Tag Archives: propaganda

RT and Sputnik Are On Notice!

Look out, Margarita and Kiselyov- there’s a new counter-propaganda project in town and it has vowed to protect “Western values” from Russian attempts to undermine them. That’s right, RT, Sputnik, get ready to face the wrath of…Nick and Mauro! Yeah…Seriously.

I stumbled across this site for the first time when someone shared this article, in which the authors decide that it’s time to “retaliate” against Russia because we have been “bombarded” with their propaganda. Let’s look at a few choice excerpts:

“It was the Kremlin’s toxic propaganda, with R.T at the forefront, that for years instigated the unprecedented anti-European sentiment which lead to Brexit.”

Errr…No. Only someone who has never met any Brits would say something like this. Brits have been complaining about the EU, often comically so, for many years. Before Sputnik, before RT, before Putin even. Britain has a world-infamous tabloid press that has been stoking anti-EU, anti-immigrant sentiment all this time. Seeing as how these publications are not state-financed and they’re still in business somehow, I’d say they have a much larger audience in the UK than RT or Sputnik.

“It was fake articles, sponsored by the Kremlin, that prompted the rise of radical groups throughout Europe by purposely brewing hatred towards immigrant communities.”

Oh really? Which ones, exactly? Last time I checked, far right parties have been a thing for decades. In fact, one could reasonably argue that far right groups and figures from Europe and America had an impact on Russia first, and then the Kremlin merely adopted their rhetoric for its own political purposes. If the entire Russian propaganda machine simply disappeared overnight, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment would still be just as much of a problem, and Western domestic media would be guilty of stoking it as well.

“During the 2016 election, Kremlin media targeted and exploited the grief felt by those on the fringes of the left as well, by shamelessly promoting Green party candidate Jill Stein as the only ethical choice. Although she did not win, Stein served her purpose by helping Russia achieve its aims. Her vote totals in the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan were all greater than Clinton’s margin of defeat, and arguably denied Clinton an Electoral College victory.”

Well that’s a bold claim. The author must present some serious evidence for it, right? Well no. All we get is this tweet:

Let’s see…What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. There’s no evidence these people would have voted for Hillary.
  2. They might have been swayed to Hillary if she had campaigned in their states.
  3. TST’s implication is that these people were somehow influenced to vote for Stein thanks to RT. No evidence is provided to support that.

Moving on…

“It is finally time for some reciprocity.”

Nah. I think it’s time for some GAME THEORY!

“The U.S. could launch a counter-propaganda campaign and hit the Kremlin where it hurts most by sowing dissent and distrust between Putin and his small but loyal oligarchy.”

Okay how is this supposed to work, exactly? Do we start a special news network that broadcasts fake stories claiming, for example, that Igor Sechin is complaining about Putin behind his back? Show your work.

“If successful, this initiative will mark the first centralized counter-propaganda push-back against the Russians since the 1990s.”

What counter-propaganda campaign was used in the 1990s? Maybe he means since the Cold War, which effectively ended in the 1990s? Who knows?

“Yet as grim at it might all seem, there is a silver lining to our new commander in chief . Before the Trump phenomenon, this ever-encroaching Russian propaganda was receiving nowhere close to the attention it deserved. In the US that meant none at all. The recent election of a suspected Kremlin puppet however, is bringing a new level of awareness to this issue. This is key because merely recognizing the networks used to peddle Russian falsehoods is half of the battle, and right now more Westerners understand that RT stands for Russia Today. And for that we thank you Mr. President.”

Russian propaganda received little attention in the United States because very few Americans actually consume it, at least directly. And much of what they do consume is simply rehashed material from the American political fringes. If we speak about propaganda undermining American values, the biggest threat comes from Fox News and AM talk radio. Freakin’ millennials think this is all novel.

“When I say we are fighting a war I don’t mean that as some sort of figure of speech. The threat is real and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And they should, as the eventual victor will decide which values are preserved, and whose ideology ends up on the wrong side of history.”

