Anatomy of a Bogus “Disinformation” Smear
Foreign Policy is a publication that specializes in Serious essays about all manner of Serious topics in the realm of foreign policy. If you’ve ever touted your professional credentials as a Serious Foreign Policy Thinker, or if you one day aspire to a Senior Fellow sinecure in Serious Foreign Policy Studies — there’s a good chance you’re a subscriber.
I only just found out that on April 12, this highly prestigious journal ran an article that accuses me of participating in a “Russian disinformation operation.” (Gee, never could have guessed that’d be the accusation. How unexpected.) It took awhile for me to learn of this article’s existence, because I wasn’t contacted ahead of time for any sort of comment or given any chance to reply — apparently a journalistic convention that’s fallen out of favor. Oh well.
The journalist who wrote the article is someone named Justin Ling. I had only ever vaguely heard of this person, but after some modest inquiry, now understand that he self-identifies as a “freelance investigative journalist.” In this capacity, Ling claims to specialize in issues of “misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremism.” Those who pompously declare themselves to be big media experts in such topics all tend to fit a certain obnoxious mold. Glenn Greenwald has remarked that this newly-concocted journalistic “beat” generally consists of “an unholy mix of junior high hall-monitor tattling and Stasi-like citizen surveillance.” NBC News in particular employs a whole dedicated fleet of these people, who — as Greenwald put it — “devote the bulk of their ‘journalism’ to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention).”
Justin Ling belongs squarely to this pretentious media clique — he even claims to have been one of its pioneers. And his latest foray into “freelance investigative journalism” apparently entailed scrolling through my Twitter feed. Which you may notice often seems like the main activity of this new breed of journalist; the ones who, like Ling, hold themselves out as seasoned, world-wise “misinformation” debunkers. They really love sitting around on Twitter, waiting to exclaim that a harmful new “conspiracy theory” has emerged. Conveniently, they’ve preemptively endowed themselves with the divine right to adjudicate what does and does not constitute a “conspiracy theory.” Precisely when “information that journalists happen to personally disagree with, or be offended by” magically becomes “disinformation” still remains a mysterious puzzle. Those like Ling who parade around in this fashion can be frequently observed snidely dismissing concerns about online censorship — even as they piously warn how very dangerous it is that uncensored “content” is allowed to proliferate on the internet.
Naturally, Ling also now claims to specialize in Ukraine, and since the invasion has diligently worked to DEBUNK all manner of Ukraine-related disinformation. While the definition is always in flux depending on this media cohort’s latest political imperatives, “disinformation” in April 2022 seems to largely be defined as any information which may run counter to the interests of the Ukraine Government or its patrons, such as the US and Canada — the latter of which Ling is a proud resident.
So when people on the internet started rudely discussing the statement by Victoria Nuland last month that US-funded biological laboratories exist in Ukraine, Ling deployed his amazing investigative skills to purportedly unearth where this “conspiracy theory” had originated. And you won’t believe what he discovered: the whole thing supposedly started with a random account on Twitter. Ling doesn’t actually prove that this “conspiracy theory” originated with the tweet he says he found — he just asserts that it did, and excitedly adds that the account in question had also expressed some belief in QAnon nonsense. Even though Ling presents no tangible proof for his foundational contention, that’s totally fine with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which aired his little segment attributing the whole “biolabs” story — get ready for this shocker — to a nefarious Russian/right-wing “disinformation” network. Ling managed to valiantly map out the network by screenshotting tweets.
To demonstrate that any misgivings about the “biolabs” were reprehensible “disinformation,” Ling conducted a friendly chat with a Pentagon official, Robert Pope, who denied that there was anything untoward going on. This was the extent of Ling’s investigative journalism on the issue; in the segment, Ling is shown doing nothing other than presumptively accept the Pentagon official’s explanation.
Despite airing on the Canadian government’s TV channel, the segment has that annoyingly familiar feel of choreographed and branded “edginess” — reminiscent of VICE, where Ling also once worked. Amidst the sonic backdrop of weird, thumping ambient music, the viewer is for some reason made to follow along with Ling as he adventurously travels throughout Virginia highways and airports.
The CBC’s description of the segment reads: “Investigative reporter Justin Ling exposes how a QAnon conspiracy theory about US-funded ‘biolabs’ in Ukraine morphed into mainstream disinformation.” Which is strange, because a high-ranking US State Department official, Victoria Nuland, is the one who confirmed the existence of the US-funded biolabs — in public Congressional testimony. Given her well-documented history of intimate “meddling” in Ukraine, and her membership in one of the most prominent neoconservative familial dynasties in the US, Nuland’s comment understandably sparked widespread interest. Nonetheless, Ling and the CBC seemed satisfied that they had settled the issue, and successfully pinned the entire thing on the usual nexus of the Kremlin and Fox News.
