Russia vs. Ukraine: Sometimes the Truth Leaks Out

The Russian government inadvertently told us the purpose of the invasion. The historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on Eastern Europe, explains:

Russia has a history of aiming for quick and decisive strikes against Ukraine, failing, then revealing the aims of the operation in media prepared on the assumption of success.

Such a sequences of events unfolded in 2014 during a Ukrainian presidential election. Russia tried to hack Ukraine’s central election commission so that it would present a far-right candidate, who in fact got less than 1% of the vote, as the winner.

The hack failed, but Russian media had been prepared for its success; and Russian television went on air with falsified results and even digital images that matched what the hack was supposed to produce. 

Something similar seems to have happened with the invasion of 2022. Like the hack in 2014, the invasion did not lead to the expected result. This left Russian media with prepared material which, since it assumed success, reveals (or confirms) the goals of the Russian invasion.

No doubt most such material was never published or quickly removed. This article seems to have slipped through. It was written for approved Russian media on the assumption of a quick Russian victory, and so reveals the goals of the invasion. 

The goals of the invasion described here are destruction of the Ukrainian government, control of all Ukrainian territory, the end of Ukrainian sovereignty, and a solution to the “Ukrainian question.”

Further anticipated is the creation of a unified Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian entity, and the rebalancing of the world order in a “new epoch” of Russian domination over a humiliated and divided West. 

Unquote.

Of course, a divided West and a subjugated Ukraine is exactly what the former president tried to give his “savvy” Russian mentor when T____ criticized our allies, threatened to leave NATO and pressured Zelensky to provide dirt on Biden by freezing military aid (which led to his second impeachment).

The Scandal Is that They’re So Good at Creating “Scandals”

Mehdi Hassan of MSNBC is impressed:

You do have to admire the rightwing media echo chamber’s ability to weaponize even the most hyped-up of stories (John Durham filing!), misrepresent AND distort it, and then push it out with a relentless message discipline on cable and online that liberals could only ever dream of. . . . 

If your coverage and analysis of U.S. politics doesn’t center on or even include the fact that the right has a massive, well-funded, coordinated propaganda machine and its opponents don’t, then you’re really not doing it right.

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post is too:

On an average day, Fox News tells dozens or even hundreds of outright lies. Meanwhile there’s an entire trial happening in New York about A SINGLE WORD in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin, which was quickly corrected. Different worlds. 

Mr. Waldman wrote more about this latest instance of propaganda vs. reality:

When some appalling new story emerges of political actors lying to the public, should [the news media] confront it? Or will the attempt to debunk the story only draw more attention to it, spreading the lies further?

There’s no perfect answer that fits every situation. But at the very least, it’s important to understand how systems of propaganda operate, so we can try to minimize the damage they do. And never in our history has there been a propaganda system that operates with the skill, enthusiasm and outright shamelessness of the one conservatives have working for them right now.

That’s depressingly evident in the latest “blockbuster” story gripping the right, a story built on a grab bag of misleading assertions, misinterpretations and outright lies. It forces us to ask yet again: Is it possible to have a healthy democracy when so much of it is soaking in misinformation?

The current story concerns John Durham, the special counsel who has spent almost three years investigating the investigation into Russia’s attempts to subvert the 2016 election. You can read a comprehensive rundown of the facts here or here.

Durham has indicted Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI, which Sussmann denies [that indictment itself is incredibly weak — it involves whether Sussman said he was representing a client in a private conversation he had with an FBI agent he knew]. In 2016, Sussmann, whose firm was doing legal work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, gave the FBI a tip involving supposedly suspicious internet traffic between servers in Trump buildings and a Russian bank; it turned out to be nothing nefarious.

Sussman got the information through another client of his, Rodney Joffe, a technology executive with government cybersecurity contracts, including one that involved protecting the White House from cyber attacks.

