Visual arguments and co-existence with information distortion

On disinformation, persuasive data viz from the Soviet 1900s & its relation to a capitalistic design of 2021, contextualizing US-Russia relations, & personal experience living near Putin.

Hey there, 

Hope you are doing well. I haven’t written here for weeks , it’s been chaotic since the semester started at Berkeley. I was involved into some legal investigations on Syrian conflict, worked on some feature launches at NYT, and did some other random things. Here is a portion of what my team at Human Rights Center and I was working on from last semester:  

So, there’s been some recent news about Russia, which prompted me to write about it. If you are not interested in any of those topics, please, don’t waste your time! And no, I am not talking about recent Elon Musk’s and Lex Fridman’s tweets on making the trio room on Clubhouse with Putin. Here is also the playlist of my fav songs from Eastern European to have a little more immersive experience reading this:)

Table of Contents: 

 1. The spectrum of Information Distortion 

 2. Disinformation: origins from the 18th c. and research from the US Elections 2020  

 3. Data design as a persuasive tool for political propaganda in the Soviet times   

 4. Russia’s greatest political experiment and war crimes 

 5. Bonus! Culturally-minded deep learning (a pretty cool example) 

The spectrum of Information Distortion 

Facts are the currency for human rights organizations. That’s the first thing I learned about investigations — it’s not what you look at, it’s what you see (Alexa Koenig)

Disinformation (fabricated and manipulated content) is the transmission of (objectively) false knowledge as true or (objectively) true knowledge as false. Delusion, or misinformation (misleading, false context or connection) is an unintentional inconsistency of judgments or concepts with an object. Defamation (imposter content) is the distribution of knowingly false information that discredits dignity of another person or undermines his reputation. Hiding the truth is also a kind of falsehood. That is why the law determines the measure of a person's responsibility for deliberate false mental constructions, because a lie is social - it is not related to the object of cognition.   

Disinformation: origins from the 18th c. and research from Elections 2020

A lot of great lessons can be drawn from art history and literature overall. It turns out that the concept of disinformation existed long before Operation INFEKTION by KGB in the 20th century. In 1775, for example, an unknown author F. S. G. W. D. E. publishes the book called "False Peter III, or the Life and Adventures of the Rebel Emelyan Pugachev” («Le Faux Pierre III ou La Vie et les avantures du rebelle Jemeljan Pugatschew»). Yemelyan Pugachev was a real person, who led the insurrection (oftentimes referring to Pugachev's Rebellion) during the reign of Catherine the Great. However, the book itself uses a lot of inaccurate facts to depict entirely false actions (don’t want to spend a lot of time going into details, but you can read more here!) In a word, it’s an adventurous novel about the young Yemelyan Pugachev, which a lot of historians argue the British (or the French?) used in the 18th century in the information war against Russia due to sociopolitical agendas. 

Robert Putnam in 2000 in “Bowling Alone” showed the concern of how the “Internet technology” would enable “white supremacists or Holocaust deniers to narrow their circle to like-minded intimates.” Sunstein argued that two mechanisms that lead to political echo-chambers: enclave deliberation that only occur among like-minded people and a group polarization, which represents a “breeding ground for extremism.” (Source) This created plausible conditions for ideological polarization: filter bubbles and echo-chambers. 

There is also an important notion of disproportionate harm of disinformation on certain communities. A study by Zuiderveen and Borgesius shows that disinformation campaigns are most effective when the actors target specific subgroups of voters that are most vulnerable to persuasion. “Fake news that spreads misinformation about minority groups may be construed as a form of group defamation.” (Source

In the US Elections 2020, Twitter started to flag and block English-written tweets that would spread false claims or disinformation. However, during open-source investigations that I was a part of at Human Rights Center, we identified numerous Spanish, Russian, and Farsi-written tweets that were not identified by Twitter. This also shows the structural inequality of tech companies, prioritizing the English language, leaving out disinformation spread written in languages  spoken by minority groups like Hispanic and Latino Americans. But, still, no one is currently holding platforms accountable for some of their blatant failure to moderate disinformation in non-English content.   

Data design as a persuasive visual tool for political propaganda 

I recently visited MOMA’s exhibition called “The Artist Reinvented” - a series of Soviet posters created during the Proletarian Revolution, delivering Communist Party's slogans to the masses. Visual arguments were presented in a very effective way (see below). In this series, technical diagrams (i.e. organizational charts, bar graphs) are tools to structure the nonlinear history of trade unions.

Naumova compares women’s workers in countries (on the left): the largest proportion in the US, then Germany, UK, France, USSR, and Japan. This is persuasive because by seeing the chart more Soviet women would want to start working to get into the first place.   

