cutting up our moral calling card

on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

My childhood memories are dotted with golden-hued afternoons and evenings spent at my grandfather’s house. It was an imposing brick structure built in the 1700s, complete with creaky floorboards and a terrifying basement. My grandfather, who had arrived in the United States in 1952, having been deported from Poland to a Soviet work camp in 1940 and spending the intervening twelve years as a displaced person, bought the place after starting a successful business and living a version of the American Dream. But even with that very American origin story, my memories of his house are very Polish. As I kid, I would sing the “goose girl” song in Polish to party guests. My cousin and I were sure that Baba Jaga lived in the creepy basement. The property’s old smokehouse was nicknamed “Jagodowa,” the Polish word for blueberry.

My grandfather and his children in New Jersey in the late 50s.

One night after some sort of celebration — perhaps it was Polish Christmas Eve — my grandfather took me on his knee at the dining room table to talk about my future career. I couldn’t have been more than five. I probably told him I wanted to be an astronaut. “Ninusia,” he said, using the Polish diminuitive, “you could be President.” I pulled a face, but he was adamant, repeating himself. I squirmed away.

I’m telling this story now not because I am announcing an impending presidential run — there are far too many candidates already, and I’m not yet 35 😉— but because I’ve been thinking about my grandfather a lot since the Ukraine scandal broke. He died when I was 13, so I never got to interrogate him about great power politics, but I don’t think he’d appreciate seeing Ukraine treated as a means to an end, not a sovereign nation.

More often, I think about the values that brought my grandfather here, that get me out of bed every morning, that brought thousands of people to Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, six years ago. I might have grown up European, but my grandfather decided to move his entire family to America, a land of opportunity, a land of democracy, a land of free expression, a land where his granddaughter could run for president if she wanted to. And today, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think about how over and over again, in actions as small as a presidential retweet that claims “Americans don’t care about Ukraine” and as large as including our foreign aid in a bribery package, the Trump administration is undermining the values for which millions behind the Berlin Wall struggled, for which my grandfather immigrated. And we are undermining those — like the 13,000 Ukrainians who have died since Russia invaded their country — who have died for those values. As I told The New Republic’s Casey Michel for his piece on the Wall’s tarnished legacy:

“What did they die for? They died because they believed in the ideals of democracy and rule of law, and they want a future with dignity—that’s why [the 2014 Ukrainian revolution] is called the Revolution of Dignity…those are ideals that have guided U.S. foreign policy at least since the Cold War, and certainly before that too, I would argue…When we’re putting [support for Ukraine] up for grabs as part of a partisan political battle, it undermines our moral calling card—not only in Europe, but around the world.”

It has been a busy few weeks since the Ukraine scandal morphed into the impeachment inquiry. Here is a selection of my latest and greatest:

  • I’m finishing up edits on my book, which is now available for preorder directly from the publisher (cheaper!) and also on Amazon (more expensive and more evil, but you do you). I know my pub date is a million years away, but preordering helps create buzz around the book and let booksellers know how many to order, so if you are able to preorder I’d be much obliged.

  • I had a nice chat with Christiane Amanpour on Ukraine a few weeks ago. (Sadly the camera cuts away from me as I nearly burst out laughing when she almost calls Giuliani’s associates, Parnas and Fruman, his “henchmen” ;))

  • Believe it or not, lots has continued to happen in the social media space, especially in the debate over online political ads. I wrote this piece for the Washington Post asking why some of the most commonsensical social media regulations, including the Honest Ads Act, have not yet been passed, with a just under a year until the 2020 elections.

i wish ukraine weren't in the news

but since it is...

This March, I was on a Ukrainian inter-city train headed to Ivano-Frankivsk, a small city in the country’s West, at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. I was sitting knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder with five other passengers in a stuffy sleeper car-turned-passenger shuttle. We didn’t speak much, except to offer apologies as we climbed over — and inevitably got caught on — each others’ limbs when we left the car to stretch our legs. My mobile signal dipped in and out. Every time I caught it, I impatiently refreshed Twitter, starved of the constant flow of information I had been consuming since I arrived a few weeks earlier to cover the Ukrainian election.

In one cell-signal haven, an unwelcome tweet crossed my feed; Donald Trump Jr. called for the American Ambassador to Ukraine’s resignation, claiming that the career foreign servant was partisan, among a host of other conspiracies about her work that did not square with the reality on the ground.

The man to my right, unabashedly reading over my shoulder, raised his eyebrows at the tweet. I shook my head and sighed. A week before the Presidential Election, a major test of Ukraine’s democracy, Kyiv needed signals of stability and support from one of its most important allies, not this turmoil and intrigue. I was dismayed that Ukraine would be in the news for this fabricated “scandal,” and not for the steps it had taken to ensure a free and fair election, for the progress it had made over the past five years, and for the passion that had characterized the campaign season.

