A Weak Signal on the Post-Fact Climate

Re-reading Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), I noticed this detail about the RT (Russia Today) channel (p. 48):

 

But the first time viewer would not necessarily register these stories, for such obvious pro-Kremlin messaging is only one part of RT’s output. Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, had a talk show on RT. American academics who fight the American World Order, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, antiglobalists, and the European Far Right are given generous space. Nigel Farage, leader of the nonparliamentary anti-immigration UKIP party, is a frequent guest; Far Left supporter of Saddam Hussein George Galloway hosts a program about Western media bias.

 

Pomerantsev’s comment about Farage is a weak signal about the contemporary post-fact climate. Russian disinformation and propaganda migrated from RT in 2014 into the Brexit vote and the Trump presidential campaign in 2016. This post-fact climate can also be traced to the disillusionment in the West after the 2007-09 global financial crisis and 2011 sentiment fears about the European Union. Pomerantsev is now program director of the Information Warfare initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Terrorist Group Aims

An excerpt from my PhD thesis notes:

 

Particular outcomes identified for terrorist groups include: (i) the achievement of a particular strategic vision (Y1); (ii) asset expropriation for decision elite or leadership control (Y2); (iii) promulgation of a particular political or religious ideology (Y3); (iv) continuation through a successor group or institution (Y4); (v) evolving into a political party or developing a political wing (Y5); (vi) devolution into an earlier developmental phase or form (Y6); and (vii) negotiation of a peace deal with a nation-state’s government (Y7).

 

Process tracing can be used to identify these group aims from terrorist communiques and propaganda.

The Medallion Fund

Occasionally news filters out about ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds who employ scientists. Renaissance Technologies is amongst the most profitable: it uses string theorists and voice recognition researchers. Katherine Burton of Bloomberg Markets notes about RT’s Medallion Fund:

 

The fabled fund, known for its intense secrecy, has produced about $55 billion in profit over the last 28 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making it about $10 billion more profitable than funds run by billionaires Ray Dalio and George Soros. What’s more, it did so in a shorter time and with fewer assets under management. The fund almost never loses money. Its biggest drawdown in one five-year period was half a percent.

Kissingerian Realpolitik

For the past several years I’ve been circling around Henry Kissinger’s grand strategy work. In March 2012, I had a coffee with Kissinger’s biographer Jeremi Suri. Later that year I corresponded briefly with Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis on grand strategy. The first volume of Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger biography is queued on my Kindle to read after PhD work is completed. Kissinger’s interview with The Atlantic Monthly‘s Jeffrey Goldberg is a transcript I will return to over the next several months to closely study.

Kompromat

Esquire Magazine has posted an interesting article on the Russian use of Kompromat – compromising material about public figures – in the recent United States election. Some Kompromat involved using the website Wikileaks to disseminate hacked emails. For more information on how Kompromat works see Alena V. Ledeneva’s book How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (Cornell University Press, 2006).

The Power of Systems

In the late 1980s strategic culture analysts adopted a comparative approach to examine the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Carl G. Jacobsen, Ken Booth, and David R. Jones’ Strategic Power: USA/USSR (Macmillan, 1990) was the high watermark. Then the USSR collapsed in 1990-91 and strategic culture analysts looked for other research topics. A transnational community for strategic culture research only emerged later.

 

Egle Rindzeviciute’s new book The Power of Systems (Cornell University Press, 2016) offers a counterfactual example of what strategic culture could have evolved into had the Cold War persisted. Rindzeviciute examines the transnational community that emerged around the Austria-based International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis and its policy research in cybernetics and systems models.

