The Twilight of Russiagate Part 3: A Tale of Two Influence Campaigns
First and foremost, an update on Julian Assange:
The WikiLeaks co-founder is reportedly in the health ward of Belmarsh Prison, and has been placed under high-security lockdown and solitary confinement for most of each day — a cruel and unusual form of punishment. He has also been denied access to a computer and the internet, severely compromising his ability to prepare his defence at next year’s extradition hearing.
On Sept. 13 there was a so-called “technical hearing,” dealing with whether Assange should be released on parole at the end of the prison term mandated under his punitive 50-week sentence, supposedly for a bail violation.
District judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled out conditional release, notwithstanding his grave physical and mental health conditions, by asserting (misleadingly) that Assange had a “history of absconding in these proceedings” (emphasis mine).
Leaving aside the troublesome framing of Assange’s conduct as “absconding” — Ecuador’s acceptance of his political asylum claim in 2012 should have voided his bail-jumping charge — what “proceedings” was the judge talking about?
It was a Swedish sexual misconduct inquiry that gave rise to the bail order Assange was convicted in April of violating. But the probe in Sweden has been suspended, and consequently, there is no active warrant for his arrest relating to it.
As former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and Assange associate Craig Murray points out, that leaves only one possibility: that arguably the world’s most famous journalist remains in prison because of the Espionage Act charges he faces in the US over WikiLeaks’ publications.
“Assange is now, plainly and without argument, a political prisoner,” Murray writes. “He is not in jail for bail-jumping. He is not in jail for sexual allegations. He is in jail for publishing official secrets, and for nothing else. The UK now has the world’s most famous political prisoner, and there are no rational grounds to deny that fact.”
On that note, please support efforts to secure the freedom of Assange and alleged former WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning, and join or help organize them if you can. A rally at Belmarsh Prison will take place on Sept. 28 at 2:00 p.m. GMT that hopefully will be joined by other events internationally.
What is “Russian interference”?
References to Russian interference in the 2016 election, implicating WikiLeaks as a go-between, have been widely accepted as fact in the US legacy media.
Two major US government reports outline the accusations, buttressed by an indictment against Russian military intelligence officers containing specific claims very unlikely to ever be tested in a US court.
The first, and a major impetus for developments that followed, is “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” The Jan. 7, 2017 document was prepared by handpicked officials within the CIA, FBI, and NSA, under the auspices of the Obama administration’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. It accuses Russian president Vladimir Putin of having ordered a “covert influence campaign” targeting US political opinion, and involving a combination of hacking and propaganda.
Through their rhetoric, the authors of the 2017 communiqué tip their hand: they palpably disdain mass popular movements like Occupy Wall Street, dismiss concerns about the environmental effects of fracking, and humorously, modify the phrase “Wall Street greed” with “alleged.” They also signal their real fear: that a revolutionary progressive movement opposing militarism, environmental destruction, and economic inequality could arise in the country, and that the various facets of the US political status quo — the two-party duopoly, the bloated military budget, the state’s secretive bureaucracies, and intelligence agency-connected legacy news agencies could all suffer an irremediable loss of credibility.
The second, and more authoritative, is the voluminous final report of a two-year investigation of alleged Russian interference and conjectured “collusion” between Trump associates and the Kremlin, authored by former special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors and made public in April of this year. It alleges a “sweeping and systematic” effort by Russia’s government to manipulate U.S. voter sentiment around the 2016 election.
So, what exactly is Russia accused of?
Russian intelligence agents supposedly hacked into the e-mail servers of Democratic Party personnel. Most notably, they allegedly exfiltrated e-mails from Democratic National Committee staff and 2016 Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. Some of these files were then published by WikiLeaks, resulting, inter alia, in PR headaches for Clinton’s campaign.
Assange has repeatedly denied that WikiLeaks’ source of the Democratic e-mails was the Russian government, and contra Mueller’s report, the current public evidence is in no way sufficient to “discredit” those denials.
Of negligible but greatly exaggerated importance, Russian operatives working at the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) also allegedly purchased ads and deployed bots and trolls to sway public opinion via social media.
In the same vein, the Kremlin stands accused of spreading “disinformation” and “fake news,” both through social media and state-funded networks RT and Sputnik, that have eroded the national morale and unity of the US and other western societies, to the strategic benefit of the Kremlin and the electoral advantage of Trump.
