Tag Archives: information war

“Information attacks”

Lately Kremlin spokespeople and supporters have been hysterically screaming about impending “information attacks” that are being prepared by the evil Western media against the Glorious Leader Vladimir Putin. Whereas in the past they used to wait for negative stories to break, now they are denying them in advance. In fact they’re not even really denying them. They’ve got to a point where you just point your finger and say something like “State Department” and that’s enough for the domestic audience.

Apart from this shift to preemptive denial, none of this is particularly surprising behavior coming from the Kremlin. Their media machine literally does cook up phony stories about other countries and governments, and in their cargo cult-like mentality they assume they’re just doing what the “Western media” does. Of course this isn’t how it works in reality. When “Western media,” AKA any media outlet that fails to report the Kremlin’s version of events, actually gets something incorrect about Russia, it’s almost always due to flaws inherent in the system. Journalists or correspondents with little experience in the country, using the wrong fixers, etc. Occasionally you get a journalist or reporter with a strong confirmation bias who will take as gospel the words of any random opposition intellectual, no matter how sensational. But as I’ve said plenty of times, if you pitch a story to an editor, can’t explain or corroborate your sources, and your only defense is “Hey this makes Russia look bad and we are in an information war,” you’re going to be out of a job very quickly.

Long time followers have no doubt noticed that whenever the Kremlin supporters accuse others of doing something, they are the ones actually or most actively doing it. This is due to what seems to be their system of justification, whereby they tell themselves and one another that “The West does X. Everyone’s doing X. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do X?” Once everyone has agreed that this is the case in a process that apparently involves no dissent or devil’s advocacy, they go and do X, whether the other side does it or not. If you want to see a perfect example of this phenomenon when it comes to “information attacks,” look no further than the Russian media’s repeated smear campaigns against European countries, where they constantly inform their audience that Europe is not only full of gays and radical Muslim hordes, but also organized pedophiles.

Imagine the Russian reaction if the Western media ever responded in kind? Pedophiles supposedly organizing political parties in Europe (they didn’t, read the story in the link above)? What could you say about a country run by a guy who does this in public:

presidentchomo

DID YOU KNOW? Putin’s limousine has no windows and the words “FREE CANDY” in Russian are painted on the sides. 

Of course such a smear campaign wouldn’t be tolerated by any respectable media anywhere in the world. This simply isn’t the business they’re in. But if you’re a producer in the Russian media, it’s perfectly acceptable to smear Western countries as havens for organized pedophiles.

This topic really strikes a nerve with me because I’ve actually had a run-in with a Russian media employee who was involved in airing one of these sick smear stories. When I read the script and told her I couldn’t accept the job, she just disappeared, almost as though  she knew exactly why. She knew, and she still works there.

The background narrative behind all these stories is, as many readers already know, the juxtaposition between the “degenerate, amoral” West and Russia, the last bastion of true Christian values. Since few Russians actually go to church or make any effort to study their faith, we can forgive them for never reading such Bible commandments as “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” And what else can one call it when a nation’s media deliberately lies about such an inflammatory topic?

Yet whether it’s claiming the West is a paradise for pedophiles (ask Jared from Subway about that) or tall tales of Ukrainian Nazis crucifying little kids (presumably before their European masters can molest them), the Kremlin-owned media continues to manufacture bullshit while accusing the rest of the world’s media of launching “information attacks” against them. If that seems shocking to you in any way, you must be new here. Welcome to Russian politics.

Children in charge

Let’s start with a little story time. A long time ago, when I was probably about seven, I had a little spat with some of the neighbor kids that shared the same after-school babysitter. At some point I unleashed my nuclear option at the time- I flipped them the bird. The two kids immediately said that they’d tell my mother that I’d used the rude gesture when she arrived to pick me up. Yeah, pathetic little snitches, I know. Of course this was a pretty serious threat in those days so I had to come up with a plan.

The first part of the plan was a little hazy, but I think I remember trying to spot my mom’s approaching car and get into it in the driveway, hopefully avoiding the two tattle-tales. As I remember this part of the plan worked, but for some reason she actually had to go visit the babysitter’s apartment, and that’s when I needed a Plan B. With the tactical thinking of a seven-year-old Sun Tzu, I came up with a brilliant gambit. I informed my mother that these two kids, who she would probably see in the apartment, were planning to lie to her about me, claiming that I gave them the middle finger. Jimmy, you magnificent bastard!

Of course this was met with skepticism.

“Why would they tell me you flipped them off if you didn’t do that?”

“We were arguing, and then they said they’d do that,” a basic paraphrase of my defense.

“Okay but why would they say you did that?”

So. After Action Review time. Clearly the preemptive denial was a bad idea, because in the mind of an adult it’s suspicious when their child says that other children are planning to falsely accuse them of some very specific offense. A better plan probably would have been to keep my mouth shut until my mother finished whatever business she had with the babysitter. For one, the children might have given up on their snitching plans, given their typically short attention spans. But had they told, I could have just feigned exasperation at their claims, as though I had no idea what this so-called “middle finger gesture” meant. It could have failed, but it had a much better shot than my proactive course of action.

The lesson learned? If you’ve done something bad, and you know someone’s about to expose it, don’t call attention to it and deny it in advance. This only invites suspicion. Of course I learned that at the age of seven, but what happens when you have a country whose leadership displays the mental age of a seven year old? Well you get this.

