibly the most sensible thing that the report says. Russian ‘propaganda’, if there is such a thing, can only succeed in dividing people who are already prone to being divided. If the divisions in American society were reduced, then it would be harder for outside actors to ‘sow chaos’. If American government, state institutions, and the media were more trustworthy, Americans might be less inclined to turn to alternatives for information and political analysis. In such an event, Russian ‘disinformation’ would have no effect whatsoever.

In other words, the real threat to American democracy lies within America, not without.

UPDATE:

The latest indictments in the ‘Russiagate’ affair certainly lend credence to the claim that some Russians went to some considerable effort to set up social media accounts that would look like they were genuine American ones, but their intentions in so doing remain a matter of speculation. It is probably the rather haphazard internet trolling allegedly carried out by ‘Russia-linked accounts’ that induces people to conclude that it was a matter of ‘causing chaos’, but it can’t be stated as fact. In any case, there is a difference between haphazard trolling and a deliberate effort to ‘undermine democracy’ in order to create an ‘illiberal international order’, which is a far more dramatic claim. I have yet to see any evidence supporting this.

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Backtracking on Russian information warfare

It’s interesting to witness somebody backtracking from a long-held opinion without actually admitting it. This thought came to mind when reading an article by Peter Pomerantsev in this week’s New Statesman reviewing David Patrikarakos’ book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. For some time now, Pomerantsev has been propagandizing (I use the word advisedly) the idea that Russia is waging ‘information war’ against the West. This was the primary theme of a report he wrote with Michael Weiss called The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, as well as of a report he co-authored with Ed Lucas, Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-Strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe. In his New Statesman article, however, he takes a somewhat different stance.

Pomerantsev comments that he has been researching what he calls ‘foreign (dis)information operations during the German election.’ He remarks that his research showed that,

The campaigns came from all sorts of places. The German-language arm of Kremlin state broadcaster Sputnik was blatantly biased towards the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. Pro-AfD (and most likely German) automated Twitter accounts would avidly retweet Sputnik stories

Contained within this statement is an interesting admission – Twitter accounts promoting the AfD weren’t Russian, it seems; they were ‘most likely German.’ The fact that they may have posted links to Sputnik doesn’t constitute ‘Russian interference’ in the German election. But it turns out that it wasn’t just Germans who were interesting in affecting the outcome of the German election and in promoting the AfD. Pomerantsev continues:

There were also US and European alt-right activists who congregated on the message board 4chan, and more obscure sites such as Discord, to create “meme factories”, partnering with German far-right movements to hijack Twitter hashtags.

So, it turns out that the foreign forces trying to influence German politics were a) American, and b) European. Given the large number of headlines we have seen in the press about ‘Russian interference’ in the German election, this is quite interesting. What we have is not a situation in which everybody in the world is minding their own business apart from the Russians, but one in which people from all over the place are getting involved and trying to influence people in other countries. Pomerantsev thus notes that in his book David Patrikarakos argues that, ‘No longer can we talk of one nation battling another through propaganda: the field is now swarming with individual actors, each a little propaganda state in their own right.’ Pomerantsev concludes:

By the end of our research it was clear that one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space. Instead, one has transnational, ever-shifting networks of toxic speech and disinformation, including both state and non-state actors. These can operate for financial, ideological or simply personal reasons, allying and mutually reinforcing one another to pursue quite different agendas.

Coming from Pomerantsev, this is quite remarkable. After spending the past few years trying to convince us that the problem is information operations conducted by the Russian state against the West, he’s now telling us that, ‘one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space.’ That’s very different.

Pomerantsev doesn’t like what’s going on. The anarchy of the digital information space means that there are lots of ideas out there that he disagrees with, as well as a lot of false information. Something must be done, he seems to be saying. At the same time, Pomerantsev suggests that this messy situation is in some way new, or at least that that is what Patrikarakos claims in his book. But is it really? Non-state actors have been spreading revolutionary messages, trying to discredit their own and other countries, propagating dubious ideas, and distributing downright falsehood for a very long time indeed. If Pomerantsev had been writing 100 or 200 years ago, he’d have no doubt been complaining about how it was far too easy for dodgy states and non-state actors to wage ‘information war’ by means of the printed word, how the declining cost of printing was allowing all and sundry to publish dangerous tracts which undermined Western democracy and subverted our security, and the like. In my opinion, all this talk of ‘hybrid war’ and so on as something new, is so much nonsense. Digital media have made it easier to spread messages faster and wider, but in essence nobody is doing anything different from they’ve done heretofore.

