Those who want to combat Fake News should stop aggressively spreading it when it suits their agenda.
(updated below [Fri.])
Julian Assange is a deeply polarizing figure. Many admire him and many despise him (into which category one falls in any given year typically depends on one’s feelings about the subject of his most recent publication of leaked documents).
But one’s views of Assange are completely irrelevant to this article, which is not about Assange. This article, instead, is about a report published this week by The Guardian that recklessly attributed to Assange comments that he did not make. This article is about how those false claims — fabrications, really — were spread all over the internet by journalists, causing hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) to consume false news. The purpose of this article is to underscore, yet again, that those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News, and want Facebook and other tech giants to suppress content in the name of combating it, are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.
One’s views of Assange are completely irrelevant to this article because, presumably, everyone agrees that publication of false claims by a media outlet is very bad, even when it’s designed to malign someone you hate. Journalistic recklessness does not become noble or tolerable if it serves the right agenda or cause. The only way one’s views of Assange are relevant to this article is if one finds journalistic falsehoods and Fake News objectionable only when deployed against figures one likes.
The shoddy and misleading Guardian article, written by Ben Jacobs, was published on December 24. It made two primary claims — both of which are demonstrably false. The first false claim was hyped in the article’s headline: “Julian Assange gives guarded praise of Trump and blasts Clinton in interview.” This claim was repeated in the first paragraph of the article: “Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has offered guarded praise of Donald Trump. …”
The second claim was an even worse assault on basic journalism. Jacobs set up this claim by asserting that Assange “long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.” The only “evidence” offered for this extraordinary claim was that Assange, in 2012, conducted eight interviews that were broadcast on RT. With the claimed Assange-Putin alliance implanted, Jacobs then wrote: “In his interview with la Repubblica, [Assange] said there was no need for WikiLeaks to undertake a whistleblowing role in Russia because of the open and competitive debate he claimed exists there.”
The reason these two claims are so significant, so certain to attract massive numbers of clicks and shares, is obvious. They play directly into the biases of Clinton supporters and flatter their central narrative about the election: that Clinton lost because the Kremlin used its agents, such as Assange, to boost Trump and sink Clinton. By design, the article makes it seem as though Assange is heralding Russia as such a free, vibrant, and transparent political culture that — in contrast to the repressive West — no whistleblowing is needed, all while praising Trump.
But none of that actually happened. Those claims are made up.
Despite how much online attention it received, Jacobs’s Guardian article contained no original reporting. Indeed, it did nothing but purport to summarize the work of an actually diligent journalist: Stefania Maurizi of the Italian daily la Repubblica, who traveled to London and conducted the interview with Assange. Maurizi’s interview was conducted in English, and la Repubblica published the transcript online. Jacobs’s “work” consisted of nothing other than purporting to re-write the parts of that interview he wanted to highlight, so that he and The Guardian could receive the traffic for her work.
Ever since the Guardian article was published and went viral, Maurizi has repeatedly objected to the false claims being made about what Assange said in their interview. But while Western journalists keep re-tweeting and sharing The Guardian’s second-hand summary of this interview, they completely ignore Maurizi’s protests — for reasons that are both noxious and revealing.
To see how blatantly false The Guardian’s claims are, all one needs to do is compare the claims about what Assange said in the interview to the text of what he actually said.
To begin with, Assange did not praise Trump, guardedly or otherwise. He was not asked whether he likes Trump, nor did he opine on that. Rather, he was asked what he thought the consequences would be of Trump’s victory: “What about Donald Trump? What is going to happen? … What do you think he means?” Speaking predictively, Assange neutrally described what he believed would be the outcome:
Hillary Clinton’s election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States. Donald Trump is not a D.C. insider, he is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities. They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilizing the pre-existing central power network within D.C. It is a new patronage structure which will evolve rapidly, but at the moment its looseness means there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better.
Most of those facts — “Clinton’s election would have been a consolidation of power” and Trump is creating “a new patronage structure” — are barely debatable. They are just observably true. But whatever one’s views on his statements, they do not remotely constitute “praise” for Trump.