Russia’s ruling class doesn’t have an ideology, beyond boundless greed and sheer survival. Incidentally, boundless greed is the closest thing the United States has to an ideology these days. The US, as it is, will surely win this “New Cold War” for reasons that ought to be obvious to any honest observer, but the problem that led to this will still be there.

“The good news is that we’ve faced this same opponent before and won. The bad news is that we seemed much more united when we did so.”

Okay first no, we haven’t. The Soviet Union can’t be compared to Putin’s Russia. The differences are extreme. Second, what do you mean we were more united? Look I graduated from high school in 2000 so I understand a lot’s changed, but did they really stop teaching about the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-War movement, McCarthyism, the Counter-Culture movement, all of that stuff? There was a time when people with actual authority were going around accusing people of being Soviet agents; it wasn’t like now when the people doing that are just mental cases on Twitter.

If you think this is as bad as it gets, think again. This ride is far from over. In another article, the author laments the death of the “Tear Down This Wall Republican.” Yes, the problem with Republicans isn’t that they’ll gleefully try to deprive people of healthcare in order to shovel more money into the gaping maw of America’s richest- it’s that they don’t recognize Russian propaganda as the biggest threat to the United States. Seriously- they wrote that:

“It used to be that the pursuit of basic birthrights around the World was a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. And although a bipartisan issue, Republicans always seemed to champion an active role around the world more vocally that their democratic counterparts.”

Again how old is this guy? How could anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history even write that without irony? When did this used to be the case? When the CIA helped overthrow Allende to install the dictator Pinochet, or was it earlier, when the US was dropping more ordnance in the former Indochina than they did in the entire Second World War? It’s often said, and quite rightly so, that Russia’s current leadership views human rights as nothing but a cynical ploy for achieving geopolitical goals. They are not entirely correct, and they use this interpretation to justify horribly immoral actions, but it’s also painfully clear that they did not simply pluck this notion out of thin air.

Of course the author isn’t unaware of this either, but their understanding is rather limited, as this paragraph indicates:

“The big elephant in the room, of course, always being our relationship to Saudi Arabia. How can we, with a straight face, stress human rights while maintaining a close alliance with a literal authoritarian monarchy?”

These days Saudi Arabia probably is the biggest elephant in the room, but it’s not nearly the only one. Let’s just say the US once had enough elephants in the room to run its own circus. Also these days it’s important to understand just how immoral the US relationship with Saudi Arabia is. Taking into account what the Kingdom has been doing in Yemen, it is basically the equivalent to Russia’s relationship with Assad (no, it doesn’t cancel out Russia’s actions in Syria- they’re both wrong).

Then there’s this hyperbolic statement:

“I’ve said this before (yes even before the Trump phenomenon): Russian propaganda is the single biggest threat facing Western society today.

Not the Russian military. Not the political discourse in the USA. No. Our biggest threat is non-countered propaganda spewed by our enemies designed to seed doubt in our American institution, and career professionals, while simultaneously spreading false news.”

Um…No. No it is not the biggest threat. The biggest threat in America today is the fact that the entire federal government, along with many of the state governments, is controlled by a party that openly and almost enthusiastically declares that it is unconcerned with the suffering and potential death of millions of American citizens. It is the same party that engineered what may be the worst American foreign policy disaster of the 21st century, namely the invasion of Iraq, which has thus far been responsible for untold death and suffering far beyond the borders of that small country. This party, often with the collusion of their so-called opponents, has literally killed thousands of Americans via their policies. Excuse me if I find that just a tad more threatening than a foreign network whose most watched video is about a homeless guy who sings really well.

As further proof of ignorance, take a look at this next part:

“I don’t believe that the solution should be to censor RT, Sputnik, or any of the many channels peddling Putin’s garbage. The solution instead, should be to counter misinformation with facts.

