Five Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria

The claim that the 2016 election was stolen due to the actions of Russian trolls is one of the most absurd political arguments ever made. As I’ve noted previously, the Congressional testimony revealed that Russian Facebook ads and Tweets represented a minuscule amount of their traffic. Material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Half of it was not seen until after the election, much of it was not supporting Trump over Clinton, and much of it was hilariously unconvincing and amateurish. Phillip Bump added that, rather than targeting the battleground states, ads were concentrated in states such as New York and Texas which had no impact on the election results.

The claim that Russia stole the election based upon their actions on social media is harmful as it gives establishment Democrats an excuse to resist reform. It plays into the hands of neocons who desire regime change in Russia, with their claims about Russia being no more truthful than their claims about WMD in Iraq. It is also an attack on freedom of speech, and has led to McCarthyism from establishment Democrats who claim that criticism stems from support for Putin.

Reason has produced the above video on 5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria.  They also summarized the arguments:

1) Russian trolling was a drop in the bucket.

2) Russian trolls were not very sophisticated.

Russian trolls supposedly had the Machiavellian know-how to infiltrate the American political system, but their social media posts don’t look very sophisticated. The posts often featured broken English and puzzling topic choices. A postpromoting a “buff” Bernie Sanders coloring book, for instance, noted that “the coloring is something that suits for all people.” Another post showed Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match under this caption: “SATAN: IF I WIN CLINTON WINS! JESUS: NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!” The post generated very few clicks and shares.

3) Russian troll rallies apparently did not attract many participants.

The indictment makes much of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies instigated by Russian trolls, but it does not say how many people participated. The New York Times reported that a Russian-organized rally in Texas opposing Shariah law attracted a dozen people. An anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho drew four people. Attendance at other rallies was similarly sparse.

4) Russian trolling probably didn’t change anyone’s mind.

Broken English aside, the social media posts were not qualitatively different from content created by American activists, and they seemed to be aimed mainly at reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and divisions. The Russians might have gotten a few Trump supporters to show up at anti-Clinton rallies, but that does not mean they had an impact on the election.

5) Russian troll hysteria depicts free speech as a kind of violence.

The Justice Department describes the messages posted by Russians pretending to be Americans as “information warfare.” But while the posts may have been sophomoric, inaccurate, and illogical, that does not distinguish them from most of what passes for online political discussion among actual Americans. The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources. If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy isdoomed. But if so, it’s not the Russians’ fault.

Fifteen Years After Invasion Of Iraq, Americans Still Have Not Learned To Be Skeptical Of Claims From Dishonest Politicians

Fifteen years ago the United States invaded Iraq based on lies. In addition to the lies from the Bush administration, Hillary Clinton lied, claiming that Saddam colluded with al Qaeda.

Clinton lied again seven years ago to orchestrate the disastrous regime change in Libya.

Both Iraq and Libya have turned into disasters.

Now Clinton is lying about collusion between Donald Trump and Russia altering the election result, leading to anti-Russia sentiment from many Democrats. This is playing into the hands of neocons who desire regime change in Russia. Are we going to get into yet another war by believing Hillary Clinton’s lies? Will Americans also believe the lies of the next politician who seeks to lie the country into wars?

Rational Voices In Response To Recent Charges Of Russian Assassination By Poisoning And Infiltration Of The Power Grid

Before the 2016 election I feared that a Clinton presidency would turn Democrats into a pack of neocon warmongers and we would see attempts to limit free speech in protest. What I didn’t anticipate was that her loss would do the same thing. Democrats are spreading hysteria about Russia which is comparable to the misinformation spread about Iraq in the run up to that war. Many Democrats are spreading claims which are not supported by either the Congressional investigations or the information in Robert Mueller’s indictments. Many are adopting McCarthyist tactics to attack those who attempt to question their misinformation, failing to understand that debunking false claims about Russia no more makes one pro-Putin than debunking false claims about Iraq and WMD made one pro-Saddam. Fortunately there are still some sane voices in the world. Today I will look at responses to the Russian assassinations in London and to the reports of Russian infiltration of the power grid.

For the sake of discussion I am assuming that the accusations made regarding these two events are true, but we must keep in mind that repeatedly there have been examples of accusations being made, the claims later being retracted, yet many people continued to spread the false claims. This includes the  retracted claims of agreement by seventeen intelligence agencies agreeing when in reality all that existed was a fact-free assessment by a small number of anti-Russian individuals in the intelligence community. NBC has repeatedly raised the debunked claims of Russian hacking of our voting systems. Previous claims that the Russians infiltrated the electrical grid in Vermont were later retracted. Many Democrats act as if collusion between Trump and Russia has been established, and that Russia altered the election results, when there is no evidence of either, and no charges that this was done in any of Robert Mueller’s indictments to date.

While leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States are spreading anti-Russian hysteria, primarily to avoid responsibility for nominating a candidate so terrible that she could not even beat Donald Trump, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK sounds far more rational. Jeremy Corbyn has this op-ed in The Guardian in response to the recent poisonings in London:

As I said in parliament, the Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence, and our response must be both decisive and proportionate. But let us not manufacture a division over Russia where none exists. Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights.

However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent. Instead, Britain needs to uphold its laws and its values without reservation. And those should be allied to a foreign policy that uses every opportunity to reduce tensions and conflict wherever possible…

There can and should be the basis for a common political response to this crime. But in my years in parliament I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times. Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion. There was overwhelming bipartisan support for attacking Libya, but it proved to be wrong. A universal repugnance at the 9/11 attacks led to a war on Afghanistan that continues to this day, while terrorism has spread across the globe.

