Episode 43: RussiaGate, Year 3 (Part I) — How Liberals’ Martial Posture Harms the Left

Citations Needed | July 11, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
Jul 11, 2018 · 35 min read

[Music]

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you everyone for joining us this week. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, follow, like, share or get in touch through Facebook, Citations Needed. And of course you can support the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help is much appreciated and it helps show keep going.

Adam: So, for over two years, the United States government has been investigating the Russian interference into the 2016 election that is broadly agreed by most official quarters to have been favorable to President Trump. And as a result of this, something really strange has happened, there’s been a flip in the traditional right center and left perspective about how we view our intelligence agencies, namely the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency where the left now holds up the FBI and the CIA as kind of fair, or not a bulwark against Trump, not coming from anything below, but as a kind of benevolent, permanent state, a national security state. And the right increasingly in the more Tucker Carlson wing, less so than the neo-conservative wing, is now warning about the ‘deep state.’ This has created an environment whereby which the highest moral order in liberal circles is to, for lack of a better term, attack Trump from the right on issues of duplicity in national security and him being a Manchurian candidate for a quote unquote “hostile foreign power.”

Nima: Given that so much of the Russia influence coverage in the media is about the Kremlin’s alleged use of the Green Party, you know, Jill Stein, namely anti-fracking protesters, black activists, even kind of run-of-the-mill Bernie Sanders supporters are painted this way, all in an effort to attack Clinton and thereby swing the election for Trump. The end result of this framing is that dissent kind of writ large, all dissent from the left, is now deemed to be effectively by default per se Russian propaganda.

Adam: So this is going to be a two part episode where we’re going to talk about the collateral damage of Russiagate on left-wing media, specifically who this panic benefits and how one can be aware of foreign influence without completely losing their mind over it.

Nima: On this first episode, we’ll be speaking with Branko Marcetic, staff writer at Jacobin, who will join us from the other side of the world in Auckland, New Zealand.

[Begin Clip]

Branko Marcetic: Probably the biggest example where we’re seeing the Russiagate narrative get kind of weaponized to, to sort of punch left is, um, when Robert Mueller delivered his indictment of the IRA, the Internet Research Agency, which was last year, right? So in the indictment, there were a few lines that mentioned that the IRA wanted to help out Jill Stein and Sanders, there wasn’t really much evidence behind this, but those were the, you know, these two lines are the basis of a bunch of breathless reports across the mainstream media. And also interestingly, you know, uh, on MSNBC, the sort of flagship liberal network, right?

[End Clip]

Nima: And next week we’re going to turn our attention to how this all affects the issue of race. And to do that, we’re going to be joined by Anoa Changa, and attorney, writer and host of the podcast The Way With Anoa.

[Begin Clip]

Anoa Changa: You know Democrats, in particular liberals, the Democrats, they like their black people a particular way. Right? I mean even some of the challenges that we’re seeing now as it’s mostly black women making this call, but black voters in general, are demanding that folks need to earn the vote or we have people who are running for office and it’s just like, you know, you need to now respect us and support us, not just take us for granted. But it’s the same type of undercurrent. Even this conversation, right? We like people to be on our sides. They are talking points. Be that visual, you know, image for what we’re saying we’re about, but not to step out of line and do anything else.

[End Clip]

Adam: So for the purposes of this show, we’re not going to interrogate the underlying substance really of, quote unquote “Russiagate,” we’re going to broadly assume that things like the IRA [Internet Research Agency] troll farm in Saint Petersburg and efforts to influence social media are broadly true, broadly in line with what we know as being overt Russian stations like or networks like RT or Sputnik, which which have a specific editorial line, although it’s by no means uniform, which we’ll get into later, but we’re sort of accepting that for the premise of the show. What we want to talk about is the degree to which that threat such that it is or that foreign influence, I wouldn’t call it a threat, is wildly overblown and is now being used by deeply very cynical actors to drown out and to smear and to make fringe the left wing media in this country.

Nima: Right. It’s effectively turned from a news story into a bludgeon, so it’s not merely being covered by media outlets as something that has happened then that this is something to either address or watch out for whatever, it is specifically used time and time again as a way to discredit certain sectors, to discredit certain commentators, certain outlets specifically. To marginalize them as being duped, as being phony, as being propaganda in a way that goes beyond the mere troll farm story. It starts to infect domestic activism, domestic media that is not corporate, that is not establishment that is not mainstream and so what we’re going to talk about is how those outlets and those voices are just increasingly and deliberately pushed to the sides of discourse and made to seem inferior and used as this Putin puppet in a way to then never actually have to litigate or even validate any of the actual issues that these people and outlets are bringing up about our own society.

Adam: Yeah, and this Russia bludgeon actually predates the 2016 “Russiagate” as we sort of generally know it. There was an effort in 2014 by NATO and subsequently, um, former Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton, to push the idea that anti-fracking organizations within the United States were funded by Russia. She told a closed door meeting, um, a secret meeting in 2014, that, “We were up against Russia pushing oligarchs and others to buy media. We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, oh the pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you, and a lot of the money supporting that message came from Russia.” Now there’s, this was also repeated by the head of NATO that same year, uh, and 2017 Congress got into the Russiagate fun and backed up this claim. Now, neither of the congressional Republicans nor the head of NATO nor Hillary Clinton has ever provided evidence or named any of these specific groups that supposedly were funded by Russia.

