Our Aussie comrade-in-arms Greg Maybury is distributing the following material, which we are happy to reproduce here, for obvious reasons.
—Perceptions of western mainstream media—
In the spring of 2018 I addressed students, faculty, and [the] public in universities of three countries—California State University Channel Islands (USA) (undergraduate students of the University’s degree program and senior adults of its OSHER program), Higher School of Economics in Moscow (Russia), and the East China Normal University in Shanghai (China). My presentations examined legacy and social media coverage of “fake news” and “RussiaGate” (2016–2019).
In California as in Moscow and Shanghai I discerned that many listeners identified positively with western mainstream media, especially those of the USA and the UK (easily accessible in Russia and in China through the use of VPNs) contrasting these favorably with media of Russia and China. I surprised many with the view that western mainstream media are not dependably “safe” sources on topics that touch on matters of great sensitivity to the main centers of power, especially those with which we may associate the term “Washington Consensus,” and its outlook on world affairs.
—Brief history and prospective of fake news —
President Donald Trump introduced a new chapter to a long history of fake news. Here was an establishment figure denigrating media for stories that he claimed were untrue and/or biased. Trump’s complaints—petulant and self-serving as they often seemed—had some basis, since many so-called liberal media did indeed demonstrate bias against Trump, even if critics considered he had brought negative coverage upon himself. “Fake news” is nothing new and has always raised concern.
The term is itself 200 years old (Jankowski 2018). It is closely associated with a range of others, including “propaganda,” disinformation,” “information operations,” “perception management,” “public diplomacy,” and “organized persuasive communication.” “Fake news” has been described as “patently false information (that) is intentionally presented in a phony but utterly believable ‘news media’ format in order to sway public opinion” (Macaray 2018). To illustrate, Macaray (ibid) recalled the 1934 California gubernatorial election contest between Republican incumbent Frank Merriman and Democratic challenger Upton Sinclair.
Another candidate, one of America’s richest men, was Ukrainian immigrant Louis B. Mayer, who had steered MGM to Hollywood dominance. Attacking Sinclair’s popular campaign for “Ending Poverty in California,” Mayer produced a series of faux newsreels. Looking authentic, these were shown in Californian theaters in order to discourage potential Sinclair voters. One newsreel depicted herds of desperate hoboes emerging from box-cars, whereupon they were interviewed by a faux journalist. Another showed a phony Russian declaring that he supported Sinclair because Sinclair’s system worked so well in Russia. British spy William Stephenson (possibly an inspiration for the fictional James Bond) was another example. He was assigned by Winston Churchill to manipulate the USA into WWII, to which some 80% of Americans in 1940 were opposed. Churchill sent multi-millionaire Stephenson to the US on a false diplomatic passport following Dunkirk.
Stephenson’s businesses included Shepperton Studios (movie production), and he had close ties to leading figures in the news business. He established a MI6 center in Rockefeller Center. This had two operational arms of which the British Information Service (BIS) was one, engaging in soft propaganda for entertainment media, including its own New Jersey radio station. BIS operative David Ogilvy was also assistant director to George Gallup, and skewed survey questions that could encourage the belief that US support for war was growing faster than it really was.
BIS subsidized the Overseas News Agency, a branch of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and fed manufactured stories, often couched within factual material, about German atrocities to the BIS-owned NJ radio station and similar outlets. Newspapers relayed this further. One story claimed the British had a new super-explosive for filling depth charges. It was printed on the front pages of all leading US newspapers known to be regularly monitored by Germany. Stephenson sent out rabble-rousers to spark riots among isolationist organizations, and provided funds to pro-interventionist organizations and candidates for political office. From Canada, he purportedly ran a network of 3,000 agents, counter-intelligence operatives, forgers, burglars, codebreakers, and killers.
