Steve Bannon’s Useful Idiots – Addendum

The story of the alleged laboratory escape (“lab leak”) from the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been shopped by the Trumpies, mostly Mike Pompeo, since early in the pandemic. Its form has varied, sometimes a bioweapon, sometimes not, but there has been a concerted effort to get the story into the media. Thanks to the useful idiot bros, Pompeo and his minions, using Bannon’s tactics, may have finally succeeded.

On Twitter, John Culver (@JohnCulver689), whose bio says he is a retired intelligence officer, pointed out a Daily Beast article from June 2020, debunking a report by a Pentagon contractor. When I read it, I vaguely recalled the claims of changing car traffic around the Institute indicating that a leak had occurred. The claim was ridiculous enough that I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Peter Jacobs (@past_is_future), whose bio says he is a climate researcher, offered a longer set of analyses. He points out four attempts to shop the story this year.

That whole thread is worth reading. It covers some of the material I’ve covered recently and points out that it’s Murdoch media in the US and Australia that have helped launder the story. He also mentions David Asher, who turns up in Christopher Ford’s open letter (also here) and the Vanity Fair article that depends on him and other unreliable sources.

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Steve Bannon’s Useful Idiots

Scientific opinion on how the SARS-CoV-2 virus got into human beings has not changed much over the past year. The greatest probability is that a human caught it from an animal; a long ways down in probability is that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Nonexistent probability is that it is a biological weapon.

Most human diseases have come to us from animals. We know the origins of some of them. Studies of this kind take years and even decades. We have known about SARS-CoV-2 for a year and a half. Many similar viruses are known to exist in bats.

Those studies now can call on genome analysis. A number of virologists and epidemiologists make this their career. A professional who spends all their time on this has a wealth of knowledge that is never published – their last conversation with a colleague, the ways that ideas have gone wrong in the past, and much else that goes into their judgments. A professional in a given field also has a sense of how to evaluate new developments. Without this background, it’s easy to cherrypick data and publications, even without realizing it.

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Two News Stories – Free To Reporters

Covering government is boring, until it isn’t. Trouble is, you need to know something about the boring parts to see when it isn’t. I’ve seen two of those – potentially big stories – today.

Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Spills The Beans

Chris Ford has been in government a long time in positions relating to arms control and nonproliferation. I don’t agree with his policy positions, but I was relieved when Trump appointed someone who actually knew about the field to this position. He is a quiet and professional man.

He published a tell-all open letter on Medium today. My jaw is still dropped.

There’s a lot to the letter, and I don’t have time to go into it in detail, but basically a couple of Trumpian bozos in one of his bureaus were ginning up a conspiracy theory about China and the coronavirus. And they did everything they could to keep it from him! This is the backstory to every “lab leak” story out there, oh useful idiots like Nate Silver, Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, and others.

Los Alamos Can’t Make 80 Pits A Year

Dan Leone covers the nuclear weapons bureaucracy for EM Publications. He tweets Congressional hearings, which is a great service to people like me who usually don’t listen to the whole thing. The House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing today on the FY22 budget request. Charles Verdon, the nominated Administrator for the NNSA, the part of the Department of Energy that is responsible for nuclear weapons, testified. The nuclear arsenal is getting old, and there has been a plan to remake the plutonium cores (pits) for some nuclear weapons. That would be done at the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility, PF-4, and at a repurposed plant at Savannah River, Georgia.

Verdon said that the Savanna River plant won’t be ready for several years and will cost a lot more than has been projected. He also said that PF-4 won’t ever be able to produce 80 pits a year. Here’s Leone’s summary of a long thread:

This is the first time that the NNSA administrator has admitted that the big talk about pit production is just that – talk. It’s significant that the Biden administration is saying this; it may pave the way for a different sort of talks between the US and Russia. And maybe China, if they ever become willing to talk.