The Baltic countries have been leading on this front:
In Lithuania a small army of bloggers of who’ve dubbed themselves “elves” — patrol social media, coordinating their actions through Facebook or Skype to expose fake accounts.
Latvia, intends to launch independent quality media in Russian, which could include a Russian-language TV channel to counter Kremlin propaganda.”

Okay in another article he said that the US should “retaliate” by creating a network that would sow dissent among Putin’s ruling class. I’d imagine that somewhere in that operation you’d have to lie, simply because the people behind such a network would not be privy to the internal dialog within the Kremlin and Russia’s elite. But never mind that- why is he saying that the Baltic countries took the lead in this effort without ever once mentioning Ukraine’s StopFake, which has been all over the media in the past few months?

 

Bear with me, but I’m going to quote from one more piece on the site to complete our sampler for today.

In a piece which carries the bizarre headline Projecting The Russian Federation’s Soft-Power Abroad Via Its Visa Program, we learn some interesting things about the author and their possible motivations. First, the author is basically implying that Russia’s “visa program” is somehow an incarnation of Russian soft power. “Russia’s visa program,” is the visa regime it maintains for foreigners- other countries decide their own policies when it comes to admitting Russian citizens. This cannot be considered a form of Russian soft power. You could argue that Russia maintaining a visa free regime for former Soviet nationalities like Ukrainians is a form of soft power, but in reality that has far more to do with economics and cheap labor. But let’s get to the red flags in this piece:

“If you’re a citizen of the Russian Federation and want to jaunt off anywhere across the globe, it’s common knowledge that many popular and regularly visited places you choose as your destination will require you to obtain a visa. Annoying, time-consuming, and on a broader state level, a political game of chess. It’s a way to irritate the folks over at The Kremlin and to tell Vladimir Putin that he’s not so welcome in their backyard, and if he really wants his citizenry to travel there, they have to shoulder this bit of extra burden.”

This is exactly what Putin wants. For one thing, several million Russians are already banned from traveling abroad for security reasons. Second, when conditions in Russia did improve during the 2000’s and thousands of Russians went abroad, what happened? They saw how much more modern and functional the West was in comparison to Russia, and then they started protesting. Putin no doubt wishes he could be dealing with the Soviet population, little of which had ever visited the West and thus could not make comparisons. Anything that makes it harder for Russians to travel to Europe or the United States would be a gain for Putin.

But the article gets even more bizarre because in the next paragraph you can’t even tell who the author is talking to. Are they making recommendations to the West or to Putin?

“So what better way to stick a thumb in the eye of the United States, NATO members and others, while at the same time exercising a projection of Russian power on a global scale? Slap these countries with visa requirements of their own and one-up them by making the process as onerous as possible, requiring sponsorship from an organization inside the Russian Federation, strict limits on the days one can remain traveling, and also adding transit visas to the mix to make it even more burdensome. Even meeting this exceedingly strict series of measures will not guarantee an automatic approval and more often than not, those applying are denied and must start the process all over again, meaning more money, time, and resources wasted.”

Russia has strict visa rules, but they’re by no means the worst. Keep in mind there are countries where American citizens, or in some cases anyone, must book a guided tour just to visit. It is, as I’m told, rather easy for an American to get a visa to Iran, for example, but you won’t just be able to wander around as you please. Also, these rules have been in place for quite some time, yet the author acts like they were implemented as some kind of “soft power” by Putin. If that’s the case, it would suit Putin to relax visa laws so as to bring in more tourists and potentially, useful idiots. And indeed, the Russian government has relaxed visa laws over the years. They have done it for special events like the UEFA Championship, and they signed an agreement with the United States which allows US citizens to get a three year multi-exit tourist visa.

Confused yet? Read on:

“Following the splintering of the USSR back in 1991, Russia wasted no time in crafting together a bulwark to NATO in its own backyard with the creation of the CIS, or Commonwealth of Independent States. This association is comprised of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union; I like to think of this group as a “mini Warsaw Pact”. These countries also enjoy visa free entry into the Russian Federation and this along with the very existence of the CIS further serves to poke a stick in NATO’s direction.”

