How 'Russian' Facebook Memes Expose the Brutal Realities of American Foreign Policy

In the name of battling Russian “fake news,” the Daily Beast spreads some major historical falsehoods of its own.

Photo Credit: Pan Xunbin / Shutterstock

This month, American corporate media outlets have been whipped into a frenzy by revelations that a Russian internet troll farm purchased ads and established accounts on Facebook. According to the New York Times a “shadowy Russian company” supposedly “linked to” the Kremlin has spread “misinformation” on social media in order “to reshape American politics.”

The ads allegedly contained messages promoting a wide array of hot button political issues, from police brutality and Islamophobia to gun rights. Some also contained images of adorable puppies. Congressional investigators have alleged that the ad campaign evidenced the Kremlin’s intention to “sow chaos” and “promote racial division,” claims that have been faithfully reproduced in corporate outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post.

An article in the Daily Beast took the narrative a step further, asserting that the ads and memes spread on supposedly Russian troll accounts on Facebook were actually “fake news”—meaning that their content was objectively false, and was designed to deceive Americans into turning against their government’s otherwise benevolent foreign policy goals.

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The article in question, “Russians Impersonated Real American Muslims to Stir Chaos on Facebook and Instagram,” claimed that a moderately popular Facebook page called United Muslims of America was in fact an “imposter account” that was “traced back to the Russian government.”

According to the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman, Ben Collins and Kevin Poulsen, an allegedly Russian group “stirred chaos” by sharing memes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The reporters also claimed these dastardly memes took “a sharp detour into fake news.”

While many of the memes highlighted by the Daily Beast were hyperbolic, as Facebook memes tend to be, their content was far from “fake news.” In fact, they hammered on some of the most uncomfortable realities and inconvenient truths of American foreign policy, particularly the CIA’s covert support for Islamist insurgents from Afghanistan to Syria and how this policy fueled the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Through whitewashing and outright denial of the well-documented history of U.S. covert operations in the Middle East, the Daily Beast’s reporters engaged in the very thing they were accusing Russian trolls of spreading: propaganda and fake news. The false claims are examined in detail below, along with the painful historical realities that Ackerman and his co-authors aimed to obscure.

Among the most egregious falsehoods they advanced related to recorded testimony delivered to Congress by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton acknowledging U.S. role in fueling al-Qaeda

Collins, Poulsen and Ackerman highlighted several Facebook posts by alleged Russian trolls that they claimed were rife with falsehoods. A closer look shows that most were grounded in established fact, or at least contained elements of truth. A prominent example is an April 2016 video published by the United Muslims of America page, featuring Hillary Clinton detailing the U.S. role in creating extremist groups like al-Qaeda. The Facebook page said, “#Hillary #Clinton admits #America created, funded and armed Al Qaeda ISIS terrorists…but everybody is still blaming Muslims?”

“America did none of those things,” the Daily Beast insisted, and Hillary Clinton “never claimed it had.”

The Daily Beast failed to mention that the video cited by United Muslims of America does indeed exist. Those who watch it for themselves can see Clinton explicitly acknowledging the leading U.S. role in fueling the spread of Salafi-jihadist groups.

YouTube user Amir Parvez uploaded what appears to be the video cited by United Muslims of America, and using the same title, “Hillary Clinton admits America created, funded and armed Al Qaeda / ISIS terrorists,” in October 2016. The video consists of two separate clips of Clinton.

The first is a July 2010 interview the Secretary of State conducted with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. A transcript of this interview is archived at the U.S. State Department website. In this video, Clinton can be seen clearly saying, “The United States had—to be fair, we had helped to create the problem we’re now fighting.”

Clinton continues: “When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, we had this brilliant idea that we were going to come to Pakistan and create a force of mujaheddin, equip them with Stinger missiles and everything else, to go after the Soviets inside Afghanistan. And we were successful. The Soviets left Afghanistan.”

She goes on: “And then we said great, goodbye—leaving these trained people who were fanatical in Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaving them well armed, creating a mess, frankly, that at the time we didn’t really recognize. We were just so happy to see the Soviet Union fall and we thought, okay, fine, we’re okay now, everything’s going to be so much better. Now you look back; the people we’re fighting today we were supporting in the fight against the Soviets.”

The second clip is from Secretary Clinton’s April 2009 appearance before the House Appropriations Committee. In this address, she states, “Let's remember here, the people we are fighting today, we funded 20 years ago. And we did it because we were locked in the struggle with the Soviet Union. They invaded Afghanistan and we did not want to see them control central Asia. And we went to work.”

Clinton’s comments were reported on at the time by CNN: “And it was President Reagan in partnership with the Congress led by Democrats who said, you know what? Sounds like a pretty good idea. Let's deal with the ISI and the Pakistani military and let's go recruit these Mujahideen. And that's great.  Let's get some to come from Saudi Arabia and other places importing their Wahhabi brand of Islam so that we can go beat the Soviet Union.”

She went on: “And guess what? They retreated. They lost billions of dollars and it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there is a very strong argument which is it wasn't a bad investment to end the Soviet Union, but let's be careful what we sow because we will harvest.”

In these remarks, Hillary Clinton was acknowledging an undeniable historical fact: al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged out of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Clinton was not referring to ISIS in these video clips, as the extremist group did not yet exist. In this sense, the United Muslims of America Facebook post exaggerated Clinton’s remarks. But the core of the account’s claim rests on a foundation of truth.

This first glaring falsehood deployed by the Daily Beast flowed effortlessly into the next, with each ahistorical claim advanced under the guise of battling fake news.

U.S. support for jihadist groups in Syria: Another case of Daily Beast denialism

The Daily Beast noted that other memes posted on the United Muslims of America page accused the U.S., and particularly neoconservative Senator John McCain, of supporting ISIS. Collins, Poulsen and Ackerman described these claims as “disinformation,” but left out some critical context.

There is no publicly available evidence that the U.S. intentionally directly supported ISIS, but it is undeniable that U.S. government policies for years strengthened ISIS, and that the U.S. was aware of this and continued these policies anyway.

ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda, which in turn has its origins in Operation Cyclone, the CIA’s covert program in Afghanistan that was referenced by Hillary Clinton in the testimony she delivered to Congress as Secretary of State. It is now widely conceded by experts that ISIS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), greatly benefited from the illegal 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which destroyed the Iraqi state, and the subsequent U.S. arming and training of rebels in Syria after 2011.

A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document provides indisputable evidence that in August 2012, the U.S. government knew that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” It added that “AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media.”

The DIA document even predicted the rise of ISIS, noting that “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime… ISI could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”

This is precisely what happened: ISI, the Islamic State in Iraq, merged with al-Qaeda in Syria and created a so-called caliphate around the area of Deir al-Zour, just as the U.S. government had predicted.

Despite the U.S. government’s clear knowledge that ISIS’ predecessors were “the major forces” in the Syrian armed opposition, the U.S. and its proxies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey flooded country with billions of dollars of weapons and support.

The CIA expended massive resources, in the largest covert operation since the war in Afghanistan that gave birth to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the 1980s, arming and training militants in Syria, some of whom later defected to extremist groups like ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. (Al-Nusra was initially allied with the Islamic State group, but eventually the two became enemies.)

Moreover, a leaked August 2014 email from Hillary Clinton cited “U.S. intelligence” and stated very clearly that U.S. proxies Saudi Arabia and Qatar “are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

Former vice president Joe Biden similarly acknowledged this fact in a 2014 talk at Harvard University. He noted that close U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia “were so determined to take down” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that “they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

While it is hyperbolic to say the U.S. directly created and supported ISIS, it is irrefutable that U.S. policy helped produce the extremist group and fueled its advance for years. These facts might make the staunchly neoconservative editors at the Daily Beast uncomfortable, especially given their investment in advancing the discredited narrative of the Syrian armed opposition.

For his part, John McCain was a staunch supporter of the armed Syrian opposition and a leading cheerleader for the wars of regime change and covert operations that led to ISIS’ rise. McCain even traveled illegally to Syria to meet with and encourage members of its Islamist-led armed opposition, posing for a photo with two insurgents who had been involved in kidnapping Shia pilgrims.

While it is not true that McCain founded ISIS, he strongly contributed to its growth and personally cheered on the Islamist insurgents who served as jihadist backfill, partnering with ISIS and Al Qaeda in numerous guerilla operations against the Syrian government.

It is also indisputably true, as one of the Russian troll memes claimed, that the U.S. has bombed the Syrian government while battling ISIS. The most extreme example was a September 2016 incident in which the U.S. attacked Syrian army forces for an hour as they were fighting ISIS.

The U.S. claimed the attack, which killed around 100 Syrian troops and helped ISIS seize territory around Deir al-Zour airport, was a mistake. The Syrian army insisted otherwise. This U.S. attack sabotaged a ceasefire that had been agreed to after months of negotiations.

This August, the Syrian army liberated Deir al-Zour from ISIS after years of crushing siege, and had already driven ISIS from the city of Palmyra. According to the Daily Beast’s Ackerman and his co-authors, however, to simply acknowledge this documented history is to advance “Russia’s and Assad’s preferred framing.”

