BBC Disinformation Reporters Flub Disinformation Journalism, Create Confusion, Concern and a Touch of Comedy
JUSTIN SCHLOSBERG: DICHRON INTERVIEW
9 minute read
Update: After this interview, the BBC provided a clarification/correction to their broadcast discussing Justin Schlosberg. This correction was not placed on the webpage of the broadcast, but on a separate webpage where the BBC posts corrections and clarifications. Because the BBC’s correction runs over 350 words, I have placed it at the bottom of this article.
Back in 2019, BBC’s Panorama released a documentary “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” that delved into widely reported allegations within Jeremy Corbyn’s party. But one person who failed to embrace the documentary was Corbyn ally, Justin Schlosberg, a professor of journalism at the University of Birbeck, and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition. In an essay countering the BBC, Schlosberg wrote:
Of course, it was right for the BBC to cover this controversial issue, and to give voice to those who believed that antisemitism was rife within the party and that Corbyn was responsible. But it was wrong to exclude the voices of others, including Jewish Labour members, who felt and thought differently. Worse still, the programme-makers chose to ignore abundant evidence that contradicted the accounts given by the “whistleblowers”.
The documentary, Schlosberg stated, was skewed, and he found it astonishing that it had passed through the gates of BBC’s senior editorial management.
There is a wider issue at stake, however. Journalists — and even major news providers like the BBC — must be allowed to get the story wrong, at least occasionally. But the integrity of a free media system depends on such failures, whether intentional or otherwise, being properly accounted for. And democracies depend on the free flow of public debate, especially in matters of political controversy.
But in a recent radio program, it was the BBC’s turn to criticize Schlosberg. In a half-hour program on Ukraine and the disinformation war, the BBC morphed Schlosberg from a professor who studies disinformation into a purveyor of disinformation. After interviewing Schlosberg for the program, the BBC’s Chloe Hadjimatheou then contacted Schlosberg’s university for comment and response to questions.
“One of the public figures we will be featuring in the programme who has been criticised for his tweets and posts in relation to the war in Ukraine, and prior to that the war in Syria, is Justin Schlosberg,” wrote Ms. Hadjimatheou.
In predictable fashion, the university passed the questions on to Schlosberg for response. “Indeed, it is troubling that having given over 2.5 hours of my time for your interview, and engaged in follow-up correspondence with you as recently as yesterday, you have chosen not to put anything like these questions to me in due time ahead of your broadcast/publication.”
What remains confusing is who exactly is criticizing Justin Schlosberg, other than BBC reporters. Further, by stepping on an academic who actually studies disinformation for a living, is the BBC’s “disinformation reporter” Marianna Spring merely engaged in a public act of solipsistic credential burnishing? As in, We, young reporters at the BBC, are the real experts on disinformation; not this academic Justin Schlosberg.
More oddly, the BBC’s reporting implies that the confusion that permeates during war—the fog of war—no longer exists. When the BBC hits the scene, the fog dissipates and we are left to choose between “disinformation” and “truth.” And this decision between “truth” and “disinformation” is apparently decided by the BBC’s government sources. BBC seems to not understand that this undermines a singular tenet of journalism—all governments lie.
To add to the confusion with a slight touch of comedy, a week after the program aired, The Grayzone published a leak of emails by the BBC’s “disinformation expert” Paul Mason, a former colleague of Chloe Hadjimatheou, from when he was also employed at the BBC. Among the many emails by Paul Mason, one implied that he remains more a chummy collaborator with the BBC’s Chloe Hadjimatheou, than a source.
“My sense is that some journalists and academics have constructed a fantasy world in which they are on the front lines of a covert information war with Russia,” Schlosberg tells The DisInformation Chronicle.
To try and cut through this BBC mess (we need a chainsaw!) Schlosberg spoke with me from his university office in the Bloomsbury area of London. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
THACKER: The main BBC accusation is that you tweeted several threads trying to understand what exactly happened in Bucha, Ukraine, back when it first appeared Russians may have massacred civilians. But then you also wouldn’t engage with people who said something contrary. That happens on Twitter all the time.
I often point out something that’s wrong somebody has tweeted, and I’ll get ignored. And I don't feel it's my job to engage everyone on Twitter who disagrees with me. But that was your great sin.
