New Feature: Fact-Checking NewsGuard
What's good for the independent media goose ought to be good for the Pentagon-supported gander
The “counter-misinformation” service NewsGuard fact-checks most major independent outlets, including Racket. They even bless us with a “reliability rating,” based on factors like my willingness to answer questions about funding sources (there are none, the site is 100% reader-financed), the lack of a formal masthead (calling myself editor isn’t good enough, apparently), and incidents like reporting issues disputed by Stanford’s not-always-forthcoming Election Integrity Partnership.
I told NewsGuard I believe its business model is illegitimate, because “media outlets should gain and lose trust based on how they are evaluated by audiences, not paid services.” Since they’re continuing to score sites like mine, I’ve decided to regularly fact-check their content, on a scale of 0-to-4 Marks of Satan. The first entries:
“China’s Defense Ministry Falsely Claims U.S. is Expanding its Nuclear Arsenal,” State-Sponsored Disinformation Risk Briefing, November 16, 2023:
NewsGuard tends to opt for layup fact-checks (do Israelis really drink the blood of Palestinians? Is Ukraine forcing pregnant women to fight?), but on November 16th, they took on the Chinese in a nuanced battle, after Chinese defense spokesperson Wu Qian reacted to a Pentagon annual report to Congress that claimed current Chinese nuclear efforts “dwarf previous attempts in both scale and complexity.” Wu answered by saying the Defense Department was “sensationalizing” a “nonexistent China military threat,” adding the U.S. was making “excuses for itself as it expands its nuclear arsenal to maintain military dominance.”
NewsGuard took issue with Wu’s claim that the U.S. is expanding its nuclear arsenal. Disinformation, NewsGuard wrote!
Rather than expanding its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. has consistently decreased its stockpile of nuclear warheads in recent years. Reports published by the nonprofit organization Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists show that the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile from 3,800 warheads in 2020 to 2,708 in 2023. The U.S. State Department also released a fact sheet in 2021 that shows the U.S. has decreased its nuclear stockpile almost every year from 1996 to 2020.
Going by warhead count, the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile has indeed been decreasing since the seventies. So, true. Well done, NewsGuard!
However, the service left out a big part of Wu’s statement. The official complained that the “U.S. in recent years has exited treaties including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, upgrading the nuclear triad,” while “strengthening the so called ‘Extended Deterrence.’” That’s also true, as is a massive increase in U.S. spending on nuclear weapons development in recent years.
Even milquetoast foreign policy think tanks concede that George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty after 9/11 “fueled a new arms race.” The Carnegie Center went so far as to blame Bush and the U.S. for Vladimir Putin’s development of an international hypersonic nuke-delivering glider, describing it as Russia “responding accordingly” to the cancelation of the ABM. U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 INF treaty is often blamed on Russia having violated it first. Russia rejected the accusations, but either way, the U.S. has undoubtedly responded by rapidly upping plans for new delivery systems and warhead-building capacity.
For instance, the U.S. hasn’t regularly built plutonium pits — the core of nuclear weapons — since 1989. Now however the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has plans to build 30 a year at Los Alamos and 50 more a year at a site in Savannah, Georgia. The Congressional Budget Office is estimating $18-$24 billion in costs for this 80-pit-per-annum capability, which doesn’t sound like much. However, $756 billion over ten years does sound like a lot, because it is. That’s the current CBO estimate for nuclear spending between 2023 and 2032, and it represents a monster $19% increase over the CBO’s previous estimate of $634 billion on nukes for the period of 2021-2030. $76 billion a year is a lot of money even in Washington. For comparison, it’s almost exactly the entire Department of Homeland Security appropriation for 2022.
Overall, while it may be technically correct to say Wu was wrong to complain about an expanded “arsenal,” in a larger sense Wu may not be wrong to say the U.S. is pumping up its nuclear program in search of “hegemonism.” Even according to the DoD’s own projections, as in the case of Pentagon-published graphs like the one below, our spending on nuclear weapons and weapons delivery development is about to skyrocket for just the third time since the early sixties, buoyed by hyper-expensive programs like the nuclear-capable B-21. The latter is needed “to attack Chinese ships in a Taiwan scenario,” as Air and Space Forces put it:
By percentage of the overall DoD budget, nuclear spending is scheduled to double, a point the Pentagon has been anxious to trumpet. NewsGuard quoted a Wall Street Journal article saying China recently “surpassed the U.S. in its number of land-based intercontinental-range missile launchers,” seemingly to suggest a goal of nuclear “hegemony” was disinformation, which it almost certainly is not. This is the kind of report Politifact or Snopes would call “misleading” or “needs context.” Here at Racket, we’ll give it 2½ Satans:
“Chinese Officials Spread Graphics Comparing Gaza to Troubled Xinjiang Region,” State-Sponsored Disinformation Risk Briefing, November 22, 2023
A week after the nuke entry, NewsGuard printed a tweet from the Chinese embassy in France:
NewsGuard, deploying its superior mind-reading technology, described the two-photo spread as an apparent “effort to downplay the Chinese government’s documented abuses of ethnic minorities there and to paint Israel as the real perpetrator of genocide.” How they got that from “sans titre” (“no comment”) isn’t clear, but these types of gruesome photos of Gaza are all over even the American press nowadays. ABC News is running similar apocalyptic pictures from Gaza, with notations about “the more than 1.8 million people who are internally displaced” there, along with 17,000 killed. The BBC described satellite pictures showing 100,000 buildings damaged there, while CBS chronicled a city where residents are “forced to bury their dead in the streets,” because cemeteries are too dangerous to reach. You can find exactly similar pictures on NBC, NPR, the AP, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, and many others.
NewsGuard noted international organizations say the “Uyghur and Kazakh” minority populations have been “detained en masse” by the Chinese government, which may be true. But that doesn’t make the above not a real picture of Xinjiang, nor do they even bother supporting their own weird assertion about Israel and genocide. Basically this is a half-clever meme with two legit pictures where audiences supply all of the controversial conclusions, and NewsGuard is mad that Jackson Hinkle is tweeting it. However, it’s not disinformation by any definition. Three Satans: