How Disinformation Works

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Centre of Global Policy’s The Navigator

Friendly Sirens and Deadly Shores

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

As the US prepares for another high stakes election, the outcome is likely once again to be influenced by a third party: Russia. But only if the electorate cooperates.

Ahead of the 2016 election there were frequent mentions of Russian interference, but its possible impact was generally dismissed. Democrats were convinced their candidate would win; and Republicans, resigned to the same, treated Russia as a side issue. The outcome jolted everyone. Because of this, no one is discounting the threat this time around. But the underlying causes that helped Russia succeed have grown deeper. There is now greater awareness about Russian tactics, but the means for resisting them are weaker.

In the myriad investigations, few stones have been left unturned about the methods and scope of Russia’s intervention. But while Russia has shown ingenuity in using digital propaganda, its success derives less from methodological sophistication than from structural vulnerabilities. To have any hope of countering Russian “active measures”, it is important therefore to understand not just the dissemination of propaganda, but also its reception. Propaganda, ultimately, is a cooperative enterprise. It feeds on existing biases. It requires both an active audience, which already shares the propagandist’s assumptions, and a larger, passive audience, which imbibes it based on the legitimacy accorded it by the active audience. People are susceptible to propaganda because it offers affective rewards and reduces cognitive labor. That is why any discussion on how it functions needs to begin with why it works.
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The Strangers’ Case

Editor’s note: An edited version of this was published by the Times Literary Supplement. (Photo: Anna Pantelia)

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

The only surviving example of William Shakespeare’s handwriting is preserved at the British Library in the manuscript of the play The Book of Sir Thomas More. Shakespeare’s contribution to the co-authored play is a speech by deputy sheriff Thomas More addressed to a mob rioting against immigrants. He appeals to mob’s empathy by inviting them to imagine themselves in the shoes of the “strangers”, exiled from home.

What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

Over four centuries later, empathy for the stranger remains an uncertain virtue. Since 2015, when the media elevated refugees to the status of a “crisis”, their influx has sharply declined (from a peak of over 221,000 in 2015 to less than 11,000 in 2018). However this reduction has yet to be acknowledged in the fevered registers of Europe’s political discourse. Immigration—or, rather, its perception—is roiling an entire continent, empowering the right and seducing even left-wing populists into xenophobia. The consequences have been catastrophic, in political, economic, and human terms.

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Arab Revolution: It happened before, it’ll happen again

Palestinian intellectual Iyad el-Baghdadi spoke at the first Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg on why the Arab Spring failed to produce tangible results, but also how Arab youth are the most educated and informed age group in the history of the Middle East, and his hope for future democratic movements in the region.

Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?

A version of this article first appeared in The New Arab

Following the Syrian regime’s recent chemical attack on Douma, US, Britain and France took swift but symbolic action to destroy three chemical weapons facilities. The action was not universally lauded. For Syrians it was too little too late; for isolationists and “anti-imperialists”, the 15,201st US airstrike on Syria since September 2014 was a “dangerous escalation” in a war where there were “no good guys”.

“There are no good guys”—or “everyone is equally bad”—has become a trope used by many otherwise decent people to absolve themselves of moral guilt for being bystanders to injustice. (The indecent on the other hand pronounce Assad the “lesser evil”, if not outright supporting him). The trope relies on a disciplined will to ignorance, unreasonable doubt, and manufactured uncertainty. It has been aided by a post-truth paranoia where cynicism passes for scepticism and all inconvenient facts expire into a haze of competing claims. “We can’t really know”!

But are facts really that elusive? And is it really impossible to tell good from bad?

Syria in fact is the most closely observed conflict in history, every aspect of which has been investigated, researched, filmed, documented, and reported on. The picture that emerges is not equivocal. In the judgment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria the regime is responsible for “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”.

Let us now look at the balance of atrocities.

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‘We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled’ — a reading

Our friend Stanley Heller has recorded this excellent reading by Wendy Pearlman of her classic-in-the-making book We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled. The event was introduced by Molly Crabapple and the reading was followed by a discussion between the two.

Of Monsters and Men

This is my review of Yassin al Haj Saleh’s book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. It first appeared in The New Arab

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution over six years ago, there has been a determined effort to smother it both literally and figuratively. There is the ceaseless attrition of bullets, bombs, torture, starvation and poison gas; there is the relentless subversion of truth through erasure, distortion, slant and fabrication. But in defiance of the terror, through myriad betrayals, regardless of the slander, and in the face of global indifference, the revolution survives. Every time the violence ebbs, the revolutionary flag returns to the street borne by crowds chanting the same slogans that reverberated through earlier, more hopeful days. Even in the absence of peace, besieged neighbourhoods have elected local councils, provided social services, educated children, treated the wounded and fed the needy. Under impossible circumstances, the people who stood up against one of history’s most murderous regimes persist.

saleh-impossible-revolution-final-rgb-webYou would know none of this if your only window into the Syrian conflict is the western media or, worse, its Kremlin counterpart. Syria, for all one can tell from their coverage, is about ISIS atrocities, Al Qaeda gains, Coalition bombings, regime advances, Russian resurgence and CIA manoeuvres. It is a geopolitical chessboard in which Syrians are mere pawns, denied agency, except in violence; denied humanity, except in victimhood.  When earlier this week the UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte resigned over the Security Council’s inaction, she saw fit to add: “everyone in Syria is bad now”. She said this at a time the news of the execution of media activist Bassel Khartabil was becoming public, Idlib University was holding free elections, Saraqib and Eastern Ghouta were electing local councils and volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defence were risking lives to rescue victims of the regime’s relentless bombings. For del Ponte and her ilk, these people might as well not exist.

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Culture and Imperialism

A version of this first appeared in The National.

During the Cold War there was an attempt by both major powers to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises—but many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear, and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mendelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalized in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however are the means that the ‘free world’ used to engineer a favourable intellectual climate. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the west developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days relied on Ivy League recruits, often with backgrounds in the humanities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were seen as the ideal candidates to erode the seductive appeal of Soviet communism. They could counteract it through a strong anti-communist line that emphasized the western ideals of freedom and openness.

finks_cvfFinks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to enlist some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part literary history, part investigative journalism, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural offensive.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, a highly regarded literary publications best know for its series of interviews with literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Vladimir Nabokov, and fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Mathiessen, was working for the CIA and using the magazine as cover. George Plimpton, the Review’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially. This despite the fact that the Paris Review wasn’t even part of the large stable of magazine’s that CCF directly funded and controlled.

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