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.”
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 11, 2017
(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.