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Regular version of the site

Exploring Fake News and Propaganda in Today’s World

Photo provided by Dr. Oliver Boyd-Barrett

This month, Dr. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, Professor Emeritus at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, delivered at open lecture at HSE Moscow entitled ‘Fake News and Propaganda’. An expert in international media, war and propaganda, and media political economy, Dr. Boyd-Barrett is the author of a number of books, including ‘Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis: A Study in Conflict Propaganda’ (2016) and ‘Media Imperialism’ (2014). Following his lecture, he spoke with the HSE News Service about the topic of fake news more broadly and about how people can protect themselves from it.

— Fake news and propaganda have become a global problem recently. What do you see as the main trigger for that? 

— Fake news has always been a problem. Even the term ‘fake news’ is itself a couple of hundred years' old. The term is synonymous with many others, including propaganda, disinformation, information operations, and others.

The current popularity of the term is due to the charge made by President Trump against CNN in January 2017 when he criticized the broadcast channel for its coverage of the "Steele Dossier", which had just been published (without permission) by the online news site Buzzfeed. The Steele Dossier was a report about alleged Trump connections and possible collusion with Russians. It was compiled by Orbis, a private investigation agency founded by a British former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, who had worked for MI6 in Moscow in the 1980s and in the early 1990s headed up the Russia desk for MI6 in London. His company was contracted to compile the report by another agency, Fusion GPS, which was, in turn, contracted by attorneys working on behalf of the Democratic National Campaign and Hillary Clinton. Trump derided the CNN reporting as ‘Fake News!’, but of course CNN was merely doing its job in reporting the publication of such significant, if damaging to the President, allegations.

— You see the entire RussiaGate scandal as being an example of fake news, correct?

— Yes, I do argue that the ensuing saga of RussiaGate, which still rages to the present time, is itself an example of fake news. Why? Because much of it is based on allegations which have yet to be proven and yet which are often assumed by the media to be dependable. Secondly, it is misleading. The attention that this discourse gives to RussiaGate suggests that the phenomenon is actually significant, unusual, and important. It is none of these things: actual instances of Russian collusion and  meddling are actually relatively insignificant when assessed in comparison with western-based subversion of social media by political, intelligence and commercial agencies - of which Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL were among the most notorious, not least because of their close association with leading figures in the Trump Campaign and, through SCL, the intelligence and defence establishments of both the USA and the UK. Additionally, the RussiaGate discourse is given no adequate historical context, so it distracts attention away from the substantial history of US meddling in other countries' elections, sometimes egregiously through invasion and occupation.

The RussiaGate discourse would seem to suggest that if one were to be really concerned about the health of democracy in the USA, one would not begin with worrying about the Russians. In fact, the Russians should appear very low down on the list of preoccupations. Even to suggest otherwise demonstrates the extent of the farce. 

There are many enormous challenges to the integrity of the democratic process in the USA, none of which has anything to do with Russians. They include the vulnerability of voting machines to hacking; efforts to suppress voting (especially by people of colour) by striking people off voting lists either because they have committed felonies or, even more outrageously, because they have names that are similar to people who have committed felonies. There are many other ways in which voting is suppressed that include shortening the hours of voting, failing to supply functioning voting machines, increasing the documents needed to establish a voter I.D., etc. Of great concern is the Citizens United ruling that has virtually opened up the US political process to anonymous big money from any part of the globe, in addition to traditional sources of lobbying, among them Israel and Saudi Arabia whose foreign policies are highly questionable from the standpoint of world peace.  

— What do you think of those professional writers, journalists, and bloggers who produce such news? Are they just making their money, or is there something else at play?

— There are substantial indications that the discourse of RussiaGate and involvement in fake news production has included the involvement of many intelligence agencies. It has also invited partisan coverage among supporters of the Democratic Party who like to pretend that RussiaGate is solely about Trump's collusion with the Russian government or Russian oligarchs to interfere with the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favour. They forget, among many other things, that the ‘Steele Dossier’ was contracted by the Democratic National Committee.

