As the war in Ukraine continues, the hot takes and thinking pieces keep rolling in.
When we think of dangerous misinformation, our minds tend to go to the QAnon cult and stories of ‘biolabs’ and rescued children. Alternatively, you might think of Tucker Carlson’s increasingly desperate attempts to defend Putin (although contrary to a lot of posts I’ve seen, he did not imply that discovered bodies of Ukrainian civilians were staged.)
Often overlooked are the far-left publications promoting almost identical talking points. The headlines are more nuanced, the lies more subtle, and the authors often have a better veneer of respectability.
They deserve just as much scrutiny as their far-right counterparts, but parsing out exactly what is wrong with one of these articles takes effort. You can’t just point at a sentence mentioning mole children and be done with it. You need to engage your brain.
This article is long. I apologize. But a thorough debunking takes time, and explaining your findings takes up even more time. With practice, this becomes very easy, but first you have to follow the process.
For this illustration we will be looking at ‘‘Russian Propaganda’ Is The Latest Excuse To Expand Censorship‘ by Caitlin Johnstone, but you can pick whichever partisan hack you like and follow along.
Step 1 – Should I Even Care?
The headline comes in strong with ‘Russian Propaganda’ in quotes, but there’s only so many hours in the day so it’s a fair question.
Caring should be about context. Is your cousin who likes to call you a cuck posting it to his 20 Facebook followers? In that case, it depends on how much you value the intellectual integrity of your cousin.
Is it being received well by 50,000 people on Twitter? This is where I would think about clicking the link. In my case it was being posted where I had a duty to step in if anything qualifying as ‘dangerous’ or ‘misinformation’ was posted.
Step 2 – Who Wrote This?
So you’ve clicked on the link, now let’s Google the author. On a first go around, she looks like a pretty standard leftist writer. She has books sold by Waterstones and has written for the Observer, which are two institutions you’d expect to do their due diligence on a writer.
However, SEO is relatively easy to manipulate, so there are two extra searches I always perform:
‘<Author Name> RationalWiki’ and ‘<Author Name> controversy’.
‘<Author Name> controversy’ didn’t bring up anything suspicious. So we’re off to a good start!
‘<Author Name> RationalWiki’ is where it gets interesting.
Caitlin Johnstone does not have her own RationalWiki article (great!) but is mentioned on conspiracy theorist Jimmy Dore’s article (bad). Furthermore, Jimmy is praising Caitlin for ‘debunking the conspiracy theory that Assad gassed his own people‘ (RED ALERT).
The third entry down on my RationalWiki search is an article entitled ‘Caitlin Johnstone: Anatomy of a Far Left Conspiracy Nut’ written by Ben Cohen. He doesn’t appear to have much of a journalistic footprint, but thankfully we don’t have to take his word for it. He links us right to a piece Caitlin likely authored on a 9/11 truther site – and a Medium piece promoting the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
If you don’t know about the Seth Rich conspiracy, Wikipedia has a write-up here, but safe to say this is an absolutely disgusting display of conspiracist thinking that directly attacks the parents of a murder victim.
Step 3 – Keep Digging?
I know it sounds like step one but it’s perfectly adequate to point out a 9/11 truther isn’t someone to take seriously and move on with your life. Take a moment to check in and decide if it’s worth the effort to keep going.
If it is, get ready to do what I can only describe as ‘increasingly depressing clicking’.
Step 4 – Identify and Assess What Claims Are Being Made
I’m going to use two sentences to illustrate the dual-pronged approach I advocate for these documents.
Identify What Isn’t Factual
For years US lawmakers have been using threats of profit-destroying consequences to pressure Silicon Valley companies into limiting online speech in a way that aligns with the interests of Washington, effectively creating a system of government censorship by proxy.Caitlin Johnstone
The sources aren’t good, but at least ‘using threats’ and ‘pressure Silicon Valley companies’ are referenced. It would be possible to link to proof of threats, and perhaps legislation designed to suppress speech solely based on its political nature. It is possible for these to be statements of fact.
Even with that (nebulous) possibility in the air, the last nine words are neither a statement of fact nor an earned deduction. Perhaps Caitlin knows a lot of things I don’t and is secretly correct. However as the sentence is currently being presented to us, the conclusion is wholly unsubstantiated and can therefor be discarded.
Click On Those References!
