Russian propaganda? The new era of mainstream conspiracy theory

While it is true that Russia, China and other rival countries engage in espionage and propaganda, their efforts to change American minds pale in comparison to the stenography of the US and other Western media.

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The American press, from the cable news networks to the major dailies, have entered a kind panic mode since the election of Donald Trump. We shouldn’t be too surprised by this, considering that he promised during the campaign, ”to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

Unfortunately, while recognizing the possible threat presented by the President Elect to the freedom of the press, many of these same outlets are currently pushing a similar war on freedom of expression from a different angle.

Most of the media and even President Obama have gone on to blame “fake news”, often little more than memes spread on social media, for Hillary Clinton’s loss. This conveniently ignores the failure of Democratic Party strategists to understand the anti-establishment mood of many voters throughout the country

This fake news angle was quickly tied into an earlier theme that the Democratic Party ran with during the campaign: that the Russian government was working behind the scenes to ensure a Trump victory. We were told at the time that the Kremlin’s most powerful weapon was Wikileaks, which published campaign chair John Podesta’s hacked emails, an intrusion blamed on Russian intelligence with what amounted to speculation rather than clear cut evidence presented.

Even during the run up to the election, as these Clinton campaign documents were being made public in large batches, most mainstream outlets chose to cover the Russian espionage angle pushed by Democratic commentators and officials. This focus ignored the emails’ actual contents and the fascinating window they opened up into the inner workings of a modern American election campaign.

It seems likely that these leaks will be of more interest to historians for understanding how the establishment of one party approached the 2016 vote than any miniscule role they may have played in altering its outcome.

Propaganda or Not?

Last week the Jeff Bezos owned Washington Post featured on its front page a story about “two teams of independent researchers” investigating what they believe were efforts by Russian intelligence to influence the US election campaign.

The Russians did this, according to Post technology reporter Craig Timberg, using their “increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social media accounts.” Its interesting that these supposed assets had more of an effect on the vote than the estimated billion dollars spent by the uninspiring Clinton campaign.

“It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign… It worked,” an anonymous researcher is quoted by the paper as saying.

The idea seems to be that if Russian intelligence can just confuse the American people enough they will improve their own standing in the world, perhaps the strangest plan for world domination in history. That Russia is nowhere near as powerful in terms of conventional forces as it was even a generation ago, is struggling under western sanctions and is still reeling from the economic shock therapy of the 1990s isn’t allowed to influence discussions of its malevolent power and influence.

This isn’t to say that Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party are angels, they are, for the most part, extreme rightwing nationalists, easily comparable to the worst elements of the American Republican Party. The country’s more robust military posture, at least in part a reaction to NATO provocations, should definitely worry us. Still, its my firm belief that increased diplomacy and better understanding is preferable to a military escalation that endangers the very countries on Russia’s border that NATO claims it’s trying to protect.

The first experts cited by Timberg are part of an organization called the Foreign Policy Research Institute. According to the left leaning site Sourcewatch, the FPRI is an activist operation with roots in academia that has tried to influence US foreign policy since the 1950s, usually in a militaristic direction. One of their stated goals is “to shape the national debate on foreign policy through frequent appearances in the national news media.”

A recent article co-authored by an FPRI fellow, Clint Watts, and published shortly before the election, is titled “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy”. Its main focus is on how social media is being used as a Trojan horse by Russian ‘influencers’ and ‘honeypots’ to confuse the American public and even government officials and other influential people.

Although written in a dry and academic style, much of the evidence presented by the authors is weak or anecdotal. As absolute proof they offer the following: “There are other, less subtle indications (of Russian hacking) as well, for instance, a notification from Google: ‘We believe we detected government backed attackers trying to steal your password. This happens to less than 0.1% of all Gmail users.’ When one of us receives these messages, we feel confident we’re on the right trail.”

They offer no hard evidence that any of them have actually received such a warning, nor is it possible to ascertain from such a message which state actor is responsible if they did.