By characterizing historical facts as dangerous narratives that benefit enemies abroad, the Daily Beast’s authors engaged in a classic practice of nationalistic propaganda—the very same one they accused the Russians of deploying.

But they weren’t finished; next, Ackerman and his colleagues flatly denied the American role in the rise of Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden’s CIA ties

In response to another United Muslims of America meme claiming al-Qaeda co-founder “Osama bin Laden was a CIA agent,” the Daily Beast insisted with scarcely any explanation that “bin Laden was neither a CIA agent nor a CIA asset during his time in the 1980s fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.”

The reality of bin Laden’s relationship to the U.S. is much more complex, but it is well documented. In a news story published in 1998 — three years before the 9/11 attacks — MSNBC noted that the al-Qaeda mastermind indeed had “CIA ties” and was the “personification of blowback.”

The MSNBC report by Michael Moran, “Bin Laden comes home to roost,” noted that bin Laden ran the front organization Maktab al-Khidamar (MAK), to arm extremist Islamist rebels in Afghanistan. “What the CIA bio conveniently fails to specify (in its unclassified form, at least) is that the MAK was nurtured by Pakistan’s state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, the CIA’s primary conduit for conducting the covert war against Moscow’s occupation,” MSNBC reported at the time.

Moran added, “Bin Laden, along with a small group of Islamic militants from Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian refugee camps all over the Middle East, became the ‘reliable’ partners of the CIA in its war against Moscow.”

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was more blunt, declaring that bin Laden “was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.”

One of the most notable figures in the annals of jihadism, the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, was a key asset of the Afghan warlord -- and bin Laden ally -- who benefited the most handsomely from CIA support: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. As a reward for the services he provided the US, Abdel Rahman was granted a special visa by the CIA, enabling him to take over the the MAK’s New York area operations on behalf of bin Laden. He was ultimately convicted of plotting to blow up the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel in a prosecution fraught with allegations of entrapment.

The role of the CIA in approving Abdel Rahman’s visas has been widely documented, most prominently by the New York Times. Surely the Daily Beast’s Ackerman, who has branded himself as a national security expert, should have known this history. But he didn’t bother to mention it, either because he was ignorant to it, or because it interfered with a simplistic narrative that cast harsh critiques of American foreign policy as “fake news.”

Historians have hotly debated whether or not the U.S. directly armed bin Laden. Pakistani academic Eqbal Ahmad famously told an audience that he was introduced to bin Laden by a “U.S. official.” However intimate bin Laden’s relationship with Washington was at the height of the Cold War, to claim, as the Daily Beast did, that he was never a “CIA asset,” is misleading at best and propagandistic at worst. It is indisputable that bin Laden and his so-called Arab Mujahideen at the least indirectly benefited from the CIA operation in Afghanistan, and that American covert operations set the stage for the rise of Al Qaeda across the Middle East.

The Russian troll meme is true: ISIS did apologize to Israel

Another meme from the United Muslims of America Facebook page that the Daily Beast’s reporters attempted to brand as fake news was a doctored photo of ISIS fighters kneeling below fluttering Israeli flags. The meme poses a question, "Did you know that ISIS apologised to Israel for firing missiles on Israel by mistake?"

While the image of ISIS cadres flanked by Israeli flags was photoshopped, it does not change the fact that this did happen: ISIS did indeed apologize to Israel.

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged in April that ISIS militants in the illegally Israel-occupied Golan Heights “apologized” — his words — after accidentally opening fire on Israeli forces in November 2016.

This is by no means the Israeli government’s first link to extremist groups in Syria. As AlterNet’s Grayzone Project has reported, Israel has had a tacit tactical alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, treating its fighters in Israeli hospitals and even providing al-Qaeda air cover in its fights against Hezbollah and Syrian government forces.

The Daily Beast featured a photo of the meme shown above, but did not bother to debunk its core claim. And that’s likely because the claim is true, and deeply uncomfortable for supporters of Israel to acknowledge.

Daily Beast propaganda versus the reality of Muammar Gaddafi's Libya

The Daily Beast also referred to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed in a 2011 NATO-led war, as a “blood-drenched dictator,” and claimed one of the memes posted by the United Muslims of America Facebook page “whitewashed” him.

The meme in question noted that, before NATO destroyed Libya’s government and turned the oil-rich North African nation into a failed state, all Libyans had healthcare, electricity, education, housing and other social services guaranteed to them by their government. The Daily Beast implies this is false, but it is an undeniable fact that was recently echoed by the Washington Post.