SCHLOSBERG: It's even worse than that because I did engage with people who criticized me. One of the things that people picked up in my thread was a video of the mayor of Bucha, after the Russian withdrawal, where he did not mention any civilian massacre. But then someone pointed me to an interview that mayor gave to CNN. So I tweeted this, basically acknowledging that even though the mayor didn't mention it in the video he uploaded to his personal Twitter feed, he had mentioned atrocities to a CNN journalist.
So the BBC allegation that I never engaged with people on Twitter is just false.
THACKER: What was the BBC’s point? I went online and saw pictures and videos of dead people in Bucha with their hands bound behind their back. The first thing I thought was “Who did this? Probably Russians. How did this happen?” I saw other people tweeting the same thing. Why did the BBC care specifically that you were tweeting questions about what happened?
SCHLOSBERG: This is about establishing red lines of acceptable discourse. The wider backdrop is a conflict where we know that Russia has been, and always does, push out disinformation. But we also know that there's been a number of false stories that have been pushed out by Western media outlets and indeed Ukrainian officials.
That story about the Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island bravely refusing to surrender to the Russians and being shot and killed turned out to be false. They surrendered and were taken as prisoners of war. The story about Ukrainian peace negotiators being poisoned by the Russians—which was fed to the Wall Street Journal by Bellingcat—turned out to be false. It was almost immediately debunked by Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
THACKER: Right after this incident in Bucha, the United States admitted to NBC News that they were deploying information, sometimes not factually accurate, to go after Russia. So it’s confirmed that the U.S. does this. After the lead in with your interview, the BBC then pivots to Marianna Spring, their disinformation reporter.
Spring starts off explaining that she's looking into “fresh claims” about what happened in Bucha. What's not clear from listening to her, “Did she go to Bucha to investigate on the ground?” Does “fresh claims” mean evidence that came to light after your Twitter thread?
It’s totally unclear what she means by “fresh claims.”
SCHLOSBERG: She quite insidiously implies that I was spreading misinformation by omission. It was pointed out that The New York Times had published satellite imagery which showed the bodies were lining the streets prior to the Russian withdrawal. This did not contradict anything I said. I never suggested even implicitly that the bodies were part of some elaborate staged massacre, which is what Russian media have indeed falsely claimed. The satellite imagery does not rule out the possibility that some people may have been killed after the Russian withdrawal, nor does it tell us how they died. Journalists need to be sensitive to these uncertainties, and indeed some were.
THACKER: Right. Satellite images of bodies don’t tell you that these people were executed. (Note: The Times reported, “The causes of death are unclear.”)
SCHLOSBERG: Some days after this, a U.S. intelligence officer spoke to Newsweek, and claimed that what happened in Bucha was a mess. His words were, in general, the evidence of civilian deaths in the war doesn't support the dominant narrative of a genocide. [Newsweek reported that a Defense Intelligence Agency official said that it is dangerous to attribute one or even several graves and scenes of civilian disaster to Russian barbarism rather than just being realistic about the depredations of war.]
Subsequently, Seth Harp, on assignment for Harper's magazine in Ukraine, comes back and says, Look, it's really not clear what happened in Bucha. Yes, there were atrocities and yes, the Russians were very likely responsible.
THACKER: So why didn’t the BBC go after Newsweek or Seth Harp at Harper's? Why focus on you?
SCHLOSBERG: The context, in the U.K. at least, is an effort to target academics. I'm perhaps even more problematic than some of the other academics who are a little bit more left field, because I present both sides. And because I criticize explicitly Russian disinformation. I get accused of “both sideism” which is itself absurdly seen by some as playing to Putin’s multi-polar truth agenda.
THACKER: The Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz introduced the term “fog of war” back in the early 1800s to explain the confusion that happens during war.
I was in the first Persian Gulf war. I was only 20 and I didn't know about Carl von Clausewitz or other military tacticians, but I came away having experienced two emotions going on during war: fear and confusion. And those two things amplify each other. When I later read Clausewitz it all made better sense.
But the BBC seems to think that there is no fog of war; there's just fact and disinformation. They brush away the reality of war and label “fog” as “disinformation.”
