Hardly a day goes by in the Russia-watching world when you don’t hear someone talking about efforts to counter Russian propaganda. Thus far I haven’t seen anything particularly impressive coming from any quarter, and worst of all, a lot of the writing on this material often doesn’t clarify exactly who the audience of this counter-propaganda should be. The two possible audiences, which are sometimes mentioned almost interchangeably, are Russian-speaking communities in European countries and non-Russian-speaking citizens of European and Western countries. Obviously the approach you take toward both must necessarily be vastly different, and not solely because of language.
The latest column I read on this idea was by Ben Nimmo, and is available here. In general the author makes some interesting points, such as highlighting the predictability of Russian propaganda. I too have noticed how Kremlin talking points are sometimes so predictable that you can almost “control” a person who is using them.
He also diagrams the techniques of Russian propaganda into a sort of template consisting of dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Does his formula work? Well the author provides ample examples, but in repeating his “experiment” I would say that yes, I have seen similar examples myself. Here’s a brief run-down off the top of my head.
Dismiss: The most recent example of this was the reaction to RFERL’s article about Stephen Cohen. Russia Insider provided a response that looked like it was written by 16-year-olds, while Paul Craig Roberts provided an eerily similar version that sounds like it was written by a much older man with the mind of a 19 year old college student who goes on about 9/11 conspiracies. Immediately RFERL is dismissed as CIA propaganda in spite of the fact that the article actually quotes Cohen at length, and fails to challenge him on one of his most important statements, i.e. his own claim that he is not pro-Putin. Any “hit piece” wouldn’t have let that slide uncontested.
But what is even more hilarious is how both articles attack the author of the piece, alleging that they supposedly don’t know anything about Russia. If any of these morons understood how media works, they’d understand why that isn’t even important. It is an undisputed fact that Stephen Cohen is seen by some to be a Kremlin supporter. At the same time, they “let him speak for himself” by providing direct quotes from Cohen, including his denial of being a Kremlin supporter. Then they provide some comments from people who think he is. And for this rather routine news story, Paul Craig Roberts likens RFERL to the Gestapo. Yes, because that’s what the Gestapo did. They wrote articles in which they directly quoted the subject and then featured some counter-opinions. And the Waffen SS used to produce Garfield cartoons.
Distort: When I think of distortion, I think of the time-bending antics in regards to Crimea. At first, Russia didn’t annex the Crimea… “Oh okay, yes there were Russian troops there, but they were only outside their bases. Okay, they were outside their bases but they were allowed to be by law! They had to go around disarming those Ukrainian army units because they had to protect the people! Protect them from what? Protect them from what happened in the Donbass, of course! I know that happened after the Crimean annexation, but it was going to happen in the Crimea! Russia prevented that! Now the junta is murdering people in the Donbass, and Russia must stop them! No! There are no Russian troops in the Donbass! This is a lie! Russia isn’t supporting the rebels!” Ad infinitum.
Distract: This one’s easy: “What about… Fergusonkosovolibyairaqsyriavietnamdetroitguatemalairancubapalestine?!”
Dismay: This is a weird little tactic that a lot of media seems to forget about, which is a shame because it’s probably the only subtle method Russia has for getting its message out there. Indeed, sometimes it’s not subtle at all, but it is often used by “concern troll” types whose message is basically: “Russia is a dangerous unpredictable nuclear power so we’d better just give them everything they want!” Another variant of this is: “Putin is terrible indeed, but there are much worse figures out there and he is keeping them in line.” The latter may be true, but it’s true by design and it’s also not an excuse for supporting Putin.
Unfortunately Nimmo’s article has some glaring weaknesses. For example take a look at this line:
“The West should respond by emphasizing its own narrative of the freedom of choice and democracy, values which are threatened by the Russian regime and seen by it as a threat.”
