Do thousands of Saudi deserters show the Kingdom to be a house of cards?

Summary: One of the big themes of the FM website is that we can better learn about our world, which I consider a vital skill for 21st century citizens swimming in a sea of propaganda. Today’s post gives a fun case study from the current news, showing how for the unwary the information superhighway acts like a children’s game of “telephone”.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Spoiler of the conclusion: Fox News is the model for news in America.

The government doesn’t have one, so we built our own.

Ministry of Truth



  1. Why do a forensic analysis of news?
  2. Today’s hot story
  3. Conclusion
  4. For More Information

(1)  Why do a forensic analysis of news?

Following a story back to its source reveals so much about us and America. It shows how we have become so easily manipulated, and how the information superhighway doesn’t help the credulous as much as it does propagandists and businesses. In the last section you’ll find links to more forensic analysis of the news.

(2)  Forensic analysis of today’s hot story

(a)  The Fars News Agency (Iran’s semi-official news source) publishes a typical bit of propaganda. It’s useful for them. We cannot tell if it’s 100% true or false. But then few of us read Fars. “Thousands of Saudi Forces Flee Bases“, 26 April 2015. We’ll consider this the primary source (i.e., we don’t know if this is invented or reporting).

This “news” story supports a hot theory that the Saudi Princes run a house of cards that might quickly collapse.  For examples see “Saudi Arabia Plunges into an Abyss” by John Robb (Global Guerrillas, 15 January 2015) and “Will Saudi Arabia survive the Yemen War?” by Pat Lang (Colonel, US Special Forces, retired). Full disclosure: I consider Robb and Land to be serious people, but their analysis strikes me as a few steps beyond speculative.


CBS News: Walter Cronkite (1968)
The good old days.

(b)  The Global Research (Centre for Research on Globalization, a far Left research and media organization based in Montreal) reposted the Fars story with a link and citation. I’m not a fan of their work, but this was professionally done.

(c)  Others news websites pick up the story. Some cite Fars as the primary source, as does Uprooted Palestinian. Some cite the secondary source (Global Research), as does Almanar. Some, like News786, present it as their own work (i.e., citing no source).

(d)  Analysts pick up the story. When reading analysts I use as a reliability “litmus test” how well they research sources — and communicate their reliability in their writings. Some do this very well (e.g., Stratfor). For an example of posting a story without checking sources — because it matches preconceived theories see this by Pat Lang (Colonel, US Special Forces, retired) at his website: “Saudi Forces Desert Rather Than Invade Yemen“, 29 April 2015.He quotes without cautions the News 768 article, which grandly states “Here is the real reason why Saudi Arabia halted operation `Decisive Storm’ and failed to launch a ground invasion of Yemen.”

Lang is an experienced analyst and often gives excellent advice about evaluating sources. Readers should remember this, because he often presents dubious information. See the comments for an audience that accepts this information as gospel.

(e)  General interest websites pick up the story, as in this mention of Lang’s post at Naked Capitalism. It’s the new news misinformation ecology, as this story benefited everyone who passed it on (clicks!) down to the end consumer. Readers are misinformed not just by lack of information about the source (e.g., it might be propaganda), but also by the accretion of commentary attached to it along the way.

Fox News
We like our news hot.

(3)  Conclusions

What’s happening here? We see what might be the biggest result of our shift from news organizations to websites as sources of information about the world. That’s not an inherently bad policy, but for our uncritical acceptance of these off-brand sources. It’s an example of how the information superhighway can make us less well-informed if we’re not careful and skeptical.

Look at this chain of information in terms of value-added at each step. It’s like the children’s game of telephone: the information content is less at the end than the beginning since key information gets lost (e.g., the source is Fars) and biases attach to the story at each step.

Let’s look at this chain in terms of value given. Iran disseminated its propaganda. Each intermediary website generated clicks for revenue and readers who might absorb some of their message.

What did the news “consumer” at the end gain? They gained what they sought: entertainment. The managers and professionals that comprise most of the outer party are politically impotent but like to feel relevant and engaged. So they consume information.

This explains something otherwise baffling: our credulous attitude and disinterest in our experts’ past record of failed predictions and bad advice. It need not be accurate since we have no intent to use this information. It’s just entertainment in the bin with TV soap operas and net-zine fan fiction. Fox was one of the first to realize this, and the most determined to provide what we want — and so the largest beneficiary from this evolution of Americans from citizens to subjects.

Everybody who seeks a mass market in the news and analysis business
must become info-tainers like Fox New.

