Muros Invisibles
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Muros Invisibles

Enter the Dragon

Meet the U.S journalists running interference for CCP

An image that has become iconic of the Hong Kong protests. A volunteer medic was wounded by being shot in the eye by police riot weapons. (Illustration by Rebel Pepper, who has a book of illustrations on the situation in China)

This is the second installment in a three part series on the toxic influence pseudo-journalists in a digital age and the damage they present to the self-determination of peoples across the globe. You can read part one here.

As China reels from viral outbreak, ongoing protests in Hong Kong approaching their year-anniversary, a low-simmering trade war with the United States and controversy over Uighur re-education camps, there is a lot of room for an honest journalist to explore nuance.

The fog of information also presents an amazing opportunity for disinformation to thrive — which dishonest personalities take advantage of to promote themselves through questionable narratives.

In the first part of this series, we took a look at journalists Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, who have created their own brand of pro-state disaster journalism and human rights violation apologia through their aptly-titled blog the Grayzone.

They specialize in de-legitimizing social movements; presenting them as powerless pawns of foreign powers with questionable motives.

In 2019, Grayzone was in the midst of a global “anti-protester tour”, benefiting from a year of historical unrest, when Hong Kong suddenly erupted into protest.

Grayzone saw stars. For them, it was a new social movement to demonize and a new series of articles to sell. Even better, creative HK activists were attracting considerable interest from world press. It was a media-friendly, well coordinated and unified movement with a huge participation rate.

Protesters were staring down the CCP (the Communist Chinese Party) in the streets; a true David and Goliath story of scrappy but organized students against the Imperial Dragon.

They boasted crowd-sourced decision-making, slick graphic design and a series of ever evolving and surprising tactics they had developed after the unsuccessful “Umbrella Movement” of 2014. “Be Water” (borrowed from Hong Konger Bruce Lee) is one of the slogans of the movement. It symbolizes the adaptable and fluid style of their creative hit-and run tactics. They captivated the imagination of the world.

Grayzone took notice as well. They would swoop in like carrion crows to a feast.

But first, they had a China problem to deal with (and a whole lot of tweets to delete).

The Uighurs

Max Blumenthal alienated former supporters in 2015 when he transformed overnight from Assad critic to ardent admirer, but has been adept at avoiding serious career consequences from his startling reversal.¹

When one thinks of Ben Norton, however, “adept” is generally not the word that springs to mind. His entire career has been a long series of wild-tirades which can usually be refuted by work he did only a few months or years before — his positions on China are no exception.²

In 2017, reports began to leak out that China was detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslim minority Uighurs in its Western Xinjiang province. China had been forcing the general Uighur population to submit to invasive surveillance measures since the early 2000’s, when China started building extractive mineral projects in the region. Xinjiang boasts impressive reserves of zinc, lead, copper, gold and petroleum.

The stories were troubling, China was detaining Uighur Muslims in an effort to indoctrinate them culturally. Taken from their families against their will, they were kept in prison-like compounds, prohibited from practicing their religion and forced to speak only Mandarin as they underwent “integration” procedures that some detainees described as “torturous” and “brainwashing.”

Ben Norton, back when he thought oppressing Muslims was wrong (screenshot of a since deleted tweet)

China denied the claims at the time, but a steady stream of disturbing interviews with Uighers who had been imprisoned in the internment camps began to emerge, as well as on-the-ground reports from Xinjiang itself. The truth, it seemed, was finding its way into the daylight.

Before these reports, in 2014 and 2015, Norton had been decrying CCP Uigher oppression as “Colonization” (before Grayzone completely reversed its editorial positions, deferring instead to Russian network RT’s approved narratives). He has since deleted that commentary

A few years later in 2018, Norton penned an article parroting CCP in which he categorically denied the existence of Uigher camps. The official narrative, however, would evolve over the next year during an ever-changing series of statements by the Chinese government itself. CCP admitted the camps existed, but only for terrorists, later claiming that the camps were re-education and job-training centers to help the Uighurs integrate into Chinese society. Most recently, in December in 2019, CCP announced that the camps had been closed.

Uighur activists deny all of these statements, claiming the camps are a systematic program to erase their culture and the oppression very much continues.

This head-spinning series of narrative developments left Norton a bit….exposed.³

This inconsistency might be less of an issue were it not a disturbingly common trend in Grayzone reporting. People evolve on issues over time and stubborn commitment to ideological positions in the face of new evidence should be avoided.

