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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Julian Assange Reveals: Holocaust Denier Is a Trusted ‘Friend’

Julian Assange barely even knows the far-right, Holocaust-denying Russian kook with six different names, the latest being “Israel Shamir.” That was the line in March 2011, per a statement from WikiLeaks, released amid what the head of the former transparency organization reportedly claimed was a Jewish-orchestrated campaign to smear him.

Israel Shamir has never worked or volunteered for WikiLeaks, in any manner, whatsoever. He has never written for WikiLeaks or any associated organization, under any name and we have no plan that he do so. He is not an ‘agent’ of WikiLeaks. He has never been an employee of WikiLeaks and has never received monies from WikiLeaks or given monies to WikiLeaks or any related organization or individual. However, he has worked for the BBC, Haaretz, and many other reputable organizations.

It is false that Shamir is ‘an Assange intimate’.

Months before, Julian Assange himself disputed this. In a letter from November 2010, just obtained by the Associated Press, the WikiLeaks founder wrote:

I, Julian Assange, hereby grant full authority to my friend, Israel Shamir, to both drop off and collect my passport, in order to get a visa, at the Russian Consulate, London.

A month later, Shamir would travel to Belarus, handing the pro-Russian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, U.S. diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks detailing America, interactions with Belarusian opposition figures, some of whom would end up arrested, or dead.

But we already knew Assange was intimately familiar with the odious Shamir; all one needed to do was read what those slandered as MSM smear-artists were reporting, credibly, at the time. For example, as former WikiLeaks staffer James Ball noted in a piece for The Guardian back in November 2011:

Shamir has a years-long friendship with Assange, and was privy to the contents of tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables months before WikiLeaks made public the full cache. Such was Shamir’s controversial nature that Assange introduced him to WikiLeaks staffers under a false name. Known for views held by many to be antisemitic, Shamir aroused the suspicion of several WikiLeaks staffers – myself included – when he asked for access to all cable material concerning “the Jews”, a request which was refused.

When questions were asked about Shamir’s involvement with WikiLeaks, given his controversial background and unorthodox requests, we were told in no uncertain terms that Assange would not condone criticism of his friend.

Assange would subsequently accuse his former colleague of making “libelous” accusations about him. But, despite electing to reside in Britain, rather than defend himself in Sweden from allegations of sexual assault, Assange did not take advantage of the country’s liberal defamation laws.

Thanks to a leak, we have a better idea why and further evidence that one should not blindly trust the public statements of political celebrities. The question now is not whether Assange is a serial liar prone to bouts of defamatory projection, but whether his friend, Israel Shamir, had an ulterior motive for providing U.S. cables to an ally of the Kremlin just weeks after the WikiLeaks founder had used him to request assistance from Russian officials.

The Ghouta Slaughter and Arab Responsibility

This article was first published at the New Arab.

AFP photoIn 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.

Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.

Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.

Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.

But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.

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Trump’s new war plan is an awful lot like the old one

Capture

The Trump administration has a new plan for the war in Syria, Spencer Ackerman reports for The Daily Beast, and it’s the same as the old one: bomb the hell out of the Islamic State and other extremists while not just leaving the greatest purveyor of violence there alone, but treating it as a de facto partner.

This is, for those following along, broadly the same plan that the previous U.S. administration pursued. Despite the Assad regime crossing President Barack Obama’s self-imposed “red line” in 2013, it wasn’t until a year later that the U.S. bombs began falling on the Islamic State and other extremists. The hereditary dictator and his forces were spared, and not for a lack of humanitarian justification, but because U.S. foreign policy elites had long before decided that a change in regime posed the greatest threat to perceived U.S. interests.

Leftists who embraced realists’ perverted version of anti-imperialism — support for dictators in the name of stability, not just when threatened by Western invasions but in the face of popular uprisings overlooked this thematically inconvenient war on terror and the new president’s repeated desire to escalate it. As late as last fall left-liberal pundits were continuing to gravely warn of a coming war, portraying better informed critics of the regime-change storyline as the warmongers even as they ignored the thousands of U.S. airstrikes those purported warmongers decried. The latter’s crime was decrying Syrian and Russian airstrikes, too, which is well established as the road to World War III.

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Glenn Greenwald Sides with the Deep State on Trump and Russia

When it was a race between a middling neoliberal and a neofascist buffoon, the way a certain sort of leftist with a social media presence chose to demonstrate their enviable, contrarian wisdom was to deride the former — while not endorsing the latter, mind you, but — for engaging in McCarthyist “red-baiting” against a right-wing authoritarian. It was accepted as self-evidently false, and laughably so, that the right-wing authoritarian in Moscow would seek to swing the U.S. election to an ally. Those positing that there was, in fact, something to the claim that the Russian state hacked the DNC (and selectively leaked what it found on behalf of the new Republican president) were either naively or cynically falling for a line put forward by shadowy and unelected Deep State operatives; leave it to liberals, the savvy leftist blogged, to find a way to side with the establishment against a billionaire.

Donald J. Trump defeating Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College, if not the popular vote, presented a new challenge: How to continue shitting on liberals as the most problematic threat, post November 8, at a time when an unhinged billionaire is about to get the nuclear launch codes? Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept’s approach: Keep acting like the (U.S.) Deep State that couldn’t stop Trump’s win is — I’m no supporter, but — seeking to undermine the legitimacy of a democratically elected leader, as (don’t you know) it’s done many times before, abroad. In this telling, news of Russian intervention continues to be self-evidently #FakeNews pushed by a media elite with known ties to The Agency, and the take serves a dual function: validating the absurd nonsense pushed during the election by Greenwald and his quasi-left fellow travelers, from Rania Khalek to Michael Tracey, that Trump was, relative to Killary, the candidate of peace — the man who, say what you will, didn’t want to start World War III on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Key to the argument that Trump is Salvador Allende and liberals (eyeroll) are being liberals (spit) by noting the CIA’s assessment Russia intervened in the U.S. election on the new president’s behalf is: ignoring the fact that 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI believe it did too, disagreement coming only on the question of whether the obviously selective leaks that had an obviously partisan impact were explicitly designed to help the man that, as one Russian communist told me, the entire Russian state media was promoting as the globe’s salvation. Greenwald, for instance, along with the boys of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, have long posited that there’s nothing to this hacking stuff; “neither the FBI nor the CIA is on board, at least publicly” blogger Ben Norton wrote last summer, lamenting coverage of the “Russia Hack Conspiracy.”

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