If Only Elites Controlled Our Internet Access and Social Media Opinions …

Matt Bivens, MD
Jun 17 · 14 min read

Two and 1/2 years ago, the nation was solemnly offered a joint communiqué from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI. This report — “the report before the Mueller report” — was handed down in the dying days of the Obama presidency, just a couple of weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections” was supposed to be the big reveal of what the Russians were up to. It devoted half of its 15-odd pages to a strangely narrow-minded rant about the editorial successes and offerings over at RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin-sponsored English-language television news channel.

Our intelligence agencies reported that RT had more YouTube viewers than the BBC or CNN, with large viewerships in Washington D.C. and New York. (Russian TV is being watched in New York City? Gasp!)

Across the pond it was even worse, the agencies warned: the British actually seemed to prefer RT to CNN, and RT had become “the most-watched foreign news channel in the U.K.”

And what sort of editorial content at RT was pulling in those American and British viewers? From the report:

In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of democracy” in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a “sham.” … RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a “surveillance state” and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use … RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse … RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health …

The intelligence community offers this summary with indignation.

I actually read it with mild interest, as a roadmap to a successful television station. It turns out it’s possible to rack up American and British viewerships with critical takes on “alleged Wall Street greed” (“alleged!”) and extrajudicial drone killings. (After all, we live in a world where our third U.S. president in a row routinely sends out remote-controlled robots to kill people. And our main media outlets all act like that’s normal.)

Keep in mind that RT was not some secret plot revealed. It does not really hide the fact that it is Kremlin TV, for example. And no one is forcing anyone to watch it. It’s just a public TV station you can go watch on YouTube, or not watch.

But this was the obsession of our intelligence communities at the time: Americans had been getting to see third-party presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein on RT because the Russians want to “highlight the alleged ‘lack of democracy’ in the United States.” O-o-o-k-a-y … And Americans had been getting to see “anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health” on RT. Why? Well, “this is likely reflective” of a deep Russian chess game to keep U.S. methane (better known by its preferred marketing term “natural gas”) off of the global energy market.

And all of this was meddling.

Meddling in our affairs.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, followed to its logical conclusion, it frog-marches us in a straight line to life in Communist China. With a government-policed Great Firewall, dividing our Internet and citizens from the rest of the world.

I thought that at the time, and I have watched this tendency grow and grow, to the point that now our mainstream media all seem to agree that if any foreign person offers any American any information of any potential political significance, that we cannot accept it and must immediately report in person to the Lubyanka with a self-denunciation typed out in triplicate.

Sorry, I meant report ourselves and the dirty foreign scum to the FBI.

Over the weekend I read another minor New York Times article that illustrated how far down the rabbit hole we’ve all scampered. The article’s nothing special — just the the background noise of our new abnormal, and not even the most depressing or shocking news article I saw that same day — but somehow this one stuck in my throat.

“Russia Sought to Use Social Media to Influence E.U. Vote, Report Finds,” was published June 14, dateline London. Get ready to wade through some Gray Ladyspeak as we slog through paragraph by boggy paragraph:

LONDON — European authorities blamed Russian groups on Friday for disinformation campaigns designed to depress turnout and sway public opinion in last month’s European Union elections, an official accounting that underscored how Russian interference has not abated and that Facebook and other tech platforms remain vulnerable to meddling.

So it starts out strong: “European authorities” in an “official accounting” are blaming “Russian groups” for “disinformation campaigns” — “Russian interference” according to this report “has not abated.”

The preliminary review by the European Commission and the bloc’s foreign policy and security arm found that Russian-linked groups and other nonstate actors had worked to undermine credibility in the European Union through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Officials said new regulations might be needed to force internet platforms to do more to stop the spread of deliberately false information.

Okay, getting a little hazier: Now it’s not “Russian groups”, but “Russian-linked groups and other nonstate actors.”

Confused? I am.

“Nonstate actors” could mean anyone from Hezbollah to Hank the grocer.

