Ever since the conflict in Ukraine there has been increasing talk about how NATO countries need to counter Russia’s “information war.” That Russia is actually waging such a conflict is beyond debate; they openly admit this. The questions, to my mind, revolve around how effective this would be compared to other measures that Western governments could be taking.
Before answering such questions, it’s important to consider who is proposing this anti-propaganda and why. Ukraine, for example, has a very obvious reason. It is literally under attack not only militarily, but also in the information sense, and it is this propaganda that has played a large role in Russia’s so-called “hybrid warfare” campaign against that country. Propaganda has long been aimed largely at the Russian-speaking population, convincing them how much better life is in Russia and how the new government in Kyiv is run by anti-Russian fascists. This is what gave Russia the popular support it needed in the Crimea and Donbass to carry out its military objectives. The other aim of Russian propaganda is to sow discord and distrust among the rest of Ukraine’s population, especially those who have grievances with Kyiv’s government. Ukraine’s efforts to counter the propaganda include grassroots efforts like Stopfake.org, but they also include rather questionable(in financial terms) government-sponsored projects such as the “internet army,”
The question of countering Russian propaganda has most notably been raised in the EU, particularly in Baltic countries which still have significant Russian populations. These Baltic governments look at what happened in Ukraine and fear, somewhat needlessly given their NATO membership, that the same could happen to them. Even if these countries are not in any mortal danger, Russian propaganda can rile up these populations and cause a fair bit of trouble for their governments.
Lastly, powerful NATO members like the US, Canada, Germany, and the UK all have their own motives for countering Russian propaganda, if only to suit their foreign policy goals. To pretend as though these countries don’t have ulterior motives would be simply naive.
Obviously we can see that different countries have different reasons for opposing Russia’s information war, and their tactics are likely to differ accordingly. They also will differ in quality due to disparities in financial resources, but also national values. Ukraine’s government, for example, has decided to fight back in the worst, most ineffective way, literally borrowing the techniques of the Russian government and in some ways, exceeding them. Countries like the US, on the other hand, have far more in terms of resources to produce slick PR campaigns. Against this background information we may proceed to question the efficacy of this counter-propaganda effort in general.
I’m going to come right out and say it. I don’t think these programs will be effective. I think they will end up wasting a lot of resources without achieving any significant impact, and this is largely because I don’t think the people who are calling for this counteroffensive truly understand the information war they want to wage. In general I think there are three effective means of “countering” Russian propaganda. The first is grassroots campaigns like Stopfake. The second would be disseminating simple fact sheets to refute popular Russian-inspired myths, such as NATO’s “promise” to Gorbachev not to expand in 1989. The last would be any effort similar to Stopfake, i.e. cataloging the lies of the Russian media.
As an example of the latter, we may take the example of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Someone curious about the case might do a Google search, unwittingly click over to a pro-Kremlin site, and see an “alternative hypothesis” which convinces them that it is more likely than the “official story.” What that reader doesn’t know, is that Russia has thrown out numerous alternative claims, many of which are contradictory, none of which are based on any hard evidence, and some of which rely on deliberately falsified evidence which has long sine been debunked. If that reader were first confronted with one big list of Russian alternative claims, it would be more readily obvious as to who is lying.
Getting back to the topic of not understanding Russia’s information war, those who want to counter Russia’s offensive seem to suffer from ignorance about the aims of their opponents and the target audience. Judging by their words, when the Russian press says one thing, they will play the role of “Mythbusters” of some sort, refuting and debunking each claim. There are several problems with this. The first is the question of whom they intend to fight. Russia’s information war isn’t waged strictly by their TV channels and radio stations. It involves bloggers, some of whom are foreign, as well as legions of paid “trolls” who deluge social media with comments and images. At least a portion of those trolls, often unconvincingly pose as non-Russians and speak other languages such as English. Adding more confusion to the mix, some actual foreigners, including Americans, Britons, etc., have been seduced by Russian propaganda and will chime in on social media or write blogs that regurgitate the Kremlin’s line. One of the most effective aspects of this technique is that it enables Russia to engage in propaganda that reaches all kinds of political tendencies with plausible deniability. For example, a blogger or site visitor can disseminate antisemitic memes that say Ukraine is controlled by Jews, or racist memes that say Europe is full of Arabs and Africans, and this can’t be laid at the feet of the Russian government because there’s no concrete link.
