New book: Fake News, The New Weapon of Mass Destruction
How fake news and alternative facts are being used to destabilize democracy.
A brilliant tour through the biggest hoaxes of our time and the people behind them.
In the pages of this book, you'll find leading figures of the Catalán independence movement; Wikileaks founder Julian Assange; shadowy Russian "analysts" promoting Kremlin interests; unknown hackers, and a veritable mountain of disinformation capably clarified and untangled by David Alandete as he takes on some of the world's largest rumor mills operating to destabilize western democracies.
From the viral story of a German-Russian girl kidnapped by three Arabs accompanied by a fabricated video of her rape (which turned out to be simply the case of a runaway child) to a totally false claim that the Barack Obama administration paid for Africans to immigrate to Italy (a rumor circulated by the populist Five Star Movement), David Alandete examines in detail the Russian-sponsored false information campaigns that led to the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DAVID ALANDETE is a journalist and editor, currently working in Washington DC for the International Section of the Diario ABC. Previously, he was Deputy Director of El País and, before that, a foreign correspondent in the United States and the Middle East. During those years, he covered two presidential campaigns, the military trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Israel-Palestine peace process, the coup in Egypt, and the civil war in Syria. He was a special correspondent to Afghanistan and to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
A journalist with extensive experience in politics and international conflicts, Alandete has also written about Russian interference in the Catalán independence crisis of 2017, disinformation, fake news, and the digital transformation.
www.alandete.com and www.twitter.com/alandete
PRAISE FOR THE BOOK
«One of the most important and difficult undertakings of our day is to fight against the manipulation of information. Alandete has been involved in that fight directly and personally. These pages provide a fascinating account of his experience and the lessons it offers»
Moisés Naím, columnist and author of The End of Power
«The Russian bear of disinformation and fake news visited us during the Catalan crisis. Thanks to the invaluable work of Alandete, we were able to find out about it.»
José Ignacio Torreblanca, Director of the Madrid Office of the ECFR and Professor of Political Science at the UNED
"An independent Catalonia will recognize that Crimea is Russia." That was the first bit of fake news about Catalonia to come out of the great Kremlin meddling machine. It's a perfect example of disinformation: the source wasn't official and simply expressed an opinion, but Russian state media and its allies turned it into a powerful headline with enormous implications for the political life of Europe and its allies. Most importantly, the statement was in line with Moscow's interests: more agitation for independence in Europe and more legitimizing of Russia's annexation of territories.
This has been the repeated pattern in recent years, where millions of readers have been exposed to fake news, like the idea that NATO was poised to bomb Madrid, that tanks were occupying the streets of Barcelona, or that dozens of new countries were about to splinter into being in Europe. Fake news doesn't have to be an absolute lie. It usually has a connection to an actual event, but the truth is grotesquely deformed to give it sensationalist or populist appeal. These kinds of distortions circulate more easily as people change the way they get their information, increasingly employing digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And though it's a different level of responsibility, these companies also carry a share of the blame and must be held accountable for their actions.
EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK
"In spite of the fact that Trump has given the term 'fake news' a particular political bent, I defend the use of the phrase in the book over the generic term 'disinformation' recommended by the UK Parliament and the European Commission. I believe we cannot give Trump and xenophobic European political parties a monopoly on calling things by their true name. Fake news is precisely this: news delivered with erroneous, exaggerated, or manipulated content, perverting the journalistic profession for political ends. If we begin to cede ground in terminology, the battle to protect the strength and independence of the press will be lost before we begin."
PATTERNS OF DISINFORMATION
"Fake news doesn't have to be a complete lie. Disinformation contains many elements of truth [...] Disinformers use facts like these to twist the rules of journalism with a technique as necessary for them as it is pernicious for society: the manipulation of sources. This practice creates a half-length of distance between truth and lie, a space that one veteran professional of Russian propaganda media has described as 'alternative reality.'
