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Sunday, August 29, 2021


Disinformation (unpublished letter to Harvard Magazine)

Harvard Magazine ran an article on disinformation in its previous issue which prompted a lengthy response from me. The latest issue features a number of published letters to the editor in response, with even more letters online, but none of them were mine. It probably was too long for publication, but at the very least I can publish it here:

To the Editor (yourturn@harvard.edu):

“Can Disinformation Be Stopped” (July-August, p. 28) provides an interesting discussion of who or what is most responsible for spreading disinformation, but it fails to discuss the key question — who determines just what is disinformation? Joan Donovan, for example, suggests that Facebook et al. should be “required to provide important news to their users.” Would that have included “news” back in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, perhaps the most consequential case of disinformation in the last century, one that led to the deaths of an estimated million people? After all, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the United Nations that "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

But that was a bald-faced lie, deliberate disinformation. Powell certainly knew it at the time, since he was reliably reported to have said about at least some of the material, “I'm not reading this. This is bullshit," and to have removed "dozens of pages" of alleged evidence. And U.S. intelligence services knew it at the time, since we also know that the German intelligence services had told them before Powell’s speech at the U.N. that President Bush had mischaracterized Curveball's information [sic] when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories brewing biological poisons.

There were those of us at the time, including this writer, who warned at the time that what we were hearing was deliberate disinformation. But the “mainstream consensus” was that the case for WMD was a “slam-dunk”, so according to Donovan, Facebook would have been required to inform its users of that, and, going further, should have suppressed the countervailing view with “selective silence.”

“Selective silence” also happens to be one of the least recognized, but just as insidious, form of disinformation, something I have called “Fake News By Omission,” the idea that not telling people about something that is true misinforms them about reality just as much as telling them something that isn’t true (“Fake News”). An excellent example of this occurred after the 2019 Presidential elections in Bolivia. Evo Morales won the election, but his opposition cried fraud, based on a Trump-style claim that votes that were counted later were different than votes that were counted earlier and hence prima facie proof of “fraud” (and here, it wasn’t even a case of his opponent winning, just of whether Morales’ plurality was or was not 10 points higher than his nearest opponent). With the OAS and U.S. government backing the opposition, the military carried out a coup, forcing Morales out of the country and putting the ultra-right wing Jeanine Añez into power, a change which had profound effects on the subsequent history of Bolivia (but fortunately was recently reversed with the election of Luis Arce).

Where does “Fake News by Omission” come in? Because shortly after the election, the respected Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) conducted a detailed statistical study proving that there was nothing anomalous about the election results whatsoever, just the normal outcome of a system where, e.g., rural results come in later than urban ones. But that study got the silent treatment from the American mass media, and the coup took place. Four months later, after the coup was firmly entrenched, the Washington Post carried out its own study which corroborated the results of the CEPR study.

And an almost identical scenario is unfolding in Peru. That election, which took place three weeks ago as I write this, saw leftist Pedro Castillo winning with a majority of votes, and, once again, his opponent making Trump-like fraud claims based solely on the change in percentages as the counting proceeded, a perfectly normal scenario. And three weeks after the election, both the New York Times and the Washington Post are practicing “selective silence”. Neither has yet reported Castillo’s victory in its news pages, opening up the possibility of the U.S. government supporting a coup should one happen, with most Americans completely unaware of Castillo’s victory.

Another aspect of disinformation omitted from the article is its role as a tool of the U.S. government in demonizing our supposed “enemies”, just as in the extreme case of Iraq back in 2003. In the most recent case, the U.S. government seized (thereby shutting down) 36 websites associated with the government of Iran, including the English-language website of a completely conventional news outlet, PressTV, accusing them of spreading “disinformation”. Of course PressTV presents news from the point of view of the Iranian government, just as not only the Voice of America but also CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every other “mainstream” news outlet presents news from the point of view of the U.S. government. That doesn’t make it “disinformation” and, in fact, if one reads the DNI report on which this seizure was based, there’s not even a claim that any disinformation was spread by these websites. So here we have the U.S. government spreading disinformation that PressTV and other Iranian sites were spreading disinformation. Will that disinformation be suppressed by Facebook (or by the New York TImes or Washington Post)? Of course not, because it’s U.S. government-endorsed (and, in this case, originated) disinformation.