Nima: Right.

Adam: But it goes to show you that this, this is a, you know, she was getting heat from environmental activists for not opposing fracking and not opposing the pipeline at the time, a position she later changed than changed back then changed again. But from 2014 on, you saw how, how the specter of Russia influencing the left could be used as a catch-all. Now what a lot of people mean when they say this, I think this is what they mean is that they’re getting support from Russia today, that television network, which as part of its, it’s broader programming and it’s fair to say that they do want to sort of point out what’s wrong with America, that is generally true, but they obviously United States as a whole gives them a lot to work with. Um, Russia Today won an Emmy for its coverage of Occupy Wall Street. It was a technical Emmy, but it was nonetheless an Emmy, and they were one of the first people on the ground at Occupy, something that was brought up in the ODNI report in January of 2017 as some, as a unique menace. They cover the pipeline protest. They cover anti-fracking protests. So generally I think what they mean by help from Russia is basically just, you know, in the sense of a news organization covering it. This is sort of seen as being as being a, a form of support in the point that Clinton was doing here was not to genuinely warn about some foreign influence or what have you. It’s to smear people on the left by calling them Russian agents. Now this is a tactic, as we’ll get into later in this show and the next one, that is as old as the wind. It is the ultimate go to tactic because you don’t really ever have to show your work and you can never really prove it or disprove it. And uh, and the degree to which people are useful idiots or Russian agents is so vague it could pretty much include anyone you want.

Nima: Right, because guilt by association holds so much sway in our public discourse that if you call out anyone or any organization as being linked to something that is automatically in our national imagination, deemed to be unsavory, deemed to be an enemy, deemed to be an adversary, deemed to be against what quote unquote “America” is standing for, or “American” interests, whatever. That stuff is already well established in our national mythology all the way from kind of Cold War rhetoric, red scare, red baiting all the way up to now, Russia. That is all of a piece. It’s all kind of the same narrative and you see this, you know, you can mention anything you want about a company sanctions busting for Iran and you don’t have to actually say anything negative about anyone involved, but — because it’s Iran — you already know the spin of the story. You know the purpose of it. Russia currently is exactly the same way. All you have to do is say this group or that person is Russia aligned or Russia adjacent, Russia connected —

Adam: Russia linked. Yeah.

Nima: — and that narrative does the work for the story. You don’t actually need to show any actual linkages. All you need to do is make that smear and it delegitimizes whoever you’re talking about broadly for the general public that is not taking the time to scrutinize this because these narratives are so embedded.

Adam: Yeah, and then of course we did a whole episode, Episode 18 with with, with Christopher Hedges about the fake news panic so we won’t relitigate that and if you haven’t listened to it, you should, but the fake news panic existed in parallel with Russiagate and I call it a panic because for reasons we’ve laid out on the show several times, I don’t need to go back into it, it was wildly out of proportion with what the real threat was and the so-called solution was more dangerous than the actual threat such that it was, that the stakes have to be established here, which is that Russiagate really has achieved quantitatively a delisting or a silencing of left-wing media in a way that we haven’t fully comprehended. Now, there’s people including myself, who are working to come up with a more robust autopsy of what really occurred. But the end result, according to, this was the summer of last year, uh, these are, this is the traffic of left-wing websites after Google and Facebook tweaked their algorithms to adjust for this so-called fake news, which was animated largely by the corollary Russiagate issue. AlterNet went down 63 percent, Consortium News went down 47 percent, Media Matters went down 42 percent, which is odd since they’re one of the biggest promoters of Russiagate, Common Dreams was down 37 percent, Counter Punch was down 21 percent, The Intercept was down 19 percent. Now this was an analysis done by the World Socialist Web Site. You can sort of take or leave the credibility of that outlet, but The New York Times featured a profile on it and didn’t really contest these numbers. Um, and I know that anecdotally, AlterNet, Consortium News and Truthout have themselves reported similar numbers. So I don’t, I think they’re probably generally true. And so what you see here is the stakes, which is that the, the effort to consolidate and control and to fight Russian influence has had a net negative effect on left-wing websites. Just in terms of pure traffic to say nothing of the chilling effect, to say nothing of the kind of career or stain now when you’re associated with anything that’s vaguely Russia linked and what that means, which we’ll get into later. So this is not an issue of navel-gazing. This is, this is something that has tremendous stakes where people who operate on the margins of acceptable opinion, which is from what I understand, sort of where we were told the left needed to be, um, traditionally.

