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Somewhere between RT and the NATO Institute for Advanced Truth, there has to be a better way.
In Dec 2016, I wrote in The Nation about my reservations with what was then uniformly referred to as “fake news,” expressing concern that the term had a zombie-like quality: something we all agreed we had to attack, but had little intellectual curiosity as to what we were attacking, how to define it, or how to manage the obvious edge cases—or how the term could be misused, lead to scope creep, and be exploited by powerful forces stateside to silence dissent. In a matter of weeks, we all vaguely agreed on combating “fake news,” but no one had bothered to define the term or have an honest debate about the potential perils of de-platforming content based on its “fakeness” quotient. Many of my concerns, I think, turned out to be entirely justified, and the hurried ideological policing in recent weeks shows what the then-emerging “anti disinformation” apparatus was set up to do.
Joseph Bernstein wrote a detailed breakdown of these contradictions and the ad hoc, power-serving tautologies of the “disinformation” universe for Harper’s Magazine last September. I won’t recap the findings, but it’s worth reading, and I will attempt here to express some parallel points given the swift and successful efforts by tech monopolies to delist and remove so called “disinformation” in recent weeks. I do have some personal thoughts on how this framework stymies healthy public debate.
Think tanks are information-war laundromats, and it’s silly to act like they’re not.
If one is curious why one never sees on Twitter or Facebook the label “U.S.-affiliated media,” it’s because, even setting aside carveouts for outlets directly funded by the U.S. government, like Voice of America, this isn't the manner in which U.S. and U.S.-allied governments’ knowledge production operates.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab is one of the most cited counter “disinformation” organizations in liberal media, curator of truth for Facebook, and hosts numerous researchers dedicated to seemingly benign campaigns like documenting QAnon and ostensibly combating fascists. The Atlantic Council is funded by many “foreign governments”—namely the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, each in the million-dollars-plus category. Its other state funders include Bahrain, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Sweden, Lithuania, Finland, Japan, and NATO itself—via the NATO Public Diplomacy Division and NATO StratCom Center of Excellence. This is not to mention the non-“foreign” U.S. State Department, U.S. Army, and U.S. Marines. Private funders, meanwhile, include military contractors Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Palantir. Founded in 1961 for the explicit purpose of promoting “Atlanticism,” military and cultural corroboration between the U.S. and Europe, the Atlantic Council is largely seen as a soft power arm of NATO. It’s funded by NATO, NATO governments, and NATO-aligned countries, western corporations, and arms dealers affiliated with NATO, and with rare exception produces content aligned with NATO’s strategic interests. (This isn’t to say there are zero disagreements among its employees, debates over a “no fly zone” in Ukraine being a recent and popular example. But staffers broadly toe the line on the basics of the so-called “liberal order,” and the general outline of the conflict.)
Yet zero percent of the Atlantic Council’s output—whether from its fellows, media appearances, media quotes, or published studies—are required to be disclosed on social media as “NATO affiliated” or “U.S.-affiliated” or “UAE-affiliated.” This is also true of countless other U.S. government and NATO-funded think tanks, from Center for a New American Security (CNAS), to Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), to New America Foundation. All of these institutions take millions from “foreign governments,” namely Gulf despots like UAE and Saudi Arabia, yet require no such disclosure.
If it seems like these disclosure rules are designed to sully Foreign Enemy media while promoting those funded and propped up by the U.S. and its allies, it’s because they are.
Those working for these organizations will say there’s a “firewall,” that the funding from NATO and Gulf monarchies and weapons contractors and western banks and corporations doesn’t influence their output. That their liberal posturing over “human rights” and cheesy, simplistic “western democracy versus the authoritarian orient” framing would animate their ideological output regardless of funding. Maybe, maybe not. But the whole point of disclosure is transparency so readers can make up their own minds. Why does laundering government funding through think tanks make the influence regime any less noteworthy? If Russia teamed up with the Chinese and Iranian governments and Russia, China and Iran-located corporations to fund “The Pacific Council” and they produced content that was 95 percent aligned with those countries’ geopolitical goals, would any thinking person argue against disclosure of the funders? Of course not.
After labeling came purging, an inevitable next step that maybe would have sparked a bit more outrage had platforms just begun doing this in 2017. But the process was slow and deliberate. All of RT’s content has been removed from Youtube, as has all Russian-funded media on Spotify. Facebook’s parent company Meta has altered its rules of conduct to allow both for the praising of anti-Russia neo-nazis in Ukraine, and calls for violence against Russians.
