On September 30th, in 1938, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact, which virtually handed over Czechoslovakia to Germany in the name of peace. Upon return to Britain, Chamberlain would declare that the meeting had achieved “peace in our time.”
On December 13th, 2016, Carter Page, the former foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign, gave a presentation in Moscow that was covered by RT, Russia’s state-funded news organization. It was entitled, ‘Departing from hypocrisy: potential strategies in the era of global economic stagnation, security threats and fake news’. Page also gave a presentation the day before at a news conference held at Ria Novosti, another one of Russia’s state-funded news organizations. In these presentations Page argued the time to explore business opportunities with Russia “is now.”
This essay explores what Page is doing in Moscow when the U.S. intelligence community has accused Russia of interfering in the U. S. election. It considers what Page’s views can tell us about the intentions of the Trump administration, particularly in terms of the relations between the U.S. and Russia and other countries around the world.
In his remarks Page pulled no punches. He suggested the accusation made in the joint statement from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the U. S. election borders on “fake news.” He overlooked Russia’s effort to hack the election in the Ukraine in 2014 and implied the U.S. government participated in a coup there. He made it clear the U.S. should not stand up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “Leaving country’s alone” should be our guiding principle. This is the way to peace and prosperity “in our time.”
Page further develops Chamberlain’s approach to dealing with dictators: rather than merely appeasement, Page advocates economic collaboration. In the case of Chamberlain, many viewed appeasement as a failure to stand up to German aggression. Churchill and the Allies were left this responsibility. Ever since, England and the U. S. have come to be known around the world as the defenders of freedom and democracy.
Page charts a different course. He sees five principles to focus on in order to improve relations between the U. S. and Russia.
- Getting back to business
- Increased collaboration in U.S.-Russian research
- Leveraging the “next generation”
- Fixing the media narrative
- Timing is everything
Number one is generally the whole point of the exercise: establishing more economic relationships with Russia. Two refers to public policy collaboration as well as collaboration on technical issues.
Number three is particularly important. Page suggests we have a unique opportunity to prevent the next generation from being infected with the biases of the past. Here he is referring to biases for democracy, human rights, and freedom from corrupt dictators. Page is right. We can raise the next generation to think democracy and human rights are not important. We can teach them it is more important to work profitably with our Russian neighbors, and dictators in Angola, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.
Fixing the Media Narrative
One important step to accomplishing three, is four: “fixing the media narrative.” The present media narrative, which is focusing on the calls to investigate Russian interference in the U.S. election, needs to be replaced with one that highlights the value of developing economic ties between the U.S. and Russia. Page sees himself as being involved in this struggle. This narrative is the one Page believes we need to share with our children.
The Washington Post found that one tool the Russians have used to fix the media narrative is fake news. Some individuals were instructed by the Russian government to create fake news to damage Clinton, others did it own their own to make money through advertising. This served to undermine one enemy of Vladimir Putin: Hillary Clinton.
Here we can see one of the most important tools for dictators in the information age: information. By putting out leaked emails and fake news, Putin was able to undermine an adversary. He has been doing this for awhile now.
In order to oppose a dictator or someone that is being helped by one, you need to be able to get a lot of people to agree on something: a concern, a new plan, a reason to oppose the dictator. Using information, a dictator can undermine the ability of any opposition group to gain the power necessary to win an election. A dictator can use leaked information and fake news to undermine opposition leaders and muddy the water. By making it difficult for people to agree on anything, a dictator can maintain power in the information age.
The journalist Adam Chin argues that Putin learned this lesson after the protests in Russia in 2011, which were organized using social media. This led Putin to create the Internet Research Agency. This is essentially a troll factory that hires employees to push propaganda using fake accounts online. Chen writes that,
after speaking with Russian journalists and opposition members, I quickly learned that pro-government trolling operations were not very effective at pushing a specific pro-Kremlin message—say, that the murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was actually killed by his allies, in order to garner sympathy. The trolls were too obvious, too nasty, and too coördinated to maintain the illusion that these were everyday Russians. Everyone knew that the Web was crawling with trolls, and comment threads would often devolve into troll and counter-troll debates.
The real effect, the Russian activists told me, was not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space.
The Russian Troll Factory does effectively undermine the ability of people to use the internet to organize political protests that are not in Putin’s interests. The trolls muddy the water for everyone.
Page demonstrated this tactic himself in his discussion of fake news. Here are a few facts Page does not mention. NPR found that people who make fake news for a living say it does not work very well with Clinton supporters; it works much better on Trump supporters. One operator named Jestin Coler explained it this way:
When did you notice that fake news does best with Trump supporters?
Well, this isn’t just a Trump-supporter problem. This is a right-wing issue. Sarah Palin’s famous blasting of the lamestream media is kind of record and testament to the rise of these kinds of people. The post-fact era is what I would refer to it as. This isn’t something that started with Trump. This is something that’s been in the works for a while. His whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. When we were coming up with headlines it’s always kind of about the red meat. Trump really got into the red meat. He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.
We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.
A large percentage of Trump supporters do not have a college education.
During the last weeks of the election, fake news stories were circulated on Facebook more than real news stories according to a report by Buzzfeed. The top five fake news stories in terms of engagement on Facebook during the election were all intended to hurt Clinton.
We know these fake news stories had a real impact. In a now famous case, a 28-year-old man drove to Washington D.C. from Salisbury, North Carolina with a loaded assault rifle to “investigate” a restaurant that was described in a fake news story as housing a child abuse sex ring in the basement run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign director, John Podesta. The man fired a round into the floor of the restaurant and was eventually taken into custody. The whole story came to be known as Pizzagate.