The authors offer no advice on encryption or other methods that might allow readers to protect their communications from all of the world’s competing intelligence services, not to mention run of the mill cyber criminals. Many of these actually are Russian non-state actors and they do much more damage to ordinary citizens than any Russian government funded propaganda effort.

Bizarrely, they also tie in legitimate criticism of the workings of the current economic system to Russian propaganda, saying that, “Stoking fears over the national debt, attacking institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and attempts to discredit Western financial experts are all part of this arsenal.”

At least the FPRI reveal their identities, the other outlet covered at length by Timberg does not. This is a group claiming that many independent media outlets, most of them rightwing or libertarian leaning but also including leftwing sources like Counterpunch and Truth-Out may, “have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws…” and should be investigated by authorities.

Helpfully, they provide a list of over 200 web-sites (Full Disclosure: I have had a piece published by one of these sites, Antiwar.com, and had work picked up by at least two others) who they want to catch up in this witch hunt. Some of these sites are odious for different reasons like the openly racist Daily Stormer, Breitbart News and Infowars. Others, like Consortium News and the Black Agenda Report offer legitimate viewpoints that are rarely given a hearing by establishment media.

Oddly, the online version of the Post’s article doesn’t link to the site itself but the paper helpfully tells us that its administrator is anonymous due to fears of being targeted by “legions of Russian hackers”. On the site itself we are told that it was created by “concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and experience” but none are named.

A few of the sites they call out as Russian propaganda, like RT.com and Sputniknews.com are actually Russian outlets and do offer a window into official Russian thinking. In the case of RT, it’s sustained by the Russian government but this doesn’t mean it’s without merit, shows like Crosstalk with Peter Lavelle offer widely different opinions on current news events, many of them from American experts.

Prop or Not also discounts the risks of confrontation with Russia that a more aggressive posture could provoke, insisting on the best case scenario. They dismiss as Russian propagandists anyone arguing, “How dangerous standing up to Russia would (be): It would inevitably result in “World War 3“, nuclear devastation, etc. and regardless of who shot first or is bombing civilians where now, would be the West’s fault. Russian propaganda never suggests it would just result in a Cold War 2 and Russia’s eventual peaceful defeat, like the last time.”

Descending further in to realm of alt-conspiracy theory they go on to write, “Hyperbolic alarmism, anti-Western conspiracist insinuations, “Euranasionism”, racism, gold-standard nuttery and attacks on the US dollar, 911 – trutherism, anti-Semitism, anti-”globalism”, antivax/anti-GMO paranoia, and generally ridiculous over-the-top assertions, which cites Russian propaganda outlets as “evidence”.

That the Washington Post would highlight this poorly written and unprofessional effort on its front page shows how much the establishment media is failing in its job of helping readers make sense of an often complicated world.

Many reporters seem naturally drawn to government power as we often see in the Washington Post and elsewhere. This is easily demonstrated by their over reliance on anonymous ‘official’ sources. While access is important, the reliance on anonymous government officials and the way their motives are never questioned when they leak information that makes them or their agency look good should give pause to their readers.

On occasion these back channels will be used to punish opponents, as happened to outed CIA agent Valerie Plame when her husband questioned the Bush Administration’s completely false stories about nuclear grade yellowcake uranium making its way to Iraq from Niger in the lead up to the Iraq War.

People must not be allowed to forget that both the New York Times and the Post led the way to war in Iraq with stories fed to them by the Bush Administration about a completely fictitious Iraqi nuclear program, non-existent associations to Al Qaeda and WMD in that country. Accusations repeated endlessly and uncritically by cable news at the time.

While it is true that Russia, China and other rival countries engage in espionage and propaganda, their efforts to change American minds pale in comparison to the stenography of the US and other Western media.

Even in the case of Trump we are already beginning to see a media turnaround with complementary profiles of Trump appointees like the truly awful Steve Bannon appearing in major newspapers. Expect this to continue; the one thing the establishment media fears more than anything else is distance from political power.

*As we went to press, the website Counterpunch.org was removed from Prop or Not’s list, for a story about the editors bizarre interaction with this anonymous blacklister, click here.

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