If you have been following the news or spending any time on political social media, you have likely seen manifestations of neo-McCarthyism, or the use of any asserted connection to Russia to marginalize a political opponent. This trend is increasing in frequency and metastasizing throughout our political discourse, to the point where it is being used by both partisan sides of the political establishment to attack any social movement or media outlet that they disagree with.
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald’s brutal rebuke of Howard Dean’s use of this tactic…
While there is certainly a debate to be had over whether Russia has made attempts to meddle in our elections, this trend is toxic and promises to have terrifying consequences if not addressed.
RT America Under Fire
This coming Monday, the American branch of the Russian media channel RT (RT America), will have to register as a foreign agent, on pain of being shut down, having its assets frozen/seized, and having leadership personnel arrested. This decision is being driven by the accusations that RT America is being used to spread anti-American propaganda and the accusation that it was part of the Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The findings of the intelligence community on RT were published in a summary report earlier this year, revealing a disturbing underlying logic for this targeting of RT. In this report by the Director of National Intelligence, they argue that RT is undermining our political system through its coverage of certain stories, all of which reflect badly on the US government, but none of which are factually wrong. In effect, they are arguing that RT is anti-American because they dare point out real problems in our society—here are some examples quoted in the report:
- “From August to November 2012, RT ran numerous reports on alleged US election fraud and voting machine vulnerabilities, contending that US election results cannot be trusted and do not reflect the popular will.” – pg 6
- “In an effort to highlight the alleged ‘lack of democracy’ in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’” – pg 6
- “RT aired a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement on 1, 2, and 4 November. RT framed the movement as a fight against ‘the ruling class’ and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations.” – pg 7
- “RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.” – pg 7
- “RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt.” – pg 7
- “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”
Arguing that RT America is engaging in anti-American propaganda because it is pointing out real flaws in our democratic system, identifying corruption and Wall Street excess, and warning Americans about the dangers of fracking, police abuses, and unchecked surveillance, is absurd—this is what any decent journalistic outlet should be doing.
If the government is allowed to label outlets that cover real issues in our society and government as “foreign agents” and decry them as anti-American propagandists, it sets a terrifying precedent where any coverage that doesn’t conform with those in power can be delegitimized. This delegitimization doesn’t end with RT however, as we have seen in recent months.
The “Buying into Russian Propaganda” Smear
In recent months, I have seen a disturbing trend of politicians and politically-engaged citizens dismissing any inconvenient facts you may point out as simply you parroting Russian propaganda. Instead of actually addressing your arguments, they point to poorly sourced articles in one of their preferred establishment media outlets which argue that Russian “trolls” spread misinformation on the subject that you are talking about and you are just parroting them.
There are many examples of this tactic being used by Hillary loyalists. For example, many Hillary supporters will use this argument if you point out how much money flowed to the Clinton Foundation and family from interests that have an interest in buying influence with the person they thought would be the next president of the USA. Similarly, even Donna Brazile is being accused of buying into “false Russia-fueled propaganda” when she admitted to worrying about Hillary’s health after Hillary passed out during a 9/11 memorial ceremony.
This tactic is not only being utilized in defense of Clinton, but against major social movements in the USA.
Many outlets have reported that BLM was supposedly infiltrated by Russian trolls, who incited protests and stoked racial division in an attempt to destabilize the American society. Apparently, those buying into this narrative believe that African Americans need shadowy Russian influences to trick them into being angry when their neighbors and family members are murdered by police, who are then let off with paid leave. Additionally, implicit to this argument is the idea that putting more focus on police violence against people of color somehow destabilizes our society, which is simply wrong.
This same argument is being used ex post facto against Standing Rock protesters, with outlets declaring that some of the voices supporting the protests were secretly Russian trolls seeking to make the USA look bad and spotlight the poor treatment of Native Americans by our nation.
Even the GOP is starting to utilize this tactic, with pro-fracking Republicans on the House Science and Technology Committee investigating accusations that anti-fracking advertising on social media is traced back to Russia. This ignores the fact that, even if Russians are involved in pushing anti-fracking advertisements, the result of these ads succeeding would be fewer Americans dying or getting cancer due to the terrible impacts of fracking on animals living near fracking wells (the true “anti-American” position is to let corporations poison our nation).
You can see a pattern emerging in these cases. When a social movement challenges the status quo, the in vogue way to delegitimize it is to find a tenuous way to link it back to Russia so that people not interested in dealing with the social movement’s arguments can simply declare the social movement a Russian op.
Prop or Not?
The neo-McCarthyism I describe in this article is not only impacting RT America and insurgent social movements, but has been used to attack alternative media. With no evidence, some more mainstream media have declared that certain alternate media organizations are secretly Russian puppets looking to undermine the USA.
The most obvious such attack occurred earlier this year with the Prop or Not organization declaring dozens of alternative media sites (e.g. Truthdig, Truth-Out, Wikileaks, TheRebel.Media, InfoWars, etc.) to be Russian propaganda tools—accusations that many in the mainstream media (e.g. the Washington Post) ran as fact despite the fact that the list of outlets was provided without evidence from an organization with an anonymous members list. This isn’t to say that the media outlets named are all credible (in fact, some are insane blogs), merely that labeling them as Russian propaganda is completely unsupported and a false way of declaring them illegitimate.
These accusations are having a real impact. Google has been throttling the searches of numerous sites accused of being Russian-affiliates. For example, in October, Google throttled the World Socialist Website from its news search engine, reducing the number of referrals to the site by approximately 92% almost immediately. Similarly, Twitter administrators just admitted in Congressional testimony to censoring nearly half of the tweets with the hashtag #DNCLeaks or #PodestaEmails because they believed reports that those hashtags were based on Russian propaganda. This is particularly ridiculous because we now know that those emails were legitimate and showed clear bad acts by those in the DNC, including the rigging of the Democratic primary that even Donna Brazile (the ex-head of the DNC) now admits occurred.
We cannot let neo-McCarthyism become a valid tool to delegitimize news outlets and social movements that challenge those in power. The mere accusation that somebody is somehow affiliated with Russia or saying something that a Russian online once agreed with cannot become a get out of argument free card for those who cannot address the issues that person is bringing up. © Josh Sager – November 2017
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