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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How Anti-Russian Propaganda Works

Russia is trying to “steal” vaccine research rather than “access life-saving information that should be the collective property of humanity.”

Everybody looks like the hero in their own story, not the villain. The baddies don’t know they’re the baddies. This simple and obvious truth is absolutely critical to remember if you want to understand the world. From within a country, its actions often look noble and decent, but to those on the receiving end, those same actions look like atrocities. This is one of the central themes in Noam Chomsky’s 50-year body of political writing, which critics tend to think of as “anti-American,” but which actually returns over and over to a central point: if we apply the same standards to evaluating the United States as we do to evaluating other countries, then we too are guilty of “terrorism,” “war crimes,” and “genocide.” But we prefer to have two separate standards: one for looking at what we do (the best motives assumed, everything treated as “well-intentioned” even if it results in catastrophe) and another for looking at what our “enemies” do (the worst and most selfish motives assumed, everything treated as malicious). 

A few examples: The Vietnam War is treated in U.S. accounts as a well-meaning blunder intended to help, but if any other country did what we had done we would think of it as a mass-murdering invasion. If another country assassinated one of our highest-ranking military officials we would consider it a criminal act of war, but if we assassinate one of their military officials we are merely punishing “terrorism” and expect them not to retaliate. If our politically-appointed Supreme Court makes a decision, it is legitimate law, but the high court in a socialist Latin American government must be “stuffed with political cronies.” And, of course, if Russia tries to intervene in our elections, it is a rogue state, but if we intervene in elections across the world (including Russia’s), it is simply because we care so much about democracy and human rights. 

Today’s news contains one of the most egregious examples I have ever seen of nationalistic bias leading to moral imbecility. We should examine it closely because it offers a critical lesson in how ideology filters its way into the media, and how information is presented in ways that turn the truth on its head. It is a story about Russia hacking the computers of medical research facilities in the United States, Britain, and Canada in order to “steal” data that could help Russia develop a Coronavirus vaccine. Let us see how the New York Times presents things. I am going to excerpt some big chunks because there are a few things that happen in the text that are worthy of being discussed: 

Russian hackers are attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research, the American, British and Canadian governments said Thursday, accusing the Kremlin of opening a new front in its spy battles with the West amid the worldwide competition to contain the pandemic… [A] hacking group implicated in the 2016 break-ins into Democratic Party servers has been trying to steal intelligence on vaccines from universities, companies and other health care organizations. The group, associated with Russian intelligence and known as both APT29 and Cozy Bear, has sought to exploit the chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.

… American intelligence officials said the Russians were aiming to steal research to develop their own vaccine more quickly, not to sabotage other countries’ efforts. There was likely little immediate damage to global public health, cybersecurity experts said. The Russian espionage nevertheless signals a new kind of competition between Moscow and Washington akin to Cold War spies stealing technological secrets during the space race generations ago…. The American government has previously warned about efforts by China and Iran to steal vaccine research…

[T]he primary target of the attacks appeared to be Oxford University in Britain and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which have been jointly working on a vaccine, said Robert Hannigan, the former head of G.C.H.Q., the British intelligence agency. Oxford scientists said on Thursday that they had noticed a surprising resemblance between their vaccine approach and the work that Russian scientists had reported.

Though Russia could be seeking to steal the vaccine data to bolster its own research, it could also be trying to avoid relying on Western countries for any eventual coronavirus vaccine. … While AstraZeneca has announced it will make the Oxford vaccine available at cost, governments and philanthropies have paid huge sums to the company to secure their place in line, even without any guarantee it will work. The United States has said it will pay up to $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca to fund a clinical trial and secure 300 million doses. Russia could find itself near the back of the line if the vaccine proves successful. “Russia clearly doesn’t want to disrupt vaccine production, but they don’t want to be dependent on the U.S. or the U.K. for production and discovery of the vaccine,” said Mr. Hannigan, now an executive at the BlueVoyant cybersecurity firm. “It not impossible [sic] to think Kremlin pride is such that they don’t want that to happen.” An intense international race is underway to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus that has already killed 580,000 people and upended daily life around the world.

