Conspiracies to the left of us, conspiracies to the right, and Russia….in the middle?

Recent political campaigns, particularly the 2016 British Brexit vote, the 2016 US and 2017 French Presidential elections, are now all under scrutiny for potential meddling by Russia operatives and allies. In all three cases an influence and propaganda campaign has been detected, with operatives directed by or sympathetic to Russia trying to manipulate social media and release hacked information thought damaging to the party not favoured by Russian interests. Russian interference has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories about Russian influence, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, on social media manipulation by shady elites, on the rise of ‘alternative’ media outlets with Russian connections or pro-Russian views, and rapidly proliferating fake news about fake news.

There is little doubt that Russian operatives have been trying to influence, and undermine, democratic election campaigns over the past year — in fact they’ve been trying to do this, mostly ineffectually, for decades. As have, of course, the Americans. Recent efforts by the ultra-nationalist Putin regime have been seemingly more coordinated (and possibly more effective), however, leading to charges of outright collusion between far-right / populist political movements in Europe and the US with Putin’s Kremlin. The actual extent and impact of these efforts and connections are simply not yet publicly known (and I certainly don’t have any inside information about them). This hasn’t stopped the spinning of wild and wilder conspiracy theories about Russian political meddling, and also counter-spinning and counter-conspiracy theories denying any such Russian interference.

Before we look at the theories about, and spinning of, the Russian connection and other conspiracies, it needs to be made clear that we can be reasonably certain that the Russians did not stuff ballot boxes or interfere with voting machines in the UK, USA or France. Russian meddling during the US election has been confirmed by US intelligence only in the case of hacking the email of the campaigns and party officials, the possibility that voter information rolls also were hacked, and the pushing of propaganda and false information through its own news outlets and on social media (although even these are still highly contested by some conspiracy theorists — see below). Russian interference in the French election seems to have involved hacking and social media manipulation too; in the case of Brexit it is not clear what the Russian role was, although social media manipulation seems most likely, and one of the Leave campaign’s leaders, Nigel Farage nervously ducks all questions about Russian connections.

All this meddling is significant, and there may be direct collusion between western politicians and Russians to be exposed, but none of these measures by themselves directly changed a single vote. For instance, it has to be acknowledged that 63 million Americans decided to vote for Trump and the majority of them probably would have done so regardless of whatever the Russians did or did not do. Current conspiracy theories that suggest that Russia somehow directly ‘stole’ the US election need to be examined with extreme skepticism as, at best, they are an exercise in wishful thinking.

Such theories, particularly those finding favour among liberals and the left that point to sinister manipulation by Russian puppet masters, are disingenuous conspiracy mongering not only without credence, but are likely to further obfuscate real issues. Blaming Russia entirely for the election of Trump or for the Leave vote in the UK is far too easy. Americans and the British need to look at themselves, at their own social problems, their own cultural divides, their own political systems, and their own elites, to figure out why Trump or Leave’s message — however carefully promoted and manipulated by social media and bolstered by fake news — resonated with so many voters. And simply putting faith in the idea that the Trump administration will be slain by the Russian connection is both foolhardy and dangerous.

Still, those on the left sagely noting that there is now hysteria about the Russian interference amongst the mainstream media and Washington’s political elites (in an unholy alliance of hawkish liberals and neo-conservatives), with possibly sinister and certainly dangerous implications of its own, need also to be wary of pushing back too hard against the traditional enemies (the CIA and security services) and joining those on the far right who want to suggest that the Russian story is itself entirely fake news, an invented conspiracy to bash Trump. There have been stories lately suggesting liberals and the left are replicating what happened to the far right after Obama became president, but Jeet Heer in the New Republic has made the case that liberals are not falling for conspiracies in the same way or numbers as conservatives have.

The continuing prevalence of conspiracy theories and fake news is troubling, but we should remember that social media manipulation and fake news mostly work by playing on confirmation bias. And consider that the US election was ultimately won by a margin of about 70,000 votes in a number of key states, such that a different vote by only 1 of each 100 eventual Trump voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would have swung the election the other way. Such a razor thin margin also means that social media manipulation and the impact of fake news have to be taken seriously as a potential factor in the ultimate result — but were such efforts part of a ‘conspiracy’?