Nima: Right. And so you see that the disproportionate effect is on these independent, progressive, anti-war, civil rights, human rights, not kind of big Human Rights trademark registered, but small ‘h’, small ‘r’ human rights organizations really doing the work and also, uh, the media outlets covering these groups that don’t get the big platforms. These are the ones that are disproportionately affected, negatively affected by the new rules set up by our arbiters of truth when it comes to tamping down on Russian influence in our media. Right? So you see Facebook now labeling certain things as being kind of Russian backed and you see YouTube doing the same. You don’t see those when it’s think tanks on their YouTube channels and think tanks funded by corporations and by weapons contractors and by oil companies. Those aren’t labeled as CSIS or FDD, all these kind of acronyms on K Street, they don’t get that kind of treatment. And yet certain outlets are now labeled, are literally labeled as being funded by certain governments, which look, transparency across the board is probably good. It’s good to know where this stuff is coming from. This isn’t saying that shouldn’t happen. It’s that it is targeted specifically at certain outlets and not others.

Adam: Right. If the average reader was to tell you what they thought about online propaganda or the use of persona online, fake Twitter accounts, fake Facebook, the average American at this point, I’d be willing to say if I interviewed one hundred people in Times Square, that ninety nine of them would argue that only Russia does it. So while it’s true, Russia does do that so do other governments, but we never talk about it. So Craig Silverman, who’s the resident, you know, online troll expert, fake news expert at BuzzFeed, I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, I’m curious why, why does BuzzFeed only report on, on revelations about Russian users online using fake identities?’ And he says, ‘Well, that’s what we cover.’ And I’m like, ‘Well yeah, but why? Why don’t you talk about Israel, the United States or the UK? So we can get some broader context?’ And he’s like, ‘I haven’t heard any news about that.’

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: Now, the reason is that most of the stuff we know about Russian trolling online is all been selectively leaked in a pattern manner by congressional Democrats, the CIA and the FBI. That outlets like The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed and CNN have almost on a weekly basis, especially The Daily Beast, which is a total just a dumping ground for CIA and congressional Democrats, whatever they want to sort of leak that week to paint this narrative, that almost every single week for two years we’ve had the same article come out over and over again saying that, you know, Facebook lied about the reach of Russian influence, Russian influence and the whole, the source for all this is congressional Democrats and people within the CIA and the FBI and they just repeat it. And they repeat it and repeat it. Now there’s this gap that Mark Ames talks a lot about, which is the gap between the headline and the qualifier in the article. And you see this time and time and time and time again. So one example is there’s a Daily Beast article —

Nima: This is maybe my favorite article ever published. (Laughing) Amazing.

Adam: Yeah, there’s a Daily Beast article from May of this year that has this infographic of a teenage girl on a computer with headphones.

Nima: It’s like an over the shoulder shot of a teenage girl on her laptop.

Adam: It has a blood red thing that says “virus infected” with another skull next to it and the headline is the very salacious, “Russian Troll Farm Hacked Teen Girls to Attack America,” which is like, wow, that sounds like somehow we’re hacking teen girls —

Nima: Yeah, what are they doing to our teen girls?

Adam: So we’re not like hacking teen girls, we’re “attacking America,” and then you read the fine print and there was sort of an alleged music-sharing app called FaceMusic or something that was used as malware supposedly by Russian intelligence. Although again, a lot of this is sort of unclear and then you read the fine print it turns out it was actually clicked on by a total of 85 times, which is not a lot.

Nima: (Laughing) But the headline doesn’t sound as good if you say ‘Russian Troll Farm Hacked Eighty-Five Teen Girls.’

Adam: Yeah, there was a CNN story, Daily Beast article about new revelations about the reach of Facebook and Facebook ads and then you read the fine print it says, oh well actually, you know, a third of them ran after the election and the, you know, another third man in Europe. And it’s like, well okay. Half of them they ran in Eastern Europe and it’s like, all right, so it appears that there’s kind of this blurry line between what is effectively just spam or malware for selling ads and what it was actually part of some sophisticated or thought out Russian effort to elect Trump.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And to the extent there’s any corrections or any, any, any kind of mistakes that are admitted to. They always go in one direction, which is to say they go in the direction of a more sensationalist, more threat inducing story. And the reason is because a handful of journalists and of course The New York Times and The Washington Post does this a lot too, but they’re all getting their sources from the same basically the same four or five places. And again it’s not to say that none of this is true necessarily, but when you know, what do we always say on the show? The issue is emphasis not lies, that we’re emphasizing a specific current, if you will, of online propaganda and social media manipulation-

Nima: Right. One source. One source with one agenda.

Adam: Right. And, and it’s not necessarily that’s not true. Again, we, we’ve said this before, but I’ll keep saying it, it’s not as if there wasn’t actual communist infiltrators in the United States in the 1950s. The underlying truth is sort of not the issue. The issue is, is it proportionate and are cynical actors using it to smear enemies.

Nima: And what the response is deemed to be and how disproportionate that response is to the actual “threat” that the infiltration, that the influence, that the hacking in this case, may present. That you know, yes, you could literally throw everybody in jail and I guess there would be no crime, but that’s not the solution. That is just kind of a completely disproportionate way to react to an actual issue.

Adam: Part of the extortion racket is to constantly to compel Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders to condemn the sort of nominal support they got from the supposed quarters in Russian influence, which Sanders did several times, but it was never enough. There’s always some new, it’s like the whole, you know, Muslims bus condemn ISIS racket where like, you’re, you’re never really going to condemn them enough. There’s always some unknown degree of condemnation that you have to achieve. And this was pretty gross and very common amongst the MSNBC crowd.

