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Friday, July 31, 2020


Disinformation about "Disinformation" reaches new heights (or lows)

There has been so much disinformation about alleged "disinformation" attempts by Russia (in particular) as well as others like China, it's hard to single out any one campaign as worse or more non-substantive than the rest. But the New York Times and the Associated Press gave it a good try this week with an article headlined by the Times "Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Pandemic".

Note the categorical assertion in the headline. Not "Intelligence agencies say X" or "Sources: X", just "X". AP at least went that far with its "US officials: Russia behind spread of virus disinformation" headline, but even that, when you get one or two steps removed (e.g., on a TV news broadcast or on someone's post on Facebook or Twitter), quickly becomes "Russia is spreading virus disinformation". If you have any hope that the "US officials" qualifier will make readers remember that "US officials" also assured us (it was a "slam dunk") that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you. Americans' acceptance of statements by "US officials" remains undiminished.

The key "reveal" in these articles, which AP tells us "had previously been classified, but officials said it had been downgraded so they could more freely discuss it", is this: “United States intelligence reports have identified two Russians, Denis V. Tyurin and Aleksandr G. Starunskiy, with ties to the G.R.U. [what those "ties" are isn't specified] and who make sure the messaging and disinformation drafted by the intelligence officials are pushed by InfoRos ["a site controlled by the Russian government" per the NYT] and on InfoBrics.org and OneWorld.Press ["a nominally independent site that U.S. officials said had ties to the G.R.U.” per the NYT, again with no clue what those "ties" might consist of]. AP says that "Officials said they were doing so now to sound the alarm about the particular websites and to expose what they say is a clear link between the sites and Russian intelligence.” Of course this “clear link” is a case of “trust us” because we are given no information whatsoever to prove that link.

Ironically, The New York Times article was written by David Sanger, the Times' long-time "national security reporter". Can we describe him as having “ties to the CIA” who “makes sure that messaging and disinformation drafted by intelligence officials is pushed by the New York Times”? I’m pretty sure that would be accurate.

The second irony is the claim that "sounding the alarm about the particular websites". Who gets their news from InfoRos or OneWorld.Press or InfoBrics.org? No one I know, and I am a voracious consumer of multiple news sites as well as Twitter and Facebook. I had never even heard of any of these sites (but now I have, thanks to these articles!). What is the readership of these sites among Americans? The article doesn’t say. But we can get a clue by using Twitter search features. Surely if these sites have any effect whatsoever on American opinion, that will show up on Twitter.

On Twitter, I searched for tweets that appeared before July 27 (the day the NYT and AP articles appeared online), in English only, containing links to or mentions of the three sites. The results were eye-opening to say the least.

Searching for inforos.ru turned up these results:

The most recent tweet linking to inforos.ru was on June 16, more than a month ago. It had no likes and no retweets, and was from someone with just 563 followers. The pattern continued from there:

March 10, no likes, no retweets, 482 followers

April 18, one like, no retweets, someone with 261 followers

April 11, no likes, no retweets, 71 followers

April 1, no likes, no retweets, 76 followers

March 20, no likes, no retweets, 783 followers

Feb. 22, no likes, no retweets, 696 followers

Feb. 10, one like, no retweets, 26 followers

That’s it for 2020. Grand total: 8 tweets, 2 likes, 0 retweets, seen by a maximum of 2,958 people. Of the 8 tweeters (all different), none were clearly identified as Americans; the ones who were identified were from Slovakia, South Africa, and Finland. In other words, Americans aren’t even reading these sites.

And what about the tweets that did link to articles on inforos.ru? Not one qualifies even remotely as "disinformation". Here's an example: “Russian coronavirus vaccine to be tested on ferrets and primates”. I must admit I haven't actually researched this, but I feel confident that whoever wrote this article didn't make it up. Like this example, all the rest were straight news articles, not disinformation.

Searching for InfoBrics.org turns up a few more results, 27 for the month of July, an average of one per day. Not exactly a whopping number. Compare that the nytimes.com. I stopped counting at 250 links, and I hadn't gotten past July 26 — one day's worth of links (I tried one way of searching and got 41,500 links to the Times on July 26. I'm not sure that's correct, but it may be).

OneWorld.Press is the third site cited by the NYT. It is more popular; with 90 tweets citing it between July 1 and July 26, so around three per day (still not exactly a whopping number). There were a total of 76 retweets, fewer than one per tweet. To think that a site like this has actual influence is delusional. Donald Trump can tweet the most inane tweet and get a hundred thousand retweets!

It should be clear that the claim that U.S. intelligence agencies are making this information public to "sound the alarm about the particular websites" is completely bogus. As noted above, this "warning" has given those three websites vastly more exposure than they ever had by themselves. To view any of these sites as having the slightest influence on American public opinion is a joke. Which tells us that "sounding the alarm" wasn't the real motivation behind this story at all.

And what about the content of these sites? Even if no one is reading them, surely they contain "disinformation", right? Not really.

The articles single out OneWorld.Press for publishing an article entitled "The COVID-19 Plandemic Is An Experiment In Manipulating The World". It's an opinion article from someone with a fringe point of view. But it's not a Russian government point of view, and it's no more bizarre than Trump's claims. Without irony, the Times writes about this article: "Without evidence, OneWorld.Press claimed that the accusations about Russian intelligence’s propaganda efforts were being spread by officials who aimed to hurt President Trump’s re-election chances." What other explanation is there? As noted above, it surely isn't to "sound the alarm" about websites no one even knew existed. It's these articles that are the real story, not the articles they're writing about.

