“Fake stories” are in the news. The narrative goes something like this: fabricated accounts that misrepresent “the truth” are proliferating on the internet, and once they appear on a social networking site, they are frequently spread far and wide, often doing serious damage along the way to whatever or whomever was the target of the initial posting. Reportedly, Google and Facebook are now alert to the problem and doing their best to monitor and eliminate such material. How exactly that will work is not yet clear, as it would be blatant censorship, and the relative openness of the internet is a major part of its appeal.
And there is, of course, a political aspect to the fake stories. Allegedly, most recent tales were focused on denigrating the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, accusing her of a series of crimes both high and low, challenging her veracity on issues relating to her health, and claiming that she was seeking to “hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.”
That the overwhelming majority of the media’s campaign coverage actually consisted of negative reporting on Donald Trump would appear to contradict that narrative. But because most of those currently promoting the “fake news story” theory can be comfortably described as Clinton supporters, it is perhaps not surprising that whatever benefit might be obtained from the political angle would tilt in her direction.
And there’s something even more nefarious that fits neatly into another storyline that was intensely pursued in the lead-up to the election. It has now been discovered by the assiduous researchers attached to several previously unknown and somewhat shady inside-the-Beltway think tanks that the Kremlin was behind it all, described in some detail by the Washington Post in an article entitled “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” The front-page Post piece, which was promptly replayed uncritically elsewhere in the mainstream media, concerned the alleged existence of “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
With two coauthors, a fellow at one of the obscure think tanks cited by the Post, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, had released an article called “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy” on November 6 through the War on the Rocks online magazine. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, just before the election, and the article shilled heavily for Clinton, asserting absurdly at one point that “A Trump victory could pave the way for Russian ascendance and American acquiescence.”
A second group cited in the article, PropOrNot, revealed on October 30 the keys to “Identifying and Combatting Russian Online Propaganda,” including a convenient table that names all the internet sites that are apparently “useful idiots” engaged in supporting the “active measures” produced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his shadow warriors. PropOrNot alarmingly warns that unless something is done about Moscow’s propaganda, there might be in the “immediate aftermath of the upcoming election, Russian orchestrated political violence in the U.S.”
The research and analysis conducted by both the Foreign Policy Research Institute and PropOrNot is based on physical connections between sites featuring the “fake stories” as well as repetitive language and expressions, but that is precisely how information moves around on the internet in any event. The completely respectable Consortium News, Antiwar.com, Unz.com, and Ron Paul Institute are four of the sites PropOrNot includes on its “peddlers of Russian propaganda” list, rather suggesting that discussing Moscow’s foreign policy objectively outside the comfort zone of the Washington establishment bubble is enough for inclusion.
The Post article accepts that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee files and other accounts to “embarrass Clinton,” even though actual Russian government culpability has never been unambiguously demonstrated and has been denied by both the Kremlin and WikiLeaks. And it might surprise the Washington Post, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and PropOrNot to learn that Moscow was watching the U.S. presidential election very closely based on its own self-interest. On one hand, there was a major-party candidate who compared Putin to Hitler and who was advocating confronting Russia in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Syria, including expanding NATO and increasing direct lethal military assistance to Kiev while also intervening directly in Syria. That intervention would include creation of a “no-fly” zone, which would virtually guarantee an incident involving U.S. warplanes and the Russian aircraft supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
On the other hand, there was another major-party candidate advocating dialogue and détente with Russia, arguing that the current level of hostility with Moscow was unwarranted. He was also uninterested in increasing U.S. direct involvement in Syria.
There should be no mystery about whom Putin was going to favor. Yes, Moscow undeniably has a large bureaucracy that engages in media management in support of its own perceived interests, but the State Department does the same thing, as does the CIA overseas, and the Pentagon manages the news coming out of war zones through its embedment of journalists. The White House itself fed false information to journalists in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Many other governments, including those of Israel and China, also engage in methodical global media manipulation to promote both their foreign and domestic policies. And one might also add that the U.S. mainstream media exercises considerable self-censorship over stories that would displease the corporate and political establishment. One must ask who is manipulating whom and whether it is fair to suggest that the American public is so gullible as to believe everything that appears on the internet, on television, or in print?
In addition, I would argue that there is a vast abyss between using a country’s global media resources to favor a certain political outcome in a foreign country and deliberately seeking to destroy that same nation’s political institutions, which is what the Post and its associated think tanks are attempting to link together. And it is not like posting false or misleading stories to obtain some political advantage is something new, having been something like the norm since the invention of mass journalism in the 19th century. It is not for nothing that “truth” has been described as the first casualty when nations engage in conflict and go public to explain their respective points of view.
The Post article wraps its allegations about Russia around the kernel of truth that there have been many false stories on the internet. In my own experience placing false or misleading articles overseas during the Cold War, the trick was not to use a sledgehammer but rather to base an account on a substantially and unimpeachably true story while inserting an element that would convey some additional information. Linking something that was false to something believed to be true would validate the former. Ironically, that is precisely what the Post article seeks to do when it tries to establish as solid its view that Russia was behind the fake news before it demurs, “There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump.” The newspaper is planting the seed that Moscow’s role was decisive by including the reservation.
The Post article also describes the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s health issues and implies that the negative commentary was somehow linked to direction coming from Moscow, but the reality is that Clinton actually did stumble and almost fall on camera. That video was played repeatedly, unleashing a torrent of discussion worldwide, including on Clinton-friendly networks like CNN, without any need for Russia to do anything to popularize the story. Russian trolls might indeed have been onto the story quickly, as the article suggests, but they were not alone.
The mainstream media, which clearly is having some difficulty in explaining why anyone should pay attention to it, is eager to discover new reasons why the reporting in the lead-up to the elections was so awful. It is convenient to claim that the Russians planted false stories, and furthermore are attempting to destroy our democracy, which would be a good segue if only anyone would actually believe any of it. The fact is that the public does not trust the media because the reporting has been both intrinsically biased and selective, with Team Clinton being the beneficiary of the status quo far more often than not in the recent electoral campaign. The clearly perceived bias is precisely why the public seeks out alternative sources of information and latches on to fake stories—and while it may be true that a Russian government ministry is responsible for some of what is being produced, the allegation that there exists a plot to destroy American democracy is a bridge way too far. The Democratic and Republican parties are already doing that without any help from Moscow.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.