Six months later, in an extension of that fabricated scandal, Ukraine has once again been splashed across the front pages of American newspapers and cable news chyrons.

The Trump administration — led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — claims, without a single shred of evidence, that as Vice President, Joe Biden pressured the President of Ukraine to fire prosecutor general to protect Hunter Biden, the VP’s son, who at the time was serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been under investigation. In reality, Biden asked Poroshenko to fire the prosecutor because he was stonewalling Ukraine’s anti-corruption reform efforts on which a billion-dollar loan guarantee was incumbent.

But the plot thickens; The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal allege that a whistleblower complaint that surfaced last week concerning a promise President Trump made to a foreign leader is about Ukraine. They report that POTUS pressured Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy to look into the alleged Biden scandal.

I joined PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff to discuss this story in more detail:

As I said on the program, one of the most disturbing aspects of this story — outside of the obvious and flagrant disregard for our national security that attempting to broker such an arrangement with a foreign leader requires — is the implications for democracy. Ours. Ukraine’s. The institution itself. How can we, the United States of America, have any shred of confidence in our democratic system when our President has allegedly asked a foreign leader (no fewer than eight times in one conversation, according to the WSJ) to investigate his most powerful political opponent in exchange for foreign aid? Any democratic doubters will point to this as proof that American democracy is not all it’s cracked up to be. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s reputation — which has improved slightly thanks to the reform it has managed to achieve in the past five years — is being sullied, its democratic future and ability to defend itself thrown into question. All of this, for the political benefit of one man.

This morning when I arrived at my office I had a message from a concerned citizen in Middle America who had heard an interview I did on PRI’s “The World” on Friday. “Clean up your own side of the aisle before you throw stones at President Trump,” he told me, in a long and meandering diatribe that somehow also managed to include the cement mixer Jeffrey Epstein sent to his private island. “Let’s all get together and be Americans,” the caller said. He didn’t leave a callback number. I wish I could tell him that I’m motivated not by a special animus towards President Trump or his administration, but by a desire to reach people exactly like him and explain what I know to be true about a country where I’ve lived and worked It’s what I’ve been doing since I tweeted about this story on the train to Ivano-Frankivsk back in March, when it first reared its grotesque head.

This story has not gone away for six months, and it will only continue to get more confusing and more entrenched until the next scandal comes along and subsumes it. But the issues it concerns will remain. In an effort to end this newsletter on a positive note, here are a few people I trust on Ukraine and adjacent issues. Consider getting your news on this issue from public media, leave the Twitter conspiracy theorists aside, and engage with the work of people who actually know the country.

a day late and a dollar short

are we making progress fighting disinformation?

Hello there! Summer is over, and here I am, sheepishly crawling back into your inbox. I had a good excuse for being away — I was finishing my manuscript! — but I still feel guilty about my long absence.

As I was writing the conclusion to my book, cannibalizing essays and papers I’ve written over the past three years, a familiar sense of dismay about how little the couter-disinformation space has changed over the past three years washed over me. The topics I was researching and solutions I was advocating for then are the same ones I’m focused on now.

American political elites are somehow still arguing about whether Russian information operations had any impact on our political discourse. French President Emmanuel Macron, once so critical of Russia for spreading “serious falsehoods” to which he would “never give in” seems to have done just that, and is lobbying for Moscow’s reintroduction into the G7. Social media companies continue to play their game of Whack-a-Troll, deleting inauthentic accounts under a cloud of opacity, rarely giving users concrete data about just how widespread the disinformation problem is. Facebook is finally investing in journalism with its “news tab” feature, but it is partnering with big name outlets, not smaller, independent organizations for whom the $2 million syndication fee the social media giant will pay would be a seismic injection of funds. Google is adjusting its search algorithm to prioritize original reporting (a suggestion that has been given to the company for years, as many journalists were quick to point out).

More worrisome, though, is the growing political polarization that grips leaves us vulnerable for continued manipulation. As I told the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations in testimony this summer, “Where we ought to be setting the rules of engagement, the tone, and the moral compass in responding to Russia’s information war, the United States has been a tardy, timid, or tertiary player, with much of our public servants’ good work on this issue stymied by domestic politicization.” It extends beyond our borders, too; at a discussion with journalists and cybersecurity professionals visiting Washington on the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) last week, participants from across the former communist space lamented this polarization, and worried that it might be an insurmountable challenge. Politicians lead and perpetuate this polarization, making the counter disinformation battleground more dangerous and the fight itself much more difficult to win.

