At a glance.
- Disinformation for marketshare?
- Information operations and battlespace preparation.
- America's loosely enforced treason laws.
Disinformation for marketshare?
The defamation lawsuit Dominion, a manufacturer of voting machines, has brought against Fox News, seems effectively to be adjudicating some unseemly partisan newsroom practices. In its complaint, Dominion makes the following allegations:
"Fox, one of the most powerful media companies in the United States, gave life to a manufactured storyline about election fraud that cast a then-littleknown voting machine company called Dominion as the villain. After the November 3, 2020 Presidential Election, viewers began fleeing Fox in favor of media outlets endorsing the lie that massive fraud caused President Trump to lose the election. They saw Fox as insufficiently supportive of President Trump, including because Fox was the first network to declare that President Trump lost Arizona. So Fox set out to lure viewers back—including President Trump himself—by intentionally and falsely blaming Dominion for President Trump’s loss by rigging the election."
Thus Dominion claims that Fox made a business decision, in Dominion's view, to get that audience back by retailing a conspiracy theory known to be false:
"Fox endorsed, repeated, and broadcast a series of verifiably false yet devastating lies about Dominion. These outlandish, defamatory, and far-fetched fictions included Fox falsely claiming that: (1) Dominion committed election fraud by rigging the 2020 Presidential Election; (2) Dominion’s software and algorithms manipulated vote counts in the 2020 Presidential Election; (3) Dominion is owned by a company founded in Venezuela to rig elections for the dictator Hugo Chávez; and (4) Dominion paid kickbacks to government officials who used its machines in the 2020 Presidential Election."
Dominion alleges that Fox wasn't itself deceived, and that it knew the conspiracies it was reporting weren't true:
"Fox recklessly disregarded the truth. Indeed, Fox knew these statements about Dominion were lies. Specifically, Fox knew the vote tallies from Dominion machines could easily be confirmed by independent audits and hand recounts of paper ballots, as has been done repeatedly since the election. Fox also knew that these lies were being rebutted by an increasingly long list of bipartisan election officials, election security experts, judges, then-Attorney General Bill Barr, then-United States Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Chris Krebs, Election Assistance Commissioner Ben Hovland, Republican Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Republican former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, to name a few—not to mention some within Fox itself."
This is, of course, a plaintiff's brief, but it's worth reading. The New York Times reports on text messages disclosed during the trial. These were sent by senior Fox personnel (including some on-air talent who were discussing the possibility of voter fraud) that suggest they themselves didn't believe the conspiracy theories some Fox hosts were reporting. The Times also reports that Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch said, in his deposition, that he and others at Fox knew there was nothing to the conspiracy speculation even as some of the network's hosts were reporting it. “I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” he said, and he added that he himself was skeptical of President Trump's claims that the 2020 election had been stolen through widespread voter fraud. “Yes. I mean, we thought everything," that is the election, "was on the up-and-up,” he said. He denied, however, that this was being done by the network as a whole, saying that while some hosts "endorsed" the conspiracy theories, Fox News itself did not.
The Washington Post describes Fox's defense, which it summarizes in a brief quotation: “Just as Fox News hosts did not take the President’s claims at face value, they did not take Dominion’s denials at face value either.” Thus, it seems, the defense to an accusation of knowing disregard for the truth is met by an explanation that, after all, reasonable people might disagree. Should Dominion's allegations be borne out, they would be utterly damning for Fox's post-election coverage.
Information operations and battlespace preparation.
The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has published a study of what its report characterizes as "narrative warfare," that is, Russia's efforts to sway, systematically, domestic and international opinion toward a point-of-view that would favor its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. "Our timeline documents Russian deployments to the Ukrainian border disguised as training exercises, then tracks how the Kremlin and leaders of the breakaway republics wove together their justifications, denials, and attempts to mask their activities," the report says. "Pro-Kremlin outlets emphasized these narratives during key escalatory events, including Russia demanding unrealistic security guarantees from Ukraine and the West; separatist officials accusing Ukraine of shelling a kindergarten and employing saboteurs against chemical facilities; separatist officials evacuating civilians and calling for Kremlin intervention; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that surrendered Ukraine’s nuclear stockpile for security guarantees; and Vladimir Putin announcing recognition of the breakaway republics."
