Twitter’s ‘Block Brigade’ is a Real Problem

Twitter’s ‘Block Brigade’ is a Real Problem

A piece co-written with Bradley Jardine, a Scottish journalist based in Moscow.

“I am now ‘the most dangerous pundit in America’” U.S. lobbyist, consultant and self-described information warfare expert Molly McKew tweeted after her Congressional testimony on Sept. 14. “Keep tweeting guys! I’m sure your next check [sic] will show dividends.”

In Twitter’s new hyper-partisan climate, self-proclaimed information warriors like McKew are accusing their sceptical peers, falsely, of ties to the Kremlin. Calls for nuance, in their view, are tantamount to treason.

In this growing conflict, Twitter’s block feature is gaining particular notoriety.

The block function is far from airtight. Users can continue to view their blocker’s newsfeed using Google’s incognito function; some even use multiple Twitter accounts. There isn’t much that can escape the Twitterati grapevines.

Most people use the block to feel safe. It can potentially provide protection from the whole gamut of invasive forces, from prying relatives and spurned lovers to unsolicited dick pics. On its own, it’s largely benign.

But like all benevolent tools, the block can be abused. When used by the new, intrepid class of information warriors, the block is autocratic by nature. For this new generation of dam-builders, it’s a way to cut off contrarian information-flows and stifle debate.

It means shutting out journalists, researchers, analysts and students. The result is not only that they refuse to listen to informed opinion, but that they seal this information off from their thousands of followers too. Like the autocrats they purportedly combat, the information warriors are susceptible to their methods.

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A small sample.

The blocked journalist is by and large apathetic toward the blocker. The realisation of having been blocked is often a source of amusement – a bizarre social ritual of the online community. The blocked and the blocker, trapped in a constellation of social ties, will continue to dance around one another, regardless of whether one another’s existence is acknowledged. In this context, the block is no more anonymising than a Venetian mask at a village orgy.

But it’s insidious. For the well-connected information-warrior, each of whom has upwards of 30,000 followers sharing their opinions, it is a tool of social manipulation. Followers are deprived of debate, and the cult of the charlatan grows unchecked.

Opposing narratives still emerge on the newsfeeds of other users, sure. But what’s missing is interaction. In its place are gated communities, thumb-tapping into the void. Block by block they construct digital fortresses.

But remember, these information warriors aren’t just Twitter personalities. These are people who get invited to conferences, write op-eds and testify before Congressional committees. These are people who have real influence and real power, and a real tendency to wall themselves off from their peers.

And the besieged fortress demands discipline in the ranks. The people outside it are enemies, bloated out of all proportion into grotesque caricatures. “Useful idiots!” the charlatan declares, “Kremlin trolls,” their most resolute disciples chirp in. The chambers echo because they are hollow.

The real problem is that prominent politicians, think-tankers, ambassadors and military leaders are being swept up into the conflict. Without accurate information it’s no wonder there’s a dearth of rational actors.

In this partisan atmosphere, legitimate concerns are said to be motivated by the most crass considerations. They’re doing it for money. They’re in league with the Kremlin. They’re all biscuit-arsed “bros” who don’t like outsiders butting in on their turf. In this cacophony, informed Western journalists are painted as no better than their RT and Sputnik counterparts.

Alarmingly, there are also toxic, xenophobic undertones to the discussion. A discussion that argues “guilt by association,” that journalists in Moscow are somehow tainted by their engagement with Russian culture.

“It’s the soft on Russia model” McKew said during her Congressional hearing. “You especially see it among this middle rank, these Western journalists sort of hanging out in Moscow and others who propagate this narrative of ‘Ok Russia is bad, but America is worse.’”

Rightly, informed analysts separate Russia’s autocratic institutions from its people. Informed analysts acknowledge the problems of fake news and Kremlin-backed meddling. But unlike information warriors, informed analysts rely on verifiable claims and call for caution against botched sourcing and outlandish conclusions.