… Laura Rosenberger, a former Obama administration official who now leads the Alliance for Securing Democracy, [said] “But there’s no question that whoever gets to a vaccine first thinks they will have geopolitical advantage, and that’s something I’d expect Russia to want.”

Let’s note a few things here: first, American intelligence officials admit openly that Russia is not trying to sabotage the vaccine development efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom, which would of course be a monstrous act. Instead, they are “trying to develop their own vaccine more quickly.” Far down the article, a former NSA computer scientist and cybersecurity expert acknowledges that “[t]he potential harm here is limited to commercial harm, to companies that are devoting a lot of their own resources into developing a vaccine in hopes it will be financially rewarding down the road.”

So: Russia is trying to access information that can be used to develop a coronavirus vaccine more quickly. If they succeed in this act of “theft,” they are not going to harm U.S./U.K. research. What they are going to do is harm the “commercial” interests of U.S./U.K.-based corporations. The article also says that if the U.S./U.K. develop the vaccine first, Russia will not have equal access to it but will be at the “back of the line,” even though its hospitals are currently being pushed to capacity and it has had 750,000 cases of the virus, one of the hardest-hit countries in the world. (It should go without saying that the story does not discuss whether the United States or United Kingdom have engaged in any intellectual espionage themselves related to medical research, because this, of course, would be highly classified.) 

Let’s ask a question: if you are a head of state, and your country is suffering from a terrible pandemic, would you not be crazy to try everything you could to access everything that is known about a vaccine? Surely it is the duty of any government that cares about the well-being of its people to spy for vaccine research. It would be irresponsible not to. Why on earth should the Russian government put the intellectual property rights of U.S. pharmaceuticals above the duty to protect the public health of Russians? No country’s leadership should be expected to think this way.  

But the New York Times does not discuss “saving Russian lives” as a potential Russian motive for wanting to get a vaccine as quickly as possible. Instead, they must be seeking “geopolitical advantage,” or want to preserve their “Kremlin pride.” Russians do not love their families like we love our families. Their effort to create a vaccine is because they want to be “first” whereas ours is because we are pursuing a selfless mission to protect public health. They are trying to “exploit the chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic.” The subhead of the article, “Hackers Sought Data From Companies Trying To Eradicate Coronarvirus,” frames our great companies as the ones trying to eradicate coronavirus, while the actual story is: Entity Trying To Eradicate Coronavirus Sought Data From Other Entity Trying To Eradicate Coronavirus. (The Washington Post story on the hacks contains a similar angle on China’s motivations, quoting Attorney General William Barr saying that “Beijing, ‘desperate for a public relations coup,’ is perhaps hoping to ‘claim credit for any medical breakthroughs.’” We would never do things out of a desire for credit, of course. But the Chinese are schemers, you see, whose primary motives are pride and seeking advantage.) 

Here’s another quote that appears in the New York Times story:

“We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” said Paul Chichester, the director of operations for Britain’s National Cyber Security Center.”

And one from the BBC’s report:

“It was unclear whether any useful information was stolen. But British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, ‘It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.’ He accused Moscow of pursuing ‘selfish interests with reckless behavior.’

Nobody has accused Russia of actually doing any damage to the progress of vaccine research. Yet apparently they have behaved “despicably” and “selfishly.” What are the embedded assumptions in what Chichester and Raab say? First, that it is not despicable for someone to lock up information that they know could help someone else produce a life-saving vaccine. It is however, despicable to try to access that information in order to create a life-saving vaccine, if doing so violates a property law. It is not selfish to prioritize the financial interests of your own country over the lives of people in other countries. It is however, selfish for those countries to prioritize the lives of their people over the financial interests of your country.

