Vladimir Putin
Credit: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons

Last week the Washington Post published an article by Craig Timberg that caused a bit of a stir. It was titled, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” It identified Russia as one of the sources of stories that are getting a lot of attention lately in what we’re calling “fake news.”

Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.

Part of the reaction to the article came from some liberals who critiqued the reporting. For example, Matthew Ingram wrote, “No, Russian Agents Are Not Behind Every Piece of Fake News You See.” The title alone is interesting if you compare it to what Timberg actually wrote in that paragraph above about how Russian propaganda “echoed and amplified right-wing sites.”

Speaking of titles, how about this one from Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton in response: “Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group.” By using words like “disgracefully,” “McCarthyite,” and “blacklist,” these authors ramp up the volume and leave no doubt about their reaction to what Timberg wrote.

Greenwald and Norton spend most of their pixels on a group named PropOrNot that is highlighted in the Washington Post story. It is a relatively new web site that includes a list of sites that are deemed to be purveyors of Russian propaganda. The criticisms raised about this group have some merit – the people behind the site are not named and their methods for identifying sites to put on the list are oblique.

But the focus on PropOrNot, combined with the inflammatory words used to describe them, are actually a lead-up to the real point that Greenwald and Norton want to make – which comes at the end of their article.

Even more disturbing than the Post’s shoddy journalism in this instance is the broader trend in which any wild conspiracy theory or McCarthyite attack is now permitted in U.S. discourse as long as it involves Russia and Putin — just as was true in the 1950s when stories of how the Russians were poisoning the U.S. water supply or infiltrating American institutions were commonplace. Any anti-Russia story was — and is — instantly vested with credibility, while anyone questioning its veracity or evidentiary basis is subject to attacks on their loyalties or, at best, vilified as “useful idiots.”…

Indeed, what happened here is the essence of fake news. The Post story served the agendas of many factions: those who want to believe Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton; those who want to believe that the internet and social media are a grave menace that needs to be controlled, in contrast to the objective truth that reliable old media outlets once issued; those who want a resurrection of the Cold War. So those who saw tweets and Facebook posts promoting this Post story instantly clicked and shared and promoted the story without an iota of critical thought or examination of whether the claims were true, because they wanted the claims to be true. That behavior included countless journalists.

In other words, they want to flip the script and suggest that the idea of Russia’s involvement in the spread of fake news is actually a fake news story designed to aid Clinton, control the dissemination of information and reignite the Cold War. The latter is most interesting in that they use 1950’s stories from the Cold War to make their claim.

Frankly, I was a bit surprised by the amount of attention Timberg’s story received. Perhaps that can be credited to the fact that it was published on Thanksgiving day – when there wasn’t much news to talk about. But the assertions made in it have been documented for quite a while now by journalists like Neil MacFarquhar, Max Fisher and most notably, Adrian Chen. The latter travelled to St. Petersburg, Russia to track down an agency that seemed to be the source of fake news stories in this country. In so doing, he became the target of a fake news story about a meeting he had while he was there.

Max Fisher actually quotes from a 2013 Russian military journal article where these ideas were outlined.

“The very rules of war have changed,” Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, wrote in the Military-Industrial Courier.

The Arab Spring, according to General Gerasimov, had shown that “nonmilitary means” had overtaken the “force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Deception and disinformation, not tanks and planes, were the new tools of power. And they would be used not in formally declared conflicts but within a vast gray between peace and war.

Citing examples of how this kind of disinformation was used by Russia in Sweden when a national debate was underway about whether or not to enter a military partnership with NATO, MacFarquhar notes this:

The flow of misleading and inaccurate stories is so strong that both NATO and the European Union have established special offices to identify and refute disinformation, particularly claims emanating from Russia.

In other words, this is not some “fake news” story dreamed up by the Washington Post as a purveyor of conspiracy theories. It is very real and – given the recent U.S. election – something we should recognize.

While there are certainly still war hawks on the right who would like to reignite the Cold War with Russia, people like Ingram, Norton, and Greenwald seem equally intent on fanning the flames of the position that the U.S. is still engaged in the mistakes that were made in that era in an attempt to discredit any criticism of Russia. That sentiment has now become entangled with opposition to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton as a “neoliberal” sell-out and a fear that this kind of disinformation peddled by an authoritarian foreign power could lead to discrediting small independent news sources.

As someone who actually critiqued Greenwald for focusing on the abuses of the Bush administration’s war on terror while ignoring the historical precedent that was established for those practices during the Cold War, I take a back seat to no one in condemning what this country did – primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America – during our engagement in that contest with the former USSR. That is precisely why President Obama’s opening with Cuba and visit to places like Argentina were so significant.

But that history should not blind us to what is actually happening today. To the extent that communism was ever an existential threat to this country, that is no longer the case – as President Obama has pointed out over and over again. But to defend an authoritarian like Putin who, weakened militarily, is leading disruptive campaigns in Russian satellite countries, Europe, and the U.S. is to use an old liberal frame on a new era.  The Cold War is over. But apparently there are those on the left (as well as the right) who can’t let it go.

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