In a court filing last week, Durham alleged that Joffe “exploited” his arrangement with the White House to obtain the data in question “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”

Joffe vigorously denies this. His spokesperson says examining such data was par for the course, as he was doing cybersecurity work for the government, and in late 2016, everyone was appropriately concerned about Russian hacking. Durham has not indicted Joffe for anything.

But this is where the propaganda machine goes nuclear.

Fox News is treating this like a stunning revelation (“Worse than Watergate” trumpeted Sean Hannity), dramatically amping up the story with each retelling. After all, it isn’t good enough to say a lawyer with a second-order connection to the Clinton campaign got information from another client with legitimate access to White House internet traffic data; that’s not nearly scandalous enough.

So Fox published a headline reading “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” The Washington Examiner claimed Sussmann “spied on Trump’s White House office” — even though the internet data came from 2016, when Barack Obama was president.

“Hillary broke into a presidential candidate’s computer server and a sitting president’s computer server,” ludicrously claimed Fox host Jesse Watters. “There, her hackers planted evidence, fabricated evidence connecting Trump to Russia.”

Tucker Carlson added that Clinton’s campaign stole “presumably text messages,” which not even Durham alleges.

These are all lies. This is not about “hacking,” no evidence was planted and the data on White House traffic came from when Obama was president. You can argue that Durham’s filing was itself misleading and tendentious [which it was], but even if every word of it was true, what they were saying on Fox was outrageously false.

But the propaganda machine doesn’t stop there. Republican politicians — even those who know better — see their constituents being fed this line, so they rush to get in on the act:

The coverage has gone meta; Fox is now angrily asking why other news outlets are not matching their breathless coverage of this nothing burger, feeding their viewers’ paranoid fantasies about cover-ups and conspiracies.

So in no time, we move from questionable claims to obviously false allegations to demands for legal retaliation against political opponents to whining about their own victimhood, with the enthusiastic participation of GOP officeholders, none of whom has the courage to say, “Hey guys, I hate Hillary as much as anyone, but it seems like we’re running out ahead of the facts here.”

That’s because every Republican relies on the propaganda machine. It helps their own campaigns. It keeps the base in a state of perpetual anger. And if you question it, you will become its enemy.

This is happening while there’s an entire trial going on in New York about a single inaccurate word in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin — an editorial that was quickly corrected. The Times is falling all over itself to explain how it got something wrong, and no one on the left is defending the paper. Meanwhile, Fox programming contains extraordinary amounts of factual errors, misleading assertions and outright lies, almost none of which ever get corrected.

So where does that leave us? The unfortunate answer is that when a propaganda apparatus such as this one is so deeply embedded within one of our parties, it becomes almost impossible to puncture. Fantasies are accepted as fact, lies become immune to refutation and anyone who displays even a modicum of honesty is denounced as a traitor.

There may be a solution out there, a strategy to pull our politics back to reality. But if there is, we haven’t found it yet.

Unquote.

The former president issued a statement regarding this “scandal” claiming members of the Clinton campaign would have been executed (for crimes they didn’t actually commit), back when America was stronger. His bullshit was dutifully repeated here, there and everywhere as if it made any sense at all.

As we sink further into the abyss.

As If What’s True Matters to Them

Charles Pierce of Esquire covers one more case in which the truth couldn’t compete with right-wing fantasy and paranoia (as originally reported in more detail by The New York Times). Mr. Pierce’s conclusion regarding who is ultimately responsible for this nonsense is important:

. .. . Some local boosters in the central part of Montana wanted to arrange for the area to be declared a National Heritage Area. This, they believed, would boost the tourist economy in that beautiful, but lonely, place. It also would bring in some much-needed FREE MONEY! from the federal government. This sounded like a plan to many of the people living there, and especially to the local mover-and-shaker communities. But they did not reckon with the power of the Intertoobz, and one citizen’s willingness to believe anything she read there. . . .

