Weaponizing hypocrisy, in Russia and beyond

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government oversees the country’s omnipresent state news services—Tass, RT, and Sputnik—claims to be cracking down on fake news online.

A new bill, which has passed one of three votes in the Russian parliament, would compel social media companies to remove material deemed erroneous, under penalty of an $800,000 fine. According to The New York Times, which first reported the news, the bill’s co-sponsor, Sergei Boyarsky, cited social media posts that reported a much higher death toll than the government’s own tally at a fire in Siberia that engulfed a shopping mall in March and killed at least 64, including dozens of children, even by official estimates. Accusations that the government lowballed the grisly figure to save face have persisted.

It’s the latest “I know you are, but what am I” announcement from the Russian Federation, which peddled falsehoods to the American public via social and traditional media organizations during the 2016 election, according to reliable researchers and the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Last week, after the DOJ announced the indictment of a dozen of the nation’s GRU security service officers implicated in the hacks, Russia responded by demanding to question hedge fund manager and outspoken Putin critic William Browder, the driving force behind an international sanctions law called the Magnitsky Act, and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Many interpreted the requests as an obviously absurd reply intended to indicate that Russia didn’t take seriously the US demand to question currently serving Russian military officers. But the White House said it would consider turning over McFaul and Browder, shocking the diplomatic corps.

More from the world of trolling:

  • Inconsistent Twitter treatment: Stephanie Saul, a New York Times reporter who uncovered a Virginia GOP candidate’s ties to white supremacist groups, left a note requesting an interview with her phone number on it at the house of Brian Landrum, an aide to Senate hopeful Corey Stewart. The phone number was soon all over the trollosphere. Landrum claimed without evidence that Saul had broken into his home—Saul said a houseguest answered the door and she didn’t go inside—and far-right site Big League Politics, founded by former Breitbart staffers, acquired the note and published it. Twitter, which suspended news site Splinter over a story it published containing Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s phone number, along with every user who posted a link to the piece, did no such favor for Saul.
  • The wrong Democrat: Fox News accidentally booked the wrong Democrat on Fox & Friends First Monday morning, a flub that was almost certainly seen by the president, who loves—and occasionally makes unscheduled calls to—the show. Through a publicist, Fox producers told The Washington Post they had contacted “the spokesman on file for [Ann] Kirkpatrick,” an Arizona Democrat running for Congress who drew jeers and boos from the audience at a debate when she said she supported the work of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  The producers believed Kirkpatrick was on the line until Massachusetts state senator Barbara L’Italien, who is also running for Congress, appeared, identified herself by name as “representing a large immigrant community,” and said she wanted “to speak directly to Donald Trump” about the President’s “illegal and inhumane” policy of child separation that has left hundreds effectively orphaned. “That didn’t go as planned,” co-host Rob Schmitt remarked after L’Italien was cut off. The Post followed up with L’Italien to ask whether she had misrepresented herself as Kirkpatrick to get on the air. “I showed the exact same commitment to the truth and accuracy that Fox News always has,” L’Italien replied in an email.
  • But what is fake news, really? Longreads profiles recently retired New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and her new book The Death of Truth. Kakutani writes in the book, “The postmodern argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event… It’s also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated.”
  • A dangerous world for reporters: BuzzFeed investigative reporter Jason Leopold attracted a swarm of right-wing twitter trolls for a racist and anti-gay tweet posted when his account was hacked in 2010. Tweets sent by someone who had maliciously gained access to his account were resurfaced and tweeted threateningly at Leopold and his employer, in some cases using the same derogatory language directed at Leopold. BuzzFeed News’s director of communications, Matt Mittenthal, said the company hadn’t received any complaints from readers about Leopold. Mittenthal told CJR he was “glad to see that, despite the best efforts of some trolls, no one actually fell for this obvious hoax.”

ICYMI: How neglected archives lead to propaganda

Other notable stories:

  • Update on the Daily News: CJR’s Amanda Darrach covers the gutting of the Daily News from a place where all reporters must eventually go: the bar. Not everyone had been notified of the deep layoffs during the course of Darrach’s visit—tenderhearted editors dispatched their interns to a midday screening of Jurassic Park so they wouldn’t have to watch the bloodletting in person. CNN has the scoop on Robert York, now the venerable New York tabloid’s editor-in-chief, pleading with his skeleton staff for a month to chart a new course, and Deadspin asks an question in a headline worthy of its ancestor Gawker: “How Is This Shit Legal?”
  • The Guardian interviews the man who probably saved the Los Angeles Times from a similar massacre: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the 47th wealthiest man in the US and the Times’s new owner.
  • ABC’s Jonathan Karl reviews Sean Spicer’s new book for The Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Spicer’s book is much like his tenure as press secretary: short, littered with inaccuracies and offering up one consistent theme: Mr. Trump can do no wrong.”
  • Whether or not Spicer considers it wrong, a tape of a conversation between Donald Trump and lawyer Michael Cohen in September 2016, obtained and aired by CNN, demonstrates that Trump did have knowledge of the payment to American Media (which publishes National Enquirer) for the rights to the story of Playboy model Karen McDougal, contrary to his prior claims. The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow broke news of the campaign to hide Trump’s affair with McDougal from the press in February.
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Correction: An earlier version said that L’Italien appeared on Fox & Friends on Tuesday. She appeared on Fox & Friends First on Monday; Brian Landrum, not Corey Stewart, accused Stephanie Saul of breaking into his house.

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Sam Thielman is the Tow editor at Columbia Journalism Review.