As promised in yesterday’s post, “Some Comments on Critical Thinking and Expertise, Part 1: How Not to Approach RussiaGate on Social Media,” I am printing my May 16, 2017 interview with writer and leading Resistance activist Andrea Chalupa below. Like myself, Chalupa has been hit with spurious accusations of being a Kremlin agent. The upcoming March for Truth, of which Chalupa is a key organizer, being denounced as “team deza” is a particularly egregious example of how Twitter’s tinfoil hat brigade not only diverts attention from legitimate expertise on matters related to Russia, Ukraine, and rising American authoritarianism in the form of Trumpism, but also discourages participation in precisely the kinds of protests that the Resistance needs if we are to have any hope of arresting and reversing America’s slide into authoritarianism.
Twitter can be a useful tool for organizing, and the sharing of good information on Twitter that helps people contextualize and grasp the issues we face also has value. But, to borrow a phrase made famous by a president many of us wish were still in office, “Let me be clear.” Using Twitter to pile on to baseless accusations that serve primarily to tar the reputations of legitimate experts, activists, scholars, and wonks, is the worst kind of “slacktivism,” if it can even be called that. It is not patriotic. It is, frankly, stupid, if understandably human, and it detracts from the ability of those who engage in it to spend their time doing genuinely useful things to help save the republic. Many of them, I am sure, are well intentioned, but they need to practice critical thinking toward the crackpots they listen to as well as awareness of the limits of their own knowledge. Yes, Russia does indeed use paid trolls, bots, and individuals in disinformation and influence campaigns, but casting doubt on legitimate work by people with very public records based on assertion alone is misguided at best, and a particularly insidious form of disinformation at worst. Most of the people throwing around the #TeamDeza hashtag have no idea what they’re doing. If you have no way to confirm the likelihood of a claim, do not pass it on!
The rate at which damaging information about the Trump presidency has been emerging over the last few days shows that the United States’ intelligence community is working behind the scenes to save the republic. Intelligence, as I noted yesterday, is not a game played on Twitter, and the tinfoil hat brigade is doing nothing to help America in our hour of crisis. In fact, the tinfoil hat brigade is only hurting the cause, for the reasons laid out above. If you have been a part of it, or have participated in amplifying its claims, out of a genuine sense of patriotism and crisis, don’t despair, and don’t be too hard on yourself–just refocus your efforts.
Rant over, let me now introduce Andrea Chalupa, although to many of you she will need no introduction. A New York based writer, Chalupa graduated from the University of California at Davis with High Honors in History and studied Ukrainian at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She has spoken about Ukraine in the Council of Europe at the 2014 World Forum for Democracy in the final plenary session, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at the Personal Democracy Forum (2014 and 2015), at New York University, Columbia University, and McGill University, and at other leading institutions. In 2015, she was an Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar, and she presented as well as gave the closing remarks at the Justice Sector Training, Research and Coordination (JusTRAC) Symposium in Prague in a forum on eliminating corruption and promoting economic development in Ukraine. Andrea is the author of Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, which is taught in high schools in Toronto and Kyiv through the human rights education initiative OrwellArt (OrwellArt.org). She often organizes on social media and has helped crowd fund over $40,000 to transform an oligarch’s abandoned private zoo in southern Ukraine into a more humane environment for the animals and for the local community to enjoy.
In the interview that follows, Chalupa’s opinions are her own.
Interview with Andrea Chalupa:
Chris Stroop: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Andrea. I want to get to the problem on many people’s minds today–how to apply critical thinking and know whom to trust on matters of America’s shift toward authoritarianism and the Trump-Russia scandal–but first, could you tell me a little about your background and how it is that you’ve become such a prominent commentator on Russia, Ukraine, and RussiaGate?
Andrea Chalupa: I worked in corporate media, which gave me some of the greatest friends and mentors. But I left to pursue writing a film inspired by my grandfather, who I was very close to growing up, which would later be optioned to Lars von Trier’s company. While researching and writing the screenplay inspired by my grandfather’s memoir, passages of which are in my book, I discovered that he, along with my mother who was then just a little girl, had immigrated from a World War II refugee camp to New York City carrying a rare Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm produced with Orwell’s help. I was asked to present that personal story and research at an event at the National Press Club which led to a two-week lecture tour across Canada and other speaking engagements in the U.S. and Europe.
