June 17, 2019

John Avlon's reality check segment was a little shocking this morning -- and it takes a lot to do that these days.

"A U.S. government program designed to fight Russian disinformation, Twitter trolls, and online fake news just morphed into exactly the thing it was supposed to be against. So how did that happen? Here's our reality check," John Berman said.

"It's quite a story. So tensions with iran seem to be escalating fast. Now, there's no question the Islamic Republic of Iran is a bad actor on the world stage, with a horrific record. There is little appetite for another Mideast war, a view held by President Trump. You might ask who's cheerleading for conflict. Well, turns out the chorus includes U.S. taxpayer-funded trolls targeting journalists on social media. Welcome to a new chapter in the disinformation wars," John Avlon said.

"Front and center is Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian, who was held in an Iranian prison for about 18 month. He's the last you would think is an apologist or collaborator, but those are the slurs hurled at him and others. His sin is apparently not being sufficiently enthusiastic about regime change. He's been critical of ramped up economic sanctions and the threat of military intervention. What makes this story more than troll and man: It was funded by the U.S. State Department as part of its Global Engagement Center, which is supposed to fight online disinformation and propaganda.

"In this case, it appears they did exactly the things they were supposed to fight. The Global Engagement Center was supposed to be focused on combating Russian disinformation in campaigns and funded with $80 million to do just that. But Brett Brune told CNN this.

REPORTER: The Trump administration didn't really want to spend it because that meant recognizing what Russia was doing was a real threat. And instead what they've chosen to do is to spend that money and threaten American activists, threaten American journalists like Jason who don't agree with the Trump administration's stand on Iran. That's rather alarming and it's quite dangerous.

"Apparently alarming enough that the State Department decided to suspend their funding of the program after reporters started asking questions. The online drumbeat echoes on.

"In A related story, the anti-regime force seems to have created a fake online persona to push regime change. But according to The Intercept, it emanated in Albania and evolved into articles published under the fake name. According to the report, the Trump White House even cited the articles by this fictitious figure to justify its party line about the Obama-era nuclear deal and the need for maximum pressure policies.

"The circularity is enough to make your head spin. Disinformation campaigns being used to justify real world escalations by the American administration. Got a feed loop here between hard-liners invested in increasing tension. Now, there's no moral equivalence between Iran and the United States, but that clear line threatens to become a bit blurry when the U.S. funds disinformation campaigns that attack people who don't parrot the party line. That's a tactic for authoritarian regimes, not democracies.

"As Jason Rezaian recently wrote, 'We need programs that fight the spread of falsehoods and propaganda. But such efforts shouldn't combat lies with other lies, and certainly not with public funding.'

"And that's your reality check."

Sure makes you think that the Trump administration sees an Iran war as just another reality show, meant to boost ratings at contract time. Donald Trump wants to send other people's children to die.

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