Nima: Yeah. So this is from February of this year, The Beat with Ari Melber on MSNBC had Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal on and they were talking about the Mueller investigation and uh, the Russians and interference in the election. The conversation kind of comes around to this idea of will these people, will the candidates disavow the support they got? So here’s Ari Melber talking and then, uh, Blumenthal chimes in.

[Begin Clip]

Ari Melber: Sir, let me ask you this, about the, about the candidates who benefited because much of this is new. It says now, in here, uh, that Donald Trump was the main intended beneficiary and that Bernie Sanders was the other major party candidate who was a beneficiary. Uh, neither of them have clearly stood up today and said, ‘I don’t want that help from the Russians. Please don’t do that kind of thing for me. Uh, and anything that did happen, I disclaim.’ We hear a lot of criticism about the president and he has a bigger job, but do you call on both Donald Trump and you’re calling Senator Sanders to do that because neither has done so.

Richard Blumenthal: I would call on anyone who has anything to do with the Russian meddling in our elections to disavow it and disown it and denounce it.

Ari Melber: When you say anyone, I just have to press you. It’s part of my job that includes Senator Sanders then as well?

Richard Blumenthal: It would include any of the candidates and any of the individuals who subsequently may be named as unindicted co-conspirator —

[End Clip]

Nima: Any and all disavowal. (Laughing) “Will you disavow, sir?”

Adam: Yeah. So there’s a constant disavow game. And of course the point there, if you notice a little sleight of hand as he said “anyone associated with Russian,” so they were sort of implying that Bernie knew about it. And so again, we have to go round. Everyone has to go to the crucible. Everyone has to go in front of some congressional committee or go on Twitter and officially denounce. I’m not sure what the purpose of that is supposed to be. Are you supposed to let the Russian operatives know that you don’t want their help and that therefore they’ll be like, ‘Oh, sorry! Okay.’

Nima: (Laughing)

Adam: Yeah, it’s all performative bullshit. It’s, it’s, so much of this is about reinforcing the narrative like after the 875th story that NPR does or CNN does about Russian trolls stoking panic after a school shooting or a celebrity death or whatever, you would think that like, we know this already, what, what, what new is being said? What is news about this news? And then you realize, of course it’s not supposed to say anything new. It’s just conditioning. It’s just conditioning you over and over and over again to fear the official enemy. That’s all it is.

Nima: Right. That’s the entire point.

Adam: It serves no other function, so the point is to get Bernie Sanders to condemn the official enemy so we have another public display of condemning the bad guy.

Nima: And one more aspect of this Russian trolling, the fake news panic, Russiagate in general, really goes back to the issue of refusing to come to terms with the actual problems —

Adam: Right.

Nima: That we are facing in society. Whether it’s why someone like Donald Trump could even be on a ballot let alone elected, why the worst democratic candidate in the world would be elevated to that status and then why she would run the worst campaign of all time and lose to the only person she could possibly beat and then kind of were left to pick up the pieces. And the only response that we’re really seeing from especially the Democrats is Russia. It’s pointing the finger outside of anything that they were responsible for. And it is outside anything that has to do with internal societal and cultural dynamics in our own country so that all of our own issues, whether it’s race, class, capitalism in general, uh, economics in general, whatever it may be, that’s not really the issue. The issue is that we have a problem with Russia. That Russia is ruining everything. We would be fine otherwise were it not for Putin sending out Facebook ads personally from the Kremlin. Then everything would be hunky dory and our society would have no racism and all would be well. So that’s where Russiagate lands.

Adam: Yeah. And that’s the thing, because you want to be super fair, right? Like the thought experiment I always use is, or I’ve used before, is if it was revealed, for example, that Israel hacked Bernie Sanders’ account and leaked them to different press outlets to make him look bad selectively, let’s say he won the general, to elect Trump right? And to smear Bernie Sanders. Like I think people who are skeptical of Russiagate really have to have to look at that carefully and answer that honestly about how that would make them feel. And this is why if people who bring it up or get mad about it I, I’m not, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them because I think I would be pretty upset if Israel if they did that. I would be upset if the media repeated that. The issue is can that be used as a catch-all for all failings of a specific candidate?And the reality is, is that the vast, vast majority of Clinton partisans, both, both people who worked for her campaign and people who worked for surrogate media, lets say Center for American Progress, it’s all they talk about. It’s Russia and Jill Stein and Jill Stein and Russia —

Nima: And Corbyn and Russia and Sanders and Russia.

Adam: Yeah. And the only people I talked to, this is, this is totally anecdotal, but like people you talk to who deal, who actually want to get candidates elected who are trying, who worked for, you know, Our Revolution or trying to get progressives elected or who deal in the day to day of prison abolition or anti-war activism, like I just, you know, the people you talk to, and again this is totally anecdotal, that the vast majority of them don’t give a shit about Russia and that they view the Russia thing is one major time suck and one major resource misallocation. But that’s my own sort of biased perception. I guess I’m curious to see what our guests say, but-

Nima: Well, it’s also such a distraction. It’s a deliberate distraction because it sets up this scenario where if you are an activist on the left or if you’re a reporter on the left, you wind up having to spend so much time-

Adam: Right.

