Disinformation Nation-- An Apogee Of Capitalism
This morning, the NY Times reported that Mayor de Blasio has ordered all NYC municipal workers-- all 340,000 of them, including teachers and cops-- be vaccinated by the time schools reopen or face weekly testing (just like the mandate for public health care workers). "If someone is unvaccinated, unfortunately, they pose a threat to themselves, but they also have a greater chance of spreading the disease," he said. "September is when the rubber hits the road, and this is when we have to make the difference."
Yesterday, on This Week, George Stephanopoulos' roundtable included Chris Christie, Rahm Emanuel, Donna Brazile and Margaret Hoover and began with clips of Republican politicians Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jim Justice (R-WV), Kay Ivey (R-AL), Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Steve Scalise (R-LA) calling on their reluctant constituents to get vaccinated. Ivey was the most pointed: "It's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks who are letting us down." Her state is tied with Mississippi for having the smallest percentage of vaccinated people-- as well as a doubled rate of hospitalizations in the last two weeks and a 216% increase in cases in the same time period. The topic: is it time to go beyond urging and start mandating?
Donna Brazile said it is and Chris Christie said it isn't. Christie belched out the Republican talking point about mandates: "Look, we had the highest-- and still do-- have the highest death rate per capita of any state in the country. With all the lockdowns, with the-- the biggest lockdown, probably New York and New Jersey were the biggest ones to lock down. It didn't-- it didn't work."
Unmentioned by the rotund former governor is that New York and New Jersey were hit hard long before people knew the nature of COVID-19 or how to deal with it and that the huge death rates are primarily from that early period. When you look at cases per million residents overall, neither New York nor New Jersey-- once at the top of the list-- are even in the top dozen states, which are primarily red states whose leadership has avoided taking the pandemic seriously.
North Dakota- 145,955 cases per million residents (+81% in the last 2 weeks)
Rhode Island- 144,949 cases per million residents (+289% in the last 2 weeks)
South Dakota- 141,239 cases per million residents (+236% in the last 2 weeks)
Utah- 133,008 cases per million residents (+33% in the last 2 weeks)
Iowa- 129,264 cases per million residents (+242% in the last 2 weeks)
Tennessee - 128,974 cases per million residents (+204% in the last 2 weeks)
Arizona- 126,007 cases per million residents (+99% in the last 2 weeks)
Arkansas- 124,379 cases per million residents (+162% in the last 2 weeks)
Oklahoma- 119,409 cases per million residents (+199% in the last 2 weeks)
South Carolina- 117,861 cases per million residents (+204% in the last 2 weeks)
Florida- 117,580 cases per million residents (+208% in the last 2 weeks)
Nebraska- 117,265 cases per million residents (+183% in the last 2 weeks)
Christie: "The vaccines do work. And I think that every focus group I've been in with Republicans who are not vaccinated, you have to walk them through the logic of this. What they don't want is to be indoctrinated. They're willing to be vaccinated. They don't want to be indoctrinated. And so let's be smart about this. And I think that one of the places where our leaders have fallen down is they're not explaining it. They're just saying, get vaccinated. And these-- these folks do not respond to being ordered to do those things. I had a very smart guy who was-- who visited with me this week who said, 'I don't want the government telling me what I have to do.' It's a libertarian type of response to this. But what they respond to, I sat with this guy and I walked him through the facts, and then he said, 'OK, I'm going to go get vaccinated. That's what we need to be doing.'
Hoover was all for mandated vaccinations, pointing out to Christie that "when that guy's child goes to kindergarten, that guy has to present an immunization card that shows that his child is vaccinated. So, you know what, if we just made it really-- just-- almost impossible... If you are going to get government-provided health care, if you're getting VA treatment, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, anything, and Social Security, obviously, isn't health care, you should be getting the vaccine, OK, because you're going to have to-- we're-- we are going to have to take care of you on the backend. So there are a lot of things we can do without calling it a mandate but to just make it almost impossible for people to-- to live their lives without being protected and protecting the rest of us.
Christie came back and said "In New Jersey this week, a hospital system fired five employees who refused to get vaccinated. Health care employees who refused to get vaccinated. They're making it mandatory for employment now, a number of the hospital systems in New Jersey. And I think that's part of the way that we're going to lead too here is, employers, when the summer is over, employers are going to want people coming back. JP Morgan is announcing they want people coming back. Goldman Sachs say they want to come back. And I think what will follow is those employers are going to say, if you want to come back into the office, which you have to do, you have to be vaccinated.