"The rise of populism has turned the journalistic work of fact verification into an essential practice for the health of democracy. Since 2016 it has been clear that the President of the United States has been lying systematically, and the task of the media has been to distinguish his falsehoods from reality. In fact, it is precisely this work that distinguishes democratic states from authoritarian regimes in which the press does not fulfill its mission but rather limits itself to repeating the slogans that rain down from places of power, with a complete lack of critical vision."
"Unless it's found on an editorial page, most of this information omits the name of the writer, hiding any malpractice that lies behind the headline. This is how [..] lies are published, like the idea that Europe will have dozens of splinter countries in a few years, and nothing happens. If a falsehood does create a firestorm on the internet, the headline is changed, the text is modified, and the disinformation continues. When no one signs their work, the media outlets involved do not publish corrections, another ethical obligation in both print and digital media."
"A number of recent studies have shown that a great majority of internet readers share links on social platforms without having previously read the text of the article being shared. Some 59% of these sharers do not even open the link that goes with the message [...]. Headlines are the primary instrument that distributors of fake news use to spread their argument, and that's where they make their intentions and priorities clear."
"There is, in fact, a narrative behind the disinformation. The source doesn't matter; it can be anyone: a novelist, a retired politician, a professor involved in politics, a bouncer at a night club.[...] Disinformation media like RT and Sputnik manipulate the rules of journalism by
constantly seeking to interview people who validate a particular point of view⎯always anti- Western⎯ in an effort to show a serious crisis in the liberal democratic state. And sometimes,
they don't even need validation from external sources: they just make the argument themselves."
"The post-truth era arises also from distrust in rational argument and the disqualification of those who make such arguments. According to British journalist Matthew D’Ancona in his study of Brexit and the rise of Trump, "This collapse of trust is the social basis of the Post- Truth era: all else flows from this single, poisonous source."
"After the Russian media publishes its alarmist headlines, it distributes them through social networks, often with the help of automated profiles, or bots. Their actions are the most complex part of this whole process and the most difficult to prove, because of the difficulty in gaining access to the algorithms and user data stored by the large digital corporations. Furthermore, the managers of these networks make use of complex technology like proxies and VPN servers to cover up their geographic place of origin. They can operate from Russia and appear on social platforms as if they were located in any other country."
RUSSIANS AND CATALANS?
"The Russian outlet, Sputnik, began to publish dubious news about Catalonia from the day it was founded in 2014, but the first fake news about the independence movement grew out of a congress on separatism held in Moscow in 2016, and that was where some of the central characters in this disinformation network first emerged. "
"Many of my colleagues have asked me: 'What did Russia have to do in Catalonia?' And the truth is I'm convinced it was nothing, especially since promoting separatism is punishable by jail in Russia. Catalan independence was a pretext, a newsworthy event that happened at the right time for a disinformation machine already experienced in political battles in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy to begin operating in Spain, since it already had two large Spanish channels."
"Russian fake news alights on top of an already conflictive situation and amplifies the message of one side, generally the one that coincides most with its interests, whether anti-globalist or anti-American. In the case of Catalonia, this machine found itself within a rich history of myths and fantasies disguised not only as news, but also as documentaries, text
books, and volumes of history⎯all part of a plan designed by Catalan political elites and implemented in a disciplined and successful way."
"The ability to remind the West that it has its own problems and that Moscow will not hesitate to take advantage of those problems for its own benefit: that is the raison d'etre of these seemingly minority media outlets created and nourished to present an alternative world in which Hawaii has a king, Texas has a president, and Enric Folch is attributed with the ability to speak for all of Catalonia in saying that Crimea is and will always be Russian."
"When the independence movement reached a decisive point on its final stretch towards October 1, 2017, Russian disinformation media found in Catalonia an ideal breeding ground for turning up the temperature several degrees with plentiful news about violence, repression, tanks, and bombings. Finally Putin himself intervened, reminding Europe that it had played with fire when it supported independence in Kosovo secretively in 2008 and that now Pandora's box had been opened. Before that, however, Julian Assange arrived on the scene."
"I had little to say about Assange and the decisions he made in managing Wikileaks until I ran into him during the investigation of the alarming proliferation of fake news and rumors in the days prior to the referendum on the independence of Catalonia, which was declared illegal by the Spanish justice system."