The host of the popular Kojo Nnamdi radio Show in Washington D. C. interviewed the owner of the restaurant. Nnamdi described fake news as a new kind of “McCarthyism.” We could view the purveyors of fake news as being the Brownshirts of the information age. They commit acts of violence online that damage the reputations of people for a political purpose.
The Trump campaign helped circulate fake news stories. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and his son helped circulate the Pizzagate fake news story. His son was forced to resign from the campaign as a result. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn tried to delete the tweet where he circulated the fake news story, but the press found evidence that he did it. So far, Flynn is still being considered as a potential nominee for the Trump administration.
Page does not mention any of this information about fake news. He tries to muddy the water. He puts up a quote from Glenn Greenwald and then follows it up with a quote from Hillary Clinton.
Glenn Greenwald – “The phrase ‘Fake News’ has exploded in usage since the election… because the phrase lacks any clear definition, it is essentially useless except as an instrument of propaganda and censorship. The most important fact to realize about this new term: those who most loudly denounce Fake News are typically those most aggressively disseminating it.”
Hillary Clinton – “The epidemic of fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the last year – it’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.”
While the quote from Hillary Clinton is up, Carter Page talks about how Harry Reid made, what Page alleges are, false accusations about Page meeting with Russian representatives over the summer. These allegations were supported by an article Michael Isikoff published in September. Isikoff is the chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News.
Isikoff reported on September 23rd that a “western intelligence source” said Carter Page met over the summer with two top Putin aides: Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin. The source said Sechin raised the issue of lifting the economic sanctions in his meeting. After this report came out, Page left the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign now claims that Page is not associated with them in any way. Page has continually denied meeting with either Sechin or Diveykin. The Russian government has denied that any meeting took place. But no one seriously expected Page or the Russian government to simply admit such a meeting took place.
On December 13th The New York Times published a detailed investigation of the Russian effort to influence the election. This investigation revealed that the first leak of the information acquired by Russian hackers came after Page traveled to Moscow in early July and met with these top Russian official. This evidence therefore independently supports the information from “western intelligence resource.”
Page describes the allegations made against him by Reid and Isikoff as being a form of fake news. He then goes on to discuss all the misleading information that people have placed on his Wikipedia page.
Page does not mention that Clinton’s quote is a reference to the Pizzagate case. She is pointing out that a fake news story led a real man to go to a real restaurant and fire a real bullet into the floor in front of real people.
The conclusion Page leads his audience to is since Hillary Clinton is the one who is most loudly denouncing fake news, she must be the one who is “most aggressively disseminating it.” He does not provide any evidence to support the claim. He just puts enough sound bites out there to muddy the water and then, like magic, he turns the victim into the perpetrator.
However, the fact is we have evidence Russia used fake news as part of a counterintelligence program to influence the election. Now we have evidence that suggests Russia is using Carter Page to cover its tracks. As mentioned, Page’s presentation was broadcast by RT. Sputnik was being advertised in the background. RT and Sputnik are using Page to fix “the media narrative”for Putin. That is their job. Finding an “american” to do it for them: that is worth a raise.
This brings us to what is implicit in Page’s fourth principle that needs to be considered carefully. If governments or businesses or governments together with businesses have the ability to use state-funded media organizations to fix “the media narrative,” then the societies are no longer democratic; they are fascist autocracies that use information as a tool to stay in power. Germany had a government official who had the responsibility of fixing the “media narrative”: his name was Joseph Goebbels.
The Time is Now
Page argues compellingly that the Trump administration presents a unique opportunity. Trump’s policies and the people he is appointing to his administration make it clear he is interested in improving relations with Russia, notwithstanding its annexation of Crimea.
Imagine Chamberlain took Page’s approach with Hitler at Munich in 38’. Imagine he advocated: “getting back to business” with Hitler; increasing collaboration between Germany and England; leveraging the next generation so they are not raised with these biases against anti-Semitism and fascism; and fixing the media narrative so collaboration with the Nazis is viewed as moral and courageous. Imagine Chamberlain realized timing was everything and in 1938 it was time for the English to collaborate with the Nazis and Roosevelt followed his lead as an ally.
If Chamberlain and then Churchill and Roosevelt had advocated what Page is describing, it would have only made it easier for Hitler to march across Europe and the world. On top of this, the English and the U. S. would have actually profited from the process. Of course, the English and the U. S. would have profited only until the Germans, with all their newly acquired resources, eventually turned their aggressive intentions toward their “Allies.”
We should close by acknowledging Page’s last point is well taken: “timing is everything.” We are indeed at a pivotal moment, with the Trump administration coming into power.
Page provides a brief but provocative outline of fascism for the information age. We simply focus on economic relations with neighboring countries and we don’t let the breakdown of democracy or the absence of human rights in other countries or our own affect the profit we generate through these relationships with dictators like Jose dos Santos, Ilham ALiyev, Paul Kagame, Robert Mugabe and Vladimir Putin. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, has already been operating on this basis with Exxon for decades.
Dictators can undermine democracies in the information age using the “Eastern Wind” of leaked information and fake news. If necessary, enemies can be investigated into submission. Any potential challenger can be undermined: did she sell weapons to ISIS? Was the FBI agent suspected in the Clinton email leaks found dead? Did Clinton run a child-sex ring from the basement of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant? As RT’s slogan states: question more. Question everything until it is impossible for people to agree on anything. This is an efficient way for one party to rule in the information age.