Russian spies and damned lies. Why we all need a bullshit detector in the information war.

Gullibility appears to be a universal human trait which can affect even the very greatest of minds. We may live in the information age – but it seems that when it comes to basic fact checking many people simply park their brains at the door.

Go to Facebook on any hour of any day and you will find – your family, friends and old acquaintances – sharing fabricated bullshit, while others ‘like’ the fabricated bullshit or comment favourably on it before, quite possibly sharing the bullshit again. Just this last week, I have seen a post claiming ‘only 55 people in 100 can read this’ with no supporting evidence of the fact, another about the Pope and a disabled child that completely distorts the truth as to why she is sitting next to him and a much pooled heart-warming image of a pack of wolves which a quick Google search proves to be intentionally miscaptioned. If you have a Facebook account you may well have seen these very stories or things that seem just so incredible or shocking that you feel obliged to share them – in an instant – without asking that critical question – “is it true?”


Actual wolf shit

We’ve all done it.

The internet may be 30 years old, but it seems that many of us have learned very little in that time. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for example any number of fake stories circulated. There was the holiday snap taken ‘seconds before impact’ and Daisy the dog who miraculously saved countless souls from the towers. Neither of those stories were true but along with the much darker conspiracy theories about the destruction of the towers they have become part of the fabric of the event itself – and many otherwise sane people believe it.

daisy the dog

Daisy the dog – the Lassie of 9/11

Disinformation is of course as old as the hills, but the term was first coined by Russian leader Joseph Stalin when he set up a ‘special disinformation office’ in Moscow in 1923. The brief for the unit was to spread “false information with the intention to deceive public opinion.” The Soviets were certainly not alone in doing this – the British especially have a long history of doing much the same and were wonderful exponents of black propaganda in WW2. But the Russians have long been the undoubted, dedicated masters of it. As late as the 1980s the ‘special disinformation office’ was sowing mistrust and suspicion of the West and the US in particular. In July 1983 for example Operation Infektion was begun with the purpose of convincing the world that AIDS/HIV had been concocted in a laboratory by US scientists as part of an offensive biological weapons campaign. Many people believed it. Many people still do.

stalin and invisible friends

Stalin and his amazing disappearing friends

On the 4th of March this year former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a substance, later revealed to be Novichok – a Russian nerve agent developed in the 1980s – and were subsequently found collapsed in the streets of Salisbury. The obvious suspect was the Kremlin. Russian President Valdimir Putin is on record as saying that “traitors will kick the bucket” and this attack bears striking similarities to that on Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006.

Now of course when an event like this happens – all avenues should be examined before anyone jumps to conclusions. And they were. Scientists at Porton Down examined the substance and concluded it was “of a type developed by Russia.” The UK government gave the Kremlin the right to respond but given a chance to clear its name the Russian state, in the guise of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Maria Zakharova chose instead to denounce Theresa May and call the UK parliament ‘a circus show’ adding:

“The conclusion is obvious: this is another information and political campaign, based on provocation.”

As the deadline passed for Russia to account for itself, Mrs May announced that 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ would be expelled and that there would be no official UK representation at the World Cup, being hosted in Moscow later this year.

Almost immediately, in certain corners, suspicions were raised. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray wrote a blog and alluded to WMDs and Dr David Kelly and it was widely disseminated as proof that the UK government was lying. A research chemist called Clyde Davies proceeded to fairly convincingly take the case apart on twitter – but it was too late – the blog was out there and former ambassadors, however bonkers they might be or dubious their associates have a certain cachet that faintly anonymous experts do not.

Since then, things have been turned up a notch. “The Special Disinformation office” may no longer exist but its glossy descendant Russia Today and its many offshoots, journalists, associated twitter accounts do. These and a very large band of UK apologists have scrambled and fired off a barrage of tweets, stories and videos blaming everyone and everything apart from the Kremlin. These stretch from the faintly plausible ‘rogue agents’ theory to suggestions that the CIA, MI6 or even George Soros did it. ‘Sputnik’ the Russia Today vehicle of George Galloway yesterday reported that former UKIP MEP Richard Wood was of the opinion that the attack had been staged to keep the UK in the EU.

