Tag Archives: propaganda

The Guardian’s Anti-Russian Vax Propaganda plunges to New Depths

What a f****ing disgrace! I did develop a bit of a potty mouth while in the army, but I generally refrain from bad language on this blog. But there are times when it just spontaneously spews out in disgust at the sheer utter revolting vileness of the British press.

I know. It’s always been bad. But one could distinguish between the likes of The Sun and The Mirror on the one hand, and the more serious ‘broadsheet’ press on the other, treating the former not so as newspapers but as a type of entertainment while expecting some degree of seriousness from the latter. Alas, those days are long gone, especially when it comes to all things Russian. Instead of honest reporting, what we get from too much of the British press is a torrent of extreme Russophobic propaganda masquerading as news. It is truly a f***ing disgrace.

What brought on this rant? The answer is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian about Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Even by the rotten standards of The Guardian it plummets the depths of propagandistic nastiness, serving no purpose other than to incite hatred of Russia, while doing its darndest to undermine worldwide efforts to get us out of the covid pandemic. We’ve seen many (invalid) complaints about Russia spreading anti-vax propaganda. Well, here here we British anti-vax propaganda of the basest kind. It kind of makes you want to vomit.

The gist of the article is summed up in the headline and subtitle: ‘Is Russia’s Covid vaccine anything more than a political weapon? Observers say the Sputnik V jab is aimed more at sowing political division than fighting coronavirus.’

WTF? I mean, really. WTF? Russian researchers really went to all the effort of developing a coronavirus vaccine so that they could ‘sow political division’ in the West? Listen to yourself speaking, man. Are you serious?

Unfortunately, author Jon Henley is, and embarks on a long explanation of just how vile the Russians are for having developed a solution to a worldwide plague.

To do this, Henley resorts to one of the techniques for writing bad articles I mentioned in a recent post – namely, citing a bunch of people who agree with the narrative he’s trying to spread, while ignoring any other voices or alternative explanations. It’s a hatchet job, pure and simple, designed to discredit both Sputnik V and the Russian Federation.

The article, in other words, is just one Russophobic comment piled up on another – Bam, bam, bam. Take that, Sputnik V! What it isn’t is fair and balanced reporting.

So it is that Henley starts us off with a statement that

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has yet to win EU regulatory approval and is likely to play little part in the bloc’s rollout, but it has already achieved what some observers say is one of its objectives – sowing division among, and within, member states. “Sputnik V has become a tool of soft power for Russia,” said Michal Baranowski, a fellow with a US thinktank, the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s planted its flag on the vaccine and the political goal of its strategy is to divide the west.”

Baranowski’s evidence for this claim? He doesn’t provide any. Of course, he doesn’t. It doesn’t exist. Has anybody associated with the Russian government or the Sputnik vaccine ever stated such an objective? No. Baranowski’s accusation is entirely speculation on his behalf.

But Henley thinks that there is some evidence, and so brings out his second quote, this time from an EU official:

“Russia’s low vaccination rate just doesn’t tally with it having a supposedly cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine,” one EU diplomat said. “Either Moscow’s being altruistic, which seems unlikely. Or it’s prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs.”

This is just BS. Total utter BS. Putting aside the idea that Russians are incapable of altruism, if Henley spent even a micro-second checking, he’d discover that a) Russia does have a ‘cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine’, and b) the reason for the low vaccination rate in Russia is not that Russia is ‘prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs’, by for instance sending vaccines abroad while not distributing them at home, but a reluctance by Russians to take the vaccine. In Moscow, for instance, the vaccine is freely available for all, and has been for some time, but only about 10% of the city has bothered getting a shot. You can walk into the GUM shopping mall any time you like and get the vaccine. I’ve read that the line-ups are minimal. People just aren’t doing it.

That means that there are some genuine criticisms that can make of the Russian government’s handling of the covid crisis. It has done a very poor PR job persuading its population of the merits of getting vaccinated. But the accusation that it is favouring geopolitics over its own people’s needs is just plain false.

Henley, however, ploughs on regardless, wheeling out his third rent-a-quote, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, telling us that:

The prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė, tweeted in February that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, saw the shot not so much as a “cure for the Russian people” as “another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”

Well, if the Prime Minister of Lithuania says it, it must be true. Right?