If you follow Russia on Twitter, you’ve no doubt heard about Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s recent warnings about a pre-planned “information attack” that was going to be launched by the “Anglo-Saxon” media (these guys?) against Russia and in particular, president Putin. Since then there has been some speculation as to exactly what Peskov was referring to, but today we see one possible example. Reuters, which has already broken a major story about corruption and Putin’s daughters, recently published another story that deals with corruption and the president’s family.

Typically the response of any Kremlin official to any revelation of their corrupt dealings is to blame America, specifically the State Department. Investigations such as that published by Navalny about the dirty deeds of prosecutor Chaika and his son are alleged to have been “ordered from abroad,” which of course means America. Naturally nobody ever comes forward to try an debunk any of these charges, nor do they ever present evidence that people like Navalny are working in conjunction with the US State Department or intelligence services, something that should be a piece of cake for the FSB. This time, however, the game plan had changed. Peskov and some other Russian “experts” were openly predicting an “information attack” against president Putin, as though everyone in Russia doesn’t already know that there’s corruption surrounding the president. In other words: “The West is going to say a bunch of mean things about our Glorious Leader and corruption, but don’t believe him because it’s just an information attack.” It didn’t work for seven-year-old me, and it hasn’t worked for the Kremlin either.

I could just end it here, but there are a couple more examples in that TASS article which demonstrate what I mean when I say that the country is in the hands of people with the minds of children. In that article, the author makes the case for their US government-ordered “information attack” by drawing a link between the Center for Public Integrity and one of its funders, the MacArthur Foundation. In the minds of pro-Kremlin “experts,” all you need to do is find a link between one thing, another thing, and then yet another thing that has some connection to the US State Department and then- BINGO! The whole investigation is nothing but a government-sponsored information attack!

In adult land, however, it’s worth taking a look at what this mysterious Center for Public Integrity organization actually is. The Center for Public Integrity was founded by ex 60 Minutes producer Charles Lewis, and its stated mission is “to reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty by powerful public and private institutions in order to cause them to operate with honesty, integrity, accountability and to put the public interest first.” Hmmm…I don’t see anything about “fuck Russia” in there. But let’s dig deeper, starting with their home page. As of the time I was writing this, I didn’t notice any stories about Russia on the entire front page.

What are most of the stories about? The vast majority are about problems with American politics, and they certainly live up to their claims of being non-partisan. In fact, the CPI achieved fame early on for exposing the Lincoln bedroom scandal under the Clinton administration, and Bush’s insider trading in connection with Harken energy. How did I know about that, you ask? I’ve known it for years, ever since I watched this documentary that heavily features commentary from Charles Lewis and material from the CPI:

 

Yeah, there’s a real neocon film for you! That’s exactly the sort of thing the State Department would be associated with. Of course I’m just kidding. It’s obvious that this 2003 documentary, which is extremely critical of Bush’s Iraq invasion among many other US government policies, must have been nothing but an early information attack constructed by Vladimir Putin’s fledgling propaganda machine. They were just jealous because of America’s successful conquest and pacification of Iraq!

Obviously I jest, but that does seem to be the way many of these pro-Kremlin people think. Because their media system is largely a state-controlled top-down structure that sees information war and propaganda as its mission, a priori deciding that objective reality doesn’t exist, they assume, or I should say project the same idea onto the rest of the world’s media. They actually believe that journalists all around the world deliberately make up negative stories about Russia, when “negative” includes anything that contradicts the Kremlin’s narrative, and of course their editors are happy to publish those phony stories without question. Why not? This is how it works at First Channel; it must be how it works everywhere! It has to be, because otherwise feelings of guilt and uneasiness might arise. Best to believe everyone’s doing the same thing.

Let’s get one thing straight. There is bias in foreign media when it comes to Russia. If you pitch two stories to an editor, one about the vibrant new life one sees in Moscow’s new pedestrian areas and the other about some random Russian politician’s empty threats about nuking some country, we all know which one is more likely to get published. Add to this a very bizarre obsession with prostitution and mail order brides, particularly in the British press. But on the other hand, if you come to an editor and say you have a story about Russian soldiers butchering children in Donetsk, and when they ask you about your source and you reply that it’s just “some guy” but that the story should be published because it makes Russia look bad and we’re in an information war, you’ve got until the time that editor realizes you’re not joking before getting sacked. You’re done. Forever. In the Russian state media, however, this just doesn’t happen. If your story turns out to be bogus, you just shift the burden of proof to the viewers and say they must show that a certain little boy wasn’t crucified in Slovyansk.

It’s child-like thinking, and it’s just another reason why people really need not panic about this Kremlin propaganda offensive. It’s own internal contradictions essentially guarantee its demise, especially considering how much money is being spent on such an ineffective project. Any dissent within the system will almost inevitably be seen as disloyalty, and as is the case everywhere else in the power vertical, flattery and sycophancy get rewarded. The best they can do is confuse and spread cynicism, and if they’ve had any success at all it is largely due to the failure of Western governments. What sort of leaders let themselves be bested by children anyway?

Then again, maybe we got Peskov wrong all along. Maybe there is a bullshit story about Putin coming out of the West. Perhaps he was referring to this story that claims Putin is now dating Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng. But hey, if it’s true I say good for him. Deng really sticks up for her man:

Enough incompetence to go around

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 TimesThe 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.