And how influential was this article? Exactly two people tweeted it out, one living in the U.K. and one living in Russia; one got no likes and no retweets, the other got seven likes and three retweets. How influential? Not influential. So the AP and NYT have now given it a million times more exposure than it ever had!

We're told that “InfoRos published an article, also published by Tass news agency, that said the United States was using the pandemic to impose its view of the world.” But this was simply an article describing a speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:

“"We have to state that even in the conditions of a pandemic, our American colleagues and their allies do not abandon their attempts to escalate confrontation, to use the current situation to impose their point of view, their vision of world order, which they call an order based on rules. As you know, they invent the rules themselves," Lavrov said. He noted that the US increases pressure on the countries who lead an independent foreign policy as well as criticizes the World Health Organization (WHO). "We hear baseless accusations against the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. The calls to suspend unilateral sanctions for the period of the fight against the coronavirus, sanctions that hinder humanitarian deliveries of medicine, equipment and goods, are being ignored," the minister explained.”
Even if Lavrov were lying or spreading misinformation (he isn't in this case), an article about what he said would not constitute disinformation, any more than the daily articles repeating Donald Trump's latest lies and misinformation would.

How influential was that article? This article was linked in a grand total of 11 tweets, which got a total of 15 retweets. How influential? Not influential.

Finally, we're told that “InfoBrics.org published reports about Beijing’s contention that the coronavirus was originally an American biological weapon.” The headline of that article claims that "Beijing believes COVID-19 is a biological weapon", which is false, but happens to be a claim that has been repeated in multiple places in the U.S. press (and been repeated by U.S. politicians). It talks about “The recent statement by the Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian, formally accusing the US of bringing coronavirus to China.” This must be the most mis-referenced tweet in history, because I have been this claim repeated countless times. What Lijian actually tweeted was this [emphasis added]: “When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” This is not even remotely a "contention that coronavirus was an American biological weapon". So unlike the other two linked articles, this one is indeed misinformation. But again, misinformation that has been repeated, possibly even originated, right here in the U.S. And no worse than the similar misinformation, also widespread and repeated by American media and politicians, that the virus was a biological weapon created in a Chinese laboratory.

How influential was that article? Exactly two tweets linked to it, one from a man with 1195 followers who tweets in German and another from a Turkish journalist with 540 followers; between them there were seven retweets. It's unlikely any American ever even saw these tweets or that article.

And, to be clear, although this particular article did in fact qualify as misinformation, it is by no means representative of the material which appears on Infobrics.org, which is straight news reporting mixed with analysis that focuses on the actions of the BRICS countries. The lead articles as I write this (July 31) are headlined "Russia Offers to Supply Anti-Covid Drugs to India", "Russia Delivers Second S-400 Systems to China Amid Flaring Tensions With The US", and "India, Russia to Fund Joint R&D in Renewable Energy." Analysis articles include such things as "Will Hezbollah seek revenge against Israel?" and "Pompeo has signalled the start of a new Cold War with China". No disinformation to be seen anywhere.

I noted above the comparison with the influence of Donald Trump, not just with his tweets but with extensive coverage of his every utterance (and tweet!) by mainstream news sources, both broadcast and print. Russia, for example, has been accused of trying to "weaken faith in American democracy". Really? Is there anything they could do, overtly or covertly, that would have the tiniest fraction of the influence of Donald Trump's assault on mail-in voting, just to name one area?

And as an illustration of that, facing the article described above on the New York Times home page was an article with this headline and subhead: "Misleading Virus Video, Pushed by the Trumps, Spreads Online. Social media companies took down the video within hours. But by then, it had already been viewed tens of millions of times."

Tens of millions of times. So again, if Russian intelligence agencies really wanted to push disinformation on the pandemic, is there anything they could do they could remotely compare to that? Of course not. And instead, we get links to articles, allegedly (with no proof provided) produced by those Russian intelligence agencies, on sites which no one has ever heard of, which got exactly two tweets to mention it.

It's important to note the role of the Times and AP here. They were fed this story by the intelligence agencies. But they were the ones who chose to run with it. Neither chose to examine the nature of these sites, and to note, as I have above, that these are almost completely unknown sites with little to no readership in the U.S., and whose articles have almost no presence on social media. Neither really examined the articles in question, or the sites in general, as I have above, to note the completely bogus nature of the claims made by the intelligence agencies. Even if the underlying claim by the intelligence agencies ("two Russians with ties to the GRU are feeding stories to some media outlets") is correct, and we have absolutely no way of knowing if that's true, the efforts of these two people isn't having the slightest effect in the United States, and this would still be a non-story. Instead, it's headline news in major media outlets, helping to exacerbate tensions between the U.S. and Russia, in turn helping to justify spending a billion dollars a year on war. And also helping (however admirable the motive might be) to undermine Trump because "Russia" is doing something bad (allegedly, of course) and Trump isn't doing anything about it (just like the completely unproven "Russia is paying the Taliban bounties to kill Americans" story).

So this story does not just tell us about the intelligence agencies, it tells us about American journalists as well. Are they just poor journalists, or are they willing, even eager, collaborators with the intelligence agencies? I'll leave that judgment to the reader.

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