I don’t know how to reverse this. A people with more political involvement — both time and money — might have more interest in accurate information. Or we might address the problem and become better consumers. For more about this “plan B” see…

  1. Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America.
  2. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
  3. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.

The Truth is Out There

(4)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about information and disinformation, especially these with more examples of following hot stories back to their sources:

  1. This was a big story in 2009 (both Left and Right loved it): Today’s hot rumor: Fisk’s story about a conspiracy to wreck the US dollar. Six years later and the US dollar remains strong.
  2. Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis – and some lessons learned — Fun but fake news, widely circulated.
  3. Stop the presses: no naval armada has sailed to blockade Iran! — Another popular fake but fun story.
  4. Proposed legislation prepares the way for war with Iran! — Or not.
  5. Forensic analysis of propaganda: “Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House” — Or not.



21 thoughts on “Do thousands of Saudi deserters show the Kingdom to be a house of cards?”

    1. Duncan,

      I didn’t want to complicate the post with these details – but since you bring them up, they are quite interesting.

      The alleged primary source are “western intel agencies”. The alleged secondary source is “diplomatic sources.” Later the article implies the intel or diplomatic sources are from Europe.

      The tertiary source is the Iraq news agency Nahrain Net. There is almost nothing on Google in English about Nahrain News. Marc Lynch says it provides news from a Shiite perspective. The article also mentions “other reports”, but gives no details.

      Of course, Fars might have made all of this up. The posts listed in the For More Information section refers to other stories like this that I’ve followed — in the end proving to be total fiction — but got people equally excited.

      Lots of roadkill on the info highway.

  1. Global Guerillas has predicted 10 of the last 2 major nation-state collapses. Robb is entertaining, but not in my judgment reliable.

    1. Tom,

      John Robb is brilliant, far smarter than me. As part of the 4GW community he saw the public’s disinterest in the people who accurately predicted the course of our post-9/11 wars — and the public’s continued trust and esteem in those who got everything wrong.

      Being a businessman he devised a good gig preaching to the doomsters. Any kind of nonsense pleases them, whereas guys like me have to put in many hours to write anything. And his audience is bigger, more appreciative, and buys stuff.

      Life is an intelligence test. Robb has scored big, deservedly. In our New America be a huckster or a loser. Fox News is the model.

  2. Comment threads often provide an interesting perspective. For example, the comments at Sic Semper Tyrannis still love the story, showing no concern when learning that it’s from a semi-official news agency of Iran.

    People who happily accept being fed dog food will never get steak.

  3. Lang’s reputation is as overrated as Robb’s. I know that he’s fluent in Arabic, and that he’s spent considerable time in the Levant and Yemen. For that reason I used to visit his site. But I believe his judgement is seriously bent.

    Lang chastised me — by e-mail! — when I called one of his regular commenters a “loon”. Said commenter implied that Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer and all-round life loser, was driven to kill several dozen people by the feminists or the Muslims, I’m not sure which. I asked if that was **really** what he meant, he said, Yeah, so what?, and I responded with the deplorable “loon” remark. This insult Lang couldn’t abide.

    Aside from that very bizarre experience, over several months I watched Lang and his echo chamber develop their consensus over events in Ukraine, and it was not a pleasant sight. I’m no expert, but I’ve been in about half a dozen cities in Ukraine over the last several years, know some people there, and I’ve been following news from there for years. Of course American news coverage has been uniformly awful, ignorant and misleading. But the contrary narrative that’s sprung up, in which Maidan was wholely or mostly a concoction of the CIA and Victoria Nuland, isn’t any better. (One thing that unifies both takes is how they’re all about America. Even now, outside of some excellent articles in Der Spiegel, I haven’t seen any accounts describing how Maidan blindsided pretty much everybody.) Lang and his echo chamber have pretty much fallen for the latter take. Last time I looked — which was a while ago — they were routinely citing the “Vineyard of the Saker” blog as an authoritative source.

    Anyway, after all that, if Lang’s shooting from the hip over events in Yemen, it doesn’t strike me as the biggest surprise in the world.

    1. Snake,

      I agree on all points. I read Lang for a while, because he is smart and knows much about the Middle East. But the signal:noise ratio was too low for my taste. Plus his high self-confidence was imo a disqulifier as a reliable analyst. I gave up on him after his advocacy for helping the Libyan rebels, disregarding the obvious risks (this turned out as I and others expected).

      For example see his Warning of an imminent strike at Iran by Israel in August 2010. A very weak analysis.