I find both of these stories amazing. I’ll be interested to see which news media pick them up. You read them here first.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Rolling The Credulous

There’s a lot of shouting right now about whether SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some of the more partisan shouting is that Donald Trump and his minions were right last year to “consider” a lab leak. They were right last year in the sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Yes, they mentioned that possibility, embedded in claims that the virus was a bioweapon and the overwhelming motivation to blame China to take the focus off Trump’s inability to deal with the pandemic.

The virologists I follow have kept a lab leak as a possibility all along. I haven’t followed this story closely until now because

  1. The most important story has been dealing with the spread of the pandemic and
  2. We are not likely to know how the virus got into humans for a long time.

The probability that most scientists (including me) assigned to the possible origins was bioweapon 0%, once the genome was analyzed and showed no telltale signs of human-caused rearrangements; transmission from animals to humans, most likely because that’s how we’ve gotten most of our diseases; and lab leak possible but unlikely because accidents happen but people handling viruses take precautions against leaks.

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Targeting Veterans With Disinformation

There’s plenty of disinformation out there, from plenty of sources. Often it is aimed at particular demographic groups. Vietnam Veterans of America became concerned about disinformation targeted at veterans and went to the Veterans Affairs and Defense Departments to ask for help. They didn’t get any. VVA has since prepared a detailed report and testified to Congress.

Kristofer Goldsmith has done much of the organization’s investigating. An in-depth portrait of him here. Read More

McFaul On Disinformation

Started, they have, the disinformation wars.

Michael McFaul, the US Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, warns us that the disinformation will be flowing thick and fast during the impeachment trial. He points out three tactics:

  1. Deny facts
  2. Deflect attention, also known as “whataboutism”
  3. Disseminate lies

The net of all this is to make us feel that nothing matters, that there is no such thing as truth. Watch for Republicans to do this and for it to be amplified by bots and trolls (my collective term for automated and other troublemakers) on social media, the unthinking media, and your friends and relatives.

Don’t let the argument degenerate to “Well, that’s your opinion.” There are facts, and we need to keep pounding them.

Also, read the whole thing.

Amateurs Take Down Disinformation Network

On Twitter, one of the people I follow and interact with is Steffan Watkins, who follows ships and airplanes. Many sites follow ships and airplanes, and Steffan follows those sites to make sense out of who and what are going where. For example, Steffan knew a government plane was on its way long before we were told that President Trump was in Afghanistan.

He has recently been debunking stories about Russian ships and submarines off the east coast of the United States. This is a perennial story and is sometimes even true! Just as American ships and submarines do, Russian ships travel in many places in international waters. What they don’t do is dock at Mar-a-Lago.

Some of those stories come from real reporters who don’t understand what’s going on and repeat a version of something that is true but trivial. Sometimes their stories are based on dodgy websites that deliver deliberate disinformation, laundered through repetition and rumor.

Steffan doggedly checks out those news stories and sets them straight. That usually means that he debunks them, but occasionally he says yes, that Russian ship is off the coast in international waters on a normal patrol. Not once has he found the more sensational stories to be supported.

That’s what he was doing a couple of weeks ago and found a website that consistently was producing junk news stories and stealing stuff from other sites. They also advertised Trump merchandise.

That intrigued a couple of Israeli hackers, Noam Rotem and Ran Locar, who decided to check the website out. That link has all the detail for the more computer-savvy among us. Here’s their bottom line:

We found a network of dozens of websites operated by an affiliate marketer. Some of the websites pushed pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake-news meant to use patriotism in order to sell unofficial Trump merch to Trump supporters. The technical aspects of the operation allowed us full visibility into not only the operators, but also the unwitting customers.

Many of the web addresses were registered by the same person, identified as Jackson Lin, through a company called Extreme Wisdom. Another company linked to some of the sites is Alabama company Click Wu LLC. They have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on Facebook. The pages have been taken down from Facebook.

Although Rotem and Locar say the motivation is money, it could be that or disinformation or both. It’s part of the stream of junk that flows through social media. It’s particularly  encouraging that a bunch of amateurs exposed it. Now I’d like to see a bigger news operation take it up.

