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Try This Game to Evaluate Levels of Disinformation in Times of War

Victoria Nuland has raised a factual issue that may help us understand how to navigate propaganda.
US politics news, American politics news, American news, Victoria Nuland news, Nuland news, Marco Rubio latest news, Russian news, Ukraine war news, Russia news today, Peter Isackson

Victoria Nuland in Kyiv, Ukraine on 5/16/2015. © Flash-ka / Shutterstock

March 14, 2022 14:34 EDT

Although during her three-decade-long career as a US Foreign Service officer Victoria Nuland has done many things, mostly in the shadows, she has had two moments that projected her into the headlines, both related to crucial events in Ukraine. It is worth noting that on both of those occasions, her superiors expected her to remain in the shadows. In other words, it is merely by chance that she has now become a household name in US foreign policy.

Nuland has loyally served every administration, Democrat and Republican, since Bill Clinton, with a single exception. Donald Trump most likely refused to exploit her acquired competence on the grounds that she had been tainted by working for Barack Obama’s State Department under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Or perhaps Trump felt she had become too embedded in the culture of the deep state he claimed to abhor.

A Fictional Debate Between a Biden Administration Spokesman and a Journalist


Nuland’s closest direct collaboration with a luminary of American politics occurred between 2003 and 2005 when she held the position of principal deputy foreign policy advisor to Vice-President Dick Cheney. That enabled her to hone her skills as an aggressive agent of US power while playing an influential role in promoting the Iraq War. After that stint, she became George W. Bush’s ambassador to NATO. In January 2021, President-elect Joe Biden named her under secretary of state for political affairs, the fourth-ranking position in the State Department.

According to Foreign Policy, who quotes Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Nuland “has a high degree of self confidence and an absolute dedication to working for the administration she is working for, whatever administration that is.” In other words, she is a reliable tool of anyone’s policy decisions, however generous, cynical or perverse they may be. That is what she proved when sent to Kyiv in February 2014 to pilot the operations around the peaceful protests that were then taking place that the State Department judged could then, with the appropriate level of management, be turned into a revolution.

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The hacked recording of a phone call between the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and Nuland sealed the otherwise discreet diplomat’s place in history. In the recording, Nuland’s voice can be heard giving Pyatt orders about who the United States had selected to be Ukraine’s new prime minister. Countering Pyatt’s suggestion of the popular former boxer, Vitali Klitschko, Nuland selected Arseniy Yatsenyuk. After the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country and Yatsenyuk struggled to lead a new government, an anti-Russian billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, won the presidency in September 2014. He immediately appealed to the Obama administration for military assistance to counter Russia, but President Obama kept him at bay, reasoning that “Ukraine is a core interest for Moscow, in a way that it is not for the United States.”

In other words, not only did the CIA work to overthrow the elected president, Yanukovych, but Nuland managed to manipulate Ukrainian politics from within and thus contribute to what was to evolve into a notoriously corrupt regime under Poroshenko. At the same time, her commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, chose to limit the US involvement in Ukraine by defining a prudent arm’s length relationship with the fiasco that was unfolding, even after Russia seized Crimea from the Ukrainians.

Back in the News in 2022

The events around the 2014 Maidan revolution provided the only occasion for the general public to become aware of Nuland’s name until last week when she appeared before the Senate where Florida Senator Marco Rubio questioned her about the current situation in Ukraine. That exchange should have been routine, but Rubio felt it was important to use Nuland’s testimony to refute accusations by Russia and China that the US was funding the development of chemical weapons in laboratories in Ukraine

Nuland could have simply denied that any such laboratories existed and Rubio would have been satisfied. Instead, she uncomfortably explained not only that “biological research facilities” exist, but that the State Department is worried the Russians might effectively gain control of the labs, creating the risk of “research materials … falling into the hands of the Russian forces.” Some attentive observers deduced that the worry Nuland expressed concerned the possible revelation of illicit research funded and encouraged by the United States.

The scandal that exploded after this exchange provoked two reactions. The first was a firm and over-the-top denial by the Biden administration. It was accompanied by a defensive counter-accusation claiming somewhat absurdly that the Russians were only making the accusation to cover up their own intention to use chemical weapons against Ukraine. The second more serious reaction was Rubio’s attempt to clarify the ambiguity of Nuland’s revelation by interrogating Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns.