Saying that these ill-defined people or groups have “worked to undermine credibility in the European Union” is also a disquieting construction. It’s one thing to say that some nefarious government agency has funded the spread of active disinformation and lies; it’s another to say that the European Union has snarky critics on Facebook. Which is it?

But never mind, the story slogs onward, as “officials” suggest “new regulations might be needed to force” Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to “stop the spread of deliberately false information.”

“The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the report said.

Okay, sounds pretty strong again. Still no details of course, but at least the assertions are clear and bold: Evidence has been collected. It has revealed “continued and sustained disinformation”, carried out by “Russian sources.”

The report was the first official substantiation by the European Commission of the role that Russians and other groups played in disinformation in the May elections, which many investigators, academics and advocacy groups had warned about. It was a reminder of how active Russians and others continue to be in spreading divisive content online to inflame and stoke electorates all over the world, a strategy that the Kremlin had pioneered in the 2016 American presidential election.

We’re swinging for the fences now! It’s the “first official substantiation by the European Commission”! It’s “a reminder of how active” Russians! They are “spreading divisive content online to inflame and stoke electorates [sic] all over the world”!

Isn’t it interesting how we’ve gone in just a little more than two years from asserting the Russians preferred Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton for the U.S. presidency; and maybe also had side-project worries about world natural gas prices; to today, June 2019, where in a minor, mid-pages New York Times report it’s no stretch at all to bellow that the Russias are hellbent on a plot to “inflame and stoke electorates all over the world”.

The Russians are stoking electorates! The writing is such a mess because the thinking is so woolly-headed; words are losing their actual meaning.

And meanwhile, did you notice again, amid all of hysteria-tinged overreach about inflaming and stoking, it’s once again not just Russians? This was paragraph 4. Look at it closely again. We are back to talking about Russians “and other groups”; we are admonished to worry about how active “Russians and others” continue to be in, uh, stoking stuff.

Onward.

Since then [i.e., since the 2016 U.S. elections], Facebook, Twitter and others have vowed to clamp down on foreign interference and have worked on new technology and other methods to stop outside meddling during elections. But the report on Friday highlighted how much work the platforms still needed to do to stay a step ahead of disinformation networks.

More Gray Ladyboilerplate, but OK. At least we are back to taking about “foreign” interference and “outside” meddling.

The report also has implications for American officials ahead of the 2020 presidential election, with an increasing number of smaller, harder-to-detect domestic groups adopting Russia-like strategies to influence voters.

Getting pretty strange again, right?

Fresh from haranguing Facebook and Twitter to “stay a step ahead of disinformation networks,” we are riffing off of this European report to warn that American officials back home face “an increasing number of smaller, harder-to-detect domestic groups (!)” that have been “adopting Russia-like strategies to influence voters.”

Domestic groups?

Meaning: Americans?

“Russia-like strategies to influence voters”?

Meaning: Posting views on Facebook and Twitter?

Views, maybe, that our intelligence community already publicly associates with the Kremlin, such as critical takes on drone killings, “alleged Wall Street greed”, or planet-wrecking fossil fuel consumption?

Or more alt-right views, like some of the more hateful racist and xenophobic rants out there?

I can’t say for sure what we’re talking about here — and neither can you. It changes minute by minute, even paragraph by paragraph in the same New York Times article apparently. We are all along on this ride together, even if we don’t know yet where we’re headed.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has been tracking disinformation efforts in Europe. “What we’ve seen over the past few years is an increasing number of actors, both state and nonstate, using similar methods online to interfere in democratic processes.”

I suppose it’s very inconvenient when nonstate actors, also known as “people,” interfere in democratic processes as overseen by the Atlantic Council.

European officials did not draw a direct link in the report between the disinformation campaigns and the Kremlin or provide details about what groups in Russia or elsewhere were behind the efforts. The report also stopped short of assessing whether the tactics had an impact on how people voted, with turnout in the elections having hit record levels. The report largely cited the findings of outside researchers who had been tracking the European elections.

Yet European officials said the report was significant because it highlighted the “new normal” of disinformation campaigns.

