Politics, Security, US Election
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The BuzzFeed Fiasco Shows Us Why Trust in Institutions Is Dying

Editor’s note: this is an unfolding story based on information that the author and editor are not privy to. As such, this essay is not an analysis of the alleged incidents reported in the dossier released by Buzzfeed, but a comment on the prudence of releasing such unverified information to the public, which is not heretofore a standard media practice. 

 

I was almost planning to turn my laptop off on a freezing English winter night, when the C4 hit my phone. A colleague texted me asking if I was checking Twitter at that moment. BuzzFeed apparently did some clickbait, and dumped raw, uncorroborated, third hand HUMINT (human intelligence) data with a nudge nudge wink wink “see what you make of it” type caveat, about Donald Trump. This material included a lurid tryst with a bevy of Moscow maidens apparently recorded by secret devices. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith spouted some neuron altering, circuit frying justification on why he chose to go ahead in publishing this “dossier”, because apparently Americans “should decide for themselves.”

(Although, the cynic in me is fairly certain they wouldn’t touch something, much less publish it, if it was in reverse, like another foreign country actively supporting Hillary, for example).

But that’s all beside the point. I don’t know which school of journalism Buzzfeed Ben went to, but in my first Masters degree, there was substantial instruction on the ethics of journalism and its implications. Dumping raw unverified data, especially HUMINT, with glaring inaccuracies that can be quite easily verified (and which make the entire report look flawed) crosses a lot of ethical boundaries.

The context is this: the report in question has been in the deepest corners of the web since last year, but there’s a reason why Hillary’s campaign opposition researchers, and other established media organisations didn’t touch it. And that’s not just because of its terrible syntax errors and glaring spelling mistakes. It is, at this stage, too good to be true.

A cursory Google search can point out that fake news includes not just hoaxes but deliberately publishing propaganda and disinformation (дезинформация), and using social media to drive web traffic and amplify its effect. Clickbait, as opposed to satire, seeks to mislead, rather than entertain readers for financial or other gain. In true spirit of BuzzFeed, therefore, I ask the readers, to judge whether BuzzFeed is fake news or not, and whether they should be sued out of business, like Gawker. To call it “hot info” is the understatement of the century. If this information about an American leader were true, it would be frankly unprecedented. At the same time, the information is also extremely suspect.

Any Intel researcher worth his salt would find this report, for lack of a better word, “problematic”. (For some authoritative analyses see Mark Galeotti’s and Matt Tait’s who have both offered up nuanced and sober perspectives). A key point of their general summation is that respectable news media has always avoided using, let alone dumping, unverifiable HUMINT for a reason. It is because there are always assertions which can never be proved, barring anecdotal and circumstantial corroboration, which takes months and years to build. Andrew Wordsworth told the Wall Street Journal that the dossier was “not convincing at all” and was “too good to be true”.

First of all, the report states that the Russians were actively helping Donald Trump win the 2016 election for the last five years. The “perverted” incident, which is on page two of the dossier, happened in 2012, at the height of the Reset between Obama and Medvedev, and in a rare time of reasonable rapprochement between Russia and US. It seems highly unlikely and farfetched, that Russia, or anyone for that matter, was cultivating a Trump presidency at that point of time.

No one had an inclination that he might run, or indeed win. In fact, the global order was vastly different, the Arab Spring still didn’t turn to an Arab winter, uncontrolled migration to Europe had not reached the tipping-point that it has now, and European leaders who were later toppled by a 2016 domino-effect were firmly in their seats. To assume that Russian federal security services would be that farsighted would be to impose the power of superhuman clairvoyance on them.

The second point against the dossier is another typical Russian peculiarity. Those who watch Russia, will know, how paranoid average Russians are about dishing out secrets. Russia has historically been a relatively repressive state, and Russians are naturally right not to trust anyone with information, which, if traced back to them, would cause them immense trouble.

The third reason why the dossier is so suspect, is something which has Kissinger pointed out. Great Powers do not behave in such a cavalier manner with their peer rivals, risking the future prospects of a détente. Without doubt Russia would have collected information on Trump, but it would have been mostly on his business deals. Without doubt Russia tried to influence American election. But it would be naïve to think America didn’t try to influence any other state’s domestic politics or eavesdrop and collect intelligence, on her allies. This is not Whataboutism, it is not Putin Apologia, it is not a blame game. It is a simple statement of fact about the reality of Great Power politics. Putin, or Russian Intel, couldn’t possibly have any idea that Trump would win, with nearly all internal and external assessments showing massive Hillary victory.

Which brings us back to the story. The key revelation of this entire saga has not been BuzzFeed’s partisanship, but the unreliability of new media. Press, like Academia, is considered one of the gatekeepers of a democratic society, and is supposed to constantly self-critique and scrutinise and keep its standards high. It is not supposed to succumb to a clickbaiting game of one upmanship or partisan hackery. It is not the job of the Press to be society’s moral arbiter, or set agendas. It is the duty of the Press to filter noise, and produce truth, verified and corroborated and backed up by evidence, simply because everyone is not qualified to understand the nuances of every possible subject under the sun.