The leg work

One thing I’ve noticed about many people with a conspiratorial worldview is that they rarely seem interested in actually doing any kind of investigation into the things they believe, even if it isn’t necessarily hard to do so. They’d much rather park themselves in front of trusted sources of information, i.e those that confirm their previously-determined view, than go out and verify something they’ve heard. There seems to be no concern over whether their sources are lying to them. Obviously the feasibility of investigation varies depending on the individual and the event or issue being discussed, but I find it odd when people claiming to be journalists seem utterly uninterested in doing any investigation of their own to refute what they say are biased claims of “the mainstream media.”

A perfect case of this is the recent wave of news about the Kremlin’s paid “troll armies” on the internet. “Recent” in this case refers to the English-language news, because in the Russian-language press the story is much older. Naturally the Putin fanboy press is calling bullshit and dismissing it all as propaganda. Former workers coming forward? Lies! Photos and the address of the building where one of the largest troll farm operations takes place? Propaganda! But there’s just something funny about the rapid, off the cuff dismissals from these Kremlin fans, and that is that they never seem willing to actually do their own investigation even when it ought to be easy to do so.

Let’s start with this troll army story. This piece in the The New York Times is the latest and one of the most detailed stories about the operation. Then we have two additional pieces from RFERL (Link 1, Link 2), one of which also has a photograph of the same building that appears in the NY Times article and names the same street. What we see in all three articles is a more or less consistent story about how the operation runs.

Now naturally the Russian Insider and Sputnik News crowd would dismiss this as coming from “the mainstream media” in the case of the NY Times piece, and naturally RFERL is straight up CIA in their book. The thing that gets me though, is in this case it would be so easy to refute these stories by doing one’s own investigation. Numerous articles have photos of the building in question plus the street address. We’re talking about a place in St. Petersburg, which is roughly four hours from Moscow if you take the new Sapsan train. How hard would it be to investigate this building and monitor it in the same way that the other journalists did? Wouldn’t this be the best way to come up with bulletproof evidence that the evil Western media is lying? Actually I think there’s an even better way.

Russia’s information warriors constantly insist that the Western media lies about Russia. Most of the time they make little effort to actually confront the claims in question, but rather they prefer to pull a Glenn Beck and explain how the authors are supposedly connected to the CIA or Western NGOs. They never address the fact that Russian media gets routinely busted for producing obviously fabricated stories either. Nonetheless, they insist that it’s the “Western” press, i.e. any press that doesn’t agree with Russia’s line, that lies and fabricates claims against Russia rather than vice versa.

Remember when NBC used poorly-faked satellite photos on the news and nobody was fired for it? Me neither.

Remember when NBC used poorly-faked satellite photos on the news and nobody was fired for it? Me neither.

The thing that strikes me as odd about all this is why, after all these years of claiming that the Western press is nothing but propaganda, none of these truth warriors have ever bothered to prove their point by doing an inside investigation. These days a lot of major news outlets use freelancers. Why don’t they try pitching a totally fabricated story, perhaps something about MH17 for example, to various news agencies? If the pitch is accepted without question, then we have proof that they don’t care about fact-checking. If they ask about verification, our investigator can “admit” that it’s unconfirmed, but then point out how this would make a really good anti-Russian narrative or words to that effect. I’m betting they’ll be shocked by the reaction. Welcome to actual journalism, pal.

After a brief and nightmarish stint in a state-run news agency of a country that makes Russia look like a model of sound governance, and having numerous close friends or acquaintances who work in the news media, I’ve come to realize that a major part of the problem when it comes to this conspiratorial thinking is that most people simply have no idea how the news is made, and how media works. Anyone who actually does their research can rattle off dozens of real-life examples of the “Western” or let’s say American press getting things wrong. The reasons are manifold. Sometimes it’s about preserving access to official sources. Often times it’s sensationalism winning out over fact-checking and sober analysis. Sometimes it’s an ambitious journalist crossing the line and fabricating details.

What’s important to remember however, is that there are limits to how bad it gets. Journalists who fabricate stories get fired- some get publicly humiliated. Years of biased right-wing cable news created a niche market for “liberal” media to counter it. Though it leaves much to be desired, the system has elements of self-correction. This is simply not the case with Russian media. If they get busted, they will usually admit that they had no evidence for the story, but they don’t apologize and they don’t stop. In fact RT is proof of this; there are tons of ridiculous stories which appear on Russia domestic media, but none of them will appear on outlets like RT unless they are heavily refined first. This is why, for example, the flash about Ukraine shooting down MH17 thinking it was Putin’s plane was quickly pulled from RT’s site after it appeared, and why they didn’t do an English-language story about the mysterious satellite photo of the Mig-29 shooting at the Malaysian airliner. Since RT has to compete with real news organizations, they can’t just be a non-stop bullshit factory like a Russian domestic channel.

News will always have bias, but not all bias is equal. What I don’t get is why so many of these truth seekers are so quick to dismiss journalism as lies and propaganda without actually doing any themselves. It seems like the easiest thing in the world for someone who has been working for a Russian English-language media outlet for years to set up an inside investigation of a “Western” media outlet and see how readily they accept unconfirmed reports that make Russia look bad. Better yet, see how willing they are to endorse a story that is a total fabrication.

