In yesterday’s post, I addressed the issue of Russian propaganda vs. “Western” propaganda, explaining why they aren’t the same. I realize that my conclusions and arguments might not satisfy some. Obviously I’m not going to pander to every audience out there, but I have a special place in my heart for the person who is a dissident in a Western country and who is ready to listen but still skeptical about appearing to be on the side of “the West.” I get weird feelings when I find myself on the same side of the fence as the US government. But then again if the US government says wearing pants in public is a good idea, I’m not going to start running around outside without the southern necessity.
Today I want to expand on the problem of taking the “anti-hegemony” side when it comes to Ukraine via a thought experiment. I also want to demonstrate why it is that I simply cannot in good conscience side with any Kremlin-supporting outlet or organization, knowing what I know now. The inspiration for the thought experiment came from an encounter I had many years ago, when I was foolish enough to engage in endless debates with 9/11 truthers. By simply questioning their claims, I earned the ire of a whole posse of the conspiracy theorists. One thing I started to notice was that many of these individuals had conflicting narratives of what supposedly happened that day. In spite of these contradictions, they never got into arguments with each other; everyone was unified against me. I started to get this idea that you could believe anything you wanted, as long as it was a conspiracy theory.
At one point, I was getting exasperated so I posed a question to my main opponents. Basically I told them that I gave up, that I was wrong and I was now convinced that 9/11 was an inside job. I just had one problem, though. I decided to believe one particular narrative of the conspiracy, but some of my other opponents had different narratives. For example, some said a remote-controlled plane hit the Pentagon, but others insisted it was a cruise missile and not a plane. Obviously I couldn’t believe both. So I wondered aloud as to what I should do when confronted with someone saying the towers were brought down by unmarked military planes replacing the airliners, holographic projections of planes in conjunction with “micro-nukes,” missile hitting the Pentagon vs. remote controlled airliner hitting it, etc. Wouldn’t you know, I never got an answer. They continued to attack me, accusing me of working for numerous intelligence agencies.
The question remains. What would I do if someone convinced me of their particular 9/11 conspiracy theory, and then I confronted someone with another theory which included things which conflicted with my narrative? Do I demand evidence from Mr. No-planer? I don’t really have any real evidence of the remote controlled planes theory, or the unmarked military planes theory. His “evidence” is going to be just as good as mine. And of course to him, me asking for evidence is going to sound an awful lot like someone who believes “the official story.” In fact, that’s basically what it is, because if his story isn’t right, he doesn’t have that esoteric knowledge of “what really happened.” I think this is why for the most part you will rarely see these people seriously debate conflicting theories in forums, and why people who advocate conflicting theories will put any and all differences aside to pile up on anyone guilty of believing the “official story.” To be sure, debates do exist within such movements, but they tend to be between authors or leaders of organizations, in other words, people with something to gain from their theory being the most popular. This is also why rather than debating, participants will usually accuse each other of being shills for the government or “disinfo” agents.
Thought experiment: I give up! You win!
Now let’s return to the present. Many of us on the left are told not to listen to the propaganda of the “Western” media when it comes to Ukraine. Ignoring for a moment how easy it is to find articles and other examples from that same media criticizing the actions of the Ukrainian government, talking about the right-wing aspect of Euromaidan, or allowing pro-Russian sources or politicians speak their piece, I feel I must first ask how we define “Western” media in the first place. I’m not playing a semantic game here based on the actual location of these media outlets. It’s been my experience that any media outlet which fails to tout the Kremlin line on Ukraine, including the few remaining independent media organizations in Russia, will be dismissed by the pro-Kremlin side as “Western,” or if not that, totally false and somehow connected to the CIA, National Endowment for Democracy, or whatever. If some of you more masochistic readers out there like debating RT fans online, I encourage you to play to test this hypothesis. For example, choose one media outlet that’s pretty evenhanded and ask for comments on an article that is very critical of Ukraine’s government. After they respond, present them with another article from the same publication(BONUS: same author), and ask them about that. Perhaps ask them if you think the publishing of two articles means that venue isn’t biased against Russia. Note the responses.
It doesn’t matter where it’s from, the content and narrative matter. So if it’s pointing out the massive social problems in Russia, critical of the annexation of the Crimea, or fair to Ukraine, it’s nothing but Western propaganda which can be totally dismissed. At best, a piece that really strives to be evenhanded will be praised for everything but those parts which contradict or question the narrative of the Russian government. So basically, “Western” media can mean anything that isn’t the Kremlin’s narrative. With the definitions out of the way, we can get on with the main thought experiment.
It goes like this. Russia Insider, Sputnik, RT, you were right. I was wrong. Putin is a wise leader. Russia’s cause in the Donbass and Crimea is just. Russia is the right side in this battle against the global corporate hegemony. I just have a couple of problems though. Maybe some of your “political analysts” can help me out.
The first is MH17. I now acknowledge, for no reason in particular, that all those investigations carried out by official European bodies, though they are almost entirely consistent and in at least one case also put some complicity on the Ukrainian military, were of course fraudulent and aimed at framing Russia. Obviously the Ukrainian government, with the complicity of the US, shot down MH17 in order to provide a pretext for bringing sanctions against Russia, sanctions which, according to the Russian government, media, and a lot of you guys are actually helpful for Russia while simultaneously being the reason behind any negative economic changes in the country. Okay that last bit’s a little confusing, but I’m really trying to follow along here.