"During the months in which I published information about this interference⎯by myself or with other journalists⎯ something quite unusual, and I must admit uncomfortable, happened to me:
the Catalan independence activists, Russian state media, and Assange and his team of Wikileaks collaborators all began to criticize me publicly in an all-out harassment and smear campaign, accusing me of being a propagandist, a Franco supporter, a defender of Spanish fascism, on the payroll of investor George Soros, and even of working for the CIA, simply because I cited some examples [...]. This is the new reality of the exercise of journalism: if you publish information that is inconvenient for someone, that person points his finger at you to invalidate what you are saying by trying to discredit you personally."
"It is true that, at first, the communications media and much of the Left on both sides of the Atlantic considered Assange an ethical reference point, but that began to change when Wikileaks decided on its own to publish thousands of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan. Unlike the newspapers it had collaborated with, Wikileaks revealed the names of hundreds of those who had been collaborators or informants of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, leading the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, Admiral Mike Mullen, to say that Assange had "blood on his hands."
"Assange is not alone in his work. A large number of activists orbit around him and they seem to have a curious center of gravity in Moscow. At the height of Wikileaks activity around the Catalan crisis, Snowden burst onto the scene from his place of asylum in Russia, joining those who criticized the Spanish government for its actions against the October 1 referendum. He said on Twitter that 'one can be against Catalan independence and still in favor of human rights. But one cannot be in favor of Rajoy's crackdown and say the same.'"
"The Clinton campaign has accused [...] Trump of coordinating with Wikileaks to publish material stolen by Russia through an intermediary, Roger Stone, who denied these accusations when I spoke to him in Washington on December 6th. 'Assange does what all journalists do,' Stone told me. 'Why should he be different from the New York Times or the Washington Post? Journalists receive information, they verify whether it's true, and they publish
it.' Three weeks earlier, the US District Attorney's Office had unintentionally revealed that it had indeed filed charges against Assange for unidentified crimes. His fear of being extradited to the United States is, therefore, justified."
"Concerned about sparking a diplomatic crisis with Spain, the Ecuadorian government made Assange sign a document in December 2017, promising not to express his opinion about the political affairs of other governments. He signed it in exchange for Ecuadorian citizenship, given the remote possibility that he might obtain diplomatic immunity and leave the United Kingdom without being detained and extradited to the United States."
INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENTS AND DISINFORMATION
"Since 2014, the Ukraine [...] has been a huge proving field in a disinformation operation of epic proportions. The country will go down in history as the first to be dragged by Russia into truly hybrid warfare, with a series of belligerent attacks disguised in a sophisticated and well-targeted fake news campaign aimed at sowing chaos and discord and deceiving both the inhabitants of the Ukraine, (especially those of Russian origin) and the international community.
"We must not allow ourselves to be deceived: Catalan nationalism⎯like all nationalisms⎯is
colored by populism and xenophobia. Movements of this kind that have gained strength in the last decade have done so by inventing a common enemy: some parasitic group that is draining the precious resources needed to make the nation in question wealthier. For Trump, it is Mexican and Central American immigrants. For the leaders of Brexit, it's Europe, which needs their money to distribute to poor but profligate nations. For France's National Front and Alternative for Germany, it's the refugees who are invading their countries, threatening their jobs and their social and cultural cohesion.
"Satire is the habitual instrument of these media, always conveniently aimed at everything Spanish. The undercurrent, however, is more serious. For example, Toni Soler, Director of the successful comedy show Polònia, has been talking about winners and losers in the independence process since 2014, as published in the daily newspaper called Ara, which he helped to found. 'We will make a country for all, sure," he said. "But I'd like to think that if we are able to do it, the opportunists will get the treatment they deserve when they try to take a photo next to the winners." His producer, Minoria Absoluta, has received contracts worth 45 million euros from the Generalitat (Government of Catalonia) since 2015, according to El Mundo."