In fact, let’s do a quick thought experiment on that right now- A Kremlin-supporting expat “geopolitical expert” and myself each write fabricated news stories. Mine is anti-Ukrainian, his is anti-Russian. I pitch mine to Sputnik News, they pitch theirs to The Guardian, NY Times, Al Jazeera, or whatever other organization is now part of the evil “Western media hegemony.” Be completely honest- Which story is likely to be accepted without question or at least with virtually no confirmation? Anyone doubting the outcome I’m implying here is welcome to try the experiment themselves. You’ve got nothing to lose but time, and if a major Western publication publishes your bullshit story, imagine what a coup that would be.

So in the end- yeah, we get it, all those Western hacks aren’t “real” journalists. Then you go out and be a real journalist, goddammit. Show them how it’s done. I’ve caught all kinds of flack from leftists who have never been to Ukraine or Russia because of my stance on the Donbas, once I had sufficient facts. And yet unlike them, instead of just countering their news links with my own, I eventually decided to take some of my hard-earned money, got on a damned plane, and went there without guides, a fixer, or anyone to see what was going on. And you know what? If all goes well in the next few months I’ll probably go back and get more info and opinions from the locals. That’s not exactly Pulitzer material, but it’s a lot closer to “real” journalism than the textwalls of crap you get from the office chair-bound “truth seekers” out there.. If I’m kicking your ass in the investigative journalism department, you’re not a journalist.

The other side of the coin

One difference between me and the so-called “mainstream” talking heads who specialize in Russia is that I don’t take sides. I try to maintain my own line, changing positions only when the available facts compel me. Yesterday I wrote a rather long piece about the efforts of the West to combat Russia’s self-declared “information war.” I think to the critically thinking reader, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t give Western governments a blank check. On the other hand, some people, especially those from my neck of the political woods, might have seen me as having a soft spot for Western governments. Today I wanted to address some potential objections coming from that side.

Any time one talks about potential objections or counter-arguments, there’s a danger of creating a straw man argument. Thus in this case, if I happen to be constructing a straw man I’m going to be as favorable as I can. He’ll be straw with some kind of wire skeleton for reinforcement, perhaps anchored in the ground via a steel picket. He won’t be knocked down so easily. Let us meet our new and improved straw man 2.0 of the future!

Let us imagine that our hypothetical objector acknowledges that Russia’s government has serious problems. They do not doubt that the government is corrupt and authoritarian. What is more, they don’t deny that Russia is putting out a lot of propaganda, often of laughably dubious quality. They agree that outlets like RT give a platform to cranks and crackpots, and they don’t want to be associated with those people. At the same time, they think the fact that RT still gives a platform to activists who might never be featured on mainstream news organs in their own country means that it serves as useful purpose, if only indirectly. Apart from that, they might genuinely wish that outlets like RT would clean up their act and try to do legitimate reporting.

Apart from this, they might rightly ask whether outlets such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and various Western financed NGOs are also engaging in propaganda. Sure, Russia’s information war is really all about the Russian government’s agenda, but aren’t those Western outlets just doing the same for their own governments, who incidentally hold their purse strings?

Posing such questions to some talking heads will often result in instant dismissal for whataboutery, “false” or “moral equivalency,” or accusations of being a useful idiot. I personally have found this behavior to be infuriating for as far back as I can remember. There really does seem to be this attitude among certain pundits and state officials, particularly in the US, whereby one categorically refuses to brook any criticism of the US government. Often times their resistance involves a lot of whataboutery itself. These people at least appear to think that all discourse should be limited by boundaries that they set. This is extremely arrogant and often drives otherwise reasonable people to embrace increasingly radical narratives until they go off the scale and end up in conspiracy land. I on the other hand, prefer to deal with these people and their objections before that happens, particularly because in my youth I went over that edge and was lucky enough to come back.

Is all propaganda the same?

Let’s start with the question as to whether RFERL, NED, and other NGOs or think tanks put out propaganda, and let’s get right to the point. Yes, these are propaganda organs. They’re not going to be hard on the US government or EU governments, if at all. They are more likely to focus on problems in regimes unfriendly to those governments than problems in their own countries or those regimes on good terms. Having put that out there, there are some very big caveats to consider.

First of all, Western propaganda and PR is not the same a Russian propaganda. Western propaganda organs, of any time, care about being believed. They care about their credibility. They’re not likely to falsify information or make up stories, because that hurts credibility. If they’re going to lie, it’s going to be via omission, or just a slanted point of view. These media organs and think tanks often rely on academics with reputations to consider. If we were to personify them, we might imagine them as a slick car salesman. The propaganda is his sales pitch. He’ll leave out details that might harm the pitch, he’ll exaggerate the necessity of some extra options, but he’s not going to tell you this car won’t have a single problem for the next decade, nor will he claim that it gets 200 miles to the gallon. When you walk on the lot, you expect him to do the former, but if he does that latter you will know he’s lying and you get out of there.