First of all you have to ask who this message is aimed at. If aimed at Western populations, it will be dismissed as propaganda. As the saying goes, “If you could ask fish what it’s like living under the sea, they’d probably forget to tell you that it’s wet.” The American, for example, does not know what living under open tyranny is like. Americans will scream bloody murder over having to wear seatbelts or pay taxes. This approach actually ignores some of the very real problems and forms of oppression Americans do experience. In the case of the US, tyranny comes less from the government and more in the workplace.
The problem of narratives also reappears in the author’s proposed solutions:
First, the West needs a visceral, captivating storyline that appeals to the senses more than to common-sense. Such a narrative can be written, based on the West’s long-held values of individual freedom, democracy and the rule of law, and the efforts of many people over the years to defend them – efforts of which the Maidan demonstrations are a part.
This is also a great recipe for lying and abuse by politicians. Once upon a time my country’s media concocted a visceral, captivating storyline about an evil dictator who had killed his own people and who was plotting an attack on the US. Do I really need to explain how that turned out? It is because of the rampant overuse of that black-and-white, emotional storyline that Americans are reluctant as a people to support any military campaign in regards to Ukraine. For over a decade the government and media cynically manipulated people and squandered America’s idealism. Before I address that Maidan point, however, read the rest of that quote:
This is an area in which the states of Central and Eastern Europe should play a leading role. Because of their history, they have a unique perspective on the clash of values which underpins the Ukraine conflict: the desire of the Ukrainian people for European integration, and the determination of the Russian elite to prevent it. They can articulate the narrative of democracy and freedom as a true, immediate and personal story, and contrast it with their own experience of its antithesis. This is far more powerful than any nuanced political declaration.
That narrative may be compelling but it is also wrong. The more I talk to people who were involved in Maidan, the more I began to realize that this narrative, whereby the Ukrainian people supposedly rose up to pay for European integration with their own blood, was nothing but a lie. A lie, incidentally, that was no less propaganda than the Russian narrative. What is equally damning is the fact that Russian propaganda never disputed this narrative of Maidan being all about joining Europe; in fact they embraced it and it was the foundation for their own false narrative. In reality, people came out to Maidan for a number of reasons and many of those people were not there for European integration at all. Some were outraged at the police brutality displayed at the original Euromaidan. Others were anarchists and leftists rallying for better wages and against cuts in social spending. Some were far right nationalists who despise the European Union as much as, and for the same reasons as Russia’s imperialists.
Lastly, given Ukraine’s recent laws against free-speech and which legislate a revisionist narrative of history no less ridiculous than some of the Kremlin’s highly-publicized theories (on the alleged illegality of German reunification, for example), no honest person can call Ukraine a successful democracy that is sufficiently different from Russia. Even if they managed to have a more or less free and fair election, the fact that these elected officials would so readily pass such legislation without debate or public discussion strips them of democratic credentials. For Ukraine to “win” in this conflict, it must be essentially different from Russia, and not in superficial terms either.
Another troubling thing in the article was this line about “speakers” for Kremlin propaganda:
Third come those commentators who may not support Russia’s narrative, but whose words can be quoted in a way which appears to show that they do.
It is a sad fact that Kremlin media does happily use the words of neutral or even anti-Kremlin figures to serve its own ends. Scholars of the Holocaust who study the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) need to be especially wary of this when speaking to unknown media sources. In such cases they should stress that these organizations represented only a tiny minority of Ukrainians during the war, and that the vast majority of Ukrainians served in the Red Army for the Allied cause. The fact that Russian propaganda seeks to exploit these fields of study shouldn’t scare people away from making statements about them. It means people need to be more vigilant, but it shouldn’t lead to self-censorship or false accusations of Kremlin shilling just because someone has a difference of opinion. Almost anything can be twisted to fit someone’s narrative.
All in all, I’d say it’s a valuable article even if I find the solutions to be a little flawed. Personally I stick by my proposed solutions: Cataloging phony news stories and claims in an encyclopedia format, and more importantly- mockery.