“There was no Big Bang moment. There was no new Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case that we know of,” Vera Jourova, a European commissioner, said during a news conference in Brussels. Yet “the European elections were not free of disinformation.” She added that the continued online meddling was “something we cannot accept.”

At this point, I thought: Holy Cow why am I still reading this nonsense.

Remember, this was billed upfront as an oh-so-very-important new European Commission report, “the first official substantiation” that Russians “and others” have been involved in highly active disinformation campaigns in European elections!

Now it turns out this “report” not only can’t say any of the so-called disinformation campaigns had any links to Russia or Russians; it doesn’t have any evidence or information about the campaigns at all!

In fact, if you were provoked enough at that point, you might click the link the New York Times provides and see the actual report. It is basically a made-for-media event where European officials congratulate themselves on being aware of the debates swirling around fake news, meddling, disinformation campaigns — whatever one wants to call it, since none of us seem able to define it — and boast of work done to protect their recent elections.

To reiterate: The New York Times starts off describing a major report documenting nefarious Russian interference via a disinformation campaign in European elections. It trails off into admitting there is no such interference documented.

But never mind! It gets better! Keep reading!

Facebook said it had taken steps to protect the integrity of the European elections, including entering into partnerships with local fact-checking organizations, adopting new rules to show who was buying political ads on its platform and dedicating teams of employees to monitor election interference.

“The fight against false news will never be over,” the Silicon Valley company said in a statement in response to the report. “That is why we are making significant investments to remove fake accounts and clickbait and to promote high-quality journalism and news literacy.”

Twitter and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Independent investigators had long warned that Europe was vulnerable to disinformation campaigns ahead of last month’s vote. But eradicating disinformation campaigns was tricky in the elections, which were spread across 28 countries and 24 official languages.

In other words, Facebook at least has had its spirit broken, and will dutifully attempt to improve my news literacy.

In the run-up to the voting, researchers highlighted efforts by Russia-linked groups and those in favor of far-right policies to use Facebook and Twitter to spread false information and exaggerate political divisions. In particular, they identified hundreds of Facebook and Twitter accounts peddling disinformation, more than a thousand examples of WhatsApp messages sharing suspicious materials and a mix of suspicious websites that spread varying degrees of misleading information — often taking advantage of local political divisions.

Well, bully for “researchers.”

This is New York Times background reporting now, it has nothing to do with the European Commission report. The report has come up short, so now the paper turns to “researchers”.

By the way, how come “researchers” get to be anonymous? How did “researchers” get to read a thousand WhatsApp messages and how did they conclude the messages were “suspicious”? (For example, did some nonstate actor person send a WhatsApp message to a friend bitching about Wall Street greed? Sorry, “alleged” greed.) What are these “suspicious” websites, who spread “varying degrees (!)” of “misleading” information.

Varying degrees! So what, some of them are just slightly misleading? Meaning, some “researcher” politically disagreed — slightly?

According to Friday’s report, Facebook blocked more than 1,700 pages, groups and accounts engaged in inauthentic behavior targeting European Union countries during the first three months of 2019. Voters in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain were among those targeted. Ms. Jourova said Russian meddling had been detected in 1,000 cases since January.

Suddenly it sounds so strong again! Facebook blocked 1,700 pages engaged in “inauthentic behavior targeting European Union countries;” “Russian meddling had been detected in 1,000 cases since January.”

But didn’t this article just say that the report had no new information about who was doing what meddling, if any? So what am I supposed to understand from a European official asserting that “Russian meddling” — how was that defined? — “had been detected” — by whom? how? — “in 1,000 cases since January” — where? — at a press conference where they also make clear their report collected no new information or documentation on those matters.

American intelligence officials have warned that the 2020 campaign will also be targeted by foreign groups. In January, the Worldwide Threat Assessment written by government intelligence agencies said Russia would continue to use social media to amplify social and racial tensions in an effort to influence policy and elections.

The European Commission report said new internet regulations might be needed, rather than a reliance on the companies to abide by a voluntary code of conduct. The commission said its full review, which it plans to complete by the end of the year, could result in new laws.