This is my question. I’m ready to accept the narrative that anyone but Russia and its proxies in the Donbass was responsible for shooting down MH17. I support Russia’s alternative hypothesis. My only problem is which alternative hypothesis do I go with? First the Russian media said that it was shot down from the ground because the Ukrainians thought it was Putin’s plane. Shortly thereafter, a Spanish air traffic controller at Boryspil airport tweeted that he had heard something about a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the aircraft. Unfortunately, it turns out he never existed and Boryspil airport doesn’t employ foreign air traffic controllers. Next the Russian ministry of defense came out with a slick presentation, but even that said that MH17 could have been shot down by Ukrainian airplanes or a “Buk” SAM system operated by the Ukrainian forces. Then of course Russian TV showed a fake satellite photo showing a Ukrainian Mig-29 shooting at MH17, but the other plane theories all said it was an SU-25. In fact, the next theory came from the Investigative Committee and they said they had an anonymous eyewitness who told them a Ukrainian SU-25 shot down the airliner. Even more recently, the Russian government has voiced claims that a Ukrainian SAM shot down the plane, and the DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko said he personally saw two Ukrainian planes shoot down the airliner. Which one of these alternative explanations do I go with? It can’t be all of them.
If only it were just MH17. Russia’s role in the world itself is in question. If I join you guys and your global internet-based movement against the Anglo-American Atlantic hegemony, I can still be a leftist, right? As I understand, the neocons running the US and EU overthrew Viktor Yanukovych because he stood in the way of their plans to advance NATO to the borders of Russia, even though that already happened in 2004. According to some of your pundits, the Americans installed a fascist puppet government in Kyiv, and now racist, neo-Nazi thugs are establishing an authoritarian, discriminatory regime that will implement neo-liberal austerity policies. But I’ve read a lot of your side’s material, and some of you guys have been telling the world that Ukraine has been taken over by wacky European liberals who want to force gay marriage and gender-bending sex education on that country. Also I’ve noticed that a lot of the people on your side, especially the ones who talk about this, happen to be associated with far right parties in Russia and Europe. How am I supposed to square all that with my left wing politics? I thought that Kyiv is run by fascists, so why is it when I look around on the net, it seems almost all the actual fascists or far-right wing extremists I find enthusiastically support Russia? Why don’t they have their international conferences in Kyiv?
I could go on with this little thought experiment, but I think it’s clear enough for the reader. Once you actually know Russia, and more importantly once you know how their media spits out multiple, often contradictory narratives as fast as an MG42 spits out bullets, it becomes virtually impossible to believe that side. At that point, you have to make a conscious decision not only to ignore any and all evidence which contradicts the Kremlin’s line, you have to pretend as though the Kremlin itself isn’t putting out conflicting versions of the particular narrative you went with.
Whenever one gets to that point, the stupidity takes root, and they begin to look increasingly ridiculous. This is the point where you start believing more and more absurd things not because you are stupid, but rather you have to become stupid in order to believe. In my lifetime I have believed some pretty stupid things. But once I learned I was wrong, I had to discard those ideas. I will not deliberately remain stupid for the sake of a belief. And that’s why I can’t side with international Putin fan club. Sorry, guys.
A potential solution
In another recent article about the so-called information war, I threw out an example of what I feel is a more effective way of countering the propaganda of the Russian media, compared to some of the proposals that have been floated recently. This method consists of cataloging and condensing all Russian narratives according to topic, both those stories intended for foreign audiences and those in the Russian Federation. Essentially what we’re talking about is like Stopfake.org on crystal meth. The crucial difference would be that whereas Stopfake.org posts fake news stories as they come, this resource would not only present the latest claims, but it would have everything organized by topic.
Here’s how it would work. Someone sees a Youtube video produced by a pro-Kremlin source on the topic of MH17. It’s got CGI graphics, “experts,” etc. But let us imagine this person is a bit skeptical because they never knew much about the case. So with some Googling they come across this hypothetical resource, and they see the section on MH17. When they go to that section, they are confronted with a summary of all Russian MH17 stories to date, complete with examples, explanations, and links to the real investigations. Ideally, of course, a person would run across this site first, before seeing any conspiracy videos, of course.
The idea is that many people will get drawn in to conspiracy theories when they don’t know the basic details of an event in the first place, and then they see something promising to impart hidden knowledge “they” don’t want you to know. The deal is sweetened if pitch contains messages that resonate with their political beliefs. But what happens if they’re confronted with the fact that the video they just watched or the article they just read isn’t in fact “the” alternative explanation? What if they learn that it’s one of potentially dozens of different hypotheses, many of which are contradictory? They can’t all be “what really happened,” particularly when some of the mutually exclusive hypotheses are actually coming from the same source. Lastly, they will be even more skeptical when they find out that these claims are aimed at different audiences, including those whose political beliefs are diametrically opposed to their own.
Hopefully when more people are confronted with concrete evidence that they are being lied to, they will have no choice but to reject pro-Kremlin propaganda or look incredibly stupid. One thing is for sure, however, and that is no one should risk looking ridiculous by deliberately adopting foolish beliefs simply because they are afraid to be on the same side as a government they disagree with, including their own. It is precisely that fear of looking like a “sell-out” that has led many self-proclaimed and actual leftists in the West to make utter fools of themselves. I understand that if one made one’s career off of criticizing everything the US does, they stand to lose some fans should they admit that there’s an even worse government out there, though it supposedly “opposes” America. Personally I think those supporters are expendable. The worthwhile people will respect someone who stands up for truth and reason. As I said in that recent article, if you still feel uncomfortable because it looks like you’re taking the side of the “Western” media, blame the Kremlin for producing such sloppy, incoherent propaganda as to make Western governments and their media organs look far more credible by default.