The CIS was not a “mini Warsaw Pact” and countries joined and left freely of their own accord. It does involve visa free travel and free trade agreements but how is this “poking a stick in NATO’s direction?” Please, explain the threat that is posed to NATO when Russia allows Uzbek citizens free travel into their country.

This is where the author really loses the plot, and goes off the rails with a personal anecdote:

“From experience, this author has seen first-hand just how exhausting it can be to enter Russia if you don’t enjoy the benefit of being a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. While on a trip throughout Scandinavia back in the summer of 2012, I entered Russia by way of Finland, utilizing my Nicaraguan passport in order to avoid the migraine that obtaining an entry visa would have entailed; and even then, things did not go smoothly. If you’ve ever seen a movie featuring a gulag, or Siberia full of pine trees, with the occasional outpost filled with barbed wire fence and Russian security forces walking around with attack dogs, then you’re picturing the VERY remote border crossing between Finland and Russia that I encountered. The hour spent there seemed like the very definition of eternity, with confused and clearly untrained officials looking at my passport every which way while sounding out “N-i-c-a-r-a-g-u-aaaaaaaaa?” in a mix of bemusement and disbelief. To play devil’s advocate, I’m sure that these Russians stationed in the most remote of outposts had probably never heard or even known the existence of a Central American country located thousands of miles away. After being peppered with endless questions about why I wanted to enter Russia, what my business and purpose(s) for doing so were – all while having uniformed KGB-like officers with trained attack dogs at their side looming over me – I was coldly told “Da”, “Yes”, and allowed to enter.”

Notice how the author claims to have entered via a remote border post. How many Westerners (discounting Finns, who might have business on the other side of the border) do you think they encounter out there? When you go to a remote border post like that, expect to be asked questions. Also, while the border guards are certainly aware of the existence of Nicaragua, I doubt they were aware of the fact that Nicaraguan citizens do not require visas for entry to Russia (up to 90 days). Random border guards don’t have a database in their head detailing the visa policies for every nationality on the planet- they often have to look them up.

Also I don’t see on what grounds the officers were “KGB-like.” Was that simply because they were Russian? They had attack dogs? Again- you’re at a remote border post. Dogs are used to patrol the borders, and certainly not only in Russia. Need I remind you that the President of the United States campaigned on building a giant wall?

“Talk about a first impression entering the Russian Federation, and this while holding a passport of a place where both countries enjoy very warm relations. Had I dared use my US passport, I’d be spending my remaining days in some even more remote part of Siberia.”

No, you would have been refused entry for not having a visa- it’s that simple. Just last year an American tried to enter Russia via Kazakhstan without a visa. He was in a car and was turned around at the border. He then tried to drive around the border post and was, naturally, caught. So was he packed off to Siberia? No- he was fined about $107 and then flown to New York at the Russian government’s expense.

If the author had used his American passport and had a visa to Russia, he probably would have gotten through the border crossing more easily.

Moral of the story is really simple here, folks- get a visa before entering Russia, and if you don’t want undue hassle just enter at an airport instead of trekking across the wilderness to some remote border post.

Also, the author might want to consider the US’ requirements for Nicaraguan citizens (who are not fortunate enough to also have US citizenship) to enter the country.

 

With all that out of the way, I think it’s time for a general evaluation. First, on the page’s “about” section it says that the site’s sole purpose is defending Western values. Yet I only had to scroll down to the bottom of the second page to see an article about Harambe the gorilla.  Not terribly disturbing but a possible clue that the site was originally launched as some kind of blog project and then maybe was refashioned as an “anti-propaganda” effort later. Later, as in when it started to look like one could profit off of this Russian propaganda bandwagon.