On the question of the target audience, the problem seems to be that those in favor of a counteroffensive think that it will be a debate. If the Russian government makes an outrageous claim without evidence, a European or American source can just refute it by posting actual evidence. This approach ignores the epistemological aspect, i.e. how the audience for Russian propaganda thinks and acquires beliefs. Russian propaganda isn’t aimed at convincing anyone that a particular narrative is true or false; it’s about making them question reality itself. Even if they disagree, it demoralizes them because they think they can never prove what they do believe. With everyone else, the idea is that you can only be sure of one thing- it’s never Russia’s fault, so don’t criticize Putin. Pretending that this kind of war can be won simply by point-counterpoint is ridiculously naive.
On the topic of efficacy, if we’re speaking of the ethnic Russian audience, the question is quite simple. Russia’s press is their “team.” Just because Latvia, Estonia, or even worse, the US, produces material in the Russian language doesn’t mean it’s going to resonate with Russian-speakers; this will simply be dismissed as propaganda from the other team. Again, this doesn’t mean that these countries shouldn’t make factual information available in Russian, it just means that they have to be more realistic about the efficacy of such efforts, and allocate resources accordingly. In general, however, this kind of propaganda is likely to appeal only to those Russians who already basically agree with it.
There may be a “swing” demographic,consisting for example of Russian-Ukrainians who despite the Russian government, want to remain in Ukraine, but do not like the rehabilitation and promotion of figures like Stepan Bandera and the UPA(Ukrainian Insurgent Army). Sometimes this demographic might be ignored, because some of the things they say sound like they were inspired by Russian propaganda, and sometimes that may be the case. However, as I’ve said before, it’s a really bad idea to pigeonhole people based on hearing a few points that sound a certain way. Doing so is likely to push people who could go either way into the opposite camp. Sometimes the person’s opinion is based on something other than material from Russia. Other times it may simply be a mistake based on that person’s lack of information at the time. And lastly, there are those rare “busted clock” moments when perhaps some information from Russia contains a kernel of truth. This needs to be taken into account when dealing with Russian speakers.
As for the foreign audience, government-sponsored material is unlikely to have much of an effect. Russia’s propagandists understand the effectiveness of conspiracy theories and delivering information as secrets “they don’t want you to know.” Very often, the quickest, easiest way for pro-Russian propagandists to smear something is to try to associate it with the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy. Buzzwords like “mainstream media” are also very effective for ending debate. This being the case, official information from NATO, the US government, or any other Western government will inevitably be dismissed out of hand.
For these people the thought process is linear and ridiculously simple- “I don’t like my government. My government lies. My government doesn’t like the Russian government for some reason. The Russian government must be good; it is resisting my government. My media seems to agree with my government. Russia’s media is saying the opposite. Russia’s media must be telling the truth.” Obviously there will be nuanced differences according to each individual, but this is the basic formula.
Countering this thought process is going to be a lot harder for Western governments, because it requires them to take many actions they seem reluctant to implement. To be sure, there are some easy methods. One which I already alluded to above consists of cataloging all the various lies of the Russian media and organizing them together by topic. Since the Russian media doesn’t seem to have any concern as to how believable their individual claims are, the “condensed version” of their alternative narratives, complete with outlandish claims and amateurish forgeries, look simply ridiculous. Mockery is a very strong weapon, because while many people have a strong desire to believe they know something the masses don’t, the desire not to look stupid is often stronger.
Of course the main methods for countering Russia’s foreign-language press will be much tougher for a lot of governments to fathom. For one thing, it means promoting critical thinking in schools. That might seem obvious to some people but judging by the discourse I see in the US I don’t think we’ve advanced very far on that front. This is problematic for any government, not so much because it concerns money for education, but rather because few governments on Earth have a strong incentive for a critically thinking populace. If we teach Americans to be skeptical of 9/11 conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine propaganda, they can just as easily use the same skills to unravel ideas like trickle-down economics, massive military spending, and the supposed need for powerful domestic surveillance programs.
