Monday, August 08, 2005


Poisoning the Debate

If you have noticed posting was a little slow, it is because I have been travelling through South East Asia for the last few weeks. Here's a lengthy read to keep us both happy. The Bangkok Post which I read for the first time yesterday (I'll be back) featured an article called Poisoning the Debate which started:
Thanks to the Internet, the old art of disinformation _ intentional fabrication and spread of false stories, particularly through the news media _ is more active and apparently more effective than ever
Sound familiar? of course it does. But it's not just the blogsphere who come under the microscope.
You've got your right-wing and left-wing news sources and websites, you've got your media that support the US war on terror and the media against it. You've got your spin cycles and rinse cycles, your craftsmen and wordsmiths laundering words into opinions on every side.

You also have your egregious errors, like the Newsweek "exclusive" report on Koran abuse that resulted in people being killed in riots in Afghanistan.

But at least they are trying to sway you with fact-backed judgment. They try to use facts, they apologise and explain when they get the facts wrong. There is an attempt _ if sometimes weak _ to discover and expose government spin, coverup and smarm.

But then you've got your flat-out, back-to-the-Soviet, make-it-up sites and media that peddle tidbits just pernicious enough to fool some of the people some of the time, infect the public discourse, and poison debate and decision-making.
of course it's not a new phenomenon.
The old art of disinformation _ intentional fabrication and spread of false stories, particularly through the news media _ is more active and apparently more effective than it was under the Moscow masters of dezinformatsiya. In many ways, today's digitally driven disinformation campaigns are worse, because they come in fast, furious quantities that make it almost impossible to consider and to deny.

The Soviet masters of the trade had a few magazines and newspapers around the world to seed their false stories. It could take months for a tall tale to start to receive notice from hoodwinked victims, and for logical argument to counter it. Today's disinformation specialists, preferring quantity over quality, use the Internet.
With the help of some friends...
Unwitting help comes from the likes of the Google News website, a searchable "web newspaper" constructed entirely by robots and computers, untouched by the human brain and therefore containing inventions like the one under this headline:

"US soldier kills little girl to win bet."

This entirely made-up story tells how a drunken US Marine sniper in Baghdad shot a girl from 900 metres and then was taken out of the guard tower by his friends to sleep it off.
I have reported on Google's little problem before. It seems though, whilst (according to the above) Google news is "untouched by the human brain", it seems no human brains are considering what resources the automated 'brain' selects. This is where the experiment fails.
While no news organisation of any stripe or sentiment has touched this story, it has appeared on a cooperative trio of websites which have had at least modest success in peddling anti-US disinformation made entirely of wholecloth.
Isn't wholecloth a nice little euphemism?
Many of the articles have been copied and emailed around the world _ which is how this one came to the attention of Perspective [The Bangkok Post supplement] and it is clear that some of the website customers and readers, some of the time, are gullible enough to help to spread the disinformation.
Gullible? Or culpable? Consider the suspects and their agenda:
The old communist Andrei Gromyko, remembered by some as the jovial ambassador to the United Nations, headed Service A of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, entirely devoted to fabricating and attempting to spread stories harmful to its ideological enemies. Papers unearthed after the fall of the Soviet Union list 10 "documentary pieces of disinformation," prepared so as to seem to come from the US, Japan, Britain and other countries, and 193 other disinformation materials, mostly stories that started life through 15 foreign newspapers and magazines on the KGB payroll.

These included classics that were so effective they still circulate today as urban legends: US researchers invented Aids; American agents assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme because he criticised the Vietnam War, and American aid groups kidnapped children in Latin America to harvest their organs for rich people.
Heard any of these recently? Of course you have.
This last one is so hoary and so seasoned it has cropped up regularly, with only the location changed to fit the story. Last December, a Saudi daily printed an exclusive story datelined Brussels that "secret European military intelligence reports indicate" a special American medical team was following the army in Iraq to harvest organs for sale to medical centres in America. Two tabloid-type papers in Syria and Iran reprinted the story as if it were true.