"Independence activists do not only distort history, they also distort the language. Nationalist communications media have placed their news at the service of the separatist cause, with one central task: creating a lexicon that works for their political aspirations. The key is to call things by another, more friendly, name. There is no 'separatism,' there is 'the right to decide.' They are not activists for 'independence,' but rather for 'sovereignty.' Catalonia is not a nation or a State; it is a 'country.' Its citizenry is 'the people.' 'Spain' does not exist, only the 'Spanish government,' in which Catalonia has not found its 'fit.' And that's why there is no 'rupture' between Catalonia and Spain, but rather a 'disconnect.' These terms are employed systematically in public and private media controlled by the Generalitat."
"Reporters without Borders" had already denounced what it described as 'a climate poisoned against the free exercise of journalism' in Catalonia. In a report titled #RespectPressCAT, published in late 2017 [...]the organization emphasized the role played by the public media in the midst of the turmoil. While it does recognize that Spanish public television and radio stations, TVE and RNE, have a bias toward the central government, it points out that the employees of both of these broadcasters have internal complaint mechanisms that the Catalan press does not, something it notes is quite unfortunate. "
IN TERMS OF THE "1-O"
"When the propaganda machine joined forces with the Catalan nationalist media in the days before the October 1 referendum, with the help of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, it was already too late for the Spanish government to take measures to protect itself on the digital highways. There was no foresight or strategy. The communications battle was already lost before it began. The narrative that triumphed in those days was the narrative of the nationalists: historically oppressed Catalonia, now humiliated and bruised, had no other option than to declare its independence. And the social media networks were just the instrument needed to ensure the success of that perspective."
"The morning after [the October 1 referendum, or "1-O"], images of police violence filled the spaces next to the headline articles, and not just in the disinformation media, but in all of the respected daily papers [...]. All of these media outlets had swallowed the disinformation of the Generalitat, amplified on the internet by Russian propaganda. The stage had already been set with great mastery by the leaders of the independence movement, and the Spanish government didn't do anything to defend itself. Almost no one, in those reports, spoke clearly about the passivity of the autonomous police or the importance for Spanish constitutionalists of preserving the territorial integrity and judicial decisions of the country. No
one reported on the fact that the majority of Catalan citizens were watching that chaos from a distance, far from the activism. In the end, the media reflected the romantic idea of defenseless Catalan citizens anxious to vote and a repressive and violent Spanish police, faithful to its Francoist origins, as RT journalists were quick to claim."
"In that chaotic and extremely tense context, it was especially outrageous that the institutions of the Spanish government, which in theory defended the validity of constitutional structures, fell into the independence movement's post-truth trap. When separatist leaders went public with their 800 injured, the Spanish Interior Ministry said that 39 police officers and civil guards had been injured during the period of the referendum. The next day, it added those injured by bruises, scratching, kicking, and even biting, increasing the number to 431, in an equally far-fetched way."
"'Independence is wrenching, sad, and anxiety producing.' said Rajoy in the press room of the Palacio de la Moncloa on October 27, 2017. 'That is what Catalan people who don't want independence are feeling today. In fact, many democratic independence supporters do not agree with the destruction of Catalonia's social fabric caused by this operation based on lies, fraud, and imposition.' It was a belated admission that Spain had experienced, without even realizing it, its first great crisis in the post-truth era. But as right as Rajoy may have been, there was something he had not understood: the State had not protected itself against one of the biggest challenges to its democratic existence.
When the Catalan crisis erupted, the Spanish government already had information about Russian interference in allied countries like the Ukraine, France, and the United States. RT and Sputnik had been operating in Spanish for years, with a view that was extremely critical, not only of its government, but also the of the general health of the entire State. In fact, when El País, and other media like El Confidencial published their first news about interference in the referendum, seconded later by organizations like the EU and NATO where Spain is a member, Rajoy dragged his feet and did not issue a clear warning to Russia, like those issued by Obama, Renzi, and Macron in their day.