For seven years, beginning in 2013, the proposal went along swimmingly behind the work of a retired Forest Service officer. There were town meetings, and the process was largely peaceful. And then D____ T____ ran for re-election and hell followed after him.

Rae Grulkowski [a 56-year old businesswoman who had never been involved in politics] heard a local candidate speak against the proposal, and she thereafter went so far off the diving board that said candidate disowned her and her work. Like that even matters.

At the time, [Grulkowski] was becoming engrossed in the online world of far-right media. From her home on 34 acres in Stockett, a farming community of 157 people south of Great Falls, she watched videos from outlets like His Glory TV, where hosts refer to President Biden as “the so-called president.” She subscribed to the Telegram messaging channel of Seth Keshel, a prolific disinformation spreader. And she came across a vein of conspiratorial accusations that national heritage areas were a kind of Trojan horse that could open the door to future federal land grabs.

When Ms. Grulkowski, who owns a septic cleaning company, tried using Ms. [Jeni] Dodd’s group to push the idea that Montanans’ property rights were at risk, Ms. Dodd kicked her out for promoting lies. “I’m not happy with people saying it will seize your property, because that is disingenuous,” Ms. Dodd said. “I said to her, ‘I think you need to be careful about the message. It isn’t actually the way that it works, what you’re saying.’”

But Ms. Grulkowski plowed ahead.

. . . She collected addresses from a list of voters and spent $1,300 sending a packet denouncing the proposed heritage area to 1,498 farmers and ranchers. She told them the designation would forbid landowners to build sheds, drill wells or use fertilizers and pesticides. It would alter water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land, she said.

None of this was true.

Like that matters anymore.

Grulkowski found powerful allies to support her fantasies. The head of the Montana Farm Bureau, a muscular lobbying group, signed onboard. . . The Farm Bureau guy sounds like a real prize.

In two hours of talking at his farm, Mr. Bandel could offer no evidence to back up that claim. He said he distrusted assurances that there were no such designs. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to do it right. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. I think Adolf Hitler said that, too, didn’t he?” Mr. Bandel said. “The fear of the unknown is a huge fear.” Mr. Bandel said he trusted Ms. Grulkowski with the details.

And why wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s not like Ms. Grulkowski would believe anything that comes out of the pixelverse, right?

Outside of a poultry coop, as her chickens and ducks squawked, Ms. Grulkowski ticked through the falsehoods she had read online and accepted as truths in the past year: The Covid vaccine is more dangerous than the coronavirus. Global child-trafficking rings control the political system. Black Lives Matter was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The United Nations is plotting to control world population and seize private land. Mr. T____ was the rightful winner of last year’s election. Even in Cascade County, where Mr. T____ won 59 percent of the vote, Ms. Grulkowski argued that 3,000 illegal votes were cast.

We didn’t believe in any of that stuff until last July,” Ms. Grulkowski said. “Then we stumbled on something on the internet, and we watched it, and it took us two days to get over that. And it had to do with the child trafficking that leads to everything. It just didn’t seem right, and that was just over the top. And then we started seeing things that are lining up with that everywhere.”

She started seeing things. I have no doubt of that.

Pretty soon, . . . thanks to the cowardice and stupidity of the Montana political establishment—right up to and including Governor Greg (Body Slam) Gianforte and U.S. Senator Steve Daines—there were power players joining the fight against this non-existent threat.

Yet it soon became accepted as truth by enough people to persuade Montana’s leading Republican figures and conservative organizations, including the farm bureau, Gov. Gianforte and Senator Daines, to oppose the proposal and enact a state law forbidding the federal government to create any heritage area in Montana.

It is a ban that the state has no authority to enforce.

Like that even matters any more.

The dispute has split communities, become a wedge issue in this fall’s political campaigns and left proponents of the heritage area flummoxed at their collective inability to refute falsehoods once they have become accepted wisdom. “We’ve run into the uneducable,” Ellen Sievert, a retired historic preservation officer for Great Falls and surrounding Cascade County, said. “I don’t know how we get through that.”