Nima: Disassociating yourself and your work with the smears being thrown at you. So you wind up wasting your time saying, ‘No, I’m not a Russian dupe. I’m not a useful idiot. I’m not some Kremlin spy doing this work. I actually am an environmental activist advocating against this very destructive pipeline that is not because of Russia.’ And so you wind up wasting that time doing that as opposed to doing the work that can actually make progressive change happen. And I think that is the time suck that is being weaponized deliberately so that there’s less time to do the actual work and so much more time devoted to defending yourselves in doing this work.

Adam: And then there’s the issue which obviously is the topic of the shows, which is what is the actual net negative effect on the left as such, which is to say what is the chilling effect? What is the smearing of progressive Black Lives Matter environmental groups? That’s what we’re going to talk about with our first guest.

Nima: We will be joined in just a minute by Branko Marcetic, staff writer at Jacobin who joins us from New Zealand. Stick with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by Branko Marcetic. So great to have you today on Citations Needed.

Branko Marcetic: Hi there, guys. Thanks for having me.

Adam: So yeah, we’re doing a two-parter here on the effects of Russiagate on the left in this country and so you’ve obviously written about it a bunch. You’ve sort of picked apart some of these kind of more of the more goofy excesses of Russiagate. And we want to start with you first to kind of give a broad overview of how you think specifically on progressive candidates or people like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, the Russiagate thing has played out over the last two years and what you view as being the kind of net effect of that and to what extent you think it has damaged or harmed these movements or these candidates or activists in general?

Branko Marcetic: Right. Well, um, I would probably say it’s come up intermittently. It hasn’t been like a, a, a sort of theme that’s run through coverage of progressive left-wing candidates, especially Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, the entire time that they’ve been sort of in the public eye, uh, over the last couple of years, you know, usually the narrative tends to focus on other things like that they’re, um, somehow extreme or living in a fantasy world or you know,, that they’re spoilers or something like that. Um, but it sort of has come up. And I think probably the biggest example where we’re seeing the Russiagate narrative get kind of weaponized to sort of punch left is, um, when Robert Mueller delivered his indictment of the IRA, the Internet Research Agency, which was last year, right? So in the indictment, there were a few lines that mentioned that the IRA wanted to help out Jill Stein and Sanders, uh, there wasn’t really much evidence behind this, but those were the, you know, these two lines are the basis of a bunch of breathless reports across the mainstream media. And also interestingly, you know, uh, on MSNBC, the sort of flagship liberal network, right?

Adam: Yeah. Allegedly.

Nima: (Laughs)

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, yeah. Allegedly. Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, I would say that one of the interesting things is that, you know, this kind of neo-Red Scare, um, that, that’s kind of in operation now, if there is an upside to it it’s almost that the public, by and large doesn’t seem to give as much of a shit, which is maybe something that’s heartening, you know, I mean, these accusations don’t have the same impact as they might have had in the 1950s. Um, you know, in terms of public standing, I mean for the most part, the whole Russiagate matter, it’s obviously not as important to people if you look at polling, you know, compared to other issues. However, it does have an effect. I mean, uh, the Bernie Sanders thing, for example, when there was a sort of full court press to attack him as this, stooge of the Russians, I suppose, you know, he ended up sort of tacking right in a way to overcompensate for these attacks. Um, and I think that’s a sort of example of the, kind of the pernicious effect of these kinds of, uh, you know, accusations and attacks, um, which, you know, we, we have to be vigilant about because, um, I mean god knows, you know, the, the next presidential election is coming up in like five minutes. Um, and, and I feel like this exact kind of thing is going to be just rife, especially in the Democratic primary where, you know, the kind of Russiagate narrative as is so alive and frothing.

Nima: Yeah. So one thing that actually you’ve pointed out in your own writing is the kind of absurd extrapolation that is done like so in the indictment, you know, it’s, it’s this ten thousand word piece and there’s a sentence that mentions a single Instagram post from ‘Blacktivist’, uh, like a phony account run by this, you know, Russian troll farm and the kind of sinister message that this one Instagram post is spreading, is this: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.” And somehow that is then seen as like, ‘Oh my god! The Russians are all over this. They are warping the brains of just average Americans into possibly thinking about voting for a third party candidate, which is obviously going to doom our democracy forever.’

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, of course. I mean, the, the common theme around all this stuff is that if you actually look at a lot of the ads and a lot of the actual kind of first hand sources that the reporting is based on, it just ends up being laughable. I mean, you can’t take it seriously if you actually look at the stuff firsthand. I mean, I uh, went through, you know, I didn’t go through all nearly four thousand Facebook ads, but I went through, you know, well over a thousand I would say, um, when they, when the Democrats released it publicly and when you read through you realize how ridiculous the whole idea that these ads were, well, one, that they were spreading some kind of sinister evil message for one, but also the second layer that they had like any measurable effect on you know, anything. I mean half the ads when you look at them talking about black self-esteem and linking to advice for like how to make a weave and you know, that black is beautiful and there’s ads that promote protests against white supremacy for example. There’s ads that basically support every progressive measure under the sun. Um, so if we’re supposed to take our kind of political cues from, you know, basically doing the opposite of whatever the Russians quote unquote “wanted” us to do, then the only sort of solution is to like basically essentially support Trump’s agenda.

