Thursday, December 13, 2018

Why is it so Easy to Lie to Us? The Case of the Russia role in Climategate

Our media feed us routinely with lies and the story of the involvement of the Russian Secret Service with the Climategate hack is just one of them. I thought it was worth discussing it here in light of the fact that it is one of the most blatant lies I could ever find. Also a good illustration of the incredible persistence of legends in the mediasphere.

Last week, I cited the Climategate story, noting how it was part of a wide-ranging anti-science propaganda effort and that it must have involved some professional hacking work to break into the server of the East Anglia University. On that point, I received a comment from "Andy Mitchell" that went as:
The Climategate hack has only one suspect: the Russian Petrostate. There are no other suspects.
Note the absolute certainty of this statement: it is a typical characteristic of legends. So, I thought it was intriguing enough to deserve a little examination.

The origin of the story of the involvement of Russian Secret Services with Climategate is easy to find: it is an article of the Daily Mail dated 6 December 2009. Then, debunking legends normally takes a little work but, in this case, it is remarkable how there is nothing to debunk: the Daily Mail article contains no facts, no evidence, no data.

You can read the article yourself, and you'll be amazed at how obvious it is that it was invented out of whole cloth. The only vague connection of Climategate with Russia is that the stolen files may have been stored for a short time in a private server in Tomsk, a Russian town. Saying that it proves that the hackers were Russian follows the same logic as saying that, since Jesus Christ was born in a stable, then he had to be a horse. And, of course, these smart Russian hackers were nevertheless dumb enough that they didn't think that storing their data in a Russian server would have pinpointed the origin of the hack to the even smarter journalists of the Daily Mail!

Among the funniest things of the article, one is the mentioning of "a leading world expert on the subject [climate change], Professor Sergei Kropotkin" who has strictly nothing to do with the hacking story, but whose large size picture appears in the article. Apparently, they had to reach a certain length for their piece and they couldn't find anything better than fill the space with whatever they could find. I can imagine that they reasoned in terms of something like "he's from Tomsk, he says something about climate, so he will do." That shows, incidentally, what they think of the level of intelligence of their readers.

As I said, this is a vintage story, but we can still learn something from it just because almost ten years have passed from its first appearance in the memesphere and we can see it in perspective.

1. Lies appearing in the mainstream media can be invented out of nothing -- they don't need to be connected in any way with reality. The fact that they appear on a tabloid, the Daily Mail, well known for being a source of fake news (including telling us of a restaurant selling human meat in Nigeria) means little or nothing. It is sufficient that the legend agrees with some widespread perception, in this case, that the Russians are evil and deceptive.

2. There was no significant attempt to debunk the story in the Western Press. It was reproduced nearly verbatim in other press outlets, the Telegraph, for instance. Even the Guardian reported the story as an attack of the Russian secret services. I couldn't find skeptical comments to these stories: maybe they were censored out or, simply, there were none.

3. Legends are also unbelievably persistent. The rumor that the Russians created the Climategate scandal keeps reappearing. In 2016, Mother Jones ran an especially convoluted piece in which they tried to demonstrate that, since the Russians had hacked the 2016 US elections, then it was also true that they had created the Climategate scandal seven years before, (or the reverse, I am not sure) apparently believing that two fake news could be more believable if they confirm each other.

This story is impressive not so much because it is false. For what I know, the hackers could have come from anywhere in the world -- they might have been Russian, why not? It would change nothing to the fact that it IS easy to lie to us. It carries no penalties and the most outrageous lies will be normally believed by almost everybody if they appear on a major media outlet.

Our media have been lying to us, they keep doing that, and they will continue to do that. There is a problem, though: associations based on lies can't last very long, be they marriages, business agreements, or whole societies. Empires based on lies are destined to fall. It happened in the past and it may well happen to us in the near future.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)