The continuing fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the virtual collapse of the Russian state in the 1990s must be addressed through international law and diplomacy if we are to reverse the drift to conflict.

Right now, the perpetrators of the Salisbury attack must be identified and held to account. Only through firm multilateral action can we ensure such a shocking crime never happens again.

Just as we should work to ensure that such a crime never happens again, we should work to increase cyber-security, including security for the electrical grid. Philip Bump, who previously added some sanity to the claims that Russian altered the election by using social media, now is looking at the facts regarding the electrical grid. He wrote a column entitled Why Russian hackers aren’t poised to plunge the United States into darkness:

The natural question that emerges is: How serious is this hacking? The idea of Russian hackers having access to the control switches of America’s power infrastructure is particularly unnerving, raising the idea of waking up one morning to learn that the United States has simply been switched off.

Several experts who spoke with The Washington Post, though, explained that this is not only oversimplistic but also that it is almost certainly impossible. The effects of infiltration of America’s power grid would be much more geographically limited thanks to the distributed, redundant nature of the system.

In fact, it’s more than a little like another alert issued by the government about Russian infiltration efforts: the one on Oct. 7, 2016, warning about Russian efforts to tamper with state voting systems.

That announcement came from the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security and indicated that Russian hackers were “scanning and probing” election-related systems. The message, one of the few public responses to Russian interference from the Obama administration, didn’t get as much play as it might have, given that it came out the same day as The Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape.

Meaning that the caveats in the announcement — that our voting mechanisms were protected by being disconnected from the Internet during the election, by being distributed throughout thousands of counties and by having after-the-fact statistical checks on accuracy — weren’t really absorbed. The idea that Russian hackers might have significantly altered election results in 2016 persists out of a misunderstanding of how remarkably hard it would be to subvert the process, particularly without being noticed…

…this damage would be localized. Perhaps, Bauch said, a hacker who’d gained access to a regional power provider or generation system might be able to knock out power to tens or hundreds of thousands of people at a time. That would be significant, but it’s not taking out the whole grid. Attacking multiple providers across the country at specific times of vulnerability — like on a hot day in the west when power supplies are strained — could multiply those effects. But it would require a significant amount of planning, coordination and access to have an impact on a massive scale…

Thanks to the distributed nature of our elections and the barriers to changing votes, hacking our elections is trickier than most people realize. Thanks to the distributed and often disconnected nature of our electrical system and the barriers to accessing it, the same can be said of hacking the grid…

It’s a serious situation, warranting the sort of dramatic response we saw from the government on Thursday. But do not expect to wake up some day soon and learn that Russian President Vladimir Putin now controls the flow of electricity to your house. Real life, as always, is less dramatic than the movies.

Bump has a lot more detail in his full article, including the belief that Russian hackers gained access through spear-phishing. While there is controversy over whether the DNC’s email was released to Wikileaks due to hacking or a leak from the inside, the possibility has also been raised that access to the DNC’s email was through spear-phishing. We would be much safer if the media and politicians spent half the time they spend on misleading stories about Russia to better educate the public about how to respond to such attempts to gain access to our computer systems.

NBC News Revives Debunked Claim Of Russia Hacking Voter Databases

I always find it ridiculous when CNN repeatedly calls news stories throughout the day “breaking news,” but NBC has taken this much further. NBC is taking a debunked claim of Russia hacking voter databases from several months ago, and labeled this “breaking news.” That would be like starting a news cast with a claim such as “Breaking News. There are Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq requiring military action.”

This claim was first made months ago, with the Department of Homeland Security subsequently reporting during Congressional testimony that all that occurred was routine scanning of computer systems, with it commonplace for Russia and the United States to routinely scan each other’s computer systems. The same is true of much of “Russiagate” with it being common for both Russia and the United States to meddle in the elections of each other and other countries, with no evidence of any actions in 2016 which altered the election results. After months of investigations, there has been evidence of money laundering and obstruction of justice by Donald Trump, but no evidence of any collusion between Trump and Putin which affected the election, despite repeated claims from Democrats.

For whatever it might mean, some states have also accused the Department of Homeland Security of trying to hack into their system.

Glenn Greenwald discussed this story here.  This was only one of multiple examples of claims regarding Russia being made by the news media and later retracted. I listed this and other examples here, and The Nation has also debunked the irresponsible media coverage of claims about Russia.

Despite the claims in this story being both old news and false information, NBC and MSNBC continued to spread this false claim, which was subsequently picked up by other media outlets. As I noted earlier in the year, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) has  criticized the coverage of Russia by Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

There very likely are vulnerabilities in our election systems which can be exploited. The proper response is to improve cyber-security. There is no place for the hysteria being spread by NBC and MSNBC, or for the McCarthyism and war mongering by some Democrats in response. It is dangerous to exaggerate Russian actions to place the blame for Clinton’s loss on a nuclear power such as Russia. This also leads to many Democrats failing to accept the real reasons why Hillary Clinton lost to a candidate as terrible as Donald Trump, reducing the chances that the Democrats will fix the problems which have resulted in multiple losses over the past decade.

Russia is hardly led by a band of boy scouts, but there are far more serious threats to our democracy. This includes Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, Republican voter suppression, Democratic McCarthyism and rigging of the nomination system to exclude more liberal and progressive viewpoints, and even, as I discussed yesterday, Facebook censorship of alternative opinions. In the scheme of things, Russia is minor threat which has been greatly exaggerated, distracting from our more serious problems.