By contrast, Russian propaganda does’t lie, rather it spreads bullshit. The difference is crucial. Russia’s information warriors, or at least their bosses, don’t care how believable their concocted stories are. The goal is to confuse, make people question reality, and to spread cynicism. Evidence, or even coherence isn’t important when it comes to their claims, because you’re not really expected to question any of them. If you try, they’ve most likely already moved on to the next wild claim. Here the best personification of Russian propaganda would be the guy who walks around wearing a military uniform and patches that he bought at a surplus store, telling people about his heroic exploits in spite of the fact that he never even attempted to join the military. We’re talking about that really tragic case who can’t help but spout off about his secret missions and “confirmed kills” even after learning that you were actually in the military, possibly because he just assumes that everyone else lies like him. “Oh you were in the army? Me too! What did you do? Signal? Oh yeah I was Special Delta Forces Team X-Ray, 43rd Silent Sniper Division. I killed 300 ISIS jihadis last summer. Would have been more but the army decided I was getting too dangerous so they gave me a discharge. I started putting on this weight as soon as I got out!”

Russian propaganda, personified

This difference is extremely crucial. Firstly, if you’re one of those people wishing that RT would clean up its reputation and try to establish some kind of credibility, forget it. This is not why they exist. Their task is to essentially try, as futile as it is, to apply the tactics of Russia’s domestic media on a world audience. It’s not about creating some kind of “debate” with Western propaganda organs. What is more, all those conspiracy theories attract a lot of views; they are essentially RT’s answer to the Western corporate media’s celebrity gossip. They’re not going to give up the goldbugs and assorted conspiracy nuts and replace them with respected, dissenting Western academics so as to carry on a sort of debate with their rivals in other countries, if only because any such intellectual who is honest isn’t going to refrain from calling out the Russian government when they do the exact same thing that Western governments do, or worse.

If you’re still not convinced of the essential difference between these two kinds of outlets, let me put it this way. In spite of being published in several publications, in spite of being on TV, and in spite of getting endorsements from some pretty important Russia-watchers who are internationally renowned, I’m quite certain that I have pretty much zero chances of getting hired by an outfit like RFERL, or some DC think tank. By contrast, I know that if I so desired, I could not only get a job at RT easily, but I could possibly get my own show. I know this because plenty of friends and acquaintances who work there have either recommended that I do so, or have said that it is entirely realistic. If for some reason I couldn’t work there, I could definitely get on as a guest. All I have to do is bash America and the EU and refrain from saying anything negative about Russia and its shrinking circle of allies. Piece of cake. The same goes for other pro-Russian insta-think tanks or online publications. It would be too easy- “Washington said X about Russia. That’s hypocritical because(insert bad thing the US did, even if it is over a decade old).” Just repeat several times a week. The sad thing is how many bloggers actually do the same for free.

Ceding the moral high ground

Another key difference between Russian and non-Russian propaganda these days is that Russian propaganda is far more cynical, whereas its opponents’ propaganda is at least morally superior. Democracy, human rights, and personal freedoms are at least positive values. Russian propaganda doesn’t actually advocate such values. All it does is points out weaknesses in the liberal system, and with a cynical eye roll says, “Is this democracy? Is this what they mean by human rights?”

This tactic is ridiculous for a number of reasons. One reason is that in order for RT to even find out about a lot of these lapses in respect for human rights, they rely on sources within those countries, often activists and dissidents. That then leads us to question how dissidents are treated in Russia. The likelihood that the US government will concoct some kind of bizarre criminal case against someone like Abby Martin or Lee Camp is pretty much nil. In terms of charging them with “extremism,” it’s legally impossible.

This leads to the next reason why this kind of criticism is so ridiculous, namely the fact that in most cases, Russia is a bigger offender than the country that is being criticized. I consider it an indisputable fact that there are serious problems in the American system of democracy. Personally I don’t consider it true democracy, but that’s a whole different essay. Yet in spite of that, I’m sorry but it is far more democratic than Russia. I hate Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement and the fact that this half of a super-rich power couple is likely to have the nomination and possibly White House delivered to her on a silver platter, and that this is so because the only alternative in the presidential race will be a conservative Republican. But you know what I would hate even more? I’d hate to have Hillary run the country for the next 15-years, taking the media under the control of her administration, removing the right to elect state governors, and portioning out positions and jobs in return for loyalty. I’d hate it if every time I raised an entirely legitimate criticism of Hillary, people would react by telling me there is no one else qualified to lead the United States and then calling me a national traitor who hates America. That would, for lack of a better word, totally suck.

This is what makes these hypocrisy arguments so hypocritical. They attack others for failing to live up to their ideals, which is legitimate, but the argument is coming from those who not only fall further below the bar, but who don’t even really care about those ideals at all. It seems like the only reason the Russian government ever uses words like democracy or human rights is for propaganda purposes. It also seems they believe all other states and individuals have the same point of view.

I could go on with this point, but the bottom line here is that cozying up to Russia’s side in the information war means ceding the moral high ground. One of the most tragically comic things about modern Russia is how even when someone hands them the moral high ground, they always have to screw it up somehow. Witness the curiously selectively-applied Magnitsky act, to which the Russian government responded by launching an attack on their own orphaned children. Or look at their response to Western sanctions against their elite- pay them off with the people’s money and then deny them food imports. If Western governments don’t have the moral high ground in a particular spat with Russia, rest assured that the Kremlin will readily abandon it to them through its impulsive, act-before-thinking behavior.

Right by default

In order to demonstrate one last point about the difference between Western and Russian propaganda in this information war, and why the latter is absolute poison especially if you are opposed to the former, we need a thought experiment.

