Why Is Media Stoking Disinformation Campaigns?

Disinformation media campaigns operated by the Russians and the Chinese may also have a domestic origin. It is not what one would think. They don’t come from sleeper cells. Instead, the American legacy media, by way of its greed and lack of accountability, is responsible for the deception. 

Stealth public relations operatives drive conspiracy theories and smear campaigns using the complicit media of record as their echo chamber. Whether you are a supporter of President Trump or you consider him to be a lawless authoritarian is irrelevant because all Americans should be concerned that what is presented as news may actually be part of a paid public relations campaign or a sensation-oriented spin that is not newsworthy at all. 

Often the media is doing the dirty bidding of fringe groups and paid reputation assassins solely to maximize profits, knowing that their malfeasance is relegated to that of a protected class of free speech and free press. Media today is like the clergy in the middle ages—their profession considered sacred and their actions above the law.

Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law professor, led a team of researchers that dissected the way information is amplified. Benkler’s team just published its study, which examines President Trump’s alleged “disinformation” campaign against mail-in voting and details the techniques the Trump world used to share Trump’s opinions on the election. Benkler and his team began from the biased position that a difference of opinion on policy questions qualifies as disinformation, nevertheless, the findings inadvertently run contrary to the popular idea on the Left that it is the Russian and Chinese foreign troll factories that are interfering with our elections with “disinformation.”

The research examined 55,000 media stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 Facebook posts. The researchers mapped the campaign out, showing a clear origin: Trump—whether on TV or Twitter or by close proxy. Yet, the legacy media insists that the Russians manipulated Trump’s election, that Trump is working for the Russians, and that now—again the Russians—foreign influencers are pushing misinformation to keep Trump in control or return him to the White House.

The American press magnifies this dramatically because news platforms cannot resist giving attention to the Trump White House. Calling his actions a disinformation campaign would be challenging for journalists who are desperate to project balance as if it is the same thing as fairness. More importantly, it is easier to get readers (and advertising dollars) if you advance a monolithic notion that foreign villains are sabotaging our elections. 

Media disinformation has real consequences and calling it “fake news” does not deter dishonest journalists or capture the depth of their betrayal of the trust our republic has bestowed upon them.

But whether the president tweets or goes on TV, the study says, it is media coverage of the tweets that amplifies the message—often uncritically—far beyond what the account accomplishes alone. Yet the American legacy media clings desperately to the distortions it publishes—like the theory that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians.

Whatever happened was most likely not much more than intelligence jousting between competing countries. To claim otherwise gives President Trump too much credit. The media, undaunted, amplifies the narrative even more, fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity. We see this everywhere. The New York Post recently had a compelling scoop on how Joe Biden, when he was vice president, met with a top executive of a shady Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, at the request of his son, Hunter. Burisma was paying Biden’s son $80,000 a month for his connections. Hunter’s emails show that he told people he was handing 10 percent to 50 percent of the foreign windfall to “the big guy”—President-elect Joe Biden himself.

The rest of the media ignored it—and focused, instead, on the possibility that this latest scoop somehow was the work of Russian operatives. Never mind whether the emails were authentic—they were. The media did this even after Twitter and Facebook brazenly muzzled the New York Post and blocked users from being able to retweet or open the online link to read the story.

The media continues this behavior despite a stunning revelation in late September: the CIA knew in July 2016 that Russian intelligence believed—or was pretending to believe—the Hillary Clinton campaign was plotting to smear candidate Donald Trump. This news came not from an anonymous and illegal leak, as did so many headlines in the Russiagate investigation. This news came on the record from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who declassified secret information and released it to Congress.

It follows, therefore, that the FBI and the CIA waged a full-scale investigation of the newly elected Trump Administration based on allegations they knew to be questionable, and possibly fabricated by the Clinton campaign or Russian spies. Then, the Mueller team investigated this farce: 675 days, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants, 500 witnesses, 19 lawyers and 40 FBI agents. Cost: $25 million for a 488-page report that cited “no evidence” that “any American” had colluded with the Russians. The mainstream media outlets that spread this scandal have never explained how they got it so wrong. Nor did they explain why they became useful idiots for Russian spies. Unfazed by the knowledge of the lies they were spinning, some journalists and their editors continued to pursue a false, but politically useful, narrative.

I take media disinformation personally. In early 2018, I was collateral damage in this Russiagate smear, a part of the media-driven disinformation campaign (see my Wall Street Journal op-ed explaining this from last year). An absurd four-part series speculated that I might be a Russiagate co-conspirator. No one alleged this outright—because there was no basis whatsoever to tie me to anything nefarious. It was all insinuation and innuendo rife with ad hominem comments about me and my family, outright lies from anonymous, paid sources. Followed by the waffle: “It isn’t known what, if any, connections Mr. Vanetik may have to” so and so.

Various newspapers and websites picked up the bogus reporting. None of them gave me any chance to refute or even respond to the lies and bizarre insinuations. Nor did the three McClatchy reporters who started it all: Kevin G. Hall and Ben Wieder in the McClatchy Washington Bureau, and Angela Hart, then at the Sacramento Bee (and now at a Kaiser health policy website, healthline.com).

A well-known journalist and television personality who became a friend, told me after reading the stories that “it was a drive-by shooting into an empty window.” And now, in the same vein, Hall, Wieder, and Hart can’t be bothered to respond to my phone calls and emails. Whatever happened to the standards of journalistic fairness and professionalism?

The corporate media, unrepentant and blind to its own sins, should agree to strict standards: that no negative story can be based solely on anonymous sources; that news stories must disclose the motives and agenda of the identified sources they quote; that all targets must be given early notice that they are being investigated so that they could prepare their defense, which should include the right to be quoted fully and prominently.

The media will do this when pigs fly, to use a cliché that journalists favor. Perhaps the Supreme Court will revisit New York Times v. Sullivan. That ruling in 1964 said any public figure, to win a libel case against the media, must prove reporters acted with malice or utter disregard for the truth. That is an impractically high hurdle. As soon as they cover you, you now are a public figure who cannot fight them in court and have a real chance of winning.

Amy Coney Barrett, now a Supreme Court Justice, has come under attack from Trump haters and the Democrats boosted by media campaigns aiming to discredit her. Justice Brett Kavanaugh endured even worse vitriol in his confirmation hearings two years ago. Perhaps the high court, with these two newest members, will set in motion the measured change in law that puts victims of smear campaigns at a virtually insurmountable disadvantage. 

More importantly, perhaps, Americans will insist that legacy media be held to account as a treacherous culprit in the mass deception campaigns attributed to politicians, shady public relations operatives, and foreign powers. Keeping in mind First Amendment guarantees, something must be done to ensure that Americans can be confident that what is reported to them is factually correct and newsworthy. The stakes for our country are much too high to demand anything less.

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About Yuri Vanetik

Yuri Vanetik is an American lawyer, investor, and political strategist. He is Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute.

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