A sentence that stood out to me was:
‘The “different research organizations” AP ends up citing include “Cyabra, an Israeli tech company that works to detect disinformation,” as well as the state-funded NATO narrative management firm The Atlantic Council.’Caitlin Johnstone
I’ll be honest, it was mostly because when people write emotionally charged articles which mention Israel what they mean is (((The Jews))), but ‘state-funded’, ‘NATO’, and ‘narrative management firm’ are all citations, so let’s dig in
This links directly to a primary source showing that at least 10 different governments have made a sizable donation to the Atlantic Council. In using this reference Caitlin is asking us to believe that the governments of Japan and Bahrain (amongst others) are all in on pushing that sweet, sweet (((Israeli))) and NATO propaganda. I decline to endorse that assumption, but at least it’s a primary source.
This links to a page from a group calling themselves ‘Swiss Propaganda Research’ with a(n, IMO) very swank looking WordPress website. Unfortunately the article itself is in German, and you can read a translation here. It’s almost entirely unsupported conclusions about The Atlantic Research Council and NATO (see ‘Identify what isn’t factual’). But, employing the bare minimum of effort to sate my curiosity and judge this website, I hover over ‘English’ and click ‘Contents’.
Oh look – ‘Covid Vaccine Adverse Events’ uses VAERS data to promote that the COVID vaccine can kill you. (Please see here for why that’s a deceptive practice) They’re also supplementing their reporting with…Telegram posts of Facebook posts. A+ –
This is enough to dismiss them to my satisfaction. Maybe you know more about science than I do and can really dig in there, but employing VAERS data and Telegram groups to promote COVID conspiracies is enough for me.
‘Narrative Management Firm’
Before I even read the article on this one I’m jumping to the homepage. No COVID conspiracies, but they’re pushing the narrative that Ukraine is supporting neo-Nazis, so that lets me know what to expect. I immediately do not trust this site’s editors.
For context – The Azov Battalian, a very real group of neo-Nazis currently fighting for the Ukrainian military, number between 900-1500, which is 0.76% of the Ukrainian army, or 0.003% of Ukrainian citizens. In the 2015 general election British fascists ‘National Front’ received 1,114 votes but I don’t think it would be appropriate for France to de-nazify the UK with tanks.
However in this instance the extra clicks were superfluous. Reading the article with a critical eye, you can see that it’s 882 devoted to bitching about the fact that 32 pages were removed from Facebook, two of which might have been groups they endorse. But they may not have been. And in any case they’re restored now. How this is supposed to support the assertion that The Atlantic Council serves as a NATO narrative management firm is a little beyond me
Step 5 – Is It Dangerous Or Stupid?
This is always going to be the most subject part of the process. The article is stupid, yes, but it’s written competently enough, and is obviously geared towards inflaming the emotions of the crowd.
I also believe it’s dangerous to allow on a platform because (a) it’s written by someone with a track record of promoting Russian-backed/authored conspiracy theories (see Seth Rich) (b) it leads the reader to websites promoting misinformation, including vaccine disinformation which has demonstrably led to deaths.
The eventual apotheosis – ‘This isn’t about RT, it’s about the the agenda to continually expand and normalize the censorship of unauthorized speech’ – links to another one of her blog posts that opens insinuating that people are only calling out Joe Rogan’s COVID misinformation because the elites want to control our minds. This adds nothing to the discourse.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Caitlin provides plenty of the former, but none of the latter
Step 6 – Make a Lot of People Angry
It would be nice to end with the ‘extraordinary claims’ line, but you’ll be extremely lucky if you’ve managed to dissect a post like this without making people angry.
You might make the author angry, which is fine! No, genuinely, it’s fine. Be prepared to be lambasted using the same rigorous journalism that got them here in the first place. Perhaps they’ll even find an embarrassing photo or five. Own it. If liars and conspiracists are mad at you, you’re doing the right thing.
You might also have made reactionaries angry but I point to the above.
You may encounter people saying “well ok so the author isn’t too credible, and there are holes in the arguments, and the references are bad, but the HEART of the article is true”. Always invite those people to expand on what they mean, but be prepared to repeat steps 1-6 if you do.
Anyone emotionally invested in the narrative simply isn’t going to have their mind changed by you. There are so many half-assed posts on the internet that you can play this game indefinitely.
Remember to always check in with step 1 – because at some point it really does stop being worth your time.