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.
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.
The world doesn’t need more warriors. The world needs people to stop and think about what they’re doing.
Bradley Jardine is a Scottish journalist in Moscow. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Moscow Times, and Eurasianet among others. Follow him