The frontier between legitimate political analysis and fake news in the US has never been easy to draw. Politicians and polemicists have attempted to impose the idea that only established corporate networks can be trusted to steer clear of fake news. Content on topics they consciously neglect to cover is written off as fake news.
Conversely, any idea, incident or minor fact — whether real or not — that appears to comfort officially approved talking points will easily be “confirmed” and employed as evidence to support the spoken or unspoken agenda of “respectable” media. Last week, American journalist Glenn Greenwald provided recent examples of the flagrant abuse of the notion of confirmation.
As storytellers, politicians and media presenters prefer to suggest simple links between real (and sometimes imaginary) effects and their probable causes. They believe that readers and listeners prefer simple narratives that confirm existing beliefs. This is a founding principle of the culture of hyperreality that pervades political news in the US.
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The public has begun to react. Increasingly, Americans realize that their news has become profoundly unreliable. A Pew survey published on August 31 revealed that 80% of Americans feel that the news is influenced by corporate and financial interests. Unfortunately, they lack the means and possibly also the curiosity to understand how that influence works.
Russiagate, a prime example of news pushed by the Democrats and “designed” by the corporate media four years ago, is still in the headlines. Reduced to its simplest form — a correspondence of cause and effect — the message is patently absurd. It requires maintaining the belief that so long as the Russian government has access to the internet, elections in the US will never be able to produce reliable results. Because both the Russian government and the internet will continue to exist for decades to come, democracy in the US is officially dead.
Some politicians, mainly Democrats, and their allied media outlets have an interest in promoting this belief. The New York Times has doggedly maintained a strategy of regularly presenting new evidence of activity by Russians with the aim of demonizing Russia as the unique source of content designed to undermine US democracy while conveniently ignoring all the others, including pervasive domestic tampering.
The most recent example appears in an article with the title, “Russians Again Targeting Americans With Disinformation, Facebook and Twitter Say.” Its authors, Sheera Frenkel and Julian E. Barnes, have found new evidence that “in April, Facebook removed a Russian-backed operation in Ghana and Nigeria that was targeting Americans with divisive content.” Like Satan himself, Russia is everywhere.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Any news item that calls into question the unparalleled goodness of the US political and economic system promoted by its two major political parties and suggests that it may be legitimate to contest the status quo
No rational being would doubt any of the following isolated facts:
- The internet is a global platform for communication and exchange
- People all over the world use internet tools called social media, especially Facebook and Twitter
- These two dominant platforms are US corporations
- Social media platforms thrive on participation from every corner of the globe
- The dominant platforms work within the tradition that sees freedom of expression as a political right derived from the US Constitution
- Freedom of expression opens the door to conspiracy theories, propaganda, fake news stories, deepfakes, doxing, stalking, cyberbullying, revenge porn, identity theft and other antisocial or criminal activities in the land of opportunity known as cyberspace
None of the facts cited above is controversial or even debatable. But there are subtler ones that are often hidden from observers’ attention. For example, this one never mentioned by the media: The people of all other nations, including Russians, are interested in US politics not just because they are curious about how another population manages its affairs, but also because those affairs have a dramatic impact on their own lives.
American media and Democratic politicians appear to consider foreign interest in US politics a violation of America’s political space. They are right to condemn any action that interferes directly with electoral processes. But using the communication tools available to all is not interference. Americans should be the first to recognize these forms of expression as examples of a modern skillset created and promoted by their own culture: marketing. It’s a science in which anything that falls short of breaking specific laws is legitimate.
Russian political leaders can express themselves in a variety of ways. So can the British, the Israelis, the Saudis or indeed any nation that cultivates explicit or subliminal marketing. Those leaders can use official government communication channels to proclaim policy and vision. They can pay for lobbyists in Washington. They can (and definitely do) use their intelligence networks to spread messages using legitimate and devious means. They can also simply encourage enterprising private citizens to further their explicit or implicit aims.
Random citizens of all nationalities — moved either by curiosity, personal concern, financial interest or loyalty to a government they identify with — can do the same thing. Individual Americans have done so in Hong Kong without necessarily being piloted by the CIA. This inevitably happens so long as freedom is not totally suppressed.
Those who represent established interests may deem this “divisive.” But it cannot reasonably be called manipulation of democracy or interference in electoral processes. The current global system of the internet is dominated by impressively wealthy private interests whose strategy is to encourage and reward any form of successful influence. The worm is at the core of the apple, not on its surface.
The Times article demonstrates the absurdity of its Russiagate campaign. Frenkel and Barnes write: “Researchers are also concerned about homegrown disinformation campaigns, and the latest Russian effort went to some lengths to appear like it was made in the United States. In addition to hiring American journalists and encouraging them to write in their own voices, the Peace Data website mixed pop culture, politics and activism to appeal to a young audience.”
The evil Russians are simply paying talented Americans banished from the mainstream by corporate money to speak in total sincerity. What could be more American? The Supreme Court established that “money is speech.” Russiagate is a predictable consequence of a system designed to reward anyone with cash to pay for content.
The media have begun constructing their preferred history of the latest Russian felon, a website called Peace Data. Defending the corporate monopoly on the news, The New York Times describes Peace Data as an example of “a more covert and potentially dangerous effort by Moscow” that uses “allies and operatives to place articles, including disinformation, into various fringe websites.”
The Times cites the testimony of one of Peace Data’s American authors, who explains that the website simply asked him to express his views as someone who “had frequently challenged whether Mr. [Joe] Biden represented the progressive values of the Democratic Party.” Can allowing Americans to express themselves be called manipulating electoral processes?
The funding of the website has been traced to Russia. But if the Russians didn’t create or even significantly edit the content, the fact that it is “divisive” simply reflects real divisions within US society. The source of division is none other than Biden’s policies, which many Americans banned from the corporate media happen to disagree with.
It should be noted that any publication is likely to run some form of disinformation. The Times itself does so consistently, never more egregiously than in its push to invade Iraq in 2003. Its Russiagate coverage for the past four years has simply maintained a longstanding tradition.
The seasoned journalist Joe Lauria deconstructs the Peace Data story in an article for Consortium News. Describing a website that “failed to gain significant traction,” he scoffs at “what the FBI calls a threat to American democracy.” In contrast, The Daily Beast decided to play the Russiagate game. Its article with the title, “She Was Tricked by Russian Trolls—and It Derailed Her Life” tells the story of a Peace Data author, Jacinda Chan. Only at the end of the piece do we learn that the supposed victim, a talented disabled woman, not only bears no grudge but rejects the Russiagate paranoia The Daily Beast is promoting: “To this day, Chan says she still doesn’t believe Facebook and the FBI’s investigations that show Peace Data was a front for Russia’s troll factory.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.