Thursday, May 04, 2023

Who Cares If Hunter Biden Owns a Laptop? Red Herrings and Reflexive Control

 Introduction: Propaganda and Disinformation in Health Care and Elsewhere

 We used to write about propaganda and disinformation used to promote health care goods and services (stealth marketing campaigns), and advocate for policies favorable to private health care organizations (stealth health policy advocacy and stealth lobbying).  Some stealth marketing, lobbying and policy advocacy campaigns encompass not just propaganda, but disinformation.  For example, consider the health insurance company campaign to derail the Clinton administration's attempt at health reform as described by Wendell Potter in Deadly Spin (look here).  The tactics employed in that campaign included: use of front groups and third parties (useful idiots?); use of spies; distractions to make important issues anechoic; message discipline; and entrapment (double-think).

But back in the day, the notion of propaganda and disinformation as a real threat to health care, much less our democratic process and society as a whole, was pretty radical.  That was then.  By 2019 we were writing about a  a new (ab)normal that includes propaganda and disinformation in the service of hostile authoritarian foreign states meant to disrupt more democratic governments, whatever the cost in human health and lives.

And in 2023, propaganda and disinformation are in the headlines all the time.  But it is still important for health care professionals and the public at large to appreciate the mechanisms of both, and how to mentally defend against them.  In 2023, despite the headlines, the propagandists and disinformationists are not slowing down.  So it's time to review how they operate again. Let me present a recent example that caught my eye.

Who Cares if Hunter Biden owned a Real Laptop?   

As Elon Musk's Twitter gets increasingly raucous, the propaganda and disinformation that appear therein has gotten back to basics, providing some stark examples of the techniques used.  For example, see this 5 word Tweet from Rep Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a Harvard educated Congresswoman who has become a prime booster of Trump. 

Hunter Biden’s laptop is real.

What could it mean? Is there a debate going on whether Hunter Biden (the son of President Biden) owns a laptop? Who would care?

Of course, it turns out that there is a very big controversy, promoted by people who support Trump, about whether some aspects of a laptop ostensibly once owned by Hunter Biden suggest that both Bidens are unethical, corrupt, or worse.  For example, Washington Post reporters tried to analyze the controversy and the various questions raised about the provenance of the allegedly incriminating data:

217 gigabytes of data provided to The Post on a portable hard drive by Republican activist Jack Maxey. He said the contents of the portable drive originated from Hunter Biden’s MacBook Pro, which Hunter reportedly dropped off at a computer repair shop in Wilmington, Del., in April 2019 and never reclaimed.

The vast majority of the data — and most of the nearly 129,000 emails it contained — could not be verified by either of the two security experts who reviewed the data for The Post. Neither found clear evidence of tampering in their examinations, but some of the records that might have helped verify contents were not available for analysis, they said. 

It's clear there was no clear chain of custody spanning Hunter Biden, the laptop, its hard drive, the data on that hard drive, and the data eventually given to the Washington Post.

Furthermore, the significance of this electronic data and the strengths of any arguments about the behavior of Hunter Biden, President Biden, or other people based on it are very unclear.

So what was the point of Rep Stefanik's stark statement (and many others like it)?

The Red Herring Logical Fallacy

One simple explanation is that Rep Stefanik et al were employing the Red Herring Logical Fallacy.  One definition of this fallacy is:

Attempting to redirect the argument to another issue to which the person doing the redirecting can better respond. While it is similar to the avoiding the issue fallacy, the red herring is a deliberate diversion of attention with the intention of trying to abandon the original argument.

So this is like the many other examples of the use of logical fallacies to advance self-serving arguments about health care, policy, or other issues that we have discussed

Reflexive Control

However, Rep Stefanik's 5 word assertion may actually be part of something more sophisticated.

It may be part of a larger strategy of reflexive control.  Discussions of reflexive control used to mainly appear in fairly esoteric places, eg in considerations of military and intelligence strategies, game theory, etc. Here is some background from the Georgetown Security Studies Review from 2017:

With confusion swirling around 'alternative facts,' the effects of disinformation and Russian meddling are just beginning to take hold. This phenomenon may be new to American politics, but it’s an old strategy in the Kremlin. To understand and combat the effects and goals of disinformation, we must understand the concept of reflexive control and how it fits into greater Russian strategy.

Reflexive control is a 'uniquely Russian' concept based on maskirovka, an old Soviet notion in which one 'conveys to an opponent specifically prepared information to incline him/her to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action'. That is, reflexive control is a sustained campaign that feeds an opponent select information so that the opponent makes the decisions that one wants him/her to. Methods of reflexive control include spreading false information, leaking partial information at opportune moments, and projecting a different posture of oneself than what may actually be the case. The goal of reflexive control is to ‘control’ the ‘reflex’ of the opponent by creating a certain model of behavior in the system it seeks to control. The most fundamental way to do this is to locate the weak link in the system and exploit it through moral arguments, psychological tactics, or appeals to specific leaders’ character.

This concept has a long history in Russian military strategy, with the Soviet and Russian Armed Forces studying reflexive control at both the tactical and operational levels. Reflexive control has also long been taught at various Russian military schools and training programs, and is codified as Russian national security strategy in the Gerasimov Doctrine. Today, reflexive control is a key component in Russia’s idea of hybrid warfare.


Here is a useful summary from the PropWatch Project about how it's done:

 A messaging strategy of reflexive control conveys specially prepared information to an opponent to incline that opponent to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.' In other words, reflexive control is a way to get an opponent to willingly defeat himself. 

First introduced in the former Soviet Union by mathematician and psychologist Vladimir Lefebvre, reflexive control is a concept that has been perfected by Russia since the 1960's. A strategy of reflexive control can be reduced down to four basic components, also called the 4Ds:

Dismiss - to simply deny any involvement in a matter and discredit the accuser.
Distort - to warp, twist, or fabricate your own facts.
Distract - to introduce certain novel information into the mix or accuse your accuser of the same. 
Dismay - to play with emotions by using fear-mongering tactics.

Accusing one's political enemy of denying the existence of an object (a laptop) when the real questions are complicated ones about the truthfulness of evidence and the best way to interpret it seems to fit right in.


The problems of propaganda and disinformation in health care and policy no longer seem esoteric.  Instead they have become central problems of our time, and a clear challenge to our ideals of democratic government.  Without a functioning democracy, IMHO trying to make incremental changes in health policy to reduce health care dysfunction becomes an exercise in frustration, if not futility.

Health care professionals and the general public must better understand and learn to defend against both crude and sophisticated attempts to warp policy and politics, and corrupt democracy to prevent the onset of a new dark age.

We on Health Care Renewal  will continue to try to do our small part to defend against these dark arts.

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