Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Dr. Evil is a bad source

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Now comes the inevitable clash of Rhetoric & Reason columnists.

The centerpiece of Al Fonzi's July 5 installment ("Look behind the green door") was the recent report of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, "Russian Attempts to Influence U.S. Domestic Energy Markets by Exploiting Social Media." Its thesis: Russian trolls are behind the movement to replace fossil fuels in the U.S. with clean energy.

Fonzi laments that this story was not picked up by the major media ("Didn't hear about this? No headlines in the local paper or lead stories on the local TV station? Don't hold your breath, you won't."). It was however, picked up by every right-wing blogger and oil and gas PR site on the web, faithfully repeating the spin that the Republican-controlled committee put on the presumptive goals of Russia's social media escapades. Only one of those sites apparently read all the way to the end of the committee's report, and dutifully reported the truth of the matter. That site was, and I can't believe I'm typing this, Newsmax:

"Internet trolls in Russia engineered a social media campaign that targeted controversial U.S. energy projects, and appeared to be set up to upset both environmental activists and pro-oil supporters, congressional Republicans reported Thursday. The House Science Committee report noted that the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm, posted thousands of times on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram between 2015 and 2017, taking aim at the Dakota Access Pipeline, while other posts criticized the pipeline protesters. Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he was not surprised the trolls had taken on both sides of the argument. 'By stirring up both sides, clearly they see that as something that could benefit them,' Smith said."

From the report:

"Numerous posts from a Russian account named 'Heart of Texas' advocated for pro-drilling and oil positions. The text associated with the post pictured below, for example, stated: 'I don't care what ecologists say. Texas is the top oil producing state, and I'm [] proud of it! Let's douse the Yankees with it and then just throw a burning match.' This is an attempt by the Russians to arouse emotion among Americans based on their geographic location.

"Additionally, several posts took positions against climate change policies, supporting the notion that scientists 'have no proof of substantial temperature fluctuations in recent history' and stating 'liberals tax our business not because it is in the planet's interest, but because they are afraid of fair competition, want additional money for themselves, and wish to control [the] energy sector in this country.' The posts highlight claims that liberals 'use fear of climate change to manipulate general public all in the name of greed and lust for power.' The post concludes with, 'Stop taxing our business, climate change isn't real!'

"By posting content that supports positions held by both liberals and conservatives alike, the Russians used social media to instigate and inflame discord in the United States."

Oops.

But the most exciting part of Mr. Fonzi's column was a shot at environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

"Apparently, the Sierra Club Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been caught with their fingers in the Russian cookie jar, [wittingly or not] taking $10 million from the Sea Change Foundation, a Bermuda company congressional investigators have linked to Russian front groups whose mission was to sabotage American energy production."

Some fun! But anyone who believed it should Google "Republicans brewing Russian scandal to target greens" and read Politico's detailed takedown of the notion that the Kremlin is bankrolling campaigns against fracking, as reported by a real reporter. As it turns out, the charge and its shaky "links" sprang from the brow of the Environmental Policy Alliance, a group founded by D.C. lobbyist Richard Berman. He's better known by his nickname, Dr. Evil, earned for his orchestrated attacks on groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving on behalf of the alcohol lobby and, per The New York Times, his advice to corporate clients to "exploit emotions like fear, greed, and anger" when "secretly financing such a campaign" through Berman's offices.

The occasion for the serving up of this goulash to New Times readers is Measure G, "an upcoming November ballot measure that would ban all new oil production along with fracking in SLO County."

"Could it be," Mr. Fonzi wondered, "that Measure G is partly a result of this subversive effort?"

Could it be that Mr. Fonzi's voluminous output doubting the science of climate change and his oft expressed opinions of liberals—both a mirror image of the propaganda the House Committee identified on a Russian social media troll site—are partly a result of this subversive effort?

Or could it be that "could it be" is the favorite preamble of propagandists everywhere, who can shove anything they want into the space after that introductory clause? Could it be that we should acknowledge that the words of those who "used social media to instigate and inflame discord in the United States" have nothing to do with the actual issues they seize upon in service to that effort? Δ

Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or get your thoughts published by emailing a letter to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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