Another reason why governments might prefer to waste money on propaganda aimed at foreigners rather than focusing on their home audience is that the most effective way to deny Russia a supply of useful idiots is to handle problems at home. When confronted with these issues, many American politicians, officials, and pundits will immediately degenerate into the childish whataboutery usually associated with the pro-Kremlin side. Yes, we all realize that many of the issues that Americans raise are worse in Russia, just as they are much worse than that in dozens of other nations. But as I would say to any pro-Kremlin hack engaging in the same tactic, none of that matters to the person living in your country, be it in the US or Russia. When you tell an American concerned about wealth inequality or NSA spying that both these issues are much worse in Russia, you may be factually correct, but this is utterly worthless to an American’s point of view. Few of these people have any plans to even visit Russia, much less live there. All they know is that RT dedicates far more time to talking about issues like this than their own media, thus it speaks to them. That the network has cynical motives is utterly irrelevant.
The last tough-to-swallow pill for Western governments is owning up to, apologizing for, and rectifying past actions which have destroyed their credibility and public trust in the government. If you brace any conspiracy theorist, they’re bound to rattle off a litany of other conspiracy theories to support the one they’re currently propagating. Mixed in with the fabricated ones there will always be true conspiracies. In the case of the US the list is long and extensive. The coup to restore the Shah in Iran, the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, NATO’s stay-behind program, the lies that led to and prolonged the Vietnam War, COINTELPRO, Watergate, the overthrow of Allende in Chila, support for the Afghan rebels, Iran-Contra, and of course the shame of the early 21st century, the Iraq War, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to indisputable deeds of the US government and some of its allies. Continued unqualified support for repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia send the message that this 20th century behavior is ongoing.
These days when politicians attempt to one-up each other in superficial displays of patriotism compete to show whose belief in American exceptionalism is more absolute, it seems that the political and media elite has no idea how alienating this is to millions of Americans. Most Americans would probably prefer to see their government admit past mistakes and say what it plans to do to avoid them in the future, not unwavering belief in American exceptionalism, which is quite frankly, a childish, stupid belief anyway.
In short, though they may be reluctant, and though I am skeptical as to how receptive Western governments will be to this advice, the best antidote to Russian foreign-language propaganda is quite simple- take care of your own people. See to their needs first and foremost. When Americans see their leaders talking almost every day about what must be done to help the people of Ukraine, they have a legitimate right to ask what the government plans to do for them. Within the borders of the US, welfare state politics is practically an anathema and the free market must decide all. Though when it comes to foreign policy, it is often those very same anti-welfare politicians who are the first to propose government handouts to foreign nations and their citizens.
However important Ukraine is, and I for one support Ukraine’s struggle myself, American politicians don’t realize how they help the Kremlin by ignoring the demands of their own citizens. For you US politicians, it says in preamble to the Constitution you swore an oath to defend, that it is ordained to, among other things, “promote the general welfare.” Do your goddamned job, and the rest will follow. RT’s audience will shrink back to what it was in its early days, that is to say, virtually non-existent.
In a recent conversation about the war in the Donbass, a military expert told me that in his opinion, Ukraine’s mistake was not actually implementing full mobilization. Poroshenko talked about it plenty, but apparently did not carry it out. In a similar fashion, Western governments may be doing the same with their information war. It’s easy to throw money at some think tanks and PR agencies to produce some slick ad campaigns and videos that refute the lies of the Russian press. It’s also easy to overreach and produce propaganda that contains its own lies or half-truths, thus alienating more people and driving them into the Kremlin’s camp. If Western governments actually intend to wage this war, they will have to fully mobilize, and that means tough sacrifices, such as listening to their own people more than they do lobbyists and the super wealthy, as well as admitting their failures both past and present. If they refuse to do so, they have no right to complain when Russian propaganda runs circles around them, and quite frankly they ought to be replaced.