This is far from Ling’s first battle on the frontlines of the information war. A biography on his Talent Bureau page states: “He is also investigating Russian meddling in Canadian politics, a project that has taken him from inside the headquarters of the Department of National Defence to a NATO training base in Latvia.” Man, I’d love to know how much it costs for a custom Ling speech on that fascinating topic.
Ling identifies as a “queer journalist,” whatever that means exactly, and part of his coverage of the war in Ukraine has been to convene a “panel of queer Ukrainians.” During that panel, Ling said: “I’ve spent a little time in Kiev myself. I’m looking forward to going back someday soon. I have to confess, Kiev has maybe some of the most fierce drag queens I’ve ever seen in my life.” So that’s some background on Ling.
Which brings us to his latest groundbreaking Foreign Policy investigation. Ling again decided to boldly tackle the most taboo of subjects: bad stuff Russia is alleged to have done. Daring to “go there” requires immense bravery on Ling’s part, and he deserves real credit. In the Foreign Policy article, Ling sets his sights on the allegations earlier this month that Russia was guilty of committing horrendous crimes against Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha. Based on evidence he saw online, including “radio chatter,” Ling announced his opinion that “it’s not hard to conclude that it was Russian forces who massacred Ukrainian civilians.” Anyone who might be inclined to seek an independent, impartial investigation before reaching firm conclusions about such a grave question — which happens to be the stated position of obscure, inconsequential countries like India and China — had merely fallen victim to “the constellation of disinformation channels” organized by Russia, according to Ling’s thesis. Despite what he calls a “preponderance of the evidence” that instantly showed Russia was 100% culpable, Ling decries:
That is apparently not enough for recently reelected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who was criticized by his allies in Poland for refusing to accept that Russia perpetrated the killings.
Despite Russia’s flimsy defense, some Westerners have nevertheless chosen to believe it. Writer Michael Tracey tweeted to his 240,000 followers that the photos were “war propaganda” and cast doubt on their authenticity. Conspiracy site Infowars ran breathless coverage touting information, largely cribbed from those pro-Russian Telegram channels, that “exposes the truth” of what happened in Bucha.
Note that I’m sandwiched right between Viktor Orban and Infowars, which basically makes me an ideological Satan for the average Foreign Policy reader. However, you may be shocked to learn that Ling drastically misrepresents what I actually said, and conveniently doesn’t even bother to include a link or full quote so people can judge for themselves.
Contrary to Ling’s bogus assertion, the only thing I “cast doubt” on in the tweet he uncovered was the propriety of mindlessly disseminating a warring party’s propaganda — which journalists and “experts” of all stripes have shown zero reservations about doing since the outset of this conflict. So long as it’s the warring party to which they’re politically and emotionally committed, they’re more than happy to present the propaganda as verified fact. It seems self-evidently ludicrous, for instance, that CBS would simply take PR material directly from Zelensky and blast it out on air with no corroboration — but that’s exactly what they’re doing. And that’s the practice I was “casting doubt” upon. You’d think this would almost be a banal point — with many journalists at least in theory claiming to be cognizant of how the “fog of war” distorts the news-gathering process. But that the point has become so intensely controversial speaks to how normal standards of rational thought have been thoroughly obliterated over the past two months.
Ling further accuses me of “believing” the Russian government, which is just straightforwardly stupid. He cites no evidence for this accusation — Foreign Policy editors obviously don’t care whether anything he blurts out has even the slightest hint of corroboration behind it. For the record: not on the day of the tweet in question, nor at any point since the war started, have I ever expressed uncritical “belief” in anything a Russian government official has said. Again, Ling has absolutely nothing to back up his malignant accusation. As far as that one tweet supposedly at issue, I didn’t need the Russian government or anyone else to tell me what should’ve been plain as day to anyone who cares to maintain some semblance of critical faculties. What I was calling “war propaganda” were materials that had been directly propagated by Ukraine government officials, on Twitter and other social media channels:
This stuff was literally coming straight from the Ukraine Ministry of Defense — the PR wing of a foreign military in the middle of waging war. While it was also furiously lobbying the US and other governments to provide heavier armaments for use in that war. How is this not the textbook definition of “war propaganda”? What would be the definition of “war propaganda” — if not this? Sure enough, the government-disseminated propaganda materials were immediately cited by journalists to demand outright US/NATO military intervention in Ukraine. I had linked to one example in the very tweet that Ling claims was evidence of my participation in a “Russian disinformation operation”:
It’s understandable that these concepts might be confusing for Ling. Because around the same time as he was carefully monitoring my Twitter feed for incriminating signs of “disinformation” offenses, take a wild guess at what Ling was also doing. Go ahead. If you guessed “uncritically disseminating the propaganda of a warring party” — you would be correct. Here’s the intrepid investigative journalist in action, dutifully amplifying a call from one of Zelensky’s official advisors for provision of more US/NATO weaponry:
Here’s Ling applying his indefatigable freelance investigative journalism skills by simply reposting images that had been published directly by Zelensky:
Here’s Ling disseminating the totally uncorroborated claims of a full-fledged spy agency, the UK’s GCHQ. It’s unclear if Ling would regard this practice — simply repeating the claims of unvarnished spymasters whose very job is to manipulate public opinion — as “disinformation.”
