FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative

Is there such a plane of blissful, balanced information, deliberated and debated upon?  No.  Governments mangle; corporations distort.  Interest groups tinker.  Wars must be sold; deception must be perpetrated.  Inconsistencies must be removed.  There will be success, measured in small doses; failure, dispatched in grand servings.  The nature of news, hollow as it is, is to fill the next segment for the next release, a promiscuous delivery, an amoral ejaculate.  The notion a complicated world can somehow be compressed into a press release, a brief, an observation, is sinister and defeating.

The believers in an objective, balanced news platform are there.  Grants are forked out for such romantic notions as news with integrity, directed to increase “trust in news”, which is tantamount to putting your trust in an institution which has been placed on the mortician’s table.  The Trump era has seen a spike in such funding, but it belies a fundamental misconception about what news is.

Funny, then, that the environment should now be so neatly split: the Russians (always) seen to distort from a central programme, while no one else does.  The Kremlin manipulates feeble minds; virtuous powers do not.  The most powerful nation on the planet claims to be free of this, the same country that boasts cable news networks and demagoguery on the airwaves that have a distinct allergy against anything resembling balanced reporting, many backed by vast funding mechanisms for political projects overseas.  Britain, faded yet still nostalgically imperial, remains pure with the BBC, known as the Beeb, a sort of immaculate conception of news that purportedly survives manipulation.  Other deliverers of news through state channels also worship the idol of balance – Australia’s ABC, for one, asserts that role.

We are the left with a distinct, and ongoing polarisation, where Russia, a country relatively less influential than other powers in terms of heft and demography, has become a perceived monster wielding the influence of a behemoth on the course of history.  Shades and shadows assume the proportions of flesh and meat. The fact that the largest country on the planet has interests, paranoias and insecurities other countries share is not deemed relevant but a danger.  Russia must be deemed the exception, the grand perversion, a modern beast in need of containment.

Terry Thompson of the University of Maryland supplies readers with a delightfully binary reading, because the forested world of politics is, supposedly, easy to hive off and cultivate.  The woods will be ignored, and small, selective gardens nurtured.  The United States has been indifferent, even weak, before the Kremlin’s cheek and prodding ways, or so goes this line of thinking. The time for change is nigh, and the freemen and women of the US imperium must take note.  A hoodwinked US will arise, and learn from those states who have suffered from Moscow’s designs!  “After years of anaemic responses to Russian influence efforts, official US government policy now includes taking action to combat disinformation campaigns sponsored by Russia or other countries.”

In this intoxicated atmosphere comes the Scottish based Integrity Initiative, a “partnership of several independent institutions led by the Institute of Statecraft.  This international public programme was set up in 2015 to counter disinformation and other forms of malign influence being conducted by states and sub-state actors seeking to interfere in democratic processes and to undermine public confidence in national political institutions.”

This low level clerk depiction is all good, a procedurally dull initiative designed to harden the mettle of debate against those who sneer and seek to discredit certain institutions.  Democracy is often the victim of such paper clip fillers and grant seekers.  Then comes the nub of the matter: the political thrust of this entire exercise. Where did the Integrity Initiative get its pennies?  Moral citizens, perhaps?  Bookworms with deep pockets?

That political thrust was revealed, we are told, by a hack.  It came from the devil incarnate, those bear like fangs sharpened on the Russian steppes. “It is of course a matter of deep regret,” came a statement from the group in November, “that Integrity Initiative documents have been stolen and posted online, still more so that, in breach of any defensible practice, Russian state propaganda outlets have published or re-published a large number of names and contact details.” Transparency is a damn bugger, but forced transparency for outfits claiming that no one else practices it is an upending terror.

The revelations were striking on a few fronts. Britain’s Labor Party had been a target, with the group’s Twitter account used to heap upon its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.  But more to the point, it blew the lid off the notion of pristine, exalted partiality. Funding, it transpired, had been obtained, and in abundance, from that most self-interested of bodies, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  In effect, monies had been supplied to the Initiative via a government body to attack the opposition, not exactly a very democratic practice.

On December 3 lasts year, Sir Alan Duncan, in response to a question from Chris Williamson, the member for Derby North, claimed that the FCO had funded the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative to the tune of £296,500 in the financial year 2017/8. That amount has ballooned for the current financial year to the tune of £1,196,000.  “Such funding furthers our commitment to producing important work to counter disinformation and other malign influence.”  Russian practitioners could hardly have said it better themselves.

The technique here remains dog-eared: discredit the hackers as criminal and sidestep the implications of the content revealed.  “We note,” claimed the initiative, “both the attempts by Russian state propaganda outlets to amplify the volume of this leak; and the suggestion by a major Anonymous-linked Twitter account that the Kremlin subverted the banner of Anonymous to disguise their responsibility for it.”

In December, the group, as did Duncan, reiterated the notion that it was a “non-partisan programme of The Institute for Statecraft, a non-partisan charity which promotes good governance.”  On no occasion had the group “engaged in party political activity and would never take up a party-political stance.”  Charming in such insistence, if somewhat disingenuous: any statement with a political target is, by definition, political activity.  Not so for the Initiative, which claims that the FCO’s funding merely reflected “their appreciation of the importance of the threat, and a wish to support civil society programmes seeking to rebuild the ability of democratic societies to resist large scale, malicious disinformation and influence campaigns.”

