The Spies’ Charm Offensive: Insulting Our Intelligence?

In recent times, the heads of British spy agencies have taken to the media and social media to engage in Public Relations activities,[1] advertising particularly their role in protecting the public against ‘disinformation’. But what should the public make of this? Is this the proper role of intelligence agencies? Can they even really fulfil it?

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Posted in constitutional politics, disinformation, free intelligence, Intelligence and Security Services, media, political philosophy, propaganda, UK Government, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Questioning The Official Story About Official Stories: A Role for Citizen Investigations

Official stories, according to the official story about them, are (nearly) always true. The ‘nearly’ gets mentioned just because, on rare occasions, an official story is acknowledged to have been wrong, as, for instance, with Iraq’s falsely alleged weapons of mass destruction in 2003. But that’s considered an exception to the rule, and to extrapolate from it to a more pervasive mistrust is to be foolish, ill-informed or even a dupe of hostile propaganda. In fact, diagnosing what is wrong with sceptics about official stories, and proposing ways of curing or otherwise dealing with them, are now becoming a growth industry in the media and academia. So we hear a lot about how dissenting from official narratives is to fall victim to ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘disinformation’; and dissenters may be diagnosed as needing re-education or even psychological help. As for the dissent itself, this is increasingly subject to censure and censorship.

However, a major question is left unaddressed: What is it that’s supposed to make official stories so credible?

The assumption is that official stories are produced by people with relevant expert knowledge, so disputing them is a product of ignorance; and since experts have credentials, experience and the backing of competent institutions, rejecting their expertise is unwise or even delusional. Also assumed is that official stories are generally produced and disseminated in good faith.

But are those assumptions generally warranted? In probing their grounds we are brought to question whether the official meta-story, as we may call it, overstates reasons for automatically accepting official stories and underestimates the competence that members of the public can bring to independent inquiries.

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Posted in conspiracy theory, disinformation, media, propaganda, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

On The Leveraging of Effective Altruism

As the practical philosophy of ‘Effective Altruism’ comes under unprecedented public scrutiny, I thought it could be helpful to post a short passage of critical comment on it that comes from my book, Global Justice and Finance (Oxford University Press 2019) pp.75-6:

The practical philosophy applied in the field of charitable giving by those who style themselves Effective Altruists is, simply put, that you should aim to maximize the good you can do by earning as much money as you can so you can donate as much as you can to the charitable programmes that yield ‘most bang for your buck’. In practice, this implies two key objectives: first, to get hold of some funds, and then to disburse them to the most cost-effective charitable operator. Accordingly, there will be two interrelated questions to consider. The first is why one should assume that ‘earning to give’ is better than doing something more directly to help people who need help. …

The first goal, then, for an Effective Altruist, is to maximize the donation they are able to make towards relieving suffering and poverty. This means attending centrally, even if not exclusively, to the question of how to earn the best income one is capable of commanding. If this means taking a job on Wall Street, for instance, the logic follows unfalteringly, as Peter Singer indicates with the observation that a ‘high earner in the corporate world who is giving away large sums can create more social gain than if they did charity work’. Some of those influenced by Singer have followed this advice. Thus we may read reports of one of his students, for instance, whose career choices are taken to have exemplified what this would mean in practice. Having come top of his class at Princeton, where he was taught by Singer, he and his friends looked at research which said it costs ‘around $3,340’ to save a life, and he investigated how best he could set about helping. Taking the view that some people have skills that are better suited to earning money than directly doing good deeds, he decided this applied to him. Accordingly, he took a lucrative job in an arbitrage trading firm on Wall Street, with the explicit purpose of ‘earning to give’, whereby around half his pre-tax salary would go to those charities which, according to his research, are most efficient. Now I do not suppose that all effective altruists would see their own talents as best deployed in that kind of work, and I dare say some might even have moral reservations about undertaking it; however, the more general principle they do accept is that charity is significantly, if not even primarily, about giving the money that you think morally you should to charities that will do the most good with it. What Singer’s teaching—with its focus on moral individualism—did not encourage the young man to question is the set of socio-economic conditions that make it possible for a Princeton graduate to walk into a Wall Street firm and immediately earn so much more than the people he wants to help. Neither teacher nor student appear to have anticipated critical questions about how these Wall Street firms and their employees may ‘earn’ the massive amounts of money they do not by actually producing anything of value but simply by repackaging various complicated arrangements of others’ indebtedness. No account is therefore taken of the literally untold human suffering that may ultimately be generated at the far end of those arrangements for people on the unfortunate side of global inequality. For bright young graduates like this one it perhaps merely appears serendipitous that their particular talents happen to be suited to earning large sums of money in corporate finance so that they can take home 50 per cent of a Wall Street salary, plus any attendant benefits, in addition to the personal satisfaction of believing they are doing the maximum amount of good of which they are capable.