I have a Pro Tip for these folks: you can’t defeat the imaginary with either logic or reason. Delusions have their own physical laws, and you don’t know what they are.

Rae Gulkowski is not the problem. Rae Gulkowskis have been with us always. I wrote a book once that had as one of its central themes that the United States is the best country in the history of the world to be completely out of your mind. It is the powerful interests—political, social, financial; local and national—who are willing to pretend to swallow any fantastical codswallop for their own dark purposes who are the real sources of peril to the republic’s existence. It’s the people who should know better, and who clearly don’t, and worse, who don’t give a damn.

Unquote.

It doesn’t look like taking Fox News and Facebook out of the picture would have made a difference in this case, but unless we do something about the way Facebook and Fox News feed right-wing fantasy and paranoia, it’s fair to conclude that the Republican Party will become even more divorced from reality and Republican politicians will become even worse than they are now.

Symmetrical Polarization or Asymmetrical Propaganda?

Boston Review has the best article about politics I’ve read in a long time: “Polarization or Propaganda?” It was written by C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. Here’s the beginning:

I would like to stage a fight between two different accounts of the current political landscape—what’s been called the “post-truth” era, the infodemic, the end of democracy, or perhaps most accurately, the total shitshow of the now.

According to one oft-told story, what’s going on is systemic polarization. Our once-peaceful society has been riven into polarized camps. Extremism and political separation are the core problems, and the fix is something like reconnection, intermingling, and friendship across party lines. (The sound of this story is somebody issuing a plea for civility “in these divisive times.”)

According to a very different story, what’s going on is propaganda. Certain bad actors are generating false and misleading information for political purposes. To fix it, we need to fight those bad actors.

These are two different accounts of our current political landscape: polarization and propaganda. Which is the best explanation?

Systemic polarization, as it is usually told, is a basically symmetrical story. Polarization arises from a social dynamic that afflicts almost everybody. The social forces at play—social mobility, online media bubbles, algorithmic filtering—are pervasive, and their effect is nearly universal. Like-minded individuals naturally clump together and end up boosting each others’ confidence unreasonably. Conservatives and progressives are approximately as vulnerable and approximately as blameworthy.

On the other hand, the propaganda story is usually told asymmetrically: one side is stuck in the propaganda machine, the other side fighting against it. It is certainly possible to tell the propaganda story about both sides, but symmetry isn’t baked into its core.

Nguyen compares two books that present the opposing views. The first is Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse, a professor at Vanderbilt. He argues that “our current political rift . . . arises from the profound mutual disrespect between the two sides”:

The fix is to . . . find our way back to respecting the other side . . . We need to see our political opponents as holding their values sincerely. . . . And that involves realizing that group polarization, and other rationality-undermining effects, don’t just affect the other side. We, too, are the products of group polarization. Our own political confidence, too, is significantly irrational and unsupported. . . .

Once we have repaired our tendency to utterly dismiss the other side, we should engage in non-political cooperative projects with them: picking up litter together, teaching somebody to read at the library, joining a bowling league. We need to engage in parts of life where politics is simply not part of the picture . . .

The other book is Network Propaganda by three authors associated with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (their book is available for free online). They tell a very different story:

. . . A host of factors went into creating the political landscape around the [2016 election], but the dominant factor was propaganda. For these authors, propaganda means the intentional spread of false or misleading information for the sake of political power. . . . The prime movers in [their] story are Fox News, Breitbart, and their funders and allies among the political elite.

A key element of this account is an effect the authors call the “propaganda feedback loop.” Inside the loop, media outlets stop trying to present truths and to fact-check their fellow outlets. Instead, these outlets are out to confirm their followers’ worldview. And the more time they spend in the loop, the more these followers get used to the experience of constant confirmation and grow intolerant of any challenges to their belief system. . . . Communication becomes more about reinforcing agreement and shared identity than about finding the truth. . . .