To make sure we’re on ball, Henley next casts some doubt on the efficacy of Sputnik-V, though deigning to cite Russian health officials rebutting such doubts. But whether Sputnik works well or not isn’t really Henley’s topic. It could be 100% effective but still a bad thing, he implies, because it’s ‘dividing’ Europe (which is obviously more important than health issues – I find the callousness of the approach at this point rather startling). Thus the article tells us:

Whether or not the EMA –[European Medical Agency] approves Sputnik V and whether or not it ever arrives in sufficient numbers, observers argue it has already done significant damage, with EU national and regional leaders leveraging it for their own political ends. In some countries, it has caused mayhem: the Slovakian prime minister, Igor Matovič, was forced to resign this month amid a bitter dispute over a secret deal to buy 2m doses despite the disagreement of many in his four-party coalition. … Sputnik has also cost the health and foreign ministers of the Czech Republic – both opposed to the shot’s deployment without EMA approval – their jobs, fired by the prime minister, Andrej Babiš …  In Germany … three states including Bavaria have either struck or are negotiating Sputnik deals.

Obviously, Moscow somehow planned this all along! As if. And in any case, so what? Everyone and his dog is saying that EU’s vaccine program has been a mess. If states seek to go around it and vaccinate their people by getting Sputnik-V, isn’t that a good thing? But no, not for Mr Henley, who returns to his original source, writing that:

For Baranowski, Sputnik’s rushed approval, online propaganda and carefully selected destinations add up to a Russian strategy that is “neither innocent nor humanitarian. It is part of exactly the same game, of dividing the west, that we see in Moscow’s use of military power, cybersecurity, energy security.”

And it’s working, he said: “It’s dividing various European actors pretty well. Until Sputnik V has EMA approval – at which stage, of course, there’s no problem: the world needs vaccines – it’s become a political litmus test for whether you are for or against the EU’s programme. That’s eroding confidence. And that’s what Putin wants.”

 Ah, yes. ‘That’s what Putin wants’. Which is odd, because he’s never said so, nor given any indication that that’s what he’s thinking. But it seems as if Mr Baranowski has a means of getting inside Putin’s head. One of those Russian ‘directed energy weapons’ redesigned for a new purpose, maybe?

This isn’t serious reporting. It’s just an unsubstantiated thesis, with the author making up for the lack of concrete evidence by throwing in a bunch of quotes from hostile witnesses. It’s hateful. Insofar as it increase vaccine scepticism and may hinder the use of what appears to be a very successful medical product, it is also harmful. By publishing this, The Guardian has plunged so deep, it’s gone even beyond the lower depths. Shame on you, Guardian. Shame.

Lipstick on a Pig, British-Style: Or Why the UK’s Anti-Russian Propaganda Campaign is Bound to Fail

In his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia British journalist Angus Roxburgh details the time he spent working as a public relations consultant for the Russian government. The problem he confronted, he writes, is that the Russians felt that negative fallout from any type of bad news, or bad behaviour, could be avoided if the news was given the appropriate media spin. He kept telling them that if they insisted on doing x or y, it would look bad regardless of how it was spun, while they insisted that as a PR guy it was up to him to make it look good nevertheless. In essence, Roxburgh says, the Russians never understood that if you put lipstick on a pig, everyone will still see that it’s a pig.

It’s a fair enough point, and I couldn’t help thinking of it when reading news this past week of a big dump of leaked documents showing how the British government has been spending millions of pounds on supporting anti-Kremlin journalists, media organizations, youtubers and other influencers both in Russia and its near abroad (especially the Baltic states).

The leaked documents consist of instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to companies wanting to bid for contracts to supervise the media campaign, as well as various bids drawn up by companies hoping to win the contracts. You can find some of the details in an article by Kit Klarenburg on RT as well as on the Moon of Alabama blog.