Of equal importance to such instances of dramatic fabrication is news coverage that misleads audiences by focusing on only certain issues, topics, sources etc. to the exclusion of others that are more significant for a thorough understanding of a given issue. The purpose is to induce a desired point of view, attitude or behavioural change. Perhaps more remarkable is evidence that has surfaced in the wake of “fake news” scandals of the Trump presidency, of original, more insidious methodologies in the realms of both propaganda distribution and production. An example is a cluster of techniques of “computational propaganda.” This involves use of automation, algorithms, and big-data analytics to manipulate public life, (Howard and Woolley 2016). It encompasses fake news, spread of misinformation on social media platforms, illegal data harvesting and micro-profiling, exploitation of social media platforms for foreign influence operations, amplification of hate speech or harmful content through fake accounts of political bots, and clickbait content for optimized social media consumption. (Howard et al. 2018, p. 39)
Such methods have been attributed to a Russian propaganda and/or clickbait factory, The Internet Research Agency (IRA), but similar shenanigans closer to home featured in the techniques of Cambridge Analytica (US) to promote a variety of Republican candidates for office, and in those of its parent, Strategic Communications Laboratory (UK), which covertly intervened in the elections of dozens of countries worldwide. An unsuspected depth and range of propaganda technique surfaced in the “Integrity Initiative” (II) scandal as revealed in documents released by hacking group Anonymous in late 2018. Founded in 2015 in cooperation with the Free University of Brussels, (VUB) II was a principal activity of the Institute for Statecraft and Governance (founded in 2006).
Operating under close supervision from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office it received over $3m a year from the British Army, UK Ministry of Defense, NATO, the US State Department, Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, and even Facebook. Set up to counter Russian disinformation, II appeared to act as a source of disinformation against Russia (although II claims that some hacked information may have been falsified), operating in over 13 countries. It set up covert networks or “clusters” of “experts” among politicians, journalists, academics, NGOs, and others for the purpose of disseminating influence, manipulation of the public sphere, and overt attacks on critics of UK government policies, even when these were members of the official opposition. II activity promoted hostility to ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltics and espoused Holocaust denial.
In Spain, it helped torpedo the appointment of Pedro Banos as Director of Spain’s National Security Dept. on the bogus grounds that he was “pro-Kremlin.” Many II staff, including its director, had military backgrounds (McKeigue, Miller et al. 2018). Such efforts undermine the health of the public information environment. First and foremost, this study seeks to heighten awareness of the workings of contemporary official propaganda and warn against campaigns whose end purpose is contamination of public sphere discourse and that invite unprecedented planetary and species disruption.
—Outline of the book—
✅ In Chapter 1 I identify three “portals” to the RussiaGate hall of mirrors: (1) allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election by means of manipulation of social media; (2) allegations of Russian hacking of servers and computers linked to the Democratic National Campaign (DNC), and (3) the inquiries of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia. The chapter examines the prior influence of two reports made public in January 2017. One was a dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. This alleged collusion between Trump and the Trump campaign with the Russian government. Another was the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) which corroborated concerns of collusion.
✅ Chapter 2 argues that a weakness of RussiaGate discourse was its narrow understanding of “election meddling.” There are many sources of non-transparent interference in elections. Examining only Russia, without reference to other sources was deceptive. Any list of major problems challenging the integrity of the US electoral system would not prioritize Russia. Some allegations of Russian meddling were farcical: e.g. that Russia sowed “discord” in a country that is manifestly riven with social faultlines of long-standing. The content of much of Russia’s supposed interference was apolitical and/or juvenile, as is consistent with clickbait and with commercial persuasion.
✅ Chapter 3 defines key social media terms such as “bot,” “troll,” “sockpuppet,” and “cyborg.” It critiques charges of election meddling against Russia that appeared in intelligence and congressional reports as they concerned social media manipulation by Russia’s IRA. A singular focus on the IRA to the exclusion of the machinations of Cambridge Analytica (US) and its British parent SCL, the wider phenomenon of bot and “influencer” manipulation, and the CIA and similar intelligence activity in social media manipulation is profoundly deceptive.
✅ Chapter 4 argues that Cambridge Analytica is central to a critique of RussiaGate because (1) it exposes by contrast how low-key Russian efforts to “meddle” actually were (if indeed they were), while (2) revealing how elections throughout the world are subject to sophisticated and intelligence-linked psychological targeting operations that exploit the weaknesses of social and legacy media. Such operations function (3) principally at the service of conservative, neoliberal, or “radical right” interests, and (4) highlight inadequate self-regulation by social media whose business models depend on the privacy weaknesses of their networks to exploit big data for profit and incentivize application developers. Social media and in particular Facebook were integral to the micro-targeting tactics of non-transparent political persuasion.
✅ Chapter 5 examines the business model underwriting of Facebook and other social media in terms not just of advertising per se, but of metadata banks made available directly or indirectly to corporate clients for financial, political, and other campaigns. A principal concern is whether in response to political criticism social media have shouldered the inappropriate responsibility for gate-keeping and fact-checking, sometimes in alliance with partisan institutions.