Rubio counted on Haines not to make the same mistake as Nuland. Clearly, he expected her to give just enough perspective to dismiss any suspicions that the US may be involved in illegal military research. Claiming that “the best way to combat disinformation is transparency,” to make sure Haines would understand the type of response he hoped to hear to dispel the negative effect of Nuland’s testimony, Rubio spent three full paragraphs framing his question and insisting “it’s really important … to understand what exactly is in these labs.” Haines offered this astonishing response: “I think medical facilities — that I’ve been in as a child, done research in high school and college — all have equipment or pathogens or other things that you have to have restrictions around because you want to make sure that they’re being treated and handled appropriately. And I think that’s the kind of thing that Victoria Nuland was describing and thinking about in the context of that.”

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Haines tells Rubio not what she knows but what she “thinks,” a verb she uses three times in two sentences. What she describes is nothing more than a subjective memory from her personal past and a vague generalization about medical security. It contains zero information of any kind. The next part of her answer, concerning nuclear power plants, is not only irrelevant but also a vague generalization about the possibility of “damage … or theft.” Her answer clarifies nothing. But Rubio is satisfied and concludes with three words: “All right, thanks.”  

In his subsequent questioning of CIA Director Burns, Rubio takes four paragraphs to frame his question, again intended to clarify Nuland’s testimony. In the last two paragraphs, however, he veers away from the question of Nuland’s revelation and instead asks Burns about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy concerning negotiations. Burns jumps on the opportunity to avoid answering the initial question about the Ukrainian biolabs. From Rubio’s point of view, the case is closed.

Growing Curiosity Outside the Circles of Power

Whereas most news outlets were happy to repeat the Biden administration’s adamant denials that any kind of biochemical research was taking place in Ukraine, various commentators, including Glenn Greenwald, picked up the issue and raised further questions. Greenwald took the time to remind his public of the troubling precedent of the anthrax attacks following 9/11 in 2001. Only months after killing five people did Americans learn that the anthrax originated in the Fort Detrick military lab in Maryland and not in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. (I have written elsewhere on Fair Observer about my own interrogations and investigation of that affair.)

Nuland’s testimony was seriously embarrassing. Rubio’s follow-up failed to put the scandal to bed. It was time for the White House to go into full denial mode. Predictably, presidential Press Secretary Jan Psaki stepped up with the intent to kill all debate by peremptorily tweeting: “This is preposterous. It’s the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years in Ukraine and in other countries, which have been debunked, and an example of the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent.”

We may be justified in asking whether, in times of armed conflict, anything is more preposterous — and indeed more dangerous — than seeking to kill debate on a serious topic that might permit a better understanding of the context of the war. The refusal of debate would be especially preposterous concerning a war in which one’s own nation is theoretically not involved. (In reality, the Ukraine War is a showdown between the United States and Russia.) But now that fighting on the ground is real, preposterous discourse of any kind from either side becomes dangerous as the perspective of using weapons of mass destruction, either chemical or nuclear, has clearly become part of the equation. Since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the prospect of nuclear war has never been so evident.

In this case, unfounded speculation about evil intentions cannot be considered an appropriate response. After all, the Russian contention expressed at the United Nations that the Ukrainian “regime is urgently concealing traces of a military biological program that Kiev implemented with support of the US Department of Defense” was at least partially confirmed by Nuland in her response to Rubio. It was met at the UN by a simple denial: “Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program. There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States — not near Russia’s border or anywhere.”

The Russian accusation, citing purported facts, should require at least a consideration of those facts rather than a blanket denial or a counter-accusation. Nuland never walked back her statement. Haines mentioned only what she “thinks” and Burns was spared even answering the question.

Psaki is nevertheless right to bring to the public’s attention the criterion of preposterousness. That is something worth focusing on in times of massive propaganda. Reading the news in all the legitimate press today, it should be clear that, as always, preposterousness becomes the dominant feature of public discourse in times of conflict. Psaki’s tweets themselves are wonderful examples of preposterous blathering.

A Game for Spectators in Times of War

It may be time to propose an instructive game for anyone interested in paring down the level of preposterousness in public discourse and even news reporting. Anyone can play the game, but it requires forgetting about the beliefs and reflexes our various authorities expect us to acquire.

The game simply consists of ranking, on a scale of one to 10 in terms of the degree of apparent preposterousness, any official statement or authoritative-sounding opinion made about the conflict, whether pronounced by political authorities or the news media. In other words, it requires accepting as a default position that every simple assertion one sees or hears is as likely as not to be preposterous. 

The first criterion is to weigh the amount of emotional force in the assertion in relation to informational content. If emotion is clearly present and dominant, three or more points should be added to the potential preposterousness score.