The latter goes out of its way to portray this as a campaign of British subversion targeted against Russia. Strictly speaking, nothing in the documents says that. Rather, the FCO couches its language in terms of training journalists, overcoming disinformation, improving the quality of reporting, raising journalistic ethics, and so on. Who can argue with any of that? On the surface, it’s all fine and dandy, though perhaps a bit patronising, as there’s an underlying assumption that Russians are incapable of high quality, ethically sound reporting, whereas the UK (home of the Sun, the Daily Express, and the like) knows all about that sort of thing and can teach those poor benighted Russians how to do things properly.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and it’s clear that something is not quite as innocent as the FCO would like to make it out. Particularly striking was a statement that British funds have been used to set up a network of Russian youtubers while also helping them avoid having to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’, as required by Russian law. It’s hard to see how the Brits will be able to explain that to the Russians as not constituting interference in domestic affairs and aiding and abetting people to break the law.

Likewise, it’s difficult to say how one can describe positively the news that the FCO-funded Zink Network has been working with the Latvia-based Meduza and other media outlets, holding “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets”, “adjusting their editorial and commercial strategy accordingly” and creating “common framings of issues.” It will be interesting to see how Meduza from now on rebuffs the accusation that it’s acting as an arm of the British government (I imagine that it just won’t bother trying).

I’m not going to go into all the details – you can read them yourselves, if you want. Instead, I feel it useful to mention a couple of points which these documents raised in my mind.

The first is that what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘disinformation industry’ (i.e. the industry devoted to combatting alleged Russian disinformation) is big business. There’s millions of pounds to be made in this. And nobody’s going to get any of that money by playing down the Russian threat.

The second is that it is all utterly pointless, even counterproductive. This sort of thing has a tendency to become public knowledge – as it now has – and when it does, it looks bad. In the process, it taints all and every anti-government source of information in Russia as the agent of hostile foreign states, even when they’re not. In this way, schemes like this actually end up playing into the hands of the Kremlin, justifying its claims that Russia is under attack from the West.

Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if somehow this great media campaign convinced huge numbers of people to change their view of the world. But I don’t see any evidence that it does. One of the leaked documents has the following to say about the Baltic states:

Especially amongst 40+ populations there is a lower level of trust in both the domestic and international media amongst Russian-speaking populations. There is the strong perception that the Baltic states’ Russian TV and radio programmes favour a Baltic perspective rather than reflect the Russian minority’s perspectives. There is also a degree of mistrust in the authorities especially around citizenship and language.

Returning to Mr Roxburgh, the correct solution to this, it seems to me, would be to address the policies that cause the mistrust, and also to start reflecting the Russians’ perspectives in your programming. But that’s not what the FCO plan wants to do. It assumes that the current policies and perspectives are fine; they just need some decent PR to sell them better. So, keep on churning out the same old line, just train some people to do it more professionally.

In short, paint some lipstick on the pig. But as the quote above shows, the reason Russians are listening to the message isn’t because the pig is ugly, but because it’s a pig. Making it a nicely painted British pig isn’t going to help in the slightest.

Toronto for Putin!

The more Russophile elements of the online universe are up in arms today about the latest attempt to smear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as some sort of Kremlin agent. This follows an article in the New York Times describing how as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders endeavoured to find a ‘sister city’ in the Soviet Union, eventually signing a twinning agreement with the town of Yaroslavl. No matter that the twinning program in question was approved by no less a person than Republic president Ronald Reagan, there was obviously something dodgy about it, the Times implies. Vote for Bernie at your peril!

This kind of Russia-related scaremongering has become commonplace in the United States since late 2016, when the Democratic Party decided to make Russia the central point of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump. Fortunately, we’ve been relatively free of it up here in the frozen north, but only relatively. For every now and again somebody pops out of the woodwork to strike fear in Canadians about their Arctic neighbour, Russia.

And so it was that on Wednesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, General Jonathan Vance, told a conference in Ottawa that, ‘the most immediate state-sponsored military threat, if I could caveat it that way, that we face right now and today in physical space is Russia’. Others piled on. Lieutenant General Christopher Coates, deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, remarked that ‘Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America’. And American writer Frederick Kagan, invited to Ottawa for who knows what reason, told the conference that, ‘We are collectively … standing around waiting for the next play to start while the ball is actually live and the Russians are running back toward our goal. This is not an interwar period. The war is on.’

I’ve somehow missed the fact that my country is at war. I really ought to wake up. For while we sleep, the Russians are taking us over. They’ve even managed to capture our largest city.  Or at least, that’s what the Toronto Sun thinks, judging by an article published yesterday, headlined ‘Is Toronto under the sway of Russian propaganda?’ Clearly, the Sun wants its readers to think that the answer is yes. Author Marcus Kolga who, on behalf of the Baltic diaspora, has undertaken heroic efforts to enlighten Canadians about the Russian threat, laments that ‘the City of Toronto Parks department cynically rejected a proposal’ to rename a ‘small street inside Earl Bales park’ after murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. Note how they didn’t just reject this proposal, they rejected it ‘cynically’. What moral turpitude has infected our municipal leaders!

Apparently there was an online public consultation about the renaming, and it would appear that it didn’t go too well for the proposal. Kolga suspects Kremlin manipulation of the results. ‘It would not have taken much effort by staff at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the St. Petersburg troll factory, to undertake such an effort,’ he says. Forget about the war in Syria and the like. Toronto Street names are clearly top priority back in Russia.

The failure to honour Nemtsov is the least of our problems, though. Even more exasperating from Kolga’s point of view is the atrocious fact that last month Toronto city council allowed the Russian consulate to use the foyer of city hall to put up an exhibition about the Second World War. This included displays on outrageous topics such as ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, ‘The Siege of Leningrad’, and ‘The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue.’ City council had allowed the Russian consulate ‘to post historical propaganda posters’, complained Kolga on Twitter, linking to a message from the consulate which included the following shocking example.

toronto

It’s ‘outrageous’ that this happened, said Kolga on Twitter. I’m sure, dear readers, that you share his outrage. This cannot be tolerated. As Kolga said in the Toronto Sun:

It is difficult to comprehend how the Nemtsov street naming project … was rejected while a Russian Government initiated and sponsored historical propaganda exhibit … was allowed to proceed. … The Mayor and Council should immediately revisit the decision to reject the naming of a street … in honour of this great Russian hero … The City must immediately review policies and reject all attempts by malign foreign states to hijack public spaces in our city to advance their own false narratives in order to manipulate our citizens.

God forbid that Torontonians learn about the Second World War or the Holocaust. They might, for instance, conclude that Baltic collaborators were on the wrong side of history. We must prevent this ‘malign’ attempt to ‘manipulate our citizens’. But Kolga got one thing wrong. It isn’t ‘difficult to comprehend’ how this happened. The answer is obvious. Toronto is ‘under the sway of the Kremlin.’ What other answer could there be?

No history, no culture, please

Western governments should ‘re-focus financial support for Russia-related academic programs from culture and history to in-depth analysis of Russia’s authoritarianism, kleptocracy and corrupt practices’. So says a new report issued this week by the Institute for Modern Russia, a think-tank funded by former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. For God forbid that students should learn about Russian culture and history before expressing any opinions about that country. Knowing some culture and history might lead to understanding, which might lead to sympathy or at least empathy, and thus to a desire to engage in dialogue, find mutual solutions to international problems, and all the rest of it. And that, of course, would be dangerous. Ignorance is much to be preferred.

There’s a lot about this report which is rather disturbing, but as someone who studies Russian history for a living this particular recommendation stood out for me. History and culture are the foundations of study of any society. If you want to know a foreign country, you have for a start to learn its language, which means reading its literature. You then need to know its history to be able to put things in the right context. But there are some, it seems, who don’t want people to understand context. They know the truth, and anything which might challenge it needs to be censored.

In any case, according to the argument put forward by report’s author, Kateryna Smagliy, those who don’t agree with her deserved to be silenced. Why? Because they are agents of the Kremlin. She urges Western governments to ‘step up efforts to expose Russia’s network of agents within Western academia’. ‘The Russian government pursues a coherent and well-coordinated “knowledge weaponization” strategy,’ she says. This strategy

led to the rise of the new phenomenon of ‘hybrid analytica’, which we define here as the process of design, development and promotion of various  pseudo-academic narratives by duped or manipulated bona-fide intellectuals, academics and think-tank experts of political ‘lobbyists in disguise’, whose vested interests have been recruited through the global network of the Kremlin-linked operatives.

