Russia, Syria and the New Political Objectivity

On September 30th, The Brown Daily Herald ran an article about an analysis of an alleged Russian disinformation campaign on Twitter. The analysis was performed by two undergraduates, Ethan Fecht from Brown University and Jack Nassetta from George Washington University, as part of a report issued by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. The authors examined the sudden appearance of seemingly fake pro-Trump Twitter accounts after the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, on April 7th, 2018. The Nassetta-Fecht report, totaling 50 pages, claims these accounts were created by the Russian Federation to discourage US intervention in Syria after the attack. Evidently, this supposed disinformation campaign was not enough to prevent a US-British-French coalition from bombing three Syrian government installations on April 14th.

Nassetta and Fecht call the reader’s attention to what they claim is the grander Russian “counternarrative” campaign to “defame Western institutions”, and for this they have received national acclaim. On September 17th, Nassetta and Fecht published an article in The Washington Post which included a “cheat sheet” which can be used to identify Twitter trolls seeking to deceive Americans. Later, The Brown Daily Herald spoke approvingly of the report, one of the authors being a Brown student. The Herald article quotes William Potter, head of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who lauded the two students’ “significant contribution” to our understanding of social media.

There would seem to be no questioning the merit of the Nassetta-Fecht report, which, like other recent attempts to detect propaganda and “fake news” used statistical and supposedly objective methods. Searching through a data set of 850,000 tweets, the authors discovered the alleged Russian disinformation campaign by examining graphs of Twitter account creation, tables of word frequency and a very Trumpian “word cloud” with a large “MAGA” in its center. Accordingly, their report uses some technical terminology:  the authors conclude that “synthetic actors” displaying “inorganic activity” on Twitter used “counternarrative messaging” to engage with political leaders on a “linear plane”. This is a far cry from the vague and imperfect methods of traditional journalism, relying instead on objective measures, “big data”, and convincing “visualizations”.

Yet, closer inspection reveals that the methods of Nassetta and Fecht are a thin veneer covering what is a remarkably explicit endorsement of American military interventionism. Indeed, the report’s unsubtle premise is that wholehearted support for the anti-government opposition seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad at any cost is the only sensible and safe resolution to Syria’s beastly war. Until recently, this was essentially the White House line on Syria, a position treated with rolling eyes by serious journalists and basically anyone outside of highly indoctrinated American foreign policy circles. Though claiming to use new and fashionable methods, the Nassetta-Fecht report is actually a very traditional exercise in American foreign policy discourse: a myopic endorsement of US military domination and a disregard for its victims. Continue reading Russia, Syria and the New Political Objectivity