The inclusion of some authentic context, real information, can, on the other hand, make the proposition potentially less preposterous, bringing the score proportionately back down. The score can be improved by the inclusion of serious context, including facts drawn from historical background, reducing the level of preposterousness. On the other hand, citing purported trends from the past, what are presented as reflexive patterns of behavior or supposed “playbooks” will add points, pushing the preposterousness level further upward. A simple denial or the categorizing an opposing comment as “disinformation” will add two or more points to the preposterousness.

An important consideration is the identity of the source of the statement. If the author of the proposition is clearly associated with one or the other of the two opposing sides, five points will be added to the level of perceived preposterousness. Those points can only be reduced by the citation of facts. Neutral sources, unaffiliated with one side or the other, receive no preposterousness points but they may still say preposterous things. 

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This neutral or non-neutral identity of the source can become complicated by other considerations, some of which may themselves prove preposterous. For example, anyone aware of the track record on controversial events of Glenn Greenwald, cited above, knows that he has no loyalty to either Vladimir Putin or Joe Biden. That fact can be easily proved. But because he is American and criticizes American leaders and pundits who demonize Russia, some preposterously believe he is favorable to Putin. This phenomenon of seeing nuance as opposition is a direct consequence of a longstanding trend in US culture that consists of believing that those who are not for us (i.e., those who do not automatically endorse all our actions) are against us.

Another important rule of the game is that an identical counter-accusation, of the kind Psaki has made, should automatically add six points to the preposterousness index. In some cases, the counter-accusation may be true, so it cannot be assumed to be totally preposterous. If that can be established, some of the points can be canceled. The reason for adding so many points for an identical counter-accusation is simple. It is almost always an attempt not to clarify but to avoid addressing the evidence that exists. It goes beyond simple denial, which is worth only two or three points at best. A truthful counter-accusation should be accompanied by some form of concrete evidence other than vaguely reputational. If not, the six points should stand.

Another rule is that citing sources for whom the suspicion of preposterously lying has become part of a standard mindset merits two supplementary points of preposterousness. This is a standard trick of lawyers in criminal cases who conduct research to impugn a witness who may have lied on another occasion. They want the jury to believe that lying on one occasion means lying on all occasions. Case dismissed.

Two other significant factors of preposterousness that often go together are, first, the attempt to account for the psychology of the adversary by reducing to a particular (and generally ignoble) cause, and, secondly, predicting bad behavior to come. This last is often a clever gamble to the extent that the predictor may have some ability to provoke the predicted bad behavior. Depending on the odds, such predictions are worth two to four points. 

Finally, repetition of stereotypes — often cited accusations or memes built up by past propaganda to provoke a predictable reflex in the public — may be worth from three to five points, depending on the status of the stereotype in the ambient culture.

Those are the basic rules. Now, let’s look at a practical example to see how the game can be played. Jan Psaki provided another tweet that can serve that purpose: “Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern.”

Psaki has accomplished a lot in this tweet to achieve a high score in preposterousness. “False claims” and “propaganda” are gratuitous assertions that need to be supported by evidence, which she has no intention of providing. This indicates the presence of a strong emotion of indignation. Citing China is an example of discrediting anything a witness has to say as being unreliable. The suggestion of being “on the lookout” appeals to the reflex of fear. The “false flag” accusation repeats a meme that has occurred so often in recent weeks that it deserves being compared to the boy crying wolf.

And finally, Psaki uses the idea of a “pattern,” with the intention of making the public believe there is no reason to explore the facts, since the discourse is a simple repetition of predictable behavior. 

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Psaki has a reputation for making preposterous statements sound reasonable, unlike, for example, Donald Trump’s former spokesperson, Kelly-Anne Conway, who excelled in sounding preposterous. In all fairness to Psaki, the state of war she is commenting on admits of so much ambiguity and uncertainty, even concerning basic facts, that the preposterousness level of her tweet should not be considered to have attained the maximum of 10;  seven or eight may be a more fitting appraisal.

Other Applications of the Game

Those interested in this game might try applying it to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest stab at being preposterous on the same issue in this clip from Sky News. In videos like this, body language and speech cadences can add a significant element to the score, two factors that became evident to observers in the Nuland hearing. 

Of course, the same game can be played with Russia’s or any other country’s official discourse. War is not only an assault on people, infrastructure and property. It is always an assault on dialogue, curiosity and truth itself. Commenting on the “1984” communication atmosphere that we are now subjected to, Matt Taibbi notes that a “healthy person should be able to be horrified by what’s happening in Russia and also see a warning about the degradation that ensues from using “pre-emptive” force, or from trying to control discontent by erasing expressions of it.” Preposterous statements are just one way of disqualifying and erasing discontent. They may also seek to stir up the kinds of emotions that could trigger a nuclear war.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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