This is an excerpt from the beginning of the mega-article “Debunking All The Assange Smears”.
Before we get into refuting the specific points of disinformation, I’d like to share a few tips which I’ve found useful in my own experience with engaging people online who are circulating smears against Julian Assange.
1 — Be clear that your goal is to fight against a disinformation campaign, not to “win” or to change the mind of the person you’re arguing with.
If our interest is in advancing the cause of truth, we’re not trying to get into arguments with people for egoic gratification, nor are we trying to change the mind of the smearer. Our first and foremost goal is to spread the truth to the people who are witnessing the interaction, who are always the target audience for the smear. Doesn’t matter if it’s an argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table or a Twitter thread witnessed by thousands: your goal is to disinfect the smear with truth and solid argumentation so everyone witnessing is inoculated from infection.
So perform for that audience like a lawyer for the jury. When the smearer refuses to respond to your challenges, when they share false information, when they use a logical fallacy, when they are intellectually dishonest, call it out and draw attention to what they’re doing. When it comes to other subjects there are a wide range of opinions that may be considered right or wrong depending on how you look at them, but when it comes to the Assange case you can feel confident that you’ll always have truth on your side. So use facts and good argumentation to make the smearer look worse than they’re trying to make Assange look, thereby letting everyone know that this person isn’t an honest and trustworthy source of information.
2 — Remember that whoever you’re debating probably doesn’t really know much about the claim they’re making.
Last night I had a guy confidently assuring me that Assange and Chelsea Manning had teamed up to get Donald Trump elected in 2016. Most people just bleat whatever they’ve heard people they trust and people around them saying; when they make a claim about Assange, it’s not usually because they’ve done a ton of research on the subject and examined possible counter-arguments, it’s because it’s an established doctrine within their echo chamber and it may never have even occurred to them that someone might question it.
For a perfect example of this, check out the New York Times’ Bari Weiss experiencing an existential meltdown on The Joe Rogan Experience when the host simply asked her to substantiate her claim that Tulsi Gabbard is an “Assad toadie”. Weiss only ever operates within a tight establishment echo chamber, so when challenged on a claim she’d clearly only picked up secondhand from other people, she turned into a sputtering mess.
Most people you’ll encounter who smear Assange online are pulling a Bari Weiss to some extent, so point out the obvious gaps in their knowledge for the audience when they make nonsensical claims, and make it clear to everyone that they have no idea what they’re talking about.
3 — Remember that they’re only ever running from their own cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we experience when we try to hold two strongly contradictory ideas as true at the same time, like the idea that we live in a free liberal democracy and the idea that a journalist is being imprisoned for publishing facts about the US government right in front of us.
Rank-and-file citizens generally help the mass media propagandists smear Assange not to help protect the world from the influence of a dangerous individual, but to protect themselves from cognitive dissonance. People find themselves eager to believe smears about Assange because the raw facts revealed by WikiLeaks publications punch giant holes in the stories about the kind of world, nation and society that most people have been taught to believe they live in since school age. These kinds of beliefs are interwoven with people’s entire egoic structures, with their sense of self and who they are as a person, so narratives which threaten to tear them apart can feel the same as a personal attack. This is why you’ll hear ordinary citizens talking about Assange with extreme emotion as though he’d attacked them personally; all he did was publish facts about the powerful, but since those facts conflict with tightly held identity constructs, the cognitive dissonance that was caused to them can be interpreted as feeling like he’d slapped them in the face.
Ordinary citizens often find themselves eager to believe the smear campaigns against Assange because it’s easier than believing that their government would participate in the deliberate silencing and imprisoning of a journalist for publishing facts. The fact that Assange’s persecution is now exposing the ugly face of imperial tyranny presents them with even more to defend.
It might look like they’re playing offense, but they’re playing defense. They’re attacking Assange because they feel the need to defend themselves from cognitive dissonance.
If people are acting strangely emotional and triggered when it comes to the issue of imprisoning Assange, it’s got very little to do with facts and everything to do with the dynamics of psychological identity structures. There’s not necessarily any benefit in pointing this out during a debate, but it helps to understand where people are coming from and why they’re acting that way. Keep pointing out that people’s feelings have no bearing on the threats that are posed to all of us by Assange’s prosecution.
4 — Remember that the burden of proof is on the one making the claim.
“Prove your claim.” Use this phrase early and often. It’s amazing how often I see people blurting out assertions about Assange that I know for a fact they have no way of proving; that he’s a Russian agent, that he’s a rapist, that he’s a CIA asset, etc, which ties in with Point B above. The burden of proof is always on the party making the claim, so if they refuse to do this you can publicly dismiss their argument. If someone comes in making a specific claim about Assange, make them present the specific information they’re basing their claim on so that you can refute it. If they refuse, call them out on it publicly. Never let them get away with the fallacious tactic of shifting the burden of proof onto you, and remember that anything which has been asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.
5 — Never let them trick you into expending more energy than they’re expending.
