Saturday, October 05, 2019

Debunking the conspiracy theories: A handy list

Trump's only hope is to keep repeating his conspiracy theories about the Biden family and Crowdstrike (the security firm which originally identified Russia as the party that hacked the Dems). If you need to argue with a dunderhead who buys into these deranged claims, here's a handy list of resources. It's one-stop-shopping for fans of facts, so bookmark this page!

Crowdstrike. The Trumpers have wedded themselves to a simple narrative:  A private cybersecurity firm called Crowdstrike identified Russia as a bad actor in 2016. If that firm can be smeared, Trump can pretend that Russia is innocent. This, despite the fact that Russia's culpability was confirmed by American intelligence.

The proponents of this line of unthinking want you to believe that the DNC servers were actually in Ukraine (!) and that the Democrats hacked themselves.

I'm ashamed that we even have to talk about such an absurd idea. I'm also ashamed to admit that millions of Americans still think that aliens crashed at Roswell. Alas, we live in a country where the silliest ideas tend to be the most durable.

The Crowdstrike conspiracy theory has been pushed by Sputnik and by writers friendly to Russia and/or the Alt Right. To debunk this theory, start with the video embedded above, then check out the following articles.

From the New York Times: "How a Fringe Theory About Ukraine Took Root in the White House." 
“Ukraine is the perfect scapegoat for him, because it’s the enemy of Russia,” said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who regularly visits Ukraine and is writing a book called “How to Lose the Information War.”
In the 27 months between Mr. Trump’s two citations of the CrowdStrike-Ukraine conspiracy theory, it has survived despite many denials from CrowdStrike, the F.B.I. and people directly involved in the investigations. It has survived despite the fact that the D.N.C. put one of its hacked servers on display — not in Ukraine but in its Washington offices beside the filing cabinet pried open in 1972 by the Watergate burglars (and a photo of the two artifacts ran on The Times’s front page). It has survived despite the indictment prepared last year by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, laying out in extraordinary detail the actions of 12 named Russian military intelligence officers who hacked the D.N.C. and other election targets.

The speculation springs from what Mr. Trump has called a “big Dem scam” — the false notion that the F.B.I. never really investigated the D.N.C. hack. In fact, according to people directly involved, CrowdStrike was in regular contact with the bureau in spring 2016 as it examined dozens of servers used by both the D.N.C. and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
From Axios: "Breaking down the Trump-Ukraine memo's CrowdStrike conspiracy"
President Trump has expressed distrust in the firm by name since at least 2017, when he told AP he "heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian."

CrowdStrike is not owned by a very rich Ukrainian. It's a U.S. firm, now publicly traded, built on U.S. venture capital.

There is, however, a right-wing conspiracy attempting to show that founder Dmitri Alperovitch, who was a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in 2016, was somehow compromised by Ukrainian businessman and Atlantic Council donor Victor Pinchuk.

It's a half-baked theory. In 2015, for example, Pinchuk donated $150,000 to the Trump Foundation.
NBC: "Trump seized on a conspiracy theory called the 'insurance policy.' Now, it's at the center of an impeachment investigation."
An anonymous post from March 2017 on the far-right 4chan message board teased a conspiracy theory that would eventually make its way to the White House.

“Russia could not have been the source of leaked Democrat emails released by Wikileaks,” the post teased, not citing any evidence for the assertion.
And that was how it started. That post is the first known written evidence of this unfounded conspiracy theory to exonerate Russia from meddling in the 2016 election, which more than two years later would make its way into the telephone call that may get President Donald Trump impeached. (Federal law enforcement officials have repeatedly made it clear that Russia unquestionably did meddle in the election.)
To even people who have followed these theories closely, Trump’s call felt detached from any sense of logic.

“It’s a whole new mountain of nonsense,” said Duncan Campbell, a British digital forensics expert who investigated the original claim about CrowdStrike.
Buzzfeed zooms out for the wide picture. "Donald Trump Is Stuck In A Human Centipede Of Boomer Memes."
This week, we learned that Trump and Attorney General William Barr investigated three pieces of “Russiagate." The conspiracy theory maps out an intricate machinery of blather, but here is the core: In 2016, the Democrats faked the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s servers to frame Russia so as to make Trump’s presidential win look illegitimate. In the years since, it has spiraled out into a tangled paranoid contraption involving state-sponsored killings, pedophile sex rings, and even, in some cases, demonic sacrifice.

