Disinformation Information

Everyone knew it would happen again. On average, these things happen once a week now – so it happened again. This time it was Texas:

A 17-year-old student armed with a shotgun and a pistol went on a rampage Friday morning at his school here outside Houston, killing 10 people – mostly students – before surrendering to the officers who confronted him, officials said. Ten others were wounded, including a school resource officer who was left in critical condition…

The trenchcoat-clad gunman – who police identified as student Dimitrios Pagourtzis – came into the first art classroom and began shooting.

The rest of this item from the Washington Post, like all the others, tells the story of this terrified student or that – where they were and what saw and how they felt – one by one – and quotes terrified parents too – to let readers get a feel for what happened. It’s solid reporting. It’s also voyeuristic. It’s titillating. Readers can imagine what it would be like for them if they were there. That’s exciting, and that’s a kind of pornography, about violence, not sex. It’s the safe secondary experience of the nasty real thing. The details here are news of course, but they’re so familiar to anyone who follows these things that they’re not worth repeating here. These things happen. Get your jollies elsewhere.

This seems more important:

Pagourtzis, who students described as a quiet loner, was held Friday without bond at the Galveston County jail, charged with capital murder and aggravated assault on a peace officer. It was unclear what motivated the attack, as authorities said it came without any obvious warning.

There were no “red flags” thus time, but there was this:

Pagourtzis made his first court appearance Friday evening, a little more than 10 hours after the massacre. He spoke quietly, saying “Yes, sir” when asked if he wanted a court-appointed attorney. After the brief hearing, Pagourtzis was led away.

Police said Pagourtzis gave a statement admitting responsibility for the shooting, according to a probable-cause affidavit filed in court. Pagourtzis told police that he went into the school wearing a trenchcoat and wielding two guns intent on killing people.

The affidavit, which identifies him as Dimitrios Pagourtzis Jr., states that the 17-year-old told police that “he did not shoot students he did like so he could have his story told.”

This, then, is a matter of competing stories:

Santa Fe High School, home of the Indians, had won a statewide award for its safety program. As an ominous precursor to Friday’s shooting, the school had experienced a false alarm about an active shooter in February, an event that attracted a massive emergency response and the chaotic arrival of fearful parents.

Many of the 1,400 students had staged a walkout April 20 as part of a nationwide protest against school shootings, part of a grass roots movement among young Americans in the wake of the February massacre of 17 students and staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. One sign carried by Santa Fe students during their April protest: “#NeverAgain”.

Four Fridays later, their school was attacked.

Pagourtzis had different story to tell, one that has been told over and over this year:

This was the 16th school shooting so far this year, according to a Washington Post analysis. That’s the highest number at this point in any year since 1999, the year of the Columbine High massacre. The Post’s analysis found that since 1999, shootings during school hours have killed at least 141 children, educators and other people, with another 284 injured.

The nationwide protest against school shootings has young Americans telling one story – everyone wants this to stop, or should – but there’s a competing narrative:

Experts on mass shootings note that the killers study their predecessors, copy their moves and even their fashion choices. The shooter at Santa Fe High appeared to copy elements of the Columbine massacre: a black trench coat, a shotgun, explosives.

More than 30 shooters have copied the Columbine killers, and admitted they’d done so, according to Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama.

“This seems like actually a more extreme version because of all of the different elements that seem to be copied, from clothing to weapons and modus operandi in terms of planting bombs,” Lankford said. “It’s a form of celebrity worship. The celebrities in this case are celebrity killers – the Columbine killers.”

Pagourtzis didn’t shoot students he liked so he could have his “story” told, and a second Washington Post item covers his story:

He had no run-ins with police, was an honor roll student and had been praised for his defensive work on the junior varsity football team.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, projected a nondescript demeanor, a quiet loner who regularly wore a trench coat to school, even on scorching hot days. He had been bullied by classmates and coaches, one acquaintance said. And recently, he betrayed a growing darkness.

In the weeks before the shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, he posted a picture of a black t-shirt on his Facebook page emblazoned in white with a simple message: “BORN TO KILL.”

On the same day he posted the t-shirt photo, Pagourtzis uploaded a picture of a jacket adorned with several pinned symbols. In captions, he explained the significance of each: the Communist Party’s hammer and sickle representing rebellion, Nazi Germany’s Iron Cross representing bravery, the Japanese rising sun for the tactics of kamikaze pilots, the Knights Templar’s Baphomet for evil and the Cthulhu from science fiction for power.

The Daily Beast, however, interviewed far more of his friends – no one was bullying him and he was a fine fellow. He just decided, rather suddenly, to be the ultimate rebel. None of them saw this coming, but lots of curious and intelligent adolescents, deep into history, and trivia about history, and arcane symbolism, make that same decision every day – and now all that stuff is out there on the internet.