The collective ‘we’ — the West, and democracy as we know it — needs more politicians campaigning not only for their reelection, but for a return to deliberative democratic discourse. This is going to be a focus of my upcoming work at the Wilson Center, where I’ve begun a new appointment as a Fellow in the Science and Technology Innovation Program’s “Defending Disinformation Series.” We kicked off the series last month with a productive discussion that included academics, practitioners, tech reps, and media; watch it here. I argue for a more formalized version of this cross-sector approach to countering disinformation in a new paper for the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Looking forward to appearing more regularly in your inbox. Thanks for sticking with me during my absence!

dispatch from tbilisi

are you f*cking kidding me?

It’s been a tumultuous week in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I’ve been since Monday. The country is hosting its first Pride celebration, and traditionalist homophobes threatened the organizers and attendees.

In the background, parliamentarians from across the Orthodox world descended on the capital for the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO). What should have been a non-event triggered a protest of thousands after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov chaired the IAO’s plenary session from the Speaker of the Georgian parliament’s seat. Despite claiming Georgian heritage, Gavrilov is no friend to Georgia. He recognizes the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgian two regions that have been occupied by Russia since 2008. He called the five-day war that led to their occupation a “minor misunderstanding” between Tbilisi and Moscow. Understandably, Gavrilov’s “occupation” of the Georgian Speaker’s seat was a symbol that many Georgians were not willing to let stand.

Thousands of peaceful protestors gathered in front of parliament on Thursday evening. Many carried signs that said “Russia is an occupier” or “Fuck Putin.” My favorite read “Are you fucking kidding me?”, pondering on poster board the question on the country’s collective mind last night: how could the Georgian government, at war with Russia just over a decade ago, allow such an blatant affront to the Georgian nation to take place?

The protest was about more than bad optics; Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, has pursued a policy of engagement with Russia since assuming power in 2012. Its leaders claim that in order to make progress in ending the conflict with Moscow, Georgia should not act as an “irritant,” so the government has sought closer economic, cultural, and religious ties with its norther neighbor. These sectors have nothing to do with politics, Georgian Dream maintains, but as one former official told me before the protest yesterday, “everything is politics, especially in the era of hybrid warfare.” Indeed, organizations like the IAO and “Russki Mir (Russian World),” which Georgian Dream has welcomed into the country, are vectors for Russian influence in Georgia and beyond.

Protestors I spoke with said they weren’t looking for a specific outcome from the demonstration, but wanted to send a message that Georgians would not consent to the Kremlin’s creeping influence and Georgian Dream’s tacit acceptance of it. Later in the evening, protestors demanded the Speaker of the Parliament resign, and as the demonstration continued into the early hours of Friday morning, clashes broke out between protestors and police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. (Don’t worry, Mom, I left by then.) Though both the President and Prime Minister condemned Gavrilov’s actions in parliament, both cast doubt on the authenticity of the demonstration, claiming it was not spontaneous, but “artificially instigated.”

From my perspective, the gathering seemed absolutely genuine, showing none of the signs of paid protests that are typical for the region. The crowd was a mix of ages, genders, and economic backgrounds, and all were engaged with the action. What surprised me wasn’t the protests or protestors themselves, but that in a country that is 20% occupied by Russia, they needed to happen at all. Russian interference comes in more forms than online meddling; it’s a lesson the West would do well to learn.

truth hurts

some not-hot takes

(Optional soundtack for this email: Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts”)

ukraine update

Since Volodymyr Zelensky was inaugurated as Ukraine’s sixth president on May 20, he has dissolved parliament and called early elections for July 21, visited the EU and NATO, and begun to make appointments to his team. The head of the new Presidential Administration is none other than oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer, and Zelensky’s bodyguards are also from Kolomoisky’s orbit.

The appointment that made the most waves in the West, however, was that of his new spokesperson, Iuliia Mendel.

Mendel previously worked as a consultant for the World Bank, as well as a stringer and fixer for The New York Times. For those not familiar with journalist-speak, this means she was an industrious, English-speaking Ukrainian who could get on-the-ground insight when the Times didn’t have a correspondent in Ukraine; when it did, she would travel with that person, acting as interpreter, organizer, and local resource.

She shared a byline with Ken Vogel on the recent Times report on Hunter Biden’s murky connections in Ukraine, and this is what set “Resistance Twitter” frothing at the mouth when her appointment was announced. All week, prominent figures with tens of thousands of followers insinuated that Mendel had been appointed as Zelensky’s spokesperson as some sort of quid pro quo for her work on the Biden story; they couldn’t be more wrong.