SCHLOSBERG: My sense is that some journalists and academics have constructed a fantasy world in which they are on the front lines of a covert information war with Russia. And they believe that Russian disinformation, particularly in relation to cyber manipulation, is all-powerful and incredibly sophisticated.
Some of this goes back to Russiagate, in the States, where they believe that Russia is capable of manipulating Western democracies and shaping agendas in a way that the West simply couldn't even imagine, let alone do. They see their duty is to resist, and they believe in this higher purpose. And they seem clearly enraptured by their sources and contacts in the intelligence services—they take everything they say as gospel, unquestionable truth.
James Harkin talks about this very eloquently in his piece in Harper’s called “Operation Overshare.” There has been a shift in the way in which intelligence agencies confront Russian disinformation. Increasingly, they are collaborating with and making use of civil society organizations—particularly journalists—to counter Russian disinformation.
THACKER: First, the disinformation experts and reporters, who know nothing about war, deny that there is a fog of war, or they cut through the fog by deploying their “disinformation” superpowers.
They just figure it all out.
Second, by working with the government to define what is “disinformation” they deny a fundamental plank in journalism that comes from I.F. Stone—all governments lie. But disinformation reporters get around this reporting fundamental, by thinking this applies only to other governments. So Russia lies, but England doesn't lie; America doesn't lie.
This casts aside their job as journalists, which is to interrogate the government on behalf of citizens. Instead, they hop in the government clown car and want to drive.
SCHLOSBERG: It's very disturbing. And it's very McCarthyite. My impression is these people don’t quite have the critical thinking faculties to understand the implications of what they're doing. So Paul Mason is quoted in the program and accuses me of being a Putin supporter.
THACKER: He accused you of retweeting a Russian state official. I've seen this before where, if you share information from a source or have read a source, then you're a subscriber or promoter of that source or outlet. The two of you become linked.
If former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, gets a subscription to The New York Times, does that mean that The New York Times is part of the KKK? I don’t know how far down the crazy tunnel this thinking goes.
SCHLOSBERG: Ironically, Mason’s point was itself misinformation. What I shared was a video uploaded by a journalist who works for Russia Today who posted the video by the mayor of Bucha. But that reporter was sharing a video that was originally posted by the mayor himself. There was nothing in it that could be remotely considered false or misleading.
THACKER: But let’s say you had actually shared a video uploaded by a “Russian official.” Is that now the standard? No sharing anything from a hostile government? Can you even go to them for comment?
If I’m writing a story about climate change disinformation, and I do my job and get a quote from ExxonMobil about their documented history of climate denial, am I now part of their climate denial program?
SCHLOSBERG: It's bizarre. Paul Mason’s position is that if you say anything in public, particularly if you’re an academic, that aligns with what he calls Russian talking points or Kremlin talking points, then you must be silenced.
Some of this came out last week in leaked emails, where he’s allegedly talking about de-platforming people. He doesn't quite have the intellectual faculties to understand the implication of that. Virtually any criticism of Western foreign policy or mainstream media coverage is going to align in some way with Kremlin talking points.
He's basically saying you can no longer be critical of your own government.
THACKER: Right. That plays into something else I’ve seen of what gets called disinformation. If you write something that then gets shared by “wrong people” that's proof you are part of their messaging system.
When the BBC talks about concern that people share Russian disinformation, are they not aware of what happened in the United States with the Steele dossier? A former British intelligence agent was paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign to do opposition research on Trump and create a file on him. This led America down a weird path for years with all these crazy accusations against Trump—the pee tape—which we know now were mostly false. The Washington Post later retracted parts of some stories.
A media critic for The Washington Post, Erik Wemple, wrote a multi-part series of all the terrible journalism that went on repeating nonsense out of the Steele dossier. The Hillary Clinton campaign was fined by the Federal Election Commission for financing the Steele Dossier. It was political campaign research and probable Russian disinformation morphed by bad reporting into truth.
SCHLOSBERG: I don't think this is well known. That’s the power of Russiagate—that whole old adage: if you repeat a lie often enough, it just seeps into people's minds. Even when it's disproven.
People think, “Okay, even if they couldn't prove it, there was an impeachment. Must be something there.” That is the real power of disinformation: you just create what Michel Foucault famously called “regimes of truth.” It's just assumed that Kremlin disinformation is all powerful and disrupted the U.S. election, that Trump was in on it in some way. These things become tacit assumptions that journalists take for granted in their coverage.
THACKER: The whole Big Disinfo movement has become enormous in the last five years, and everyone grabs onto the label. “Hey, I’m a disinformation reporter.” Joseph Bernstein wrote a piece in Harper's on people selling themselves as disinformation experts:
The most comprehensive survey of the field to date, a 2018 scientific literature review titled “Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation,” reveals some gobsmacking deficits. The authors fault disinformation research for failing to explain why opinions change; lacking solid data on the prevalence and reach of disinformation; and declining to establish common definitions for the most important terms in the field, including disinformation, misinformation, online propaganda, hyperpartisan news, fake news, clickbait, rumors, and conspiracy theories. The sense prevails that no two people who research disinformation are talking about quite the same thing.
There’s been a Disinformation Gold Rush, with academics and reporters staking claims as experts, yet nobody knows what disinformation is.
SCHLOSBERG: What is quite remarkable is the arrogance of some fact checking units, particularly the ones employed by mainstream media like the BBC and The Washington Post. So often their sole basis for what is knowledge is “the government says so.”
The Hunter Biden laptop scandal is a case in point. When that story first surfaced – prior to the 2020 presidential election – it was almost entirely dismissed by mainstream media as Russian disinformation. Only now are we seeing the emergence of some kind of narrative change, where journalists are starting to wonder maybe it was actually a real story.
They present themselves as authoritative, independent fact checkers, on often no sound evidential basis whatsoever.
THACKER: A website called Grayzone released a bunch of leaked emails showing that the BBC’s expert source on disinformation Paul Mason was talking about going after specific groups and labeling them disinformation. He sent the email to Emma Briant, who is one of these disinformation academics in the United States.
SCHLOSBERG: A major theme of my BBC interview was alternative media, and particularly the Grayzone and why I feel comfortable sometimes sharing material from some media outlets. The Grayzone takes as a starting point a critique of the Western mainstream media, therefore, much of their coverage is going to align with Kremlin talking points or Assad talking points … because they are critical. But that doesn't mean that everything they produce is disinformation or propaganda.
Sometimes Russia Today, for example, does good journalism. Their coverage of Yemen has been better than the BBC or CNN. But obviously I would never trust Russia Today’s coverage of anything to do with the Kremlin. Al Jazeera is a very good news channel but I would never trust Al Jazeera on anything to do with the despotic, autocratic Qatari regime, which funds and controls them.
THACKER: This is how it’s been described to me by pretty much every Arab journalist I've run into. All of their outlets are owned by countries. And those journalists will tell you, that they will report on problems in other Arab governments, but not their own.
If you want to know what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, read Al Jazeera, because it’s owned by Qataris. But don’t read Al Hayat to understand corruption in Saudi Arabia, because the Saudis own Al Hayat. Read Al Hayata to understand corruption in Qatar.
This is a basic understanding of how to follow state run media.
SCHLOSBERG: The BBC is critical of the current government, but what they are not critical of is any kind of cross-party consensus position in relation to war and foreign policy, which is why you had the whole debacle over Iraq and WMD. Today, we’re also getting blind spots in relations to Ukraine.
Syria is where we get the antagonism with Grayzone.
The BBC repeatedly asked about my position on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma. My response is I'm not an expert in chemical weapons, not even an expert in the particular case study or story. I'm aware that news outlets like The Grayzone have peddled this idea that it was staged, etc., etc., and that’s been comprehensively rejected by mainstream media.
I'm also aware that the OPCW report did not explicitly say that it was a chemical attack by the Syrian government, and that report itself is subject to controversy and legitimate criticism and context. There were at least two whistleblowers, one of whom was part of the fact finding mission, who claims the final report was factually wrong, and his own report was censored.
And in fact, there is evidence to show that it was that it was a cover up, in documents released by WikiLeaks. And there is a public statement signed by a cross-section of experts in chemical weapons, including the founding director general of the OPCW and several senior former OPCW inspectors, saying we have very serious concerns about that, about the OPCW final report.
That suggests there is a controversy. I don't take a position on it, but I absolutely defend the right of people and news outlets to take positions on it because it is a legitimate controversy.