We have another perfect example of the complexity of this issue ongoing right now. Months ago, when Donals Trump was still President, the news media treated the “Wuhan lab escape” theory of COVID-19’s origin as a conspiracy theory that needed to be (and was) suppressed. Suddenly we find that theory all over the media, not because any significant new information has come to light, but because the theory has now become useful to the U.S. government as part of its developing new Cold War against China.

The subject of disinformation is complex, and inherently political, and ignoring that complexity and that political aspect gets us nowhere.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020


"Russian bounties" story falls apart

 At the end of June, headlines in the New York Times reported a bombshell: "Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says". Make no mistake, though, this wasn't really a Times' story, it was a CIA press release disguised as a news story. Literally the only original reporting in the story was the Times asking the DoD, Russia and the Taliban for comment (the last two denied it vigorously).

That story quickly made its way to all other media, and just as quickly, the "intelligence says" part was forgotten and it became a simple truth promoted by media and Democrats as well — "Russia paid bounties." From there, and just as quickly, the story became "why didn't Trump do something about it?"; indeed, a Lincoln Project ad on that theme appeared just days after the initial New York Times story.

From the start, that story was suspect, despite the way it became "truth". For starters, there was the timing. Just a month before, Trump had announced plans for a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan by election day. The appearance of this story shortly thereafter was likely not a coincidence, and indeed, that presumed motivation for the leak became reality as Democrats, working with Liz Cheney, pushed through an amendment to the NDAA which made it harder to Trump to withdraw troops.

Secondly, the story was suspect because it didn't make sense. The Taliban had been at war with, and killing, U.S. forces for 19 years. They hardly needed "bounties" from Russia to continue that war and that killing.

Thirdly, it quickly became known that the NSA, arguably the most unbiased of the intelligence agencies, "strongly dissented" from the conclusion of other intelligence agencies. And even without that dissent, if you looked at the actual evidence which was made public, it was thin gruel indeed.

That "Russian bounties" was a sketchy (at best) story was obvious to at least some people at the time, among them, myself. On both my July 2 and July 10 appearances on Loud & Clear, I spoke about the subject.

And now, two and a half months after the initial story, two and a half months in which "Russian bounties" has continued to be a "fact" as opposed to an accusation, two and a half months in which "Trump did nothing" became one of the weapons in Democrats' (otherwise completely justified) attacks on Trump, the other shoe has dropped:

"Two months after top Pentagon officials vowed to get to the bottom of whether the Russian government bribed the Taliban to kill American service members, the commander of troops in the region says a detailed review of all available intelligence has not been able to corroborate the existence of such a program.

""It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me," Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told NBC News. McKenzie oversees U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. continues to hunt for new information on the matter, he said.

""We continue to look for that evidence," the general said. "I just haven't seen it yet. But … it's not a closed issue."

"McKenzie's comments, reflecting a consensus view among military leaders, underscores the lack of certainty around a narrative that has been accepted as fact by Democrats and other Trump critics, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has cited Russian bounties in attacks on President Donald Trump."
Interestingly, neither the New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN has yet covered McKenzie's remarks. Only The Hill, the National Review, RT and Sputnik have reported the story (in addition to the original story from NBC News).

Friday, August 28, 2020


Headlines for Aug. 28, 2020


Click here to listen to this week's segment on Loud & Clear Radio.  
Headlines with an * are the ones we managed to fit in in our allotted time slot.

Worst, Most Misleading & Funniest Headlines for August 28, 2020

*William Shatner rails against Space Force officer ranks in op-ed


Captain Kirk insists space commanders are “Captains”, not “Colonels”!

*Bucks boycott Game 5 of NBA playoff series to protest social injustice

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/08/26/bucks-boycott-nba-playoff-game/ [Headline since changed, but still avoiding the word “strike”]

*Led by N.B.A., Boycotts Disrupt Pro Sports in Wake of Blake Shooting


*What we know and don't know about the boycotts that stopped sports


Boycotts are done by customers withholding their money; when employees (workers) withhold their labor, it’s called a strike, or in this case, really a wildcat strike. BBC calls it a “walkout” which is also ok.