I do not impugn the moral seriousness of such individuals, or of others who approve or commend an approach of this kind. I do however think that if your assumption is that you can achieve a great deal with a little effort, it would be consistent with that seriousness to consider how it can possibly be that so much good can come to you and be done through you in virtue of throwing yourself so fully into the activities of the global 1 per cent that draws so much advantage from the global economy. You may see yourself as giving a little back, perhaps, but have you checked you are not complicit in taking rather more than you return? Perhaps you are content to think that if someone else did your job there might be nothing given back; or perhaps you could argue that critical suggestions about your line of work being exploitative rest on controversial theories? My point is that doing some due diligence concerning the origins of your own income should be part of the process of deliberating about how you can do the most good possible. For there could be more to the question than that of moving some money within the system of global finance, and this is all I want to observe just now. …

Effective Altruism T Shirt Credit: The Sunday Times
Posted in Finance, global justice, political philosophy, responsible investment, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Chemical Weapons in Douma, Syria: a dangerous game with the truth – by Hans-C von Sponeck

Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator (Iraq).

[Originally published in German by Die Informationsstelle Militarisierung (IMI) e.V. This translation is based on the Google Translate version.]

On February 5, 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented CIA images from Iraq to the United Nations Security Council to testify that the Iraqi government continued to possess weapons of mass destruction. Statements by UNMOVIC, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, that there was no evidence of this, were ignored. Six weeks later, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the illegal war waged by the United States and United Kingdom, began.

There are similar reports about Syria, with the difference that it is not a government providing the alleged evidence, but the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body based in The Hague.

On April 7, 2018, Douma, a city of 100,000 people not far from Damascus, was allegedly attacked with chemical weapons. The OPCW responded by dispatching a team of scientists who concluded in their investigative report that 43 people reportedly killed in the attack were unlikely to have died from chemical weapons. Experts from the OPCW Douma team discovered that instead of this report, the OPCW management intended to publish a falsified report stating that chemical weapons had been used. This deception was prevented by OPCW scientists. Eventually, however, the final report contained manipulated accounts of the attack and unscientific conclusions regarding the chemical substances found, the demonstrated toxicology and the ballistics.

Furthermore, the OPCW relied on the statements of only one of the two groups of contemporary witnesses who had been identified. This was a group of Syrian refugees who had been interviewed in Turkey with the help of the White Helmets.[1] The second group of witnesses were mostly medical workers in Damascus who said they were working at the hospital at the time victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack were seeking medical help. The testimonies of this group of witnesses indicated that dust and fume inhalation, but not chemical poisoning, was the cause of the patients’ discomfort. These important statements were not referred to in the OPCW report. However, the account of the witnesses interviewed by the White Helmets is highlighted in the OPCW report. These reported testimonies were accepted without the possibility of examination, even though the testimonies were often contradictory, especially with regard to the question of chemical poisoning.

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Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, free intelligence, guest blog, international institutions, OPCW, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

Giorgio Bianchi at UNSC: “What game are we playing? Do we want World War III?”

The Italian journalist Giorgio Bianchi was invited to participate in a meeting organized at the United Nations Security Council on 6 May 2022. The theme of the meeting was human rights violations in the Ukrainian Donbass area. Here is a transcript of the speech [with links added].

Good evening, it is truly an honour for me to be here.

I recently returned from Donbass, where I documented the conflict for about two months.

I must say that I expected to find a difference between the reality on the ground and in the media, but not at this level.

I can understand Russian propaganda; I can understand Ukrainian propaganda. What remains incomprehensible to me is European propaganda.

With the Russian media censored, and with all the other supposed official media aligned on Ukrainian propaganda, for the European public – I am European – it is practically impossible to form an objective opinion on the reality on the ground. This is why more and more people are turning to the web to receive balanced information.

Governments and digital platforms, instead of questioning themselves about this phenomenon, are trying to limit access to information online. It seems that their goal is to support a single narrative of the facts.

War is traumatic in itself, and I know something about it. There is no need to make it even more horrible by flooding the ether and paper with fake news. I think it is not useful to feed the conflict or widen it, feeding hatred.

It seems to me that there is some kind of interest in making the conflict last for a long time and spread.