Bernie Sanders’ Response To The State Of The Union Address (Including Full Transcript)

Last night Bernie Sanders was one of five Democratic responses to the State of the Union Address, including Joe Kennedy III’s official response. Sanders criticized Trump for promising to provide “health insurance for everybody,” with “much lower deductibles,” but instead supporting legislation that “would  thrown up to 32 million people off of the health care they had while, at the same time, substantially raising premiums for older Americans.”

Sanders noted that Trump had promised “promised not to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.” Instead, “he supported a Republican Budget Resolution that proposed slashing Medicaid by $1 trillion and cutting Medicare by $500 billion. Further, President Trump’s own budget called for cutting Social Security Disability Insurance by $64 billion.”

In addition to calling out Trump for breaking his campaign promises, Sanders noted many things which Trump failed to talk about, including climate change and voter suppression.

While overall a good speech, there were things which I wish Sanders had said, and one thing statement which was misleading. As has generally been the case with Democrats, there was nothing said about restrictions of civil liberties–passed with the cooperation of many Democrats. Nor were there protests over the never-ending war which Democrats are now accepting as the status quo. Nothing was said about the drug war, while Joe Kennedy III , among other Democrats, has been on the wrong side of this issue. This is what I want to see from a true resistance.

Sanders also stated that the Russians “interfered in our election in 2016, is interfering in democratic elections all over the world.” While technically true, this plays into the hysteria being spread by Democrats, often based upon misinformation. While true that Russia meddled in our election, this must be kept in context that Russia has meddled in elections for decades–just as the United States has frequently meddled in foreign elections. Russian meddling has also been highly exaggerated. There is also no evidence that Russia had any effect on the election results. The information obtained through the Congressional hearings has shown that claims about Russian tampering with the election have been have been of little consequence. Similarly, multiple media reports of Russian hacking were subsequently retracted as false. I would hope that Sanders would know better to play into the misleading claims of Democrats who are distorting the facts to deny the blame they deserve for losing to Donald Trump due to choosing a candidate as terrible as Hillary Clinton, along with playing into the hands of neocons who are distorting Russian electoral interference as they used false claims of WMD in Iraq to promote their goal of regime change in Russia.

The video can be seen here and the full text of Sanders’ speech is below:

(more…)

Washington Post Columnist Debunks Claims Of Russia Affecting Election Result Despite Many Other Misleading Articles At The Post On Russia

The Washington Post has been spreading a lot of false stories which increase hysteria about Russia, similar to stories about fictitious WMD in Iraq prior to the Iraq war. However, despite the general fallacious editorial view of the newspaper, one columnist actually got matters right recently, debunking claims that Russian ads on social media affected the election results.

Glenn Greenwald once again criticized the coverage in The Washington Post yesterday in an article entitled  WashPost Is Richly Rewarded for False News About Russia Threat While Public Is Deceived:

In the past six weeks, the Washington Post published two blockbuster stories about the Russian threat that went viral: one on how Russia is behind a massive explosion of “fake news,” the other on how it invaded the U.S. electric grid. Both articles were fundamentally false. Each now bears a humiliating editor’s note grudgingly acknowledging that the core claims of the story were fiction: The first note was posted a full two weeks later to the top of the original article; the other was buried the following day at the bottom.

The second story on the electric grid turned out to be far worse than I realized when I wrote about it on Saturday, when it became clear that there was no “penetration of the U.S. electricity grid” as the Post had claimed. In addition to the editor’s note, the Russia-hacked-our-electric-grid story now has a full-scale retraction in the form of a separate article admitting that “the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility” and there may not even have been malware at all on this laptop.

But while these debacles are embarrassing for the paper, they are also richly rewarding. That’s because journalists — including those at the Post — aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral, generating massive traffic for the Post (the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become).

After spreading the falsehoods far and wide, raising fear levels and manipulating U.S. political discourse in the process (both Russia stories were widely hyped on cable news), journalists who spread the false claims subsequently note the retraction or corrections only in the most muted way possible, and often not at all. As a result, only a tiny fraction of people who were exposed to the original false story end up learning of the retractions.

Baron himself, editorial leader of the Post, is a perfect case study in this irresponsible tactic. It was Baron who went to Twitter on the evening of November 24 to announce the Post’s exposé of the enormous reach of Russia’s fake news operation, based on what he heralded as the findings of “independent researchers.” Baron’s tweet went all over the place; to date, it has been re-tweeted more than 3,000 times, including by many journalists with their own large followings:

But after that story faced a barrage of intense criticism — from Adrian Chen in the New Yorker (“propaganda about Russia propaganda”), Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone (“shameful, disgusting”), my own article, and many others — including legal threats from the sites smeared as Russian propaganda outlets by the Post’s “independent researchers” — the Post finally added its lengthy editor’s note distancing itself from the anonymous group that provided the key claims of its story (“The Post … does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings” and “since publication of the Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list”)…

Greenwald proceeded to provide many more examples of poor media coverage. Of course misleading coverage is not limited to The Washington Post as I described here. There have been multiple examples of various news sources posting material on Russia which was later retracted as false. Then there is the hysterical coverage at MSNBC.

Despite the overall misleading coverage, there is a recent exception at The Washington Post. Philip Bump wrote, There’s still little evidence that Russia’s 2016 social media efforts did much of anything. This overlaps with the material  I previously posted here, but includes some additional facts worth reading. As I previously noted, the information released after the Congressional investigations showed that material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook.

Bump discussed the false narrative that Russia was responsible for Clinton’s loss, and wrote:

All of that, though, requires setting aside what we actually know about the Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter: It was often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a series of examples of the sorts of ads purchased by the Russians in November. Many, as The Washington Post reported, focused on highlighting divisive cultural issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration.