✅ Chapter 6 finds footprints of intelligence agencies scarcely concealed behind various iterations of RussiaGate discourse, constituting contemporary forms of “deflective source propaganda,” as in the media coverage of the UK Skripal affair in 2018. The British government asserted Russian responsibility long before it could have securely determined the nature or source of the poison or the manner in which it was deployed. The Skripal affair provides one in a long chain of pro-war NATO propaganda maneuvers against Russia, deflecting public attention away from possible ties between Skripal and the “Steele dossier.”
✅ Chapter 7 unpacks the tangle of issues surrounding alleged hacking (or leaking) by Russians (or others) of documents from the servers or computers of Hillary Clinton, the DNC, and the DNC’s chairman, and its relevance to charges of “election meddling” by Russians in the 2016 US presidential election.
✅ Chapter 8 argues that no adequate understanding of RussiaGate is possible without consideration of a much broader context than is usually supplied by mainstream media. This encompasses a history of hostile relations between the USA and the Soviet Union during the first Cold War, escalating hostility between Russia and the USA in a second Cold War that erupted with the accession of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, and ultimately a geopolitical struggle for power across Eurasia, essential for the exercise of world hegemony. Four great nuclear powers in two alliances are implicated: USA/Europe and Russia/China. The threat of nuclear war remains real.
👍 The 2019 RussiaGate report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was published after this book entered production. Mueller’s conclusions do not substantially impact the book’s arguments.
👉👀 © RussiaGate and Propaganda, Disinformation in the Age of Social Media, Oliver Boyd-Barrett (2020), Routledge
Exploring Fake News and Propaganda in Today’s World
— Fake news and propaganda have become a global problem recently. What do you see as the main trigger for that?
— Fake news has always been a problem. Even the term ‘fake news’ is itself a couple of hundred years’ old. The term is synonymous with many others, including propaganda, disinformation, information operations, and others.
The current popularity of the term is due to the charge made by President Trump against CNN in January 2017 when he criticized the broadcast channel for its coverage of the “Steele Dossier”, which had just been published (without permission) by the online news site Buzzfeed. The Steele Dossier was a report about alleged Trump connections and possible collusion with Russians. It was compiled by Orbis, a private investigation agency founded by a British former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, who had worked for MI6 in Moscow in the 1980s and in the early 1990s headed up the Russia desk for MI6 in London. His company was contracted to compile the report by another agency, Fusion GPS, which was, in turn, contracted by attorneys working on behalf of the Democratic National Campaign and Hillary Clinton. Trump derided the CNN reporting as ‘Fake News!’, but of course CNN was merely doing its job in reporting the publication of such significant, if damaging to the President, allegations.
— You see the entire RussiaGate scandal as being an example of fake news, correct?
— Yes, I do argue that the ensuing saga of RussiaGate, which still rages to the present time, is itself an example of fake news. Why? Because much of it is based on allegations which have yet to be proven and yet which are often assumed by the media to be dependable. Secondly, it is misleading. The attention that this discourse gives to RussiaGate suggests that the phenomenon is actually significant, unusual, and important. It is none of these things: actual instances of Russian collusion and meddling are actually relatively insignificant when assessed in comparison with western-based subversion of social media by political, intelligence and commercial agencies – of which Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL were among the most notorious, not least because of their close association with leading figures in the Trump Campaign and, through SCL, the intelligence and defence establishments of both the USA and the UK. Additionally, the RussiaGate discourse is given no adequate historical context, so it distracts attention away from the substantial history of US meddling in other countries’ elections, sometimes egregiously through invasion and occupation.
The RussiaGate discourse would seem to suggest that if one were to be really concerned about the health of democracy in the USA, one would not begin with worrying about the Russians. In fact, the Russians should appear very low down on the list of preoccupations. Even to suggest otherwise demonstrates the extent of the farce.
There are many enormous challenges to the integrity of the democratic process in the USA, none of which has anything to do with Russians. They include the vulnerability of voting machines to hacking; efforts to suppress voting (especially by people of colour) by striking people off voting lists either because they have committed felonies or, even more outrageously, because they have names that are similar to people who have committed felonies. There are many other ways in which voting is suppressed that include shortening the hours of voting, failing to supply functioning voting machines, increasing the documents needed to establish a voter I.D., etc. Of great concern is the Citizens United ruling that has virtually opened up the US political process to anonymous big money from any part of the globe, in addition to traditional sources of lobbying, among them Israel and Saudi Arabia whose foreign policies are highly questionable from the standpoint of world peace.
— What do you think of those professional writers, journalists, and bloggers who produce such news? Are they just making their money, or is there something else at play?