You can see that we have entered a moral topsy-turvy land, where greed is good and saving lives is selfish. Now, these are just quotes in the stories from British government officials, not from the journalists writing the stories. But what’s incredible is that nowhere in the stories is anybody quoted questioning the logic of viewing vaccine development as a “competition.” Nobody explains why researchers are keeping their research secret rather than sharing it as widely as possible. There is no discussion of how this constitutes a totally bizarre way to combat a global pandemic, which should not be a “race to see which country can find a vaccine first so that it can force everyone else to pay up if they want to save their people’s lives.” Iran, one of our Official Enemies, is mentioned as one of the countries doing the nefarious spying, but without discussion of the medical situation there that makes obtaining a vaccine so urgent. We’ve lapsed so completely into the destructive logic of selfish nationalism that “cooperating for the collective good of humanity” is so unthinkable as to not even merit discussion. 

Let’s have some moral honesty: the competitive approach is evil. It is criminal that any country is keeping vaccine information secret from other countries in the first place. That is mass murder. In the story of Russia hacking to find out how to make a coronavirus vaccine, the villain is us, not Russia. Vaccines are a public good, not a competition to see who can not die.

In fact, let me go further: if you are working on a vaccine, it is right to share information and wrong not to with those who might also be working on a vaccine. There is even a strong ethical argument to be made that leaking information is an obligation if it can save lives. Nationalism is irrational and indefensible. Russian and Iranian and Chinese grandparents who die struggling to breathe in a Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing ICU are of no less value than American and British grandparents. And this binds all equally: I do not exempt China and Russia from condemnation for keeping secrets. We are human beings, for God’s sake, and seeking national advantage in this moment—especially for rich countries—is disaster profiteering. 

One of the saddest aspects of the COVID-19 disaster is that this should be a moment for global unity and cooperation, but it hasn’t been. One of the most interesting things Ronald Reagan ever said was that, if there was ever an alien invasion, all inter-human conflict would disappear overnight, because we’d have to cooperate to save Earth. People found it a kooky thing to say, but it was actually rather charming. The only problem is, we now know Reagan was completely wrong and naive. We’ve got an alien invasion: an invisible killer that has struck around the world. But instead of helping one another in a coordinated effort, we’re jockeying to see which countries and companies get to extort the others.

Of course, the failure to cooperate hinders progress. If you have 100 people trying to solve a problem but none of them are willing to share what they know with others, opportunities are going to be missed. “Looking out for #1” does not actually help #1 in the end, because everyone’s fates are entwined. You know the lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, right? Perhaps not, because economists blab about the Prisoner’s Dilemma constantly but they never speak clearly about the actual lesson. The lesson is: selfish individualism ends up hurting everyone. Solidarity gets the goods. When we work together, we’re all better off. This is a lesson that you can teach to children, but nationalism turns us all into blind, selfish idiots who think human lives vary in value on the basis of whether they fall on one side or the other of an arbitrary geographic line. 

We see, in this Russia hacking story, how strange the presentation of facts in seemingly neutral news stories can be. The New York Times mentions the DNC hacks and Cold War spying, without talking about how the stakes are quite different in a global pandemic. It treats Russia as sinister, instead of posing the possibility that the sinister ones are those who think vaccines should be kept secret. The superior value of national self-enrichment over maximal prevention of global human suffering is assumed to be legitimate. Sociopathy is presented as Reason.

We have to get past this. If this planet is to have a future, we have to start caring about each other’s interests. I do not support the Russian government, because it is an atrocious human rights violator, Putin is an autocratic criminal, and all governments must be opposed, but what happens to Russians themselves matters to me. They are not my enemies and they are not yours, and to the extent that a government’s actions serve the ends of its people’s health, they may be justifiable even if illegal. The only enemies are those who seek to use other people’s misery as an opportunity to amass more money and power, and those who present that predatory behavior as neutral rather than abhorrent. The New York Times is far more worthy of condemnation than any country trying to hack its way toward a vaccine for coronavirus. 

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