10 Ways to Call Something Russian Disinformation Without Evidence
How do you call something “Russian disinformation” when you don’t have evidence it is? Let’s count the ways.
We don’t know a whole lot about how the New York Post story about Hunter Biden got into print. There are some reasons to think the material is genuine (including its cache of graphic photos and some apparent limited confirmation from people on the email chains), but in terms of sourcing, anything is possible. This material could have been hacked by any number of actors, and shopped for millions (as Time has reported), and all sorts of insidious characters – including notorious Russian partisans like Andrei Derkach – could have been behind it.
None of these details are known, however, which hasn’t stopped media companies from saying otherwise. Most major outlets began denouncing the story as foreign propaganda right away and haven’t stopped. A quick list of the creative methods seen lately of saying, “We don’t know, but we know!”:
1) Our spooks say it looks like the work of their spooks.
A group of 50 “former senior intelligence officials” wrote a letter as soon as the Post story came out. Their most-quoted line was that the Post story has “all the classic hallmarks of a Russian information operation.” Note they said information operation, not disinformation operation — humorously, even people with records of lying to congress like James Clapper and John Brennan have been more careful with language than members of the news media.
Emphasizing that they didn’t know if the emails “are genuine,” these ex-heads of agencies like the CIA added “our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case,” noting that it appeared to be an operation “consistent with Russian objectives.” Politico, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, and many other outlets ran the spook testimonial.
2) It was prophesied.
The Washington Post needed four reporters — Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, and Josh Dawsey — to tell us that “four former officials familiar with the matter” spoke of a long-ago report that the would-be source of the Post emails, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, had been “interacting with people tied to Russian intelligence” in Ukraine. As such, any information he “brought back” from there “should should be considered contaminated by Russia.” Therefore, by the transitive property of whatever, the New York Post story should be dismissed as part of an “influence” operation.
3) Authorities are investigating if it might be Russian disinformation.
“The FBI is probing a possible disinformation campaign,” announced USA Today, citing the omnipresent “person familiar with the matter.” Officially, of course, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said “Hunter Biden’s laptop is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign,” to which FBI spokesperson Jill C. Tyson officially said the bureau had “nothing to add at this time.”
Many of the outlets who covered this sequence of events described the F.B.I. statement as “carefully worded,” inviting us to read in things left unsaid. Thomas Rid in the Post went so far as to say Tyson was “hinting that actionable intelligence might yet be developed,” which is technically true but also technically meaningless.
Another neat trick was to discuss the Post story and in the same sentence refer to a present-tense description of an apparently confirmed operation to discredit Joe Biden. CNN’s construction was like this: “The FBI is investigating whether the recently published emails that purport to detail the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son in Ukraine and China are connected to an ongoing Russian disinformation effort targeting the former vice president’s campaign.”
That “ongoing Russian disinformation effort” is a story again sourced, as so many stories of the last four years have been, to assessments of intelligence officials. Thus the essence of these new headlines comes down to, “Intelligence officials are checking to see if the new story can be connected to prior claims of intelligence officials.”
4) Even if it isn’t a Russian influence operation, we should act like it is.
Johns Hopkins “Professor of Strategic Studies” Thomas Rid came up with the most elegant construction in a Washington Post editorial, stating bluntly: “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t.” Err on the side of caution, as it were. As the bosses in Casino put it, why take a chance?
5) The Biden campaign says it’s Russian disinformation (even though they can’t say for sure it’s disinformation at all).
The press has elicited from the Biden campaign a few limited, often contradictory comments about what is and isn’t true in the New York Post story. For instance, the campaign’s chief communications officer Andrew Bates said about allegations Joe Biden met with Burisma executive Vadym Pozharski, “We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.”
In the same article, reporters noted, “Biden’s campaign would not rule out the possibility that the former VP had some kind of informal interaction with Pozharskyi.” So no meeting took place (although we’re not saying no meeting took place).
The campaign continues to not take a concrete position about the veracity of the emails, but allows people like “senior Biden advisor” and former Assistant Secretary of State Michael Carpenter to say things like, “This is a Russian disinformation operation… I’m very comfortable saying that.”
The natural follow-up question there should have been, “If it’s disinformation, are you saying the emails aren’t real?” But we haven’t seen many questions of that sort, probably because no one wants to be the member of the White House pool six months from now wearing the scars of interactions like this:
I asked Joe Biden: What is your response to the NYPost story about your son, sir?
He called it a “smear campaign” and then went after me. “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.” pic.twitter.com/Eo6VD4TqxD
— Bo Erickson CBS (@BoKnowsNews) October 17, 2020
Read the rest here.