Donald Trump has now been accused of hiring Russian prostitutes to engage in strange sexual practices during a trip to Russia. Russian security agents, who reportedly taped the whole thing, are supposedly blackmailing Mr Trump. This should be shocking in itself, but it also seems to lend credence to a theory of Russia having influenced the US election in some way. We have witnessed a welter of fake news, mainly published in mainstream sources, while the government justifies Orwellian legislation to suppress reporting by alternative media. Claims by such outlets as the New York Times that Hillary Clinton was a shoo in to win the election or that the UK would vote remain, conflating vain hope with fact, go largely unchallenged – except by the results of the actual election, helpfully foreshadowed by the ‘alternative media’. This seemingly uncanny ability to use logic and facts to accurately determine the likely outcome of elections bolstered the status of the so-called alternative media in the eyes of the public. It has since been decided by the Washington Post, that the term ‘fake news’ is ‘loaded’ and should be ‘retired’, in language eerily evocative of the Clinton body count, whilst also reminding me of a child packing a sad in protest of a game not going their way.
Many, myself included, were doubtful of claims of Russian ‘hacking’ of the election. How can one ‘hack’ an election? That question was of course never addressed head on, but one assumes that the word ‘hack’ may refer to the release of the Democratic National Congress emails which proved so revealing of Hillary Clinton’s character and connections to Wall Street and repressive regimes in the Middle East. Terms such as ‘taco bowl engagement’ and ‘needy latinas’ gave voters an insight into the true character of who they were being asked to vote for. The origin of these emails – the veracity of which is not in dispute – is unknown, and Julian Assange won’t tell. The left, ably assisted by the Obama White House, has claimed that the source of these emails is a Russian government ‘hack’, although it is unclear whether something can really be ‘hacked’ if it is essentially unsecured in the first place. According to Assange, Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s password was…‘password’.
Many were justifiably concerned with this claim of Russian interference, however. Do foreign governments interfere with domestic politics? Do they ever! My goodness, no need to look any further than Obama’s own clear encouragement to Israelis to elect Labour, or his threat that the UK would have to ‘go to the back of the queue’ for a trade deal if Britain left the EU. Is the support given to Hillary Clinton by repressive Middle Eastern regimes, in the form of millions of dollars, an example of foreign interference in the US election? Would it be concerning if it proved that Vladimir Putin’s Russia had been instrumental in shaping the course of the US election?
Even Republicans seem to be giving the idea credence, especially those such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain who had been bested by Trump in the Republican primaries. Russian diplomats were expelled from the US in response to the revelations, prompting Putin to…invite US diplomats’ children to a special Christmas party. There has been talk of intelligence linking Trump to Russia, although little in the way of detail was given. CIA sources made it clear that the intent behind these alleged Russian actions was to help Trump, and hurt Clinton. The tell-tale words ‘fake news’ made the rounds again, with CNN claiming that the CIA had discovered that fake social media accounts controlled by the Russians were spreading ‘fake news’ about Clinton. This claim was made without supporting evidence, but then again, these are serious people and their claims are not so easily dismissed. Perplexingly, it is claimed that the fact that Republican staffers’ accounts showed signs of having been hacked by Russians pointed towards the Russians helping Trump. How hacking Republicans helps the Republican candidate win, I’m not sure, but there you go. Grudgingly, CNN admitted that although the CIA was clear in its statement that the hacks were aimed at assisting Trump, the 17 intelligence agencies had not yet come together to make a joint declaration on the matter. Many on the right complained that this was nothing more than a strategy to delegitimise Trump’s presidency before it even starts. Trump supporters worried – what might come out? Could their hero be damaged by this? Yet others worried it might be the beginning of an Obama coup d’état. How can a Russian puppet become president of the United States, if we know that he owes his election to Putin? The story seemed to be heading towards some kind of climax, to say the least. What could that climax be?
And, lo and behold there it was. Driving towards the setting sun, cursing a flat phone battery, I swallowed my pride and turned on Radio New Zealand News. “The US President-elect Donald Trump is denying allegations Russia has compromising material on him involving prostitutes”, the sober voice informed me. This must surely be it, I thought. Even Trump himself denied the allegations and placed the blame on ‘a group of opponents’ who had put together a series of allegations to try to damage him. The source of the damaging ‘dossier’, it was said, was a former British intelligence officer. The ‘dossier’, it was claimed, contained 35 pages of allegations. This was it, I was sure. This was what we had been waiting for.