On this point, the 2017 and 2019 government reports markedly diverge. While the former devotes several pages to RT and its espied impact on US public opinion dating back to previous US election cycles, suggesting that “propaganda” formed a core aspect of Russia’s election interference campaign, the Mueller report doesn’t mention Russian state broadcasters at all, and the words “disinformation” and “propaganda” are absent.
Mueller’s report instead focuses heavily on the activities of Twitter accounts that the company has suggested are associated with the IRA, and the organization of election-related rallies inside the US both before and during the 2016 election, allegedly by Russians impersonating Americans.
The “fake news” charge implicating Russia was injected into the bloodstream of American politics in 2016 by intelligence agencies, Democratic Party officials, and the Trump-hostile faction of the legacy media, and has since become a cause celebre in policymaking circles around the world. But the only uses of the phrase “fake news” cited in Mueller’s report are excerpts from comments and tweets by President Trump, who appropriated it for his own purposes sometime in 2017, and has managed to convert it into something of a personal trademark.
The allegations of e-mail hacking and transfer to WikiLeaks of stolen material are rooted in scant evidence. The main source is a draft report by CrowdStrike — a private cybersecurity firm headed by an anti-Putin Russian expatriate, contracted by the DNC, linked to pro-NATO think tank The Atlantic Council, and sporting a record of errors and misattributions.
The US government allegedly intercepted Twitter direct messages between WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence cutouts, some of which are presented in Mueller’s report; readers are meant to understand them as corroborative evidence for charges of collusion between WikiLeaks and the Kremlin.
But the timeline of the sequence of events Mueller and his team try to establish is implausible. For one thing, their report alleges that Assange announced major pending publications on Clinton nearly two weeks before the first interaction between WikiLeaks and a Russian intelligence cutout, and around a month before WikiLeaks supposedly received a cache of files from that online persona. For more detail on this and other matters, I urge you to read journalist and Russiagate skeptic Aaron Maté’s brilliant analysis in RealClearInvestigations.
The FBI never examined the servers of the DNC following the supposed Russian hack, meaning there’s no integrity to the chain of custody. Realistically, this means there’s no chance that the accusation Russian intelligence hacked the DNC and exfiltrated a cache of e-mails would hold up in court. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; it only means the supporting “evidence” is fatally tainted and unreliable.
That Russian spies may have hacked Podesta’s e-mail account isn’t out of the question, but even post-Mueller, the evidence to support that claim remains scant and circumstantial at best — the evidence of its delivery by Russians to WikiLeaks, even more so. Of course, the Kremlin is by no means the only political actor with an interest in uncovering the contents of Podesta’s e-mails, and the speer-phishing operation by which the exfiltration supposedly occurred was unsophisticated.
Looming over the e-mail constroversy is an elephant in the room that UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer mentions in his June 26 op-ed, “De-masking the torture of Julian Assange,” that’s nonetheless rarely mentioned in establishment media and political discourse. Namely, the DNC and Podesta disclosures were very clearly newsworthy and in the public interest, regardless how they came to light. The effect of WikiLeaks’ publication of the e-mails in question was to enhance, rather than erode, the integrity of the 2016 election. Incidentally, perhaps the most important revelation was the abandonment by Clinton loyalists in the DNC of the party’s public pledge to run a neutral primary; instead, they put their thumb on the scale in Clinton’s favour, to the detriment of her then-rival Bernie Sanders — a more hands-on approach to election interference.
No one can realistically claim that the public would have been apprised of that information by some other means, and no one who advocates public ignorance is a genuine defender of democracy.
As for the IRA influence operation: it was minuscule and resembles a politically-themed clickbait marketing scheme, as opposed to a serious attempt to swing an election. This impression is reinforced by the fact the IRA is a private commercial firm; Mueller and his team of investigators managed to establish no meaningful connection between it and the Russian state.
Mueller’s report appears to take at face value Twitter’s figure of 3,814 accounts the company has identified as “associated with the IRA.” In congressional testimony, a lawyer for the firm explained that “Russian” associations were identified based on “information obtained from third-party sources,” but didn’t elaborate. Raising important questions about the accuracy of Twitter’s methodology, investigative reporting by Wired reveals that some accounts Twitter has deemed “Russian-linked,” even “IRA-affiliated,” were in fact run by Americans.
