We are in the midst of a whole series of generated hysterias, ranging from Russian interference to sexual harassment. Each of these is being pushed hard by powerful forces and together are shifting the country ever further toward repression.
The hysteria about fake news is especially threatening to dissident media. If Russian trolls are flooding the Internet with fake news items designed to spread doubt and opposition, then dissident opinion—which inherently promotes doubt and opposition—is automatically suspect. How convenient for established power. This is more than reminiscent of the McCarthy era, when accusations of Soviet influence succeeded in purging the entire Left from American culture.
The venerable lefty magazine Counterpunch has recently published two disturbing investigative articles about its own experiences with news items authored by phantom journalists. One of these phantoms went by the name Alice Donovan. Counterpunch published a handful of her articles about the war in Syria; these took a line that was generally advantageous to the Syrian government’s side in the war. When Counterpunch was alerted to the possibility that Alice Donovan was not for real, they carried out an extensive investigation and were unable to establish her identity. Moreover, they found that her articles had been plagiarized.
The other phantom journalist went by the name Sophia Mangal and had submitted a large number of articles to Counterpunch, none of which they published. Attempts to trace her true identity also proved futile. Like Donovan, her articles about Syria took a generally pro-regime position. Like Donovan, her articles were filled with plagiarism. Moreover, further investigation revealed a probable connection between the two phantom writers.
In addition, Mangal was listed as an editor of the online organization Inside Syria Media Center. Counterpunch was unable to contact this organization or verify its existence as a real organization. Like Mangal, it promoted a pro-Syrian view of the war.
It is now abundantly obvious that Donovan, Mangal, and Inside Syria Media Center are propaganda outlets spreading what could be called fake news, and that they have been targeting dissident web publications. As Counterpunch concludes,
Why does it matter? From bitter experience, we’ve learned that the price of the deception will be paid by the anti-war media, not the ghostwriters. The architects of COINTELPRO couldn’t have devised a more insidious way to discredit the anti-war movement.
COINTELPRO was the infamous long-running campaign by the FBI to disrupt and discredit the Left by spreading false information, among other tactics. Not only would defamatory information be supplied to the media, it would also be injected into dissident organizations themselves. Rumors that someone was a police spy, had made insulting comments, was sleeping around, were used to sow personal suspicion and conflict.
Which brings us to an article by veteran journalist Diana Johnstone. She rightly mocks the idea that Kremlin trolls have “burned across the Internet”—as a breathless Christmas Day article in the Washington Post claimed—threatening poor, fragile America and its political institutions:
The world’s greatest democracy turns out to be a house of cards. What a confession! It turns out that if the Russians huff and puff, they can blow the house down.
But the fact remains that a few fake news trolls have actually been uncovered. Who is behind them? An obvious conclusion is Russia, since these phantoms took positions on Syria supportive of the Syrian government and its Russian allies. But this is by no means certain. If we hark back to COINTELPRO:
There is another hypothesis, however, that does make sense. It is clear from the very creation of Operation NorthernNight [the FBI operation to track Kremlin trolls] that the FBI was charged with the task of producing proof that Internet dissidence has its origins in a Putin plot. But when such evidence turns out to be difficult or impossible to find, it can be manufactured instead – just as a certain number of “terrorist plots” have been manufactured by luring some gullible fool into a sting operation. It could be well worth the trouble of the FBI to entrap leftist publications into publishing articles that could be “exposed” as “Kremlin propaganda”. It is obvious that the Deep State is desperate for “evidence” to back up their Russia-is-destroying-our-democracy fairy tale, and this would fit right in. The invention of “Alice Donovan” could provide such “evidence”.
Given the FBI’s history of COINTELPRO during the last Cold War and its proclivity for entrapment, this idea is by no means outrageous. I don’t know what the truth is. Maybe these phantoms really are Kremlin-connected, although it would certainly take an astronomical number of fake news phantoms to offset the indoctrination power of the mass media. Or maybe they are fake fake journalists, the equivalent of espionage double agents.
During the Cold War McCarthy era, the discovery of a few genuine Soviet spies fed the idea that the entire Left was suspect, leading to the effective purging of almost all opposition to the Cold War. I am afraid this is about to happen again in what is fast becoming a second McCarthy era.
Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, Go Ask Alice: The Curious Case of “Alice Donovan”, Counterpunch, 25 December 2017.
Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, Ghosts in the Propaganda Machine, Counterpunch, 5 January 2018.
Diana Johnstone, Washington Trembles: The Charge of the Invisible Army of Kremlin Trolls, 31 December 2017.