This network is extraordinarily widespread, as you can see by the following graphic:

hybrid analytica

Among the members of the Kremlin’s academic network, it appears, are the notoriously Russophobic Legatum Institute (ha, ha!), Oxford University, Durham University, King’s College London, and two score other European universities. In the United States it includes such institutions as The National Interest magazine, the Kennan Institute, The Wilson Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a network like that, it’s amazing that public opinion in the West is still so hostile to Russia.

What exactly are these institutions doing which is so dangerous? Well, they’re doing things like establishing ‘an interdisciplinary research center “to communicate the riches of Russian civilization to the general public”’; running a conference ‘devoted to the discussion of Russian influences on California’s history’; hosting ‘Russian folklore choirs and the Saint Petersburg Horn Orchestra’, and fostering ‘lasting connections between Russian and American youth through music and theatre performances, film screenings, conferences, and student exchanges.’ This is scary stuff. People should be studying ‘Russia’s authoritarianism, kleptocracy and corrupt practices’ instead. All that history and culture will turn their heads. It must be resisted.

Western ‘experts’ suborned by Russia peddle dangerous theories, we learn. This includes the obviously preposterous, and politically dangerous, theory put forward by the Carnegie Endowment’s Eugene Rumer, who ‘published an article arguing that anti-Russian sanctions produce no desired results and that sometimes they even backfire.’ Such publications suggest that Carnegie’s work feels ‘like an analytical screen to cover a suspicious political project.’ The idea that scholars might come to conclusions like this independently, on the simple grounds that their research points them that way, seems not to occur to Smagliy. If they say these things, it must be because they’ve been bought by the Kremlin. To stop such things from happening, Western academic institutions and think tanks should cut off all contact with their Russian counterparts forthwith.

It would be easy to ignore all this as idiotic and unimportant. After all, the insinuation that those who study Russian history and culture, and who engage in cultural exchanges, are somehow witting or unwitting agents of the Kremlin, and assisting Russia in its acts of external and internal aggression, is quite preposterous. And it’s not as if this kind of report gets a mass audience. But still, it’s a little creepy. It’s not likely that some spook will read this and be so convinced that he’ll decide to start bugging professors’ phones. But then again, look at Carter Page, who was investigated by the FBI after he had the audacity to deliver a lecture at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. In the current McCarthyite atmosphere, you just don’t know any more. And I have to wonder what effect this will have on young researchers. Tenured full professors like me can shrug it off and carry on doing what we’re doing. But if I was advising young PhD students I’d have to tell them to be careful about what they write if they want to maximize their career prospects. It’s not a healthy situation.

In short, we are facing a concerted attack on academic freedom. The front of Ms Smagliy’s report contains a little logo saying ‘Free Speech’. Somehow I doubt that she appreciates the irony.

hybrid analytica2

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.

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.

Turbans and propaganda

Russian ‘information warfare’ is back in the headlines today, with Postmedia publishing a typically over-the-top piece by Matthew Fisher entitled ‘Russia sharpens information weapon’. What prompts this story? According to a Latvian colonel, somebody somewhere on the internet (we are not told who) wrote a derogatory comment about Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan wearing a turban. Of course, nobody writes racist nonsense on the internet without first receiving directions from the Kremlin, so this is clear evidence that Moscow is ‘sharpening’ its information weapons in order to discredit the deployment of Canadian troops to Latvia (though what is so ‘sharp’ about this,  I cannot see). Fisher complains that in a recent report, the ‘pro-Kremlin website’ Vestvi.lv, which is directed at Russian speakers in the Baltics, ‘grossly exaggerated what NATO was doing.’ Gross exaggeration – we can’t have that, can we, Matthew?

Meanwhile, a group of ‘security experts’ from 27 countries are meeting today in Prague for a conference to discuss the threat posed by Russia to democratic elections in the West. Among other things, the delegates will discuss a report issued on Thursday by the Kremlin Watch program of the European Values think-tank entitled ’35 measures in 15 steps for enhancing the resilience of the democratic electoral process’.  The report outlines various ways that Moscow is allegedly interfering in Western elections, as summarized in this diagram:

infowarelections

Let us take a look at this in more detail.