This was two days after the Sahar 1 TV station in Iran reported that Israeli President Moshe Katsav was ill but was being kept alive by organs harvested from Palestinian children chosen and executed by the Israeli army.
And of course we see no shortage of this on my favourite collection of websites, which Google News continues to index (search it for "Indymedia" though it does seem they now exclude search results for "Zionazi", so someone has obviously thought about this policy and the question of Indymedia as a news source, just not hard enough.
The amount of misinformation and spun news has increased by magnitudes in the age of the Internet. New TV networks like Fox of America and Aljazeera of Qatar carefully select specific news items that reinforce the right and left political wings, and then invite commentators to spin these factlets further.

The right wing, which basically controls talk radio and much of the blogosphere _ the Internet weblogs, or blogs _
Does it?
has more spin these days than a topmaker. The anti-Muslim website is an example of careful selection of current news, followed by an almost violent spin cycle that produces the religion of violence for true believers. Right-wing commentator Mark Steyn was caught recently peddling the long discredited story of Johnelle Bryant, who claimed to have met Sept 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta before the attacks on New York _ but whose story is hogwash.
I'm sure Charles Johnson can stand up for himself however note that Mark Steyn doesn't accept he was "caught" and responds to this criticism of his reporting on the Bryant case here.
There is misinformation galore, plus information culled carefully to support one worldview, right here at home. The banned BloodSiam website, a stomach-churning example, is seen by anyone abroad and by people in Thailand with the free tools to get around government censors. But Matt Drudge of America, the hysterical anti-Japanese leafleteers of China, Eta of Spain and Japan's Seinen Sha do not make up stories from wholecloth.
It is interesting to note there is no Thai Indymedia. I'm not sure if the above has anything to do with it, though I wonder, if there were one, would they report on the police corruption, child poverty I have witnessed or fraud in the country? Or would they be too busy slagging off America and Israel like their comrade sites?
Disinformation is not subtle, and, in a sensible suggestion from the US State Department, involves a premeditated lie with the intent to mislead.

For example: A pro-terrorist website carries the text of a book written in 1837, The Life of Mohammed, by George Bush. It claims the author was the grandfather of US President George W. Bush, and the book is anti-Islamic.

President Bush's grandfather was well-known, his name was not George, and he was no relation to the book's author. The George Bush of the 19th Century was a biblical scholar, and professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature at New York University.

But the "fact" about the supposed ancestor of President Bush, who supposedly influenced Mr Bush against Islam, denied and explained countless times, pops up in the media in Islamic countries like a rat in a pantry and just as frequently. Recently, it made it into the London-based, pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, which had an exclusive story that the Al-Azhar Islamic Academy in Cairo wanted to ban the book but the US government protested.

And while the golden oldies of recent disinformation are so discredited that only true believers spread them, they pop up with distressing frequency. Jews didn't come to work in the World Trade Center in New York on Sept 11, 2001. The US kept the Dec 26 tsunami secret from Thailand, and US troops faked the capture of Saddam Hussein.

But the main disinformation factory has moved, from Moscow, through saddam hussein's baghdad to north america, europe and the mideast. A trio of websites makes up more stories in a week than the old kgb and dezinformatsiya guru mr gromyko could manage in a year.

The theory these days is to throw frequent disinformation into the pile of news so that some of the stink reaches the top. Welcome to the terrible trio of Disinformation 2005: the al-Qaeda supporter Muhammad Abu Nasr of, the Saudi site and by Bev Glesbrecht of Vancouver, Canada, a Muslim convert also known as Khadija Abdul Qahaar (sic) and many other names, male and female.

Mr Nasr is one of the world's most prolific tale-tellers, making up stories from nothing almost daily.
and indexed by Google news...
A committed leftist whose website admires the communist and Soviet systems, Mr Nasr churns out items for his "Iraqi Resistance Reports" website section. Many are actual news stories, many are made up by Mr Nasr and some are translated from equally fictitious Arabic stories originating on

All, including fiction, fact and spin, are thrown onto the information highway. Ms Blesbrecht launders them through her Canadian website, usually passing them to a British propaganda centre called although it has nothing to do with the controversial Qatar TV network at
However is....Indexed by Google news.
The difference between the two Aljazeeras is that is a cheating, mendacious website that has even ripped off the name of the Aljazeera news network _ known for spin but not for lies.
Depending who you ask of course.
As this was being written, Mr Nasr was reporting 28 US troops killed in a day in Iraq (it didn't happen); that US forces have begun tying explosives to their Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad and blowing them up after two days of interrogation (a story missed by all other media), and that the Iraqi resistance had launched a "savage bombardment of a US base in Kirkuk," which didn't happen.