— There are substantial indications that the discourse of RussiaGate and involvement in fake news production has included the involvement of many intelligence agencies. It has also invited partisan coverage among supporters of the Democratic Party who like to pretend that RussiaGate is solely about Trump’s collusion with the Russian government or Russian oligarchs to interfere with the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favour. They forget, among many other things, that the ‘Steele Dossier’ was contracted by the Democratic National Committee.
An important topic within the RussiaGate discourse is the alleged hacking by Russian intelligence of Clinton/DNC/Podesta emails in 2016, and Democrats like to assert that the Russian government then made these emails available to Julian Assange. What this point of view often marginalizes is the evidence suggesting that the emails in question may have been leaked – not hacked – by a discontented insider, and that the leaked emails were provided to Julian Assange through this route. A former British ambassador, Craig Murray, even claims to have personal knowledge of who the leaker was and to have participated in the transfer of such leaked material to Assange. There are one or two other similar claims. It is also possible that the emails were both hacked by Russian intelligence and also leaked by an insider.
— How can one stay protected from this kind of propaganda? What can be used to counter it?
— Protection against such propaganda as we have experienced in this period requires much more and much better education about media literacy. Unfortunately, even in the West, which has a tradition of teaching about media literacy, and of researching media operations, there are too many media teachers and researchers who routinely demonstrate naivete when it comes to understanding the extent to which western mainstream media, and many alternative media (e.g., Wikipedia) are exploited by political, intelligence and commercial powers for the purposes of deception and warfare. This is a question which needs sustained attention.
— Are there any universal methods that can be used to identify fake news?
— There are some universal methods, such as demonstration of falsehood by appeal to universally-accepted evidence, and many which are more specific to particular situations and periods. We have to understand both that the basic principles and objectives of propaganda (or fake news) remain constant, for example to demonize an enemy, develop a favourable or unfavourable image of somebody or something etc., but also that the technologies and methodologies of propaganda (or organized persuasive communication) evolve and become much more sophisticated over time – as illustrated in the work of Cambridge Analytica, Bell Pottinger or Palentir Technologies, for example.
— What are some other vivid examples of recent fake news?
— Other than RussiaGate itself, recent examples of fake news include the Western assertions, even supported by a formal Dutch inquiry, that MH17 was shot down by Russian BUK missiles over the Donbass in 2014. These assertions were promoted to a considerable extent by an outfit, Bellingcat.com, which has since been exposed as linked to a propaganda agency (“think tank”), the Atlantic Council, with a lot of help from Ukrainian intelligence. I analysed this in my Routledge book on Western mainstream media coverage of Ukraine, and I have another publication due out soon on this topic.
We have numerous examples of fake news reports of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Damascus – East Ghouta in 2013, Kan Sheikoon in 2017 and Dhouma in 2018 – where credible sources have debunked these claims, showing either that there were no chemical weapons, or that they were deployed by western-backed Jihadist agencies, not by Assad. In the case of western press coverage of the Syrian crisis, one has to be highly sceptical as to the degree of dependence they routinely show on deeply problematic news sources such as the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that are both funded by western governments or government-linked agencies as components of sophisticated disinformation campaigns, and also associated with Jihadist organizations at war with the Baathist regime headed by Assad.
The Skripal poisoning in the UK earlier this year was another example of fake news, since the mainstream media overwhelmingly supported British government claims of Russian responsibility even before they had any evidence to support these claims and when the evidence began to appear it became clear that the original claims were false, for example that the A-234 compound could only have been produced in Russia; that the compound had to have been military-grade, that the compound had to have been extremely toxic (the Skripals survived). The media failed to adequately explore possible connections between Sergei Skripal and Christopher Steele (author of the ‘Steele Dossier’), his former MI6 boss, or between the poisoning and the sale by Leonid Rink of A-234 compounds to Russian Mafiosi in 1995.
Another re-invigoration of a decades’ old fake news story is the supposed nuclear threat posed by Iran. I have written about this (and Iran, Libya, etc.) in my Sage book on Media Imperialism.
— How was your presentation at HSE and the discussion that followed?
— I greatly appreciated my opportunity to talk about these issues in Moscow last week. I received many good, and perceptive questions and comments.
My work on the weaknesses of western mainstream media coverage, particularly as they relate to matters of great sensitivity for western foreign policy and for western efforts to bring about regime change in countries the West does not like, needs to be accompanied in the future by attention to comparable issues in the media of other countries, including those of Russia and China.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
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