One difference between me and the so-called “mainstream” talking heads who specialize in Russia is that I don’t take sides. I try to maintain my own line, changing positions only when the available facts compel me. Yesterday I wrote a rather long piece about the efforts of the West to combat Russia’s self-declared “information war.” I think to the critically thinking reader, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t give Western governments a blank check. On the other hand, some people, especially those from my neck of the political woods, might have seen me as having a soft spot for Western governments. Today I wanted to address some potential objections coming from that side.
Any time one talks about potential objections or counter-arguments, there’s a danger of creating a straw man argument. Thus in this case, if I happen to be constructing a straw man I’m going to be as favorable as I can. He’ll be straw with some kind of wire skeleton for reinforcement, perhaps anchored in the ground via a steel picket. He won’t be knocked down so easily. Let us meet our new and improved straw man 2.0 of the future!
Let us imagine that our hypothetical objector acknowledges that Russia’s government has serious problems. They do not doubt that the government is corrupt and authoritarian. What is more, they don’t deny that Russia is putting out a lot of propaganda, often of laughably dubious quality. They agree that outlets like RT give a platform to cranks and crackpots, and they don’t want to be associated with those people. At the same time, they think the fact that RT still gives a platform to activists who might never be featured on mainstream news organs in their own country means that it serves as useful purpose, if only indirectly. Apart from that, they might genuinely wish that outlets like RT would clean up their act and try to do legitimate reporting.
Apart from this, they might rightly ask whether outlets such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and various Western financed NGOs are also engaging in propaganda. Sure, Russia’s information war is really all about the Russian government’s agenda, but aren’t those Western outlets just doing the same for their own governments, who incidentally hold their purse strings?
Posing such questions to some talking heads will often result in instant dismissal for whataboutery, “false” or “moral equivalency,” or accusations of being a useful idiot. I personally have found this behavior to be infuriating for as far back as I can remember. There really does seem to be this attitude among certain pundits and state officials, particularly in the US, whereby one categorically refuses to brook any criticism of the US government. Often times their resistance involves a lot of whataboutery itself. These people at least appear to think that all discourse should be limited by boundaries that they set. This is extremely arrogant and often drives otherwise reasonable people to embrace increasingly radical narratives until they go off the scale and end up in conspiracy land. I on the other hand, prefer to deal with these people and their objections before that happens, particularly because in my youth I went over that edge and was lucky enough to come back.
Is all propaganda the same?
Let’s start with the question as to whether RFERL, NED, and other NGOs or think tanks put out propaganda, and let’s get right to the point. Yes, these are propaganda organs. They’re not going to be hard on the US government or EU governments, if at all. They are more likely to focus on problems in regimes unfriendly to those governments than problems in their own countries or those regimes on good terms. Having put that out there, there are some very big caveats to consider.
First of all, Western propaganda and PR is not the same a Russian propaganda. Western propaganda organs, of any time, care about being believed. They care about their credibility. They’re not likely to falsify information or make up stories, because that hurts credibility. If they’re going to lie, it’s going to be via omission, or just a slanted point of view. These media organs and think tanks often rely on academics with reputations to consider. If we were to personify them, we might imagine them as a slick car salesman. The propaganda is his sales pitch. He’ll leave out details that might harm the pitch, he’ll exaggerate the necessity of some extra options, but he’s not going to tell you this car won’t have a single problem for the next decade, nor will he claim that it gets 200 miles to the gallon. When you walk on the lot, you expect him to do the former, but if he does that latter you will know he’s lying and you get out of there.
By contrast, Russian propaganda does’t lie, rather it spreads bullshit. The difference is crucial. Russia’s information warriors, or at least their bosses, don’t care how believable their concocted stories are. The goal is to confuse, make people question reality, and to spread cynicism. Evidence, or even coherence isn’t important when it comes to their claims, because you’re not really expected to question any of them. If you try, they’ve most likely already moved on to the next wild claim. Here the best personification of Russian propaganda would be the guy who walks around wearing a military uniform and patches that he bought at a surplus store, telling people about his heroic exploits in spite of the fact that he never even attempted to join the military. We’re talking about that really tragic case who can’t help but spout off about his secret missions and “confirmed kills” even after learning that you were actually in the military, possibly because he just assumes that everyone else lies like him. “Oh you were in the army? Me too! What did you do? Signal? Oh yeah I was Special Delta Forces Team X-Ray, 43rd Silent Sniper Division. I killed 300 ISIS jihadis last summer. Would have been more but the army decided I was getting too dangerous so they gave me a discharge. I started putting on this weight as soon as I got out!”
