Monday, August 1, 2016

Politifact Uses Sneaky Language (and Sneakier Punctuation) to Present Speculation as Fact in DNC Breach

Yesterday, Politifact's Lauren Carroll released an article entitled "What we know about Russia's role in the DNC email leak." The purpose of the article is to make speculation seem more factual than it is.

Carroll is an artful writer who knows how to create the illusion of objectivity by placing almost all (but not quite all) of her quoted material within quotation marks. She also understands how balanced it makes her article seem for her to begin and end with arguments (one from Julian Assange and the other from Jeffrey Carr) that challenge its preconceived conclusion.

Carroll certainly seems meticulous in the presentation of her evidence with paragraphs such as this one:
"The consensus that Russia hacked the DNC is at this point, very strong, albeit not unanimous," said cybersecurity consultant Matt Tait, who has been critical of Clinton's email practices. "The consensus that Russia hacked the DNC in support of Trump is, by contrast, plausible, but something for which the jury at this stage is very much still out."
Did you notice all the signifiers of non-partisan objectivity? First, Tait is no shameless Clinton surrogate, since he dares to be critical of her patently careless email practices. Second, he admits that the consensus about Russia's guilt isn't unanimous. And third, he is positively eager to concede the point that even if Russia is responsible for the DNC breach, that doesn't mean the purpose of the hack was to support Trump in the election (which suggests that asking "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is more reasonable than asking "Have you stopped beating your wife for her bad singing voice?" because the former question doesn't foreclose possible answers with as much specificity as the latter).

Caroll is equally artful in her construction of this paragraph:
The U.S. government is not ready to publicly name the suspected perpetrators behind the DNC hack, but the New York Times has reported that intelligence agencies have "high confidence" regarding the Russian government's involvement.
See what she did there? She's a responsible journalist who recognizes and maintains distinctions between the accusations of private cybersecurity companies (such as CrowdStrike) and the findings of official government intelligence agencies. But she also wants her readers to know that even though she can't say the U.S. government blames Russia for the attack, the New York Times says it (which is analogous to the argument that Clinton campaign chairman Robby Mook used to support his redbaiting analysis of the breach on CNN on July 24th: "This isn't my assertion; there are a number of experts that are asserting this").

However, Carroll is at her most artful not when she couches quotations in slanted ways, but when she eschews quotation marks entirely so as to blur her own voice (the voice of a presumably disinterested journalist) with the voice of her interviewees (some of whom are shameless partisan shills):
Translation: The agencies have likely corroborated the technical evidence with other intelligence, like human or financial sources, said Susan Hennessey, a Brookings Institution fellow and a former lawyer for the National Security Agency.
As of yet, there’s no evidence anyone other than Russia breached the DNC. So unless someone hacked the Russian agencies, the Russian government is likely WikiLeaks’ source, Hennessey said. Additionally, Assange and the Russian government have a well-documented relationship, for example the fact that Assange has hosted a television show on RT, a state-owned network. [Emphasis added.]
Just look at the first sentence of that second paragraph (the one in bold type), and ask yourself what effect it's likely to have on most readers skimming through the article. It completely dispenses with the question of whether Russia is behind the DNC breach by wondering only whether any other entities might also have participated. And the absence of quotation marks doesn't even warn readers that the incredibly lazy logic of such an argument belongs to Susan Hennessey rather than Lauren Carroll--not until they reach the end of the next sentence (which some skimmers never do).

The most positive thing I can say about Carroll's article is that it at least mentions Jeffrey Carr, whose "Can Facts Slow The DNC Breach Runaway Train?" is the single most cogent analysis of the DNC breach written from the perspective of someone with the relevant technological expertise.

I can't say the Politifact article is bad because it's actually a brilliant example of propaganda. Carroll has chops as a writer; she knows better than to try to jam an argument down her readers' throats without first coating it in FD&C Yellow #34 (a synthetic coloring and flavorizer designed by muckrakers to make arguments taste more objective than they are). So read the Politifact article if you want to know what the corporate media wants you to think about the DNC breach.

But read Carr's article if you want reasoned, relevant analysis.

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