*Natalie Harp said Trump saved her life. Experts doubt that’s true.


False headline. Accurate headline based on the article: “That’s not true.” There’s no doubt about it, and no “experts” are needed to say so.

Two months before Trump even signed the law, Harp had already spoken online about receiving her new treatment. Medical experts say such applications — called “off-label use” — are common in cancer treatment and long predated the law. Right To Try, on the other hand, was supposed to help patients gain access to drugs that have not been “approved or licensed by the FDA for any use.”

*Postal service battles could also mean delays for those second $1,200 stimulus checks


What $1200 checks? Even the subhead acknowledges: “…crucial deliveries Americans are counting on. That could include a second round of stimulus checks, if Congress authorizes them.”

*Merkel Demands Kremlin Answer After Poison Found in Navalny


Bloomberg can’t keep their story straight. The video’s title says “Poison found in Navalny” but even the subtitle says he was “likely poisoned”; no poison has been “found”. They have found symptoms which suggest poisoning, but eight days later no poison has been identified.

*A Dictatorship in Belarus Is Shaken


Lukashenko has been elected multiple times & by all accounts at least until recently he was quite popular. Despite this, NYT (& others) call him a “dictator”. Jeanine Añez seized power in a military coup; NYT calls her “Bolivian President” or “interim President”. Never dictator.

*Belarus opposition candidate flees to Lithuania amid crackdown on election protests


Article also claims she “was forced out of the country”, but there’s no evidence for either description. She left, voluntarily, without making any claim of being threatened.

*Putin: Russian forces ready to enter Belarus to end protests


It’s not “Russian forces”, meaning military, it’s Russian police. I realize that US cops are more militarized than most armed forces, but that’s not true of cops everywhere.

*With a mix of covert disinformation and blatant propaganda, foreign adversaries bear down on final phase of presidential campaign


“Bear down” (meaning “step up”) implies an escalation of activity; there is zero evidence in this article any such thing is happening.

“At least three countries — Russia, China and Iran — have taken aim at the campaigns themselves and tried to stir the passions of voters, with a mix of covert “information laundering” and some ham-handed propaganda.”

Here’s one line from the article: “Whereas China will often use stolen social media accounts with random followers or bots that have no followers at all…”

Republicans shatter norms by using government roles during political convention


Those weren’t just “norms” being shattered, they were laws.

*As Politicians Clashed, Bolivia’s Pandemic Death Rate Soared


It wasn’t “clashing politicians” that was the problem, it was a right-wing U.S.-supported coup government that is the problem. Here’s how the NYT describes that coup: “But its ability to respond was undermined by a contested election that led to the ouster in November of the then-president, Evo Morales, a socialist. An interim president, Jeanine Añez, a conservative, stepped in with a promise to govern until elections could be held.”

*Wearing a neck gaiter may be worse than no mask at all, researchers find


Yeah, no.

*Save the Gaiters!


“Both gaiters [single layer and double layer] prevented 100 percent of very large, 20-micron droplets from splattering another foam head just 30 centimeters away. Both masks blocked 50 percent or more of one-micron aerosols. The single layer gaiter blocked only 10 percent of 0.5-micron particles, while the two-layer gaiter blocked 20 percent. Notably, when the single-layer gaiter was doubled, it blocked more than 90 percent of all particles measured. By comparison, a homemade cotton T-shirt mask, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blocked about 40 percent of the smallest particles.”

KFC suspends its 'finger lickin' good' slogan because of coronavirus


Not The Onion

Friday, August 14, 2020


Headlines for Aug. 14, 2020


Click here to listen to this week's segment on Loud & Clear Radio.  
Headlines with an * are the ones we managed to fit in in our allotted time slot.



Worst, Most Misleading & Funniest Headlines for August 14, 2020

*Enhanced unemployment would continue at $400 per week under new Trump executive order

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/10/enhanced-unemployment-would-continue-at-400-per-week-under-trump-executive-order.html [Monday, 1:22 pm]

Should have read “Trump executive order cuts enhanced unemployment to $400/week”

*Trump’s proposed extra unemployment could amount to $300 a week instead of $400, and you may not qualify

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/10/extra-unemployment-could-be-300-a-week-and-you-may-not-qualify.html [Monday, 4:45 pm]

Trump’s order says recipients would have to collect at least $100 weekly in other unemployment insurance to qualify for the extra federal benefits.