Of the 30 ads shared by the Democrats, six, viewed 1.2 million times in total, ran in 2015. Only seven ran in the last month of the campaign, totaling about 340,000 views. The ads targeted none of the four closest states in the election — New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — specifically; most were national ad buys. States that were targeted specifically included Texas and New York, neither of which was considered a swing state.

A little-noticed statement from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, detailed how unsophisticated the Russian ad targeting actually was in the context of the election. Among the points he made:

  • Maryland was targeted by nearly five times as many ads as was Wisconsin (262 to 55).
  • Thirty-five of the 55 ads targeting Wisconsin ran during the primary.
  • More ads targeted DC than Pennsylvania.
  • A total of $1,979 was spent in Wisconsin — $1,925 of it in the primary.
  • The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania were $823 and $300, respectively.
  • More of the geographically targeted ads ran in 2015 than in 2016.

Facebook’s own public numbers hint at how the ads were weighted relative to the campaign. Ten million people saw ads run by the Russian agents — but 5.6 million of those views were after the election.

Bump also debunked the claims regarding Twitter:

Just before Election Day in 2016, Twitter announced 1 billion tweets had been sent from August 2015 through that point. Even assuming all 202,000 of those tweets from the Russian accounts were in that period, it means they constituted 0.02 percent of the election-related tweets. On Election Day itself, there were another 75 million election-related tweets. If all of the Russian-linked tweets had been dropped on Election Day — closer to the point at which they would have directly helped suppress or boost turnout — they would still only have constituted 0.27 percent of the tweets that day. But they weren’t.

Perhaps, one might argue, there is classified information about Russia’s meddling that suggests a more dramatic problem. Perhaps. On Thursday morning, though, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) of the House intelligence committee told CNN he hadn’t seen much evidence of any criminal collusion the American people weren’t already aware of. (There’s also the argument that, in an election as close as that of 2016, even small efforts by Russian actors might have had an outsized effect. This is true, but it is also true of hundreds of other small things that happened (and didn’t) in the closing days of the presidential race.)

As it stands, the public evidence doesn’t support the idea that the Russians executed a savvy electoral strategy on social media to ensure Trump’s victory. In fact, it seems less the case that they did so now than seemed might be possible back in July.

In other words, while there is evidence of Donald Trump acting to cover-up crimes such as money laundering, the evidence disputes Clinton’s claims of a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia which altered the election results.

The Nation Debunks Russiagate Conspiracy “Fantasyland” And Irresponsible Media Coverage

As was the case in the run up to the Iraq war when a small number of us were disputing the claims used to justify war, there also continues to be articles disputing the Russiagate conspiracy theory that Donald Trump and Russia successfully colluded to alter the 2016 election result. This is most often spread by establishment Democrats who cannot face the fact that Hillary Clinton was such a terrible choice for the nomination that she could not beat someone as awful as Donald Trump. While Robert Mueller’s investigation is uncovering evidence of financial crimes, and obstruction of justice, no evidence has been presented to support the claims of Russia altering the election results which has not been quickly retracted or debunked. Yesterday I quoted from an article by Jackson Lears, Professor of History at Rutgers University. Another article on this subject by Aaron Maté in The Nation is less extensive but has the benefit of being more likely to be read by Democrats who are being duped this conspiracy theory.

There have been so many debunked claims regarding Russiagate that no single article can deal with them all. Maté concentrated on the numerous reports which have been circulated by the mainstream media, only to be quickly shown to be false–a subject I previously discussed here. He also touched on the false claims of Russian hackers hacking the voting systems of 21 states and the claim that there was a consensus from all the intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee. This later claim continues to be repeated by many Clinton apologists despite having been retracted by The New York Times last June. It is also worth noting that, while no evidence has been presented so far showing that Russia hacked the DNC, if future evidence should happen to show this, it would be a negative regarding Russia but would still not support Clinton’s argument that Russia is responsible for her loss. The hacked email which was released by Wikileaks provided factual information regarding unethical behavior by Clinton and the DNC, and Clinton would still be responsible for any votes lost because of this.

There are at least five reasons why the Russiagate conspiracy theory is so dangerous. It allows the Democratic establishment to deny responsibility for their mistakes, making reform less likely. It promotes McCarthyism and promotion of restrictions on freedom of expression in the United States. It unnecessarily increases conflict with a nuclear power (playing into the hands of Clinton’s neocon allies who desire to attempt regime change in Russia). It strengthens Putin by showing him to be a far greater master strategist than he is, to the frustration of anti-Putin forces in Russia. Maté began his article with a fifth reason. Concentrating on such false charges distracts from forming a true resistance to the many terrible things Donald Trump has been doing.

After this introduction, Maté more directly addressed the unsupported claims regarding the 2016 election:

The basis for the “virtually uncontested truths” of the year’s “biggest story” remains the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s January 2017 report, which accused Russia of hacking Democratic e-mails and using social media to influence the 2016 election. Yet the report openly acknowledges that its conclusions are “not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.” Nearly one year later, we have yet to see a shred of proof.

What we have in its stead is a stream of Russiagate stories that make bombastic entrances only to quietly slink away. The pattern persists thanks to a media and political culture that embraces credulity and shuns accountability.

Virtually every major outlet reported claims in September that Russian-government-backed hackers targeted the voting systems of 21 states. But last month Christopher Krebs, a senior cyber-security official at the Department of Homeland Security, quietly informed Congress that no such hacking had occurred. “The majority of the activity was simple scanning,” Krebs told a House panel. “Scanning is a regular activity across the Web. I would not characterize that as an attack.… If that context was not provided, I apologize.” He added: “When we talk about that scanning, it was not also necessarily an election system that was scanned.”

