At a glance.
- Medical research framed as biowar.
- Agents of influence.
- Corruption as a strategic weapon.
- Content moderation and counter-messaging.
- Misinformation as a deficient informational diet?
Former biowar labs turned to good use (but Moscow would rather you saw it otherwise).
Old Soviet biomedical research and monitoring facilities in the former Soviet Republics that are now independent states in the Near Abroad were converted to high-end medical research labs at the end of the Cold War. Like most such establishments, they had a potential for dual use: legitimate plague-monitoring stations can equally well serve as biological warfare development labs. And in the Soviet Union, many of them had acquired that mission. Foreign Policy describes how those facilities, left underfunded and unsecured when the Soviet Union broke apart, received American funding and assistance that enabled them to operate safely as legitimate medical research institutions. Under the Nunn-Lugar Program, named after its two Senatorial sponsors, the labs were demilitarized. The Nunn-Lugar facilities in both Georgia and Kazakhstan have both played an important and positive role in their countries' response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that's not to Russia's liking. Moscow is operating a disinformation campaign pushing the (false) narrative that the Kazakh and Georgian labs are part of a secret US biowar infrastructure the Americans (probably with British help) put in place to hold Russia at risk of biological attack.
"The benefits of U.S. foreign-policy programs are rarely felt in the daily life of Americans," writes the essayist, Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That may be one reason that the U.S. public and the country’s leadership have turned away from the world, and against the United States’ traditional global role. But these laboratories that have their origins in a broad bipartisan effort in the U.S. Congress—another rarity today—are a reminder of the positive power of U.S. leadership and its capacity to improve so many lives around the world."
Investigating an alleged agent of influence.
Australia's government has grown increasingly suspicious of the reach and effect of Chinese disinformation. Parliamentary hearings on the threat are in progress, and, more immediately, investigators have raided the home of a politician believed to be, possibly, working under Chinese influence. The New York Times reports that authorities raided the home and office of Shaoquett Moselmane, a suburban Sydney Labor politician and state legislator. Mr. Moselmane had recently praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the way he's organized China's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is to say the least not the view of the Australian government, which has been calling for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic and of China's role in its spread.
The search warrant was executed as part of an ongoing investigation, but neither the authorities nor Mr. Moselmane had any immediate further comment. It doesn't appear to be a partisan move by Prime Minister Morrison's government. Mr. Morrison is a Liberal, but the Labor Party was quick to announce that it was suspending Mr. Moselmane's party membership as soon as news of the raid came out.
Since that suspension, the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Sam Dastyari, a former Labor Senator who left Parliament in 2017, has called for a full investigation of foreign influence in Australian politics. Mr. Dastyari is in some respects a surprising figure to call for such an investigation. He resigned from Parliament over revelations concerning his own connections with the Chinese Communist Party. The former Senator put it this way: "Look, what happened to me in my career a few years ago really should have been a canary in the coalmine when it comes to foreign influence and these kinds of pressures. The question you have to ask yourself is - are you using them or are they using you? And it's become very, very clear, and my case demonstrated this, is that they are using you."
Australia has historically been relatively permissive with respect to political donations, although some restrictions date back to 1918. The Australian Electoral Commission has a summary of the state of the law.
Influence and corruption.
Part of what caused trouble in Australia was the apparent alignment of politicians' activities with Chinese foreign policy, but even more the suspicion that such alignment had been facilitated or even purchased by various gifts and favors. The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Mr. Moselmane has now broken his silence about the raid. He's done nothing wrong, he says, and is not a suspect in any police investigation. He's positioning himself rather as a friend of the Chinese-Australian community, a group that, he says, has attracted more than its share of unjustified popular suspicion. It's a "political lynching," the Guardian reports him as saying, and he added that his meetings with representatives of the Chinese Communist Party were about a common interest about delivering aid to benefit disabled children. The police aren't saying anything, but there are reports in the Australian (which Mr. Moselmane denies) that his frequent trips to China were comped by the Chinese Communist Party.
We hasten to say that we're not assuming that either Mr. Moselmane or Mr. Dastyari have been shown to be guilty of either criminal conduct or offenses against political morality, however dubious what American political operators call "the optics" may be. But the entire affair suggests ways in which graft, even relatively petty rake-offs, can have foreign policy implications. It's easy to think of political corruption as being, fundamentally, a good-government issue: you don't want the city councilman to give someone a break on a water bill or a new sewer line because someone's business is slipping him an envelope of cash under the table. On this people of good will tend to agree. What may be harder to grasp is the role that corruption, petty or grand, can play in what a Foreign Policy essay calls "the weaponization of graft." The essayists argue that Russia and China have grown particularly adept at "strategic corruption," since their systems give them unusual first-hand experience of how it works.
"The result has been a subtle but significant shift in international politics. Rivalries between states have generally been fought over ideologies, spheres of influence, and national interests; side payments of one kind or another were just one tactic among many. Those side payments, however, have become core instruments of national strategy, leveraged to gain specific policy outcomes and to condition the wider political environment in targeted countries. This weaponized corruption relies on a specific form of asymmetry. Although any government can hire covert agents or bribe officials elsewhere, the relative openness and freedom of democratic countries make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of malign influence—and their nondemocratic enemies have figured out how to exploit that weakness."
Content control and counter-messaging.
Facebook and other social media platforms have been under advertisers' pressure to increase their efforts to moderate content. (See the Wall Street Journal's summary of the representative case of Facebook.) This seems likely to drive them toward the uncomfortable position of functioning as publishers as opposed to platforms. It's also difficult to see how they could effectively scale moderation to handle the vast amount of information that crosses their services, at least without producing difficulties and provoking controversies at least as sharp as those they now face.
An alternative approach to disinformation is counter-messaging, argument, at its best, competitive marketing in its lower forms. The Atlantic Council summarizes concerns that recent changes to the management of US Government broadcasters are likely to undermine their credibility and effectiveness.
Misinformation as a Lumpenproletarian phenomenon.
Bizarre claims about the origins of the COVID-19 virus somewhere in mobile phone infrastructure hasn't abated. There's no theory behind it, not even "theory" in the sense of a coherent if utterly baseless set of beliefs, like those that underpin enthusiasm for such things as the Bermuda Triangle and the Philadelphia Experiment. Yet people continue to damage cell towers. This still seems to be a case of spontaneously arising misinformation, a species of the madness of crowds. A harsh essay in Foreign Policy derides it as, fundamentally, a lumpen issue, something espoused by the badly educated and barely employed casualties at the bottom of society, the Lumpenproletariat that Marx dismissed as retrograde and counter-revolutionary, the natural ally of the petty bourgeoisie. They live, the essayist argues with some heat, on a diet of informational junk food, and that's a problem. Indeed it is, although the class angle may not lend itself to easy generalization. For example, consider various anti-vaccine views not much better grounded than fear of cell towers. Those tend to be more characteristic of the affluent and the better educated, the class whom some Marxists would have seen as contributing a vanguard the proletariat itself couldn't generate. What are they eating around Palo Alto, information wise, one wonders?
A note to our readers.
We'll be observing Independence Day this week, and so won't be publishing on either Friday or Saturday. We'll be back with a new episode of Career Notes this coming Sunday, and as usual we'll return to our normal publication schedule Monday. In the meantime, enjoy the Fourth.