Ever since 2014 European and American politicians have been shitting bricks about Russia’s “information war.” I’ve written numerous articles and responses to articles on the subject, and quite frankly I’ve found the response to be rather overblown and panicky. And when you have an opinion about such a hot issue of the day, what better backup can you have than Mark Galeotti, who wrote this piece on the matter for The Moscow Times?
A few key points deserve highlighting.
But let’s not assume it’s all a product of Russian infowar, or that the Kremlin is some grandmaster of the memetic chessboard. These debates also reflect an underlying malaise of politics, leadership and legitimacy in the West.
“We are willing to doubt the mainstream not because RT exhorts us to “question more,” but because we already believe our leaders, our power structures and even our media lie to us.
We find ourselves exposed to conspiracy theories and sensationalist nonsense not because of the Russians so much as our own competitive media environments, the speed with which a fun, compelling or exciting lie or half-truth can be reposted, retweeted and re-reported around the world, outdistancing any fact-checking or sober analysis.
To this end, the West is simply suffering from its own internal contradictions. The Russians have been able to exploit them, but they have also often demonstrated themselves to be counterproductively clumsy.”
Amen! I suspect this is one of the reasons why it’s mostly Western leaders and politicians who are so afraid of Russia’s otherwise clumsy “information war.” The only really way to win it, and win it quickly, is to handle those internal contradictions Galeotti refers to.
I’ve said plenty of times before- Russian foreign-language propaganda feeds off of alienation and justifiable distrust generated by years of indisputable lies, military campaigns fought for false pretenses, and blatant hypocrisy. When RT’s advertisements abroad make reference to the invasion of Iraq, status quo supporters and intellectuals want to dismiss it as whataboutery and move on. Sure, the invasion of Iraq doesn’t justify Russian foreign policy, and yes it was a long time ago, but you still need to deal with the consequences of that invasion and the policies which surrounded it. Obama’s speech in Cairo just doesn’t cut it.
Millions of Americans want to see more concrete answers from their politicians. They want some kind of assurance that this kind of thing isn’t going to happen again. They never got those assurances, nor has there been any concerted effort to publicize the actual positive changes the US has made in foreign policy since that blunder. As a result, it’s only natural that people are going to remain skeptical of their government, and especially anything that smacks of government propaganda. Sure, outlets like RT are another kind of government propaganda, but I think a lot of people in this discussion forget that many of the guests on RT are Americans or other Westerners expressing their own opinions about topics.
One feature of the propaganda machine that’s supposed to make it so menacing is that now, as they say, the Kremlin is no longer bound by ideology. Whereas during the Cold War they were pretty much restricted to appealing only to the global left, now they can, and do, appeal to both left and right at the same time. To be sure, Russia is more aligned with the right both at home and abroad, but that being said, just saying that out loud, that they are simultaneously appealing to both far right and far left, should reveal how stupid this idea is. Yes, there has been a long tradition of populism which hews to the right but reaches its tentacles into left-wing movements. That being said, you’ll notice those movements tend not to make any lasting impact. Occupy is the latest example.
To reuse one of my previous analogies- think of it as one of those cliched sitcom plots where a main character has a date with two women on the same evening. Eventually they find out about each other. Personally I’ve seen plenty of examples of far rightists and far leftists acquiescing to their strange bedfellows, introduced to them by Russian propaganda, but at the same time you see a lot of cognitive dissonance, confusion, and most of all, cynicism. That’s the core of the Kremlin’s ideology, t the extent that it has one- ideals don’t matter. With that in mind they go and court some of the most romantic idealists they can find. If they have principles, they will desert Russia’s cause when they learn the truth. If not, they will become cynical and ineffective, simply going through the motions. No, the fact that the Kremlin is not bound by ideology isn’t an advantage. It’s one of the reasons they’ll ultimately fail.
And what about the vaunted troll armies? Even here at Russia Without BS we saw how pathetic that gets. First of all, one thing a lot of Anglophone readers forget is that most of the troll activity is, and always has been since its inception, aimed primarily at the domestic audience. The whole project was set up after the protests of 2011-2012 because it became clear to the government that while they controlled the conventional press, they were out of their league on the internet. Most of their activity is aimed at Russian citizens, and from what I’ve seen a lot of it may be aimed at very young people. The very fact that such an operation even exists should be cause for laughter, not fear. This is a country that is spending untold thousands, perhaps even millions of dollars to shout down or otherwise distract internet users complaining about dozens of local problems, rather than just taking that money and fixing the damned problems.
As for the English-speaking trolls? Please- they look like the people who comment on Yahoo! News stories. You’d be hard pressed to find people significantly dumber than that demographic. Anyone who’s had the displeasure of observing such comments would find it difficult to distinguish between some half-literate Alabamian ranting about Obama and Benghazi and a Russian twenty-something with an intermediate level in English ranting about Obama and Ukraine.
Even Americans who are just becoming aware of this “troll army” are justifiably skeptical about its efficacy. Tom Tomorrow, creator of This Modern World, gives us a pretty good reaction:
Tom’s right on target. If Russia wants an internet war, America’s trolls would bury the Internet Research office in days. I’ve gone round after round with 9/11 Truthers,”Men’s Rights” advocates, White Nationalists, and “Anarcho-Capitalists,” who are sometimes combinations of all those things. Russian trolls just come in and leave some comment like: “I am PATRIOTIC AMERICAN and I don’t afraid to tell OBAMA I am NOT wanting my tax dollars spent to help to the NAZI KIEV JUNTA IN THE UKRAINE!” There’s no “debate” or engagement. By contrast, America has uh…”talented” young men who will gladly bang out a ten page post as to how middle class white males are in fact the most oppressed class of people in the United States. Your responses will be hit with a barrage of accusations about logical fallacies, both real and imagined. All in all, Russian English-language trolling is at best, less intimidating than a Gamergate raid.
There’s only one thing that can make this propaganda offensive, which is consuming so much state money, seem effective, and that is the continued panic surrounding it. At best, Russian propaganda is good at appealing to people’s cynicism and alienation. This is why first and foremost Western governments need to deal with their skeletons and even encourage more criticism within their societies. At least that way it will be principled criticism. As for Russian propaganda? Like Galeotti suggests, it doesn’t do any good to counter it with more propaganda. And yes, any such effort as the ones that are currently being discussed will inevitably end up becoming just that. What is needed is mockery, satire, and parody. People want to feel they know some hidden truth, but they also have a strong need to be taken seriously. Anybody who doesn’t- well what good are they to anyone?
So less panicking and more laughter. That and clean up your act, because Russia’s regime feeds off of cynicism, corruption, and hypocrisy, which it uses as propaganda capital. “The rot,” as a good friend of mine put it. There’s your solution. Now it remains to be seen if Western leaders will actually live up to their rhetoric.*
*They probably won’t. They’re slow learners.