Jeffrey Sachs And The Nord Stream: A Counter-Narrative Case Study

I’ve long described my raison d’être in terms of the intersection between geopolitics and finance.

From the outset (so, from this platform’s modest beginnings almost seven years ago), I’ve employed the same language to describe the site’s purpose. That language reads as follows:

Perhaps more than any other time in the last six decades, the fate of markets is inextricably intertwined with the ebb and flow of geopolitics. Simply put, one can’t fully comprehend financial markets without a thorough understanding of concurrent political outcomes.

Pretty simple, really. And not very controversial.

I wrote that description in 2016, and it’s becoming more true all the time. In 2022, geopolitics took center stage.

A tangential pursuit of mine is documenting the interplay between counter-narrative and macroeconomics or, more simply, the nexus between propaganda and markets. Understanding that connection is also more important than ever given the spread of propaganda on social media and social media’s influence on market outcomes.

I know a lot about counter-narrative. How it originates, how it’s spread and how unsuspecting market participants are enlisted in foreign propaganda campaigns, where that just means the propagation of anti-Western narratives designed to sow domestic discord in otherwise stable democracies. Over the past dozen years, macroeconomic content and slanted coverage of financial markets has played an increasingly important role.

As regular readers will attest, I’m hyper-vigilant to avoid getting myself or my audience trapped in the counter-narrative echo chamber. Last week, while documenting sabotage on the Nord Stream, I explained my position in response to a comment. If hyper-vigilance “means occasionally missing an actual conspiracy, that’s fine with me,” I wrote, noting that “I can always go back and chuckle at how naive I was if it turns out later there was something afoot that I missed, but what I can’t do is take it back if I put something out there that’s speculative and untrue.”

Eventually, I closed the comments section on that linked article because some readers were (and likely still are) inclined to believe that the US was responsible for, or complicit in, the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. Maybe that’s true, but it probably isn’t and I was going to be away from the desk for dinner, and didn’t want to spend the evening policing replies.

On Thursday, I happened on an opportunity to illustrate how the counter-narrative machine works, and specifically how it’s working right now, with the Nord Stream sabotage story. I wanted to share this with readers because it’s very instructive.

While penning “OPEC+ Output Cut: The Bigger Picture,” I came across Al Mayadeen’s coverage of Khalil Dardmand, an Iranian national who was detained in Saudi Arabia after displaying the visage of Qassem Soleimani next to the Kaaba. Al Mayadeen is an Iranian influence operation.

A quick glance at the site’s “most read” articles turned up a predictable list of counter-narrative clickbait. At the top was “Putin’s response to the West’s pursuit of World War III” and then “Will Biden know when to stop?” Today’s top trending article was, “US weapons used in deadly Ukrainian strike.” You get the idea.

But what really caught my eye was a piece called “Colombia economist: US ‘probably’ behind the sabotage of Nord Stream.” (Apparently, the editors weren’t clear on the distinction between Colombia the country and Columbia the university.)

Allow me a brief aside. I was without Bloomberg Television on Monday. You can watch it on the terminal, but it’s cumbersome, which is why I prefer to stream the ultra-high definition version through Samsung TV (if you have a newer generation Samsung 4K, and you like markets, you should try it). On Sunday and Monday, I was compelled to rely on one of my backup WiFi hotspots, a hurricane having disrupted my standard connection. So, I was here, writing, and connected, fully, but for the first time in years, Bloomberg Television wasn’t streaming behind me.

As it turns out, I missed something. That morning, Jeffrey Sachs blindsided Tom Keene and Lisa Abramowicz with his opinion of possible US involvement in the Nord Stream incident.

“I would bet [it] was a US action, perhaps US and Poland,” Sachs said. He posted the video and the transcript to his website.

Already, I can offer a teaching moment about counter-narrative and propaganda. If you Google the exchange, you’ll find headlines like this one, from the NY Post: “Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs yanked off air after accusing US of sabotaging Nord Stream pipeline.”

The counter-narrative (the spin) has its own narrative and its own spin. Sachs wasn’t “yanked off air.” That’s opportunistic spin based on a disingenuous interpretation of Keene’s rejoinder. Keene said, “Jeff, Jeff we’ve got to stop there.” He didn’t say “Jeff, Jeff we’ve got to stop you there.” Journalists routinely stop guests during on-air interviews when a guest says something notable or controversial or important. Keene continued: “Why do you feel that was a US action? What evidence do you have of that?”

So, far from “yanking” Sachs off air, Keene prompted Sachs to elaborate. It was only after Sachs parroted familiar talking points (he offered no concrete evidence and really didn’t say anything new at all) when Abramowicz stopped him. Even then, her rationale was entirely fair: Bloomberg didn’t have another expert available to offer a counterpoint, and Bloomberg’s anchors can’t, because they’re supposed to be impartial.

In my opinion, Bloomberg let Sachs go on longer than they probably should’ve. “I know it runs counter to our narrative, you’re not allowed to say these things in the West, but the fact of the matter is all over the world when I talk to people, they think the US did it,” Sachs said. “Even reporters on our papers that are involved tell me ‘of course,’ but it doesn’t show up in our media.”

Sachs was (unwittingly, perhaps) himself employing tried and true counter-narrative tactics:

  • He claimed he’s “not allowed” to express alternative views on Western media channels, a contention undermined by the fact that he made the remark while being interviewed on a Western media channel.
  • He called it “a fact” that people around the world believe the US was responsible for sabotaging critical infrastructure, but not only did he fail to present any concrete evidence of the accusation itself, he even failed to back up his assertion that international public opinion runs contrary to the Western narrative. I could say, for example, “The fact is, everyone around here believes there’s more to Area 51 than the government lets on,” but my saying that doesn’t definitively establish anything about my neighbors’ opinion on aliens, let alone the presence of any deceased extraterrestrials in Nevada.
  • He cited private conversations with reporters, but didn’t identify them or get them on the record, so who’s to say he’s telling the truth? Maybe reporters have told Sachs they believe the US was responsible. Maybe they haven’t. All we have to go on in Sachs’s word. I believe he’s talked to reporters. But that’s irrelevant.

I assume this is obvious, but just in case: The point isn’t to say Sachs is lying. Nor is it necessarily to say he’s wrong about the Nord Stream. He could be telling the truth and he could be right. Rather, my point is that far from blowing any minds or dropping any “counter-narrative bombs” on Keene and Abramowicz (as one hyperbolic netizen suggested, while reposting the video on social media), Sachs merely repeated a conspiracy theory and failed to defend it when pressed.

In addition to being picked up by at least one Iranian propaganda outlet, Sachs’s Bloomberg cameo was also leveraged by Tucker Carlson who, in a wild piece published to Fox’s website, claimed Keene and Abramowicz were “clearly getting instruction[s].” Bloomberg, Carlson seemed to suggest, was whispering in their ear pieces: “Be quiet. Shut up. Just cut them off. Never invite them back. Stop.”

Carlson began his “opinion” piece with an incendiary flourish. “There are few things more infuriating than being lied to by your own government, the government you pay for, the one your ancestors risked their lives to protect. Does that happen to you? Of course, it has. It enrages you,” Carlson wrote, on the way to suggesting Americans are “not really living in a democracy” in 2022.

He’s right, of course. America is indeed moving away from democratic governance. Just ask experts on state legislatures.

Carlson is an avowed fan of Viktor Orban’s self-described “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, and has variously suggested the US adopt a similar model. “Of the nearly two hundred different countries on the face of the earth, precisely one of them has an elected leader who publicly identifies as a Western-style conservative. His name is Viktor Orban,” Carlson declared, on August 5, 2021, setting up a one-on-one with Orban. A year later, he claimed Orban nemesis George Soros “Has decided to destroy the American justice system.”

The lesson here is clear enough: It’s dangerously easy to get caught in the counter-narrative echo chamber — to find yourself awhirl in the propaganda spin machine. The architects of that machine are everywhere and always searching for people to exploit. From disaffected, undereducated voters in Western democracies to gullible market participants unable to spot the bear behind the permabear to famous economists.

As one well-known purveyor of counter-narrative once put it to me, over Dark ’n’ Stormys in Manhattan, “Everyone’s an idiot.” He left out “useful,” but it was implied.

Introducing Sachs on Monday, Bloomberg’s Keene said, “The heart of Bloomberg Surveillance is the quality of our guests, always in every case.” Two days later, citing Sachs’s remarks among a host of other ostensible evidence, Carlson wrote, “[The] only explanation allowed on Nord Stream is what the government wants you to believe.”


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22 thoughts on “Jeffrey Sachs And The Nord Stream: A Counter-Narrative Case Study

  1. I happened to have seen that interview. I thought Sach’s statement was bs and innuendo, and unlikely to be true, impossible no but highly unlikely. He was asked for evidence and had none. The thought that went through my mind was that he was an asset of a foreign intelligence service, or being used or very naive. Previous to that interview I had a reasonable amount of respect for his opinions. No longer. He is not likely to be in a position to make an informed judgment with a reasonable basis for this particular event. It was a rather stunning interview, and I am glad you reviewed it. Caveat emptor.

    1. The most instructive bit here, I think, is how I stumbled on it after the fact. As noted in the article, I was looking for information on the detained Iranian national, and specifically the date of his release, so I naturally looked to Iranian media, and there’s a file photo of Sachs staring at me. Right next to an article about a detainee nabbed by the Saudis for promoting Qassem Soleimani while on the Hajj. And then, sure enough, one Google search turns up an NY Post article on Sachs and a Tucker Carlson article on the same interview. Around we go. If you follow that loop around and observe all the roadside attractions, you’ll get everything from Kremlin talking points to Assad propaganda to IRGC cheerleading to Soros conspiracies to MAGA hats. It’s a carnival of disinformation.

