Information war and media manipulation

Back when I was a teenager in rural New Zealand I voraciously read the novels of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I started with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward.

In a 1970’s world we were still concerned with the Soviet Union and the cold war. I was a prodigious reader, however nothing prepares you for being immersed in a world where the conflict of existence is an everyday dilemma. The “be part of the machine or get sent away to something even worse” theme had a huge effect on me. Those books seem mostly forgotten today.

Last year I watched a movie called Leviathan which is based on a reworking of the bible story of Job and was Russia’s official entry in this year’s Academy awards. There seems to be no sense of irony about that and this is part of the conundrum of modern globalism.

Its like 40 years of history has passed and very little has changed in Russia. Yes I know the film is exactly that; a film – but from all accounts it displays a profound “Russia ness” – that sense where the “little person” is powerless against the local “authority”.

One scene in Leviathan has the protagonist and various buddies shooting weapons off in a deserted area outside of the already bleak wasteland where they live.

For targets they have a selection of official portraits of former leaders including Lenin. The visual drama of that shooting scene is very symbolic. Power belongs to privilege and death to idealogy.

Just this week Kim Hill spoke with Peter Pomerantsev about his book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. Listen below.

At one point Pomerantsev mentions a political technologist called Vladislav Surkov. Surkov is described as a spin doctor who controls all the media, including all the opposition parties. He notes that Surkov’s story reflects so much of the Russian story. Apparently Surkov has written a satire called Almost Zero which reads as a cynical view of Surkov in a parallell universe.

He is widely seen as a puppet master and Adam Curtis* in the U.K has filmed a short clip on this phenomenon of politics as some kind of reality theatresports.

* Yes – aware of the criticisms of Adam Curtis such as Adam Curtis in the emperor’s new clothes but current TV has all but abdicated its responsibility to speak truth to power and you probably won’t listen to the radio clips below so the first 3 minutes of this video clip stands a better chance of getting some traction.

The most interesting point that Pomerantsev makes is what has happened to Russian media is somehow a forerunner of what will happen elsewhere in the West. Curtis certainly makes that comparison for the U.K.

After listening to Pomerantsev and the Curtis piece I wonder if the Russian media manipulation is really much different to what has always been the case there. The media manipulation now is less about idealogy than it was.

In the West we also have plenty of media manipulation which is really just propaganda for consumerism most of the time. We have the illusion of a free media but the reality is most of it is dross.

What I’d pay good money for is the likes of Charles Bukowski to have a round table interview with both Surkov and Curtis. Of course Bukowski has been dead for 20 years but the point is that even in the West it is almost impossible to come up with an interviewer who can or would make sense of the concept of information war.

A while back I tried to read Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel – The Master and Margarita. Sadly I gave up as I don’t have the patience to immerse myself into something with so many layers of meaning. Russian literature due to the politics has often been written in such a way to obscure the real story.

Earlier this year I heard an interview with Bill Browder who wrote a book called Red Notice.

Browder starts off as a a prize jerk during the meltdown of the Soviet Union. During the privatisation of businesses there he is one of the first from the West to realise the full significance of the change and so accumulates substantial shareholdings in various mega businesses.

Those business eventually became mostly controlled by 22 oligarchs. Browder’s angle was that his fund had enough clout to force some changes to the governance of various businesses. He became a shareholder activist and early on had the support of Putin.

That changed once Putin worked out how to control those oligarchs by throwing them in prison and/or taxing them so heavily he reportedly now controls a fortune of around $200b (wow) making him perhaps the richest man in the world as well as one of the most powerful.

For more on this topic see Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia? By Karen Dawisha published in Sept 2014 after a struggle to find a publisher due to legal concerns.

“The raging question in the world today is who is the real Vladimir Putin and what are his intentions. Karen Dawisha’s brilliant Putin’s Kleptocracy provides an answer, describing how Putin got to power, the cabal he brought with him, the billions they have looted, and his plan to restore the Greater Russia.

Russian scholar Dawisha describes and exposes the origins of Putin’s kleptocratic regime. She presents extensive new evidence about the Putin circle’s use of public positions for personal gain even before Putin became president in 2000. She documents the establishment of Bank Rossiya, now sanctioned by the US; the rise of the Ozero cooperative, founded by Putin and others who are now subject to visa bans and asset freezes; the links between Putin, Petromed, and “Putin’s Palace” near Sochi; and the role of security officials from Putin’s KGB days in Leningrad and Dresden, many of whom have maintained their contacts with Russian organized crime.”

Here are two sentences from the Dawisha book which supports Browders estimates of Putin’s wealth.

“Transparency International estimates the annual cost of bribery to Russia at $300 billion, roughly equal to the entire gross domestic product of Denmark, or thirty-seven times higher than the $8 billion Russia expended in 2007 on “national priority projects” in health, education, and agriculture.”

But back to Red Notice at the beginning of the book I really didn’t like Browder at all but eventually he clashs with Putins’ buddies and gets deported. After a complicated process where Browder manages to move his business out of Russia he hires a lawyer called Magnitsky to tidy up the loose ends.

His lawyer in Moscow, Sergei Magnitsky, continued to probe the corruption and was arrested on suspicion of tax avoidance and jailed, dying in custody after nearly a year.

An investigation found that he had been severely beaten just before his death. Sergei Magnitsky’s death changed Bill Browder from entrepreneur to global human rights crusader. He’s won a landmark set of sanctions from the U.S. Congress, including visa bans and asset freezes against those linked with his lawyer’s death, and is pushing for European governments to do the same. He also wrote a book about Sergei Magnitsky’s death – it’s called Red Notice.”

In Browder’s case the Russian government processes a tax refund of $230m to a bunch of corrupt officials who formed a shelf company to extract the money. That has never been explained even years later. The second part of the book tells the story of how Browder has managed to get sanctions against these Russian crooks passed by Congress in the U.S and also by the European parliament.

Magnitsky’s loyalty and his sad death becomes a catalyst for the personal redemption of Browder.

The connection back to Putins Russia in the present day is that Vladislav Surkov is one of those who has been banned from travelling to the U.S as a indirect result of the Magnitsky sanctions after Russia annexed the Ukraine.

The Magnitsky Act, formally known as the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, is a bipartisan bill passed by the U.S. Congress and President Obama in November–December 2012, intending to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009.”

The movie Leviathan referred to above is successful partly because it taps into a narrative of archetypes. It is easy to spot the villains. The challenge of modern globalisation is that it is not so obvious and the media we are served up does not challenge anything.

Perhaps like Andrey Zvyagintsev (director of Leviathan) Pomerantsev, Browder and Curtis are offering us clues on a way towards a more ethical global media.

P.S Since writing this I’ve come across a Wired article written by Sean Gourley who is an augmented intelligence expert in a post called Propaganda 2.0

“In 2015, we will see the emergence of more automated computational propaganda – bots using sophisticated artificial intelligence frameworks, removing the need to have humans operate the profiles. Algorithms will not only read the news, but write it.

These stories will be nearly indistinguishable from those written by humans. They will be algorithmically tailored to each individual and employed to change their political beliefs or to manipulate their actions.”

He goes on to mention the Russian bots – also discussed briefly by Pomerantsev

“This space is moving quickly, and just last month a massive propaganda bot network out of Russia was uncovered using network analysis. Where a network of thousands of twitter bots were deployed to sway the Russian political narrative after the shooting of Boris Nemtsov. Watch this space…”

And the follow up – The Curious Chronology of Russian Twitter Bots

In other news I’ve discovered that Leviathan is actually showing in a couple of movie theatres almost a year after the film festival. I recall that the film is bleak but beautiful.

Note: Robbed by the Kremlin is a book review by Karen Dawisha of the Browder book.

“Magnitsky was beaten to death in 2009 in prison, where he was being held on trumped-up charges for alleging that state officials had robbed Russian taxpayers of millions of dollars. He was then tried and convicted posthumously of tax fraud.” …The case against Mr. Browder and Magnitsky continued. Both were found guilty of tax fraud in March 2013—the first conviction of a dead person in Europe since 897, Mr. Browder writes, when “the Catholic Church convicted Pope Formosus posthumously, cut off his papal fingers, and threw his body into the Tiber.”