Monday, December 26, 2016

Censorship and the Russian propaganda scare

This column by Guy Verhofstadt is another call for intensifying the New Cold War against Putinist Russia and for implementing censorship in Western countries to suppress opinions and factual reporting that might call into questions hostile policies toward the Kremlin, Russia’s Hybrid War Against the West Project Syndicate 12/23/2016.

Verhofstadt is not just some cranky columnist. He is the former Prime Minister of Belgium and presently President of the European liberal parties' group in the European Parliment, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Not to be confused with the ALDE Party itself. Verhofstadt heads the Parliamentary group. The Party President is Hans von Ballen.

The liberal parties forming ALDE are liberal in the European sense, pretty much hardline free-market and antilabor. But there is also a strong tradition among European liberals of support for civil rights and human rights, strong democratic institutions and the rule of law. And freedom of the press. And they are committed to the European Union, which has hardened into an enforcer of destructive neoliberal politics that is damaging both economic policy and undermining democracy.

Verhofstadt's column is illuminating in that he barely gestures at concealing the censorship agenda behind conventional national-security concerns. Although that is his main justification:

Russia’s disinformation campaigns are complex and multifaceted, but the mission they share is to undermine trust in Western democratic authorities. Social-media trolling is one method. And social media is also a key vector for a Russian strategy that relies on historical revisionism (the claim that Russia alone won World War II is a staple of this approach); on conspiracy theories, promoted among European and American nationalist movements, which blame the West for, say, inciting the war in Ukraine; and denial of reality, such as the presence of Russian troops in Crimea and Ukraine.

To defend against this onslaught, the West should promote media freedom, reward accountability, and provide legal avenues to shut down systemic disinformation channels. It bodes well that the EU recently amended its 2017 budget to reinforce the European External Action Service’s StratCom team, which had been badly underfunded, despite its critical mission of uncovering and debunking disinformation. But the EU and NATO should also take a lesson from the US election, by bolstering collective European cyber defenses, and pressuring member states to expand their own cyber capabilities. On the political front, Putin must be told that foreign interference in national elections will have severe negative consequences for Russian economic interests.

Beyond government action, the private sector and civil-society organizations should step up their efforts to verify whether online news stories are accurate, balanced, and credible. Organizations working together can make a difference. For example, Russia terminated its Swedish-language edition of Sputnik, because Swedish media organizations were not using its products. [my emphasis]
There are several important considerations here from the standpoint of international economics and politics and from that of classical liberal freedom-of-speech-and-the-press.

Remember globalization? The Holy Grail of neoliberal economics and politics? The excuse for corporate-deregulation "trade" treaties that block democratic regulation of business conduct, product safety and environmental protection? Don't we still live in Little Tommy Freedman's Flat World? And yet, Guy Verhofstadt and the center-left and (at least in Europe) the center-right want us to wet ourselves in fear of scary furrin ideas coming across national borders?

Also, the nominal justification of censorship as in Verhofstadt's piece has to do with secret "cyberwar" activities. Emphasis on secret. The cold reality is that we in the general public don't have any reasonably good idea of what that secret area of conflict looks like. Here's the moment I insert the obligatory acknowledgment that the fact that We may be Doing It doesn't mean it's all right for Them to Do It to Us. Particularly because We Americans are Exceptional.

But despite the deep desires of neocons and "humanitarian hawks" alike, the world doesn't work like that. The United States during the First Cold War made abundant use of "fake news," which we used to call "disinformation," a word that Verhofstadt uses. Are we now supposed to regard what They do as sinister Disinformation while what We do in the same way for the same purpose is benign Soft Power?

In the real world, We are going to keep doing it and so are They. The problem in evaluating the seriousness of the alleged Russian disinformation operations is that (1) we have to rely largely on intelligence services and governments for the facts of what's going on, and those institutions in the US especially have not be noted in, well, many years for their reliability and transparency in informing the voting public about such things; and, therefore (2) we don't actually know who is retaliating for what or initiating what in these multi-sided efforts.

Nor do we know what practical boundaries various countries may have agreed on in addition to actual international law. And popular discussion of the legal aspects have been notably lacking from the post-US Presidential election discussions of the Russian hacking issue, so far as I can see. Most everyone could agree, I think - although I don't pretend to speak for actual Putin fans here - that actions like hacking voting machines to manipulate the vote are unacceptable. At least when They try to do it to Us.