Imagine, for example, an alternate reality where Yanukovych flees Ukraine, but Russia doesn’t annex the Crimea or sponsor an uprising in the Donbass. In fact, imagine that Russia actually dials back its propaganda and activity in Ukraine, with their logic being, “Wow, look how mad we made those people! We really crossed a line.”

Now the world is looking at Ukraine. It’s still run by oligarchs. The Rada is still a boxing ring. Emboldened nationalists actually do go around and start beating people and violently disrupting events put on by any group or organization they don’t like. The government, taking advice from the EU, implements austerity. While the businessmen and their foreign partners party away at the finest clubs in Kyiv, ordinary people suffer. Corruption continues to flourish.

Who would the industrialized world be looking at, in that case? I know which country we wouldn’t be looking at- Russia. Sure, they were backing Yanukovych, but Yanukovych has been gone for over a year. If Russia stood back, all eyes would not only be on Ukraine, but the EU as well. We would be having a conversation about austerity and creditor-friendly economic policy, as with EU member countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, or Portugal. We’d be looking at the very real involvement of European or US-funded NGOs in Maidan and asking why these organizations encourage such movements without fully warning their supporters and audiences of the potential costs. We’d want to know why and how so many people had been led to believe that a trade agreement with the EU would almost effortlessly lead to higher standards of living in their country. We’d demand an explanation about the nationalist violence and question the idea that the Ukrainian national identity should rest in the hands of such people. We’d blame them for dividing the country during such a difficult time.

We’d probably be doing all of that and more in our parallel universe, but alas, we are not. We’re not doing that because Russia had to come to the rescue by illegally seizing part of Ukraine’s territory and starting the first major war in Europe since 1999. This sure makes it easy to blame any if not all economic hardships on Russia, and to some extent it’s justifiable to do so. Russia is waging its information war on Ukraine as well, and since as I mentioned they have absolutely no concern for credibility, the sheer wackiness of their propaganda leads many people to assume that anything remotely critical of the Ukrainian government is probably either a product of the pro-Kremlin media or at least based on their material. Some people may fear voicing their viewpoint could cause them to be associated with the Russian side, thus killing their credibility or respectability. In other words, Russia made life very easy for genuine Western propagandists. They can dismiss counter-criticism as whataboutery, even when the criticism is in fact valid, they can dismiss arguments as Russian propaganda, and they can insinuate that their opponents are paid information warriors for the Kremlin.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is just a repetition of the same thing I’ve been saying for the past year or so. If you oppose the things your particular Western government is doing, don’t think taking Russia’s side will help. They don’t care about your cause, they don’t believe in aspiring to higher forms of democracy or respect for human rights, and they’re only going to use you for their purposes drag your movement or cause down into the mud. Even if we just assume everything is in fact equal when it comes to the two sides both disseminating propaganda, one side’s propaganda is highly effective while the other doesn’t even know what it’s doing. The sheer idiocy of much Russian propaganda actually gives its Western counterpart more credibility.

I think many of us still have this mental heuristic, whereby when we read something critical of Russia we experience anything from discomfort to rage if we don’t see some kind of tit-for-tat comparison with problems in America or the leading European countries. Yet when we read articles about, for example, American problems, whether its unarmed black men being shot dead by cops or the power of money in our political system, we never feel this yearning for a paragraph about Russia and its problems. Thus I know why many people reading this may experience unease admitting that yes, sometimes, their governments can be on the right side of an issue, and that sometimes the propaganda they sponsor is true. It feels like selling out. So how do we deal with that feeling?

I found the answer is quite simple. Realize that Russia is the reason for their opponents triumph. The very heads of Russia’s various state-run news media outlets have themselves eschewed the idea of objective reporting, and in fact they have routinely and openly dismissed concepts like objective truth altogether. So whose fault is that? Did Timothy Snyder make them do that? Did RFERL make them decided that objective truth doesn’t exist? Did the National Endowment for Democracy force Russian TV to air a program with laughably phony satellite photos showing MH17 being shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or did they make Russian journalists report the death of a girl who never existed? Please, browse Stopfake.org as much as you like and find me a single example of the Western media, government-sponsored or private, forcing the Russian press or its allies to concoct one of these fabricated claims.

Whatever you think of your government or other Western governments, the facts of the case are clear. Their propagandists actually care about credibility. Russia’s information warriors did not and still do not. They made an a priori decision that everyone lies and thus they were therefore justified in lying. As a result, they look like complete idiots to all critically thinking people, while even unsubtle NATO or EU propaganda looks perfectly logical by comparison. Once you realize that the disparity is Russia’s fault, you’ll no longer feel like you’re selling out just because you happen to accept the same facts that NATO governments have been disseminating. Russia did all the work for them by forfeiting credibility, making its opponents right by default.

One-sided War

Many things which might come as a surprise to foreigners are taken for granted in Russia. There’s the idea that BRICS represents some kind of anti-American alliance, like a 21st century Warsaw Pact. There’s the idea that the Crimea was always Russian and thus the annexation justified, though Russia hadn’t even raised the issue in the international arena until after their coup de main in March of this year. Then of course there’s the idea of the “information war.” The information war is the justification for consolidating the media under state control and using ever-increasing regulations to censor or seriously hamper any independent media source.

