Nord Stream, Seymour Hersh and how disinformation works
Did the United States blow up the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea? Spoiler: I don’t know.
And Seymour Hersh, a well known U.S. investigative journalist who made the claim last week, has managed to ensure that we may never know the truth. Hersh’s story is a case study in modern-day disinformation.
Published on Substack, a newsletter platform, the piece blew up like…well a bomb under a pipeline, claiming that the Americans conducted a secret operation last September to destroy Russia’s primary means of exporting its natural gas to Germany and the rest of Europe. Hersh’s apparently juicy scoop described a military operation that amounted to an act of war against both Russia and Germany, and was conducted with the full knowledge and active cooperation from the Norwegian government.
Oslo dismissed the accusations, Washington rejected them as “utterly false and complete fiction,” and much of my own journalistic bubble reacted with an equivalent of a collective digital eye-roll.
A Pulitzer-winning journalist, Hersh has in recent years developed a reputation for questionable reporting. Now he once again produced an exclusive that was full of holes: he made scandalous allegations, but based them on a single source. He told a coherent story, but lacked a smoking gun. The verdict was clear: Hersh’s explosive investigation was self-published, because it would never get past an editor?
But if we just dismiss Hersh’s story as bad journalism, we risk missing its impact.
The story, tossed aside as not rigorous enough by many in mainstream policy and journalism circles, metastasized elsewhere, spread by Russian propagandists, American leftists and conservatives (“So many details in here, that it is not possible that it’s not true. It is true!” declared Tucker Carlson), Indian and Chinese outlets, Edward Snowden, Sky News Australia and even publications like the Times of London have picked it up. And I am naming only a few.
Those who didn’t pick up the original story, like Al Jazeera, reported on the Russian reaction to it. (In case you are wondering, Russians agreed with Hersh). We will never know who Hersh’s single, anonymous source on this story was, but in the end, the product bears all the hallmarks of disinformation.
“This is how disinfo 101 works,” says Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York. “A piece is published, it triggers a reaction. Media then reports on the reaction, further extending the lifespan of that original piece.”
The result: millions of people around the world now believe that the United States conducted an act of war against Russia. Even though they haven’t seen any actual proof.
And millions more who will one day hear the allegation and google “Nord Stream pipeline” will find themselves lost in the avalanche of information that will either confirm their pre-existing biases or just confuse them further. Either way, truth and nuance are lost in the noise. Disinformation wins.
It is a poignant sign of the weirdness of our era, that this disinformation tale centers around one of the great legends of American journalism.
I remember my first, brief meeting with Seymour Hersh in Beirut in 2009. I was based there for the BBC, while he regularly came through the city on his way to Damascus, where he socialized with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his family. I remember being taken aback by how close he seemed to the Assads, but starstruck nevertheless. Hersh was a hero, whose dogged, brave, incredibly smart reporting exposed the My Lai massacre by U.S. troops in Vietnam, a number of Pentagon cover-ups and revelations of U.S. torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
But by the time the Syrian civil war sent shockwaves through the Middle East, Hersh’s relationship with the Assads seemed to affect his journalism. In Syria’s ugly, bloody civil war, he took the dictator’s side, claiming — against all existing evidence — that it was the rebels and not the regime who used sarin gas in chemical attacks. Unlike Hersh’s investigations into America’s chemical warfare in the 1960s, his Syria reporting seemed to be based on his assumption that the U.S. government lies, rather than witnesses or evidence.
In 2012, the New Yorker ended its decades-long relationship with Hersh, refusing to publish a piece about the death of Osama Bin Laden that challenged the official narrative. “We tried and tried, but it just doesn’t check out,” a friend, an editor at the New Yorker who was involved, told me at the time.
A couple of years later, I saw Hersh at a journalism conference in Barcelona. He sounded bitter and disillusioned as he addressed the crowd and there was an awkward moment when he got booed for making a toxic remark about women in journalism. I was surprised — there was never a hint of any sexism in my personal interactions with him.
Later that day, I watched reporters from Russia Today, Sputnik and some Arabic media outlets line up to interview Hersh in the corridor. It looked like he had found his new crowd.
THE BIG PICTURE
We may never know all the details that led Hersh down this particular path. What led Hersh from being a hero of American accountability journalism to being a darling of dictators and their propaganda channels. It is a mystery to me how exposing the lies of his own government led Hersh to forget that other governments lie too.
But, in some ways, the details of Hersh’s journey don’t matter. What matters are the details of how his now self-published stories travel through the digital information network and help create the global mood music.
Hersh’s story illuminates the extraordinary power that platforms like Substack have when it comes to infecting public opinion with bad information. Tow Center’s Emily Bell believes Substack is particularly problematic because it hosts plenty of credible journalists and is “perceived as a legitimizing platform.”
Substack prides itself on its hands-off approach to content and it has faced some backlash for refusing to tackle the misinformation and hate speech being published on the platform. But Substack mostly flies completely under the radar of any discussion about platform regulation. It shows why current regulatory efforts focused on particular platforms are a whack-a-mole game that aspiring regulators are bound to lose. The damage being done though is permanent.
Objectively, the blowing up of the pipelines continues to be a mystery. Questions about the incident have not been answered. Still, different versions of history have already been written, and millions of minds have already been made up. “By the time the truth comes out, whether corroborated or debunked, there is a good chance no one will care,” says Emily Bell.
Before you despair about the state of the world, here’s the good news: this tale of Seymour Hersh’s Substack is also a reminder of, and testimony to, the power of the journalistic process. For all the millions spent on debunking and combating disinformation, one solution is the good, old-fashioned journalistic process — use multiple sources; attribute quotes whenever possible; and question everything.
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