Friday, October 28, 2016

Poisoning The Well: How Satire and Spoof Have Become The New Way of Spreading Disinformation

by Nomad

April FoolAnother casualty of the 2016 presidential campaign, besides civility and sanity, has been the meaning of the word, satire. Today, satirical or fake news sites function as disinformation sources.  


When Every Day is April Fool's

Satire, sarcasm's helpful cousin, is a constructive form of mockery, "aimed at ridiculing those whom it is directed to." The dictionary tells us that its purpose is to "employ humor to instigate people towards positive change."

It's been around in one form or another since the earliest days of theater, back in ancient Greece. In fact, the first comedies were mainly satirical and mocked men in power for their vanity and foolishness. 
Men who took themselves too seriously. Men whose ignorance begged to be called out. In other words, men very much like Donald Trump. 

Later, Roman satire became "a vehicle for biting, subversive social and personal criticism." The key word here is "subversive." It was never normally the propaganda tool of the ruling class, but a sharp stick to poke at the social elites and the people in power. 

There's a famous story from the historian Suetonius, about the Roman emperor Vespasian who enjoyed his court jester making satirical jokes about the pompous men of society. The emperor said "What about me? Make a joke at my expense."
The wit, picking up on Vespasian's perpetual grimace and furrowed brow, said, "Oh I will.. as soon as you finish relieving yourself."

In modern times, satire has been a very effective tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. A kind of social commentary through ironic humor. 

Of all the things that this election has torn asunder, one thing that has had little coverage has been the death of satire. That's an odd thing too since there has been a rise in the number of news spoof sites.

It's a trend that negatively impacts the average internet user's ability to get reliable news.
The BuzzFeed News analysis of more than 1,000 posts from hyperpartisan Facebook pages found that false or misleading content that reinforces existing beliefs received stronger engagement than accurate, factual content. The internet and Facebook are increasingly awash in fake or deeply misleading news because it generates significant traffic and social engagement.
There are so many such sites, in fact, that felt the need to compile a list of them.
The sharp increase in popularity of social media networks (primarily Facebook) has created a predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks and their huge customer bases by spreading fake news and outlandish rumors.
It is primarily driven my a market based on the number of clicks rather than journalistic integrity.
Competition for social media’s large supply of willing eyeballs is fierce, and a number of frequent offenders regularly fabricate salacious and attention-grabbing tales simply to drive traffic (and revenue) to their sites.
These sites might call themselves "satirical" but, like Trump, it's really simply a means of attracting attention in the form of profit-making clicks.
The bigger question arises: when is a satirical site actually a method of spreading disinformation? 
Let's take a closer look at one example.

World News Daily Report

On 11 October 2016, there was an item published by World News Daily Report (WNDR) - a fake news site- which claimed that the second highest ranking leader of ISIS, Amadh Abu Makmud Al-alwani, put up a video this week following the second presidential debate asking American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton.
The controversial video that was taken down by YouTube only hours after it was uploaded showed top ISIS leader Amadh Abu Makmud Al-alwani threatening those who would decide to vote for Donald Trump and calling them “infidels” and “goat f—-ers”.
The article quotes the ISIS leaders as saying:
“This (dog-faced) scumbag must not reach Washington. Although it is a sin to put an inferior being such as a woman into a position of power, it is the true plan of Satan to divide the Muslims of America. It would be dirty and danis (filthy) to vote for Trump,” he explained.
Traitorous Muslims citizens in America are, in effect, being advised by a terror organization to vote for Clinton.

But take heart, the entire news story is untrue. Snopes took a look at the claims in the article and pretty declared all of them completely "FALSE." The researcher called the WNDR story an elaborate fabrication.

And that includes the photo that accompanies the article.
The image appended to this article depicts cleric Maulana Fazlullah (believed to have been involved in the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai). The name "Amadh Abu Makmud Al-alwani" appears only in connection with links to this fabricated claim and is not the name of any known or high-ranking ISIS operative.
What's the motive for making up such fake stories? With its motto, "News You Can Trust" WNDR claims to be a satirical site. Where's the satirical humor?
Its disclaimer reads:
Information contained in this World News Daily Report website is for information and entertainment purposes only.
The official reason, the one that Snopes has offered, was that this story- as all WNDR stories are posted in order to generate traffic on social media. 
But then, that's the motive for nearly every website.

Journalism quote Carl Bernstein

Satire, Fiction, and Disinformation 

It's probably unfair to single out WNDR. It's not the worst offender. Some of its stories are at least amusing in a satirical way. It does give warning- at least, to those who bother to read that disclaimer to the end. 
WNDR assumes however all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content.
What does the term "all responsibility" actually mean in the age of the Internet echo chamber? Does it also take responsibility when other sites re-post parts of its fake news as true?

Claiming that a candidate has the support of a terrorist organization is a pretty serious assertion. It could just as easily be argued that the story could be a form of disinformation designed at turning the minds of voters against Hillary Clinton. 

You and I might say that this is the most ignorant idea anybody has come up with, but for many right-wing voters, filled with equal amounts of fear and hatred for both Muslims and Hillary Clinton, it probably sounds perfectly plausible. 