Russian propaganda, personified
This difference is extremely crucial. Firstly, if you’re one of those people wishing that RT would clean up its reputation and try to establish some kind of credibility, forget it. This is not why they exist. Their task is to essentially try, as futile as it is, to apply the tactics of Russia’s domestic media on a world audience. It’s not about creating some kind of “debate” with Western propaganda organs. What is more, all those conspiracy theories attract a lot of views; they are essentially RT’s answer to the Western corporate media’s celebrity gossip. They’re not going to give up the goldbugs and assorted conspiracy nuts and replace them with respected, dissenting Western academics so as to carry on a sort of debate with their rivals in other countries, if only because any such intellectual who is honest isn’t going to refrain from calling out the Russian government when they do the exact same thing that Western governments do, or worse.
If you’re still not convinced of the essential difference between these two kinds of outlets, let me put it this way. In spite of being published in several publications, in spite of being on TV, and in spite of getting endorsements from some pretty important Russia-watchers who are internationally renowned, I’m quite certain that I have pretty much zero chances of getting hired by an outfit like RFERL, or some DC think tank. By contrast, I know that if I so desired, I could not only get a job at RT easily, but I could possibly get my own show. I know this because plenty of friends and acquaintances who work there have either recommended that I do so, or have said that it is entirely realistic. If for some reason I couldn’t work there, I could definitely get on as a guest. All I have to do is bash America and the EU and refrain from saying anything negative about Russia and its shrinking circle of allies. Piece of cake. The same goes for other pro-Russian insta-think tanks or online publications. It would be too easy- “Washington said X about Russia. That’s hypocritical because(insert bad thing the US did, even if it is over a decade old).” Just repeat several times a week. The sad thing is how many bloggers actually do the same for free.
Ceding the moral high ground
Another key difference between Russian and non-Russian propaganda these days is that Russian propaganda is far more cynical, whereas its opponents’ propaganda is at least morally superior. Democracy, human rights, and personal freedoms are at least positive values. Russian propaganda doesn’t actually advocate such values. All it does is points out weaknesses in the liberal system, and with a cynical eye roll says, “Is this democracy? Is this what they mean by human rights?”
This tactic is ridiculous for a number of reasons. One reason is that in order for RT to even find out about a lot of these lapses in respect for human rights, they rely on sources within those countries, often activists and dissidents. That then leads us to question how dissidents are treated in Russia. The likelihood that the US government will concoct some kind of bizarre criminal case against someone like Abby Martin or Lee Camp is pretty much nil. In terms of charging them with “extremism,” it’s legally impossible.
This leads to the next reason why this kind of criticism is so ridiculous, namely the fact that in most cases, Russia is a bigger offender than the country that is being criticized. I consider it an indisputable fact that there are serious problems in the American system of democracy. Personally I don’t consider it true democracy, but that’s a whole different essay. Yet in spite of that, I’m sorry but it is far more democratic than Russia. I hate Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement and the fact that this half of a super-rich power couple is likely to have the nomination and possibly White House delivered to her on a silver platter, and that this is so because the only alternative in the presidential race will be a conservative Republican. But you know what I would hate even more? I’d hate to have Hillary run the country for the next 15-years, taking the media under the control of her administration, removing the right to elect state governors, and portioning out positions and jobs in return for loyalty. I’d hate it if every time I raised an entirely legitimate criticism of Hillary, people would react by telling me there is no one else qualified to lead the United States and then calling me a national traitor who hates America. That would, for lack of a better word, totally suck.
This is what makes these hypocrisy arguments so hypocritical. They attack others for failing to live up to their ideals, which is legitimate, but the argument is coming from those who not only fall further below the bar, but who don’t even really care about those ideals at all. It seems like the only reason the Russian government ever uses words like democracy or human rights is for propaganda purposes. It also seems they believe all other states and individuals have the same point of view.
I could go on with this point, but the bottom line here is that cozying up to Russia’s side in the information war means ceding the moral high ground. One of the most tragically comic things about modern Russia is how even when someone hands them the moral high ground, they always have to screw it up somehow. Witness the curiously selectively-applied Magnitsky act, to which the Russian government responded by launching an attack on their own orphaned children. Or look at their response to Western sanctions against their elite- pay them off with the people’s money and then deny them food imports. If Western governments don’t have the moral high ground in a particular spat with Russia, rest assured that the Kremlin will readily abandon it to them through its impulsive, act-before-thinking behavior.
Right by default
In order to demonstrate one last point about the difference between Western and Russian propaganda in this information war, and why the latter is absolute poison especially if you are opposed to the former, we need a thought experiment.
