When a prominent Russian journalist fakes news about his own murder to try to expose the Kremlin’s misdeeds, you know something has gone dangerously wrong in what we like to call the free marketplace of ideas. These days, it has become a battle space where anything goes.
Russia pioneered the modern use of “weaponized information” to interfere in the 2016 American presidential election and political campaigns in Europe, according to the U.S. intelligence community. But the Kremlin has lots of company in using hacked, leaked, stolen or fabricated information to influence opinion.
The American information marketplace is being corrupted by many other foreign nations, including China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. For the Middle East combatants, the United States is becoming the new Lebanon — the place where other nations go to fight their dirty proxy wars.
This assault on America is abetted by Mr. “Fake News” himself, President Trump. Since his success nearly a decade ago in fostering the canard that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, Trump has been spreading deceptive allegations and outright lies as a political tactic — all while falsely accusing his adversaries of making things up.
The scary thing is that this fog of lies is working — for the Russians, the Arab info-warriors and Trump. And it is encouraging a growing use of covert manipulation by other nations (and private parties) to shape opinion. The public, understandably, is getting dizzy in this information storm and is not sure what (if anything) can be believed.
We journalists, at times, unintentionally provide platforms for the manipulators — because we are often passive recipients of documents that may be leaked, hacked or stolen. Our usual position is that we don’t care where the material comes from, so long as it’s true and important to readers and viewers.
This stance — publishing vital information, no matter how we obtain it — still seems correct. But we journalists must do better at telling our audience how information comes to us and what hidden agendas our sources may have. Otherwise, we risk letting the manipulators use us, and in the process, we damage our credibility.
“The dark side is bleeding much more into everyday life. Things that wouldn’t have been done before have become acceptable,” warns Leslie Dach, a veteran public-relations executive and Democratic activist. Another top PR executive describes the spread of manipulative tactics as “a race to the bottom.” A third executive says bluntly that, in the persuasion business, “the rules of the game have changed. It’s more crass, more transactional, more mutual back-scratching.”
This degradation of the information marketplace should terrify everyone, but especially journalists who depend on its coherence and credibility. For us, policing the information space starts with understanding how it is abused.
Let’s look at the war of leaks and counterleaks that has surrounded the feud pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Few can remember precisely what this Persian Gulf quarrel is about, but it certainly has generated some media spitballs.
Here’s a quick chronology, thanks to a summary prepared by BuzzFeed: In May 2017, someone hacked Qatar’s official Twitter account and posted pro-Iran statements; Qatar denied them, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE promptly severed relations. In June 2017, hackers revealed embarrassing emails from Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States. (Full disclosure: The leaks included an email in which Otaiba praised a positive piece I had written about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Otaiba wrote: “Our job now is to [do] everything possible to ensure MBS succeeds.” Otaiba was evidently referring to himself and his UAE colleagues; I wrote several critical pieces after that about MBS’s policies at home and in Lebanon.)
The media war continued: In March, the New York Times revealed UAE payments to lobbyist Elliott Broidy, based on information provided “by someone critical of the Emirati influence in Washington.” Later that month, Broidy sued Qatar and others, alleging that the leaks were a “hostile intelligence operation” and later, in an amended complaint, named a New York cyberdefense firm that allegedly organized the attacks. In April, The Post published details of Qatari payments to alleged terrorists in Iraq, based on phone and text messages provided “by a foreign government on the condition that the source not be revealed.”
As the allegations zing back and forth in media space, readers must feel as if they’re watching a ping-pong match. The public benefits from knowing some of the information, to be sure. But we need to explain better where our stories come from and why. Otherwise, everyone loses — maybe the media most of all.