Continue reading Turbans and propaganda

Fact and comment

When reading an intelligence report, it is advisable to distinguish between those parts of the report which are raw information and those which are comments. Intelligence analysts are trained to make this distinction clear. One method is to place raw information in a column on one side of the page and commentary in a separate column on the other side. Another way is to put the word ‘COMMENT’ before any commentary, and to put ‘END OF COMMENT’ at the end. A reader can then evaluate whether a comment seems justified in light of the supporting facts.

With this in mind, let us now turn to the unclassified report released to the public yesterday by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, entitled ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.’

The report doesn’t do a very good job of separating fact and comment. But it does regularly use the phrase ‘We assess.’ Readers can presumably take anything preceded by this phrase as being equivalent to a comment. So let us look at the report’s assessments, and see what facts are used to justify them. Among the quotations which follow, those which I consider to state facts, rather than opinions, are highlighted in bold.

Continue reading Fact and comment

Losing the propaganda war

The Western world, we are told, is subject to a steady stream of ‘Russian propaganda’. Perhaps this is true, but if so it is but a drop in the ocean of overall media content, the overwhelming majority of which is fiercely anti-Russian. Let us see what the English-language press had to say about Russia this week.

Atlantic magazine has just issued a new article entitled ‘Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy’. In this, author Larry Diamond explains how ‘Putin’s regime has been embarked for some years now on an opportunistic but sophisticated campaign to sabotage democracy’ and ‘We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II’.

‘CIA concludes Russia interfered to help Trump win election’, says The Guardian, citing the Washington Post and New York Times. Apparently, ‘A secret CIA assessment found that Russian operatives covertly interfered in the election campaign in an attempt to ensure the Republican candidate’s victory’, and ‘intelligence officials had a “high confidence” that Russia was involved in hacking related to the election’.

Building on this last story, the Guardian claims also that ‘Russian involvement in US vote raises fears for European elections.’  This follows a statement this week by the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Alex Younger, in which he ‘said cyber-attacks, propaganda and subversion from hostile states pose a “fundamental threat” to European democracies, including the UK. … Younger did not specifically name Russia but left no doubt that this was the target of his remarks.’ The Guardian says that, ‘there will be speculation that Younger was basing his statements, in part, on suspicions of Russian meddling in Britain’s Brexit referendum campaign. …  Any evidence of direct or indirect Russian interference in the British referendum campaign would be politically explosive.’

The Daily Express picks up on the alleged Russian threat to European elections. ‘RUSSIA TO DESTROY MERKEL’, its headline today reads in capital letters, with a subtitle saying ‘US official discovers intelligence of takedown plot.’  The article proceeds to tell us that, ‘RUSSIA has launched a cyber campaign to take down Angela Merkel and promote far-right groups in the upcoming German elections. … A US official familiar with the investigation says that Vladimir Putin will continue to wreak havoc.’

On a separate subject,  a report issued this week by Richard Maclaren on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency says that, ‘More than 1,000 Russians – including Olympic medallists – benefited from a state-sponsored doping programme between 2011 and 2015’. ‘It was a cover-up that evolved from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalised and disciplined medal-winning conspiracy,’ claims McLaren.

As Syrian forces, with Russian help, recaptured most of Aleppo, Western politicians and the press lined up this week to accuse Russia and Syria of various atrocities. In a joint statement, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada demanded a ceasefire in Aleppo and said: ‘We condemn the actions of the Syrian regime and its foreign backers, especially Russia, for their obstruction of humanitarian aid.’ The statement added ‘that hospitals and schools appeared to have been targeted “in an attempt to wear people down”.’ Western media outlets repeated claims of the ‘president of Aleppo city council’ that ‘Today 150,000 people are threatened with extermination’, and parsing Tacitus, MI6 chief Alex Younger complained that, ‘In Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace.’

Bear in mind that this is just one week’s stories. The consumers of Western media are subjected to similar output week after week. The oft-stated claim that ‘Russia is winning the information war’ is rather naïve. It is losing it badly.