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Information Warfare and the Progressive’s Dilemma


I assume that I don’t need to spend a lot of time reminding readers of the following:

  1. The 2016 election was a breakout year for fake news, and much of that news aimed to delegitimize and demonize Hilary Clinton.
  2. Wikileaks not only supplied significant raw material for these efforts, but was also a vector of packaged disinformation on Twitter.
  3. Russian information-warfare operations played some role in all this—via hacking and Wikileaks, Russia Today and Sputnik, and paid social-media trolls.
  4. Various corners of the online left operated as a vector for anti-Clinton disinformation campaigns. Some of this was related to Russian information warfare. Some of it was not.
  5. Some of those on the left who acted as vectors believed they were spreading truth. Some didn’t care. Some probably knew that they were sharing dubious information, but thought that the end justified the means.
  6. Many of those corners of the left became part of this process during the primary; the increasingly heated contest between Sanders and Clinton probably made them more vulnerable to disinformation through the duration of the election.
  7. We will probably never have a complete understanding of where this disinformation came from, nor the breakdown of the ‘types’ involved.

On top of this, we may be seeing similar patterns elsewhere in the western democracies.

Amid growing concern across Europe over the impact on democratic processes of fake news and Russian interference, Italy is shaping up to be the continent’s next major battleground thanks to the sophistication and wide reach of the Five Star Movement (M5S) propaganda machine.

This machine includes not just the party’s own blogs and social accounts, which have millions of followers, but also a collection of profitable sites that describe themselves as “independent news” outlets but are actually controlled by the party leadership. These sites relentlessly regurgitate M5S campaign lines, misinformation, and attacks on political rivals – in particular, centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi. One of them, TzeTze, has 1.2 million followers on Facebook.

Under lurid, all-capped headline phrases such as “THE TRUTH THEY ARE TRYING TO HIDE FROM US”, the party’s blogs, TzeTze, and other sites in the network have crossposted scores of fake stories. These include claims that the US is secretly funding traffickers bringing migrants from North Africa to Italy, and that Barack Obama wants to topple the Syrian regime to create instability across the region so China cannot get access to its oil.

Stories are often sourced to Kremlin-owned sites such as Sputnik, and the M5S editorial line is sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of the US and mainstream EU leaders.

“The drumbeat is incessant. Every day, all day,” one Italian journalist told BuzzFeed News.

All of this generates something of a dilemma for progressives.

On the one hand, we’re committed to free speech. We know full well the dangers that can come from tarring dissidents as foreign agents and ‘useful idiots.’ When Fox and other conservative outlets claim that George Soros is orchestrating anti-Trump protests, we understand what’s going on—and why it should make us very nervous.

On the other hand, we also should recognize that every item on my list is true. We should be deeply alarmed at the implications for deliberative democracy in the United States (and elsewhere). In this respect, there’s an analogy with Clinton’s expanding lead in the popular vote. Neither that, nor the disinformation campaign involving a foreign power, make the election illegitimate. But they both suggest something is broken, and that we need to take steps to fix it.

The tensions here are all around us, and they’re not going away.

Let’s consider what happens when a leading newspaper publishes a deeply problematic story that nonetheless touches on these uncomfortable truths. Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald go ballistic, and wind up being right on many of the merits. But also, in some respects, Ryan Evans gets it right:

So, what happened? The Washington Post wrote a story called “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

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.

“They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who along with two other researchers has tracked Russian propaganda since 2014. “This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.”

Watts’s report on this work, with colleagues Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger, appeared on the national security online magazine War on the Rocks this month under the headline “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.” Another group, called PropOrNot, a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds, planned to release its own findings Friday showing the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns. (Update: The report came out on Saturday).

You can you follow the links. What’s “PropOrNot.” This is how it bills itself:

PropOrNot is an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs. We are currently volunteering time and skills to identify propaganda – particularly Russian propaganda – targeting a U.S. audience. We collect public-record information connecting propaganda outlets to each other and their coordinators abroad, analyze what we find, act as a central repository and point of reference for related information, and organize efforts to oppose it.

There are numerous red flags here. The group is anonymous.  Their Twitter account engages in behavior that Norton and Greenwald correctly describe as “frivolous and childish.” As best as I can tell, the methodology they use is likely to produce lots of false positives, and thus a huge number of caveats are necessary for what they (cringe-inducingly) term “The List.

Norton and Greenwald:

Included on this blacklist of supposed propaganda outlets are prominent independent left-wing news sites such as Truthout, Naked Capitalism, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, and Truthdig.

Also included are popular libertarian hubs such as Zero Hedge, Antiwar.com, and the Ron Paul Institute, along with the hugely influential right-wing website the Drudge Report and the publishing site WikiLeaks. Far-right, virulently anti-Muslim blogs such as Bare Naked Islam are likewise dubbed Kremlin mouthpieces. Basically, everyone who isn’t comfortably within the centrist Hillary Clinton/Jeb Bush spectrum is guilty.

At the same time, there’s something off here. Many of these sites have, in fact, served as vectors for disinformation. They ran with questionable stories about Clinton and helped to weaponize Wikileaks materials—by reproducing often distorted and contorted interpretations of hacked DNC and Podesta emails. The fact that Zero Hedge is a “popular libertarian hub” says nothing about concerns over its relationship with Russian propaganda.

Indeed, there’s another way to read this list: if the network analysis is at all right, then we have a real problem on our hands. Popular and often praiseworthy sites—along with some pretty horrid ones—may be falling prey to questionable material simply because it fits their authors’ and readers’ ideological priors.

But, naturally, Norton and Greenwald turn it up to eleven in inopportune ways. How do they go after the War on the Rocks piece?

The other primary “expert” upon which the article relies is Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a pro-Western think tank whose board of advisers includes neoconservative figures like infamous orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis and pro-imperialist Robert D. Kaplan, the latter of whom served on the U.S. government’s Defense Policy Board.

In fact, FPRI is a conservative think tank, but it’s scholars are reasonably diverse and… Really, who cares?

It shows some real chutzpah to play guilt-by-association games in an article railing against efforts to ‘trace the networks.’ Moreover, accusing a think tank of being “pro-Western” seems like an odd way of putting things. Are we only supposed to listen to “pro-Russian” or “pro-Chinese” think tanks? This is, remember, a piece ostensibly pushing back against accusations that right-wing and left-wing hubs act as witting and unwitting vectors of information aimed at undermining western democratic institutions.

Hence, the dilemma.

A lot of what Norton and Greenwald say is spot on. Calling everyone you don’t like a “Putin Troll” is dumb—and dangerous. But progressives who cry “red baiting” as an excuse to avoid looking in the mirror—or, worse yet, use the same McCarthyite tactics they claim to deplore—aren’t doing anyone any favors either.



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