Social Media Manipulation

Some pretty wild conspiracy theories have developed about the power of fake news and the manipulation of social media platforms like Facebook. A number of alarming articles have been published about the seemingly shady activities of data accumulation and micromarketing firms like Cambridge Analytica and its secretive far-right wing billionaire owner (and Trump and Brexit supporter) Robert Mercer. Such figures and companies and their activities certainly deserve scrutiny and if they activities break election laws (as they may have in Britain, but for providing services worth more than campaign contribution laws allow, not for the service they provide) they should be investigated. But while what these companies do (and the politicians who use this data) may well be alarming, they’re effectiveness is debated, and what they do is not illegal nor conspiratorial.

Cambridge Analytica uses psychological data culled from Facebook, coupled with vast amounts of consumer information purchased from data-mining companies, to develop algorithms able to identify the psychological makeup of voters. The company’s services were used both in the Brexit campaign for the Leave side and for Trump’s campaign. Much of this information was obtained in dubious ways — like paying large numbers of people a small amount of money for access to their Facebook friends — and then the data collected was fed into its algorithms to helped the company create profiles for micro-targeting others.

It sounds creepy and ethically dubious, but it is merely an extension of the political data mining that has been going on for decades and is only a slightly more sophisticated version of the customized commercial advertising common on Facebook. In the USA, Republicans first developed effective micromarketing techniques based on data-mining in 2000 and 2004; in 2008 and 2012 the Democrats had more sophisticated models predicting how people with certain attributes might vote. In 2016 Clinton had her own data mining and analysis team. The Trump campaign, however, took these data campaigns to a new level. As an article at the New York Review of Books explains:

In the course of the 2016 election, the Trump campaign ended up relying on three voter databases: the one supplied by Cambridge Analytica, with its 5,000 data points on 220 million Americans including, according to its website, personality profiles on all of them; the RNC’s enhanced Voter Vault, which claims to have more than 300 terabytes of data, including 7,700,545,385 microtargeting data points on nearly 200 million voters; and its own custom-designed one, called Project Alamo, culled in part from the millions of small donors to the campaign and e-mail addresses gathered at rallies, from sales of campaign merchandise, and even from text messages sent to the campaign. Eventually, Project Alamo also came to include data from the other two databases.

But it is what was done with all this data that it is important, and again what was done is disturbing but perfectly legal and in no way conspiratorial. Using its data, the Trump campaign used Facebook to test tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of different campaign ads, finding out relatively quickly which ones worked with particular profiles and then pushed the most successful to specifically targeted audiences.

Applying Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms, Trump’s data scientists built a model they called Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory to rank and weight the states needed to get to 270 electoral college votes, which was used to run daily simulations of the election. Through this work, the digital team identified 13.5 million persuadable voters in sixteen battleground states, and modeled which combinations of those voters would yield the winning number.

Then, using Facebook’s own micro-marketing tools, the Trump campaign targeted potential Clinton supporters by engaging in negative campaigning using ‘Dark Posts’. Again from the New York Review of Books piece:

Dark posts are not illegal. They are not necessarily “dark.” Unlike a regular Facebook advertisement, which appears on one’s timeline and can be seen by one’s friends, dark posts are invisible to everyone but the recipient. Facebook promotes them as “unpublished” posts that “allow you to test different creative variations with specific audiences without overloading people on your Page with non-relevant or repetitive messages.

Facebook dark posts, used in tandem with more traditional attack ads, were part of the Trump team’s concerted effort to dissuade potential Clinton voters from showing up at the polls. These worked by targeting different groups:

One targeted idealistic white liberals — primarily Bernie Sanders’s supporters; another was aimed at young women — hence the procession of women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed by the candidate herself; and a third went after African-Americans in urban centers where Democrats traditionally have had high voter turnout. One dark post featured a South Park–like animation narrated by Hillary Clinton, using her 1996 remarks about President Bill Clinton’s anti-crime initiative in which she called certain young black men “super predators” who had to be brought “to heel.”

These were voter suppression tactics, and in key battleground states they appear to have worked to help persuade enough democratic voters to not bother going to the polls.

In Detroit, Mrs. Clinton received roughly 70,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did in 2012; she lost Michigan by just 12,000 votes. In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, she received roughly 40,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did, and she lost the state by just 27,000. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, turnout in majority African-American precincts was down 11 percent from four years ago.

Some of those voters probably wouldn’t have voted anyway, but the Trump campaign did spend much of its digital advertising money in ways designed to maximize voter suppression in key states. Using the perfectly legal tools that Facebook promotes as part of its own effort to make money, the Trump team was able to make a targeted election impact. Welcome to the world of monetized data collection and micro-advertising, applied to divisive politics. Undermining of democratic ideals about public debate and engagement? Yes. Unethical, evil? Possibly. Illegal and conspiratorial? No.