In fact, Assange says Trump “is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States” who “is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities.” The fact that Assange sees possibility for exploiting the resulting instability for positive outcomes, along with being fearful about “change for the worse,” makes him exactly like pretty much every political and media organization that is opportunistically searching for ways to convert the Trumpian dark cloud into some silver lining.
Everyone from the New York Times and ThinkProgress to the ACLU and Democratic Socialists has sought or touted a massive upsurge in support ushered in by the Trump victory, with hopes that it will re-embolden support for critical political values. Immediately after the election, Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Chuck Schumer said exactly what Assange said: that they were willing and eager to exploit the ways that a Trump presidency could create new opportunities (in the case of the first two, Trump’s abrogation of the TPP, and in the case of the latter, fortified support for Israel; as Sanders put it: “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him”). None of that remotely constitutes “praise for Trump.” And if it were anyone but Assange saying this, nobody would pretend that was so — indeed, in those other cases, nobody did.
If one wants to be generous and mitigate that claim as sloppy and deceitful rather than an outright fraud, one could do so. But that’s not the case for The Guardian’s second and far more inflammatory claim: that Assange believes Russia is too free and open to need whistleblowing.
In that part of the interview, Assange was asked why most of WikiLeaks’ publications have had their biggest impact in the West rather than in countries such as Russia or China. To see how wildly deceitful Jacobs’s claim was about his answer, just read what he said: He did not say that Russia was too free to need whistleblowing. Instead, he explains that any Russian whistleblower who wanted to leak information would have many better options than WikiLeaks given that Assange’s organization does not speak Russian, is composed of English-speaking Westerners, and focuses on the West:
In Russia, there are many vibrant publications, online blogs, and Kremlin critics such as [Alexey] Navalny are part of that spectrum. There are also newspapers like Novaya Gazeta, in which different parts of society in Moscow are permitted to critique each other and it is tolerated, generally, because it isn’t a big TV channel that might have a mass popular effect, its audience is educated people in Moscow. So my interpretation is that in Russia there are competitors to WikiLeaks, and no WikiLeaks staff speak Russian, so for a strong culture which has its own language, you have to be seen as a local player. WikiLeaks is a predominantly English-speaking organization with a website predominantly in English. We have published more than 800,000 documents about or referencing Russia and President Putin, so we do have quite a bit of coverage, but the majority of our publications come from Western sources, though not always. For example, we have published more than 2 million documents from Syria, including Bashar al-Assad personally. Sometimes we make a publication about a country and they will see WikiLeaks as a player within that country, like with Timor East and Kenya. The real determinant is how distant that culture is from English. Chinese culture is quite far away.
What Assange is saying here is so obvious. He is not saying that Russia is too free and transparent to need whistleblowing; indeed, he points out that WikiLeaks has published some leaked documents about Russia and Putin, along with Assad. What he says instead is that Russian whistleblowers and leakers perceive that they have better options than WikiLeaks, which does not speak the language and has no place in the country’s media and cultural ecosystem. He says exactly the same thing about China (“The real determinant is how distant that culture is from English. Chinese culture is quite far away”).
To convert that into a claim that Assange believes is Russia is too free and open to need whistleblowing — a way of depicting Assange as a propagandist for Putin — is not merely a reckless error. It is journalistic fraud.
But, like so much online fake news, this was a fraud that had a huge impact, as The Guardian and Jacobs surely knew would happen. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many people consumed these false claims, but it was definitely in the tens of thousands and almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Here’s just one tweet, by the Washington Post’s Clinton-supporting blogger (and Tufts political science professor) Dan Drezner, that spread the claim about Assange’s purported belief that Russia is too open to need whistleblowing; as of today, it has been re-tweeted by more than 7,000 people and “liked” by another 7,000:
Nothing illustrates the damage done by online journalistic deceit better than this: While Drezner’s spreading of Jacobs’s false claim was re-tweeted thousands and thousands of times, the objection from the actual reporter, Maurizi, pointing out that it was false, was almost completely ignored. At the time this article was published, it had a grand total of 14 re-tweets:
Worse still, the most vocal Clinton-supporting pundits, such as The Atlantic’s David Frum, then began promoting a caveat-free version of the false claims about what Assange said regarding Trump; he was now converted into a full-fledged Trump admirer:
Part of why this happened has to do with The Guardian’s blinding hatred for WikiLeaks, with whom it partnered to its great benefit, only to then wage mutual warfare. While the paper regularly produces great journalism, its deeply emotional and personalized feud with Assange has often led it to abandon all standards when reporting on WikiLeaks.