This angle seemed preposterous – even by the standards of RT and the Brexiteers – but incredibly the theory was taken up, particularly by Leave extremists and repeated across their networks, in calls to LBC and even on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Question Time – for which it was given a round of applause.

The greater the lie – the greater the chance that it will be believed?

Russian denials were further bolstered by Jeremy Corbyn who was seemingly unwilling to condemn Russia outright and called for a ‘robust dialogue’ instead. Now of course ‘all the evidence’ is needed before further measures are taken but as Clyde Davies pointed out in his deconstruction of the Craig Murray blog – “if it looks like a duck, swims and flies like a duck – it’s a bloody duck.”

RT has for years cultivated dissatisfaction in the UK and elsewhere spreading memes, conspiracy theories and sometimes downright lies that have played to the fringes of the left and right – from Farage to Corbyn. This modern disinformation that riffs variously on fears of globalisation, or immigration or Islam – or discontent with the Union – whether European or UK has attracted guests and hosts who might otherwise be denied a voice; many of them have hard left or right wing political viewpoints and are glad of an outlet for their talents and opinions – but in so doing they unwittingly help the Putin agenda.

The bigger problem is the 90k UK viewers themselves. Just as the people who clicked on all those Britain First memes about homeless soldiers helped the far right party grow and prosper – by switching RT on for the ‘alternative viewpoint’ these hapless folks are not just enabling the dissemination of propaganda but worse – allowing themselves to be brainwashed.

Now – if the Iraq saga taught us anything it is that our own government is every bit as capable of misleading us as anyone else. Accepting the weaknesses of our own state does not mean that we should switch off our bullshit detectors and immediately run straight into the arms of another – particularly when all the evidence suggests that much of the ‘truth’ spouted by Russia Today, is as watertight as a tissue bucket.

The internet has given all of us access to factually researched sources at the touch of a button. It is possible to check the veracity of your Facebook page and the veracity of your own and other governments’ dissemination of their version of ’truth.’ In the information war we all need a bullshit detector – and we need to make sure it is switched on. Question everything sure – but in so doing, don’t lose sight of the fact that if it is quacking and duck-like – it’s almost certainly – a duck.

Or – is it?

Putin’s Lord Haw Haws – why does the UK continue to tolerate Russian propagandists and useful idiots?

Theresa May delivered a sombre assessment yesterday on the attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and the valiant police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who went to their aid when they were poisoned with toxic nerve agent – Novichok. Mrs May told MPs it was ‘highly likely’ that the Russian State was responsible for the “brazen attempt to murder citizens on our soil” and has given the Putin government until midnight tonight (13th March 2018) to respond. If no reply is forthcoming the Prime Minister has indicated that the government will conclude that this attack was a deliberate “unlawful use of force” by Russia.

The Russian state’s response so far has been predictably dismissive and the wheels of propaganda swiftly turned. Mrs May’s comments were ‘provocative’ and a ‘circus show in the British parliament.’

This is but the latest in a string of bizarre deaths and assassination attempts in the UK of former Russian spies and emigres – most famously Alexander Litvinenko. In the past the UK government has been accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to these attacks and this perhaps has emboldened the FSB/agents of the Kremlin to the extent that they feel they can brashly murder people in broad daylight on the streets of Salisbury – and put hundreds of British lives at risk in the process.

Vladimir Putin on RT

Anyone who cares about Britain should be deeply concerned about this – and Russia’s dismissive and discourteous unwillingness to co-operate. This attack is terrorism plain and simple and whoever is behind it should be brought to justice. If the protagonist is the machine of the Russian state then there is no comparable assault on our nation by a major country in modern times.

Incredibly however, since the poisoning of Skripal, his daughter and Nick Bailey on the 4th of March – some of the loudest self-professed patriots in the land have been strangely silent. Nigel Farage, for example, has made just two mentions of the events in his twitter feed. Once – when publicising his LBC show and once (indirectly) when asked by Kevin Maguire whether he still venerated Vladimir Putin. Farage is on record as saying that Mr Putin is the world leader he most admires and has appeared many times on the Russian State propaganda channel RT – even being offered his own show. But ‘straight talking Nigel’ declined to give a straight answer.