At the heart of the analysis is a careful, empirical study of . . . the media consumption environment around the 2016 election, including the network structure of Twitter and Facebook activity. The basic structure of the rightwing media ecosystem, the authors say, was completely different from that of the rest of the media ecosystem. The right-wing network—centered around Fox News and Breitbart—exhibited all the features of a propaganda loop. It excluded members that conformed to standard norms of objective journalism. False and misleading claims could (and did) circulate and get amplified, without criticism from anywhere else in the trusted network.

The rest of the media ecosystem exhibited a very different dynamic—what the authors call a “reality check dynamic.” In this setting, media outlets are incentivized to check up on each other . . . Outlets are thus encouraged to aim for factually accurate reporting and police failures in accuracy.

According to the authors, this subset of the media constituted a single, large, interconnected network, which included mainstream, centrist media outlets, traditional liberal outlets, and more radically left-leaning online-native sites, from ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times to the Huffington PostDaily KosMother Jones, and Occupy Democrats. Despite the relative political diversity of this network, its various members treated themselves as beholden to one another. That is, a fact check from a more left-leaning outlet like Mother Jones would be treated seriously by a politically centrist, mainstream outlet like ABC News, and vice versa. And the typical user of this network, no matter where they were on the political spectrum, treated the whole network as interconnected—reading across the network, and taking seriously fact checks from sources across it.

Professor Nguyen’s article is 5,000 words long (all of which is worth reading). To make a long story short, he concludes that the evidence favors the right-wing propaganda explanation, not the “living separate lives” one:

Of course, you might think this whole discussion is quite self-serving. . . . I am a typical lefty—so maybe this is all just motivated reasoning. I’m giving just the kind of self-serving argument that people on the left would give to justify their beliefs. And perhaps I am drawn to such an argument precisely because I have already been brainwashed, my whole life spent in a like-minded enclave of lefty academics.

Talisse makes exactly such an accusation. He says that we tend to think group polarization affects the other side, but not us; we tend to “disregard our own vulnerability to the phenomenon.” But this disregard, he says, is itself the result of group polarization. If this view is right, all are guilty of irrational confidence, and we should all do a substantial amount of self-discrediting.

What Talisse misses is that this sort of argument applies equally to all comers. Motivated reasoning isn’t just for extremists and radicals: the worry applies just as well to those who might call for civility, preach for moderation, and disdain extremes. Group polarization can beset any enclave at any place on the political spectrum, and motivated reasoning can affect those who love civility and moderation just as well as it can affect the extremists. The temptation to accept a Talisse-style view of symmetrical group polarization could itself be a result of group polarization—one arising in a body of like-minded centrists who would love to believe that the real problem was in all those irrational, polarized extremists. In fact, [the authors of Network Propaganda] make such an accusation:

As we have repeatedly seen . . . the prominent outlets on the left and center simply do not exhibit a parallel structure, content, or vehement outrage that we observe on the right. These facts are as inconvenient to academics seeking a nonpartisan, neutral diagnosis of what is happening to us as they are to professional journalists who are institutionally committed to describe the game in a nonpartisan way. . . . But the facts we observe do not lend themselves to a natural, “both sides at fault” analysis.

This is not to dismiss either position out of hand. The point is that the position of advocating for moderation, civility, and civic friendship does not magically rise above the fray, rendering itself, by its peaceable face, immune to debunking arguments and accusations of motivated reasoning. We can point out that Network Propaganda is comforting to liberals and leftists, but we should also point out that Overdoing Democracy is comforting to centrists—to those wary of radical change, who long for the civility of a bygone era. Neutrality doesn’t give you a free pass from accusations of motivated reasoning.

Unquote.