Next I found this article by one of the site’s co-founders, Mauro, who is apparently an “International Relations, Political Science & Tech/gadget guy.” In it, the author compares America to…*drumroll* the Roman Empire! Congratulations- this is one of the laziest attempts at a political analogy the world has produced, and I’m already wondering how much Mauro spent on a degree in International Relations and Political Science to produce something that a bookish high school senior could have written. The problem with Roman collapse analogies is that they often peddled by people who don’t properly understand why the Roman Empire collapsed (HINT: It’s really complicated), who then go on to creatively interpret modern American history until the United States is suddenly threatened by the same one factor that just happened to be Rome’s downfall.

Look, I’m not trying to be a dick to these two guys, but looking at their bios I don’t see any evidence that either of them have any special insight into Russia, nor do they seem to speak the language. The lack of historical knowledge (American, Russian, Saudi, Cold War, etc.) is incredibly conspicuous. None of this makes them bad people, but it certainly disqualifies them from being taken seriously in regards to Russia and it especially disqualifies them from taking on Russian propaganda. The truth is that Putin’s fanboys just love amateurish efforts like this, and they’ll pick this low-hanging fruit clean and then claim that it’s representative of “Western journalism” about Russia.

There is an unspoken rule among some people that discourages policing people “on our side,” with “our side” being the “anti-Kremlin” one. I’m sorry but I don’t play that game and I never will. For me the struggle against the Kremlin regime is a struggle against reactionary fascism, a struggle for the independence of Ukraine and for the future of the peoples of Russia. It is also a struggle against what I see as a by-product of a global capitalist mode of production which consistently ignores human rights in favor of private profit, and which cannot but do otherwise. So-called “counter-propaganda” which is poorly produced or which advances bad politics is not helpful in this struggle; on the contrary it is often more harmful than anything the Kremlin’s propaganda masters could cook up.

But hey what do I know? I’m sure these fine lads are just days away from getting a massive grant from the State Department or cushy jobs with some major think tank. On both sides, the system loves team players.

The Competition

I’ve spent a lot of time making fun of Russian propaganda on this blog, but you don’t really get the full picture if you don’t set the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in its proper context, that is to compare it to the propaganda of other countries. Advances in social media have made it possible for governments which are either minor players or barely players at all to disseminate their own propaganda. For example, this video exposes the dastardly lies Fake News Vice has spread about the small country of Eritrea:

I’ve watched some of the Vice documentary they’re talking about and while I’m not in any way qualified to comment on the state of human rights in Eritrea, I do think the country’s information ministry or whoever probably would have done better to ignore Vice News’ documentary so as to avoid the so-called Streisand effect.

This case brings up an interesting point about Russian propaganda- it’s logical, in the sense that Russia has a very good reason to run a state propaganda machine. Despite having an economy roughly on par with Italy or Spain but with much lower standards of living, nobody can deny that Russia is a major regional geopolitical power and it can project its influence far beyond its borders. So far, in fact, that it is able to cause mental breakdowns in people living on the other side of the world:

Given Russia’s global position and its domestic situation, you can totally understand why it needs to think about projecting soft power worldwide. There is no reason why the government of Eritrea should waste money on soft power. Even countries that are up and coming regional powers are probably wasting money on their global soft power initiatives. For example, take a look at this pro-Turkey flashmob that took place in New York’s Times Square:

What was the point of that, you ask? Apparently it was to reconcile Turkish-Armenian relations regarding remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, that thing which the Turkish government still denies ever happened. To be sure, it was apparently organized by an NGO, but it’s an NGO whose activities just happen to line up with the interests of the Turkish government.

Whatever the case, I can’t imagine how this is going to have even the slightest impact on Americans. It took Russian interference in the presidential election just to make a significant amount of Americans actually care about Russia, and that’s a country with a huge nuclear arsenal and a 40-year historic rivalry during the Cold War. Turkey has zero chance of making any kind of significant impact on the thinking of a significant percentage of Americans. It might as well be Eritrea.

