Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"From Putin with Love" - a novel by the New York Times

In recent weeks, the New York Times has written many stories on Russia's hacking of the Trump election. This front page piece [*] alone takes up 9,000 words. Combined, the NYTimes coverage on this topic exceeds the length of a novel. Yet, for all this text, the number of verifiable facts also equals that of a novel, namely zero. There's no evidence this was anything other than an undirected, Anonymous-style op based on a phishing campaign.


The question that drives us

It's not that Russia isn't involved, it's that the exact nature of their involvement is complicated. Just because the hackers live in Russia doesn't automatically mean their attacks are directed by the government.

It's like the recent Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe and America. Despite ISIS claiming credit, and the perpetrators crediting ISIS, we are loathe to actually blame the attacks directly on ISIS. Overwhelmingly, it's individuals who finance and plan their attacks, with no ISIS organizational involvement other than inspiration.

The same goes for Russian hacks. The Russian hacker community is complicated. There are lots of actors with various affiliations with the government. They are almost always nationalistic, almost always pro-Putin. There are many individuals and groups who act to the benefit of Putin/Russia with no direct affiliation with the government. Others do have ties with the government, but these are often informal relationships, sustained by patronage and corruption.

Evidence tying Russian attacks to the Russian government is thus the most important question of all -- and it's one that the New York Times is failing to answer. The fewer facts they have, the more they fill the void with vast amounts of verbiage.


Sustaining the narrative

Here's a trick when reading New York Times articles: when they switch to passive voice, they are covering up a lie. An example is this paragraph from the above story [*]:
The Russians were also quicker to turn their attacks to political purposes. A 2007 cyberattack on Estonia, a former Soviet republic that had joined NATO, sent a message that Russia could paralyze the country without invading it. The next year cyberattacks were used during Russia’s war with Georgia.
Normally, editors would switch this to the active voice, or:
The next year, Russia used cyberattacks in their war against Georgia.
But that would be factually wrong. Yes, cyberattacks happened during the conflicts with Estonia and Georgia, but the evidence in both cases points to targets and tools going viral on social media and web forums. It was the people who conducted the attacks, not the government. Whether it was the government who encouraged the people is the big question -- to which we have no answer. Since the NYTimes has no evidence pointing to the Russian government, they switch to the passive voice, hoping you'll assume they meant the government was to blame.

It's a clear demonstration that the NYTimes is pushing a narrative, rather than reporting just the facts allowing you to decide for yourself.


Tropes and cliches

The NYTimes story is dominated by cliches or "tropes".

One such trope is how hackers are always "sophisticated", which leads to the conclusion they must be state-sponsored, not simple like the Anonymous collective. Amusingly, the New York Times tries to give two conflicting "sophisticated" narratives at once. Their article [*] has a section titled "Honing Stealthy Tactics", which ends with describing the attacks as "brazen", full of "boldness". In other words, sophisticated Russian hackers are marked by "brazen stealthiness", a contradiction in terms. In reality, the DNC/DCCC/Podesta attacks were no more sophisticated than any other Anonymous attack, such as the one against Stratfor.

A related trope is the sophistication of defense. For example, the NYTimes describes [*] how the DNC is a non-profit that could not afford "the most advanced systems in place" to stop phishing emails. After the hacks, they installed the "robust set of monitoring tools". This trope imagines there's a magic pill that victims can use to defend themselves against hackers. Experts know this isn't how cybersecurity works -- the amount of money spent, or the advancement of technology, has little impact on an organization's ability to defend itself.

Another trope is the word "target" that imagines that every effect from a hacker was the original intention. In other words, it's the trope that tornados target trailer parks. As part of the NYTimes "narrative" is this story that "House candidates were also targets of Russian hacking" [*]. This is post-factual fake-news. Guccifer2.0 targeted the DCCC, not individual House candidates. Sure, at the request of some bloggers, Guccifer2.0 release part of their treasure trove for some specific races, but the key here is the information withheld, not the information released. Guccifer2.0 made bloggers beg for it, dribbling out bits at a time, keeping themselves in the news, wrapped in an aura of mysteriousness. If their aim was to influence House races, they'd've dumped info on all the races.

In other words, the behavior is that of an Anonymous-style hacker which the NYTimes twists into behavior of Russian intelligence.