Meanwhile, U.S.-allied dictatorships Turkey and Saudi Arabia, responsible for their own respective criminal invasions and bombing campaigns, continue to fund their state media unmolested. Any pretense of neutrality in social media rules is simply gone, all of which was obvious back in 2017 when this slide into “anti-disinformation” began. I especially enjoyed this completely nonsensical statement from Eric Schmidt, then-executive chairman of Google parent company, Alphabet, Inc.:
“We’re not arguing for censorship, we’re arguing just take it off the page”
Same goes for online sock puppets. The vast majority of the articles we read about online disinformation are about sinister regimes—China, Venezuela, Russia, Iran—running dreaded “bots.” Reports from 2011 and since about the U.S. running similar programs have fallen into a memory hole. The hundreds of millions of dollars set aside since 2016 to fund the U.S. government to combat so-called online disinformation are rarely followed up on, even after a brief news cycle in 2019 detailing how the Trump administration used this “counter propaganda” apparatus to attack journalists deviating from the hard-right zionist line on Iran. But mostly, the idea of the U.S. engaging in sophisticated online persona management to influence social media discourse in an English or non-English context is virtually never discussed, nor the obvious epistemological limitation of “maybe the U.S. and its allies are so good at it, our savvy researchers simply can’t detect it,” despite evidence such programs existed and a specific mandate from Congress to engage in such activity. To the average reader, only Baddie Regimes engage in these nefarious tactics, and the U.S. is always left bumbling around in the dark looking for the light switch.
Money thrown around by dictatorships allied with the U.S. is not said to have any corrupting power. The Biden Administration is filled with high-level officials—including Sec. of State Anthony Blinken himself—who casually cycled through organizations that have financial relationships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and no one bats an eye.
Meanwhile, a cottage industry of Cold War media snitches posing as “anti-disinformation researchers” has emerged ready and willing to connect anyone to Russia, no matter how tangential. This mode of narc journalism has been perfected by tabloid The Daily Beast, which last week published a story about a Russian asset donating $59.95 to Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign. (It was so unconvincing, even fellow liberal Cold War outlet Mother Jones harshly criticized it.) In 2015, Daily Beast let former NATO press flack (and now “Global IO Threat Intel Lead” at Facebook parent Meta, via senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab) Ben Nimmo smear Jermey Corbyn as a Russian asset based on the flimsiest non-evidence, and vomited out nonstop Bernie-Russia connection articles from 2016 to 2020. In late February, it dutifully policed a progressive organization Gravel Institute for speaking out of line about neo-nazis in Ukraine. In late 2020, it “broke” a story about Russian assets allegedly sending pitches to progressive publications, pushed with a sensationalist headline heavily implying a Russia-far left alliance. Buried behind the paywall, Daily Beast coyly noted all the attempts failed, but the smear was the point and it did its job—which is to create a chilling effect to leftists: Be skeptical and paranoid about anonymous emails or accounts. A message must be sent to all leftwing publications and writers: Be aware of any connection to Russia—we will smear you on mere suspicion. Meanwhile, Daily Beast contributor and resident Biden flack David Rothkopf is literally a registered foreign agent for the UAE, a dictatorship that has on its books chemical castration for the crime of homosexuality, has no elections, has helped slaughter tens of thousands of Yemenis, and rounds up dissidents and journalists. But, despite raking in $800,000 a year in direct cash payment from the dictatorship, no such exposé from the Daily Beast will be forthcoming about its own contributor.
Of course, for the Bad Guys, direct connection isn’t even necessary: Vague messaging alignment is sufficient. Recently, the Democratic Socialists of America had one line of criticism of NATO in a whole statement justifiably condemning Putin multiple times, and the Washington Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times dispatched finger-wagging reportage to discipline the organization accordingly. Absolute, lockstep moral divisions about who is and isn’t the bad guy must be maintained.
It’s worth taking some time to discuss the Russian, Iranian, and Chinese media question. I appeared on RT once in 2015 when I first began writing at AlterNet. At the time I mainly saw it as another foreign news outlet—like Al Jazeera, or France 24. I knew it was going to reflect Moscow’s line given it was funded by Moscow, but it had done decent coverage of Occupy Wall Street and highlighted important topics like prison labor, albeit for non-idealistic reasons. RT had its obvious problems, but, in my mind, so did every major outlet.