For the rest of us? Be careful what you share or retweet. Know your sources.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Disinformation Is Coming To A Computer Near You

With the 2020 election coming up, we can expect plenty of disinformation in our news feeds. Disinformation originates in many places – Russia and homegrown United States. It filters up into what we would like to think of as reliable news sources. Those sources, because of their desire to believe that “both sides” have equal claim to truth, can be manipulated.

I’ll continue to post about recognizing that disinformation, because it’s up to all of us to make sure that what we’re sharing is truthful.

The New York Times has a big article from Josh Owens, who worked for Infowars and now says he regrets it. Another article, on Britain’s struggle with Russia over the poisoning, on British soil, of two people with a nerve agent by Russians, contains information about how the Russians use disinformation.

The Times article depicts Alex Jones as violent and demanding that his employees generate outrageously fear-producing stories. Nothing that Infowars touches should be considered reliable. Respectable news organizations should trace stories to their origins and reject anything that has been pushed by Infowars unless it has completely independent backing.

One of the stories Infowars pushed was that Fukushima radiation was showing up on the west coast of the United States. The responsible media dealt reasonably well with that, although it took some time. Here’s what the Washington Post reported in 2014. But I also saw (and debunked) a lot of sharing on social media of maps that weren’t of radiation levels and the dramatic video of radiation measurements on a California beach.

Russian and Republican disinformation flood the zone with alternative stories, designed to turn people off by making it too difficult to figure out what’s right so that people give up. “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.”

After the Skripals were poisoned and the British government began putting out information to its citizens, the Russian government jumped in, attacking the British information for apparent contradictions and offering up multiple explanations of the incident. The point was to make people doubt their own government. The Atlantic article lays this out in full detail for the Skripal incident.

What can you do?

First, stop thinking “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.” I know it’s cool to be cynical, but in doing that, you’re giving up your ability to think critically and make good choices and probably helping to muddy the waters for others.

Second, know who supplied the material you’re sharing on social media. Most of us don’t have time or aren’t set up to trace material back to its Russian or Infowars roots. So if you don’t know that the material came from a reliable source, don’t share it. Just don’t.

Third, if you’re concerned about something you’ve seen, check with an expert. Snopes fact-checks many of the memes you may see. Washington Post has a fact-check column. FactCheck.org is another good resource. You can ask me about science-related stuff.

There is such a thing as fact. You can find it. Or at least avoid spreading disinformation.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Disinformation Watch: The Open Skies Treaty

Some weird stuff has popped up in my Twitter feed this week. Fortunately, I follow experts who are trying to figure it out.

Steffan Watkins is a Canadian who follows ships and planes via the internet. If you like that sort of thing, I recommend you follow him. He is also very sensitive to disinformation and occasionally given to lectures about it. He is very knowledgeable about the Open Skies Treaty.

The Open Skies Treaty (text, fact sheet) allows the nations that have signed it to fly observation planes over other signatories’ territory. It’s an arms control treaty in that it allows nations to follow up on suspicions or just keep an eye on each other. It says nothing about numbers of weapons. The simple fact that nations are open to each other in this way builds trust, which is needed to negotiate on more difficult subjects. Read More

PSA – Mushroom Clouds Are Not Necessarily Nuclear

There have been two notable explosions in Russia this past week.

  1. An arms storage depot exploded at Achinsk, near Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. Every summer, a couple of arms storage depots explode in Russia. They have a lot of them, and their safety measures leave something to be desired. Explosions have continued for a week. Once they start, it’s dangerous to fight the fire that started them and continues. Better to evacuate the area (which has been done) and let the burning and exploding continue until there’s nothing left.

This event has produced some impressive video. Because of the relative humidity, you can see the shock wave as water in the air condenses and evaporates rapidly. Mushroom-shaped clouds have resulted. Large enough explosions, whether conventional or nuclear, produce mushroom clouds. Mushroom clouds are not a marker for a nuclear explosion. Read More