Imagine, for example, an alternate reality where Yanukovych flees Ukraine, but Russia doesn’t annex the Crimea or sponsor an uprising in the Donbass. In fact, imagine that Russia actually dials back its propaganda and activity in Ukraine, with their logic being, “Wow, look how mad we made those people! We really crossed a line.”
Now the world is looking at Ukraine. It’s still run by oligarchs. The Rada is still a boxing ring. Emboldened nationalists actually do go around and start beating people and violently disrupting events put on by any group or organization they don’t like. The government, taking advice from the EU, implements austerity. While the businessmen and their foreign partners party away at the finest clubs in Kyiv, ordinary people suffer. Corruption continues to flourish.
Who would the industrialized world be looking at, in that case? I know which country we wouldn’t be looking at- Russia. Sure, they were backing Yanukovych, but Yanukovych has been gone for over a year. If Russia stood back, all eyes would not only be on Ukraine, but the EU as well. We would be having a conversation about austerity and creditor-friendly economic policy, as with EU member countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, or Portugal. We’d be looking at the very real involvement of European or US-funded NGOs in Maidan and asking why these organizations encourage such movements without fully warning their supporters and audiences of the potential costs. We’d want to know why and how so many people had been led to believe that a trade agreement with the EU would almost effortlessly lead to higher standards of living in their country. We’d demand an explanation about the nationalist violence and question the idea that the Ukrainian national identity should rest in the hands of such people. We’d blame them for dividing the country during such a difficult time.
We’d probably be doing all of that and more in our parallel universe, but alas, we are not. We’re not doing that because Russia had to come to the rescue by illegally seizing part of Ukraine’s territory and starting the first major war in Europe since 1999. This sure makes it easy to blame any if not all economic hardships on Russia, and to some extent it’s justifiable to do so. Russia is waging its information war on Ukraine as well, and since as I mentioned they have absolutely no concern for credibility, the sheer wackiness of their propaganda leads many people to assume that anything remotely critical of the Ukrainian government is probably either a product of the pro-Kremlin media or at least based on their material. Some people may fear voicing their viewpoint could cause them to be associated with the Russian side, thus killing their credibility or respectability. In other words, Russia made life very easy for genuine Western propagandists. They can dismiss counter-criticism as whataboutery, even when the criticism is in fact valid, they can dismiss arguments as Russian propaganda, and they can insinuate that their opponents are paid information warriors for the Kremlin.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is just a repetition of the same thing I’ve been saying for the past year or so. If you oppose the things your particular Western government is doing, don’t think taking Russia’s side will help. They don’t care about your cause, they don’t believe in aspiring to higher forms of democracy or respect for human rights, and they’re only going to use you for their purposes drag your movement or cause down into the mud. Even if we just assume everything is in fact equal when it comes to the two sides both disseminating propaganda, one side’s propaganda is highly effective while the other doesn’t even know what it’s doing. The sheer idiocy of much Russian propaganda actually gives its Western counterpart more credibility.
I think many of us still have this mental heuristic, whereby when we read something critical of Russia we experience anything from discomfort to rage if we don’t see some kind of tit-for-tat comparison with problems in America or the leading European countries. Yet when we read articles about, for example, American problems, whether its unarmed black men being shot dead by cops or the power of money in our political system, we never feel this yearning for a paragraph about Russia and its problems. Thus I know why many people reading this may experience unease admitting that yes, sometimes, their governments can be on the right side of an issue, and that sometimes the propaganda they sponsor is true. It feels like selling out. So how do we deal with that feeling?
I found the answer is quite simple. Realize that Russia is the reason for their opponents triumph. The very heads of Russia’s various state-run news media outlets have themselves eschewed the idea of objective reporting, and in fact they have routinely and openly dismissed concepts like objective truth altogether. So whose fault is that? Did Timothy Snyder make them do that? Did RFERL make them decided that objective truth doesn’t exist? Did the National Endowment for Democracy force Russian TV to air a program with laughably phony satellite photos showing MH17 being shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or did they make Russian journalists report the death of a girl who never existed? Please, browse Stopfake.org as much as you like and find me a single example of the Western media, government-sponsored or private, forcing the Russian press or its allies to concoct one of these fabricated claims.
Whatever you think of your government or other Western governments, the facts of the case are clear. Their propagandists actually care about credibility. Russia’s information warriors did not and still do not. They made an a priori decision that everyone lies and thus they were therefore justified in lying. As a result, they look like complete idiots to all critically thinking people, while even unsubtle NATO or EU propaganda looks perfectly logical by comparison. Once you realize that the disparity is Russia’s fault, you’ll no longer feel like you’re selling out just because you happen to accept the same facts that NATO governments have been disseminating. Russia did all the work for them by forfeiting credibility, making its opponents right by default.