After my appearance I stopped returning RT’s emails, largely because I had a weird feeling after doing the show. It was clear based on the nature of the questions they had zero ideological interest in the topic I was there to discuss—the criminalization of Black Lives Matter protests—but just wanted to vaguely make America look bad. Which I have no problem with per se, but it felt odd to simply bash the United States for the purposes of bashing it, rather than trying to fix it. It all seemed rather nihilistic, and in this sense I largely agree with the assessment that the goal of RT was to simply “sow discord.” But—and I still believe this—this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Nothing in the segment was untrue, and a subject important to me was discussed that I never saw covered by our alleged progressive networks like MSNBC.
But this excuse wasn’t good enough. Because “sowing discord” for RT also includes pushing anti-vax bullshit, providing racist immigration coverage, and platforming neo-nazis. Since my 2015 appearance, I’ve been careful to avoid Russian media because I don’t feel the Russian government, as an institution—and this may be the understatement of the decade—has any ideological commitments to the left. It uses the left to promote criticisms of NATO and further its own cynical interests. And while I have respect for much of the work of some of its past and present contributors—namely, Chris Hedges and Abby Martin—I think leftists and left-wing organizations taking funds from neoliberal governments that invade neighboring countries ought to be frowned upon, regardless of how much said leftists believe, correctly, that NATO is a reactionary and hostile institution. I don’t think it ought to be disqualifying—again, if it were, all major media outlets would be out of bounds for similar reasons. But it seems like a bad idea, if only because it undermines fair criticisms of our U.S. and NATO-funded media ecosystem and the attendant anti-“fake news” hall monitors. Indeed, it seems on any given day, half of my Twitter timeline is U.S.-backed or access-driven legacy media arguing with Russian-backed media over who is more venal and compromised. Now, a major difference is that RT and Russian media is, in relative terms, very small. The ratings for an average RT show were about one-third the size of an episode of Judge Judy, and the collective meltdown over it post-2016 was never close to proportionate to the actual deleterious effects, especially when compared to the fascist incitement of Fox News or the war-mongering of MSNBC, or the dozens of weapons contractor-funded think tanks curating discourse in Anglo-American media.
User-supported funding via Substack and Patreon has largely inculcated me from difficult questions of funding. Today, my biggest funders are “critic level” supporters of Citations Needed, or anyone giving $58 in an annual subscription to this substack—and for this I am blessed, and very much a rarity. I am not smug about this, and I don’t think government funding renders one’s output per se suspect. The issue of funding double standards isn’t meant to tarnish the reputation of any specific person working for either NATO or non-NATO-backed media, only to highlight the glaring inconsistency and selective nature of disclosures and our emerging definition of “disinformation,” which seeks to erase from the internet any media seen as receiving government funding from Baddie Countries, but makes exception for those receiving funding from U.S.-aligned countries as not only reliable sources, but themselves arbiters of who the non reliable sources are. VICE Media takes millions from Saudi Arabia, producing last April what was, in effect, an undisclosed commercial justifying Saudi Arabia’s continued bombing of Yemen in a war that has killed almost 400,000. And not only is it not required to disclose this glaring conflict, its newsroom is treated as an authority of tracking “Russian disinformation”. CNN takes millions from the UAE and does the same. None of this makes any sense. There’s no consistent application of labeling or de-platforming, and the only criteria that matters is whether or not particular reporting aligns with the messaging goals of Washington, London, and Brussels. This media landscape—where increasingly everyone echoes the same general foreign policy axioms, and anything that deviates too far from it is seen as suspect, “fake news,” or “disinformation”—impoverishes us in the long run. But mostly, it’s evidence of elite insecurity and a patronizing attitudes towards the media consumer.
If we want to build an anti-disinformation regime that consistently targets bad actors and discloses funding sources for everyone, I am absolutely all for it. But we don’t: We only do so in one direction, and it’s the direction that flatters the chauvinism of the so-called “West” and helps bloat its security budgets. This is not an anti-disinformation strategy—it’s a U.S.-led national security project aimed at curating information and snuffing out alternative narratives. And we should, at the very least, be honest about that.