At V. I p. 28, Mueller and co. double down, implying that the Twitter-identified “IRA” accounts were operating at the behest of Russian president Vladimir Putin in a coordinated scheme to meddle in American politics. This is just one of many leaps of logic by a special counsel apparently intent on sustaining a narrative of massive Russian election interference.
A major (domestic) influence campaign
To the average person, it’s not necessarily intuitive that these incidents — a few leaks of data, possibly obtained through hacking, that exposed newsworthy information in the public interest, and a social media/clickbait project of negligible impact — should amount to interference in an election, let alone an “attack on democracy” or an act of war against America.
Left to their own devices, Americans could readily have drawn very different conclusions — for instance, that the importance of the source of WikiLeaks’ revelations about the Democratic Party pales in comparison to the significance of the exposures; that the half-baked social media exploits of the IRA were too inconsequential to even warrant serious attention; and that false information online (particularly in the midst of a presidential election campaign) is hardly an innovation that debuted in 2016.
Widespread public wrongthink of this kind is an outcome the Washington power elite was clearly unwilling to tolerate.
Psychological projection — in this case, transferring one’s own vices onto a perceived adversary — is central to the doctrine of American exceptionalism. This tendency has been pronounced throughout Russiagate: Americans, and especially those of political stature, take hysterical umbrage at allegations of interference in a US election by Russia, the impact of which was almost certainly trivial. Yet no sovereign state in modern history can rival Washington’s track record of meddling in foreign elections to great effect, supporting opposition groups, overturning governments by extra-electoral means (including invasions and coups), and rationalizing this conduct with vague and often disingenuous appeals to noble principles, like promotion of democracy or human rights.
This dynamic is present in US-Russia relations too: American political consultants brazenly intervened in a Russian election in 1996 — “Yanks to [Boris Yeltsin’s] rescue,” boasted the cover of TIME magazine. The US routinely projects state propaganda into Russia through Radio Liberty and funds NGOs linked to anti-government opposition groups in the country. Washington has developed the ability to covertly cyber-sabotage the power grids of states it deems adversaries, including Russia, and perhaps also of a few it now considers allies.
Moreover, whatever attempt to condition the minds of the American populace Moscow undertook around the 2016 vote, it’s dwarfed by the efforts of US intelligence agencies and the Washington establishment to advance a self-serving narrative about the role of Russia and WikiLeaks.
The notion that a “hostile foreign power” interfered in American democracy, in an act of cyber-warfare, is a manufactured propaganda narrative, dutifully amplified by political operatives and legacy media. Its impact has been most striking in terms of polluting progressive and liberal discourse with neoconservative, American exceptionalist ideology.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned uproar over “fake news” and “disinformation” has set the table for an online censorship drive by the political and media establishments of western countries that has, disappointingly, won sympathy from many who identify with the left.
Putting “fake news” and “Russian disinformation” on the agenda
Those of us who came of age in the internet era remember having been admonished for most of our lives not to believe everything we read online, and to actively seek out authoritative sources of information.
No less important is our ability to think for ourselves. Even apparently authoritative sources, such as the New York Times, can promote inaccuracies, or reflect biases that keep the audience from developing a thorough, truthful understanding of the relevant facts. Knowledge also has subjective properties: the same facts may invite different conclusions depending on the worldview of the beholder.
The interlocking concepts of “fake news” and “Russian/foreign disinformation” have played a key role in the Russiagate influence campaign. By design, they engender a mentality of “information Cold War”, wherein “disinformation” is a weapon deployed by Russia or other Washington-designated adversary states to undermine western democracy. No less important, they serve to manufacture the public’s consent for censorship of internet search and social media, and to lower their defences against false or misleading information emerging from domestic governmental and legacy media sources.
Finally, they promote a form of journalistic discipline: for reporters operating in and at the margins of the legacy media, questioning the foreign policy positions of one’s own government and challenging information operations by domestic intelligence agencies is now widely perceived as uncouth or unpatriotic — even more so than before 2016.
Among the hallmarks of the “fake news” and “Russian disinformation” discourse are not only a dearth of evidence, but a striking lack of curiosity by major news organizations about the narrative they’ve been fed.
For instance, what are the criteria that distinguish “fake news” or “disinformation” from inaccurate reporting, satire, comedy, or exaggeration of the importance of an otherwise trivial issue? What are some examples of “Russian disinformation” that might plausibly have affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election? How prolific were the authors?