Nima: Yeah, like, “Buy tiki torches and go to Charlottesville immediately.”

Branko Marcetic: Yeah basically. I mean, you know, of course there was, there were ads that were like also target racists and anti-immigrant, but I mean I got to say from having looked through a lot of these most by far the most to do with a supporting progressive causes. And also, I mean also when you look at the ads, Bernie Sanders ads, there were maybe three or four pro Bernie ads. I didn’t catch a single one in the period of, of when his campaign was sort of at its height, you know, at the, at the start of 2016, uh, there was one on the day of the California primary, but you know, it got next to no engagement when you, I mean, when you look at the totality of, you know, how many people voted and everything I mean, it made no impact whatsoever. Interestingly, there was also a pro Hillary Clinton ad that I, I found that popped up in there. So I mean, you know, if we want to take a single Instagram post as being, you know, the Russians marching orders for the left and in the US then maybe people, you know, maybe MSNBC should start looking into Hillary Clinton and asking her if she wants to reject the Russian support.

Adam: Yeah, just the same when, when NBC released the excel spreadsheet of who people retweeted, many of them were, you know, MSNBC, personalities. Chris Hayes, Joy Reid. So it’s, it seems like there’s a lot of emphasis on certain threads here. And this leads to my question which is so much of this appears to be troll farms that are actual businesses that actually sort of astroturf groups to sell ads or to generate traffic, like any other kind of one of these generically fake news as it were, groups do. And then there’s this kind of layer on top of that to have a specific message that aligns with the Russian state message, which is generally considered to be anti-Hillary, but they’re first and foremost, they’re advertising mills, they’re troll farms in the sense that they, they’re there to make money, um, because otherwise they wouldn’t have spent all these resources on things before and after the election or in the dozens and dozens of countries where there obviously is no American election. And I haven’t really, it seems like for the most part, anytime these stories break, they bury that part in the seventeenth paragraph where they’re like actually a lot of this happened after the election and um, it was just generally meant to sow divide in America, but also if they had a massive play in Eastern Europe. It seems like there’s not really much effort to distinguish between what is just trolling to get clicks to get advertisement money and trolling to sort of overthrow the Republic, capital ‘R’.

Branko Marcetic: Well, you know, you see the, uh, the Russian employers are so devious that it’s really impossible to, to tell what, you know, I mean-

Nima: (Laughing)

Adam: That’s the response I get when I ask these basic questions. I get, ‘Oh, it’s actually part of some other thing.’ It’s like, well, okay, but-

Nima: Putin works in mysterious ways.

Branko Marcetic: The beauty of a conspiracy theory is that you can twist it to just support whatever you want.

Adam: Right.

Branko Marcetic: Whatever reality is actually saying, it doesn’t really matter because you can always, uh, somehow make it fit into whatever warped worldview you have sort of invested in. So, I mean, and I think that’s the same with the Russiagate thing. I mean, obviously we don’t know exactly what’s happened between the Trump campaign and Russia yet, but you can see, you know, what you’re talking about in, in that as well because this is so fun, no real conclusive evidence, whether it was, whether the Trump campaign really was, you know, intentionally quote unquote “colluding” with Russia and Putin or whether this was just sort of, um, a bunch of hangers on trying to use this position that they had in the campaign to cash in. And whether it was, you know, a bunch of Russian oligarchs who were trying to take advantage of them, whether it really was some kind of grand plan by Putin. I mean, to me it looks so haphazard and kind of incoherent that, you know, I’m skeptical that there was some great plan, but again, in the reporting on it, it tends to sort of play up that breathless conspiracy angle. It doesn’t play up or really talk about, you know, some of the factors that might sort of undermine this narrative. And that’s probably because it’s good for business. I mean, people see Russia on a headline and they go crazy and this is not the greatest measure of it, but if you ever go to a, the Politics subReddit on Reddit, I mean that is just a billion links pretty much to always the same story. And it’s always some kind of breathless news about the grand Russian conspiracy.

Adam: Yeah, it’s an airport thriller, right?

Branko Marcetic: Right yeah.