But once we go beyond that, any honest evaluation of what might be acceptable conduct would have to admit to a complexity entirely lacking in Verhofstadt's call for expanded censorship. Let's take RT, the now-much-discussed Russia Today government-funded channel. Let's assume for the moment what I actually do assume is true from what I knew of it even before this year, which is that it is broadly operating to promote a Putin government's view of the world.

What does that mean in practice? That democratically elected governments should assume that all us citizens are too brainless to take account of the fact that a state-sponsored channel called Russia Today might tend to reflect the Russian government's outlook? Isn't there actually some benefit for citizens to be able hear the viewpoint of the Other Side? We certainly have no shortage of media outlets presenting Our Side (whatever that is at any given time). I assume our intelligence agencies pay close attention to what is broadcast on RT. If it doesn't turn them into Russian spybots, is there any reason to think it would happen to those of us who are not working for intelligence agencies or who don't have, say, business contracts with the CIA?

I haven't watched a lot of RT the last couple of years. But I haven't had any trouble applying critical judgment to what they broadcast when I have watched it. Larry King Now has been broadcasting on RT, and on Hulu and OraTV, the latter being a company launched by King in partnership with Mexican media magnate Carlos Slim. Should we now regard Larry King as a Russian sock puppet? Is everybody who appears as a guest on his show a "useful idiot" (and favorite phrase of the New Cold War crowd) for Putin and his spy services? But, wait, King's also in business with a Mexican! Is a he a puppet for Mexico, too? Or does he flip a coin to decide what foreign puppetmaster he serves on a given day? Or maybe Carlos Slim is a Russian agent being run by Larry King? Or maybe Putin is a puppet of Carlos Slim ... Political paranoia is hard.

I'm not minimizing the problem of malicious foreign propaganda. I'm just pointing out on what a painfully superficial level the public discussion is taking place.

Regulating the media business is different from censorship, though the boundaries may at times but less than sharply clear-cut. Is is good public policy for Jeff Bezos, which is CEO of Amazon which has a $600 million contract with the CIA, to own the Washington Post, which for decades has been a key source of national news on the federal government and national politics? My own opinion is, definitely not. We don't need to make polemical comparisons with other media situations to understand the problem there. As an example, WaPo just reported on a one-time US enemy and now long-time US ally, the Afghan warlord Abdurrashid Dostum: Pamela Constable, Afghanistan’s vice president is known for brutality. But he may have gone too far. 12/23/2016.

Should we take this story as fact-based journalism? Or is it maybe a propaganda campaign by the CIA? (Hey, $600 million is a lot of money.) But, wait, is Russia pro or anti Dostum? And if so, is the WaPo and/or the CIA spinning this one way or another because of that? And are they still operating in "Obama" mode or switching to a Trumputinist mode? And if we can't see Russia Today, how are we going to know what the official Russian spin on Dostum is?

Again, the point is about the simplistic level of the discussion in the mainstream media and among our political elites, the latter category definitely including Guy Verhofstadt.

Also, it would be desirable, however highly unlikely it is, if all literate adults would attempt to act as such on this issue. For instance, on thinking about what "foreign influence" means. Since the publication of Joahn Marsheimer's and Stephen Walt's book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007) and the paper of the same name from 2006, there has been a far more robust and constructive public discussion of Israel's influence on American politics that there had been previously. But it has changed the fact that virtually every member of Congress wants to be considered "pro-Israel." It's also common for American politicians to be "pro" Britain, "pro" Ireland, "pro" South Korea.

That's because all of foreign policy involves choosing which countries to be "pro" and which to be "anti." And on which issues. And when. And how intensely. The fact that a source or a political figure is "pro-Russia" doesn't mean she is a fool or a foreign agent. Any more than being "pro-Ireland" or "pro-Colombia" implies disloyalty to the United States. Whether a "pro-Country X" position is good or bad depends on the actual situation. And if someone criticizes US policy that is against Country X, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are "pro-Country X," although they may be on that particular issue. And, again, that posture is good or bad depends on the actual situation. And on how it fits into a larger set of policies.