Information warriors follow a different logic. These are people who are committed to varying degrees to fighting fake news, disinformation and nefarious Kremlin influence in Europe and beyond. But they’re also people who have a vested interest in a few of the highest-profile efforts, whether it’s an anti-fake news centre or a fact-checking website that gets 12,000 hits a month. They’re the people committed to building a niche brand for themselves as the go-to paid consultant for all your (dis)information warfare needs. They’re the people convinced we are on a war footing, where any criticism of a western anti-disinformation effort, whether the recent Committee to Investigate Russia or the Hamilton 68 dashboard, is seen as an almost treasonous act of apparent Kremlin-abetting.

Twitter is not the real world. But it’s an important talk-shop where policymakers, policy-wonks, public officials and pundits gather. It’s where opinions are made, shared and canonized.

But it’s also a place where mirror-image Putinization is being born, where swathes of dissenting voices are being literally blocked out of the discussion, unmasked as apparent traitors and dismissed.  

The world doesn’t need more warriors. The world needs people to stop and think about what they’re doing. 

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist in Prague. His work has appeared in Foreign PolicyCoda Story, Haaretz and CBC. 

Bradley Jardine is a Scottish journalist in Moscow. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Moscow Times, and Eurasianet among others. Follow him

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Why isn’t Andrej Babis in Evropské hodnoty/European Values’ crosshairs?

Why isn’t Andrej Babis in Evropské hodnoty/European Values’ crosshairs?

The Czech Republic’s most active think-tank has barely criticized, let alone mentioned their future Prime Minister Andrej Babis – a man who isn’t exactly a shining example of western liberal democracy in action.

Remember, Babis is someone who’s:

  • The second-richest man in the country, with his Agrofert conglomerate having its hands in everything from fertilizers and farm equipment, to two of the largest Czech newspapers and its most popular radio station.
  • Been accused of having been a Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police agent (though an appellate court in Slovakia “affirmed Mr. Babis was not an agent of the secret police”).
  • Been caught on tape earlier this year coordinating coverage of his political opponents with a journalist at one of the purportedly independent newspapers he owns.
  • Accused of numerous conflicts of interest, and now someone who’s had his parliamentary immunity stripped over fraud allegations.
  • Been recently described to me as “Trump, Berlusconi and Orban all in one.”
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Babis’ paper: “Accept the Euro, fast!” Non-Babis paper: “Juncker: I don’t dictate anything to Czechia” (from https://twitter.com/FilipZajicek/status/908226594979958784)

Let’s also not forget some of the Russia-related allegations that have been thrown at Babis.

  • He’s called EU and US sanctions on Russia “nonsense” and said they’re against the country’s economic interests – a line I’ve personally heard from some Kremlin-friendly figures across Europe.
  • He’s dodged questions on whether Putin bore the blame for annexing Crimea, and has said NATO “cannot stay on this idea that Russia is the biggest problem.”
  • Under his watch the Czech finance ministry (more accurately, the Czech Export Guarantee Agency (EGAP)), underwrote a loan guarantee to PhosAgro, a Russian company co-owned by Putin pal Vladimir Litvinenko.
  • In 2007 Babis’ Agrofert tried to negotiate a gas deal with the Czech subsidiary of Gazprom instead of its then-current German supplier.

These aren’t necessarily super-Kremlin smoking guns, but I’d think a group of people who are dedicated to ferreting out Kremlin interference in their country and beyond would at least be asking a few questions about the guy who’s about to run the show.

Sure, Babis is intimidating and is the kind of guy who likes to go after people who talk shit about him – I mean, look at all the corrections Foreign Policy had to add under this 2015 article when Babis went full Babis on them.

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Full Babis.

I get why you’d want to be in his good side, but European Values isn’t exactly afraid to go after some other Czech and European political figures with less-than-subtle language: the German SPD and Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democrats), who want to “please the Kremlin;” the Czech Communists, guilty of “treason” for their broken record anti-NATO stance; and, least of all, Czech president (“rezident”) Milos Zeman, the “Kremlin’s Trojan horse.”

With elections/Babis’ coronation just over a month away I’m surprised European Values doesn’t have anything critical to say about Babis – or, really, anything about him at all.