I personally exposed several fake news items spread in the European media: the shameful front page of La Stampa which deceptively attributed the massacre in Donetsk on March 14 to the Russians; the fact that Marianna, the girl who symbolized the bombing of the Mariupol hospital, had not been kidnapped by the Russians; the fact that the Russians are not deporting civilians from Mariupol (they could not evacuate all the civilians who wanted to leave; they certainly did not take away those who wanted to stay).

On the contrary, I have shown that Ukrainian soldiers and militias have extensively used civilians as human shields. The testimonies I have collected are dozens and the vast majority confirm it. There is no trace of this fact checking work in the mainstream press.

What game are we playing? Do we want World War III? Do we want to reduce the European populations to misery by dint of sanctions?

I am an independent reporter. My work has been recognized internationally. But I cannot work in Ukraine because I am on a blacklist, Myrotvorets, in which I am defined as a “criminal” – just for doing my job and for sharing my point of view with the public, a point of view documented by eight years of work in the field.

Today I am accused of being an embedded professional. But I can’t work on the other side because I risk being arrested.

Do you think this is normal?

Another time: what game are we playing at?

For sure, it is a very dangerous game.

Marianna interviewed by Giorgio in her home town
Posted in disinformation, guest blog, human rights, journalism, media, propaganda, Ukraine, Uncategorized, war | 3 Comments

A UK Crackdown on Academic Freedom?

This week in Parliament a UK government minister promised ‘we will crack down on it hard’ referring to academics sharing information from Russian sources and articulating views like the one in my tweet:

‘As long as we’re still able to hear two sides of the story we should continue striving to do so.’

Even if sometimes one side is clearly wrong, hearing what they say can still be important. And it should be remembered that an important factor in this case is the serious conflict that exists within Ukraine.

Citizens need to understand the challenges decision makers face, and political leaders need to understand what their adversaries are thinking. To know thy enemy is to reduce the risk of escalating a conflict through misunderstandings. In war, miscalculations can have terrible consequences. We also know that misinformation can sometimes even slip through on our own side, as when the UK went to war in Iraq, mistakenly believing it had weapons of mass destruction.

It is therefore worrying to hear the Secretary of State for Education so explicitly confirm my tweet’s implicitly-stated fear that before long we may only be able to hear one side of a story. Are we at a point where both citizens’ freedom of expression – a human right – and also academic freedom are under threat in Britain?

I happen to tweet purely in a capacity of personal concern and as a private citizen, but let’s imagine an academic who is about to write a scholarly article about events in a war in another country. Should they present one side only? Would peer reviewers even accept that? Would it equip students to face the complexities of the world if they never learn how to rebut false claims because they are always shielded from them? Would it be in the interests of posterity to be bequeathed a one-sided historical record? And how would posterity judge a society whose universities were governed not by the principles of science and scholarship but by government edicts?

In the present situation, it will be rightly said that, morally speaking, there are not ‘two sides’ to a war of aggression, which is a crime under international law. So as our leaders rightly condemn Putin’s invasion we can also earnestly hope they commit themselves to working for a future in which international law is respected – by all nations. More immediately, the hope is they will work to promote as swift and as bloodless an end to the war as possible in Ukraine – as well as in the less-publicised wars elsewhere. This means a commitment to supporting negotiation rather than risk being drawn into escalation and the prospect of a devastating internationalised war.

Negotiation involves different sides listening to each other. Politicians allied with one side need to have as full a picture as possible of the other’s thinking. They also need to hear good independent advice. Who knows if Putin’s decision to invade might have been avoided if fuller and franker discussion were permitted to influence it? Russia’s political system punishes critical thinking and places academic freedom under serious constraints.

We don’t want our own politicians to make the mistake of stifling views that could point out pathways to reconciliation by imposing restrictions on the range of acceptable public debate. With the suggestion of a crackdown on academics who might contribute to that, it is hard to see how our elected representatives would be serving the interests of the people they represent, or of people anywhere.

As for the people of Ukraine, their need is for peace – not to become the epicentre of World War III. There is such a risk if calls for a no-fly zone, or other measures that would lead to direct military confrontation between nuclear powers, are heard without challenge. To challenge them is not to be a stooge of the enemy but an ally of humanity.

Universities are there for the service of humanity. As the very name implies, they are responsible for maintaining universally shared standards of knowledge and understanding. They provide a vantage point from which the affairs of nations can be seen in wider perspectives. It is in everyone’s interest that they be allowed to fulfil that role.