Maybe he’s of the belief that “Western” spy agencies are definitionally incapable of perpetuating disinformation, and only hated enemy states like Russia are capable of such a thing. I asked him to explain, but strangely he’s not returning my messages at the moment, despite having previously been so eager to accuse me of heinous affronts. None of this I take personally, though. Given his track record, it makes sense that Justin Ling would have severe difficulty comprehending what “war propaganda” means.
This is of much less significance, but also notice that Ling intentionally does not refer to me as a “journalist” in his petty gibe, and instead merely as a “writer.” Which is fine — I honestly don’t care one way or another what this Ling creature chooses to call me — but it’s a perfect example of the little passive-aggressive sniping tactics that journalists constantly use to police the boundaries of their snotty social club. I’m more than happy to call Ling a “journalist” — because to my mind, the word “journalist” doesn’t connote any kind of moral rectitude, or even competence. Being a journalist is very much consistent with being a self-righteous sleaze-peddler, so Ling can certainly fit the bill.
Another severe difficulty of Ling’s, which raises fundamental questions about his ability to cover his declared beat, is recognizing what “disinformation” even is. Maybe Ling missed it, but earlier this month Ken Dilanian of NBC News — one of the most faithful mouthpieces of the US national security state — went on air and openly revealed that the US Government is mounting a full-fledged “information warfare” campaign related to Ukraine. A key component of which is feeding fake information to the media. Dilanian cited one particular fake story that had been deliberately planted to journalists by intelligence officials — despite those officials knowing it was fake. Weirdly though, all the newly emboldened, “disinformation” debunking journalists like Ling don’t seem to regard that campaign of unconcealed information warfare as within their job’s purview.
Ling also appears to have missed a recent revelation reported at CNN of all places, in which an anonymous “Western” official is quoted saying this about the current PR activities of Ukraine government officials: “It’s a war — everything they do and say publicly is designed to help them win the war. Every public statement is an information operation, every interview, every Zelensky appearance broadcast is an information operation.” And yet despite the admitted existence of this “information operation,” Ling is gleeful to participate in it, by giddily spreading around the Ukraine officials’ photos, videos, and claims without a shred of independent corroboration — all under the veneer of Ling’s tough, adversarial journalism. Russia is obviously engaged in its own “information operation,” but so too is Ukraine. Will Ling report on himself next as a “disinformation” culprit?
Of course he won’t, because despite his bogus pretensions, Ling has made it perfectly clear that he has no problem at all with “disinformation” as such. In fact, he actively supports disinformation tactics when it’s in service of his desired political objectives. He publicly demanded that the “intelligence service” of his own government, Canada, ought to be “doing a lot more” to proactively counter Russia by utilizing more robust information warfare techniques. So that’s Justin Ling for you: a “disinformation” reporter who loves disinformation.
If you want to understand why there is so little deviation today from the burgeoning pro-war consensus, it’s got a lot to do with media functionaries like Ling. Most journalists would be utterly mortified to be accused, in a “Serious” outlet like Foreign Policy, of abetting a “Russian disinformation operation.” And their fear would probably be rational: this could genuinely be a career-killer, particularly in the current war-fevered climate. All bets are off in terms of what retribution tactics are potentially on the table. They could be socially shunned, professionally ostracized, and have their material well-being seriously imperiled. The self-appointed “disinformation” pontificators such as Ling, posturing as these tenacious public-spirited watchdogs, really could destroy them.
Ling is an especially blatant joke and fraud, but the media industry is increasingly dominated by creeps like him. Fortunately, they can’t do much to me — except to provide occasional amusement at how pathetic they are.