By huge coincidence, Ms Blesbrecht's website featured the new, savage American tactic of prisoner treatment as an exclusive story. All four of the websites, including, carried the otherwise exclusive story of the US Marine sniper who killed the 9-year-old Iraqi girl on a bet.


While few of the terrible trio's (plus stories make it into the mainstream [Unless you consider Google News "Mainstream" -ed] _ the little girl's tale, for example _ enough do to prove disinformation still works.

You may have heard about the use of mustard gas in the battle for Fallujah, repeated by the Cuban news agency and by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. You may recall something about the US role in assassinating the Lebanese opposition leader, the US government-written "Koran" desecrating Islam, and the US 7th grade textbook showing how the United Nations has annexed the Amazon rain forest. There was that anti-Islam hate crime of the burned Koran placed in a US mosque _ which actually was put there by a Muslim student who hoped the mosque would dispose of it after it burned in a fire in his home.

All these stories are false. Their other common point is that all were spread initially (and usually uniquely) by the terrible trio of the Internet.
It gees better...
Then there is Fatima.

Last December (a good month for disinformation specialists, apparently) carried the heart-breaking story of a letter from inside Abu Ghraib prison disclosing that prisoner Fatima and 13 other young girls had been repeatedly raped. posted the "news" on Christmas Eve, expanding on the story to explain Fatima was "the sister of one of the celebrated resistance fighters in the area".

Then, last January 7, IslamMemo reported the heart-breaking news Fatima had been killed during a raid on the prison by resistance forces trying to rescue her. What a shame. Now Fatima could not even tell her story to the world.

Of course there was no Fatima. The entire prison held a total of six women from June to December of last year, two of them in the prison hospital. The longest female detention was 10 days.
However, Google News continues to index JihadUnspun which has some predictable company:
It was arguably the most successful disinformation coup of the millennium as even traditional media fell for it like a mark in a confidence game.
Here the reporter demonstrates a certain lack of knowledge suggesting the "traditional media" includes Indymedia:
The so-called "indymedia" (independent, leftist) publications of America headlined it "Fatima, the Virgin of Abu Ghraib".
Alan Dawson clearly hasn't spent much time wading through Indymedia. Nevertheless, as he notes, the story spread (like smallpox)
Mainstream Muslim websites around the world fell for the lie, and protested the treatment of Fatima and sisters from Montreal, Auckland and the massively influential of London. The Jihad Watch website invented a family name for her, setting off another round, and when IslamMemo then killed Fatima and its only possible source, there was more so-called "coverage" of the non-story.
Hang on, did they "fall for it"? Or was it deliberately spread. Refer to my earlier question of gullibililty versus culpability. Real journalists should know better (though Jenin and the fake memos remind us from time to time to think otherwise).
Disinformation will never die because some participants in conflicts believe it is a useful tool _ but then Lenin thought Western and Asian apologists for the Soviet Union were useful tools, too.The best defence against disinformation is the good advice from your Mom: Don't believe everything you read. A discerning and critical, logical citizenry will wipe out disinformation by ignoring it, refusing to spread it. The Internet which causes the spread of disinformation so quickly also holds the tools to discover the facts about stories which seem to be receiving too little attention _ about stories like Fatima's.
And the final point:
And remember this every time you see or hear a truly interesting, heart-breaking or otherwise unusual story: If the entire mainstream media of 100 nations ignores it, there's probably a good reason for that.
It's precisely the same reason Indymedia can be largely ignored. Indymedia however believes it is the mainstream media who is gullible, whereas they have seen the light.

To this, I say rubbish.

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