THACKER: The BBC discussed none of this in the part where they go after this academic Tim Hayward of the University of Edinburgh. This is the first time I’m hearing this.
Instead, the BBC just bounced off their “disinformation reporter” Marianna Spring to say Hayward was wrong.
SCHLOSBERG: It's bizarre. They based that whole segment on a leaked recording of a lecture Professor Hayward gave where he references this controversy. However, if you actually listen to the clip that the BBC broadcast, what Hayward presents to students is both sides. He says this is the official report, this is what Western governments say. However, it is also contested
This is just a straightforward fact. It's contested. There is a controversy.
THACKER: I wanted to discuss these leaked emails that Grayzone reported, the ones by Paul Mason, the former BBC reporter who is now the BBC source on disinformation.
Mason is in these emails discussing how they can deplatform Grayzone and go after academics. There are references to discussions with Nina Jankowicz, an American self-styled disinformation expert, who briefly ran the Department of Homeland Security’s “Disinformation Board” before it collapsed under the weight of its own Orwellian mission.
It was a total crash and burn.
Mason also discusses an apparent conversation with the BBC’s Chloe Hadjimatheou that make it seem she is his collaborator, not a BBC reporter who calls him up for an interview. Same might be true with Emma Briant, a disinformation scholar at Bard College.
When these emails come out, Paul Mason’s concern immediately becomes, “I’ve been targeted by a Russian hack-and-leak operation.” No discussion of whether the emails are true or not, because his behavior looks terrible. It’s just, “Putin, Putin, Putin!”
SCHLOSBERG: It just reinforces this quite bizarre world view of Putin having his tentacles pretty much everywhere and in everything to do with the West, including universities and the alternative media, etc.. Mason and Briant don't deny the authenticity of the specific emails disclosed. They effectively confirm it.
THACKER: Emma Briant is in these emails and tweeted that these hacks always happen with Russia so she can't comment on what's true or what's not true. I understand that nobody wants to be hacked, but she doesn’t talk at all about how terrible this looks that people are trying to smear alternative media outlets and academics.
Her panic tweet is on how terrible it is that Russia does hacks.
SCHLOSBERG: This is tried and tested leak media management strategy. We saw it with Cablegate, with Snowden—go after the whistleblower, the leaker. The classic response when people are exposed, ironically, for disinformation, is they de-legitimize the actual leak. They distract attention from the content of the leak, and say “This is a Russian plot.”
This is what happened with the Hunter Biden laptop scandal. It was just Russian disinformation, until we suddenly realize that it's actually true and that we should have paid attention.
Of course, leaks happen fairly regularly where journalists are given access to source material without knowing the precise origins or motives of the people who got hold of that material. That was the case, for example, in the Panama Papers. To this day no one knows the identity of the leaker.
The job of the journalist is to establish the authenticity of the source material and to make a determination whether the public interest justifies disclosure. This idea that you can intimidate people by saying you cannot write about this or share it because it's Russian disinformation or it may have been obtained for nefarious motives … For one thing, there is zero evidence of that, and it could just as easily been a leak.
THACKER: Emma Briant’s job is helping the media understand how to deal with this disinformation. Yet she takes this very strident position against leaks. In fact, she dismisses the possibility of a leak by simply renaming any leak a hack.
To what degree is the disinformation movement—their reporters and experts—just hateful toward whistleblowers—the traditional source for journalism? The Washington Post can’t stop talking about Watergate, which was based off a government whistleblower, who exposed President Nixon.
The disinformation people invert journalism. Your job now is to align with the state; your job is to align against whistleblowers, to line up against leaks. This is the anti-journalism movement.
SCHLOSBERG: This is important. A journalist will want to establish that the whistleblower is who they say they are if they want to discuss something that has happened or that they witnessed. It's different when you're given primary source material, such as leaked emails or documents. Then the source is the material.
The journalist's responsibility is to verify the source material and to establish its public importance.
It's almost a deliberate attempt to obscure that distinction by saying this was a Russian hack, and if you share or write about this, you'll hear from my lawyers. That’s chilling.