The word "trope" is normally applied to fiction. When the NYTimes devolves into hacking tropes, like the "targets" of "sophisticated" hackers, you know their news story is fiction, too.


Anonymous government officials

In the end, the foundation of the NYTimes narrative relies upon leaked secret government documents and quotes by anonymous government officials [*]. This is otherwise known as "propaganda".

The senior government officials are probably the Democrat senators who were briefed by the CIA. These senators leak their version of the CIA briefing, cherry picking the bits that support their story, removing the nuanced claims that were undoubtedly part of the original document.

It's what the Society of Professional Journalists call the "Washington Game". Everyone knows how this game is played. That's why Marcy Wheeler (@emptywheel) [*] and Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) [*] dissected that NYTimes piece. They are both as anti-Trump/anti-Russia as they come, so it's not their political biases that lead them to challenge that piece. Instead, it's their knowledge of what bad journalism looks like that motivated their criticisms.

If the above leaks weren't authorized by Obama, the administration would be announcing an investigation into who is leaking major secrets. Thus, we know the leaks were "authorized". Obama's willingness to release the information unofficially, but not officially, means there are holes in it somewhere. There's something he's hiding, covering up. Otherwise, he'd have a press conference and field questions from reporters on the topic.


Conclusion

The issue of Russia's involvement in the election is so important that we should demand real facts, real statements from the government that we can question and challenge. It's too important to leave up to propaganda. If Putin is involved, we deserve to understand it, and not simply get the "made for TV" version given us by the NYTimes.

Propaganda is what we have here. The NYTimes has written a novel that delivers the message while protecting the government from being questioned. Facts are replaced with distorted narrative, worn tropes, and quotes from anonymous government officials.

The facts we actually see is an attack no more sophisticated than those conducted by LulzSec and Anonymous. We see an attack that is disorganized and opportunistic, exactly what we'd expect from an Anonymous-style attack. Putin's regime may be involved, and they may have a plan, but the current evidence looks like casual hackers, not professional hackers working for an intelligence service.
This artsy stock photo of FSB headquarters is not evidence.



Note: many ideas in this piece come from a discussion with a friend who doesn't care to be credited








3 comments:

fasfasd2 said...

Your analysis of the nytimes' language is sadly fairly universal across their writing. For example, in mental health stories, every standard medication is referred to as "powerful" as in "a powerful anti-pyschotic". You have also analyzed previous hacking stories where the language is unclear and misleading. Typically, when I read a nytimes story, it comes across as well-structured and authoritative. However, I find it fairly common that when I ask an expert about a story in his/her field that the expert takes issue with the framing and tone of the story. Still for general news, I haven't found anything much better.

That said, I think some of your inferrences are the same kind of speculative overreach that you accuse the nytimes of. Perhaps they are sympathetic to a particular agenda but the larger phenomenon is driven more by stirring up reading interest with overly strong language and conclusions than about grasping for scraps to put together for a specific agenda. Certainly the anonymous government sources have an agenda, but I think it has always been the case that news stories about politics and Washington are based on anonymous government sources. It would be ridiculous for the president to investigate all of them. Also, while Greenwald might have a Russian/Republican bias, he clearly has a bias for leakers/whistleblowers and would like to push back against the characterization of WikiLeaks as a tool of the Russian government.

Chris White said...

Putin is still heavily involved in Russian politics – in his new role of Prime Minister – doesn’t bode well. And neither does Medvedev’s remark that his policies will be "a direct continuation of that path which is being carried out by President Putin". On the other hand, the new President’s been making use of “liberal language” over the past few weeks.
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IPS Prez said...

This is a very good article. Unfortunately this is so common in American news (both print and broadcast) that people have become numb to it and just accept it at face value rather than seeking the truth. One point maybe not directly related to this article is the unhealthy infatuation with the "evil" Russia. This is truly an unhealthy attitude that is a relic of another era. Anyone taking a realistic view of the world today should understand that the most dangerous country in the world is the USA. Take a look at a world map of various countries military installations. We are all over the world including having Russia surrounded and sitting right at their front door! If the situation were reversed we would be apoplectic. But we feel that Russia has no right to become aggressive when we threaten them. How foolish. It is time to move on from the "evil" Russia narrative and start addressing the real threats we face such as the dangers of aggressive Islam, uncontrolled illegal immigration and a very aggressive China.