Of course, the Facebook campaign was supplemented by other social media tools and tactics, some of which might well transgress legal lines (certainly they violate ethical norms) and might even be conspiratorial. Trump’s campaign was aided by their candidate’s calculated use of Twitter, by their murky connection to WikiLeaks, by fake news generators like Breitbart, and by “Twitter bots” — automated Twitter accounts. Many of the bots are thought “to have emanated from Russia and at least one thousand of which the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer claimed to have created.”

This deluge of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messages in cyberspace provided the Trump campaign a self-reinforcing narrative and the appearance of size, momentum and coherence that it could not possibly have generated by policy announcements and rallies alone. And that’s before the massive amount of media coverage the campaign received and the outright cheerleading it got on cable news.

There are currently a number of academic projects studying the impact of the political manipulation of social media, fake news and alternative media outlets: one of the most successful has been investigations into misinformation on Twitter as demonstrated by a project at the University of Oxford. They found that those following French politics in the recent Presidential election were posting one fake news story for every two produced by a professional journalist, whereas users in Michigan during the 2016 election campaign shared one junk news story for every one reputable one. Why is fake news spread so readily? Is this a conspiracy?

Alternative Media and Fake News

The answer to why fake/junk news and propaganda is so easily picked up and spread is partially due to the appetite of a sizeable number of internet users for alternative news sites that are not thought to be “filtered” or “corrupted” by corporate interests like the mainstream media is perceived to be. This prejudice against mainstream media sources cuts across the political spectrum. And, of course, consumers of the news do need to be aware of media bias within the mainstream media. However, immediately dismissing the mainstream media as unreliable and believing only alternative media sources is beyond healthy skepticism — it leads to another set of prejudices being entrenched.

The main selling point of alternative media regardless of its political slant is that it is not mainstream media. There are credible, independent media outlets, but none are absolutely free of perspective and bias: their views need to be considered in tandem with those within the mainstream, not as “purer” alternatives. And there are far more entirely non-credible alternative media outlets. The left has its share of less-than-reliable alternative sites, but the market has exploded on the far right, especially in the US where Breitbart is now among the top 1000 most visited websites in the world (and within the top 300 most visited in the USA). Immediately after Trump’s election it was in the top 600 in the world. Let that sink in. Breitbart is still well behind mainstream giants like the New York Times, but this far right alternative news outlet, widely recognized as spreading misinformation, hate and lies, is now more often visited than some of the larger pornography sites on the internet. And Breitabart is just one on hundreds of alternative news sites with an anti-mainstream media appeal and right wing politics. Here is a sample of them researched by a team at the University of Washington, and their coverage, and spinning alternative narratives, of major shooting events in the US between 2013 and 2016.

An important finding of the University of Washington study was not the left-right political spectrum that was the main dividing line between “alternative” and mainstream news sites, rather the major political orientation of the alternative media was towards anti-globalism.

The meaning of globalism varied across the sites. For some websites focused on a U.S. audience, globalism implied a pro-immigrant stance. For more internationally-focused sites, globalism was used to characterize (and criticize) the influence of the U.S. government in other parts of the world. In some of the more conspiracy-focused sites, the term was used to suggest connections to a global conspiracy by rich, powerful people who manipulated the world for their benefit. Globalism was also tied to corporatism — in other words, the ways in which large, multi-national companies exert power over the world. And the term was also connected, implicitly and explicitly, to mainstream media.
In this way, to be anti-globalist could include being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-corporation, anti-U.S. government, and anti-European Union. Due to the range of different meanings employed, the sentiment of anti-globalism pulled together individuals (and ideologies) from both the right and the left of the U.S. political spectrum. Disturbingly, much of the anti-globalist content in these alternative media domains was also anti-Semitic — echoing long-lived conspiracy theories about powerful Jewish people controlling world events.

A compounding issue is the clear interdependence of media sites within the alternative media ecosystem. As the study shows, a reader “seeking information within this ecosystem might encounter an article from one website that synthesized an article from a second website that was originally posted on and copied from a third website.” As a consequence, people seeking information might think they are getting information from a variety of different sources when in fact they aren’t, but are rather are “getting information from the same or very similar sources, laundered through many different websites.”