It was designed in 1902 by Lydia Naumova, who knew that data could translate complex stories of “transformation, in this case how unions, in parallel with 1917 Russian Revolution, redefined human capital.” She successfully utilized bold geometry and striking colors of Russian abstract painting to produce effective data viz, “both eye catching in form and didactic in substance.”

Even without falsifying data, there are many ways to manipulate or influence the interpretation for the audience. My point here is that deceiving by using data viz can be done intentionally to manipulate opinion, but every so often is it is a consequence of a designer who miscommunicates, misunderstands, and is too focused on design rather than content. Not saying that Naumova did that, but just something that was thought of after looking at the artwork. And in today’s American capitalism, I think this very much reminds me how product designers are taught to think in the industry — the success of the design depends on the key metrics (open rate, engagements, etc.) that your product manager has set, less so to think how it would impact users on a contextual levels. 

Russia’s greatest political experiment and war crimes  

I decided to write on Russia for several reasons: a) some of you kindly reached out to me to learn more about what’s like to live near doors to Vladimir Putin b) the majority of media doesn’t shed any light on historical context in Russia to unpack what’s currently going. Don’t get me wrong, I love Russian culture — its literature, arts, mathematics, and language — irreplaceable. But, there is such a huge difference to live in modernity (autocracy) vs. democracy.

In modernity, we are ought to be silent and never really express our thoughts. From early childhood, we are taught to never speak anything political, we are taught to never resist the government or hierarchy, we are taught to not complain because we had everything for modern life, we are taught to never ask questions, we are taught to never argue with those who are standing above us (social hierarchy). I remember sitting in a geography class during the 2014 events, and someone asked the teacher how should we color the Crimea in our maps, to which she just silenced my classmate. 

Politics is as experimental as scientific research. When the Soviet Union fell apart, there was a compelling idea to convert former Communist Russia into democracy. Almost every country got involved in helping Russians to make it happen, especially the US. Yeltsin, the president before Putin, was very eager to do it.

However, a lot of people around him became more skeptical, arguing that the US wants to expand its power and influence. When Yeltsin left the position and gave the presidency to Putin, it was in his hands to decide the future of Russia. Today we see it as one of the big three most powerful states, but still not a democracy. (This is a very short summary and I skipped a whole bunch of things, but I hope you get the idea)

I also observe certain mental connotations around Russia in the US, treating it like an “enemy” as I am referring to the current class I am taking on US National Security Policy. A week ago I read “From Cold War to Hot Peace” written by McFaul, a former diplomat who served as the United States Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 under Obama’s administration (highly recommend if you are interested in the US-Russia relations).

Upon finishing it, there was a subtle realization that democracy without a great challenge and adversity like the one that Russia poses wouldn’t be nearly that powerful as it is now. Imagine a democratic Russia — what would the world look like? Today, China and Russia are actively presenting themselves as alternatives to arguably the “Western democracies.” They are political experiments that challenge democracies in strengthening strategies of deterrence and containment, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. 

So, I am controversially arguing that the West misunderstands Russia a little; it’s not the country to treat as an enemy, rather a very challenging state with its own ideology to strategically execute foreign policies (as of 2021). However, I do think that International Law needs to be more powerful to hold the powers accountable as they violate human rights, falsifying court proof documents, commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It’s a fact that Russia meddled into the US Elections in 2016 and it’s a fact that Trump’s policies have favored Putin, but the question of why still remains in secret. When I ask, what will happen to the Russian government if the MH17 plane crash would prove the direct call from the Chain of Command or if the bombarding civilian hospitals in Syria were proven to be the Russian military objectives, the answer is nothing. And I don’t think it should be like that at all. 

Would also like to reinforce that I am not trying to persuade, rather inform you to contextualize your judgements and share my opinions to expose you to different views. 

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Culturally-minded deep learning (smth cool I wanted to share!)    

Growing up in Ukraine, you could quickly realize how similar all three cultures are (Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian). Even a machine learning model can sense that. Here is an interesting example of a translation model that Google researchers experimented with in 2016 to understand how it is processing multilingual problems. In this case, it translates from English to a mix of Russian and Belarusian. 

However, the fascinating thing about this is by doing so, it actually produces the sentence in Ukrainian in the middle, which is a completely different language. So, the model that has fairly limited data in Belarusian would utilize some of the additional knowledge that comes from also learning to translate into Ukrainian: 

The sentences that are produced in the middle (w=0.44 and 0.46) is neither Russian or Belarusian — it’s  Ukrainian! It’s really cool that it managed to process Ukrainian sentence in the middle of translation, interpolating from Russian to Belarusian. 

Thanks for reading! Feel free to give me feedback or share your opinions with me, even if you disagree, would love to hear them. (Twitter is open or you can say hi)