The big reveal by the Washington Post that the Russians are behind much of the “fake news” we see in the United States and elsewhere is probably no big surprise to folks… even if it is a mishmash of Russian agitators and folks who figured out how to cash in on snappy headlines and advertisements — a tactic as old as Upworthy’s formula for headlines or Buzzfeed’s X-ways-to-do-something headlines.
In fact, those psychology degrees our four year institutions are cranking out? Are being put to work in ways you probably didn’t imagine (see what I did there)?
The Washington Post’s big reveal is about five days old, and already it is drawing the ire of prospectively Russian-leaning media outlets such as Drudge Report (odd), Russia Today (probably), and the Ron Paul Institute (huh?) among others:
Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.
There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders. The tactics included penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.
Now before we get all up in arms over this, let’s remember that the Russians are merely imitating what the United States has done for some time — and as recently as 2015 when the Obama-led U.S. State Department issued a $300,000 grant in an effort to oust Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu — an effort that embarrassingly failed. Efforts in the Ukraine with “democratic uprisings” are sharply remembered by the Russian government, the Arab Spring is keenly felt… so when contrasted with the Russian backing of European far-right parties — for instance, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France receiving a Russian loan to the tune of US$10mil — one should bear in mind that all sides play this game.
So why the recent uptick in Russian interest in American politics? The Ukraine, for starters, and while American observers might view this interest in American politics as sudden, for the Russian government this has been a slow burn, starting with Polish-based NATO interceptors in the mid ’00s and followed by Western flirtations with allowing Georgia into the European Union, an idea crushed by Russian tanks in 2008. Russian consternation goes much deeper than this — to 1991 and the Bush 41 “Chicken Kiev” speech — where the division of the former Soviet republics and the near dissolution of what remained of the Russian Federation remains very recent history to the Putin-led One Russia Party. While the Russian response has been new, American interference has been longstanding in many parts of the globe.
With all that background, let’s get to the real meat of the Washington Post’s hit list. Certainly there are more than a few Russian-leaning (and perhaps Russian financed) news outlets out there. But Drudge Report? Ron Paul?
Let’s see what RT has to say about it, specifically the Ron Paul Institute’s Daniel McAdams:
First of all, they are factually wrong – they listed the Ron Paul Institute as a right-wing website, which I’m sure will be news to our board of directors, including Dennis Kucinich, who has never been accused of being right-wing. But then they go on to their two pieces of evidence that we’re a Russian propaganda outlet. One is the piece in the Washington Free Beacon, which is owned by arch-neocon Bill Kristol’s son-in-law (Matthew Continetti). And in that attack piece on the Institute, the main point was that I criticized Washington’s attack on Libya, pointing out that the things are a lot worse there, than they were before the attack. That was the one.
And the other was a piece ran by Pepe Escobar, a well-known international correspondent, who simply pointed out that it is not a very good idea for NATO to be putting its troops on Russian borders. If that is Russian propaganda, then I think they have a very low threshold.
This year, RAND issued a report that outlined the threat of Russian propaganda and encouraged a series of innoculations — in short, counterpunch hard and first with different and better narratives and simply flood the zone — yet one item of the RT article was worth sharing in detail, and it was perhaps the core as to why Russian propaganda works so well in the West:
Could it be that this “fake news” blame-game in the mainstream media is just their way of getting rid of the growing competition?
In a free market, there are competitors. Western governments cannot censor, cannot clamp down, cannot counter without investing in organs that promote their own views — a dangerous thing in Western-style democracies, and a problem other nations such as Russia and China do not necessarily have to deal with in a similar manner.
In short, the reason why Russian propaganda is here to stay? We’re a free country, and our institutions can be bent back against themselves so long as the American public remains either blind to the possibility… or so self-absorbed or ill-informed that such information could be useful to private interest rather than the common good — a long standing belief about “decadent” American culture and “useful idiots” going back to the Soviet era — and used to great effect.
The problem with “Prop or Not” is not just that it doesn’t address core concerns vis a vis American relations with the Russian Federation, but rather that it is demonstrating an alarming habit of wrapping up good opinions (Ron Paul Liberty Report, for instance) with sponsored ones (Sputnik News and Russia Today). After all, this was the problem of the McCarthy era, where communist infiltration was indeed a very real thing… but when the investigation turned into a witch hunt against McCarthy’s enemies, it took the voice of journalists such as Edward Murrow of CBS to push back.
Rather than neatly categorizing good guys and bad guys, the antidote to foreign misinformation will not be labels, but journalism — good old fashioned journalism that actually investigated and ferreted out news, and not the cheap clickbait and Breitbart-style headlines that lower the threshold and fuel the ability of Russian propaganda (and pop culture) to infiltrate our culture.
Rather than bending back our freedoms, we should be defending them. As Murrow elucidates, the fault is in our stars — in ourselves. When we lower the threshold of public discourse from Murrow and Buckley into clickbait, we get the democracy and the leaders — and yes, interference from foreign governments — that we deserve.