Adam: I mean people, regardless of the underlying veracity of it, like people just generally like conspiracy theories, right? Um, and, and MSNBC has found themselves a socially acceptable conspiracy theory that like some conspiracies, has elements of truth to it, but it’s got tea leaf reading, it’s got know, mysterious meetings in Prague. It’s got tapes with people urinating by hookers. I mean, it’s sexy, right? It’s not, it’s not boring. And this is why Rachel Maddow spent, you know, one study showed that she’s been 53 percent of her time talking about it and only 4 percent of the time back in February of 2017 talking about the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch. It’s just not sexy. Whereas Russia just is. And it’s in a way, it’s never really going to end, right? The investigation was going on for two years, and this is kind of the rub for me to go on a little bit of a tangent here. It’s like the single biggest, most powerful surveillance state in the history of mankind has been investigating this for two years. Uh, NSA, CIA, local police departments, fusion centers, you know, uh, total information awareness, the grandest surveillance apparatus that man has ever created. And we still don’t have a smoking gun. It’s like, well, okay, you know, at least these kind of pseudo revelations just sort of leak out and now they’re getting everyone on meta crimes like crimes that are committed pursuant covering up the investigation. There’s not, you know, the underlying actual collusion such that it was, doesn’t appear to be materializing, but they’re all a bunch of venal crooks anyway, so they’re getting them for other things. And I just, I don’t know if it ever ends, it almost seems like it’s set up to never end. It’s just supposed to sort of always be on.

Nima: Right.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah. I mean I feel like it’ll end when it stops being, rather when it stops being perceived as being intellectually useful, which it seems like, um, maybe it’s getting to that point because, uh, the Democrats, you know, from the polling I saw last don’t seem to be doing particularly amazingly against Republicans in these, in these midterms. Um, you know, there was supposed to be a huge wave. Right? And now it seems like that that claim might be a little overboard. And I mean, obviously the Democrats haven’t only been campaigning on the Russiagate stuff, but the Russiagate stuff is also that, that has sort of been the chief message that has been hammered into people by Democratic officials, high profile, democratic officials like Adam Schiff. I think if, if that proves to be relatively useless in actually winning votes, which it seems like it is, perhaps that’ll end. But I actually, I was actually thinking about this the other day that how depressing it is going to be like I don’t know, five, ten years when you have the inevitable, you know, anniversary round of articles about the Russiagate hacking.

Nima: (Laughs)

Branko Marcetic: I mean, good god, I mean, yeah, there’s always going to be, the news cycle probably will keep coming back to it. We’ll likely never escape, um, this absolute miasma of stupidity that we’re in right now. Um, although I think it will get less intense at least.

Nima: Well, because the hunt itself, like, The Hunt for Red October!, is the fun part, right? Like that’s what’s keeping people engaged, you know, which is why like this whole Russiagate just can go perpetually on and on. And yet, if it’s not politically effective, it’s just going to be this petered out, sad, ‘Oh, remember when we spent all our time doing that and then, like, the Nazis won again?’

Branko Marcetic: (Laughing)

Adam: It’d be like Benghazi with Republicans where like, they just kept holding onto it despite any kind of lack of evidence. And I’m not trying to compare the two, there is way more evidence of Russian collusion to be honest than anything with Benghazi, but it just gets ingrained into the folklore of the party.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, um, you know, uh, I’m going to now out myself as a Reddit lurker, but yeah, um, if you go on some articles on the comments sections on Reddit/Politics, you know, I went on it a while ago because I was interested to see what people thought about this one particular Russiagate story, and um, there was a whole bunch of people saying, you know, like, ‘I, I can’t imagine how it’s going to be like when we get back to normal,’ um, you know, as the sort of word they use, you know, they were like, ‘I’m so,’ basically saying how sort of fascinating this whole sort of conspiracy around Trump and Russia was and how they want politics to be quote unquote “boring” again. Which is, I mean, if anyone’s sort of anyone who’s followed politics at all over the last, I mean any years, knows that it’s never really been boring. There’s always outrageous abuses of power going on. It’s just, there isn’t, there aren’t ones that are sort of sensational, movie script type ones. Although I got to say the Trump Russiagate thing so far would be like more of a, like a screwball comedy or something then, you know, an actual, a high stakes political thriller.

Nima: ‘Cause also Russia serves, serves as um, it serves as both the ultimate Bond villain bad guy while also being, you know, Benny Hill style, like, so sloppy that like “Blacktivist” Instagram accounts with their whole sinister plan.

Adam: Or “Woke Blacks.”

Nima: “Woke Blacks.” (Laughing)

Adam: Which I still laugh at “Woke Blacks.” For those who don’t know, that was one of their Facebook groups, was “Woke Blacks,” which is exactly the Facebook group you would come up with if you were like a Russian who had a vague understanding of American culture and sort of understood English. Like, “We will do Woke Black,” you know, like that’s funny to me.

Nima: (Laughing)

Branko Marcetic: Well, yeah, it’s just a great cross on a film idea. Its Mr. Magoo versus James Bond, you know, which is a, a battle that people have been really itching for years. I mean, yeah, it’s ridiculous.