RT: A WEAPON OF MASS DISINFORMATION
"In 2005, Putin ordered the founding of Russia Today, an English language television channel with the mission of changing the perception of Russia abroad. This, after a survey
commissioned by his government two years earlier revealed that the four concepts most associated with Russia in the United States were: communism, the KGB, snow, and the mafia. When the survey was broadened to include other countries, results were even worse."
"The real strength of RT lies in the internet, however. With a strong command of the digital world and a yearly budget of more than 300 million euros, Simonian and his superiors in the Kremlin were able to turn the network into an effective platform for distributing content material free of
the standars? of small television. This content⎯primarily video clips and brief written pieces⎯is
distributed on the big social media platforms and search engines and has reached massive audiences. On Facebook alone, RT ́s Arabic channel has 14 million followers; 6.5 million follow in Spanish, and 5.2 million in English. The combined audience of its YouTube channels in these languages is more than 6 million subscribers. From the time of its founding, RT videos have been seen 800 million times on the internet, among the highest numbers among similar media groups."
"One headline of the RT English service from October 4th read: 'Why isn't NATO bombing Madrid for 78 days?' Later, that phrase was attributed to a 'former British diplomat,' who turned out to be William Mallinson, comparing the Catalan case with Kosovar.[...] No one, not even the most radical Catalan independence activists, would have thought of asking for the bombing of Madrid. Emphasizing such an absurdity in a headline was an exercise in confusion, pure and simple, aimed at spreading the idea that the Catalan crisis could lead to an all-out war. This was the only thing that made Mallinson a valid
source for the interests of Moscow."
"There is an affinity among state media groups in countries like Venezuela, Iran, and Syria, which operate in multiple languages and often share perspectives and even headlines. RT and Telesur, the Latin American public network created by Hugo Chavez, signed an agreement in 2015 for the joint distribution of a program called Venezuela y Russia en la mira."
COSPEDAL DEMANDS EXPLANATIONS
"With so many warnings and the defiant attitude of the Russian president, the Spanish government finally reacted more than a month after the referendum on Friday, November 11. In an appearance following the Council of Ministers, spokesperson Íñigo Méndez de Vigo and Minister of Defense Maria Dolores de Cospedal made a surprise announcement that they
would take the issue of Russian digital interference in the Catalan crisis to the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting to be held the following Monday in Brussels."
"Russia denied the accusations immediately and angrily [...]adding: 'We are now used to the fact that, according to some, some of our European and US counterparts have nothing better to do than to make accusations against our media and declare them to be foreign agents.' Lavrov was referring to the fact that the US government was requiring RT to register as a foreign political agent instead of a media outlet under the Foreign Agent Registration Act passed to fight Nazi propaganda in the 1940s."
"On November 14, after the statements made in Brussels, Cospedal's team received a call from the cabinet of Latvia's Defense Minister Raimonds Bermanis, saying that Bermanis had authoritative information about Russian interference in Catalonia. Cospedal and her aides took the call without realizing that they were actually speaking with two Russian comedians, Alexei Stoliarov (known as 'Vovan') and Vladimir Kuznetsov ('Lexus'), famous in their country for this type of prank. At one point in the conversation, the comedians made another reference to Crimea.[...] According to the Ministry of Defense sources that I contacted after the prank was revealed, the telephone number the pranksters used was accessible only by high-level officials in other governments or intelligence services."
"WE KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING"
"Suspicions of interference, along with the infiltration of the Democratic Party servers and the theft of Clinton campaign emails, led the Department of Justice to name former FBI Director Mueller as Special Investigator for the case, with a mandate to look also at relationships between Russia and people employed by Donald Trump. During the investigation, Mueller filed charges not only against Russian citizens, but also against key employees of Donald Trump's election campaign, such as Paul Manafort."
"In November 2017, the British Prime Minister issued a harsh warning to Russian officials at a dinner with representatives of the Chamber of Lords. Theresa May accused the Kremlin directly of 'weaponizing information, deploying state-run media to plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.' May added that she had a message for Russia: 'We know what you are doing, and you will not succeed.' Two months later, the British government announced the creation of a strategic communications group charged with combating fake news and disinformation, especially that coming from Russia."