A claim by Norton in an article for Grayzone denying the existence of Uigher camps. That thesis would soon be debunked not only by dozens of media reports, but by the Chinese government itself. (screenshot)

Norton’s constant flip-flops however seem to just a bit too convenient. His position depends more on who he is working to promote rather than truth-seeking. To borrow a cliche, it’s a feature not a bug of the services he offers.

Blumenthal penned a second article on the subject admitting that the internment camps existed, but arguing that they are a positive program. Echoing CCP again, he argued that media had inflated the numbers of detainees. He “proved” this by lying about the origin of the latest report, a leak of internal documents from CCP itself, by claiming the information came from the “U.S backed radical right” and an evangelist academic.

Doing the same thing he had done in Nicaragua and Venezuela the year before, Ben types up 1500 words calling protesters “CIA” and “fascists” and before calling it a day and heading to a bar in Brooklyn.

Instead of presenting a clear argument against the leaked information, he spends nearly the entirety of the article personally attacking an academic and activist for a book he wrote ten years before.

But petty inconsistencies would not deter Norton, Blumenthal and their new RT correspondent Dan Cohen, from making a fearless pro-government charge against the latest target.

The Grayzone were about to become self-declared China experts, and they would do so from thousands of miles away.

Edit: An hour after this article was published a second set of CCP leaks were released to the public. You can read the report here. They do not reflect well on Grayzone’s reporting.

A protester in Hong Kong braces against a water cannon wielded by police (widely shared photo on twitter)

Scribes of the Imperial Dragon

In May of 2019, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets in the largest protests in years. The movement was sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have sent offenders to be tried in the mainland, but the demands grew as the protests wore on.

Police responded violently to the new movement, cracking down on the assemblies with vigor. The movement also suffered brutal attacks from white-shirted assailants suspected of being triads, criminal gangs that support CCP. In response, the protesters grew less averse to violence as well.

In the early months of the movement the protesters announced their 5 demands: an end to police brutality, the resignation of Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, release of the hundreds arrested by Hong Kong police and implementation of the suffrage they were promised by the Chinese government under the “one-country two systems” agreement in 1997.

Beijing responded by claiming the protests were “riots” and the result of “US meddling”. They warned that protesters were playing with fire, and that “those who play with fire shall perish by it.”

China’s official state-run Xinhua News Agency depicted Hong Kong Protesters as cockroaches on their Facebook page (screenshot)

Government claims became increasingly conspiratorial over the next few months as they ratcheted up their propaganda machine. They painted the rioters as thugs, calling them “cockroaches”, “CIA trained stooges” and claimed the students were incapable of organizing such creative and sophisticated demonstrations without foreign help.

Grayzone hit the digital landscape running. Using the same strategy they have employed in a dozen countries. They began amplifying the CCP propaganda apparatus.

Their coverage did not get off to a very impressive start. In Dan Cohen’s first report, which reads like a badly written government press release, he painted protesters as racist and hapless CIA stooges, mistakenly called the territory of Hong Kong an island multiple times, and seemed to completely misunderstand (or purposefully misstate) their goals — writing multiple times that protesters were demanding independence from the mainland.

They are not.

Perhaps reporting from 1000’s of miles away while repeating official government propaganda isn’t a strategy likely to win many journalism awards? Or perhaps fact-checking is an evil Imperial tool used only by CIA shills. It’s difficult to say.

At any rate, the attacks would continue as GZ backed police and state forces against students in the streets for the rest of the year.

Demonize the Opposition

I have watched Grayzone smear social movements in half a dozen countries over two years. Their pattern is always the same. The first step is to demonize and de-legitimize any opposition to the State.

The sheer volume of tweets in which Norton tries to terrify people with the word “guarimba” is scarier than the roadblocks he wants you to fear.

It’s a tactic as old as governance. If you wish to justify violence against those you would crush, you must first de-humanize them. They went about this task with a shocking disregard for fact or even believability.

They write that the protests are “anti-union”, when in fact unionization is an inherent tactic of the protests. They constantly post images and videos of student violence and decry them with the same tired attacks they used against students in Nicaragua and Venezuela. They even throw around their favorite word, guarimbas, a term they have used to smear every movement they have covered in the last year.