Krebs’s contrition did not ring out among the media that had fervently reported the scanning as a hacking attack, and continue to do so as part of Russiagate’s “virtually uncontested truths.” The falsity of the “21 states” claim went largely unreported, outside C-SPAN and the marginal Russian website that took notice.

Meanwhile, accountability has been resisted even when the mistakes are seismically embarrassing. The most recent case was CNN’s erroneous report that the Trump campaign was offered access to Wikileaks’ trove of stolen Democratic Party e-mails before their public release. In a story line worthy of Better Call Saul, it turned out that CNN got the date wrong—someone had in fact e-mailed the Trump campaign a link to the Wikileaks e-mails, only after they were already all over the Internet. As Glenn Greenwald noted, the mistake was egregious not just for the story’s ultimate uselessness, but also for the fact CNN and other outlets all reported they had confirmed it with multiple sources. Yet none of the networks have explained how their “multiple sources” all “confirmed” the same incorrect date.

Maté discussed CNN’s error in greater detail. He next discussed the claims that Russia affected the Brexit vote. As was the case with Russia’s actions on Facebook and Twitter in the United States, he showed that the claims regarding Brexit were highly exaggerated, and then discussed Russia Today and the investigation of Jill Stein:

Just weeks ago, The New York Times warned that reports of Russian-linked social-media activity around the Brexit vote “could raise questions about the legitimacy of the referendum” itself. “I have a very simple message for Russia,” declared British Prime Minister Theresa May on November 13. “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”

We now have a full accounting of what Russia was doing: According to Twitter, the Kremlin-backed network Russia Today spent just over $1,000 to promote its Brexit coverage to UK-based viewers. Facebook reported a grand total of 97 cents spent on three ads, “all centered on immigration and aimed at American users,” reaching no more than 200 of them over four days. Whatever Russia was doing, May’s confidence that they would not succeed was doubtless well-founded.

The unquestioning faith in evidence-free or overblown claims coincides with the targeting of those who dare challenge them. The forced registration of RT America as a “foreign agent” was followed by the revoking of the outlet’s congressional press pass, with the usual silence from press-freedom groups and media outlets, even progressive ones. Without explanation, The Huffington Post removed an article by veteran reporter Joe Lauria that methodically challenged Russiagate’s precepts. On Tuesday, Green Party candidate Jill Stein confirmed that she is complying with a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation looking into, in the words of panel chair Senator Richard Burr, “collusion with the Russians.”

Despite multiple interviews explaining the nature of a 2015 trip to Moscow, Stein remains the target of a smear campaign, cheered on by liberal groups, painting her as a Kremlin stooge. “Here’s hoping this lying sack of piety-spewing shit goes to jail with the rest of the bastards Mueller is investigating,” commented liberal sex-advice columnist Dan Savage. Zac Petkanas, a Democratic Party senior adviser and Clinton campaign staffer, was so enthused by the Senate probe that he repeated the phrase “Jill Stein is a Russian agent” to his Twitter followers eight times.

Stein calls the investigation part of a “resurgence of McCarthyism, to suppress opposition voices, to suppress independent politics.” But for its proponents to recognize that would mean acknowledging that it derives from the same kind of behavior that is recognized in Trump. “Any genuine interest in objective reality left the building a while ago, replaced by a self-sustaining fantasyland,” the New York Times editors write of Trump’s right-wing defenders. The tragedy of Russiagate is that its enthusiasts have constructed a “self-sustaining fantasyland” of their own. A fantasyland is no place from which to confront Trump’s reality.

Historian Analyzes The Many Problems With The Russiagate Narrative And Democratic Support For Interventionism

Many partisan Democrats have believed Clinton’s claims that she lost as a consequence of Russian interference in the election, as opposed to her own mistakes, despite the lack of evidence for such claims. Many of those viewing the matter more seriously have expressed skepticism, seeing the current hysteria as reminiscent of claims of WMD in Iraq. Jackson Lears, Professor of History at Rutgers University, has an essay on this at the London Review of Books. He looked at subjects including the lack of evidence that Russia was responsible for the DNC hack, along with how this narrative distracts from the evidence of corruption in the DNC which was revealed in their email. He noted, as I also provided examples of recently, that many of the claims in the media have been quickly shown to be incorrect. He also discussed how the Democratic Party’s fixation on Russiagate has led to them ignoring other issues, including the need to take a stand against the military interventionism advocated by Clinton. While I would recommend reading his full article, here are some excerpts:

American politics have rarely presented a more disheartening spectacle. The repellent and dangerous antics of Donald Trump are troubling enough, but so is the Democratic Party leadership’s failure to take in the significance of the 2016 election campaign. Bernie Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton, combined with Trump’s triumph, revealed the breadth of popular anger at politics as usual – the blend of neoliberal domestic policy and interventionist foreign policy that constitutes consensus in Washington…

A story that had circulated during the campaign without much effect resurfaced: it involved the charge that Russian operatives had hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee, revealing embarrassing emails that damaged Clinton’s chances. With stunning speed, a new centrist-liberal orthodoxy came into being, enveloping the major media and the bipartisan Washington establishment. This secular religion has attracted hordes of converts in the first year of the Trump presidency. In its capacity to exclude dissent, it is like no other formation of mass opinion in my adult life, though it recalls a few dim childhood memories of anti-communist hysteria during the early 1950s.