Assuming such content actually exists, is it attributable to the Kremlin, or merely the product of private Russian individuals or firms? How significant was this alleged disinformation in the grand scheme of things — compared to, say, targeted partisan messaging by the Clinton and Trump campaigns and their surrogates, or widespread dubious or downright false beliefs that have prevailed among the American public for decades? Consider the durability of misconceptions about the science of climate change, themselves the product of a long-term disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry.
If we accept that disinformation can be foreign or domestic in origin, is there any reason why the Russian variety should particularly concern us, or why it constitutes an extraordinarily sinister threat to US and western democracy? Are there not other obstacles to genuine democracy that ought to disturb the public more, particularly in the US — such as the outsized role of money in politics, concentration of ownership and corporate domination of both legacy and social media, or the prevalence of extreme levels of economic inequality with which meaningful democracy is incompatible?
Rather than coherent answers to these questions, many traditional news outlets have treated the public to a technique advocated by Nazi propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels: constant, unqualified repetition.
The seminal “news” story in the genre of “fake news” and “Russian disinformation” is a November 2016 article in the Washington Post, headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread fake news during election, experts say.” The piece has been sharply criticized for a lack of journalistic due diligence, including reliance on the “expertise” of PropOrNot, an obscure organization about which little information is publicly available and whose principals the Post granted anonymity with no credible justification.
PropOrNot produced (and the Post promoted) a blacklist of around 200 online news and commentary organizations that the organization claimed had amplified “Russian propaganda” during the 2016 campaign period. Among these are right-wing purveyors of baseless theories and nonsense, but also several professional and highly-regarded progressive platforms like Consortium News, Black Agenda Report, and Naked Capitalism. On closer analysis, it’s not hard to identify a common thread linking all websites on the list: not fakery or propaganda per se, but rather a penchant for questioning official western state and NATO narratives.
“The [PropOrNot] smear operation doesn’t even present evidence that anyone actually is part of this grand Russian propaganda conspiracy,” wrote the late investigative journalist and Consortium News founder Robert Parry, a few days after the article first appeared. “The PropOrNot site admits that the criteria for its ‘analysis’ are ‘behaviorial,’ not evidentiary.
“In other words, the assessment is based on whether this anonymous group doesn’t like that some journalist is questioning the State Department’s propaganda line or has come up with information that isn’t convenient to the NATO narrative on a topic that also involves Russia, Ukraine, Syria or some other international hot spot.”
The Post eventually appended a lengthy editorial note to the article, claiming that it couldn’t vouch for PropOrNot or its conclusions. But the piece remains available on the Post’s website.
Today, we’re no closer to a clear, consistent definition of “fake news” and “disinformation” than we were in November of 2016. But the Post’s PropOrNot report offers a template of what media, commentators, and politicians mean when they invoke those terms. In short, stories they term “fake news” and “disinformation” aren’t necessarily false, just as news from so-called “authoritative” sources isn’t necessarily true.
Censorship as policy response
The politico-cultural fallout from the “fake news” and “[Russian] propaganda” discourse has been significant. It has ushered in and legitimized a censorial political climate not only in the US, but also allied countries in western Europe, and even Russia.
This mindset has trickled down to popular culture and proven particularly influential among liberals and the left; in such circles, censorship is now broadly accepted as a means to protect vulnerable groups and avert the political menace of neo-fascism — or, to use a distortive euphemism the legacy media seem to prefer, “populism.”
The days of “Nous sommes tous Charlie” — when many liberals went so far as to endorse Islamophobic content, rather than merely uphold the right to espouse views critical of Islam — seem far gone indeed. Concurrently, this tide of authoritarian sentiment on the left has opened a niche for elements of the “alt-right” and intellectual dark web to gain support, sympathy, and followers by posturing (however demagogically) as champions of free expression.
The World Socialist Web Site analyzed the effects of the “fake news” campaign, found a significant drop-off in hits to its page and those of other leftist and anti-war sites from Google in 2017, and penned an open letter to the company’s executives demanding an end to the practice — to no apparent avail. Notably, there’s considerable overlap between the progressive websites Google search appears to have throttled and those on the PropOrNot blacklist.