For some unknown reason, the degenerate, near-death USA doesn’t really act like it’s fighting the information war, at least within its own borders. After all, there’s RT, the propaganda service of Russia, which has its own offices in the US. No attempt has been made to block Voice of Russia, or any of the American-based Russia fans such as “the Saker”(there’s a piece of work, let me tell ya). As far as anti-government media goes in the US, most of AM talk radio and a massive portion of internet media are dedicated to accusing the president of everything from being born in a foreign country to being the instrument of a global Communist conspiracy to destroy the United States. That’s in addition to a left wing media which still reminds millions of Americans about things such as drone strikes, Snowden’s revelations, torture, and the country’s failure to reign in police brutality. America’s information warriors must be incompetent because they have failed to implement anything like the kind of measures Russia’s government routinely approves. In fact America’s information war specialists are so incompetent, so obviously asleep at the switch, that it’s a miracle Russia’s propaganda, in conjunction with local fifth column organs have somehow thus far failed to incite mass unrest throughout America’s major cities. How couldn’t there be a real American maidan, given the lackadaisical attitude shown by America’s government when it comes to the information war?

All joking aside, like most Kremlin memes the information war really only makes sense within one of the various fantastical narratives which exist in Russia. This “war” is being waged mostly by one side- Russia. Oh, does that raise the hairs on the back of your neck? Allow me to explain then.

Recently I wrote about an incident where a Russian TV channel falsified a video so as to make it appear that a father had painted the walls of his 11-year-old son’s room with cartoon drawings of naked men. In reality, the home video was used in a commercial for a graphics company called Fathead, and the real image the kid was gasping at was in fact a giant picture of a monster truck. I was happy to learn that Fathead is suing the Russian TV channel shortly after the story broke. Thus far, the TV channel’s response was that it was an “accident.” They accidentally edited an altered a video so as to insert cartoons of naked men, aired in a news piece about how sexually degenerate the West supposedly is. Sounds plausible.

This particular episode was amusing, but far less entertaining was a piece that ran on Russian TV a short time earlier. Airing on the Russian show “However” was Russia’s 67th alternate explanation as to the destruction of Malaysian passenger airliner MH17 over Eastern Ukraine. Supposedly a “graduate of MIT,” named George Bilt, provided Russian intelligence with photos from a “foreign satellite.” Lucky for Putin, the satellite just happened to catch a Ukrainian Mig-29 fighter firing a missile at MH-17. Naturally the photo was quickly busted as a fake, and the mysterious George Bilt has never been found. I’m sure he must have been hanging out with that Spanish air traffic controller who happened to be working in Kyiv’s Boryspil airport that fateful day, i.e. the subject of one of the Russian media’s earlier bullshit claims about the disaster.

Neither of these incidents are even remotely isolated. Stopfake.org documents dozens of fake stories, videos, and photographs from Russia’s media every week. These usually involve photoshopped pictures, misrepresented videos, or photographs from other conflicts presented as being from Ukraine. It is important to note that to date, I’ve yet to see any effort from Russia’s side to defend these phony photos and stories. Instead of answering, they just put out more. Which country is waging an information war again?

Now I ask a very simple question: Where is the Western equivalent to this? If Russia has to do this because of the information war, where is America’s ridiculously fake video that justifies this? Commentators, don’t be shy. Please show me how the Western media has faked satellite photos, cited Russians who don’t exist, or deliberately altered videos to show how degenerate Russia is. This is and information war, is it not? That means we should see this kind of thing coming from both sides.

Off the top of my head, the closest I can come to finding anything approaching Russia’s propaganda consists of two examples. First, there’s Timothy Snyder, who really makes no attempt to sound objective or even accurate in his prosaic defense of Maidan. Objective facts already condemn Russia, there is no need to weave a fairy tale as Snyder did in his ridiculous coverage of the event. Plenty of other Western journalists were far more objective, noting the presence of far right-wing extremists, and soberly pointing out that the EU association agreement wasn’t an automatic way out of Ukraine’s troubles. Even in the case of Snyder’s work, however, there was concrete truth in some of his conclusions. His allegation that Putin was afraid of having democracy so close to his borders is definitely a sound argument. It’s even more threatening to him that this theoretical democracy would inevitably encompass millions of Russians. His regime depends on the idea that the Russian people are different, and the form of government they have suits them. A successful Ukraine with democratic norms and a developing economy would seriously challenge that narrative. Even a hack like Snyder can see that.

The second example I thought of was the alleged radio intercepts that supposedly revealed two pro-Russian rebels panicking over the realization that they’d shot down a civilian plane. If any Western media sources aired that without using words like “allegedly,” they would be guilty of potentially passing on Ukrainian propaganda. Obviously even a Russian-speaking person such as myself could not accurately identify the two men on the recording. Even if that recording was faked, that’s on the Ukrainian government, and any news editor who didn’t make sure his reporters used terms like “alleged” or “supposed” when reporting on the matter.

Both of those examples are quite mild. We have a delusional, romantic professor embellishing a protest movement, and we have a voice recording that could have been faked, but which is ultimately irrelevant due to the overwhelming amount of other, more concrete evidence implicating the rebels in the destruction of the Malaysian airplane.

Thus again do I repeat my demand: Show me America’s equivalent to the video with the phony wall paintings. Show me the video where we see a phony satellite photo shooting down MH17. Show us a Ukrainian woman talking about how Donbass rebels crucified a small boy. Show us scenes from the set of a film being presented as evidence of rebel atrocities. Is this not an information war? Does this war not entail offensives on both sides?