  2. I also detest the increasingly common third alternative to the more typical binary options of “we did it” or “they did it” — and that’s the false flag conspiracy take — in this case, that the US/Ukrainian allies did it not to hurt Russia per se, but to make Russia look bad by making it look like Russia did it. But the underlying cause of all of this confusion, IMO, is the media’s drive to report everything ASAP — which tends to mean a lot more rumors, hearsay, anonymous whisperings, etc. as opposed to actual facts and confirmed information. Less than a week ago, as you pointed out, there was an awful lot of heavy breathing concerning Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank.

  3. We’ve plainly seen some high profile examples of the Western narrative turning out to be specious recently. The Kabul drone strike was a particularly egregious example, and the Daria Dugina story looks like another one.

    So, I wouldn’t want anyone to misconstrue the point of this article. It’s not so much about Sachs or the Nord Stream, as much as it is about the counter-narrative machine itself — the propaganda echo chamber.

    Much as everyone remembers all the market crash calls that came true but forgets all the ones that didn’t, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of counter-narrative is almost totally meritless. The counter-narrative business doesn’t sleep. It’s 24-7. It doesn’t care what the “hit ratio” is just like websites and newsletters peddling market crash calls don’t care how many are ultimately borne out. It’s all about perpetuating an agenda, making money, getting attention or all three.

    The US screwed up a drone strike and it resulted in tragedy. It looks like Daria Dugina was in fact killed by Ukrainian operatives. And who knows, maybe the US had a role in destroying the Nord Stream.

    That’s three counter-narrative “hits” (assuming the NYT’s Dugina story is true and assuming, to play devil’s advocate, that the Nord Stream story is true). How many misses have there been in that echo chamber over the past two years? So many that it’s literally impossible to count them, because it’s just an ongoing firehose of conspiratorial propagandizing.

    If the end result was a better informed populace whose healthy skepticism is honed and analytical skills sharpened as a result of counter-narrative, that’d be great. But we have the opposite of that. Instead, counter-narrative as it’s currently force-fed to the public, has resulted in an infinitely less informed, infinitely more gullible and infinitely more divided body politic.

    If it walks like a duck, it’s probably propaganda. The fact that one time out of 1,000 or one time out of 10,000 conspiracy theory turns out to be conspiracy fact, doesn’t absolve the echo chamber of responsibility for the chaos it’s sown across the world’s foremost democracies.

    1. This is such an important thing to understand. We only have limited mental bandwidth and can’t possibly do our due diligence on everything. That requires us to take some shortcuts in how we evaluate information. As you say, I’d rather be wrong once or twice than give credence to stories that are false 99% of the time.

  4. Both binary (or tertiary, if you include false flag) assumptions may be wrong.

    An experience oilman with extensive experience with methane gas pipelines pointed out (reminded me) that methane (natural gas) under a quite broad range of temperature, pressure and moisture content forms methane hydrate (methane ice). To remove it from a pipeline it has to be carefully de-pressured from both ends simultaneously. If it is only de-pressured from one end or one end becomes impatient and tries to hurry the process along, the methane hydrate ice plug will travel at high speed down the pipeline towards the lower pressure end until it hits an elbow and then with burst the pipe at the point of impact.

    If Gazprom did that by mistake, it’s a better cover for the Russians to quickly parrot Western (unsubstantiated at the time) cries of ‘Sabotage!’ That’s a better cover than having to admit that Gazprom is an incompetent operator(like the Russian Army, so it seems).

    p.s. Dugina’s father was supposed to be in his car she was driving. He changed cars at the last minute, before she left the event. Hmmm…

    1. Gas pipeline leaks of this size are pretty uncommon and there were 4 of them at once. The security/military heard/felt detonations. It is highly likely this was an intentional sabotage. I believe there is too much downside for Ukraine or the US to destroy allies’ infrastructure- although I suppose you cannot rule anything out these days. Occam’s razor would suggest this was an entity connected to Russia.

  5. I truly believe that most conspiracy theories are false. They have always been around but social media has only served to amplify them. My rule is that the greater the number of people that would need to be involved in the conspiracy the more likely it is to be false. People just aren’t good at keeping secrets. The greater the number of people that know something the more likely that it is it will become common knowledge, loose lips and all.

    I don’t do Facebook, Tiktok, instagram, twitter, or any of the other social media. I’ll wait for mainstream reporting on the Swedish investigation of the incident. Everything else is just idle speculation repeated as fact.

    1. This is always my counterargument to conspiracy theories. As Benjamin Franklin observed, the only way three people can keep a secret is if two of them are dead.

      My favorite is Chemtrails. Can you imagine how many people it would take to pull off something like that? From chemical manufacturing, to shipping, to storage, airport security, airplane mechanics installing things, pilots who know the layout of their planes perfectly, thousands of potential witnesses, across every major airport in the world? Millions of people would have to be in on such a conspiracy. You’re going to tell me there’s a multi-million person conspiracy and not a single one has ever leaked the truth? It’s beyond farcical.

      The same goes for all the vaccine conspiracies. It’s just bizarre what people are capable of believing.

      I, for one, fully believe that cognitive dissonance is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

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