As the weeks and months of the disastrous Trump presidency drag on, the Resistance is, naturally enough, showing some signs of weariness. For weeks now, certain public figures have been spreading rumors that indictments against members of the Trump administration are imminent, and Twitter personalities associated with the Resistance–and particularly those involved with raising awareness of the Trump team’s close ties to Russia and of the Russian influence campaign that had a significant impact on the 2016 U.S. election–have at times fallen into infighting, evidently causing some confusion and dismay among liberals and #NeverTrump conservatives who want to see Trump removed from office as soon as possible. Part of the problem, however, is that intermixed with responsible Resistance activists, journalists, and scholars, there are wildly popular figures making irresponsible claims and predictions. And despite the discomfort many exhibit with infighting in the anti-Trump coalition, we cannot move forward effectively without addressing the problems.
By stirring up members of the anti-Trump coalition to false hopes, and in far too many cases by amplifying false accusations about solid analysis from legitimate journalists, scholars, and activists, these individuals harm the cause. It has thus become necessary to address the problems of information literacy, expertise, and critical thinking. We live in such an anti-establishment time that many, for understandable reasons, put little stock in some of our institutions as well as the credentials they bestow. Nevertheless, while the mainstream media faces severe challenges and too often falls into false equivalence when it comes to U.S. politics, a trained, vetted, experienced journalist knows how to vet sources, and, if caught in an error, will immediately fess up to it and correct it. The same goes for scholars and wonks, who strive not to make factual claims that cannot be sourced and verified. (Yes, there is a place for anonymous sources, but an anonymous source cited by a journalist in a major newspaper and corroborated to the extent possible by other evidence is much more likely to provide accurate information than an anonymous source cited by a popular Twitter personality with a demonstrated record of irresponsible behavior.)
In recent weeks, pieces have appeared targeting so-called “Blue Detectives,” “Brit Grifters,” and conspiracy theorists. These hit pieces are doing a general service in calling us to approach seemingly alarmist and wild claims not corroborated by the mainstream media with healthy skepticism and critical thinking, which are all too often lacking in the current charged atmosphere. At times, however, these pieces do go too far, denouncing legitimate experts and responsible commentators along with the attention-grabbing rumor-mongers. One such recent piece, to which I will not link, undermines its own laudable insistence on looking into commentators’ credentials and qualifications by failing to take into consideration the credentials and qualifications of several of its targets, all of whom, strikingly, were women, and only one of whom, the former Tory MP Louise Mensch, can be accurately described as irresponsible and conspiratorial, even if she has some legitimate sources.
It doesn’t help matters that a peculiar Twitter contingent, one to which Mensch and others who should know better unfortunately lend apparent legitimacy, concerns itself primarily with accusing innocent people of being Kremlin agents (a behavior in which Mensch herself engages). Many of those accused–I have been a frequent target, as has journalist, anthropology Ph.D., and Eurasia expert Sarah Kendzior–are legitimate commentators, journalists, and area studies experts whose views on RussiaGate (aka #TrumpRussia) are a good deal more informed, nuanced, and contextualized than those of Mensch or someone like former Bill Clinton aide Claude Taylor, who also appears to have some legitimate sources, but whose presentation of the information they feed him smacks of attention-grabbing egotism and exaggeration. How much would you trust a man who not only exhibits a flamboyant style of presentation, but also, when asked about his Twitter reporting by The Guardian, can do no better than to assert that he merely hopes to be right more than 80% of the time? The ability and willingness of such a figure to do due diligence, in comparison to a trained and experienced journalist, is certainly questionable.
A tinfoil hat brigade of “Russian spy catchers” who often use the hashtag #TeamDeza (or simply the phrase “team deza,” “deza” being derived from the Russian word “дезинформация,” or disinformation), is generating a great deal of noise on Twitter. Mensch plays this game as well. She has even accused the March for Truth–a nationwide protest demanding, in the words of its website “an impartial investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election and ties to Donald Trump, his administration, and his associates”–of being “team deza,” despite the organizers (Jordan Uhl, Justin Hendrix, and Andrea Chalupa, as reported by The Washington Post) being well known and respected anti-Trump activists, journalists, and writers with very public records. That Mensch has written this legitimate protest off as “team deza” is just one more reason to consider her discredited and, on balance, a detriment to the anti-Trump coalition:
Mensch has also unfortunately at times amplified the ridiculous misbehavior of a Twitter account called KremlinTrolls (I will not link to it) that devotes itself largely to making spurious, libelous accusations against legitimate scholars, journalists, analysts, and activists, in an apparent attempt to get concerned citizens to mistrust good information by declaring it to be disinformation. KremlinTrolls is itself a disinformation account, but many people are taken in by it. Let’s use it as an example of how to apply critical thinking to commentary on the #TrumpRussia scandal.