Trust is earned through integrity. The reason there is a dying trust in Western institutions and lamentable death of expertise, is because the gatekeepers in press and academia have become partisan. As mentioned above, any trained journalist would know the ethical and logical implications of a raw unverified dump of data on the public, and how any simple evidence to the contrary would make Trump immune from any further and even legitimate criticism, and how irresponsible it would be to polarise an already divided populace.

Instead what we see is a section of utterly unqualified bloggers and celebrities and Twitter “experts” latching on to every bit of confirmation bias they can lay their hands on. We see cultish devotion to conventional wisdom, a craven brainless urge to parrot unsubstantial but catchy talking points and mutual back pats. One of the fundamental pillars of Western philosophy — a healthy, cynical skepticism and an urge to question narratives — seems to be in remission. The same people who actively supported Wikileaks and opposed Bush 43, are now reversed. Those who supported a Reset with Russia, now see Putin’s hand in everything. It’s almost like a pole is switched overnight, simply because Hillary lost and Trump won. Cultism and partisanship is another way of showing faith, and we all know what happens when faith and emotion triumph over reason, logic, prudence and evidence.

I don’t agree with Donald Trump and most of the things he says. But I agree with him that BuzzFeed is garbage, and new media now has almost zero credibility. Gawker perished because it forgot that with power comes responsibility, and news is not just a 4 Chan banter room. If BuzzFeed follows in the footsteps of Gawker’s fate, it would only be logical.

 

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in Great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is Doctoral Researcher on Great power politics and Neo-Realism, with a special focus on Russia at the University of Nottingham, UK. He writes for War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and is a regular analyst for The Centre for Land Warfare Studies, India. He holds a Masters of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a Masters of International Studies, both with distinctions.
Sumantra Maitra
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Filed under: Politics, Security, US Election

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Sumantra Maitra is Doctoral Researcher on Great power politics and Neo-Realism, with a special focus on Russia at the University of Nottingham, UK. He writes for War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and is a regular analyst for The Centre for Land Warfare Studies, India. He holds a Masters of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a Masters of International Studies, both with distinctions.

15 Comments

  1. Leigh says

    Your analysis is spot on – I am still astounded that any ostensible ‘journalist’ would publish unverified information using the pathetic justification that the reader should be allowed to ‘decide’ its accuracy. We have been forced to endure progressive commentators bemoaning the rise of ‘fake news’ and its alleged influence on the US election – now parts(?) of the industry are adopting the same tactics they charge their opponents with employing.

    Are these people so ignorant and stupid to not comprehend the irony of their actions? Or are they too consumed by fear and hatred of Trump to care about the immeasurable damage they are causing not only their personal reputations, but to those in the media who continue to strive for truth and credibility in their reporting?

    A journalist does not have to aim for absolute neutrality when reporting on a controversial matter–we all have inherent biases that filter through in how we view the world–but if he or she cannot even bother to do basic fact-checking before publishing untrue, humiliating and clearly defamatory slander, they’re unsuitable for this profession.

  2. C Mack says

    So trust in our institutions because ONE dubious click-baity online source disseminates this information? This entire TL;DR essay is based on almost nothing. I know more about the “dossier” from (I’m ashamed to admit) Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail than from the Beeb, NYT, CNN, etc… Then again Dear Leader has spoken very highly in the past about the bastion of Serious Journalism, the National Enquirer so who am I to criticize.

    I also like Leigh’s wording so I’ll pull a bit of a Monica Crowley (although you’ll see I’m attributing…) and borrow from the last paragraph:

    A President does not have to aim for absolute neutrality when speaking on a factual matter–we all have inherent biases that filter through in how we view the world–but if he or she cannot even bother to refrain from the untrue, humiliating and clearly defamatory slander, they’re unsuitable for this high office.

    That works!

  3. I know of no one who considers BuzzFeed as mainstream, balanced news except for certain brain dead persons. Why does this situation or “story” raise to the level which this article implies. We need to stop chasing these outliers and not focusing on those outlets actually seeking facts and ethics. Their are still some very ethical reporters, doing their jobs properly without high six figure salaries and book deals.

  4. BuzzFeed is helping kill journalism but politicians have been working on that for some time, especially one party. Decrying the “mainstream media” has been just another way of discrediting opponents. Now the alternate media is helping do the same job.

  5. James B says

    No, trust in media institutions has eroded because of pervasive mendacity and partisanship everywhere in media. BuzzFeed it’s just the latest, most sensational example.

  6. Leigh says

    >So trust in our institutions because ONE dubious click-baity online source disseminates this information?

    If it was simply Buzzfeed posting the link I’d dismiss it as a single online tabloid seeking controversy and attention. However, the allegations were then reported by a host of other media outlets, including CNN, Slate, Vox, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast and The Guardian. A number of these organisations failed to even note that the allegations may have been without merit, let alone taking the time to consider whether it was good journalism to simply parrot the original story given the lack of evidence supporting the allegations. And, while a number of outlets have updated the story, a few have shown even more hypocrisy by publishing follow-up articles decrying the publishing of unverifiable information.