 

Here’s further information on the new book:

 

In The Power of Systems, Egle Rindzeviciute introduces readers to one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War: the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, an international think tank established by the U.S. and Soviet governments to advance scientific collaboration. From 1972 until the late 1980s IIASA in Austria was one of the very few permanent platforms where policy scientists from both sides of the Cold War divide could work together to articulate and solve world problems. This think tank was a rare zone of freedom, communication, and negotiation, where leading Soviet scientists could try out their innovative ideas, benefit from access to Western literature, and develop social networks, thus paving the way for some of the key science and policy breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

Ambitious diplomatic, scientific, and organizational strategies were employed to make this arena for cooperation work for global change. Under the umbrella of the systems approach, East-West scientists co-produced computer simulations of the long-term world future and the anthropogenic impact on the environment, using global modeling to explore the possible effects of climate change and nuclear winter. Their concern with global issues also became a vehicle for transformation inside the Soviet Union. The book shows how computer modeling, cybernetics, and the systems approach challenged Soviet governance by undermining the linear notions of control on which Soviet governance was based and creating new objects and techniques of government.

Reality-Testing The Cathedral

For the past day I’ve been reading Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug (the pen-name of Curtis Yarvin) to understand a group of alt.right philosophers called neoreactionaries. Critiques by The Baffler‘s Corey Pein and TechCrunch (and Disinformation) alumnus Klint Finley have been helpful.

 

Moldbug’s adversary is The Cathedral: his name for media, civil service, and university elites. In Moldbug’s Cathedral, universities create public and social policy which the media then disseminates to shape public policy. The Cathedral is oligarchical in structure yet also distinct from Moldbug’s Inner Party (the Democrats) and Outer Party (the Republicans).

 

Conceptual parallels exist with the Deep State in the United States (Mike Lofgren, Peter Dale Scott), the Nixon era Black Iron Prison (Philip K. Dick), and white supremacist conspiracies of a Zionist Occupation Government. Oligarchal and elite power structures like Moldbug’s Cathedral arise in many fringe subcultures.

 

I agree with Moldbug that oligarchical power structures exist. Political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters (Oligarchy) and Jane Mayer (Dark Money) provide comparative historical and tax code analysis. But I’ve also worked in media and universities for the past 20 years. Moldbug’s Cathedral needs a reality-test.

 

University research can influence public and social policy. This influence is via research publication, public intellectuals, and the translation of research findings into policy. Influence can also occur through cohorts who are socialised into a worldview either in universities or in government. Yet research can also circulate in academia and in outlets like The Conversation – and may not have any policymaker impact.

 

Media shaping of public opinion is also now more complex. Policymakers’ strategic leaks can have repercussions for investigative journalism. Clickbait and ratings create pressure on journalists. Op-ed columnists can gain clout, fame, and prominence. Advertisers have financial leverage to guide coverage. Individual readers may live in a filter bubble. Social media platforms amplify rumours and folklore narratives. University researchers are one of many potential sources for journalists.

 

Moldbug cites Walter Lippmann‘s Public Opinion (1922) as an historical source for the Cathedral’s university-media nexus. Moldbug critiques linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky as a Cathedral proponent who uses Lippmann’s ‘manufacture of consent’. The reality is different. Much of Chomsky’s writings (including the propaganda model developed with Edward S. Herman) critique foreign policy and media elites, and they advocate for Gramscian activist movements. Chomsky distinguishes the financial media from popular and tabloid media outlets.

 

Moldbug ends up advocating for a soft reset of the Cathedral and to restore the Stuart monarchy. He sounds at times like Hildred Castaigne from Robert W. Chamber’s short story ‘The Repairer of Reputations‘ (1895), who believed that an Imperial Dynasty of America existed. Moldbug accepts that the Cathedral can probably not be destroyed and still adopts an adversarial stance towards it.

 

Moldbug would have likely remained a minor blogger and conspiracy theorist were it not for his Silicon Valley connections with entrepreneur Peter Thiel . Now, with Donald Trump’s election, the alt.right has stormed the Cathedral. Castaigne’s delusional vision of an Imperial Dynasty of America is now closer to becoming a subcultural agenda.

 

Meanwhile, Moldbug has decloaked as Curtis Yarvin and no longer publicly blogs under his pen-name. Instead, Yarvin now spends his time on launching Urbit: a cryptographic-powered service for personal web servers. “Freedom is an engineering problem,” Urbit notes in its promotional material. Yarvin might even attract some media outlets and university research institutes as potential clients. If the Cathedral can’t be defeated then you can always create new, entrepreneurial services to extract profitable rents from it.