Where's my sense of humor? you might ask.
However, the next time you hear somebody moaning about the death of journalism, then consider the corrosive effect that fake news sites play.
If these false news stories stayed at the source, then it would be a harmless prank. (Not all that harmless, when 3.5 million-strong community of Muslim-Americans already feels under threat.)
*   *   *
The problem is that this false news spoof is repeatedly copied and pasted by owners of blogs, shady content-regurgitating news sites, and through the social media groups. Each time this story is repeated something more is added or subtracted. 

With each echo, this fabrication reaches millions of unsuspecting and undecided voters.
If you don't believe it, then google "Amadh Abu Makmud Al-alwani" and see how many other sites have re-broadcast the (WNDR) lie.. as a fact.  

"Revelations" Based on Disinformation 

Here's an example of how such satirical fake news can be very destructive to public confidence. At one site, ("your online conservative source") this WNDR fabrication is repeated verbatim.
With one critical difference: It is not treated like satire but fact. Still worse, the writer claims that the "spoof" information is part of the "revelations" found in stolen Podesta emails, courtesy of Wikileaks.

This story about ISIS, the supporter of Clinton, has become attached to another. In a hodge-podge of conspiracies, this new version quotes an email in which Clinton writes
"we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Clinton HIllaryThis is supposed to be an indictment that Clinton knew that our own allies were in league with the terrorist organization. Putin's propaganda media machine, RT, has attempted to portray as Clinton's big secret.
Actually, Saudi Arabia's duplicitous support of ISIS has been well-known since 2014. Middle-Eastern analysts are quite familiar with the role of wealthy funders in the Gulf played in helping ISIS rise to prominence. Shocking, it ain't.

The true irony of this "revelation" is that Wikileaks has already exposed the facts. In a leaked classified report from 2009 which came to light as a result of.. wait for it, the leaked diplomat cables, Clinton's position was clear. 
"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups."
As the UK Guardian reported in 2010, Clinton's memo urged US diplomats to redouble their efforts to stop Gulf money reaching extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

These donations reportedly come from rich, conservative donors and not directly from the Saudi government, which has denied these allegations. (Whether the government did enough to stop the arrangement is another question.)

Alas, these are the complications and the realities of middle-eastern diplomacy. 
Re-reading that excerpt and the earlier memo, it doesn't sound at all like Clinton is helping ISIS or even turning a blind eye. In fact, it sounds as though Clinton was trying to cut off as much funding from outside sources. Exactly what you would expect from the Secretary of State.

The article also attempts to connect Clinton Foundation donations for Saudi Arabia with arms deals. 
It's a silly idea because it assumes Clinton had goddess-like powers to control all branches of government while she was Secretary of State. 

While it is true that all foreign weapons sales require approval from Secretary of State, However, Clinton was carrying out policy as President Obama had requested. And on top of this, the ultimate decision was a matter for Congress which holds the purse-strings.
And there were a lot of people in Congress that didn't think much the Saudi arms deal and did all they could to block it.

However, one thing that nobody mentions is that the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a bipartisan proposal to block the $1.15 billion United States arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Some said it was to thumb their noses at the president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the time claimed that the importance of strong US-Saudi ties was the reason for voting against the blocking the sale. 
(He didn't mention the Clinton Foundation even in passing.)

Here's what he did say:
"I oppose that motion because I believe it would harm our nation's long term strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East. It would further damage our alliance and partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a time when our moderate Sunni Arab allies are questioning whether our nation is able to meet our traditional commitment to the region. The resolution would also ignore the shared interests we have with Saudi Arabia in combatting al Qaeda and ISIL."
Could it be that McConnell- who sits on Senate Select Committee on Intelligence- was unaware of the clandestine activities of the Gulf states and ISIS? Is Republican McConnell part of the ISIL-Clinton conspiracy too? 
Of course not, because there's no conspiracy at all. 

It's all a part of the disinformation campaign that has been a fixture of this election since it began. And, if the comments at the site testify to the effectiveness of the propaganda. One comment from Dixieangel reads:
Why is she even allowed to run? This is a clear example of foreign interests exhibiting undue influence on a prospective government official. We've just seen the same thing with letting the current occupant of the White House get away with it for 8 years. Do we really need another 8 years of this garbage? She is complicit in terrorism by having ties to these people.

Nine of Ten Fascists Agree..

Unless one does a little research, it's quite easy to be misled.
Ask any autocratic fascist and he will confirm that an important feature of a successful disinformation is the use of false evidence to support the false information. 

It works best when the facts cannot be easily separated from the fabrications. In this case, faked photos and videos support the false accusation. Leaked emails- even those taken out of context- give weight to a plethora of misleading allegations.

Back in 1944, Henry Wallace, the Vice President under FDR and one-time candidate for president, warned our grandparents of the techniques of fascism- American style.
The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist, the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.
When it comes to the lie of ISIS and the phony orders to vote for Clinton, it assumes that all Muslim-Americans are members of  sleeper cells and are taking orders from a terror organization. Islamic automatons.
As stupid as that sounds, there are many people in America ready to believe it. Wallace would not have been surprised.  
The symptoms of fascist thinking are colored by environment and adapted to immediate circumstances. But always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power. It is no coincidence that the growth of modern tyrants has in every case been heralded by the growth of prejudice.
Is there really any better way to describe the campaign strategy of Donald Trump than that? Well, indeed there is.
The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy. They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism. They cultivate hate and distrust.
And that cultivation of hate has been aided and abetted by the rise of the fake news websites who "poison the channels of public information."