The world is a messy place. Pomerantsev is right about that. That said, I don’t think that messy is bad; diversity of opinions, including that of outsiders, and a clash of narratives and perspectives, is probably healthy. I also have sufficient confidence in the strength of our Western societies not to think that we need to be afraid of people propagating views we dislike on Twitter. Moreover, if what’s really going on is that every man and his dog from every country in the world is piling into political debates, then that’s far removed from the idea that the real problem is ‘Russian information warfare’. It would be good if Pomerantsev admitted it.

The hunters become the hunted

There are times when you think that the media in the English-speaking world can’t possible get any worse; that’s it’s finally plumbed the depths; that the ignorance and hysteria have become so great that it’s got to turn around soon. And then you read something which just makes you shake your head in despair, and ask. ‘Don’t these guys check anything? Don’t they know anything? Or do they just not care?’ We’re told to be endlessly on our guard about ‘fake news’ and disinformation flooding the internet from troll factories in St Petersburg and the editorial offices of RT, but are they really worse than the Daily Mail? Here’s today’s Mail on Sunday front page:

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Continue reading The hunters become the hunted

The international order

I’m off to England tonight for a conference at Ditchley Park on the subject ‘Russia’s role in the world today and tomorrow.’ I’ll be slumming it in a grand country mansion with a bunch of ambassadors, retired senior officials, and other people far more distinguished than myself, but as it’s all under the Chatham House rule, I regret that I won’t be able to report on it. Still, it provides an excuse to ponder the state of Anglo-Russian relations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to divert attention from her Brexit troubles the other day with some inflammatory remarks about Russia at the annual banquet of the Lord Mayor of London. May remarked that Russia has

fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag [German parliament], among many others. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.

May accused Russia of ‘threatening the international order on which we all depend,’ and concluded by saying that, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

As if to back May up, Ciaran Martin, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, stated yesterday that, ‘I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.’ To this Martin added, ‘Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear. The PM made the point on Monday night – international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.’

Along with all this comes alongside allegations that Russian internet trolls attempted to the influence the Brexit referendum. Evidence for this is a little weak since despite the hype, the Guardian reports that, ‘Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian that at least 419 of those [Russian Twitter] accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.’ It would be interesting to know how many tens of thousands, or for all I know, hundreds of thousands of tweets were posted about Brexit by Brits and peoples of other non-Russian nationalities, but the fact that the alleged ‘interference’ mostly took place after the referendum in any case rather weakens the argument for the prosecution.

But let’s put that to one side. And let’s put aside also May’s somewhat contestable claims about fomenting war in Donbass, regularly violating European airspace, and the like. Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Russia is trying to influence people in Britain and that its intelligence agencies are attempting to hack the computer systems of British institutions. Let’s face it, it would be pretty odd if they weren’t. This is pretty much run of the mill for states which imagine that they have some position on the international stage. The questions which then arise are: a) does this constitute ‘interference’? and b) does this constitute  an attempt ‘to undermine the international order.’

The answer to the first question depends, I guess, on how you define ‘interference.’ But, to my mind, trying to influence people isn’t interference; it’s just a normal part of human relationships. I think that people need to calm down a little bit on this matter. There seems to be a rather odd view that only people within a country can attempt to influence the citizens or the government of that country. That is, of course, not the way Western states operate – Brits, for instance, are continually trying to influence others. And in any case, it’s just impractical. Human interaction is a perpetual attempt to influence one another. The interaction between states and between states and the peoples of other states is just the same. For sure, Russians want to change the way people in Britain think. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole ‘interference’ narrative is wrong-headed at the philosophical level.

To this, some might reply that the problem is not Russians trying to influence Brits, but that they are doing so by spreading ‘fake news’. Well, perhaps they do sometimes, though I think that the ‘fake news’ meme is greatly exaggerated, and if we’re talking about social media there’s no shortage of utter tripe, including manifestly untrue stories, appearing in the Facebook and Twitter posts of non-Russians. A few hundred Russian tweets really don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. But, at a deeper level, we have to ask, ‘who is determine what is ‘fake’ and what is not?’ Are you going to say that we should have some sort of media police which eliminates what we deem to be inaccurate? If so, we have censorship, not a free society.