The very idea of insisting on information that corrects disinformation must, by definition, be politically oriented.  It has a target, and objective.  The world is wrong, at least according to one version, so right it.  We know it, and others do not.  The implication is inescapable.

An example of a journalist outed by the hack is illustrative.  He fell from Olympus.  He thought he was all fair and high, a prince of objectivity.  James Ball, somewhat slighted by the exposures stemming from the Integrity Initiative documents, described the Kremlin’s approach to managing the message in The Guardianas follows: “Russia’s information manipulation strategies are many and varied, and far more sophisticated than simply pushing out pro-Putin messages. It uses a mix of Russian-owned media outlets, most notably RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, sympathetic talking heads, social media ‘bot’ accounts and state-sponsored hackers to influence western politics and media coverage.”

To deny the existence of such media management strategies would simply be silly.  But equally daft is the suggestion that journalism run through the corporate mill in the United States, or through media conglomerates in Europe, identifies some miraculous golden mean of objective fairness.  Ditto numerous governments, who have a deep interest in selling a particular story within, and without their jurisdiction. Respective messages are doing a dance, and governments the world over are attempting to influence the course of discussion.  They are the self-appointed bulwark against “post-truth”, a nonsense term that has assumed the very thing it seeks to combat.

Ball falls into the trap of heralding the virtues of free speech and media only to then find fault with them.  Even he doesn’t entirely these tendencies.  Russia, he argues, simulated a “virus that turns its host’s immune system against itself” using an “information strategy… turning free media and free speech against its own society.”  And what of it?  Surely, models of information parry and thrust can drive the bad out with the good, or is there, underlying these criticisms, the latent suggestion that free society harbours the imbecilic and destructive? As with any wading into these murky waters, the danger is that none of these catalytic engagements seeks free speech, merely a managed deployment of spears analogous to battle. The amoral terrain of the Cold War re-appears, and behind many interlocutors lies the funding of a state.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
June 14, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump’s Trade Threats are Really Cold War 2.0
Bruce E. Levine
Tom Paine, Christianity, and Modern Psychiatry
Jason Hirthler
Mainstream 101: Supporting Imperialism, Suppressing Socialism
T.J. Coles
How Much Do Humans Pollute? A Breakdown of Industrial, Vehicular and Household C02 Emissions
Andrew Levine
Whither The Trump Paradox?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of 10,000 Talkers, All With Broken Tongues
Pete Dolack
Look to U.S. Executive Suites, Not Beijing, For Why Production is Moved
Paul Street
It Can’t Happen Here: From Buzz Windrip and Doremus Jessup to Donald Trump and MSNBC
Rob Urie
Capitalism Versus Democracy
Richard Moser
The Climate Counter-Offensive: Secrecy, Deception and Disarming the Green New Deal
Naman Habtom-Desta
Up in the Air: the Fallacy of Aerial Campaigns
Ramzy Baroud
Kushner as a Colonial Administrator: Let’s Talk About the ‘Israeli Model’
Mark Hand
Residents of Toxic W.Va. Town Keep Hope Alive
John Kendall Hawkins
Alias Anything You Please: a Lifetime of Dylan
Linn Washington Jr.
Bigots in Blue: Philadelphia Police Department is a Home For Hate
David Macaray
UAW Faces Its Moment of Truth
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Washington Detests the Belt and Road Initiative
Horace G. Campbell
Edward Seaga and the Institutionalization of Thuggery, Violence and Dehumanization in Jamaica
Graham Peebles
Zero Waste: The Global Plastics Crisis
Michael Schwalbe
Oppose Inequality, Not Cops
Ron Jacobs
Scott Noble’s History of Resistance
Olivia Alperstein
The Climate Crisis is Also a Health Emergency
David Rosen
Time to Break Up the 21st Century Tech Trusts
George Wuerthner
The Highest Use of Public Forests: Carbon Storage
Ralph Nader
It is Time to Rediscover Print Newspapers
Nick Licata
How SDS Imploded: an Inside Account
Rachel Smolker – Anne Peterman
The GE American Chestnut: Restoration of a Beloved Species or Trojan Horse for Tree Biotechnology?
Sam Pizzigati
Can Society Survive Without Empathy?
Manuel E. Yepe
China and Russia in Strategic Alliance
Patrick Walker
Green New Deal “Climate Kids” Should Hijack the Impeachment Conversation
Colin Todhunter
Encouraging Illegal Planting of Bt Brinjal in India
Robert Koehler
The Armed Bureaucracy
David Swanson
Anyone Who’d Rather Not be Shot Should Read this Book
Jonathan Power
To St. Petersburg With Love
Marc Levy
How to Tell a Joke in Combat
Thomas Knapp
Pork is Not the Problem
Manuel García, Jr.
Global Warming and Solar Minimum: a Response to Renee Parsons
Jill Richardson
Straight People Don’t Need a Parade
B. R. Gowani
The Indian Subcontinent’s Third Partition
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: The Black Body in LA
Jonah Raskin
‘69 and All That Weird Shit
Michael Doliner
My Surprise Party
Stephen Cooper
The Fullness of Half Pint
Charles R. Larson
Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America”
David Yearsley
Sword and Sheath Songs
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail