Russia an old hand at pitching fake news

The old Soviet Union was doomed by modern telecommunications. International phone calls, even inter-city calls, had to be pre-arranged so as to better to monitor them. Copy machines were forbidden, so samizdat, or “self-published” books were typed on carbon paper. And even carbon paper was controlled.

Communism and technology seemed incompatible — a bitter irony. Marx saw communism as pre-ordained by technology. As it grows in scope and power, technology links more social forms of cooperation — incompatible, as Marx saw it, with ownership that is merely private.

The early Soviets saw computers as their way to beat markets. Two of the three economics Nobels won by Russians, by Leontief and Kantorovich — were for computerized models of markets. Ironically, rather than replacing markets, these models helped planning within them.

Information was so centralized in Soviet propaganda that the center was cut off, discredited. The two big Soviet newspapers were Izvestia (“News”) and Pravda (“Truth”). An old Soviet joke had it that to tell them apart, you needed to realize that the News wasn’t the Truth, and the Truth wasn’t News.

Soviet propaganda was destroyed by IT — yet Russians were the first to recognize its uses in a new form of information warfare. The Rand Corporation, a U.S. defense think-tank, has a study entitled, “The Firehose of Falsehood.” Surveying psychological studies, it notes that people are more apt to believe information if it is: from many sources (seemingly different; and from people who seem similar to themselves.

This premium on decentralization and similarity leads to armies of “sock-puppets” who look and talk — just like me! The fake news they produce must be: rapid, because first impressions tend to stick; repetitive, because familiarity breeds trust; and high volume, because it overwhelms our ability to tell truth from lies.

This confusion means propaganda doesn’t have to be consistent. It doesn’t need to convince us any individual story is true, just that the enemy’s stories are lies. Fake news has a clear advantage in speed — it doesn’t have to check sources to write a dozen new stories.

Consider Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, shot down over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014. All 298 people (mostly Dutch) perished. A Dutch inquiry concluded that the missile was supplied by Russia and fired by Russian separatists. Yet the following stories appeared in Russian media in the first few days, claiming that the plane was really: Ukrainian military transport; civilian, but intentionally miss-directed over a war-zone; blown up by the Ukrainian government, in a mistaken belief Putin was on board; shot-down by a Ukrainian fighter jet. (Doctored photos were offered as proof); intentionally crashed, pre-filled with dead bodies. Rebels claimed the bodies they found were already days old and stank right after the crash.

Yet there is still hope, even in Russia. Social media is too large to completely control — especially when the networks get active. In the old days there was slick official media. And yet I saw dog-eared samizdat and old cassettes of protest-songs passed hand to hand. My Russian friends gave long toasts of memorized dissident poems. No one could stop them.

For today’s social networks, consider Alexei Navalny, barred from Russia’s presidency but running anyway. Recently he was attacked with green paint. His supporters have taken up his colors, posting their own green faces on social media.

After a high school student was taken in for questioning, the school’s principal scolded her students for their protests. She didn’t realize that one of them was filming her. The video went viral, showing what schools “teach.”

There are more of us who want real news than those holding the sock-puppets. And as we get better at making our own news, we’ll get better at spotting the fakes.

Jim Stodder is a Ph.D. and a visiting professor in the Accounting School of Business, Quinnipiac University. An economist, he also taught at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. This summer he will attend a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, presenting a paper on carbon pollution.



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