And then we come to question b) – does this constitute an attempt to ‘undermine the international order?’ The answer to this is fairly simple – No, and two times no! Yes, the Russians engage in espionage. They try to influence people. They always have! And so have Western countries! This isn’t an attempt to undermine the international order. This is the international order!! Let’s not be naïve about this. The international order consists of a whole set of institutions and rules which states for the most part abide by. At the same time, they occasionally break the rules, by for instance carrying out espionage on one another. Yet the order continues on nonetheless. Russia spies on Britain. Britain spies on Russia (remember the British spy rock in Moscow, anyone?) That’s how the order works.

I’m tempted to go off into a bit of ‘whataboutism’ and talk about all the many times that the United Kingdom has egregiously broken the rules of the international system. It’s hardly an innocent in this regard. But instead, I’ll end on a different thought. If Mrs May really thinks that Russia is undermining the international order in general and more specifically British democracy, then shouldn’t she be reconsidering Brexit? Of course, Mrs May won’t do anything of the sort. She recognizes the result of the Brexit referendum as legitimate and binding. Yet Brexit is a huge shock to the international order, one of the biggest in recent years. Who ‘undermined the international order’? The British people, that’s who.

UPDATE:  According to Sky News, Yin Yin Lu of Oxford Internet Research has identified 22.6 million tweets associated with the alleged Russian ‘troll factory’. Of these, 400 were about or related to Brexit. As Ms Lu says: “First of all the number of these tweets is important to highlight. So there’s about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That is a very infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference is perhaps a bit exaggerated.”

Basic scientific method

As, I am sure, all of you know, a proper scientific experiment will have a ‘control group’. Say I have a new cancer drug. I can’t tell if it’s actually any good just by testing it. I need something else to compare it to. It’s only by means of the comparison that my results have any meaning. To see if the ‘independent variable’ is of any significance, you have to consider other possible factors which might be affecting the result. In short, you can’t treat a single phenomenon in isolation from everything else.

Bear this in mind, as we’ll come back to it later. But for now, let’s switch track and turn to the matter of ‘Russian interference’ in US politics. What have we learnt to date?

What we’ve learnt is that some ‘Russia-linked accounts’ posted messages about US politics, and paid for advertisements related to US politics, on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Some of these messages were anti-Clinton and pro-Trump (along the lines of ‘a vote for Hillary is a vote for Satan’), but some were anti-Trump, and some were about completely different things altogether (Black Lives Matter and the like). For a sample, take a look here.

We’ve also learnt that an account is deemed ‘Russia-linked’ if it features even one of the following criteria: it was created in Russia; registered via a Russian phone carrier or email account; uses Cyrillic characters; the user regularly uses the Russian language; and the user has logged in from any  Russian IP address, even once. I’ve logged in to this site in Russia, so according to this definition you are reading a ‘Russia-linked’ blog. That means that if I make any comments about US politics, they will be added to the list of evidence of ‘interference’ by the Russian government.

Clearly, this is all a bit silly. But, let’s not worry about that for the moment. Let’s accept that some of the ‘Russia-linked accounts’ are indeed Russian, though we can’t tell that any of them are actually linked to the Russian government, and let’s accept that Russians are posting things about US politics. Does that amount to ‘interference’? And does it show that Russians are particularly noteworthy interferers, so noteworthy as to justify a vast witch-hunt?

Now, this is where the matter of comparison comes into play. Russians are posting stuff about US politics. But what about everybody else? Let’s face it, Russians are hardly likely to be the only ones. US politics interests people just about everywhere, and some of them no doubt have some strong views on it and may even have generated some commentary or memes or something else which they’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re going to say that ‘Russian interference’ is especially prominent and dangerous, you need something to compare it to. For instance, you might compare it to the complete total of all social media users. Are Russians posting substantially more about US politics than social media users as a whole? Alternatively, you could look at individual countries. What about Canada-linked users; Britain-linked users; French-linked users; Mexican-linked users; whatever? Have any of them posted stuff about US politics, bought political advertisements, and the like? And if so, do they do it more or less than Russia-linked users, in proportion to their numbers.

This matters, because if you were to do such a comparison and discover that, say, Canadian users were generating very similar stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and doing just as much compared to their overall numbers, then you’d have to start investigating ‘Canadian interference’. Or if you found the same with Brits, Germans, French, Mexicans, Venezuelans, whatever, you’d have to investigate British, German, French, Mexican, Venezuelan, etc interference too. And then, it would become obvious that Russian interference’ isn’t particularly abnormal.