The left generally in the US and Europe - and this also means any factions of the center-left not completely committed to the New Cold War policies - needs to take these calls for censorship seriously and understand that they are not only aimed against pragmatic realist approaches to Russia policy but also against critics of the neoliberal order and the European Union more generally.

We should all also avoid getting confused about the ideological meaning of Putin's support for far-right populism in Europe. Putin is committed to an oligarchical form of government. And he's presumably looking to enhance Russia's safety and its power in the world ahead of any particular political ideology in other countries. The notion of a Nationalist International headed by Putin is a catchy concept and even a somewhat informative one. But a "Nationalist International" pretty obviously is a concept with serious contradictions in it. And Putin can be expected to prioritize Russian nationalist priorities over those of Hungarian, Polish, French or German nationalism.

And though Putin is committed to Russia's own form of oligopoly capitalism internally, that does not mean that Russia will support the Washington Consensus version in other places such as capital controls or privatization of its oil industry. There are going to be differences in the perspectives of national interests among Washington, Berlin and Moscow, as there were on Georgia and Ukraine. Some of those may have to do with different economic approaches, others with broader power-political questions.

Maria Raquel Freire and Licínia Simão (2015) in The Modernisation Agenda in Russian Foreign Policy European Politics and Society 16:1 (2015) discuss the various major priorities to be seen in Russia's internal modernization agenda and its closely related foreign policy:

Modernisation of the administration focuses on achieving more efficiency and less corrupt state structures, offering a more favourable environment to foreign investment; at the level of the military, investment in equipment and human resources is referred to as essential to address internal security as well as external capacity, regarding multilateral operations, adequate response to external threats and a strong positioning of Russian military forces in the international context; concerning social policies, it includes in particular health and education reform, the latter particularly relevant in terms of the role it might play as a foreign policy instrument ... This broadly means that modernisation is understood as a process crosscutting sectorial areas, linked to the politics of the reassertion of Russian nationalism and its great power status. Second, and following on the previous point, modernisation also means the positioning of Russia in a modern world, as a ‘contemporary power’. This is reasoned in Russian policy documents as being situated among the most advanced states, identified as democratic states with strong economies and technologically developed (such as the G8). Becoming a ‘contemporary power’ is perceived as fundamental to assure Russia’s competitiveness in a fast changing polycentric context, namely regarding the emergence of the BRICS countries, and particularly China’s influence globally ... [my emphasis]
To conclude, it's worth noticing the broad categories Verhofstadt uses in describing the actions he suggests against Russian disinformation in Western countries. He talks about boosting "cyber defenses," of course. And who could object to that?

But other elements are far more ambiguous:

  • He says the Russians "undermine trust in Western democratic authorities." Just as, say, Western critics of Putin want to undermine trust in Russian authorities. But every Out party tries in some way to "undermine trust" in the In party, its policies and personnel and performance. So taking anything and everything in politics or reporting that might "undermine trust in Western democratic authorities" as a sign of Russian influence is just a stock excuse for censorship to benefit those in power.
  • "Social-media trolling is one method" used by Russian disinformation operations, he tells us. But if we take social-media trolling as a symptom of Russian political espionage, then we would pretty much have to shut down not only Twitter and Facebook and any comments sections on blogs, news articles or anywhere else that people might be posting about anything more political than liking or disliking consumer products. And, heck, even product ratings could turn out to be a devious Rooski effort to "undermine trust in Western democratic authorities."
  • Apparently the West's purity in the Ukraine crisis of recent years is so self-evident to Verhofstadt that it's obvious to him only a Russian dupe and/or Putin-lover could suggests that anything about Western policies in that situation might have been careless, excessively or unnecessarily provocative or plain misguided. Unless, presumably, you want to criticize them for not being militantly anti-Russian enought. But wait? Couldn't somebody be criticizing Western governments' not being hardline enough be trying to "undermine trust in Western democratic authorities"? You know, those Russians and Putin symps are devious!

In other words, we shouldn't do stupid stuff out of deference to anti-Russian panic on the part of various parties with mixed motives for promoting censorship.

We also need to avoid being simple-minded about what "foreign influence" actually means in the world of 2016.

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