By itself, this is alarming enough: a relatively small number of alternative media sites are feeding a wide range of fake news and conspiracy theories into the internet ecosystem in ways that make it hard for people looking for information not “filtered” by the mainstream media to see their biases. Alternative media sites often explicitly encourage readers to use their own critical thinking skills when digesting the news, suggesting that the alternative media provides truths hidden from those who rely on the mainstream media, but many of the stories pushed by alternative media, especially but not exclusively, on the right are interdependent on other similar sites for their ideas and sources. Their audience implicitly trust their anti-mainstream media slant but don’t then question the slant of the alternative source. And, as the University of Washington study found, some of these alternative media domains “hosts content that is cross-posted to RT — formerly Russia Today, a media outlet funded and largely controlled by the Russian government”.

The conclusion of this study indicates that the prevalence of conspiracy theories is a consequence of the very existence of an alternative media ecosystem that is self-consciously set up in opposition to the mainstream media, skillful manipulated by far right and populist propagandists:

…criticism of mainstream media (practically etched into the DNA of alternative media) is aligned with a political agenda of anti-globalism in favor of nationalism, and how that agenda is connected to the political orientations and goals of the Trump administration. Perhaps the main contribution of our research is merely to point out that these ideologies are spread within an alternative media ecosystem that utilizes conspiracy theories like Sandy Hook hoax claims and old anti-Semitic narratives to attract readers and support this spread. And that these alternative media websites aren’t focused solely on U.S. far-right or alt-right content, but are also using alt-left content to pull readers into this information ecosystem and the ideologies spreading there.

One clear illustration of this convergence of alternative media, conspiracy theory and rightwing propaganda, and the example I’ll end this blog with, are fears about the existence of a “deep state” in the USA.

The Deep State

The idea of the “deep state” is a concept that crosses political lines and quickly slides into conspiracy theories — especially in explicit counter to the Russian connection story. The idea of “deep state” usually linked to bureaucratic resistance to dictatorships and the running of weak democracies by insiders, and to cabals operating in secret or simply outside the democratic process.

For those on the left, the phrase is also sometimes used to describe what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” in the US (and among and between Western democracies) although today we perhaps ought to call it the “military-industrial-technological-financial complex”. Critics point to the collusion of corporate and financial elites and political power brokers as the true guiding hand in American politics. Even those not on the left have recognized the importance of dark money, the massive influx of money from billionaires, especially after the Citizen’s United Decision in 2010. Mike Lofgren, a former Republican US congressional aide, in his book of the same name defines the “deep state” as the “hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”

But this particular idea of the deep state isn’t really a conspiracy theory: its essentially a description of US political-economy — analysis of the obviously important connections between economic and political interests that dominate most democratic (and many non-democratic) states. Moreover, rather than a cabal of powerful cigar-smoking men in back rooms in unison dictating global politics — the popular stereotype of this idea of the corporate deep state — in actuality there are multiple competing interests in this “complex”.

For instance, the economic interests of the military-industrial elite are not the same as the resource extraction corporate elite. Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillotson, is a representative of the latter and infamously has been an advocate of better relations with Russia (for essentially economic reasons); while economic advocates of the military and suppliers of the security service are far more likely to be opposed to better relations with Russia (after all, nuclear submarines and ICBMS are pretty useless against terrorist threats, but much more important against adversarial state actors). This isn’t to deny the importance of corporate money in US and other democratic polities or to accept that it is a good thing (its not), but rather this is simply “business as usual” not a conspiracy.

Of course, many of Trump’s supporters see those moneyed interests in government as “the swamp” that Trump was elected to drain. Indeed, it was the presence of big money dominating the political status quo that led some on the left to chose third party candidates or abstain from voting, rather than vote for Hilary Clinton and her status quo message — in the process aiding Trump’s eventual victory (which is why the Trump campaign targeted fervent Bernie Sanders supporters in it dark post Facebook campaign). The fact that Trump has appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in US history and has jumped on-board with GOP tax-cut plans that would favour the wealthy who do flood politics with their money, however, suggests this particular promise will likely remain unfulfilled.

But currently, those Trump supporters worried about the “deep state” are not targeting big money interests at all, but rather a different threat — the established intelligence and security bureaucracy and their “globalist” backers. Clearly this is a kind of “deep state” that even the most democratic and law-bound countries do have, since every country deploys spies and to do so they need to have secret intelligence services and counter-intelligence services. Additionally, in the US case there are numerous federal domestic security agencies as well.