But here, the problem was deeply exacerbated by the role of this particular reporter, Ben Jacobs. Having covered the 2016 campaign for The Guardian U.S., he’s one of those journalists who became beloved by Clinton’s media supporters for his obviously pro-Clinton coverage of the campaign. He entrenched himself as a popular member of the clique of political journalists who shared those sentiments. He built a following by feeding the internet highly partisan coverage; watched his social media follower count explode the more he did it; and generally bathed in the immediate gratification provided by online praise for churning out pro-Clinton agitprop all year.
But Jacobs has a particularly ugly history with WikiLeaks. In August 2015, news broke that Chelsea Manning — whose leaks became one of The Guardian’s most significant stories in its history and whom the U.N. had found was subjected to “cruel and inhumane” abuse while in detention — faced indefinite solitary confinement for having unapproved magazines in her cell as well as expired toothpaste. Jacobs went to Twitter and mocked her plight: “And the world’s tiniest violin plays a sad song.” He was forced to delete this demented tweet when even some of his Guardian colleagues publicly criticized him, though he never apologized publicly, claiming that he did so “privately” while blocking huge numbers of people who objected to his comments (including me).
The absolute last person anyone should trust to accurately and fairly report on WikiLeaks is Ben Jacobs, unless the goal is to publish fabrications that will predictably generate massive traffic for The Guardian. Whatever the intent, that is exactly what happened here.
The people who should be most upset by this deceit are exactly the ones who played the leading role in spreading it: namely, those who most vocally claim that Fake News is a serious menace. Nothing will discredit that cause faster or more effectively than the perception that this crusade is really about a selective desire to suppress news that undermines one’s political agenda, masquerading as concern for journalistic accuracy and integrity. Yet, as I’ve repeatedly documented, the very same people most vocal about the need to suppress Fake News are often those most eager to disseminate it when doing so advances their agenda.
If one really wants to battle Fake News and deceitful journalism that misleads others, one cannot selectively denounce some Fake News accounts while cheering and spreading those that promote one’s own political agenda or smear those (such as Assange) whom one most hates. Doing that will ensure that nobody takes this cause seriously because its proponents will be seen as dishonest opportunists: much the way cynically exploiting “anti-Semitism” accusations against Israel critics has severely weakened the sting of that accusation when it’s actually warranted.
It is well-documented that much Fake News was disseminated this year to undermine Clinton, sometimes from Trump himself. For that reason, a poll jointly released on Tuesday by The Economist and YouGov found that 62 percent of Trump voters — and 25 percent of Clinton voters — believe that “millions of illegal votes were cast in the election,” an extremely dubious allegation made by Trump with no evidence.
But this poll also found that 50 percent of Clinton voters now believe an absurd and laughable conspiracy theory: that “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Trump.” It’s hardly surprising they believe this: Some of the most beloved Democratic pundits routinely use the phrase “Russia hacked the U.S. election” to imply not that it hacked emails but the election itself. And the result is that — just as is true of many Trump voters — many Clinton voters have been deceived into embracing a pleasing and self-affirming though completely baseless conspiracy theory about why their candidate lost.
By all means: Let’s confront and defeat the menace of Fake News. But to do so, it’s critical that one not be selective in which type one denounces, and it is particularly important that one not sanction Fake News when it promotes one’s own political objectives. Most important of all is that those who want to lead the cause of denouncing Fake News not convert themselves into its most prolific disseminators whenever the claims of a Fake News account are pleasing or self-affirming.
That’s exactly what those who spread this disgraceful Guardian article did. If they want credibility when posing as Fake News opponents in the future, they ought to acknowledge what they did and retract it — beginning with The Guardian.
UPDATE [Fri.]: The Guardian, to its credit, has now retracted one of the baseless claims in Jacobs’ article, and corrected and amended several others:
Unfortunately, those falsehoods were tweeted and re-tweeted and shared tens of thousands of times, consumed by hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. We’ll see if those who spread those falsehoods now spread these corrections with equal vigor.