Adam: Yeah. And there’s this rounding up effect to the whole thing, which is that every story gets sensationalized and then every single correction that’s issued ever, which is something you can document pretty clearly always goes into the direction of downplaying it after the fact. We saw this with The Washington Post story about the Prop Or Not list. We saw this with the Vermont hacking. We saw this with some retracted stories that CNN had to have, that there’s just an institutional bias to prove the theory because there’s so much invested in the theory and the most important thing, and I think this is the thing we keep going back to and something we talked about a few a few episodes ago, is that it really is the scandal that really offends no traditional centers of power. It doesn’t offend, you know, the rich. It doesn’t offend the Democratic establishment. It doesn’t offend corporations, it doesn’t offend imperialism. It doesn’t offend you know pro-Israel groups. It doesn’t offend the CIA, the FBI. It’s, it’s the scandal that flatters traditional centers of power and in many ways sort of reaffirms their position of legitimacy from the, especially when it comes to the national security state post Edward Snowden and the democratic establishment post blowing the, you know, ultimately up an election.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, I mean there’s this complete political incoherence around it, uh, you know, I mean Democrats have sort of been itching for a stronger stance toward Russia ever since 2016 to the point where, you know, had been cheering on things that Obama resisted for eight years pretty understandably. And then at the same time, you know, there was this huge panic when John Bolton was picked as the National Security Advisor, even though John Bolton basically shares the exact same views as mainstream Democrats on Russia. I mean, he wants to take the fight to them. Um, and at the same time also, you know, now we see Democrats turning against peace in Korea, you know, based partly on sort of anti-Trump kind of feeling. But also, uh, the, you know, we’ve all seen that Rachel Maddow segment on, um, you know, how the Korea deal was partly influenced by Putin or whatever. Um, because of course it was. So I mean that’s the other kind of aspect of it is that the whole Russiagate narrative it really feeds into ongoing militarization, which is of course great for a lot of people. It’s great for defense contractors. It’s great for a lot of defense lobbyists. It’s great for a bunch of politicians who are war hawks and spreading destruction on people.

Adam: Yes. We see this with the defense budget that the defense budget since the start of Russiagate started off as $634 billion, it went up 13 percent to $716 billion, which is the biggest jump since just after 9/1. Now I also want to note that in that time we elected a Republican president which had something to do with it as well. But if you ask people across both party aisles what the, what the primary rationalization for the increased military budget is from buying ice cutters to new navy ships to increasing the black budget to the CIA. They’ll all tell you the same thing, which is the threat of Russia and the threat of North Korea.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: But, but Russia is definitely number one on the list and I don’t think it’s possible we could have expanded the power that much to say nothing of the fact that we completely, totally kibosh any kind of post noted reform. That’s completely out the window now. Now that the FBI and CIA are woke and the NSA’s woke. That’s a nonstarter. So, you know, people are rightly skeptical about this narrative that really does benefit people who it shouldn’t be benefiting, who we shouldn’t be propping up.

Nima: And now star wars is back in the, in the form of Space Force.

Adam: Yes.

Branko Marcetic: Literal star wars. Um, also remember that, that Trump is also a, um, an unhinged dangerous lunatic who will start a war and is an absolute threat to the Republic and old world order. Um, but you know, keep giving him weapons and more military power.

Nima: As long as you name the military budget bill after the venerable John McCain, then it’s really okay.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah. Uh, yeah, a great humanitarian, of course.

Nima: (Laughs) Like all of them.

Adam: Noted, noted human rights champion. Noted human rights champion.

Nima: Well, this is great. Do you have anything coming up? Any articles we can look out for?

Branko Marcetic: Uh, yeah, sure. I mean, uh, speaking of, you know, red baiting and, and the left, uh, I don’t know if you guys are familiar with a website called KeyWiki?

Nima: No, tell us about it.

Branko Marcetic: Okay. So KeyWiki is this sort of Wiki style online repository about information about liberals and various leftists. Basically combed from what I assume to be just endless days spent rummaging through Facebook looking at DSA meme stashes and stuff. And then, um, and so this guy called Trevor Loudon who is like me, a New Zealander and who, um, uh, has set up this huge database that’s meant to be a who’s who of the left around the world, particularly in the US. Anyway, if you are familiar with KeyWiki, you might be interested to find out, uh, what Trevorn Loudon’s history is. I don’t want to spoil anything, but basically I’ll try and summarize it in one sentence, which is Ayn Rand/Scientologist cult. So.

Nima: (Laughs) Wow.

Adam: Alright.

Branko Marcetic: Preview, you know, read it for yourself.

Adam: We will link to the article in the show notes.

Nima: Yes.

Branko Marcetic: Okay, great.

Nima: Definitely. So thank you Branko Marcetic for joining us today on Citations Needed. It’s been great to talk to you.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, yeah. Great talking to you guys, too. Thanks.

[Music]

Adam: So yeah, that was very informative. It’s always good to get an outside perspective from someone who is not in the American bubble, but sort of has one foot in and one foot out.

Nima: Yeah, so next show we’re actually going to return somewhat to our American bubble and address. Specifically how Russiagate is linked to black activists and black activism more specifically and the history of that. We’re going to delve into the history of that throughout the Cold War and kind of what we see as being the descendants of that kind of McCarthyite rhetoric that is still very prevalent today and so we’ll be joined next week by Anoa Changa, an attorney writer and host of the podcast The Way With Anoa, who has personal experience in this and so that will be great to talk to her.

Adam: Yes, it will. I’m looking forward to it. You should too.

Nima: Tune in next week everyone. So with that, we will leave you this week and thanks again as always for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod; Facebook: Citations Needed; support the show, keep it going through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out goes to our critic-level supporters. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.

[Music]


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

Citations Needed

Written by

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.