The centrepiece of the faith, based on the hacking charge, is the belief that Vladimir Putin orchestrated an attack on American democracy by ordering his minions to interfere in the election on behalf of Trump. The story became gospel with breathtaking suddenness and completeness. Doubters are perceived as heretics and as apologists for Trump and Putin, the evil twins and co-conspirators behind this attack on American democracy. Responsibility for the absence of debate lies in large part with the major media outlets. Their uncritical embrace and endless repetition of the Russian hack story have made it seem a fait accompli in the public mind. It is hard to estimate popular belief in this new orthodoxy, but it does not seem to be merely a creed of Washington insiders. If you question the received narrative in casual conversations, you run the risk of provoking blank stares or overt hostility – even from old friends. This has all been baffling and troubling to me; there have been moments when pop-culture fantasies (body snatchers, Kool-Aid) have come to mind.

Like any orthodoxy worth its salt, the religion of the Russian hack depends not on evidence but on ex cathedra pronouncements on the part of authoritative institutions and their overlords. Its scriptural foundation is a confused and largely fact-free ‘assessment’ produced last January by a small number of ‘hand-picked’ analysts – as James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, described them – from the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. The claims of the last were made with only ‘moderate’ confidence. The label Intelligence Community Assessment creates a misleading impression of unanimity, given that only three of the 16 US intelligence agencies contributed to the report. And indeed the assessment itself contained this crucial admission: ‘Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation and precedents.’ Yet the assessment has passed into the media imagination as if it were unassailable fact, allowing journalists to assume what has yet to be proved. In doing so they serve as mouthpieces for the intelligence agencies, or at least for those ‘hand-picked’ analysts.

It is not the first time the intelligence agencies have played this role. When I hear the Intelligence Community Assessment cited as a reliable source, I always recall the part played by the New York Times in legitimating CIA reports of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons of mass destruction, not to mention the long history of disinformation (a.k.a. ‘fake news’) as a tactic for advancing one administration or another’s political agenda. Once again, the established press is legitimating pronouncements made by the Church Fathers of the national security state. Clapper is among the most vigorous of these. He perjured himself before Congress in 2013, when he denied that the NSA had ‘wittingly’ spied on Americans – a lie for which he has never been held to account. In May 2017, he told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the Russians were highly likely to have colluded with Trump’s campaign because they are ‘almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favour, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique’. The current orthodoxy exempts the Church Fathers from standards imposed on ordinary people, and condemns Russians – above all Putin – as uniquely, ‘almost genetically’ diabolical…

Meanwhile, there has been a blizzard of ancillary accusations, including much broader and vaguer charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. It remains possible that Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who has been appointed to investigate these allegations, may turn up some compelling evidence of contacts between Trump’s people and various Russians. It would be surprising if an experienced prosecutor empowered to cast a dragnet came up empty-handed, and the arrests have already begun. But what is striking about them is that the charges have nothing to do with Russian interference in the election. There has been much talk about the possibility that the accused may provide damaging evidence against Trump in exchange for lighter sentences, but this is merely speculation. Paul Manafort, at one point Trump’s campaign manager, has pleaded not guilty to charges of failing to register his public relations firm as a foreign agent for the Ukrainian government and concealing his millions of dollars in fees. But all this occurred before the 2016 campaign. George Papadopolous, a foreign policy adviser, has pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI about his bungling efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump’s people and the Russian government – an opportunity the Trump campaign declined. Mueller’s most recent arrestee, Michael Flynn, the unhinged Islamophobe who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser, has pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about meeting the Russian ambassador in December – weeks after the election. This is the sort of backchannel diplomacy that routinely occurs during the interim between one administration and the next. It is not a sign of collusion.

So far, after months of ‘bombshells’ that turn out to be duds, there is still no actual evidence for the claim that the Kremlin ordered interference in the American election. Meanwhile serious doubts have surfaced about the technical basis for the hacking claims. Independent observers have argued it is more likely that the emails were leaked from inside, not hacked from outside. On this front, the most persuasive case was made by a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, former employees of the US intelligence agencies who distinguished themselves in 2003 by debunking Colin Powell’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, hours after Powell had presented his pseudo-evidence at the UN. (There are members of VIPS who dissent from the VIPS report’s conclusions, but their arguments are in turn contested by the authors of the report.) The VIPS findings received no attention in major media outlets, except Fox News – which from the centre-left perspective is worse than no attention at all. Mainstream media have dismissed the VIPS report as a conspiracy theory (apparently the Russian hacking story does not count as one). The crucial issue here and elsewhere is the exclusion from public discussion of any critical perspectives on the orthodox narrative, even the perspectives of people with professional credentials and a solid track record.

Both the DNC hacking story and the one involving the emails of John Podesta, a Clinton campaign operative, involve a shadowy bunch of putatively Russian hackers called Fancy Bear – also known among the technically inclined as APT28. The name Fancy Bear was introduced by Dimitri Alperovitch, the chief technology officer of Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC to investigate the theft of their emails. Alperovitch is also a fellow at the Atlantic Council, an anti-Russian Washington think tank. In its report Crowdstrike puts forward close to zero evidence for its claim that those responsible were Russian, let alone for its assertion that they were affiliated with Russian military intelligence. And yet, from this point on, the assumption that this was a Russian cyber operation was unquestioned. When the FBI arrived on the scene, the Bureau either did not request or was refused access to the DNC servers; instead it depended entirely on the Crowdstrike analysis. Crowdstrike, meanwhile, was being forced to retract another claim, that the Russians had successfully hacked the guidance systems of the Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainian military and the British International Institute for Strategic Studies both contradicted this claim, and Crowdstrike backed down. But its DNC analysis was allowed to stand and even become the basis for the January Intelligence Community Assessment…

Sceptical voices, such as those of the VIPS, have been drowned out by a din of disinformation. Flagrantly false stories, like the Washington Post report that the Russians had hacked into the Vermont electrical grid, are published, then retracted 24 hours later. Sometimes – like the stories about Russian interference in the French and German elections – they are not retracted even after they have been discredited. These stories have been thoroughly debunked by French and German intelligence services but continue to hover, poisoning the atmosphere, confusing debate. The claim that the Russians hacked local and state voting systems in the US was refuted by California and Wisconsin election officials, but their comments generated a mere whisper compared with the uproar created by the original story. The rush to publish without sufficient attention to accuracy has become the new normal in journalism. Retraction or correction is almost beside the point: the false accusation has done its work.