General Intellects

McKenzie Wark’s new book General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (Verso, 2017) is available from Amazon for preorder here.

 

My personal list might include Lawrence Wright, Adam Curtis, William D. Cohan, and William T. Vollmann. My intelligentsia is slanted toward essayists, novelists, and investigative journalists.

A Post-Truth World

This week the Oxford Dictionaries selected ‘post-truth’ as its word of 2016.

 

For the past year, I’ve been reading book excerpts on Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the disinformation campaigns that his elite creates. I’ve tuned into Russia Today and noted how the conspiracy theories I wrote about 15 to 18 years ago are now presented as geopolitical fact. I’ve kept an eye on Donald Trump’s business interests in and connections to Russia.

 

Journalist and television producer Peter Pomerantsev is one of the most insightful chroniclers of this new, post-truth world. In June 2016, Pomerantsev observed in Granta Magazine that post-truth roots are traceable to 1990s interests in postmodernism, hyper-real events like the 1990-91 Gulf War and its effect on philosophers like Jean Baudrillard, and the creation of fake parties and movements in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia.

 

A post-truth climate changes the media and political campaigns. Investigative and objective journalism are dead. Instead, political technologists and spin doctors disseminate subjective narratives. Political campaigns become the site of rumours and sleights of hand. Myths, folklore, and conspiracy theories become the default forms of information content.

 

I first became aware of this post-fact shift whilst browsing Usenet forums in 1994. I confronted it as Disinformation’s website editor throughout the period late 1999 to early 2008. Disinformation founder (and now Dangerous Minds publisher) Richard Metzger and I settled on a strategy: we played up the subcultural and vanguard aspects whilst also revealing and critiquing the media platforms that made it possible.

 

For in-progress PhD research I took another approach. I sought to resurrect Jack Snyder’s work at RAND in 1977 on strategic culture: how collective historical experiences and institutional elites shape decisions on the use of force. Snyder was aware of mirror imaging and other risks of analytic misperception in trying to understand the Soviet elites. I figured that strategic culture could help to understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the growth of authoritarian regimes and rising powers.

 

Donald Trump’s election strategists now use Russian disinformation techniques in a United States sociopolitical context. This mindset is alien to many US voters or is dismissed as a fringe phenomena. In the past week it is why journalists have focused on alt.right figures and movements like Infowars’ Alex Jones, secular traditionalists, and the manosphere. This is what Richard Metzger and I fought against whilst at Disinformation. It is why having interpreters like Pomerantsev and the BBC’s Adam Curtis is helpful to understand the Russian mindset.

 

New truth-seeking strategies are needed for this post-truth world.

 

 

 

Trump’s Wharton Strategy

Between 1965 and 1968, Donald Trump studied a Bachelor of Business at the Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania. Wharton featured Trump in 125th anniversary material. Wharton’s knowledge may have influenced Trump’s successful presidential election campaign.

 

Trump learned from Wharton’s emphasis on financial engineering and tax arbitrage to self-finance his campaign. He leveraged licensing the Trump name to gain free media and social media coverage without spending money on expensive campaign advertising. He studied Republican competitors and Democrat opponents and exploited their weaknesses.

 

Wharton’s curricula illustrates how Trump could do this. He studied the United States tax code. He studied power-based negotiation and probably non-cooperative game theory. Trump attracted advisors like Peter Thiel and Anthony Scaramucci, and proponents like Dilbert creator Scott Adams who share similar insights in their books.

 

The Wharton experience gave Trump a grounding in deal-making. Trump benefited from Reagan era neoliberal financialisation. He built an image via The Art of the Deal and The Apprentice as a tough, commercial decision-maker. He adopted a similar stance in his book Great Again (aka Crippled America) on his public and social policy views.

 

Yet Trump left this knowledge out of his Trump University curricula and training materials. His failed students might have done some background research on what he learned at Wharton. They could have saved money – and instead studied Wharton Professor Richard G. Schnell’s Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People.