An important topic within the RussiaGate discourse is the alleged hacking by Russian intelligence of Clinton/DNC/Podesta emails in 2016, and Democrats like to assert that the Russian government then made these emails available to Julian Assange. What this point of view often marginalizes is the evidence suggesting that the emails in question may have been leaked - not hacked - by a discontented insider, and that the leaked emails were provided to Julian Assange through this route. A former British ambassador, Craig Murray, even claims to have personal knowledge of who the leaker was and to have participated in the transfer of such leaked material to Assange. There are one or two other similar claims. It is also possible that the emails were both hacked by Russian intelligence and also leaked by an insider.

— How can one stay protected from this kind of propaganda? What can be used to counter it? 

— Protection against such propaganda as we have experienced in this period requires much more and much better education about media literacy. Unfortunately, even in the West, which has a tradition of teaching about media literacy, and of researching media operations, there are too many media teachers and researchers who routinely demonstrate naivete when it comes to understanding the extent to which western mainstream media, and many alternative media (e.g., Wikipedia) are exploited by political, intelligence and commercial powers for the purposes of deception and warfare. This is a question which needs sustained attention.  

— Are there any universal methods that can be used to identify fake news? 

— There are some universal methods, such as demonstration of falsehood by appeal to universally-accepted evidence, and many which are more specific to particular situations and periods. We have to understand both that the basic principles and objectives of propaganda (or fake news) remain constant, for example to demonize an enemy, develop a favourable or unfavourable image of somebody or something etc.,  but also that the technologies and methodologies of propaganda (or organized persuasive communication) evolve and become much more sophisticated over time - as illustrated in the work of Cambridge Analytica, Bell Pottinger or Palentir Technologies, for example.

— What are some other vivid examples of recent fake news?

— Other than RussiaGate itself, recent examples of fake news include the Western assertions, even supported by a formal Dutch inquiry, that MH17 was shot down by Russian BUK missiles over the Donbass in 2014. These assertions were promoted to a considerable extent by an outfit, Bellingcat.com, which has since been exposed as linked to a propaganda agency ("think tank"), the Atlantic Council, with a lot of help from Ukrainian intelligence.  I analysed this in my Routledge book on Western mainstream media coverage of Ukraine, and I have another publication due out soon on this topic.

We have numerous examples of fake news reports of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Damascus - East Ghouta in 2013, Kan Sheikoon in 2017 and Dhouma in 2018 - where credible sources have debunked these claims, showing either that there were no chemical weapons, or that they were deployed by western-backed Jihadist agencies, not by Assad. In the case of western press coverage of the Syrian crisis, one has to be highly sceptical as to the degree of dependence they routinely show on deeply problematic news sources such as the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that are both funded by western governments or government-linked agencies as components of sophisticated disinformation campaigns, and also associated with Jihadist organizations at war with the Baathist regime headed by Assad.

The Skripal poisoning in the UK earlier this year was another example of fake news, since the mainstream media overwhelmingly supported British government claims of Russian responsibility even before they had any evidence to support these claims and when the evidence began to appear it became clear that the original claims were false, for example that the A-234 compound could only have been produced in Russia; that the compound had to have been military-grade, that the compound had to have been extremely toxic (the Skripals survived). The media failed to adequately explore possible connections between Sergei Skripal and Christopher Steele (author of the ‘Steele Dossier’), his former MI6 boss, or between the poisoning and the sale by Leonid Rink of A-234 compounds to Russian Mafiosi in 1995.

Another re-invigoration of a decades' old fake news story is the supposed nuclear threat posed by Iran. I have written about this (and Iran, Libya, etc.) in my Sage book on Media Imperialism.

— How was your presentation at HSE and the discussion that followed? 

— I greatly appreciated my opportunity to talk about these issues in Moscow last week. I received many good, and perceptive questions and comments.

My work on the weaknesses of western mainstream media coverage, particularly as they relate to matters of great sensitivity for western foreign policy and for western efforts to bring about regime change in countries the West does not like, needs to be accompanied in the future by attention to comparable issues in the media of other countries, including those of Russia and China. 

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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