The most immediate consequence is that, by finding foreign demons who can be blamed for Trump’s ascendancy, the Democratic leadership have shifted the blame for their defeat away from their own policies without questioning any of their core assumptions. Amid the general recoil from Trump, they can even style themselves dissenters – ‘#the resistance’ was the label Clintonites appropriated within a few days of the election. Mainstream Democrats have begun to use the word ‘progressive’ to apply to a platform that amounts to little more than preserving Obamacare, gesturing towards greater income equality and protecting minorities. This agenda is timid. It has nothing to say about challenging the influence of concentrated capital on policy, reducing the inflated defence budget or withdrawing from overextended foreign commitments; yet without those initiatives, even the mildest egalitarian policies face insuperable obstacles. More genuine insurgencies are in the making, which confront corporate power and connect domestic with foreign policy, but they face an uphill battle against the entrenched money and power of the Democratic leadership – the likes of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons and the DNC. Russiagate offers Democratic elites a way to promote party unity against Trump-Putin, while the DNC purges Sanders’s supporters.

For the DNC, the great value of the Russian hack story is that it focuses attention away from what was actually in their emails. The documents revealed a deeply corrupt organisation, whose pose of impartiality was a sham. Even the reliably pro-Clinton Washington Post has admitted that ‘many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.’ Further evidence of collusion between the Clinton machine and the DNC surfaced recently in a memoir by Donna Brazile, who became interim chair of the DNC after Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned in the wake of the email revelations. Brazile describes discovering an agreement dated 26 August 2015, which specified (she writes)

that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics and mailings.

Before the primaries had even begun, the supposedly neutral DNC – which had been close to insolvency – had been bought by the Clinton campaign…

Francis Shen of the University of Minnesota and Douglas Kriner of Boston University analysed election results in three key states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – and found that ‘even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.’ Clinton’s record of uncritical commitment to military intervention allowed Trump to have it both ways, playing to jingoist resentment while posing as an opponent of protracted and pointless war. Kriner and Shen conclude that Democrats may want to ‘re-examine their foreign policy posture if they hope to erase Trump’s electoral gains among constituencies exhausted and alienated by 15 years of war’. If the insurgent movements within the Democratic Party begin to formulate an intelligent foreign policy critique, a re-examination may finally occur. And the world may come into sharper focus as a place where American power, like American virtue, is limited. For this Democrat, that is an outcome devoutly to be wished. It’s a long shot, but there is something happening out there.

Democracy Under Attack–From Both Major Political Parties

The fundamental principles of democracy have been under attack for several months, unfortunately by both major political parties. The lack of respect for democratic norms by Donald Trump and his Republican supporters has been well documented. Rather than presenting a clear alternative, the last nominee for the Democratic nomination has also been attacking Democratic norms, including acceptance of election results and freedom of speech. Hillary Clinton repeated her attacks on the legitimacy of the 2016 election in an interview with Ari Berman of Mother Jones.

During the election, when there was a question of Donald Trump not accepting the results of the election, Hillary Clinton said that Donald Trump “threatens democracy” by not accepting the election results. She also said, “We know, in our country, the difference between leadership and dictatorship. And the peaceful transition of power is something that sets us apart.”

Since then, Hillary Clinton lost the election after running a terrible campaign. It was a huge mistake for the Democrats to essentially rig the nomination for a weak candidate as opposed to allowing a stronger candidate capable of winning a national campaign to be its nominee. Democrats made a terrible mistake, but once the election results were in, in a democracy there was no choice but to accept the results and look forward to the next election. Instead, as was revealed by in Shattered, Hillary Clinton devised a strategy of blaming others, including Russia, for her loss within twenty-four hours of losing.

The claim that Russia affected the election result was largely based upon the Steele Dossier. Clinton and the DNC had covered up their role in paying for this report for months, casting doubt on its reliability. More recently we learned that Christopher Steele is saying he believes the report is 70% to 90% accurate. In other words, he admits that thirty percent could be inaccurate.

Over the last several month, as information has come out on the Congressional and Mueller investigations, the evidence has cast further doubt on Clinton’s claims. We have seen substantial evidence of improper business dealings between Trump, members of his family, and key people in his campaign having improper business relations with Russia. We have seen evidence of Trump conspiring to cover this up. The indictments to date have related to financial dealings, and it appears that this is what Mueller is concentrating on.

On the other hand, evidence released through the Congressional hearings have shown that Russia’s advertising on Facebook and use of Twitter was too inconsequential to have had an impact. We learned during the recent Congressional testimony that material including ads from Russian Facebook pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton. We also learned that the Russian Twitter accounts were not very large and that, of the tweets attributed to troll accounts Russia’s Internet Research Agency, only  “9 percent of the tweets were election-related .” Even former Clinton adviser Mark Penn has argued that the Facebook ads were not the reason Clinton lost.