Much of the preparation was intended as misdirection, useful in leading Ukraine and its potential allies to misinterpret Russian preparation for invasion. The DFRLab counted the number of pieces pro-Russian sources published during the run-up to the war and organized them into five themes:
- "Russia is seeking peace (2,201 articles)"
- "Russia has a moral obligation to do something about security in the region (2,086 articles)"
- "Ukraine is aggressive (1,888 articles)"
- "The West is creating tensions in the region (1,729 articles)"
- "Ukraine is a puppet of the West (182 articles)"
The thrust of the preparation, which the DRFLab says was years in preparation, was to create a convincing casus belli that would justify Russian military action against Ukraine. That effort has been less than fully successful, as two votes in the United Nations General Assembly that condemned Russia's war indicate. But they do indicate, DRRLab concludes, that the war was long-prepared. They also conclude that the elaborate attempts to construct a narrative that supports a casus belli is evidence of a guilty mind: the Kremlin and its surrogates in the Donbas knew full well that an invasion of Ukraine was aggressive, a violation of the UN Charter, and unlikely to be well-received internationally.
Once the war was fully and openly launched, the goal of misdirection was replaced by the goal of influencing Ukrainian and Western opinion in a pro-Russian direction. The DFRLab says, "From the moment the first explosions rocked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Putin no longer needed to use false narratives to mask the military buildup toward war. His pre-dawn speech articulated his false justifications for initiating another war of aggression against Ukraine, even though he and the Kremlin continued to couch the invasion as a 'special military operation.'” In addition to influencing foreign opinion, the disinformation campaign assumed an important role in sustaining domestic Russian morale and securing continued popular support for war at home. These efforts have seen some effort to use influencers (young people wearing clothing marked with the patriotic "Z" symbol that's seen widespread use during the war, for example) and to adopt "the tropes of fact-checking" to deploy them against Ukrainian or Western claims that the Kremlin finds unwelcome, whether they're true or not. Thus various Telegram channels aligned with the regime come across as a Muscovite version of Snopes, or the Washington Post's Pinocchio-counting.
And, of course, narrative control, especially domestically, involves suppressio veri as much as it does suggestio falsi. Russia's Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor [ROSS-kom-nahd-ZOR] has banned nine foreign messaging apps, Computing reports. Roskomnadzor's statement singles out the apps as being foreign-owned, and as providing a way for users to communicate directly with one another. The sender determines the recipient of the message with no possibility for public mediation of the content, and this direct, unmediated communication seems to be the more troubling aspect of the services. As Computing points out, other foreign-owned apps (like Zoom) remain acceptable. Rozkomnadzor's statement makes no specific accusation of subversion or direct complicity with anti-Russian forces, as had marked earlier bans on Facebook and Instagram. The apps that fall under the new restrictions include Discord, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Snapchat, Telegram, Threema, Viber, WhatsApp, and WeChat.
To return to the Atlantic Council's assessment, DFRLab concludes: "As the war enters its second year, Kremlin information operations will continue their attempts to erode confidence in Ukraine. With each narrative it amplifies, whether through social media campaigns, false fact-checking efforts, deepfakes, forged documents, or symbols as simple as the letter Z, the Kremlin will pursue its goal of undermining Ukraine until it gives up the fight. Only time will tell if Russia succeeds or fails; its record to date is spotty at best."
America's loosely enforced treason laws.
Russian President Putin has honored sometime American action star Steven Seagal with the "Order of Friendship," a decoration bestowed on those who, the AP says, have "contributed to bettering international relations." Mr. Seagal, who has taken Russian citizenship in addition to his US citizenship and has recently lived mainly in Russia, has been a prominent supporter of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and the special military operation begun last February. The Russian Foreign Ministry in 2018 appointed Mr. Seagal a "humanitarian envoy" to the United States and Japan.
We partially take back our headline--please understand "treason laws" as figurative. Mr. Seagal's behavior isn't actually treason under US law, however tired anyone may have grown of the gentleman's schtick. And like everyone else we hope that Mr. Seagal enjoys his time in Russia.