David French addresses that:

Why does this keep happening? Those who advocate for gun control have an immediate answer – the prevalence of guns in the United States. Yet guns have been part of the fabric of American life for the entire history of our republic. Mass shootings – especially the most deadly mass shootings – are a far more recent phenomenon.

Writing in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote what I think is still the best explanation for modern American mass shootings, and it’s easily the least comforting. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, essentially he argues that each mass shooting lowers the threshold for the next…

The preparations for massacres are often extremely detailed. Shooters (and wannabe shooters) will often film videos, mimic the dress and poses of the Columbine killers, and otherwise copy the shooters who came before. Gladwell is hardly an NRA conservative – and he believes gun control “has its place” – but he also shares this grim warning: “Let’s not kid ourselves that if we passed the strictest gun control in the world that we would end this particular kind of behavior.”

There are young men in the grip of a terrible contagion, and there is no cure coming.

That terrible contagion is spread on the internet – everything about everything, true or false, is available to anyone, instantaneously – and much of it is misinformation. Much of it is cleverly manipulated misinformation, so this was inevitable:

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, said he could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

Pagourtzis wanted to tell his story – he really was the ultimate rebel now, finally, like those guys at Columbine – he had even planned to commit suicide to prove that – but now that’s out of his hands:

Some social media watchers said they were still surprised at the speed with which the Santa Fe shooting descended into information warfare. Sampson said he watched the clock after the suspect was first named by police to see how long it would take for a fake Facebook account to be created in the suspect’s name: less than 20 minutes.

“It seemed this time like they were more ready for this,” he said, “like someone just couldn’t wait to do it.”

Pagourtzis is up against a vast army now:

Facebook said this week it had disabled more than 500 million fake accounts on the social network in the first three months of the year, although it contended tens of millions more were probably still online.

Christopher Bouzy, whose site Bot Sentinel tracks more than 12,000 automated Twitter accounts often used to spread misinformation, said four of the top 10 phrases tweeted by bot or troll accounts over the past 24 hours were related to the Santa Fe shooting, reaching the top 10 within less than three hours. “That is significant activity for our platform,” he said.

The fake accounts included the name of Dimitrios Pagourtzis…

And now he loves Hillary Clinton, unless he doesn’t:

Several of the fake Facebook accounts named for the Santa Fe shooter were disabled within a half-hour on Facebook, but others could be seen popping up sporadically through Friday afternoon, including one fake profile that featured a banner from the campaign of President Trump.

There’s a lot of disinformation information out there, but it wasn’t all about Dimitrios Pagourtzis. There was a second example of that. Everyone “knows” that Obama placed an FBI spy on the Trump campaign staff, to ruin Donald Trump.

Everyone knows that? The New York Times, among others, reports this as disinformation information:

President Trump accused the FBI on Friday, without evidence, of sending a spy to secretly infiltrate his 2016 campaign “for political purposes” even before the bureau had any inkling of the “phony Russia hoax.”

In fact, FBI agents sent an informant to talk to two campaign advisers only after they received evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia during the campaign. The informant, an American academic who teaches in Britain, made contact late that summer with one campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, according to people familiar with the matter. He also met repeatedly in the ensuing months with the other aide, Carter Page, who was also under FBI scrutiny for his ties to Russia.

This was “spying” on the Russians, not Trump, but some don’t see it that way:

The role of the informant is at the heart of the newest battle between top law enforcement officials and Mr. Trump’s congressional allies over the FBI’s most politically charged investigations in decades. The lawmakers, who say they are concerned that federal investigators are abusing their authority, have demanded documents from the Justice Department about the informant.

Law enforcement officials have refused, saying that handing over the documents would imperil both the source’s anonymity and safety.

Democrats say the Republicans’ real aim is to undermine the special counsel investigation. Senior law enforcement officials have also privately expressed concern that the Republicans are digging into FBI files for information they can weaponize against the Russia inquiry.

And then there’s the Big Orange Guy, who gets his disinformation information from Fox and Friends:

Over the past two days, Mr. Trump has used speculative news reports about the informant, mostly from conservative media, to repeatedly assail the Russia investigation.

“Reports are there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. “It took place very early on, and long before the phony Russia Hoax became a ‘hot’ Fake News story. If true – all time biggest political scandal!”

Unless it isn’t:

One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, acknowledged on Friday that neither the president nor his legal team knew with certainty that the FBI had implanted a spy in the Trump campaign, as he and the president had alleged.

“I don’t know for sure, nor does the president, if there really was one,” Mr. Giuliani said on CNN.