Such intelligence and security agencies need to be secretive to function in the global espionage and domestic security wars; their activities are not subject to the usual public releases of information that accompany nearly all other federal activities, and such are usually staffed by professionals that are not hired and fired on political whims. Such groups certainly have entrenched interests, but it is unlikely that they are easily swayed by partisan political identities or changes.

Yet Trump supporters, pushed by the far right alternative media, have conceived the intelligence officers and executive branch officials guiding policy as the swamp that now needs to be drained. The intelligence community are depicted as being guided by an ideology of globalist militarism and are the “deep state” that has thwarted the people’s champion, Trump, through obstructionism and persistent anonymous leaks of classified information — info that is damaging to Trump because it is also untrue. Conspiracy monger Alex Jones recently peddled theories about how the “deep state” were out to foment a national crisis that could lead to Trump’s removal. Roger Stone claimed that reports of the federal investigation into his connections to Russia are the machinations of a deep state that supported Hillary Clinton. “The deep state needs to get over it. Their candidate lost,” Stone told the New Yorker. Far-right news outlets sympathetic to the Trump administration, including Breitbart, regularly talk about this “deep state” and of course so do Trump himself and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Both suggested that the “deep state” (or for Bannon the “administrative state”) is interfering with the president’s agenda and that the Russia story itself is “fake news”. Some on the right have even claimed, without evidence, that former president Barack Obama is coordinating a deep state resistance to Trump.

Of the innumerable examples of this theory to be found on the web today, consider one from my country, Canada. Despite its respectable sounding name, the Centre for Research on Globalization, located in Montreal, is a one-man conspiracy clearing house, founded by Michel Chossudovsky. It is an anti-globalist, pro-Putin, anti-vaccination, and 9/11 Truther news page, which characteristically claims to be an “independent research and media organization” providing “analysis on issues which are barely covered by mainstream media”. Its cover story for 20 May 2017 is “USA under attack by the ‘Deep State’ — that’s the Real Constitutional Crisis.” I’ll spare you having to read this drivel: the key point is that right (Mike Huckabee) and left (Dennis Kucinich) agree US “bureaucrats want to take out Trump”. I expect many now do, but that’s because Trump’s administration has proved to be chaotic and an assualt on their professionalism, not because they think Trump will bring about lasting peace with Russia.

So while certain elements in the US bureaucracy may well feel threatened by Trump’s administration, the idea that there is some sort of co-ordinated “deep state” conspiracy is almost certainly wishful thinking on the part of Trump’s defenders. The Trump administration has produced so many leaks because they have done so many things poorly. It was Bannon and Trump who were hostile to the intelligence community from the outset — Trump even publicly called them Nazis — and that community has responded in kind, though mostly on an individual basis. The fact that differing, often competing, agencies within the US federal state have been concerned about legal and ethical improprieties on the part of the Trump team also suggests that a sense of outraged professionalism on the part of career civil servants explains much of the anonymous leaking.

And for those still pushing the now discredited Seth Rich story — which even Fox News has formally retracted, admitting it was “not initially subjected to [a] high degree of editorial scrutiny” — as somehow demonstrating dangerous anti-Russian hysteria by the deep state, consider that Russian media outlets are themselves still pushing that story. Again blaming Russia for all the west’s ills is delusional; but not even considering that Russia also has skin in this game is remarkably shortsighted. And for those worried about the dangers of nuclear conflict growing from a new cold war, consider who now controls the US nuclear aresnal: its not the CIA or the Washington Post — its an ignorant thin-skinned narcissist with a volcanic temper and no appreciation of strategic considertions or any apparent willingness to learn them.

Thus, I think we can be reasonably sure that the right wing conspiracy theory about the “deep state” is perhaps a sincere, but nonetheless desperate, attempt at distraction from real issues. Focusing on the anonymity of the leakers and on the potential of members of the intelligence or other parts of the federal bureaucracy to undermine Trump is an attempt to distract from the very real problems that the Trump administration has created for itself. Such attempts at distraction won’t change the fact that regardless of what the Trump-Russian connection ultimately ends up being, it is the attempt to obstruct investigations into that connection that have led to Trump’s current legal/constitutional troubles.

Ultimately, we don’t know how influential Russia’s interference campaign in the US (and other Western elections) was, yet, or the degree to which social media manipulation and the pushing of fake news was done in collusion with Russians — but it is not pushing (or believing in) conspiracy theories to want to find out.