Maybe it is. Maybe, ‘Russia-linked accounts’ have generated far more of the sort of stuff under investigation than accounts linked to other countries. But then again, maybe not. To date, I haven’t read anything which suggests that anybody has carried out the research to show which is the case. If that is true (and please show me if I’m missing something), then all the findings about Russian interference are utterly meaningless, as they lack any comparison. This is basic scientific method. Am I the only person to have thought of this?

Not a ‘useful idiot’

I’m disappointed. Crushed even. The European Values think tank has just produced a report entitled The Kremlin’s Platform for Useful Idiots in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact. The report contains a spreadsheet with the names of 2327 ‘useful idiots’, that is to say people who have appeared on RT and, says the report, ‘either due to unawareness of RT’s political agenda, or indeed explicit support of it, lend their names and credibility to a pseudo-news network and proxy agent of the Kremlin.’ And what do you know? I’m not on the list! In fact, I’ve appeared on RT twice, once on their news section, and once on Crosstalk, but for some reason they don’t seem to have bothered analyzing the Crosstalk guest list, so I’ve slipped through the cracks. I’m not a ‘useful idiot’ after all, and have been deprived of the opportunity to express moral outrage at being publicly named and shamed.

So much for the methodology of the European Values think tank, a Czech-based organization which runs something called ‘Kremlin Watch’, described as ‘a strategic program … which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies.’ Let’s take a more detailed look at the report on the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

The report begins by saying ‘RT’s raison d’être is to denigrate the West at all costs and undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy. On these grounds, RT categorically qualifies as a Kremlin disinformation outfit.’ This confuses a bunch of separate things. Yes, I think it’s probably fair to say that RT does denigrate the West reasonably often, but that doesn’t mean that denigration is its ‘raison d’être’; rather, it’s a tool for some other objective, namely convincing people that the Western narrative is incorrect, and so making them more amenable to a Russian narrative. Second, denigration of certain aspects of Western life and policy is categorically not the same as trying to ‘undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy.’ Lots of political actors within the West criticize things about their societies. If they didn’t, they would hardly be democracies! Denigration is part of democratic discourse, not a way of destroying it. And third, none of the above means that RT is a ‘disinformation outfit.’ Denigrating the West and attacking liberal democracy, even if true, are again categorically not the same as disinformation, for the very simple reason that one can denigrate pretty well using the truth. Is it the case that RT has on occasion run stories which have turned out to be untrue. Yes. Is that true of Western media too? Yes. Are most RT stories untrue? As far as I am aware, nobody has ever produced any evidence to say that they are. To make the claim that RT is a source of disinformation, you need to do proper quantitative analysis of its output. This hasn’t been done, so the claim is not founded on proper research. Furthermore, while it may be that RT is selecting a certain segment of the truth, and not other segments, that’s bias, it’s not ‘disinformation.’

Next, the report says: ‘RT’s epistemology is rooted in the denial of the very possibility of objective, verifiable truth.’ Here, we’re into an interesting philosophical area. Personally, I think that there is an objective truth. Either I got up this morning and wrote this blog post, or I didn’t. However, our ability to know the truth is very limited. Facts are disputed, and what those facts mean is subject to multiple interpretations. We are also human beings, subject to a vast number of cognitive biases, which means that none of us is entirely objective. We can aspire to be so, but we will never achieve it. I’m a great fan of Richards J. Heuer’s book Psychology of Intelligence Analsysis, published by the CIA and available online. In this Heuer remarks:

Analysts do not achieve objective analysis by avoiding preconceptions; that would be ignorance or self-delusion. Objectivity is achieved by making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible so that they can be challenged by others and analysts can, themselves, examine their validity.  … [one view is that] objectivity requires the analyst to suppress any personal opinions or preconceptions, so as to be guided only by the “facts” of the case. To think of analysis in this way overlooks the fact that information cannot speak for itself. The significance of information is always a joint function of the nature of the information and the context in which it is interpreted. The context is provided by the analyst in the form of a set of assumptions and expectations concerning human and organizational behavior. These preconceptions are critical determinants of which information is considered relevant and how it is interpreted. … The question is not whether one’s prior assumptions and expectations influence analysis, but only whether this influence is made explicit or remains implicit.

In other words, don’t kid yourself that you can be objective. You can’t. What matters is whether your biases are made explicit or are hidden. So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in RT saying it isn’t objective. In fact, that’s a good thing, as it makes its biases open. By contrast, media outlets who pretend to be objective are deceiving their readers and viewers. Obviously, as with so many things, this is contestable. One can have a long and detailed debate about the validity of RT’s epistemology; but it’s not necessarily incorrect, and certainly not inherently anti-democratic or designed to disinform.