Additionally, states would need to chip in 25% ($100) of the $400 weekly extra.

States could count the first $100 they pay in unemployment benefits toward their share, thereby reducing the total extra amount to $300.

*Waiting on that extra $400 unemployment benefit? Here’s what we know so far

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/13/waiting-on-that-extra-400-unemployment-benefit-heres-what-we-know.html [Thursday]

Days later they’re still pushing the $400 figure!

*Trump says open schools. Teachers say safety first. As cases rise, unions may win.


How about “students may win”? Or “sanity will prevail”?

*A ‘radical’ leftist who is ‘against God’? Trump paints Biden in a picture many don’t recognize.

Subhead on web: The president has concocted a profile of the presumptive Democratic nominee at odds with much of Joe Biden’s personal and professional life.


Who are these people who think Biden is a “radical leftist” who is “against God”? Even Trump doesn’t really believe it. And “much of”? Which part of Biden’s life fits that profile?

How TikTok and ByteDance could be using — and abusing — user data


“Could be”.

“they have access to data that can be used to make facial recognition and AI algorithms more accurate, for instance. What are the security implications of that? Well, we see in China how such technology is used in very invasive ways for surveillance, and the more accurate it is, the more effective it can be.”

First, most Americans don’t look like most Chinese, so improving facial recognition of Caucasian and Black and Latino faces isn’t helping China recognize Chinese faces any better, and they already have a data set of hundreds of millions anyway. Second, note the implicit conflation between “security”, which we assume to mean “our national security”, and China’s surveillance of its own population, which has nothing to do with our national security.

“What a company like TikTok is doing isn't fundamentally different [than Facebook or Google]. The difference, potentially, is the intent, and how that data can be used.” And what is that intent? They have no idea, but just assume the worst!

*U.S. intelligence report on Trump-Biden election meddling reveals who Russia, China and Iran want to win


First of all, after all Trump has done to China and Iran, it would hardly take a genius to know that both would prefer to see Trump lose, although the idea that the intelligence community “knows this” as if they’ve been intercepting the internal communications of Chinese and Iranian leaders is doubtful (although possible). But running that under a headline about “election meddling” is totally misleading; there is nothing in this article about Chinese or Iranian interference. And what about Israel? Taiwan? Ukraine? Are there any other governments who have a preference in the next election? Are they doing anything to advance their interests?

Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran is likely focusing on online influence operations, including social-media disinformation campaigns and promulgating anti-American content.”

“China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China.”

U.S. intelligence assesses that the Kremlin “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’” Russian officials are “spreading claims about corruption” to try to “undermine” Biden and the Democratic Party, the statement said. “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” it said.

From the statement: “For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”

Here’s how things get twisted. Bloomberg headline:

*U.S. Intelligence Agencies Say China and Iran Want Trump to Lose


But then Bloomberg promotes that accurate headline with this tweet: “U.S. intelligence agencies say China and Iran are working to sway voters against Trump while Russia is working against Biden.”

Belarus opposition candidate flees to Lithuania amid crackdown on election protests


Article also claims she “was forced out of the country”, but there’s no evidence for either description. She left, voluntarily, without making any claim of being threatened.

'Europe's last dictator' up for reelection, faces unprecedented challenge to his rule


Just a typical example of how “state-affiliated” news outlets report the news.

Print (front page): Facing insecurity at home, China’s Xi takes on the world

Web: A lion or a porcupine? Insecurity drives China’s Xi to take on the world.


The actual story described in the article is “U.S. leads all-out war (short of shooting) on China, not “China takes on the world”. The “evidence” for the “insecurity” which features so prominently in the headline? "officials and analysts…say China’s refusal to back down on external disputes large and small stems from a sense of political insecurity and economic pressure at home."

A Bible Burning, a Russian News Agency and a Story Too Good to Check Out


NYT turns a simple Ruptly video tweet & RT article about a minor but true event into Russian “disinformation”, & lies in the process, claiming tweets & article were about the Bible burning, when in fact they give equal billing to the flag burning.

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