A “handful” versus a hundred in Houston

A “handful” versus a hundred in Houston

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen this story about Russian trolls behind a “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest in May 2016: “Organizers behind armed white supremacist protest in Houston revealed as Russian,” from ThinkProgress.

The original CNN story referred to in that piece is here (“Stoking Islamophobia and secession in Texas — from an office in Russia”); a link to a local Houston TV station’s video from the protest is here.

I read the original story last night (and the Twitterverse’s reaction to it), read it again this morning, and also took a look at the original CNN story and the video.

That’s when I thought something was off.

First, the lede to the ThinkProgress story:

Last May, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered around the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, squaring off against one another in competing camps.

I can’t be the only person who quickly glanced at this story and immediately thought something like “wow, “the Russians” got 100 armed white supremacists out via one of these dumbass Facebook groups – that’s better than a dozen.” Actually, in chatting with a few other journos, I know I’m not.

But take a look at the lede to the original CNN story (emphasis mine):

On May 21 2016, a handful of people turned out to protest the opening of a library at an Islamic Center in Houston, Texas. Two held up a banner proclaiming #WhiteLivesMatter. A counter-protest began across the street; video shows a noisy but non-violent confrontation. 

OK. Now take a look at the actual video from the protest. You can see the white supremacist protesters at around 0:12 and 0:13 in front of the brick building; the counter-protesters are the larger group across the street.

That’s a handful, not a hundred. And phrasing your lede in a way that many readers will interpret as ‘a hundred’ armed white supremacist protesters is….yeah.

Listen, the Kremlin (or ‘the Russians,’ however we want to obsequiously phrase it) meddled in the 2016 election, just as they have and continue to do in other countries. But there’s this wave of coverage coming out of the US these days that’s hard to stomach, a wave that either assumes every single little thing they did has had a real impact – or worse, conveniently never bothers to ask the question in the first place. We can sex up our stories to ride the Russia wave, but it’s not going to make any of us look cooler once we get back to shore.

 

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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.

collage-2017-09-23
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