This one’s important. The internet is full of genuinely trollish individuals who spend their time acting out their inner pain by trying to suck the life out of other people, and political discussion is certainly no exception to this. A common tactic is to use short phrases, half-thoughts, or word salads which don’t contain any facts or actual arguments, but contain just enough of a jab to suck you into wasting energy making thorough, well-sourced arguments while they just lean back and continue making weak, low-energy responses to keep you going. This enables them to waste your time and frustrate you while expending little energy themselves, while also not having to reveal the fact that they don’t know much about the subject at hand and don’t really have an argument.
Don’t let them lean back. Force them to lean in. If someone makes an unsubstantiated assertion, a brief quip, or a vague insinuation, tell them “Make an actual argument using complete thoughts or go away.” If they throw an unintelligible word salad at you (a tactic that is also common in abusers with narcissistic personality disorder because it tricks the abusee into falling all over themselves to guess what’s being communicated, thereby giving the abuser power), tell them “That’s gibberish. Articulate yourself using clear arguments or go away.”
This often enrages them, partly because they’ve generally been getting away with this tactic their entire lives so they feel entitled to demand compliance with it from you, and partly because you’re forcing a very unconscious and unattractive part of themselves into attention and consciousness. But if they’re interested in having a real and intellectually honest debate they’ll do it; if they’re not they won’t. If they refuse to provide you with lucid, complete arguments that meet their burden of proof, make a show of dismissing them for their refusal to do so, and say you’re doing it because they’re too dishonest to have a real debate.
Never chase them. Make them chase you. Force them to either extend themselves into the light where their arguments can be properly scrutinized, or to disqualify themselves by refusing to.
6 — When attacking disinformation on Twitter, use this tactic:
If you see a high-profile Twitter account sharing disinformation about Assange, debunk their disinfo as clearly and concisely as possible, then retweet your response to your followers. Your followers will like and retweet your response, sending it further up the thread so that casual viewers of the disinfo tweet will often also see your response debunking it. If your response is text-only, include the URL of the tweet you’re responding to before retweeting your response so that your followers can see the awful post you’re responding to. It comes out looking like this:
This serves the dual function of offsetting the damage done by their smear and alerting your followers to come and help fight the disinfo.
7 — Point out at every opportunity that they are advancing a smear.
Never miss an opportunity to point out to everyone witnessing the exchange that the other party is advancing a smear that is being promulgated by the mass media to manufacture consent for the imprisonment of a journalist who exposed US war crimes. Keep the conversation in context for everyone: this isn’t just two people having a difference of opinion, this is one person circulating disinformation which facilitates the agendas of the most powerful people in the world (including the Trump administration, which you should always point out repeatedly if you know they hate Trump), and another person trying to stop the flow of disinfo. Every time you expose a hole in one of their arguments, add in the fact that this is a dishonest smear designed to benefit the powerful, and that they are helping to advance it.
8 — Make it about Assange’s imprisonment and extradition.
One of the very few advantages to Assange being behind bars in the UK’s version of Guantanamo Bay instead of holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy is that the arguments are so much clearer and more honest now. You can no longer get away with claiming that Assange is just a coward hiding from justice who can “leave whenever he wants” and present yourself as merely a casual observer who just happens to want to share his opinion that the WikiLeaks founder is a fascist Russian spy rapist who smells bad and mistreats his cat, because you will always be entering a discussion involving the fact that Assange is in prison awaiting extradition to the United States. You are therefore always necessarily either supporting the extradition or distracting from the conversation about it.
So make that clear to everyone watching. Make them own it. They either support the imprisonment and extradition of Assange for his role in the Manning leaks, or they’re interrupting grown-ups who are trying to have an adult conversation about it. If they support Assange’s imprisonment and extradition to the United States, that clarifies your line of argumentation, and it makes them look like the bootlicking empire sycophants they are. Keep the fact that they support the extradition and imprisonment of a journalist for publishing facts on the front burner of the conversation, and keep making them own it.
9 — Familiarize yourself with common logical fallacies.
It’s fascinating how often people resort to fallacious debate tactics when arguing about Assange. One of the most interesting things to me right now is how the unconscious behaviors of our civilization is mirrored in the unconsciousness of the individuals who support those behaviors. Those who support Assange’s persecution are generally very adverse to an intellectually honest relationship with their own position, and with the arguments against their position that they encounter.
So get familiar with basic fallacious debate tactics like straw man arguments (claiming that you have a position that is different from the one you’ve actually put forth and then attacking that fake position they invented), red herrings (bringing up an unrelated point because it’s easier to debate than the current point of contention), and appeals to emotion (using emotionally charged statements as a substitute for facts and reason). These will give you a conceptual framework for those situations where it feels like the person you’re arguing with is being squirmy and disingenuous, but you can’t really put your finger on how.
10 — Rely as much on fact and as little on opinion as possible.
Don’t get sucked into emotional exchanges about opinions. Facts are what matter here, and, as you will see throughout the rest of this article, the facts are on your side. Make sure you’re familiar with them.
To be continued! Keep a lookout for the full mega-article, “Debunking All The Assange Smears”, which I’m working on furiously and which will be out in a few days.
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