I shouldn’t have to write this article. And yet, here we are...
I don’t care who you are or how much Palmer Report you read: accusing someone who disagrees with you of conducting psyops for a foreign government is never, ever a normal or acceptable way of conducting political discourse.
I tweeted the above yesterday after noticing another uptick in the bizarre habit establishment loyalists have of labeling anyone who disagrees with them as Russian trolls. And, though I didn’t address it to her and made no mention of her, Louise Mensch took it personally.
This led to a deluge of fascinating interactions with Mensch’s followers, in which I was sincerely informed that Twitter has admitted to half of its users being Russian agents, though it is likely more. I was also called a Russian agent many, many times, because saying it’s not okay to accuse a stranger you disagree with of being a Russian agent is just the sort of thing a Russian agent would say.
Well, let me start off this weird, stupid article that I shouldn’t have to write by saying that I myself am not a Russian agent. I’ve never been to Russia, I have no ties to the Russian government, I rarely use sources in my articles that have ties to Russia, and to the best of my knowledge none of my patrons are Russian. I say this not because I feel a need to defend these foam-brained accusations but to point out that it is, in fact, very possible to disagree with the establishment Russia narrative without being incentivized to in rubles.
Political discourse between establishment loyalists and everyone else has been trampled to death by the gratuitous use of this obnoxious debate-avoiding tactic. Everyone who publicly questions the MSNBC Russia narrative will be met with these accusations. Everyone who speaks about it with much of an online following will receive these accusations on a daily basis.
This is not normal. Anti-Trumpists have been trained over the last year by people like Rachel Maddow, Louise Mensch, and the Palmer Report to believe that accusing everyone who disagrees with you of being a Russian agent is a normal thing that sane people do, but they are wrong. It is a bizarre, obnoxious tactic, and when you use it, you are admitting that you have no argument.
The accusation would not be baseless. You should remind yourself what the USIC's official report said on the matter of Russian interference.
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) November 27, 2017
Yes it would indeed be a baseless accusation, @LouiseMensch. You do not know who is and is not a Kremlin agent, and the odds that you are interacting with one are rare. If you have to resort to baseless accusations of Russian espionage, you are admitting you have no argument.
— Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz) November 27, 2017
In the unlikely event that any Louise Mensch types are still reading at this point, let me explain how normal online discourse operates:
Party A presents a position on an issue.
Party B presents a rebuttal to the position, often supplemented with links substantiating their claim.
Party A returns with their own counter-argument and their own substantiations.
Repeat this back-and-forth for as long as both parties remain interested.
The civility with which this discourse takes place varies wildly, and it can leave both parties feeling like they wasted an hour or two of their lives talking to a brick wall. But it can also be very informative to people watching, it can often lead to one party realizing that their argument isn’t nearly as strong as their partisan echo chamber had led them to believe it was, and it can cause both parties to do more research and rigorous thinking as they strive to come up with a compelling case. It can even lead to someone realizing that they don’t know nearly as much about a given issue as they thought they did and privately questioning their previous assumptions.
Conversations like this are socially enriching and lead to a more intelligent and better-informed humanity.
Compare that to:
Party A presents a position on an issue.
Party B accuses party A of conducting psyops for a foreign government.
These accusations always kill dialogue. And they are meant to. It is a safe way of slamming the door on ideas which make the person who uses this tactic uncomfortable.
There is no legitimate reason to ever accuse a stranger you disagree with of being a Russian agent. Firstly, you cannot possibly know that the stranger you’re dialoguing with works for the Kremlin. Secondly, even in the highly unlikely event that the person you are speaking to really is a secret Russian agent, you should still be able to out-debate them. Kremlin trolls don’t have magical powers. They can’t hypnotize you. If you’re interacting with one they’ll be advancing arguments and ideas just like anyone else, and if your arguments and ideas are defensible you should be able to defend them clearly and articulately.
A related accusation is conceding that while it is possible that the individual you are speaking to may not be a paid Kremlin operative, they are at the very least a “useful idiot” who has been brainwashed by Russian propaganda and is unknowingly advancing pernicious ideas. This is also an admission that you have no argument. You’re shutting down dialogue instead of debating your position articulately. You’re also making a fallacious case which assumes from the beginning that nobody could possibly disagree with your omniscient, infallible worldview unless they were deceived by a malevolent party. If your position is defensible, defend it like a normal human being.
I’ve had some success with simply drawing attention to the fact that the person levelling these accusations is using a tactic that is not a normal or acceptable part of political discourse. Individuals with a bit of personal insight can get pretty embarrassed when you calmly point out that they’re doing something they know deep down is really weird and unhealthy, so they’ll back away from it once you bring a little self-awareness to their McCarthyite chicken dance. I recommend my readers try it if you ever run into this tactic yourselves.
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Bottom line: when a stranger on the internet accuses you of being a Kremlin agent, of being a “useful idiot”, of “regurgitating Kremlin talking points”, this is simply their way of informing you that they have no argument for the actual thing that you are saying. If you’re using hard facts to point out the gaping plot holes in the Russiagate narrative, for example, and all they can do is call your argument Russian propaganda, this means that they have no counter-argument for the hard facts that you are presenting. They are deliberately shutting down the possibility of any dialogue with you because the cognitive dissonance you are causing them is making them uncomfortable.
Yes, paid shills for governments all over the world do indeed exist. But the odds are much greater that the stranger you are interacting with online is simply a normal person who isn’t convinced by the arguments that have been presented by the position you espouse. If your position is defensible you should be able to argue for it normally, regardless of whom you are speaking to.
Yes, propaganda exists. But what is propaganda other than arguments and ideas? It isn’t witchcraft or wizardry. It isn’t going to melt your face like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark; you can engage it rationally without plugging your fingers in your ears and screaming “propaganda!” In the event that the ideas you are debating against online are indeed the product of government deception, you should be able to debunk them using truth and rationality. If there are lies, point them out using truth and facts. If there are half-truths, bring in the other half of the equation. If there are bad arguments relying on bad thinking, refute them with good arguments and good thinking. The methods of refuting propaganda are the same as the methods of refuting anything else, so it’s stupid to act like plugging your fingers in your ears and screaming “propaganda” is a legitimate tactic. If “propaganda” can’t be refuted using legitimate debate methods, then what you are calling propaganda looks an awful lot like truth.
I fight what I consider to be establishment propaganda for a living, but if all I ever did was type “that’s propaganda!” over and over again, nobody would ever read my articles. I have to make a compelling case for what actual disinformation is being presented and present clear arguments for why I think they are wrong. The same is true for everyone, even if they believe their position is supported by 17 intelligence agencies and the infinite wisdom of the Palmer Report.
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