Russia has attacked the West in an undeclared Alternative War. (More)

This week I’ll review J.J. Patrick’s frightening book Alternative War. Today we’ll see how the European Union, NATO, United Kingdom, and U.S. are under attack in an ongoing Russian ‘hybrid war’ campaign. Tomorrow we’ll explore whether and how the West can fight back.

J.J. Patrick was a British police officer for 10 years, until he was forced out after exposing the manipulation of crime statistics by the Metropolitan Police, for which he was commended by the British Parliament. He is now an independent journalist for Byline, based in the U.K.

“Sweden, who would believe this?”

J.J. Patrick’s investigation of World War III began with the God-King’s bizarre claim in a February, 2017 rally in Florida:

We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.

In fact nothing noteworthy had happened in Sweden the night before the God-King’s speech. But something had happened on Fox News: Tucker Carlson interviewed filmmaker Ami Horowitz, who claimed Muslim immigration had set off a crime wave in Sweden. Horowitz’s film was quickly debunked as the police officers he featured revealed that he recut their responses to entirely different questions than those presented in his film.

But crime statistics were Patrick’s wheelhouse. In blowing the whistle on the Metropolitan Police’s manipulation of such data, Patrick triggered a parliamentary inquiry that led to an official commendation, although the Met still forced him to resign.

So he took neither the official Swedish crime data nor Horowitz’s claims at face value. Instead, he went to Sweden to meet with local cops, criminologists, and ordinary citizens in the very Malmö neighborhoods that Horowitz said were overrun with immigrant-driven crime.

Yes, the police and criminologists agreed, the crime rates were higher in the public housing areas where many immigrants lived. But those immigrants were disproportionately young and disproportionately male, relative to Swedes as a whole. They were also likely to be unemployed, because Malmö had transformed from a working class port to a high-tech university city and the immigrants did not yet have the skills to find work in Malmö’s new economy. After controlling for youth, sex, and unemployment – both police and academics explained – the crime rate among immigrants was on par with that among native Swedes.

Moreover, the crime rate in Malmö was very low, compared to the British cities where Patrick had served as a cop. Those public housing projects were also better-maintained than in Britain, and parents in the projects felt safe letting their children play outside without supervision … unlike many suburban British parents.

In short, the answer to the God-King’s question – “Sweden, who would believe this?” – should be no one.

Yet millions of people in the U.S., Britain, and across Europe did believe it. Patrick wondered why … and exploring that question led him down a rabbit hole and into a frightening discovery:

World War III had already begun, and the West was under attack … from Russia.

“Russia is using multiple instruments of power and influence, with an emphasis on nonmilitary tools, to pursue its national interests outside its borders”

RAND Corporation analyst Christopher Chivvis explained the term “hybrid warfare” in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in March of 2017:

As used today in reference to Russia, “hybrid warfare” refers to Moscow’s use of a broad range of subversive instruments, many of which are nonmilitary, to further Russian national interests. Moscow seeks to use hybrid warfare to ensure compliance on a number of specific policy questions; to divide and weaken NATO; to subvert pro-Western governments; to create pretexts for war; to annex territory; and to ensure access to European markets on its own terms.

Experts use the term “hybrid warfare” in different ways. Several related terms are now in use, including “gray zone strategies,” “competition short of conflict,” “active measures,” and “new generation warfare.” Despite subtle differences, all these terms point to the same thing: Russia is using multiple instruments of power and influence, with an emphasis on nonmilitary tools, to pursue its national interests outside its borders—often at the expense of U.S. interests and those of U.S. allies.

The deeper Patrick dug, the more he unearthed a bafflingly complex network of propaganda campaigns, cyberwarfare attacks on infrastructure and elections, infiltration of political parties and interest groups, and crimes ranging from illegal campaign gifts to money- and data-laundering to assassination and even terrorism.

Some were buried in layers of “deniable assets,” from mobsters to Wikileaks to co-opted politicians and journalists. Others were out in plain sight: propaganda outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik News, public comments by Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, Nigel Farage and other Brexit leaders, and of course the God-King’s own speeches and tweets.

And as Patrick pressed on, he found evidence of direct actions by Russian intelligence – now corroborated by private sector analysts and official investigations in Europe, Britain, and the U.S.

Viral story or story-virus?