In the two LBC shows in which Farage has (presumably been obliged) to discuss Skripal – he has been very careful indeed not to criticise the Russian leader and suggested, instead that Mrs May should reach out to him, sit down with him and ‘thrash it out.’ Mr Farage – who for years has branded Mrs May ‘Theresa the appeaser’ has clearly never looked up the word ‘irony’ in his dictionary.

Nigel is not alone in his near silence on Skripal. Arron Banks’ Westmonster ‘has made one brief mention of it; right wing website Breitbart London – edited by UKIP acolyte Raheem Kassam has, between dozens of tweets and articles about rampant knife crime in Sadiq’s London, made two. One of those focused mainly on criticism of the UK government’s handling of events. Across the board, the majority of what might be termed ‘Brexit accounts’ have spent the week bleating about a Canadian right wing extremist, Lauren Southern, being denied entry to the UK for her views (yes I know). The few tweets Westmonster and others have sent have left trails of comments beneath them from dim witted ‘nationalists’ and obvious Russian trolls blaming the attack on (variously) the Jews, Soros, or the British authorities themselves. There is also a widely circulated rumour doing the rounds that as Porton Down is just a few miles from Salisbury – MI6 did it.

George Galloway – useful idiot?

By contrast to his fellow Grassroots Out colleagues, former MP George Galloway has been anything but silent. His twitter feed has been buzzing with conspiracy theories and with good reason. With all those ex-wives, Galloway has bills to pay and as Putin’s highest paid propagandist he is obviously putting in some overtime. You see gorgeous George Galloway earns hundreds of thousands of pounds fronting his show on the RT channel where he is ever willing to do his paymaster’s bidding.

The one thing all of these useful idiots are absolutely certain about is this – that the most obvious suspect – Vladimir Putin – the one holding the massive smoking gun – the one who swore revenge on all traitors and double agents and said that they would tracked down and killed – is innocent or at least ‘not proven to be guilty and thus not guilty’.

For years, the Russian state has had the West for fools. The country may have oligarchs bursting at the seams, but it has very little money and fairly weak actual military capability. It has instead managed to extend its power, muscle and influence through misinformation and highly effective propaganda. Like an old style Lada, AK47 or T-34 tank Russia has made a virtue of simplicity. Why spend billions of roubles on nuclear submarines when – for a fraction of the cost you can sow discontent, fear and division among your enemies. Russia Today – the glossy flagship of Kremlin deception – has created memes and tropes that dance at the edges of our political discourse and often tip into the mainstream. The myth that the EU caused mass unemployment in the South of Europe for example or the ‘no go zones’ in Londinistan or the idea that Sweden is overrun with murderous rampaging Muslim jihadis are all RT tropes. Now to be fair – they are very good at this – the true masters of fake news and there is a steady line of journalists, politicians (of all hues) and pundits willing to take the fee and feed the machine. But depressingly – there is a much wider contingent of gullible fools willing to lap it all up.

porton down
UK Porton Down facility

The Russian state has long targeted the EU in particular – because the EU poses a direct threat to her dimming power. Brexit worked in Putin’s favour. We know that Marine Le Pen’s anti-EU Front National received money directly from the Kremlin. It can hardly be a coincidence that so many at the centre of the Brexit storm have links or expressed admiration for Vlad – how deep those links go and to what extent they compromise the integrity of Farage and others has yet to be fully established but the whiff of cordite is in the air.

What is patently obvious and what the Skripal incident nimbly underlines, is that the loyalty of these self-professed ‘patriots’ to Great Britain plays second fiddle to their unwillingness to criticise Russia even when (apparently) the Kremlin is trying to murder citizens and snuff out any hapless passers-by on the streets of England. Some serious questions need to be asked about how long OFCOM will allow RT to broadcast its misinformation into UK homes but the bigger question is this – just how loyal are these fellow travelling Lord Haw Haws to the country they purport to love? And how long are the rest of us willing to let them get away with it?