Tag Archives: Integrity Initiative

It lies within

In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, long before the current frenzy about ‘fake news’ and Russian ‘disinformation’, British journalist Nick Davies sought to explain why the global media contained so much ‘falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.’ According to Davies, up to about the 1980s, mass media was not predominantly concerned with money-making. In particular, what one might call ‘serious’ broadsheet newspapers were rarely profitable and often lost substantial amounts of money. They stayed in business because of the subsidies of rich proprietors who felt that owning a newspaper gave them prestige and political influence. In the 1980s Rupert Murdoch changed all that, and set about turning the mass media into a source of revenue. One way of doing this was by cutting costs, which entailed reducing payroll. Thus began a process in which the number of journalists employed by Western media organizations has plummeted. This process has accelerated in recent years, with newsroom jobs falling by 23% between 2008 and 2017 alone. At the same time, the internet has led to a vast increase in the number of media organizations. The internet has also created intense pressure to produce stories quickly. The result is fewer and fewer journalists forced to produce more and more stories faster and faster. The inevitable consequence has been a decline in quality.

Along the way, investigative journalism, which is slow and labour intensive, has fallen largely by the wayside. Instead, modern journalism has become largely a matter of cutting and pasting. Davies and his research team examined where the stories in newspapers came from. They discovered that the overwhelming majority came from two sources: a) a handful of press agencies, such as AP and Reuters; and b) press releases issued by governments and private corporations. Only a few organizations, such as the BBC, produce most of their own news reports. The majority just cut and paste from press agencies or press releases. Fact checking – which is also slow and labour intensive – has largely disappeared. In his 2006 book War Reporting for Cowards, British journalist Chris Ayres explained how the process works. Arriving in New York as the new US correspondent for the London Times, Ayres meets his predecessor. His job, she tells him, is to watch CNN and read the New York Times and then transcribe them for a British audience. Enough said!

My last post was on a very trivial matter, but I wrote it because it encapsulates the sloppy journalism which results from this process. Unfortunately, it’s endemic, and given the pressures that journalists operate under, it’s probably inevitable and not really their fault. Davies comments that these pressures mean that it’s relatively easy for governments and corporations to manipulate the media. Needing stories, journalists will snap up official press releases and regurgitate them without too much critical analysis. Others will then copy them, and before long the story is accepted everywhere. If you want to know why the English-language media overwhelmingly accepted government claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, this explains a lot.

What Davies doesn’t go into, but I think is also important, is the latitude the modern cut-throat media process creates for biases to influence reporting. Many issues are contested. Perhaps more than one party is issuing press releases. You don’t have time to check the competing narratives, or maybe look for some middle ground. The editor wants the story out now. So you have to choose. Whose press release do you cut and paste? The one issued by the side you believe more reliable, obviously. And how do you decide that? Perhaps years of experience have taught you the correct answer. But perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference. Reporting on Syria, do you cut and paste the White Helmets’ latest press release, or that of the Syrian government? You don’t like the Syrian government, so you go with the former. Ideally, you’d do more research, but, as I said, there’s no time, so biases govern.

Davies also points out that at any time there is a ‘story’ which prevails. If everybody else is reporting on something, then editors feel that they have to be reporting on it too, regardless of whether there is anything to it. If you want to sell copy, you can’t be the only outlet which is ignoring the ‘story’. You can see this with what is called ‘Russiagate’. For the past two years, Russian ‘electoral interference’, ‘disinformation’ and so on have been the ‘story’. Journalists therefore leap upon anything which feeds this story, even if it doesn’t actually amount to much. By contrast, anything which suggests a different story is ignored. You can see this in the case of the British-run Integrity Initiative, a shady organization funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and dedicated to combatting ‘Russian propaganda’. As Kit Klarenburg points out in an article in Sputnik News, the Integrity Initiative set up one of its ‘clusters’ of like-minded opinion formers in Germany. This cluster was headed by a former British Member of Parliament Harold Elletson, who is believed to have once worked for the British secret intelligence service MI6. Imagine if it became known that a secret network had been set up in Germany to push pro-Russian stories in the German media, and that this network was funded by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and led by a former Russian Duma Deputy who had at one time worked for the Russian intelligence service SVR. One suspects that it would be front-page headlines. Journalists would be all over it. It now turns out that a British funded network, run by a former British spy, has been recruiting Germans to influence Germany public opinion. It seems newsworthy. But how much attention has it gathered from the ‘mainstream’ media? Practically none. It doesn’t fit the ‘story’.

Attentive readers will note that in two days I have twice referenced the Russian media organization Sputnik. This is kind of odd, as I doubt that I have ever read more than about five Sputnik stories. But the narrative above tells me why people might decide to read more. Too much reporting in Western media is sloppy, inaccurate, and biased. I’m certainly not saying that all of it, or even most of it, is. There are some excellent journalists and some first class reporting. But when it comes to Russia, there is a lot which falls short, more than enough for many intelligent readers to realize that something isn’t quite right. The result is a loss of faith in the mainstream media, which induces some to defect to alternative sources, be it Sputnik or anything else.

Those alternative sources may, of course, be worse. But it seems to me to be wrong to blame them for the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the like. Those who campaign against Russian disinformation often demand that governments take action against RT, Sputnik, and others, and propose setting up counter-disinformation centres dedicated to exposing Russian fake news and spreading their own version of the truth. But none of this addresses the root cause of the problem – the failings of our own traditional media. I’m not sure what the solution is – the pressures of the market and the processes unleashed by modern information technology are what they are – but the solution certainly doesn’t involve blaming others. If you don’t report on the Integrity Initiative, for instance, of course people will turn to Sputnik to read about it. And frankly, they’re right to do so – where else can find out about this stuff? So what I’d say to our information warriors is that if you don’t want people turning to Sputnik¸ you first need to get your own act together. As I’ve said before, the root of problem doesn’t lie without; it lies within.

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Lack of integrity

According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.

On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:

a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.

In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.

An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.

Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.

The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:

Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.

This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.

Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.

It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,