The KremlinTrolls account is anonymous and claims to be a “CounterIntelligence Unit Countering Russian Propaganda,” to support NATO, and to “share data with Western intelligence agencies.” A few red flags immediately stand out. For example, specifically highlighting NATO in the Twitter bio, NATO being one of Moscow’s primary bugbears, smacks of protesting too much. This is particularly the case when you consider that many of KremlinTrolls’ most frequent targets are legitimate experts, in some cases experts who consistently push hard to draw attention to the Trump-Russia scandal and to ties between Russia and American extremist actors on both the Right and the Left. Unlike KremlinTrolls, these legitimate experts provide clearly sourced evidence for their claims.
In addition, and importantly, any sort of real intelligence agency is circumspect, and does not treat intelligence as a game to be played on Twitter. Genuine counterintelligence units do not make public statements on any platform; they share information only through official channels. It’s absurd to think that an organization that was really involved in gathering intel to share with Western intelligence agencies would do such “sharing” by tagging “@FBI” in tweets. This is in fact a bullying and intimidation tactic used by the crackpot crowd of zealous accusers and the trolls, such as whoever is behind the KremlinTrolls account. These trolls are deliberately gaslighting the public.
From the above, we can extrapolate certain questions to consider when wondering if a source is legitimate. Is the source anonymous? Anonymity is questionable, but on its own does not necessarily mean a source is not credible, as some people have legitimate reasons for engaging anonymously in online political discussions. Nevertheless, an anonymous blogger or Twitter user deserves extra scrutiny. Secondly, is the information provided sourced? If an anonymous or non-anonymous source shares information based on publicly available sources that you can evaluate for yourself, that can help you determine whether the source in general exhibits a pattern of sharing valid information. Finally, do the source’s claims pan out? For example, certain crackpots and trolls have been claiming they will provide evidence about certain scholars’ and experts’ supposed nefarious Kremlin ties for months and months, and that these experts will be arrested any day now. We can easily see, at this point, that these claims amount to bullshit bravado and bullying, because these crackpots and trolls have not followed through on providing evidence for their libelous accusations, and their claims have not panned out. We can determine that they are not credible sources of information.
Finally, a few words about expertise. Trained journalists and scholars can make mistakes, but credentials and training do matter, and any of us worth our salt will admit to errors when they’re pointed out. A pattern of failing to admit to errors and refusing to apologize for anything should be considered a red flag when evaluating a source’s trustworthiness. In addition, trained experts work in contexts and in accordance with norms meant to reduce confirmation bias and human error. When I publish foreign policy commentary with Political Research Associates, for example, my work is subjected not just to editorial review, but also to meticulous fact checking and to review by anonymous outside readers, who make suggestions for revisions. It’s a process that works to minimize human error and ensure accuracy, similar to the peer review involved in publishing a scholarly article. Much journalism and commentary is not subjected to this level of scrutiny before publication, but nevertheless, legitimate publishing outlets hold those who publish with them to high standards.
Finally, something that experts of various kinds are trained to do, and that all of us are capable of training ourselves to do, is to be aware of the limits of our knowledge. I have good general knowledge of Russian history and contemporary Russia, for example, but the highly detailed, technical, in-depth knowledge I have at my command applies to more limited spheres (fluency in Russian, knowledge of the Russian Orthodox Church and its international networks, knowledge of the history of Russian religious philosophy and its relationship to Western anti-Communism, etc.). Scholars, journalists, and commentators all rely on the expertise of others in areas in which they themselves are more limited, and they give credit where credit is due. People refusing to acknowledge their own limitations should also be considered a red flag. This is something Twitter’s tinfoil hat brigade of zealous “spy catchers” fails to do.
I asked Andrea Chalupa, an activist leader in the Resistance and someone with expertise on Ukraine who has made critical contributions to observing and opposing rising American authoritarianism–and who also been libeled with the label of “team deza”–to comment on the problem of combating disinformation and applying critical thinking in today’s social media Wild West. Since this piece is already fairly lengthy, however, Chalupa and I decided that I would publish my interview with her separately. I will release it on this site tomorrow. I’ll end with a plug for my friend and colleague (and fellow Russian history Ph.D.) Katherine Pickering Antonova’s recently published guide to information literacy and critical thinking. If you’re struggling with assessing the flood of claims being made constantly online, this inexpensive, short book is a good place to start systematically honing your critical thinking skills.