Paul Waldman of the Washington Post reports on how the conservative media entertainment complex and the Trump administration are amplifying “active measures” (propaganda) practiced by the Russians, as we learned from expert testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. Anatomy of a fake scandal, ginned up by right-wing media and Trump:
President Trump started off his morning as he often does, by settling in to watch the festival of nincompoopery that is “Fox & Friends.” On the show, he saw something that he believes vindicates the bizarre and false charge he made that Barack Obama was tapping his phones during the presidential campaign.
I’ll try to sort through the substance of all this. But I also want to make a broader argument about how Trump’s support system — inside his government but especially in the conservative media and on Fox, which is where he apparently gets most of his intelligence information — is playing to his worst instincts, harming him politically, and making his presidency even more dangerous.
Today’s antics all started with a report on “Fox & Friends” in which correspondent Adam Housley reported that a high-ranking Obama administration official had requested the “unmasking” of the names of Trump officials who were caught up in surveillance of foreign targets. Ordinarily, when a U.S. person shows up in such surveillance — say, talking to a Russian ambassador whose communications are being monitored — that person’s identity is blacked out in reports on the surveillance. While Housley did not identify the Obama administration official, he did say that Trump associates were being picked up by this surveillance for a year before Trump took office.
Then we get this report from Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, identifying former national security adviser Susan Rice as the Obama official who requested the unmasking. I’d like to highlight this passage:
Rice’s requests to unmask the names of Trump transition officials does not vindicate Trump’s own tweets from March 4 in which he accused Obama of illegally tapping Trump Tower. There remains no evidence to support that claim.
But Rice’s multiple requests to learn the identities of Trump officials discussed in intelligence reports during the transition period does highlight a longstanding concern for civil liberties advocates about U.S. surveillance programs. The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.
I’d say that if members of the Trump team were in communication with foreign actors who were under surveillance, that damn sure has “foreign intelligence value,” and it’s not too surprising that the national security adviser would want to know about it. We’re talking about associates of a presidential candidate communicating with representatives of a foreign power.
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[T]oday, we have the following series of events: Trump officials leak that Rice requested the unmasking of the identities of Trump associates who were in communication with foreigners under surveillance; those reporters publish their stories; then the president himself calls attention to them on his Twitter feed:
This particular PR maneuver is not unprecedented, but the point is this: What’s obviously of most importance to the president of the United States is not the fact that his associates were in contact with people from Russia (or other countries) who were of sufficient interest to U.S. intelligence that they would be under surveillance, but whether or not each new detail that emerges does or does not support his idiotic tweets.
And this is why I argue that Fox and some of Trump’s allies are only helping him hurt himself. Much of the time, having a supportive amen chorus has great political utility, because it helps buck up your base and disseminate the arguments you’re making. But it’s one thing when those arguments are things like “We should cut taxes” or “Obamacare is a disaster.” It’s something else when they’re trying desperately to claim that every stupid thing Trump ever said is actually true.
In this case, clinging to the idea that the Obama administration unfairly monitored the Trump campaign only encourages further investigation of what could turn out to be one of the biggest scandals in American political history. Nunes’s buffoonish efforts on Trump’s behalf haven’t helped him at all. Quite the contrary, they’ve made his committee utterly irrelevant and increased pressure on the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct a thorough and objective review. Nunes has zero credibility, and so he can no longer be an asset to the White House.
But when Trump tunes in to “Fox & Friends” every morning, he learns that he’s right about everything. He doesn’t need to listen to his intelligence briefers or anyone else who might tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. He can keep telling tall tales and pursuing his petty grievances. He never does anything wrong and never has to change. I shudder to think how that dynamic will play out when this administration faces its first foreign policy crisis, with untold numbers of lives at stake.
The Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler takes a look at the attempts by the Trump administration and the conservative media entertainment complex to spin a counter-narrative, i.e., active measures “fake news” (propaganda), to the congressional inquiry into possible connections and collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Fact-checking the Trumpian spin on ‘surveillance of Trump’:
The Trump White House is determined to turn questions about Russian efforts to sway the presidential election into a probe about whether the Obama administration improperly spied on Trump campaign officials. This line of attack is consistent with President Trump’s March 4 tweets falsely claiming that President Barack Obama tapped his phones at the Trump Tower during the election.