Google and social media sites conduct censorship and throttling based on proprietary algorithms; in so doing, they’re capable of influencing popular sentiment and also, potentially, election outcomes. Moreover, logically, if it’s possible for online platforms to enable election meddling by facilitating the spread of disinformation, they must also be able to undermine election integrity by suppressing legitimate information. Nonetheless, the latter problem is confined to the margins of public discourse, while the former is front and centre; this is because genuine, impartial concern for the welfare of democracy isn’t really the Russiagate lobby’s overriding priority.
America’s elites are gripped by anxiety. All around them is a populace simmering with anger at an unjust system. The contemporary US is characterized by obscene levels of economic and political inequality, widespread static or downward mobility, a criminal justice system in which the deck is stacked against the poor and people of colour, police and vigilante killings of unarmed youths, extraordinary difficulty for tens of millions in accessing health care.
The prevailing power elite received a taste of the public’s rage in the 2016 election of Trump and more significantly, the strong Democratic primary challenge of Sanders, who bucked a longstanding trend by competing successfully for the party’s nomination despite a virtual absence of corporate financial support. No less significantly, Clinton’s candidacy roused little popular enthusiasm although she was the overwhelming consensus choice of beltway denizens, current and former intelligence personnel, and legacy media.
To subdue this wave of outrage, and prevent its metastasizing into a mass movement resembling Occupy or something even larger, is the first order of business for those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo. A small but powerful segment of society is anxious over what it calls the “fomenting of discord” and stirring up of public passions via social media — a phenomenon it disingenuously blames on the Russian other.
For largely self-interested reasons, legacy news media have played along. Chris Hedges, a former New York Times war correspondent who now writes for Truthdig — one of the leftist news websites blacklisted by PropOrNot and throttled by Google — and who also hosts a show on the “Russian propaganda” network RT America, commented on the trend in September 2017:
The ruling elites, who grasp that the reigning ideology of global corporate capitalism and imperial expansion no longer has moral or intellectual credibility, have mounted a campaign to shut down the platforms given to their critics. The attacks within this campaign include blacklisting, censorship and slandering dissidents as foreign agents for Russia and purveyors of “fake news.”
No dominant class can long retain control when the credibility of the ideas that justify its existence evaporates. It is forced, at that point, to resort to crude forms of coercion, intimidation and censorship…
In the name of combating Russia-inspired “fake news,” Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Agence France-Presse and CNN in April (2017) imposed algorithms or filters, overseen by “evaluators,” that hunt for key words such as “U.S. military,” “inequality” and “socialism,” along with personal names such as Julian Assange and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker. Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president for search engineering, says Google has amassed some 10,000 “evaluators” to determine the “quality” and veracity of websites. Internet users doing searches on Google, since the algorithms were put in place, are diverted from sites such as Truthdig and directed to mainstream publications such as The New York Times…
This is a war of ideas. The corporate state cannot compete honestly in this contest. It will do what all despotic regimes do — govern through wholesale surveillance, lies, blacklists, false accusations of treason, heavy-handed censorship and, eventually, violence.
Trump, like many of his Democratic counterparts, is active in this drive to muzzle dissident voices and alternative sources of information. The buffoonish president is dedicated to the unpopular cause of ending net neutrality, and no less vicious than his predecessor in the Oval Office in prosecuting whistleblowers. He has re-incarcerated and extorted thousands of dollars from US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and it’s his Justice Department (sic) that seeks to imprison Assange for life.
The stifling of dissent, and attendant erosion of democracy, is a consensus endeavour of elites in both the US and countries around the world.
Notably, the Russian government’s own ban on “fake news” is an indication that whatever insecurity elites are feeling in the west, the oligarchic class of the country most often blamed for spreading “disinformation” is no less susceptible to it.
In forthcoming posts in this series, I’ll expand on the legacy media’s performance throughout Russiagate, which I argue was not a failure per se, but rather a symptom of deep, systemic flaws within their normal modus operandi.
I’ll also elaborate on the inherent disingenuousness and apparent political motivation underlying both the FBI (and later special counsel) “counterintelligence” probe of Trump’s campaign, a set of developments liberals and progressives in particular need to understand and scrutinize.
The reason is simple: the FBI and intelligence agencies have always been active adversaries of the left. There’s every reason to believe a military-industrial-intelligence complex that would try to sabotage Trump’s presidency over his expressed desire to “get along” with Russia, would go after a progressive, anti-war president with far more vigour.
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This is the latest in a series I’m writing on the origins and political implications of Russiagate. If you enjoyed this post and value my ongoing work, please share it in your circles, and consider tipping me on PayPal.