"The committee report makes it clear that this hybrid warfare is being waged on more than one front. These actions, it says, 'must not be studied in an isolated fashion; they are part of a group of complex and interrelated actions to generate confusion and create conflict.' It points to other clear examples of Russian interference in the internal affairs of other countries, such as the 2016 U.S. elections and the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia. On December 19, 2017, Mira Milósevich-Juaristi, investigator for the Royal Elcano Institute; Francisco de Borja Lasheras, then the Director of the Spanish Division of the European Foreign Relations Council; and I, as a representative of El Pais, the first media outlet to publish on interference in the Catalonia crisis, all participated in a session examining that crisis."
"The person who reacted to my testimony before the British Parliament as if it were a personal offense was Assange, who had already tried to shake off any responsibility for the
Catalan crisis by attacking journalists for simply doing their job⎯the modus operandi in
disinformation schemes. As I mentioned earlier, Assange used Twitter to tell his nearly 800,000 followers that I was 'demented' and that I was the 'chief propagandist for the Spanish government.' In a Trumpian twist, he also accused me of being a 'producer of fake news' and of translating this fake news into English 'in order to have an international impact.'"
"Assange's words were, as we can see, an excuse for broadening the scope of attacks to include the Russian propaganda machine's biggest boogeyman, Hungarian-American business magnate, George Soros.
VOX, HAZTE OIR... AND RUSSIA
" Soros' arrival on the scene of the Catalan crisis has a great deal to do with Russia's support for the far-right in Spain, a relationship that has not been examined sufficiently but is in keeping with the political and strategic interests of Putin and his government."
"In September 2017, Jordi Pérez Colomé published in El País exclusive information about Russian connections with another far right organization, Hazte Oír. Hazte Oír has an agenda that is clearly anti-abortion and aggressively against the LGBT community. Since 2013, it has had its own global subsidiary, CitizenGo, with websites in 12 languages. Hazte Oír's president, Ignacio Arsuaga, participates regularly in the World Congress of Families, the primary international organization of conservative groups, which was created and based in Moscow and
has organized 11 international gatherings since 1997. CitizenGo is a member of the Congress and it organized a gathering in Madrid in 2012 where Hazte Oír participated."
"The activism of Hazte Oír and the progress that Vox has made in the polls mark the end of an era in which Spain was immune to the right-wing populist wave that has destabilized other European countries. Bi-partisanship in Spain has been dealt a death wound, and any scenario is possible in an extremely volatile political context."
RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE EUROPEAN UNION
"Experts [of the European Commission] made a series of recommendations, including the following: transparency on the part of media platforms in their purchase of advertising content and the misuse of its services; citizen education on journalism and the media; providing journalists with the means to be able to better exercise their vocation; and assistance to the media to guarantee its independence and plurality. In summary, they left the issue entirely in the hands of the media, trusting it to self-regulate and take better control of digital platforms."
"Russia has a clear policy and state media to defend itself and to launch attacks in the information arena. It even has a division of its army dedicated to this! Throughout the last decade, Putin has built and sustained an effective, well-oiled machine that operates practically all over the world, with particular dedication to the United States and Europe. In light of this threat, the European Commission's solution of self-regulation and education is completely insufficient and leaves the EU and its 28 members defenseless. Though it has given signs that it is aware of the problem, NATO has not exactly been effective either in protecting its member countries in crisis situations beyond issuing reports and admitting that the meddling is occurring."
"If Facebook, Google or Twitter detect a high incidence of bots or automated accounts connected to its services, they should inform competent authorities, revealing the geographic origin of that activity. If users report illicit, injurious, or false content to them, they should act as quickly as possible to eliminate it from their servers, if possible within minutes, instead of hours or days as is the case now. And without revealing the nature of their algorithms, they can make information more available with services known as application programming interfaces (API), which facilitate external services access to its software without having to give them access to the essential formulas of their programs.
All of these changes can be made by a number of means, but a legislative route would be the most effective because it would give the weight of law to a series of measures on which the good health of democratic states all over the world will depend."