In hindsight, it is testament to the herd mentality of the mainstream media that Radio New Zealand reported this in the way it did – that is, as if a serious set of allegations relating to Trump and Russia had been made and reported in a reputable publication. In fact, a series of statements with the distinct feel of parody and fan fiction had been repeated in Buzzfeed, a notoriously partisan outlet of remarkably poor quality. To hear them talk about it – even, in fact, to hear Trump talk about it – was to imagine a 35 page intelligence report, albeit one that Trump claimed had been put together by a set of shadowy forces to damage him. Agog at the prospect of discovering what it was that the Democrats had made up about Trump to damage him, I floored it and headed for home.
Imagine my surprise upon reading the actual allegations themselves. Essentially, it is alleged that Russia’s intelligence agency, the FSB, has been blackmailing Trump for five years or so with video of Mr Trump engaging in a range of activities with Russian prostitutes. It is alleged that he had to ‘settle for the extensive use of sexual services there from prostitutes rather than business success’, having failed to make any deals in the St Petersburg property market. This doesn’t sound like the Trump we know. The ‘dossier’ claims that Mr Trump rented the presidential suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton where Obama had recently stayed and hired prostitutes to desecrate the presidential bed with their urine. Furthermore, this activity is allegedly all on tape, as the FSB has the hotel comprehensively bugged, which means that everything that the Obamas and their guests said and did in the suite would also have been recorded. This begs the question – does this mean that Mr Obama’s presidency was ‘hacked’ by the Russians? To say that this ‘dossier’ (remember the last time they bandied that word about? that’s right, Tony Blair’s ‘sexed up dossier’) lacked the ring of truth is an understatement. This didn’t stop Democrat Harry Reid, however; his spokesman Adam Jentleson tweeted Tuesday that the former Senate Democratic leader had seen the documents before writing a public letter to FBI Director James Comey about Trump’s ties to Russia.
It wasn’t long before the 4chan trolls who had obviously provided much of the inspiration for the document, assuming they were not solely responsible for the whole thing, came to light. Much of it is reminiscent of fan fiction, and some of it should have stopped being funny when we were 14, such as Mr Trump’s alleged claim to ‘do the biggest dumps. I call them Obama’. For anyone who has lurked around 4chan even a bit, the dossier has a suspicious odour highly reminiscent of ‘shitposting’.
This leaves me wondering, is this ‘it’? Is this document, reportedly doing the rounds at the highest levels of US intelligence, the basis for the claim that Russia was ‘hacking’ the election? After all, the implication is that Mr Trump is controlled by the Russians, and what better way to do that than blackmail. Has the CIA been successfully trolled by 4Chan? Perhaps not, although Harry Reid seems to have been willing to stake his credibility on this document and to make allegations of treasonous misconduct against Mr Trump on the basis of it. Fake news exists, for sure – as we always knew. The allegation that it only exists on one side of the political spectrum, however, is now dead in the water, and I have a vague feeling that this embarrassing slip up spells the end of any serious discussion of Russian hacking. We know that the best the media could come up with in terms of proof of Russian involvement was a fake document based on internet trolling which seems to have fooled many of those who wanted to be fooled.
It is stunningly bad judgement for Buzzfeed to publish this. No amount of disclaimers, stating that it is not known for certain whether the ‘dossier’ is genuine or not, can take away from the fact that this obviously fake document was being presented by Buzzfeed as if it might be true, or could be true, or was even plausible. Buzzfeed is under an obligation to attempt verify or falsify claims made in the document. It is in a position to establish whether or not Mr Trump was in Russia at the material time, for instance. Checking 4Chan message boards to see whether the material had been shitposted in the past could also fall within that obligation. If Harry Reid can be trolled so easily, what is the man in the street to make of it? Ironically, the man in the street in this instance seems more likely to be able to smell the large rat that is the dossier.
Pundits have pointed out that Mr Trump could sue Buzzfeed into oblivion, and this may be true. However, surely that is the least of their worries compared to the massive exposure of their partisanship and bias and lack of journalistic effort, let alone ethics.
In my opinion this is one step above Hillary Clinton denouncing a cartoon frog, and I will be watching this space with great interest – is Buzzfeed the new Gawker? Will it be sued or wither on the vine? Was this considered by the intelligence community to be smoking gun evidence of Russian hacking of the election? And perhaps more importantly, what else will arise from the dark corners of the internet to insert itself forcibly into the public discourse?