At a glance.

  • A market failure in the marketplace of ideas.
  • A shifting narrative of casus belli and war aims.
  • Media organizations targeted by state actors.

A market failure in the marketplace of ideas.

Crowdsourcing of the kind wikis use, and that are especially on display in the biggest wiki of them all, Wikipedia, has come to be seen as an online version of the marketplace of ideas that classical liberals saw as the best route to a consensus that would approximate objective truth. Wikipedia in particular has acquired a good reputation, with fact checkers rating it as generally more even somewhat accurate than traditionally refereed reference works.

But that marketplace can have its own market failures. Vice has an account of one such failure. It’s an outlier, but it’s an interesting cautionary tale that suggests some of the limitations of crowdsourcing. “A Chinese woman spent years writing alternative accounts of medieval Russian history on Chinese Wikipedia, conjuring imaginary states, battles, and aristocrats in one of the largest hoaxes on the open-source platform.” Since 2019 the writer, Zhemao, had posted more than two-hundred articles that amounted to an elaborately cross-referenced and interlocking, lengthy work of historical fiction, authoritative and sober in tone, and carefully documented. The documentation was to a large extent bogus, but that wasn’t noticed until a novelist, Yifan, who’d come across one of her stories and found it interesting and compelling source material for a work of fiction tried to track down some of the references. They didn’t track, and others drawn to the writings soon exposed an elaborate fraud.

“When surveying new content, we only check whether it is blatant plagiarism and if it has proper sources,” Yeh Youchia, a volunteer editor who “patrols” entries told Vice, adding, “She [Zhemao] understood the format of Wikipedia very well and provided sources that were very difficult to verify.” Editors normally assume good faith on the part of writers. In this case that assumption was misplaced. Zhemao not only created a world, but created at least four contributor sock-puppets as well. She interacted with these, sometimes contentiously, to lend verisimilitude to her efforts.

Her motivation was interesting. She didn’t do it for gain, or for any political purpose, or at the behest of any government or organization. She did it because she was bored. Her husband traveled a lot and she had time on her hands. She’s published a letter of apology in which she describes herself as someone with a high-school education and no working knowledge of either Russian or English. “The hoax started with an innocuous intention. Unable to comprehend scholarly articles in their original language, she pieced sentences together with a translation tool and filled in the blanks with her own imagination.”

We don’t see any good alternatives to the marketplace of ideas insofar as public discourse is concerned, but markets do sometimes fail. Zhemao says she’s resolved to learn a trade and not engage in fakery any more. We hope someone can hire her as a writer.

A shifting narrative of casus belli and war aims.

Or, as Moscow prefers to say, not a war, but a “special military operation.”

In an interview with RIA Novosti, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that NATO’s provision of artillery to Ukrainian forces had caused Russia to expand its territorial objectives beyond the Donbas and into the southern regions along the Black Sea. Russia cannot, he said, tolerate long-range weapons in the hands of the Ukrainian government, as these threaten Russian territory. (The AP offers a summary of the rocket and cannon systems NATO members have shipped to Ukraine, and of the effect those systems are having on the battlefield. The rocket launchers have been HIMARS and MLRS; the cannons have been a variety of 155mm gun-howitzers. While the cannons come from different countries–the US, France, and Germany–they all fire standard NATO ammunition.) Thus the expansion of the war is NATO’s fault, again. The New York Times has a useful, brief account of Moscow’s shifting justifications for its war, and of the ways in which those justifications have been trimmed to fit battlefield realities:

“Russian officials have given varying — at times contradictory — accounts of their war aims. But Western officials have always scoffed at Moscow’s claims that its invasion is anything less than an act of expansion — an attempt to reclaim territory lost with the fall of the Soviet Union — and on Wednesday, even as Europe baked in a heat wave for the record books, they made clear that a winter of war lay ahead, warning of energy shortages and urging solidarity…. In a speech announcing the commencement of the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, Mr. Putin claimed that Russia did not intend to occupy the country or ‘impose anything on anyone by force.’ Moscow wanted simply to ‘demilitarize’ a neighbor it viewed as a threat, he said. He cited the danger of NATO missiles stationed in Ukraine and aimed at Russia — though Ukraine is not a NATO member and no such missiles are on its soil.”

Russia is finding that persuasion is inherently more difficult to achieve than confusion: getting an audience to believe a particular story is harder than simply darkening counsel. Russian operators have excelled at the latter, but are falling short at the former. Inconsistency doesn’t matter much when you’re aiming at disruption, but it renders the construction of a positive narrative much shakier.

Inconsistency apart, an essay in the Wilson Quarterly argues that Russia has another problem as well: the Ukrainian “counternarrative.” It’s partly a matter of Ukraine’s content (and that content’s general allegiance to facts is an important advantage), its policy (tolerance and even encouragement of “citizen journalism,” and a willingness to forsake the close and comprehensive control of messaging to which Moscow aspires), and its style. President Zelenskyy’s facility as a speaker, the casual style he and the members of his government affect, and the regularity and ease with which they communicate have made a significant contribution to the success of Kyiv’s messaging, internationally. Casual trousers and a t-shirt make a better wartime impression than does an expensive suit surrounded by an elaborately beribboned Ruritanian guard.

Media organizations targeted by state actors.

Late last Thursday Proofpoint released a study of recent activity by state actors directed against media organizations. The researchers find that China, North Korea, Turkey, and Iran have been particularly active in prospecting media organizations. “Proofpoint researchers have observed APT actors since early 2021 regularly targeting and posing as journalists and media organizations to advance their state-aligned collection requirements and initiatives.” Journalists’ social media accounts have been of particular interest to the threat groups. Proofpoint suggested that all organizations, not just media outlets, try to arrive at some clarity concerning which of their people are most likely to receive this sort of attention, and that they tailor their training and other protective measures appropriately.

BleepingComputer describes the attempts as preparatory activity intended to serve broader espionage campaigns: “The adversaries are either masquerading or attacking these targets because they have unique access to non-public information that could help expand a cyberespionage operation.” Their efforts include both spoofing and credit-harvesting.

Forbes sought advice from Proofpoint for media outlets and working journalists. “’There are a number of ways journalists can protect themselves from APT attacks,’ Sherrod DeGrippo, Proofpoint vice president of threat research and detection, told me. ‘One is for journalists and their associated outlets to understand their overall level of risk. For example, we have seen targeted attacks against academics and foreign policy experts, particularly those working on Middle Eastern foreign affairs, so individuals in this line of work should be particularly cautious. Another is if journalists are going to use email addresses outside of their corporate domain, such as Gmail or ProtonMail, they should list those publicly on their website so public sources can verify whether or not it’s a legitimate email. Conversely, experts approached by journalists should check the journalist’s website to see if the email address belongs to the journalist.’”

The motivation of such operations varies. Espionage is one obvious goal. But so is influence, the ability to plant and amplify stories. Proofpoint concludes: “Targeting journalists and media organizations is not novel. APT actors, regardless of their state affiliation, have and will likely always have a mandate to target journalists and media organizations and will use associated personas to further their objectives and collection priorities. From intentions to gather sensitive information to attempts to manipulate public perceptions, the knowledge and access that a journalist or news outlet can provide is unique in the public space. Targeting the media sector also lowers the risk of failure or discovery to an APT actor than going after other, more hardened targets of interest, such as government entities.”