After traveling, I amassed a network of people passionate about Ukraine and its history. So when the revolution broke out in Ukraine and corporate media like CNN was busy reporting on Justin Bieber’s arrest in Miami, I helped launch #DigitalMaidan, which got the Ukrainian protests trending at number one globally. This connected me with brave Ukrainian civic activists and journalists on the front-lines of an aggressive information war that the West is still totally unprepared for. During the 2016 election, I made a short documentary on the Kremlin’s information war that covered up Stalin’s 1933 genocide famine in Ukraine. It included interviews with the Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Applebaum, historian Timothy Snyder who just came out with the bestselling book On Tyranny, Serhii Plokhii of Harvard University who wrote the seminal book on Ukraine called The Gates of Europe, and other giants in the field of Ukrainian and Soviet history. It was completely surreal focusing on 1933, the year Hitler came to power, during the year the Kremlin got away with a massive information war, during the year of Trump’s election and RussiaGate. The film would go on to screen at an event at the United Nations shortly after Trump became President.
It may seem alarmist or like you’re a conspiracy theorist when you point out current events as early tremors of authoritarianism, which is still very much an abstraction to many in the West. As Orwell said in his letter to Ukrainian refugees, which is the subject of a book I wrote: “…being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.” But history is a warning — save for social media and cyber warfare, there’s not a lot of room for innovation in how authoritarianism creeps up on a society. It’s pretty much the same playbook throughout history.
CS: Thanks. Could you tell me a little more about your role opposing Russian influence on the U.S. 2016 election?
AC: In 2016, after working on the documentary, after the election, I employed the same tactics to help launch #AuditTheVote. Like with #DigitalMaidan, this experience pulled me into a world of activists and operatives on both sides of the political aisle in the US and a few members of the intelligence community in D.C. who needed the public to understand what was happening. It was a brave new world overnight, the rules had changed, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again. Since I was balancing a few research and writing projects related to Ukraine, Twitter was a place to conservatively share what I was hearing. The news was moving so fast that waiting on an editor seemed an impossible task. Russia is now the number one story, but it hasn’t always been that way. Myself and others like Sarah Kendzior, Leah McElrath, yourself of course, have helped fill the void. We were early and we were punished for it. In the years I’ve devoted to writing about and researching events in Ukraine, past and present, I’ve been called everything from a Ukrainian Neo-Nazi to a CIA operative to a conspiracy theorist to a Russian agent. But it all comes with the territory of any urgent issue, especially one where literally lives are at stake as well as America’s standing in the world.
CS: There’s been a lot of drama on Twitter and in the media related to those concerned with the Trump-Russia scandal of late, with some people accusing those of us who insist on its seriousness of being conspiracy theorists, despite the IC report from January and the confirmation of many key facts by James Comey, Sally Yates, and James Clapper in recent congressional hearings. What advice would you have for those not wanting to fall for wild rumor-mongering or conspiracy theories regarding how to sort the good information from the attention-grabbing fluff?
AC: My advice to anyone wishing to read past the noise right now:
1) Read widely and read critically.
2) Yes, everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. One leading finance expert at a major outlet once said of his own writing: “I’m wrong 50% of the time.” [This applies to predictions, rather than the presentation of facts. -C.S.]
3) No single journalist or expert can be a voice of a country like Ukraine or Russia. Even when reading foreign press, read widely and read critically.
4) A hit piece is an invitation to Google the writer: anyone who slings dirt has their own dirt.
5) The mainstream media missed the 2008 financial crash and RussiaGate in 2016. Catching these stories early requires diverse expertise and being willing to go out on a limb to investigate claims that sound incredible.
6) Investigative reporting is expensive, it takes a long time, and might lead nowhere. Over the past decade or so the trend has been shrinking newsrooms, regular layoffs in newspapers across the country, with expensive investigative units often hit hardest. The flood of newspaper subscriptions under Trump has a long way to go to reverse this dangerous trend. While it’s much more cost effective for a media company to hire people to re-post the tweets of others and smack on snarky comments, there is a remedy: ask a variety of your favorite journalists and writers for their recommendations of books related to major developing stories. This will help fill in information that’s often under-reported.