Within this vast conspiracy, Trump and Barr have latched on to three specific elements that circulate among right-wing blogs, pro-Trump subreddits, and white nationalist message boards — namely the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, and Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud.
Toward the end of 2017, reacting to new information surfacing from FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation, Russiagate splintered in a few directions. The QAnon movement, which claims Trump and the US military are, via 4chan, slowly leaking their plans to arrest every Democrat and free the country from the Deep State, is obviously the most fantastical offshoot, but another wave has seemed to have more resonance with the president.
The Dutch angle. When the Russians were doing their dirty work, the Dutch watched 'em do it -- in real time, as it happened. In other words, Crowdstrike wasn't the sole party responsible for identifying the Russians.

The NSA also verified Russian involvement. Lying about Crowdstrike won't make the truth go away. Our own NSA verified that Russia hacked the electoral process. In fact, the entire American intelligence apparat stands behind the identification of Russia as the culprit.

* * *

And now let's look at the Biden allegations. As a moment's thought will tell you, if there were anything to these nonsensical claims, Biden's Democratic rivals would have pounced. Anti-Biden progressive voices would not hesitate to use this material. I'm thinking primarily of Joy Reid, although truth be told, I suspect that every host on MSNBC would prefer Warren or Sanders or Harris. Those MSNBCers would all like to take down Biden -- but not this way.

Burisma. Here's some background info on the company that Hunter Biden worked for. 
In fact, Burisma and its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, did not get any exceptional treatment. The prosecutor Biden singled out in 2016, Viktor Shokin, failed to make any high-level corruption convictions — as did Yuriy Lutsenko, his successor. At the time, Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and other Western governments joined Biden in his criticism of Shokin, and Ukrainian prosecutors have said there is no indication that Hunter Biden did anything wrong.

On Friday, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, Ukraine's newly appointed chief prosecutor, told reporters his office will review all investigations shelved by his predecessors, including those involving Burisma and Zlochevsky. Those investigations were into activities that took place before Hunter Biden joined the board in 2014.
From the New Yorker: "The Invention of the Conspiracy Theory on Biden and Ukraine."
A pivotal source of the allegations against the Bidens, for instance, is the Government Accountability Institute, a Florida-based opposition-research operation that was founded by the former Trump political adviser Stephen Bannon—the same conservative nonprofit that ginned up questionable stories about the Clintons during the last Presidential campaign. In both instances, much of the coverage of the scandal was kicked off by Peter Schweizer, a longtime conservative political writer who is an editor-at-large at Breitbart News and the president of the Government Accountability Institute.
Funded by Mercer, naturally.
But the turning point in the Biden coverage, it appears, was in late 2018, when Trump’s private lawyer and political advocate, the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, got involved. That winter, Giuliani began speaking to current and former Ukrainian officials about the Biden conspiracy theory, and meeting with them repeatedly in New York and Europe. Among those officials was Viktor Shokin, a former top Ukrainian prosecutor who was sacked in March, 2016, after European and U.S. officials, including Joe Biden, complained that he was lax in curbing corruption. Shokin claimed that he had lost his powerful post not because of his poor performance but rather because Biden wanted to stop his investigation of Burisma, in order to protect his son. The facts didn’t back this up. The Burisma investigation had been dormant under Shokin.
By mid-summer, the Times and other mainstream outlets, most notably Bloomberg News, had more or less knocked down the conspiracy theories. By then, Trump was so invested in the counterfactual narrative that he was demanding that Ukraine’s new President provide confirmation of it, as the whistle-blower’s complaint relates. Or, as documents released by Congress earlier this week revealing discussions between his emissaries to Ukraine put it, “Potus really wants the deliverable.” With Trump facing the prospect of impeachment in the House of Representatives, it appears that he is a casualty of his side’s own disinformation.
The Hill: "9 conspiracy theories impeachment will expose and debunk."
Conspiracy Theory #2: Vice President (and Democratic presidential candidate) Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, or both, engaged in corrupt activities in Ukraine.

The Reality: This conspiracy theory is completely unfounded. The former Ukrainian prosecutor general has stated that there is no evidence of illegal activity by the Bidens and no grounds to investigate either of them. Perhaps most importantly, had Hunter Biden engaged in corrupt activities in Ukraine, Vice President Biden’s push to remove an ineffective Ukrainian prosecutor general would have potentially placed his son in legal jeopardy.