THACKER: No one in the American media had any problem taking the Steele Dossier, which was just opposition research and turning that into years and years of news. But that was bad information about Trump that came from Russia. So there seems to be some picking and choosing about Russian information based on whose political ox gets gored.
And the disinformation movement is hooked up to these fact checking outlets, that check for narratives, not whether a fact is wrong or not. Fact checkers have gotten things wrong over and over again.
The entire “disinformation” infrastructure, the movement, seems to be causing more confusion, not less.
SCHLOSBERG: Absolutely. This is the thesis of the book I'm writing. I have a chapter called the Fact Checking Industrial Complex. It traces back to the Weapons of Mass Destruction mess over Iraq in 2003, but takes root in the aftermath of the 2008-10 financial meltdown.
You get this breakdown in consensus in Western democracies and a rise of populist parties and political movements on both the left and the right. Into this increasingly fragmented, polarized world, comes untold billions that are spent through civil society, through the state, through academia, and by news organizations like the BBC. Everyone is dedicated to restore in some way that consensus fabric.
They see ruptures to the consensus—the Trump presidency, Brexit—as a consequence of disinformation—Russian disinformation or from the Right.
But they get the cause and effect the wrong way round. They think that the Western audience is increasingly distrusting of Western governments and Western media because that distrust has been sown by Putin's disinformation machine. But the seeds of that distrust were sown before Putin even came to power.
Distrust is bred by things like the WMD scandal, censorship regimes on social media, systemic bias in media coverage. The really tragic, fatal error in disinformation counter strategy is it plays exactly into Putin's hands. The more the West engages in soft forms of repression, the more obvious lapses in ethical conduct in journalism, the more Putin can turn around and say, “Look, there it’s bad, they’re hypocrites. Western media is all just a construction. It's all fake news. We are telling the truth.”
So this disinformation movement is just a gift. It's a gift and completely counterproductive.
BBC’s Correction and Clarification:
File On 4: Ukraine, the Disinformation War
BBC Radio 4, 31 May 2022
The programme referred to events in Bucha and a thread on Twitter by Dr Justin Schlosberg, a Reader in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck, University of London.
File On 4 explained that the Kremlin has denied that there was a massacre in Bucha and is insisting images of dead bodies in the streets were made after Russian troops withdrew from the city. A video by the Mayor of Bucha celebrating the Russian departure from Bucha was tweeted by a RT (Russia Today) journalist, who noted that the Mayor had said ‘not a word about “massacre”’, and then claimed civilians had probably been killed by the Ukrainian defenders, saying: ‘Judging by this, Kiev is amping up its’ game of fakes to get more ammo and to get Nato involved on the ground in the open.’
Dr Schlosberg tweeted: ‘So lets talk about Bucha.. Russian troops left on 30th March. No mention of any 'massacre' or bodies lining the streets for 4 days...’
He linked to the RT post and commented: ‘No mention in a video uploaded by Bucha's mayor on 31st March in which he celebrates liberation..’
File On 4 said: ‘Dr Schlosberg highlighted this in his tweet. How could the Mayor have failed to refer to such an atrocity – surely something’s up?’
We wish to make clear that this last sentence was not a direct quote from Dr Schlosberg but the presenter’s summary of the sentiments he expressed in his Tweets. We are sorry this was not clearer.
Dr Schlosberg says the idea that he was pushing a particular Kremlin narrative with his thread is absurd; that he went on Twitter because it wasn’t clear what was going on in Bucha and that it was right to apply due caution and not to draw foregone conclusions about what happened there until there had been an authoritative investigation by the UN.
We agree that it would have been helpful to the audience to have included these specific points to aid their understanding of Dr Schlosberg’s reasons for posting in the way that he did. We are sorry that we did not.
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I have it from someone I believe that Western Media "boots on the ground" consists of a gaggle of "journalists" running around Kiev going where they are told by Ukrainian operators.
I am surprised by this portrayal of Paul Mason. I think of him as a serious left wing journalist, quite courageous in his viewpoints. Then he got sucked into the power struggle over Corbyn. Is he really calling himself a "disinformation expert"? A better explanation might be that he continues to focus on dealing with inter-left battles. Or maybe I'm wrong and he is not who I thought he was.
Anyway, very good interview and good to highlight this sudden new transatlantic McCarthyism.