For better or worse, this blog can be characterized as a “debunking” site. After all, it is called Russia Without BS and it was originally created to deal with myths about Russia. Of course since 2014, the biggest source of BS about Russia has come from the Russian state press and the Kremlin, and thus the blog turned from the debunking of myths and stereotypes to refuting propaganda.
More recently, and due in particular to the growing concern about Russian meddling in various Western elections, Western media outlets have given increasing attention to groups like StopFake (for which I’ve been working recently) and initiatives like the EU Disinfo Review. Journalists, Western politicians, and think-tank types love this idea of fact-checking and debunking. This is basically how the West chooses to fight against Russia’s information war. Unfortunately for those liberal centrists politicians and think-tank academics, fact-checking and debunking, while necessary and extremely helpful, cannot actually defeat the kind of propaganda Russia and certain other states disseminate. It’s not because we’re living in a “post-fact” world; we’ve long been living in a world where facts don’t matter.
First it must be said that debunking/fact-checking initiatives are extremely necessary. They catalog false claims so that politicians, activists, and journalists know what claims are floating around out there and they can respond to them. Facts do matter to some people who might be listening or watching an exchange, so being able to answer some conspiracy nut’s claim in public is extremely valuable. Also, by cataloging the long list of fake claims from various “news” outlets, it destroys their credibility. The sheer number of totally fabricated stories from Russian state outlets like First Channel or NTV makes them worthless as sources.
Unfortunately fact-checking has very limited value beyond that, and for an example we may look at a site like Snopes.com. Snopes, of course, was originally dedicated to debunking urban legends about all manner of topics, most of them non-political. Snopes became increasingly political as it began tackling chain emails, many of which had a conservative bent. The typical example would involve some US Marine punching out an atheist professor or maybe a female Muslim immigrant berating a good, wholesome American cashier until she’s put in her place by -you guessed it- an American serviceman or maybe their family member. There were certainly leftish chain emails as well, but most of those with political content were of a conservative bent. This only increased with the advent of social media.
Whereas in the old days if that uncle or aunt sent you a chain email you’d just send them a link to Snopes, that won’t work today. The American mouth-breather of today simply dismisses Snopes as “left-wing” or perhaps “funded by Soros,” and that’s it, you lose. Basically the prevailing mentality these days can be encapsulated by “It said the thing I want to believe is not true, ergo I decided it must be lying.” Now based on that, imagine trying to convince Europeans who have at least some skepticism about the EU that something called “The EU Disinfo Review” is on the level. Remember we live in a world where millions upon millions of people believe that instinctively and categorically distrusting their governments and the authorities is a key part of their personal identity.
And identity is a crucial issue here. In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains why facts don’t matter to most people. What matter are psychological frames, which are very much connected to people’s personal sense of identity. If facts do not fit one’s frames, they are ignored, discarded no matter how undeniable they are. I have personally seen this in action, most notably when some leftist Putin-apologists with zero knowledge of Russia or Ukraine repeatedly ignored a certain article I posted numerous times. It’s not that they dismissed the article as “Western propaganda” without reading it- it’s that they acted as though I’d never even posted it multiple times. They did not even react to it. Thanks to Lakoff, I learned why- it didn’t fit their frame.
Lakoff as I understand, currently works as an adviser to the Democratic party, but I’m not sure they’re taking his knowledge to heart. Democratic failures in the past few years, culminating in the embarrassing loss last November, largely revolve around this obsession with facts while rejecting ideals. One could argue that Obama tried to go the ideals route, if only superficially, and it paid off. But it seems this lesson was lost on the party. Matt Taibbi provides some good insight into this deficiency in a review of the book Shattered, which is essentially an autopsy of Hillary Clinton’s disaster of a presidential campaign. Here’s a key excerpt:
At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem.
“All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it,” they wrote. “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”
Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:
“I would have had a reason for running,” one of her top aides said, “or I wouldn’t have run.”
The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – “I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason” – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: “I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.”
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?
The centrists of the so-called “liberal order” in the EU suffer from the same problem. While they talk about “European values” we can see each and every European country violating those values on a daily basis. Meanwhile the best argument a lot of these politicians have going for them is that they’re not (fill in the blank with some far right-wing populist candidate who probably wouldn’t have gained so much popularity were it not for the incompetence of the previous administrations). Centrist leadership is seen as “technocratic,” devoid of ideological slant (even if this is highly debatable), and this is a problem because while they may sometimes manage to stave off the populist monsters they created, the latter still remain a constant and increasingly severe threat.
Looking at Russia’s role in all this, we see a similar problem of values and framing. While I’ve often pointed out that the Kremlin really has no actual ideology, it fervently pretends that it does. Its propaganda makes ideological appeals. Kremlin foreign-language media isn’t trying to actually get people to believe that any one of its forty-seven alternative MH17 theories is true, based on facts. Rather, the idea is that the viewer will accept any or all of those theories because they think that Russia is on their side, that it opposes the domestic politicians they despise, that it upholds their values, or some combination of any of those. In other words these people’s reasoning, to the extent it can even be called reasoning, is basically thus- “My government has accused Russia of shooting down a civilian airliner. I hate my government, and they hate Russia, ergo Russia must be telling the truth.” Whichever alternative explanation this person appropriates to support that conclusion is irrelevant. They may pick more than one no matter how mutually exclusive they are.
Russia actually has a huge advantage in this information war because the Westerners they are trying to reach have no knowledge or experience of real life in Russia. You’re typical American conservative is convinced that he lives in a country of immoral degenerates, and he finds examples of this every day. Meanwhile he hears Russia is all about conservative Christian values and with no actual knowledge or experience to tell him otherwise, in his mind Russia becomes the opposite of America in this degenerate/moral dichotomy. Meanwhile the leftist who sees nothing but contempt for anything labeled socialist in their own country looks at Russia’s over-the-top Victory Day parades and RT’s “anti-corporate” propaganda and comes to see Russia as a check on “American hegemony.” The conservative doesn’t know about the corruption and prostitution while the leftist doesn’t know about the staggering wealth inequality and the promotion of right-wing, even fascist thought by the state. Trying to convince such people with facts alone isn’t going to work because for them, believing those facts goes against their identity as a conservative, a leftist, or whatever.
Buzzwords like civil society, rule of law, and democracy cannot compete with the ideological-based appeals of Russia. Nobody says “I’m a rule-of-law-ist;” the concept in itself cannot be someone’s political identity. Leading Western parties and politicians would have to once again adopt some form of coherent ideology and try as best as possible to adhere to it in order to attract real supporters. Unfortunately I don’t see this happening and I doubt they’ll ever even try. I see the West as being dominated by over-educated, out-of-touch think-tank types who are still dumbfounded by Russia’s ability to run circles around them. They mistake fact-checking and propaganda debunking, which are useful tools, for the cure.
This is only one of many reasons why this liberal centrist order cannot deal with the monster it created in Moscow, and why those of us who sincerely hold values and care about the future of humanity must take up the burden of dealing with Russian propaganda from a values-based, ideological position. We must realize that this is a two-front war, first against the authoritarian kleptocratic dictatorships like Russia and Turkey, then against the incompetent bumbling fools who enabled the former.