Conspiracy Theory #3: Joe Biden, as vice president, pressured Ukraine to remove the prosecutor investigating the company that hired his son.

The Reality: The investigation into the Ukrainian company that hired Hunter Biden was inactive when the younger Biden began working at the company. Separately, allegations of wrongdoing by the company’s CEO predate Hunter Biden’s hiring.

Moreover, America’s NATO allies, Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, and the International Monetary Fund all urged the firing of the ineffective Ukrainian prosecutor that Biden ultimately persuaded the Ukrainian government to dismiss. In short, Joe Biden should be commended for prompting the removal of an ineffective prosecutor in a country riddled with corruption.
(At the time, a number of Republicans also wanted Shokin gone.)

USA Today: "Donald Trump's baseless Joe Biden conspiracy fantasy should make Americans feel sick"
In December 2015, Vice President Biden delivered a message to Ukraine officials, letting them know that the U.S. government would hold up $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin was sacked. In spring 2016, Shokin was forced to resign.

At this point, I could describe how Shokin, as a Ukrainian deputy prosecutor, had refused to cooperate with a United Kingdom investigation into corruption by Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma Holdings. I could discuss how, after Shokin was elevated to the post of prosecutor general, every member of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, including the U.S. government, along with the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, began agitating to get rid of him.

But perhaps most telling is how Shokin was viewed by many Ukrainians. Here’s how a Ukrainian newspaper described his removal: "The reports came shortly after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he’d asked his appointed prosecutor, who has failed to bring a single major criminal case to trial in a year, to leave. ... Shokin has been under fire for months by his critics, who accused him of stalling reform in the Prosecutor General’s Office, and covering up cases of corruption among his subordinates."

In short, Shokin was doing nothing to combat corruption. If there was something fishy going on at Burisma Holdings, the very worst thing that could have happened, from company owner Zlochevsky’s point of view, was replacing Shokin. This was the compliant prosecutor who had saved him $23 million by refusing to cooperate with the U.K. corruption investigation. The idea that removing Shokin somehow protected Burisma Holdings and Hunter Biden is absurd on its face.
Why was U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch fired? Trump says that she was doing "very bad things" which he never specifies. Actually, she was fired because she stood against the Trump/Giuliani attempt to recruit corrupt Ukrainians into their scheme to smear Joe Biden. In particular, she opposed fired Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, whom Giuliani asked to provide dirt on Biden. (Lutsenko is dirtier than dirt, of course.)
In the months to come — as the ambassador stepped up her criticism of Ukraine’s faltering efforts to root out corruption — Mr. Lutsenko’s personal animus toward Ms. Yovanovitch grew. He concluded, he and his former colleagues say, that he needed to go around her and find a direct path to a more receptive audience: Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
But veterans of Ukraine’s cutthroat politics say Mr. Lutsenko’s outreach to Mr. Trump’s inner circle was a clear attempt to win favor with a powerful ally at a time his own political future looked uncertain.

“Lutsenko was trying to save his political skin by pretending to be Trumpist at the end of his career,” said David Sakvarelidze, a former deputy prosecutor general.

Instead of finding salvation, Mr. Lutsenko was fired in late August by Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
In another article, Mr. Lutsenko aired his feud with Ms. Yovanovitch, the American ambassador, asserting that she had given him a list of untouchables not to prosecute. The claim set off a storm of accusations that the ambassador belonged to a cabal working to hurt Mr. Trump and protect the Bidens.

The State Department dismissed Mr. Lutsenko’s claim as “an outright fabrication,” and he later acknowledged that the “don’t prosecute list” never existed.
But the damage was done. Already under fire from some Republicans, who said she had disparaged Mr. Trump in private meetings, Ms. Yovanovitch was ordered in May to leave her post in Kiev and return to Washington.
By this point, anyone who still believes in Trump's inane conspiracy theories is beyond rational debate.

I must repeat a point I've made in many previous posts: For more than a century -- from the Leo Taxil hoax to the Dreyfus affair, from the Protocols to Father Coughlin, from the McCarthy/Cohn witch hunts to the ravings of Milton "Bill" Cooper, from Alex Jones' gay frogs to the absurdities debunked above -- conspiracy theories emanating from right-wingers have always functioned as political weapons. The disingenuous manipulators who concoct these fantasias do not actually believe them.

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