  4. Ah yeah, I forgot all about that brilliant advice to wade into Libya! I wonder if he’s had the slightest glimmer of self-doubt, as the results of that genius move get more obvious by the day? Something tells me that anyone who raises the question on Lang’s site gets banned pronto…..

    1. Snake,

      This year he did a post with a brief mention of Libya, a “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” post.

      No mea culpa, no lessons learned.

      I borrowed the idea of tracking smackdowns, including failed predictions, from Brad DeLong. It is a great disciplinary device.

  5. good lesson for students who wanna be journalists…i’m saving this for my national security class

    1. John,

      Please post anything interesting from the class’s discussion. Also see the For More Information section for other such case studies.

      An interesting point for your class: the comments at Sic Semper Tyrannis showing no concern after learning that the story is from a semi-official news agency of Iran, and so unreliable. They happily natter about how this shows the Saudi Kingdom is about to fall.

    2. I hope you will also include similar examples from other recent conflicts, for this is not an isolated case.

      Surprising announcements of “massive desertions just as fighting is really heating up” are frequent occurrences — which disappear and are forgotten in a matter of just a few days each time. It would be interesting to know the fundamental mechanisms of this specific pattern.

      A couple of examples that come to my mind are

      1) the announcement of massive desertions of Ukrainian soldiers to Russia in the summer 2014, just as the separatist forces were launching a large counter-offensive;

      2) the announcement that an Iraqi armoured unit was surrendering to the coalition forces, just before the offensive started during the first Gulf war.

      So this is neither new (the last example is from 1991, while Berners-Lee was still hacking its first WWW prototype), nor a consequence of “new media” (the origin of all three examples are communiques from official press agencies), nor something attributable to a specific camp (Iranians, Russians and Americans, everybody does it). That blogs may help propagate rumours further is unquestionable; as for their actual impact, I am in the dark, but I believe it to be overrated — TV, whether Fox News or Al Jazeera, is (still) the most effective disseminator.

  6. This story is simply nuts. Saudi and the Fall. But what a great example to demonstrate the ideas of “We like our news hot!” Informative as heck to follow the path of this one.


    1. Breton,

      News as a morality play. When I was in college (early 1970s) Leftists believed that the revolution in South Africa would begin really soon. I objected that there was not the slightest evidence of this, which was met by blank looks. They began dismantling apartheid in 1990, peacefully.

      This reminds me of the show stopper in comments here about political reform. I’m told that I don’t explain the policies that fix America. My reply is that I want to help you act to fix America, implementing your values and dreams. They run away. They read these posts to see my views just as they visit a new restaurant, to sample and critique the food. When invited into the kitchen to work, they leave.

  7. So is it all interpretation or is there a factual base, an objective truth? How real are real, serious media? isnt everything biased? Who can pretend to be an indepéndent journalist?

  8. “Uncle” John’s Band

    Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,
    Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.
    Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
    Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

    It’s a buck dancer’s choice my friend; better take my advice.
    You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.
    Will you come with me? won’t you come with me?
    Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?

    Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?
    Their wall are built of cannonballs, their motto is “don’t tread on me”.
    Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
    Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.

    It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.
    Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
    Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,
    Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

    I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;
    I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,
    Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.
    Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

    Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,
    Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.

    Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
    Come on along, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
    Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.

  9. FM,
    Your article talks about what is true, and what is not, about what is propaganda and what is real news, it does not seem to me that the key difference is if something is real, factually checked, but how it is spinned, both lies and truths can be spinned just the same, truths even better, because they factually check

    1. Bay,

      I still don’t understand. The point of the post is about a process, as explained in the summary:

      One of the big themes of the FM website is that we can better learn about our world, which I consider a vital skill for 21st century citizens swimming in a sea of propaganda. Today’s post gives a fun case study from the current news, showing how for the unwary the information superhighway acts like a children’s game of “telephone”.

      This post is about one aspect of that: checking sources to understand who said what. The Fars story might be true, it might be false. All we know is that it came from a government-affiliated source — like most such — with a long history of misrepresented news, giving us a story that meets their national agenda, and without any supporting evidence. Presenting it as fact is imo daft. A website that does so imo should be considered unreliable, no matter what the patina of authenticity and expertise it has.

      The search for TRUTH, the unbiased source, is irrelevant to the process of reading the news. You might find such a source, but you have to die to get a subscription to Heavenly News.

  10. What helps when you read X at Y newspaper, is to interpret is as Y said X, instead as of X happened.

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