Next, the report claims that, ‘RT disguises the malicious objectives of this editorial strategy by claiming to uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals like free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought.’ Note how the word ‘malicious’ is thrown in here. This is a value judgement placed in the middle of what claims to be a factual statement. Where is the ‘objectivity’ here? Besides that, there is something a little creepy about denouncing people because they claim to ‘uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals’. If the report’s authors think this is false, then they need to provide a detailed analysis showing that that there is no ‘free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought’ on RT. Have they done this? Have they asked RT’s guests whether they are told what to say, or cut off if they say something wrong (the answer in my experience is no and no). Have they done a thorough analysis of all RT’s reports to see if there is any ‘critical journalism’ (actually, there’s a lot, and that’s what this report doesn’t like – RT’s journalism is too ‘critical’). And have they done a quantitative analysis proving that there’s no independent thought, that people on RT just parrot the identical line all the time? No they haven’t. Perhaps all these claims are true, but there is no solid data in the report to back it up.

In fact, the report reveals quite the opposite. It says that, ‘RT uses guest appearances by Western politicians, journalists and writers, academics, and other influential public personalities to boost its credibility.’ It then provides the name of 2,327 of these guests. But look who they include:

  • Among American politicians, such well known Kremlin stooges as Dick Cheney, Wesley Clark, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman, Michael Morrell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Ryan, and James Woolsey.
  • Among British politicians, such obvious Putin puppets as Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Martin Bell, Boris Johnson, David Owen, Jack Straw and John Prescott
  • Among European and international politicians, Kofi Anan, Ehud Barak, Helen Clark, Dominique de Villepin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hamid Karzai, Romano Prodi, Dima Rousseff, and a bunch of others who obvious only ever spout Kremlin talking points.
  • Among journalists, a whole bunch of peoples whose names I don’t mostly recognize, but does include another well-known non-independent American Larry King, who actually hosts a show on RT
  • And among academics/experts, the likes of Richard Dawkins, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Drezner, Mark Galeotti, Nina Khrushcheva, Michael O’Hanlon, Daniel Pipes, Angela Stent, and Dmitry Trenin, who are well-known for their incapacity for independent thought and their inability to do anything other than read from their Kremlin cue cards.

Perhaps, as I said, all the accusations about RT could be justified if there was a proper, quantitative analysis of what is said on RT and by who, of how much of RT news is true and how much untrue, etc. In the absence of solid, quantitative, data, all the report is able to produce is a handful of anecdotes about allegedly biased reporting. But a handful of examples doesn’t really prove anything. And in the case of this report, its anecdotes aren’t even very good ones. For instance, it denounces RT’s coverage of the annexation of Crimea because, among other things, RT had the audacity to show pictures of Crimeans happily welcoming Russian troops. And it spends half a page defending the Ukrainian government’s language policies. Now it might well be that RT exaggerates the extent to which these threaten the use of the Russian language, but the report is equally biased in whitewashing the policies as if they aren’t discriminatory at all (which, as seen by recent legislation on language in the media and education, is not the case).

And here is a picture the report shows as evidence of RT’s ‘conspiratorial’ nature.

rt1

What precisely is wrong with this? Academic studies of the American media’s coverage of the issue of Iraqi WMD prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have shown that the media overwhelmingly accepted the government’s claims that Iraq had WMD and posed a serious threat to US security. There was indeed ‘no second opinion’ in any large-scale sense. And look what happened! Wouldn’t it have been better if there had been more questioning?

According to the report, ‘Appearing on RT is not harmless, it enables and legitimates RT’s subversive agenda. … It is therefore impossible to appear on RT without being ultimately complicit in its efforts to undermine Western democracy and pollute the information space.’ So, in the name of democracy and free speech, we must tell people that they shouldn’t accept invitations to express their view, and we must publish lists of their names and call them ‘useful idiots’ in the hope of shaming them into silence. Does anybody else appreciate the irony?

Cunning troll

I once read that the founders of the website Inosmi.ru, which translates articles from the Western mass media into Russia, had hoped that by giving Russians access to Western journalism they would be able to convince them of the rightness of Western ways and of the values of liberal-democracy more generally, and thus rid them of their nationalist and anti-democratic urges. Unfortunately, said the article, Inosmi had had the opposite effect. Once non-English speaking Russians finally got the opportunity to read the over-the-top nonsense about Russia that passes for journalism in the Western press, they became more convinced than ever that the Western world was out to get them. It has thus been suggested that the very best thing that the Russian authorities can do to counter Western propaganda is to spread it as widely as possible among the Russian population. Appalled by what they see and hear, the Russian people will rally around the authorities with great aplomb.

The Kremlin, it seems, has learnt the lesson. If the latest stories in the Western press are to be believed, those dastardly Russians are responsible for turning a piece of anti-Russian propaganda into a viral video on social media. Curse them for their cunning! The video in question, of course, is that by American actor Morgan Freeman recently published by the creepily titled ‘Committee to Investigate Russia’, in which Freeman declared that Russia was at ‘war’ with America. No doubt, many of you have already seen it. If so, it’s quite probably because you are a victim of a Kremlin troll. You see, Kremlin trolls have been spreading the video all over the internet and social media, in order to have a good laugh at it and show how ridiculous anti-Russian propaganda is. My goodness, they’re cunning, ‘as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University,’ as the great Blackadder said.

Don’t take my word for it. According to that well-known bastion of non-propagandistic, 100% totally objective news reporting, RFE/RL, ‘A top NATO adviser on Russian Internet propaganda and disinformation campaigns says U.S. actor Morgan Freeman appears to have been targeted by “coordinated, pro-Kremlin social-media attacks”.’ Actually, Rolf Fredheim, the alleged ‘top NATO advisor’, is just a ‘data analyst’, and at the Riga-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre for Excellence, not at NATO. The Centre is just ‘accredited by NATO’, which according to the Centre’s website means simply that it’s one of several facilities ‘recognized by the Alliance for their expertise’. But let’s put that to one side for the moment. It’s RFE/RL, after all. Details, details. What matters is what Herr Fredheim has to say, which is the following:

Fredheim told RFE/RL on September 21 that he could not say whether the avalanche of recent English-language attacks against Freeman on Twitter, YouTube, and other social media were directly coordinated by the Kremlin. But he said the timing and similarity of many of the initial attacks suggest an army of pro-Kremlin, online trolls may have taken a cue from the criticism of Freeman by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on September 20, one day after the Freeman video’s release. ‘It does look very highly coordinated, because you’re seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message,’ Fredheim said. ‘It’s more than just a teenager in the basement. It could be many teenagers in many basements. But it could also be something more sophisticated than that…the St. Petersburg troll factories, for instance. It could be an example of some kind of Russian troll-farm output.’

So, our ‘top NATO advisor’ admits that he has no evidence that the flood of articles, blog posts, and Twitter and Facebook messages linking to Freeman’s video and poking fun at it, are ‘coordinated by the Kremlin’, but he feels confident enough nonetheless to say that it’s likely the case, because it involves multiple messages on multiple platforms, something which could only be achieved by a coordinating centre, and couldn’t possibly be the result of lots of individuals deciding that this was such blithering nonsense that they really ought to comment on it on whatever type of media they happen to choose. Take  for example, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, who wrote a scathing article about the video a couple of days ago.  Kremlin troll, obviously! And Fox New’s Tucker Carson, who tackled the issue on his talk show. Troll, too. Must be. And myself … Well, you all know that I’m taking payment from the Kremlin; it’s how I bought my Ferrari.

matchbox-ferrari-testarossa

The funny thing is that the ‘Freeman is a victim of Kremlin trolls’ story has itself gone sort of viral, as other Western media outlets pick it up, and Tweeters and Facebookers spread the word. ‘The legendary American actor is a pariah in Russia,’ says the Washington Post, ‘with Kremlin officials, Russian talking heads and pro-Putin social media trolls ganging up to denounce Freeman. The all-hands-on-deck response suggests a concerted Russian effort to discredit the actor via social media.’ ‘Russian trolls are waging war on Morgan Freeman,’ shouts Viceciting RFE/RL. ‘Russia has aimed its entire media arsenal at the veteran Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman,’ proclaims the BBC.  Blogs are getting in on the act. ‘Is nothing sacred?’ asks the Codebringer, complaining about the Russian trolls’ attacks on Mr Freeman. It’s just one of many such complaints one can find in a couple of seconds through a Google search. And it’s on Twitter and Facebook too, as people share the stories from RFE/RL, the BBC, Vice, and so on. In short, the story’s spreading far and wide.

Well, golly gosh. It seems that we are ‘seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message.’ Very suspicious. This phenomenon can’t be spontaneous, can it, Mr Fredheim? You’ve said so. Somebody must be coordinating it. A NATO troll factory, maybe? I demand we be told the truth.