It’s unclear why they believe translating “roadblock” into Spanish makes the term somehow terrifying.

Cohen and Norton wrote lengthy screeds claiming the protests are motivated by racism and that Nazis were “flocking” to the protests. What they were referring to, however, was hardly a flock. In December 2019, four self-identified neo-Nazi’s from Ukraine’s Azov battalion showed up uninvited for a selfie tour in HK. It seems they wanted to try the Grayzone style of “conflict-grift” for themselves. During this misadventure, as reported by Vice, they were condemned by any Hong Konger who knew who they were and attacked viciously online.

Despite this cold reception, Grayzone stood by their dubious reports that the protests were “infested by nazi’s and right-wing fanatics.”

It’s a tactic the writers at Grayzone borrow from fascism — any revolution that would dare rise up against State systems they view as perfect cannot possibly be valid. Any critic must be misled by hostile foreign powers, shadowy rich elites or they must be sub-human; cockroaches.

On Dan Cohen’s not-so-subtle attitude of cultural superiority, one activist in Hong Kong said

“Dan Cohen shares a zoomed in video of a white dude talking to protesters [and comments] ‘well this looks bad’ . He assumes Hong Kong is some kind of homogeneous ethnostate and that the dumb Asians need a superior white man to direct them. It’s ridiculous.³”

Protesters are not humans with agency, but rather thugs led by foreign agents, who are obviously incapable of thinking for themselves.

Dan Cohen is extremely troubled that a white guy is talking to HK protesters. He then immediately assumes said random white guy is their leader, obviously.

Sow doubt

The final part of the Grayzone strategy, is to cast doubt on any sources of information that disagree with the narrative they sell.

“The goal is to attack, slander and discredit any journalist that embeds or covers opposition groups as being ‘agents’ of a foreign power.” stated Oz Katerji, a freelance journalist and filmaker, who has been a vocal critic of Blumenthal’s Middle East coverage.

The GZ Art of Disinformation shares this tactic with cults, which is unsurprising considering the objectives are the same; manipulation and control.

Grayzone wants their media consumers to trust only the sources they approve of — a tactic psychologists call “isolation”, and it is effective.

To achieve this they constantly repeat that one should never trust any established news source. They insinuate that every journalist who (unlike them) actually has the credibility to be published at a reputable media company, or anyone actually on the ground (unlike them) is in the pocket of the CIA, the National Endowment of Democracy or George Soros, all favorite boogeymen for their conspiracy-theory mongering.

Grayzone wants to be seen as the arbiters of truth, the only honest voice in a world of deception.

They are not.

Computer simulation of the Grayzone newsroom (image by Leonardo Porres, from pinterest)

The show goes on

“No single image or clip on television is sufficient to draw a conclusion about the protests,” said Antony Dapiran, author of City on Fire, a book about the Hong Kong protests. “Whether that is police clashing with protesters, protesters vandalizing an MTR station or anything else.”

“Any image is just one piece of a very complex puzzle. Anyone who claims the protests are foreign fomented clearly hasn’t spent time on the ground and doesn’t understand the complexity here.”

And that is the crux of the issue. GZ irresponsibly takes a magnifying glass to the details that fit their narrative and ignore the mountain of evidence that doesn’t. They create the digital version of the obsessive conspiracy-theorist’s backroom wall-collage and present it as exposé.

And that, dear reader, is not journalism.

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Colombia. He has worked for Al Jazeera, the New Humanitarian and various other organizations in Latin America. For more stories you can follow him on twitter or at his website Muros Invisibles.

This article was produced independently with no financial assistance from anyone with the motive of improving journalistic integrity and combating misinformation. If you wish to support more independent work like this series in the future you can donate here.

Footnotes

  • 1) Aside of course from losing his ability to be published in any even remotely credible publication.
  • 2) The sheer volume of Ben’s deleted texts has led to the rise of an extensive archive of mind-boggling position reversals. I spent hours reviewing them. I still have a headache and have no idea what the man thinks he actually stands for.
  • 3) Strangely this never seems to bother Ben. He just deletes the inconvenient work that he can and moves on to the next baseless accusation.
  • 4) The word used was not “ridiculous”, but rather a term less fit for print. The meaning of the quote is unchanged.
(Illustration by Rebel Pepper, who has a book of illustrations on the situation in China)

Latin American News from the front lines

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Joshua Collins

Joshua Collins

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more

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