“More needs to be done by the platforms to effectively tackle disinformation,” the report said.

Translation: Even civilized Europeans are telling Americans that we need to put Facebook, YouTube and Twitter under a government-run censorship program.

It’s the only way to protect ourselves from someone giving airtime to Bernie Sanders.

Last month’s vote was seen as a referendum on Europe’s direction. On one side were nationalist and populist groups skeptical of the European Union’s influence on national affairs; on the other were those seeking more integration and cooperation. The results were mixed, with far-right groups performing well in some countries and liberal parties doing better in others.

The election demonstrated a shift in disinformation strategy. The report said the efforts were smaller and more localized than Russia’s widespread effort during the 2016 American campaign. Far-right groups and other nonstate actors have also adopted the techniques, the report found.

Mr. Nimmo said governments would continue to find it difficult to stop groups committed to using online platforms to spread disinformation and sow discord. He said that in addition to focusing on big companies such as Facebook and Twitter, authorities should scrutinize smaller sites such as Gab and Parler.

Gab and Parler? Okay, if you say so. I guess we wouldn’t want to leave any stone unturned in our search to preempt Thoughtcrime. I will just again observe how inconsistent this article is. It started off telling us this new European Commission report was “the first official substantiation” that showed “Russian interference had not abated.” It then admitted the report doesn’t have any evidence about that one way or another. It now says the report found “disinformation strategies” were “smaller and more localized” and also, apparently, less Russian.

One emerging challenge for governments and social media platforms is that groups are not sharing outright false information, making the content harder to detect and remove. Instead, social media posts tend to take highly politicized views on news events of the day, such as immigration.

Boom!

Finally, clarity.

Here’s the real problem: Social media posts tend to offer opinions. Some of them are too lefty — i.e., fracking criticisms or those oh-so-hurtful allegations of Wall Street greed. Others are too righty — i.e., hostility toward new immigrants, legal or otherwise. Either way, they gum up the process of an elite pre-election by our political class.

Question: What is Facebook, Twitter and YouTube going to do to prevent our people from seeing boat-rocking political views?

Answer: Label them treason.

Oh, not “death penalty treason.”

At least not in 2019, ha ha!

No, don’t be silly. It’ll just be Russian-linked / associated / tainted.

Deleting people’s inconvenient opinions will be patriotic.

Last paragraph.

The report pointed to stories that said last month’s collapse of the government in Austria, which was a real event, was the result of the “European deep state.” Other posts said the recent Notre-Dame cathedral fire in Paris occurred because of a decline of Western and Christian values.

Interesting. So if someone expresses a belief in a Deep State — say, they argue the American intelligence community might be meddling inappropriately in the American electoral process — why, that is “an emerging challenge for governments and social media platforms.” Yes, how can we improve “news literacy” (Facebook’s term) and remove such illiterate Deep State discussions from our media space? Remember, the elected U.S. president himself has posted his opinions on Twitter about the existence of a Deep State. So I guess the “emerging challenge for governments” includes things like how to delete the least convenient stated opinions of the U.S. president?

Look, I don’t know much about the Notre Dame cathedral fire, other than that it was shocking and saddening. But if someone in, say, France, wants to make a rhetorical link between the burning of Notre Dame and their perception of a “decline of Western and Christian values,” that’s their perogative. If it was well-written and entertainingly argued, I might read it. I doubt I’d find it convincing.

What I don’t need is some quasi-government committee that holds secret regular meetings in D.C. or Silicon Valley to decide whether that hypothetical article can even be found on the Internet; just like I don’t need some anonymous, intel community-linked “researcher” flagging my hypothetical WhatsApp text about said article as “suspicious,” so some ambitious bureaucrat can then cite it in a collection of “a thousand suspicions WhatsApp texts” waved vaguely before the media, as part of a campaign to provide more hysteria-driven funding for the project of policing the Internet.

Matt Bivens, MD

Written by

Born in DC, studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, now living in Massachusetts. ER physician, EMS medical director, recovering newspaper journalist & Russia-watcher.

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