Freedom of expression within the law is central to the concept of a university. Without this guarantee and the freedom of inquiry which it protects, universities’ vital contribution to new forms of knowledge and understanding would be compromised. This applies even in extreme circumstances, such as times of war.

Source: iStock via

Posted in free intelligence, international institutions, journalism, media, propaganda, Russia, UK Government, Ukraine, Uncategorized, war | 7 Comments

“Fact Checkers” irresponsibly dispute safe injection advice

“Fact Checkers” have denounced as “misleading” a claim recently aired by Jimmy Dore (self-styled ‘jag-off comedian in a garage’ somewhere in the US, and usually on the right side of history). Dore was presenting a warning given by John Campbell (seasoned British nurse practitioner whose YouTube channel has been a source of careful comment on all things Covid for his million plus subscribers since the start of the outbreak). The warning is based on peer-reviewed research showing that ‘inadvertent intravenous injection of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines may induce myopericarditis’.

The concern is that because Covid injections must be intra-muscular, not intra-venous, an injection inadvertently going into a blood vessel risks causing blood clots and potentially serious heart problems. It may be relatively rare that a needle tip hits a vein, but it happens.

The good news is that this risk is easily avoided by a simple expedient: after inserting the needle but before injecting, withdraw the plunger enough to check no blood is coming up – it’s called aspirating before injecting.

That simple precaution seems like common sense, and you’d think it would be standard practice. But you’d be wrong.

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Posted in disinformation, health, propaganda, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The CIJA Sting from the Perspective of International Justice

The recent CIJA sting on Paul McKeigue revealed a serious lapse of judgement on his part. But what it reveals from the perspective of international justice is immeasurably more significant: a rift between CIJA and the international legal community it aims to provide prosecution briefs for; affinities between CIJA and the White Helmets which raise wider concerns about Western-backed operations in Syria; and our neglect of the most egregious war crime in Syria.

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Posted in BBC, disinformation, global justice, international institutions, journalism, media, OPCW, propaganda, Russia, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 5 Comments

Can Privateers Bring Justice for War Crimes in Syria? A response to Michelle Burgis-Kasthala on CIJA (the Commission for International Justice and Accountability)


In a recent interview, legal scholar Dr Michelle Burgis-Kasthala talked with Professor Joseph Weiler about her article, ‘Entrepreneurial Justice: Syria, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability [CIJA] and the Renewal of International Criminal Justice’. The article’s subject is currently attracting growing interest, and some enthusiasm, in certain legal circles (see e.g. also Alexander Heinze) and it lies at the heart of a well-resourced movement to bring criminal cases under provisions of ‘universal jurisdiction’ so as to fulfil a ‘responsibility to prosecute’ (a topic discussed further in this paper).

CIJA’s work centres on gathering captured government documentation in Syria to be used in providing linkage evidence for prosecutions of war crimes. (Linkage evidence for such prosecutions differs from more conventional types of evidence in that rather than providing direct proof of guilt for individual offences, it establishes a chain of responsibility to connect high-ranking officials with atrocity crimes committed on the ground.)

In the course of the interview, Weiler gently presses some critical questions. This post presses them a bit harder, and goes on to suggest some answers that can be found when the investigation is less reliant on interviews with protagonists.

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Posted in international institutions, OPCW, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 2 Comments

Diagnosing Disinformation: a reply to Wilson and Starbird

Author’s note: This article was originally due to appear in Misinformation Review, the Harvard-based journal that published the piece it responds to. The editorial board accepted the article for publication, but because of the challenging nature of my critique, they decided it should be published under the rubric of a letter to the editor so as to allow a right of reply to the authors of the article criticised. Three weeks after it was sent out to those authors, I was informed that ‘we are unable to publish letters on our site at this time.’ [Submitted to Misinformation Review 22 August 2020; Accepted for publication 30 October 2020; notified of non-publication 30 November 2020.]

Disinformation is a difficult field of investigation for a distinctive reason. Disinformation implies bad faith, and any discussion of it that relates to real actors or institutions implicitly impugns them. This adds a layer of difficulty for those attempting a dispassionate assessment of different points of view in terms of reasoned disagreements. The researcher needs to be scrupulous in maintaining standards of good faith when purporting to identify contraventions of it. Failure to attend to this requirement carries a further risk of propagating rather than diagnosing disinformation. This risk is made evident in a recent article by Tom Wilson and Kate Starbird in Misinformation Review. Unfortunately, they fall foul of it. This essay argues for greater epistemic caution.

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Posted in disinformation, free intelligence, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, White Helmets | 3 Comments