Kessler goes on to dismiss every attempt to spin this counter-narrative, which for the folks who live in FAUX Nation only proves that the counter-narrative must be true because the mainstream media says it’s false!
Which leads to this fascinating report by Philip Bump on social media research at the Post. The web of conspiracy theorists that was ready for Donald Trump (excerpts):
Kate Starbird, a researcher at the University of Washington who has analyzed misinformation on the Internet — often coming from politically focused accounts — analyzed online articles after the 2016 election “and noticed something resonant.”
“I went back and tracked some of these articles using the Wayback Machine and they cited Russian scientists, and they went through right-wing blogs that we might call alt-right now,” Starbird said, referring to the Internet Archive’s tool for cataloging the history of websites. “At the time, I didn’t notice what was going on, but with the benefit of hindsight, you notice that this stuff was happening for a long time.”
While Starbird didn’t document any direct influence from Russian actors in her analysis, it would not have been the only instance of their behaving in that way.
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That The Post was debunking the conspiracy theories was seen by some as evidence supporting the theory. After all, the Establishment must have been spooked if The Post were going to that trouble.
As Starbird summarized that argument: “Look, the mainstream media says this is untrue. This is even more evidence that it must be true.”
Several sites were central to sharing and fostering the hoax theories: BeforeItsNews.com, NoDisinfo.com and VeteransToday.com. One trait she noticed among this galaxy of sites was that the same story or theory was often repurposed among multiple sites, giving readers an impression of corroboration when what was actually happening was duplication.
Also prominent is Newsbusters.org, a site run by the conservative group Media Research Center — which itself is heavily funded by the Mercer family (as is Breitbart), who helped guide Trump’s victory in 2016. Newsbusters’ stated aim is to unearth the bias of the “liberal media” — meaning, in short, that it’s in the business of positioning many mainstream media outlets as fundamentally untrustworthy, making it of use to those wishing to promote alternative narratives.
It’s prominent in Starbird’s graph, she said, mostly thanks to another name that you may be familiar with from the 2016 election: Mike Cernovich, a prominent voice in the far-right social media community.
UPDATE: Mike Cernovich was recently profiled on 60 Minutes as the man behind the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. Team Trump loves this social media “fake news” troll. Conway, Trump Jr. Boost Troll Who Pushed ‘Pizzagate’ Conspiracy.
Two Russian government-backed sites, RT.com and Sputnik, were also included in the alternate-narrative conversations. RT (formerly Russia Today) would duplicate stories from a site called 21stCenturyWire — a site which was generally shared by users in Starbird’s dataset who also shared stories from NoDisinfo and VeteransToday.
A node on that graph you might expect to see is Infowars, a site predicated on sharing poorly sourced theories of this nature. But Infowars, while prominent, stands apart from the main network. That’s in part because a lot of the accounts tweeting Infowars links were automated, Starbird said.
“It was amplified by an army of bots,” she said. Of the tweets she collected, “probably 80 percent, maybe even 90 percent were accounts that sent only one tweet that I captured, it pointed to Infowars, it was usually a retweet of another account.” This was evidence, she said, of a “pretty unsophisticated bot.”
Bots played a much bigger role in boosting another site — so much so that Starbird removed it from the graph because it was so inflated. TheRealStrategy.com “coordinated hundreds of accounts that tweeted content related to several different alternative narratives from these events and others,” she writes in an article about her research.
These bots were much more sophisticated and looked more like actual social media users.
“We think they were borrowing a set of accounts or leasing them,” Starbird said, “where certain accounts all of a sudden changed their profiles to become part of this botnet for a set period of time, and then they go back and later they’re tweeting about something else for somebody else.” In his analysis, Adrian Chen noted that the Russian disinformation agency was also selectively loyal. While many of the users he was following had stopped tweeting by the middle of 2016, “some continued,” he writes, “and toward the end of last year I noticed something interesting: many had begun to promote right-wing news outlets, portraying themselves as conservative voters who were, increasingly, fans of Donald Trump.”