What? That doesn’t matter anyway:

No evidence has emerged that the informant acted improperly when the FBI asked for help in gathering information on the former campaign advisers, or that agents veered from the FBI’s investigative guidelines and began a politically motivated inquiry, which would be illegal.

But this was a tricky business:

Agents were leery of disrupting the presidential campaign again after the FBI had announced in a high-profile news conference that it had closed the case involving Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to current and former law enforcement officials.

After opening the Russia inquiry about a month later, they took steps, those officials said, to ensure that details of the inquiry were more closely held than even in a typical national security investigation, including the use of the informant to suss out information from the unsuspecting targets. Sending FBI agents to interview them could have created additional risk that the investigation’s existence would seep into view in the final weeks of a heated presidential race.

FBI officials concluded they had the legal authority to open the investigation after receiving information that Mr. Papadopoulos was told that Moscow had compromising information on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” months before WikiLeaks released stolen messages from Democratic officials.

The Russians were up to something, not Trump. They wanted to know what that was, and they wanted to know about this:

The informant also had contacts with Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who was Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser. The two met in February 2014, when Mr. Flynn was running the Defense Intelligence Agency and attended the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, an academic forum for former spies and researchers that meets a few times a year.

According to people familiar with Mr. Flynn’s visit to the intelligence seminar, the source was alarmed by the general’s apparent closeness with a Russian woman who was also in attendance. The concern was strong enough that it prompted another person to pass on a warning to the American authorities that Mr. Flynn could be compromised by Russian intelligence, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Two years later, in late 2016, the seminar itself was embroiled in a scandal about Russian spying. A number of its organizers resigned, over what they said was a Kremlin-backed attempt to take control of the group.

That had nothing to do with Trump, and Asha Rangappa, a senior lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale and a former FBI agent, says Trump should be happy with what did happen:

Trump and his backers are wrong about what it means that the FBI reportedly was using a confidential source to gather information early in its investigation of possible campaign ties to Russia. The investigation started out as a counterintelligence probe, not a criminal one. And relying on a covert source rather than a more intrusive method of gathering information suggests that the FBI may have been acting cautiously – perhaps too cautiously – to protect the campaign, not undermine it.

In short, this was for Trump’s own good:

As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, I know what Trump apparently does not: Counterintelligence investigations have a different purpose than their criminal counterparts. Rather than trying to find evidence of a crime, the FBI’s counterintelligence goal is to identify, monitor and neutralize foreign intelligence activity in the United States. In short, this entails identifying foreign intelligence officers and their network of agents; uncovering their motives and methods; and ultimately rendering their operations ineffective – either by clandestinely thwarting them (say, by feeding back misinformation or “flipping” their sources into double agents) or by exposing them.

That’s what was going on here:

By early summer 2016, according to the New York Times, the FBI had already identified at least four members of the Trump campaign with significant ties to or contacts with Russian intelligence. The next logical step in a counterintelligence investigation would be to discern what Russia was trying to do with those people. Sending a source to talk to suspected foreign agents such as campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos could illuminate whether these individuals were being developed – or even tasked – as intelligence assets for Russia. And that could have served to generate even more information: If the U.S. intelligence community had later picked up “chatter” on Russia’s end following these interactions, the FBI could have verified that these individuals were, in fact, in communication with Russian operatives…

Using a confidential intelligence source would have made sense if the FBI’s long-term strategy was to allow Russia to believe it was operating undetected and to collect intelligence on Russian methods.

That was the whole point, and Rangappa then points out the obvious:

The Trump administration’s assault against the FBI’s efforts to assess a national security threat posed by suspected foreign agents only raises more questions about what went on in 2016. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he is innocent of colluding with Russia and had no idea about his campaign staff’s Russia contacts. So he should be glad to know that the FBI appears to have been trying to thwart a hostile country’s efforts to infiltrate his campaign. That he and his allies in Congress do not even acknowledge that these individuals posed a national security threat and instead attack the FBI for apparently doing its job suggests that they would have been happy for whatever Russia was doing in 2016 to continue unimpeded.

Trump tells one story – everyone is out to get him. He’s been telling that story for two years now. He told America that everyone is out to get us. He told America to sneer at the rest of the world – to get angry and get tough. The world was laughing at America. He also said that the rest of America – the blacks and the gays and the urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and all “politicians” in general – was laughing at real Americans. Mexicans and Muslims were laughing at us too. Everyone is out get us, even our allies, and now his own FBI is out to get him. Rangappa tells another story – Trump has something to hide.

Everyone tells stories. Dimitrios Pagourtzis had his story – he was now the ultimate rebel, finally. Donald Trump has his story – everyone is out to get him. And now they’ve each lost control of their stories. That happens. Misinformation isn’t information.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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