Well it look like those of us out there talking about countering Russia propaganda aren’t alone. For quite some time now, various governments and organizations have been engaged in the fight against radical jihadist propaganda, and as is the case when it comes to Russia, it looks like the conventional or dominant view is dead wrong, as the rise of the Islamic State suggests.
I’m sharing this article from Foreign Affairs on the topic because there are some very interesting parallels between this fight and the so-called “information war” with Russia. If I were to summarize its strong points and parallels, I would list them as the following:
-The current “soft power” message being promoted in Muslim countries is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the perceptions of the audience.
-There is a Cold War mentality that runs beneath these efforts, and it is flawed because the conflict is radically different from the Cold War.
-The “ham-handed” tactics of jihadist propaganda can be utilized as a far more effective weapon against the radicals.
I’m highlighting these points because each one has a direct parallel when it comes to countering Russian propaganda.
First, most of the methods suggested so far fail to take into account the perceptions of the audience. You’re not going to create some European or American Russian-language channel that will be accepted by Russian speakers in Russia or the diaspora in former Soviet republics, particularly the older generation. Most Russians who lean towards their own media already believe that they are locked in an information war with the West. They have no concept of private enterprise, meaning that they believe that private corporations such as CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian, etc. are basically government propaganda organs. Remember, these are people who act as if McDonald’s is an American state-owned enterprise, comparable to Russia’s Gazprom. What that means is that when you have an actual state-funded media outlet, it will be impossible to avoid the perception that this is nothing but Western government propaganda. At best, Russian viewers will say, “They both lie,” while still generally leaning toward the Kremlin side.
Second there’s the Cold War comparison. In the case of Russia this incorrect notion is far more forgivable compared to when it is applied to the fight against global radical jihadists, yet it is still wrong. Russia has no ideology; it’s leaders believe in nothing but self-preservation and living in luxury with total authority over their subjects. The Kremlin’s propagandists may believe that the lack of a guiding ideology is an advantage, letting them play both sides outside their borders, but in reality it’s a recipe for disaster.
Lastly, and perhaps most interesting to me, is the point about using ham-handed propaganda against its makers. I’ve said again and again that this is a major weakness of Russian propaganda that to date hasn’t been fully exploited. All you need to do is catalog and then condense all the Russian-made “alternative” versions of a particular story and then compare that to the more consistent, real-world narrative of the same, and it gets pretty hard for people to openly tout the Kremlin line while maintaining dignity and respectability. One story, saying MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25, might gain traction in isolation. But when you compile all the “alternative” theories, which can be summarized as: “It was a Buk. It was a plane. It was a Buk or a plane. It was a plane. No it was a Buk. No it’s a plane again,”- it’s pretty difficult to maintain a straight face while endorsing this narrative.
Another interesting point in the article was about pointing out the hypocrisy and crimes of jihadists against innocent Muslims. This is another area where Russia is extremely vulnerable. We constantly hear about dissatisfied Europeans, often Italian or Greek, who think Russia is an alternative to their economic woes. Often times these people’s views are skewed because they might be or have contact with expats who live in the best cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. They need to become more acquainted with life for ordinary Russians, especially those outside of MKAD. A country with so much wealth but which fails to take care of its own people cannot be expected to care for Greece, Italy, or any other foreign country. Indeed, in spite of all the posturing that’s been taking place at the diplomatic level, Greeks, Cypriots, Hungarians, Moldavians, etc. are going to get a rude awakening if they think Russia will help them with leverage against Germany and the EU.
There’s more hypocrisy to be highlighted, whether it’s “traditional values,” gravely mistaken left-wing ideas about “socialism” and resistance to austerity, or respect for national sovereignty. Russia has been totally two-faced on all of those points, in some cases for years. Foreign bases and interfering in internal affairs of other nations? Russia was doing that as far back as 1992. Russia’s open sense of entitlement to dictate the foreign policy of nearby nations is every bit as arrogant as the US’ intervention in the conflict in Kosovo back in the 90’s, if not more so. Austerity? The Russian government quietly began that year ago, and it’s only become more open as of late. Traditional values? Ha ha! No.
If money is going to be spent on this so-called “information war,” it ought to be spent correctly. As it stands now, many of the proposals I’ve seen seem to amount to getting down on the Kremlin’s level and trying to wage a war of attrition. What is more, it’s important to keep in mind that the best propaganda against the Kremlin is in practice, i.e. providing a better standard of living for citizens in other nations, including Russian immigrants or ethnic Russian communities. The Kremlin survives by taking advantage of the base instincts of capitalism and the cynical world that perpetuates. As long as people look at Russia and can’t clearly see a difference between that and their home, the Kremlin wins by default.