Since the catastrophic NATO regime change operation, Libya has become a haven for extremist groups like ISIS. Untold numbers of refugees have fled for their lives, driving a migration crisis in Europe that has fueled the rise of extreme right parties, and open-air slave markets can now be found in NATO-”liberated” Libya.

The meme posted by the United Muslims of America Facebook page was first created by the conspiracy theory website Connecting Consciousness, and references an absurd and borderline anti-Semitic conspiracy theory implying that Gaddafi was overthrown because his country did not have a “Rothschild-owned central bank.” The other aspects of the meme are essentially correct, however.

While Western corporate media outlets and governments level allegations of fake news at Russian troll farms, they have yet to correct the fake news they spread during the 2011 NATO-led war in Libya—baseless lies like then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s claim that Gaddafi had distributed Viagra to his troops to carry out mass rape in Benghazi. Despite its humanitarian deceptions, the Libya intervention was always about regime change. A 2016 report by the British House of Commons confirmed that many of the claims used to sell the war, such as the claims that Gaddafi was planning on massacring civilians, were in fact false.

The Daily Beast was at the forefront of promoting fake news in the service of Libyan regime change, publishing false stories on mass rape by Viagra-popping Libyan troops, and giving space to neoconservative charlatans like Bernard Henri-Levy, the French pseudo-philosopher who played a central role in grooming the Libyan opposition, to trumpet the regime change operation as an exercise in “freedom.”

The Daily Beast implies anti-war views are a Russian plot

In its falsehood-laden article, the Daily Beast highlighted anti-war memes posted by the United Muslims of America Facebook page. Among those included were memes reading, "No to military intervention in Syria!" and "Stop bombing the Syrians who are really fighting ISIS!"

In doing so, Ben Collins, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman essentially implied that opposition to U.S. wars of regime and foreign military intervention plays into the hands of the Kremlin, and is therefore anti-American.

The reporters noted that the alleged Russian Instagram account used the hashtag #StopBombingSyria more than 30 times, and advocated for “the U.S. military to stay out of Syria.”

They also took extreme umbrage at a meme that pointed out that the $93 million tax dollars worth of missiles that the U.S. fired at a Syrian airfield in April—which effectively helped ISIS—could have instead been used to fund the social program Meals on Wheels until 2029.”

The conclusion readers are supposed to draw is clear: those who oppose disastrous U.S. wars abroad are, wittingly or not, part of a sinister Kremlin plot.

 

The Daily Beast ignores the majority of 'United Muslims of America' posts

The Daily Beast’s narrative— that the nefarious Russian puppet master spread memes on social media to poison the minds of the American people—is further discredited by an examination of the archive of material the United Muslims of America account posted.

The vast majority of the memes published by the account were devoted to countering Islamophobia, xenophobia and bigoted myths. Some social media posts were even staunchly pro-Hillary Clinton. Yet Collins, Poulsen and Ackerman selected a small handful of memes to prove a point, while ignoring the rest. Thus, they engaged in another propaganda tactic that they accused Russian trolls of.

A full review of the Facebook page’s posts would have revealed that the majority were innocuous and meant to encourage religious tolerance. One of its most popular posts, a viral video with 3 million views, explained what it means for food to be halal. Another popular post praised the leader of Catholicism for preaching tolerance and coexistence, saying, “Pope Francis is telling some truth. watch and share."

The Daily Beast did concede this in its article, noting, “Much of the content on the account was apolitical, evincing positive portrayals of Islam and Muslims and debunking some of the very Islamophobic myths Russia was simultaneously deploying through other accounts.”

But this crucial qualifier was later ignored.

Spencer Ackerman’s record of fake news

Spencer Ackerman, a co-author of the Daily Beast story, has a history of spreading fake news of his own. As a reporter at Wired, Ackerman falsely reported that an obvious satirical spoof video made by a British man was actually official North Korean propaganda.

Ackerman’s history of falsification only scratches the surface of the Daily Beast’s hypocrisy. The notion that a Russian troll factory “stirred chaos” by allegedly sharing hyperbolic memes on social media is risible when one considers that American foreign policy, which the Daily Beast vociferously defends, has violently toppled numerous elected governments, assassinated foreign heads of state and trained and funded death squads, while also pursuing less orthodox forms of subterfuge, like creating a fake Twitter app to spread anti-government propaganda in Cuba.

With its latest botch job on Russian meddling as a precedent, the Daily Beast’s crack team of national security reporters would likely dismiss these historical facts as fake news.

Ben Norton is a journalist and writer. He was a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone Project. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton, and his personal website is BenNorton.com.

Max Blumenthal is the award-winning author of Goliath, Republican Gomorrah, and The 51 Day War. He is also the co-host of the podcast, Moderate Rebels. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.