It has been commonplace to see sensational headlines of a smoking gun of Russian tampering with the election results, only to have them quickly shot down. One supposedly Russian site consisted of pictures of puppies. Just this week we had the revelation that Russia had designated money “to finance election campaign of 2016.” Rather being a smoking gun, this appears to have been money spent on the Russian Parliamentary elections. Yes, Russia has been caught meddling in their own election.

With report after report falling apart, we have no evidence of any more Russian meddling in the 2016 election than has been occurring for decades–with the United States similarly meddling in other elections. There is no evidence of a vast and successful conspiracy to change the results of the 2016 election. The biggest success attributed to Russia on Facebook has been to get 5000 to 10,000 people to turn out for a rally–a rally protesting against Donald Trump after the election.

In the interview Clinton claimed, “This is the first time we’ve ever been attacked by a foreign adversary and then they suffer no real consequences.” This is an especially chilling statement from a politician who has already participated in lying the country into wars, and is aligned with neoconservatives who wish to attempt regime change in Russia.

Just as chilling has been how this contrived scandal has been used to restrict political discourse. With the new McCarthyism which has overtaken many Democrats, to question this march towards conflict with Russia, no matter how reminiscent it is of the march towards war with Iraq over fake WMD, is countered with attacks of being pro-Russia. To oppose conflict with Russia over fake claims from the Clinton camp and other neocons no more means one is pro-Russia than opposing the rush to war with Iraq over false claims of WMD meant one was pro-Saddam.

One consequence of this hysteria has been to censor Americans on social media as I and others have been pointing out. Clinton, who has a long history of lack of respect for First Amendment rights, has used the bogus claim that her loss was illegitimate to call for government censorship of information critical of her as she labels it “fake news.” She also claims this is not protected by the First Amendment.

Nobody likes to lose an election, but we have never encountered a situation such as this in which the loser questions the legitimacy of the election, endangers our national security in promoting unnecessary conflicts, and attacks First Amendment rights. Of course we have also never encountered much of what we have seen by the winner of the election either, but this provides no justification for Clinton’s actions.

Russian Facebook Ads And Tweets Turning Out To Represent A Minuscule Percent Of Their Traffic

It increasingly looks like a journalist can simply put out a headline with Russia and either Facebook or Twitter in it and create hysteria. Despite all the hype, we learned during the recent Congressional testimony that material from Russian pages accounted for “less than 0.004 percent of all content — or about 1 in 23,000 news feed items” on Facebook. Over half the ads were not even seen until after the election, and many had nothing to do with promoting Trump over Clinton.

It also looks like the biggest success attributed to Russia on Facebook has been to get 5000 to 10,000 people to turn out for a rally–a rally protesting against Donald Trump after the election.

Today’s hysterical headline is about Twitter, but looks far less scary when looking at the details. Apparently there were trolls on Twitter supporting Donald Trump. There is an enormous number of tweets going out every minute on Twitter, and a tweet does nothing if someone is not following the person tweeting. According to this article, the largest of these Russian troll pages had 25,045 followers at its peak, and the others had far fewer. These are far from widely viewed tweets. It also seems a safe bet that if these accounts were tweeting pro-Trump material, they were primarily followed by pro-Trump individuals and it is questionable whether they could actually change votes, especially considering the far larger number of people tweeting in favor of both Trump and Clinton.

The likelihood of them impacting the election appears even less after noting that of the tweets attributed to troll accounts from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, only “9 percent of the tweets were election-related .”

Most likely we are seeing a combination of things going on. There were probably Tweets and Facebook ads designed to disrupt American politics in general without supporting a particular candidate. There were many which had nothing to do with the election, very likely posts from Russian troll farms designed to obtain page hits, sometimes by making controversial comments. There very well could have also been some intentionally posted to try to help Donald Trump–but considering how small a percentage of overall Facebook and Twitter traffic they represented, it is absurd to say they were more important than Hillary Clinton’s war chest of over one billion dollars, and many others helping her (including paid trolls for Clinton). Even former Clinton adviser Mark Penn has written that this is not what cost Clinton the election.

Russia very likely has been misbehaving–as they have for decades, and as the United States government has. According to a paper of election meddling reviewed by Slate:

Using declassified documents, statements by officials, and journalistic accounts, Levin has found evidence of interference by either the United States or the Soviet Union/Russia in 117 elections around the world between 1946 and 2000, or 11.3 percent of the 937 competitive national-level elections held during this period. Eighty-one of those interventions were by the U.S. while 36 were by the USSR/Russia. They happened in every region of the world, though most commonly in Europe and Latin America. The two powers tended to focus on different countries, though Italy was a favorite of both, receiving eight interventions by the U.S. and four by the Soviets.

We should certainly work towards making Facebook and Twitter more transparent so people know when they are reading ads purchased by Russians. We should not be so naive as to think that we can control what appears on line in the internet age. We should also not take this to mean that there was some sort of unique conspiracy to push Clinton over Trump on social media in 2016. As was revealed in Shattered, Clinton came up with the excuse that Russia cost her the election within twenty-four hours of losing to distract from her own mistakes which cost her the election.

While there are legitimate responses to this issue, this should not be used as an excuse to restrict freedom of speech. The dangers from restricting free communication on Facebook and Twitter are far greater than the actual risk of Russia using social media to alter election results. The consequence of this hysteria has been to censor Americans on social media as I and others have been pointing out. This is what we must concentrate on avoiding. We also must be cautious about playing into neocon propaganda, with many of those now making the same noise attacking Russia are the same people who got this country into a war based upon false claims about Iraq and WMD.