A bare list of Patrick’s findings would fill an entire article. Indeed his written testimony submitted to the British Parliament, European Union Parliament, and the FBI runs 70 pages. It’s worth your time to read it in full.

Patrick discusses the spread of “fake news” – false stories seeded by Russian state media or co-opted journalists that spread into the mainstream media. But he never quite explains why Russia’s “fake news” factories have been so successful, especially in the U.S.

For that you need to understand how U.S. newsrooms work, starting with a crucial fact reported just this week by Pew Research:

Newsroom employment across the United States continues to decline, driven primarily by job losses at newspapers. And even though digital-native news outlets have experienced some recent growth in employment, too few newsroom positions were added to make up for recent losses in the broader industry, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics survey data.

From 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23%. In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers and videographers – worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services” (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2017, that number declined to about 88,000, a loss of about 27,000 jobs.

This decline in overall newsroom employment was driven primarily by one sector: newspapers. Newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45% over the period, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017.

With such drastic staff cuts, editors and producers must parse out reporters carefully. To help them do that, most newsrooms now rely on services like Chartbeat, NewsWhip, and similar tools to monitor both their own traffic and the day’s ‘hot’ stories:

In a 2010 New Yorker profile, founder and CEO of Gawker Media Nick Denton argued, “probably the biggest change in Internet media isn’t the immediacy of it, or the low costs, but the measurability.”

What does all this data mean for the production of news? In the earlier days of web analytics, editorial metrics had both enthusiastic proponents and impassioned detractors. Nowadays the prevailing view is that metrics aren’t, by definition, good or bad for journalism. Rather, the thinking goes, it all depends what is measured: Some metrics, like page views, incentivize the production of celebrity slide shows and other vapid content, while others, like time on a page, reward high-quality journalism. Still, there are some who doubt that even so-called “engagement metrics” can peacefully coexist with (let alone bolster) journalistic values.

Moreover, these tools have moved from merely tracking what’s ‘hot’ to predicting what will go viral:

Analytics-based strategies are a recent phenomenon in the world of storytelling and NewsWhip is far from the only company deriving insights from data for publishers. From Chartbeat to CrowdTangle, there are dozens of companies offering services and software focused on monitoring social platforms to measure what goes viral. Some news organizations, like The New York Times, employ data scientists to find out how best to leverage data on their readers. But by employing the latest methods from data science, [NewsWhip CEO Paul] Quigley believes, companies like NewsWhip may be able to figure out why stories go viral.
[…]
At WhipSmart, he told attendees that “we can now analyze social data and see the patterns” and that data will help answer basic but fundamental mysteries surrounding content creation and distribution. Which stories and topics reporters should cover, for example, or what formats newsrooms should employ, he said. Or what devices should become priorities and what networks companies should be on. Those are some of the questions the billions of data points will allow publishers to answer.

This data analysis includes how users help spread stories through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, as well as by emails sent through a site’s own share functions.

“It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire.”

That kind of story-sharing behavior was also part of the personal data that Cambridge Analytica were scooping up on hundreds of millions of people in the U.S., Britain, and Europe, as the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr reported:

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”

Was that really what you called it, I ask him. Psychological warfare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would anyone want to intern with a psychological warfare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

Part of that “crazy shit,” it turns out, was creating sophisticated profiles that predicted what kinds of stories were likely to resonate for a given person … and how often that person would share such stories with friends.

Russian intelligence agencies used that same data to set up “troll farms” where employees crafted stories to fit different profiles, targeting people who would pass the stories along. By sending links to a few thousand carefully-selected targets, these “troll farms” could reliably generate precisely the kind of buzz that services like Chartbeat and NewsWhip are designed to detect …

… and newsroom editors and producers felt compelled to cover the stories, if only to debunk them. And studies have shown that debunking often backfires to reinforce rather than dispel the disinformation.

So what seemed like a ‘viral story’ might actually be an engineered story-virus, set loose by well-trained Russian intelligence agencies who knew how to take advantage of our media’s vulnerabilities.

Putin’s goals are to break up the European Union and NATO, isolate the U.S., and undermine public trust in elections and other democratic institutions. Tomorrow we’ll hone in on why he wants to do that … and how Western governments can fight back.

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Illustration: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)

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Good day and good nuts