Of course the information war is just another example of Russian projection. They tell themselves there’s an information war, and therefore they are justified in lying and fabricating videos and photo, just as they are justified in clamping down on media organs or journalists who get too troublesome. Since there is no objective truth, there’s no way anyone opposing the government could possibly claim that they deserve to be heard simply because they are presenting facts or they are able to back their claims with evidence. There is no need to back up things with evidence because truth doesn’t matter. Only winning the information war matters.

Has the US media falsely reported information in the past? Absolutely. Has it skewed stories, displayed bias, and helped sell bad policy to the American people? Yes, numerous times. Usually the problem with the American media stems from the desire for access, ratings, circulation, profits, etc., as well as laziness, reliance on experts without digging deeper, and so on.  What you don’t generally see are major American media outlets deliberately producing and airing specially-faked videos as true stories on a regular basis.  Disagree? Again, there’s the comments section. Give me the American equivalent of the satellite image story, or the wall with naked men story, or the woman who claimed to see Ukrainian soldiers crucify a little boy. All media lies, right? It’s all the same, right?

The Moscow Counter-Offensive

That’s it. I’m convinced. The Western press is indeed guilty of being almost deliberately “anti-Russian.”  Not because of any US-sponsored “information war” but rather the same two factors that have plagued the Western press for decades, laziness and the profit motive. Profit motive has long been the factor driving negative, sensationalist press on Russia. Big scary ex-KGB president gets far more headlines than positive stories about US-Russia visa regime changes or the construction of the Aeroexpress airport-center trains in Moscow. Laziness is what drives reporters to simply repeat what official sources tell them, or to piggy back off other people’s work instead of being original. While this hardly constitutes some kind of “information war”, other, more critically thinking journalists have pointed out that this kind of lazy reporting definitely provides grist for the Kremlin’s propaganda mills, particularly when the claims being asserted in the Western press are blatantly untrue or ridiculously hypocritical.

Recently a journalist friend of mine, who incidentally is not lazy since his work regime seems positively Victorian, said that the press doesn’t report on any other country the way it does on Russia. I objected and suggested that there are a few other countries, typically those who aren’t on friendly terms with the US, which almost always suffer from distorted reporting.  However, he then produced a number of links which convinced me that yes, the Western press has crossed the line.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a positively insane article that condemns Russia for the Circassian Deportations…which happened 150 years ago…carried out by a regime which has not existed since 1917. The 2012 Summer Games were held in London. Did the UK engage in any unethical behavior in the 19th century? Did anyone bring up any of the countless atrocities committed in the name of either the East India Company or the British crown throughout the 19th century and into the 20th? The Summer Games of 1996 were held in Atlanta, Georgia. Did anything unpleasant happen in 19th century Georgia? Something possibly involving owning human beings as property?  Please, if anyone reading this can provide evidence of such criticism during the London games or any other Olympic venues, by all means bring it.  I am well aware of some similar coverage during the Beijing Summer Games of 2008, but of course China is another favorite punching bag of the Western press.

What we have here is a clear double standard, which we can see in a myriad of examples both in the news and entertainment media. If someone were to bring up the Iraq war during discussion of London’s 2012 games, it would be regarded as a ridiculous red herring, totally off topic. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had a journalist brought up the state of Georgia’s connections with slavery during the 1996 games. But in any story on Russia, no matter how positive or how seemingly politically neutral the topic may be, you must dredge up something negative about it.  If you can’t find a way to connect it to the Soviet period or shoehorn Stalin into it, dig deeper into the depths of Russian Imperial history. Hell, somebody missed the perfect opportunity at last year’s Universiade in Kazan. What a travesty that this celebration of athletics was held in the same city which was the site of a bloody massacre, carried out by Ivan the Terrible and his army when they sacked the city in 1552.

As I have alluded to in a previous entry, I have become somewhat numb to the unfairness shown toward Russia over the past year, mainly because I have been practically marinated in manufactured Russian jingoism. It’s natural to react first against what you deal with every day. I also have a hard time being motivated to take up even just causes on the behalf of Russians, even though I believe in said causes, if only because many Russians don’t do very much to help their own situation or in many cases make it worse. This doesn’t make the cause any less righteous, it only makes finding the motivation to take up the cause much more difficult. Lastly, I have a strong urge not to be seen as another American Russophile, or as I sometimes like to call them, Dancing American Monkey.  It’s very easy as an American to publicly take the Russian side on some issue and get publicity in Russia for it. Some Americans have actually made a career out of it.  The problem, however, is that the very segment of Russians to which this kind of behavior appeals does not truly respect you. You’re still an American, their worst enemy, but you’re just their American.  Perhaps this more than any other factor can explain my reluctance to go to bat for Russia; I oppose the American government on principle, not because I want to ingratiate myself with a bunch of jingoistic, flag-wavers.  But now it is clear that the media is indeed engaging in behavior that can be rightfully called “anti-Russian,” and not simply as in “anti-Russian government.”  They crossed the line.

In the next few weeks, if there are any more ridiculous Sochi stories containing even so much as a hint of deliberate distortion, ethnic chauvinism/racism, or ethnic fetishization toward Russians or any people of the Russian Federation, expect to see them torn to shreds on this blog.

The “information war” may be a paranoid fantasy, but I’m declaring war on lazy, unoriginal idiots.

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