Here are a few facts. They are boring. They are detailed. They are a very not-hot take:

  • The Vogel-Mendel story claimed that as Vice President, Joe Biden lobbied for the removal of a corrupt official who was investigating the company for which Hunter Biden was consulting. (I’m not linking to the piece here because I and most people with a lick of experience in Ukraine think it was not well constructed and was generally quite misleading about Ukraine’s anti-corruption fight and Joe Biden’s role in it.) “Resistance” Twitter and most Democrats were angry at the Times for running the story and feeding Trump’s narrative of “Ukraine collusion,” which, in reality, does not exist. I agree with the Resistance” that the story was poor, but as a stringer, Mendel herself likely had little to do with the way the story shook out.

  • The story was published just as the vacancy for spokesperson, for which Zelensky held an open online contest, was announced. Many on Twitter were claiming that the story presented a “conflict of interest” for the Times. I’m not sure how that conflict of interest exists if the reporter in question hadn’t yet even considered applying for the position.

  • The narrative of a Times-Mendel cabal also assumes that the story was a boon for Mendel’s application to the spox job; in fact, it was likely a detriment to it. The attention that the Times story placed on Ukraine encouraged President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to briefly consider a trip to Ukraine to further “investigate” Biden’s purported dirty dealings. He decided to cancel the trip after it was clear that the Zelensky team wasn’t keen to meet with him, then called the new Ukrainian administration “enemies of POTUS.” To claim that Zelensky has somehow benefited from the Biden story is utter nonsense; instead, it has put his relationship with the most powerful man in the world on the rocks.

  • Besides this byline, into which I assume Mendel had little input or editorial oversight, based on her freelance status, she has also reported interesting features like this one about the abuse of women in the Ukrainian military, which are none too kind to the government. This is a person who wants her country to be better. I met Mendel briefly when we were both reporting from Zelensky’s hometown, Kryvyi Rih, in April. She struck me as ambitious, smart, level-headed, and resourceful. In short: exactly the type of public servant Ukraine needs.

  • Finally, for every media commentary pundit who is up in arms about Mendel joining the government from journalism, this is common practice in Ukraine, and moreover, is hardly something that doesn’t happen in the West. Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador, and Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Foreign Minister, are two former journalists who have gone into high-level public service. There are tons more working as speechwriters, spokespeople, and policy advisors all over government. Sure, they may not make their switch to the public sector as hastily as Mendel did. To that I say: welcome to Ukraine. To assume that Mendel might have immediately informed her employers about a 1 in 4000 chance she had at getting a job as spokesperson for the new president is ludicrous.

new from me

Last month I published a piece in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo’s Illustrisima magazine laying out how Facebook has become the Internet in a lot of developing nations (including Ukraine and Brazil), and arguing that quitting the social network is a privilege millions of people literally can't afford to enjoy. It’s in Portuguese, so I slapped the English version up on Medium for your reading pleasure:

Despite Facebook and other social media platforms’ public remonstrations that they are changing their behavior, we could not be farther from that online democratic utopia, and my criticism continues. I am often in good company, as social media users are becoming more aware of their rights and the platforms’ negligence for them. Lately, though, my public disapproval has been met with a unique chorus of pseudo-wise men, eager to inform me that yes, of course, Facebook is bad! But why didn’t I realize that sooner? The pseudo-wise man usually goes on to inform me that he had the foresight to delete Facebook years ago.

Bravo to the pseudo-wise men of the global west and north for their apparent foresight. What they don’t realize, however, is their very ability to delete their Facebook accounts and their audacity to brag about it is not only coming from a place of supposed intellectual superiority, but one of privilege. For millions of people outside of North America and Western Europe, Facebook, quite simply, is the Internet. Deleting it is tantamount to throwing your phone into the nearest body of water and retreating to the dark depths of the forest to begin your life as a hermit.

Read the rest of the piece here.

book club

I am in a deep non-fiction groove right now (perhaps to feed my manuscript-writing motivation?). Here’s what I’m reading:

  • Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou: This book was recommended to me for ages and I finally picked it up at the airport a few weeks ago. I got through about a third of it on my flight home from Europe, which is saying something considering there were movies, wine, and sleep to distract me. It’s just as compelling and instructive about start-up culture as everyone says it is.

  • Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward by Valerie Jarrett: I got to see Jarrett, a close friend of the Obamas’ and former White House official, speak last week. I found her so authentic that I paid double list price to buy her book, which I’m a couple of chapters into. Jury’s still out on whether that price is worth it, but her story is fascinating and inspiring so far.

  • Next up: The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet by Jeff Kosseff: This book explores the origin, history, and future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is the document that gives social media platforms (and other Internet “intermediaries”) limited liability for the content their users create and post. As Congress begins to look more seriously at Big Tech regulation, we can expect to see Section 230 brought up again and again, so I’ll be reading this (with an unlimited supply of coffee around) to get a more nuanced view than “Big Tech bad! Regulation good!”

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