    There’s problems with the existing journalism model, sure, and a lot of journalists are under the pump to write stories and so are forced to skimp on fact-checking or analysis, but seriously, this story could have been sat on for a little bit longer until someone actually bothered to confirm the accuracy of the allegations.

    >A President does not have to aim for absolute neutrality when speaking on a factual matter–we all have inherent biases that filter through in how we view the world–but if he or she cannot even bother to refrain from the untrue, humiliating and clearly defamatory slander, they’re unsuitable for this high office.

    Yes, the same applies for Presidents as well as journalists or any other person influencing society – despite my criticism of the media I’m in no way a Trump fan, nor eager for the media to turn a blind eye to legitimate, verifiable criticism of the President-Elect

  7. Epson Maverick says

    For all the talk about “MSM” I still read the mainstream media. But my trust in MSM is declining rapidly. I read the CNN report on the Trump-Russia connection and thought it was really serious, then I read the actual report, and realised it was puffery. CNN tried to fluff it up into something that it was not. That takes some real partisan hackery.

  8. The remark that buzzfeed is not mainstream and only a single case invalidates the points the author makes is in error. I watched ABC Good Morning America yesterday morning break this story. It was full of caveats and words like alleged, unsubstantiated et al so they could cover their own backsides. But the tone and intent was clear – to smear Trump. It came across as entering an American crisis and had funereal overtones as if a dark cloud was descending over the American presidency. It’s proper to emphasize and scrutinize the press in general and expect legitimate press to hold true to the ethical principles of journalism. the bigger danger of fake news is numbing the public to the point when some legitimate corruption is discovered and reported people will react to it like the frenzied chicken crying “the sky is falling”. Or the “wolf is on his way to eat us”

  9. Carmi Turchick says

    In 1976 72% of Americans completely or mostly trusted the media to tell them the complete and accurate story. In 2016 that number was 32%. Not surprisingly, 20,000 journalists lost their jobs from 1994 to today; why would people who do not trust you buy your product?

    The message to journalists should be quite clear: do your jobs or lose your jobs.

  10. Apparently, this was well known in the Washington DC and media circles prior to the November elections. It would have come out eventually. Is it true? Perhaps. Trump seems to be the sort who would fall into a honey trap set up by Russian spies. Russia, I am sure, sets honey traps for every rich or prominent person who stays there.

  11. Mark Greene says

    Ask the Trump organization and its political allies (Breitbart, etc.) if they would have held back an equivilent document about Clinton. They would have gleefully released it.
    Democrats have continually come to modern day politics, what is clearly a Russian propaganda driven gunfight, armed only with a blunt knife.
    If I have lost faith in our institutions, it is in their ability to fight fire with fire. As for Buzzfeed? They forced this conversation into the limelight and out of the exclusive realm of people like FBI Director Comey, who, during the campaign, clearly kept information hidden about Trump investigations while sharing information about Clinton investigations openly.
    Buzzfeed has my respect. Because without them, little might still be known about this.

  12. Pingback: A tale of two scandals - Bombs and Dollars

  13. What worries me more than Buzzfeed is the BBC, which of course is supposedly a broadcaster of the highest integrity, funded by all of us through the license fee, and is required by its charter to be politically neutral.

    The Buzzfeed article that hosts the dodgy dossier says “The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” It’s fairly ridiculous to publish something while admitting that it contains errors, without saying what these errors are, but at least they admit this.

    In the BBC coverage, however, I don’t recall hearing anything about errors. On the contrary, BBC reporters, in particular one named Paul Wood, have repeatedly described the dossier as ‘credible’.

  14. The people here who really think that Trump hired Russian prossies to pee on a bed are morons.

  15. There is also the darker side of the American propaganda media: the intentional fabrication of fake news stories and fake polls designed to support a partisan leftist agenda. Some hard evidence of this was revealed through some of the leaked Podesta and DNC emails.
    The response of the so called news media to these revelations was telling; rather than reforming itself, attempting to rehabilitate its image, the media doubled down. In a classic leftist projection the media produced fake news stories about fake news stories on conservative websites, and the sole source of the story was a shady website with less credibility than the document released by BuzzFeed.
    The national network media has a history of partisan political reporting, fake news, and fraudulent polls made with intentional oversampling of Democrats. The revelations of this past election season have made this history and bias crystal clear to the public as never before. With the very public loss of their facade of integrity, TV journalists and pundits have become visibly angry and openly partisan.
    If it were not such a serious issue it might be funny. The puerile antics and tantrums, histrionic theatrics, conspicuous displays of outrage and moral superiority by clearly partisan shills feverishly struggling to maintain control of the narrative is a sad spectacle. It makes me wonder whether these people ever believed in journalistic ethics at all.

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