The idea that polarization is the basic problem, not millions of our fellow citizens being under the influence of asymmetrical, right-wing propaganda, has always seemed like putting the cart before the horse. The propaganda explains the polarization, not the other way around. If living separate lives in separate environments was the key factor, the amount of propaganda on both sides would be comparable. But there is nothing on the left like the right-wing media bubble and its disregard for truth. Reactionaries respond by claiming that all other media outlets from Mother Jones to CBS News to the news pages of The Wall Street Journal, i.e. every purveyor of news and opinion that doesn’t support the Republican Party line, are the same. It’s nonsense.

As the Democratic Party has remained a standard, center-left party for decades, the Republican Party has morphed into a radical, right-wing outlier. That’s not because Americans don’t spend enough time together at PTA meetings or their local diners. It’s because one side has been riding a wave of bullshit for the past thirty years, and there’s no sign it’s slowing down.

By the way, Fox News celebrated its 19th anniversary this year with the following statement:

We are extremely proud that viewers have consistently tuned in to our slate of original programming for nearly two decades, choosing Fox News as their destination for not only breaking news coverage, but insightful analysis from a diversity of viewpoints.

Demonstrating the diversity on offer, the statement was followed by a picture of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.

carlson-ingraham-hannity-FOX

That Time the Chinese Communists Used a Few Words to Make Themselves Look Good

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t get as much publicity as it should. The people who run China’s government do horrible things. Prof. Perry Link is an expert on China and explains one way the party easily manipulated the rest of the world using the power of propaganda: 

Does the CCP’s Department of Propaganda (later renamed the Department of Publicity) lie? [Author and dissident] Su Xiaokang gently told me that the question is naïve. The CCP system, he explained, has an entirely different way of measuring the value of statements. Truth and falsity are incidental. A statement is valuable if its “social effects” are “good,” and the effects count as good if they support the power interests of the CCP. (For politically innocuous matters like weather reports or basketball scores, support of the party does not apply, but avoidance of harm to the party still does.) Hence a “good” statement might be true, half-true, or untrue—that is beside the point.

A tendency toward including truth does become relevant when someone judges that a statement will influence people more effectively if a bit of verisimilitude is supplied. But truth is never the first criterion, and in that sense neither is lying. American democracy’s headache with a president who lies is a fundamentally different problem from China’s living under the CCP’s propaganda apparatus, whose roots date from the 1940s and whose experts by now are very good at what they do.

Readers of the Western press, whether aware of it or not, have seen examples of that expertise. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the international wing of the Xinhua News Agency instituted frequent use of the phrase “lifted from poverty.” This was what “China” (meaning the CCP) had done for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. The world’s media—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Kyodo News, the BBC, and many others—picked up the phrase, as did Western politicians on both the left and the right. The World Bank used it in official reports. Those words were, in short, highly successful in achieving the intended effect: the world came to believe that the CCP was doing great good.

A more transparent account of what it had done, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, is that it released its controls on the Chinese people so that, for the first time in decades, they could make money for themselves; hundreds of millions responded by working long hours at low wages without the protection of labor unions, workers’ compensation insurance, a free press, or independent courts; and, yes, they made great amounts of money, escaping poverty for themselves and simultaneously catapulting the CCP elite, who still rode high above them, to truly spectacular wealth.

In short, the word “lifted” [requires] analysis of who lifted whom. That question did not normally occur to people around the world who read the words “China lifted.” The grammar of such sentences, combined with the formula China = CCP, left no need for a question. Was this word-engineering deliberate? Anyone who doubts that it was should note that CCP media used the “China lifted” phrase in publications in English, French, German, and other foreign languages but not in Chinese-language media at home. That made good sense. What would happen if the CCP started telling the Chinese people that “we lifted you”? The people would know better. Both sides know better. To make such an assertion might generate unfortunate “social effects,” such as a greater number of demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, roadblocks, and other examples of what the Ministry of Public Security labels “masses incidents” and counts in the tens of thousands per year.