Christie said that vaccine resisters [in focus groups] "don't want to hear from politicians... These focus groups-- whether it was President Bush 43 or President Obama, they said, 'What do they know?' These folks responded-- so I think politicians have to say what they need to say, but they're not the persuasive ones. It's the medical community and people who have had COVID who can tell them what it's like to have it. That's what's important."
Very much related is the onslaught of disinformation-for-profit, which Max Fisher examined for the NY Times this morning. He began by writing about a London p.r. firm offering to pay social media influencers to push "falsehoods tarring Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine. Stranger still, the agency, Fazze, claimed a London address where there is no evidence any such company exists. Some recipients posted screenshots of the offer. Exposed, Fazze scrubbed its social media accounts. That same week, Brazilian and Indian influencers posted videos echoing Fazze’s script to hundreds of thousands of viewers. The scheme appears to be part of a secretive industry that security analysts and American officials say is exploding in scale: disinformation for hire."
Private firms, straddling traditional marketing and the shadow world of geopolitical influence operations, are selling services once conducted principally by intelligence agencies.
They sow discord, meddle in elections, seed false narratives and push viral conspiracies, mostly on social media. And they offer clients something precious: deniability.
“Disinfo-for-hire actors being employed by government or government-adjacent actors is growing and serious,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, calling it “a boom industry.”
...A wave of anti-American posts in Iraq, seemingly organic, were tracked to a public relations company that was separately accused of faking anti-government sentiment in Israel.
Most trace to back-alley firms whose legitimate services resemble those of a bottom-rate marketer or email spammer.
Job postings and employee LinkedIn profiles associated with Fazze describe it as a subsidiary of a Moscow-based company called Adnow. Some Fazze web domains are registered as owned by Adnow, as first reported by the German outlets Netzpolitik and ARD Kontraste. Third-party reviews portray Adnow as a struggling ad service provider.
European officials say they are investigating who hired Adnow. Sections of Fazze’s anti-Pfizer talking points resemble promotional materials for Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine.
For-hire disinformation, though only sometimes effective, is growing more sophisticated as practitioners iterate and learn. Experts say it is becoming more common in every part of the world, outpacing operations conducted directly by governments.
The result is an accelerating rise in polarizing conspiracies, phony citizen groups and fabricated public sentiment, deteriorating our shared reality beyond even the depths of recent years.
...The layer of deniability frees governments to sow disinformation more aggressively, at home and abroad, than might otherwise be worth the risk. Some contractors, when caught, have claimed they acted without their client’s knowledge or only to win future business.
Platforms have stepped up efforts to root out coordinated disinformation. Analysts especially credit Facebook, which publishes detailed reports on campaigns it disrupts.
Still, some argue that social media companies also play a role in worsening the threat. Engagement-boosting algorithms and design elements, research finds, often privilege divisive and conspiratorial content.
Political norms have also shifted. A generation of populist leaders, like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, has risen in part through social media manipulation. Once in office, many institutionalize those methods as tools of governance and foreign relations.
In India, dozens of government-run Twitter accounts have shared posts from India Vs Disinformation, a website and set of social media feeds that purport to fact-check news stories on India.
India Vs Disinformation is, in reality, the product of a Canadian communications firm called Press Monitor.
Nearly all the posts seek to discredit or muddy reports unfavorable to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, including on the country’s severe Covid-19 toll. An associated site promotes pro-Modi narratives under the guise of news articles.
A Digital Forensic Research Lab report investigating the network called it “an important case study” in the rise of “disinformation campaigns in democracies.”
A representative of Press Monitor, who would identify himself only as Abhay, called the report completely false.
He specified only that it incorrectly identified his firm as Canada-based. Asked why the company lists a Toronto address, a Canadian tax registration and identifies as “part of Toronto’s thriving tech ecosystem,” or why he had been reached on a Toronto phone number, he said that he had business in many countries. He did not respond to an email asking for clarification.
A LinkedIn profile for Abhay Aggarwal identifies him as the Toronto-based chief executive of Press Monitor and says that the company’s services are used by the Indian government.