The central challenge Starbird encountered was in determining “which properties are emergent and which properties are orchestrated” — that is, what parts of a network of conspiracy theorists is a function of natural skepticism and information-sharing and which part is bolstered by the use of automation and/or to promote a particular idea. Starbird’s study, limited in scope, couldn’t suss out where that boundary might lie.
Her research, though, did reveal a common theme . . . a group of sites focused mainly on opposition to “globalist” and corporate hegemony that peddled in alternative explanations for the world around them. These themes (and that strategy) have been echoed by Trump and his team.
It also demonstrated to her the extent to which these sites and this network powers an alternate arguments in American politics, bot-driven or not.
“I don’t know how far these ideas are echoing,” she said in a telephone interview. “It just became clear to me that they weren’t as marginal as I originally thought they were.”
As Congressman Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee recently warned, ‘alarm bells should ring’ whenever Donald Trump mentions ‘fake news’: “I would tell people whenever they see the President use the word ‘fake’ it ought to set off alarm bells and I think that is really what has gone on here,” Adam Schiff told CNN’s, State of the Union show.
UPDATE: Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday flatly denied that she sought to improperly “unmask” Trump campaign officials whose conversations were caught on surveillance by U.S. intelligence services. Susan Rice Speaks Out on ‘Unmasking’ Accusations: ‘I Leaked Nothing to Nobody’:
“The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes, ” Rice said in an exclusive interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.”
Rice added that it’s not unusual to request the identities of people caught on intelligence surveillance.
“There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided, just a U.S. person, and sometimes in that context in order to understand the importance of that report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was,” she said, without going into specifics.
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“It was not uncommon, it was necessary at times to make those requests,” she said. “I don’t have a particular recollection of doing that more frequently after the election.”
Rice also batted away reports that she allegedly had a “spreadsheet” of telephone calls made by Trump campaign officials.
“There was no spreadsheet,” she said. “There was nothing of the sort.”
Rice denied revealing the name of Mike Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, who resigned after his communications with Russian officials became public.
“I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would,” Rice said.
Nor, Rice said, was she aware that Flynn was lobbyist for Turkey.
In her first interview since the story broke, Rice also said she was “surprised” and “shocked” when Trump tweeted a widely discredited claim that former President Obama personally ordered the bugging of Trump Tower and members of his team during the campaign.
“That’s a very serious allegation, it had no basis in fact, and it wasn’t typical of the way presidents treat their predecessors,” Rice said of Trump’s tweet.
Long a favorite target of the Republicans, Rice was plunged into controversy after blogger Mike Cernovich, best known for promoting the bogus story that a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor was a nest of pedophiles connected to Hillary Clinton, claimed she had sought to “unmask” Trump campaign aides.
Later Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake picked up the tale. Citing anonymous “U.S. officials familiar with the matter,” Lake reported Monday that the former national security adviser “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.”
Trump-friendly news outlets like Fox News and Breitbart quickly jumped on the story as possible evidence to back up the president’s “wiretapping” claims.
MSNBC terrorism analyst Malcolm Nance, retired United States Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer in naval cryptology, said Rice said as much as she could. And he dismissed the story as “smoke and mirrors” by the Trump administration to distract from ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.
NBC has learned that Rice didn’t — and couldn’t — “order” the unmasking of any American because only the agencies that gathered the surveillance (usually the NSA or FBI) can make that call and the process is subject to rules and reviewed by lawyers.
The bar is high too because there has to be a legitimate intelligence reason to justify identifying the person or persons.
Also, it’s not unusual for administrations to request the identities of people captured on surveillance so they can better understand the intelligence. Former NSA chief Keith Alexander told NBC he routinely turned down unmasking requests by senior officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
Unmasking does not mean making public. The reports are still highly classified and viewable by just a select group of people with top secret clearance.
Rice stressed that point in her NBC interview.
“The notion that, which some people are trying to suggest, that by asking for the identity of an American person that is the same as leaking it, is completely false,” she said. “There’s no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking. The effort to ask for the identity of an American citizen is necessary to understand the importance of an intelligence report in some instances.”