Secondly, waving any flag with a crescent moon and star on it in Times Square is most likely to piss off a large segment of the American population, known as the “Afraid of their own shadow” demographic. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were comments about this video claiming that “THESE MUSLIMS ARE CELEBRATING BLOWING UP THE TOWERS!!! HAVE WE FORGOTEN?!” No, if Turkey wants to have an impact they ought to try something more effective, like slipping their message into popular culture venues. The Avengers: Infinity War is going to be in two parts, so there’s still probably time to hand over a shipload of money for some subtle messaging in the film. Here’s a hypothetical example:

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA

Hey Tony, you look pretty preoccupied with something over there.

TONY STARK

Oh hey Cap, I’m sorry I was just thinking about what happened in the eastern Ottoman Empire around 1915.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

You mean the Armenian geno…

TONY STARK

…cide? That’s just it. I’m not sure genocide is the best word. After all, many Muslim civilians living in the area also suffered atrocities at the hands of Armenian nationalists.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

I get what you’re saying. A real hero has to see both sides of the story.

This teaches us a second lesson about Russian propaganda. As easy as it is to make fun of, in comparison to what else is out there it’s actually pretty well-constructed. The best equivalent to Russia in terms of geopolitical power is China, and their soft power is laughably bad. In case you haven’t caught it here before, I present to you a case study:

 

Just so I’m not being unfair, here’s another video from the same channel I’m including because it’s the top video on the channel’s page and it appears to be using part of the soundtrack from The Rock (I’m totally sure they paid Hans Zimmer to use it).

 

There’s also CCTV, a channel I have only actually watched while in a hotel in…China. To CCTV’s credit, they did produce a very interesting series of documentaries about the major African independence leaders, or at least the idea seemed interesting before I actually started watching them.

I’m not an expert in documentary film making, but as a long-time viewer I have to say these were some of the most boring ones I’ve ever seen. One of them also has a rather hilarious title:

 

By comparison. Russia’s foreign-language propaganda is far more logical and effective. Logical in the sense that it has a clear goal and it works towards it, effective in the sense that it reaches a certain audience, even if that audience is in fact very small. The Russian strategy is incredibly simple- find out what extremists in various nations are talking about, then regurgitate and amplify the signal. They give a platform to fringe elements and produce content that said elements will happily cite to bolster their own credentials.

We can argue about the overall effectiveness of Russian propaganda in terms of achieving the Kremlin’s goals, and we can certainly note how much money the Kremlin spends for so little in return, but one thing is for sure- they’re not totally pissing money away on nothing like China, Turkey, or Eritrea.

It makes you wonder how much more effective they would be if they ever learned from the US or the UK and granted editorial independence as they once did to a few select outlets like The Moscow News or RIA Novosti’s English service (the former was part of the latter). I doubt we’ll see this happening any time soon however. In the minds of the people at the top in the Kremlin, there is no editorial independence with the BBC, VOA, or RFERL. As always, they make an a priori assumption that their opponents already do the morally-questionable thing they want to do so as to justify it to themselves.

Still, when we step back and look at the wider picture, we see two things. The first is that Russian propaganda, as amateurish as it seems some times, is probably one of the best-produced forms of soft power in the world today when viewed in comparison to the rest. We also see that more and more countries are getting into the soft power game, and it’s interesting to think who might be inundating Youtube with pro-regime propaganda. Zimbabwe? Equatorial Guinea? Myanmar?

Tongue-Lashing

There’s nothing like busting a fresh fake in real time. Yesterday a mysterious post appeared, showing what looked like a street advertisement. Allegedly posted in Kyiv, the ad warns against the “disease” that is the Russian language. Nothing around the edges of the poster gave any clue as to its location.

It seemed from the start to be a phony Kremlin-inspired story, as neither I nor anyone else I know in Kyiv had ever seen the posters. I have on a couple of occasions seen small stickers with anti-Russian language messages posted on lampposts, but that’s it. The coup de grace came when several Ukrainian native speakers pointed out a number of obvious spelling errors in the poster’s text.

Sure enough, like clockwork, the poster resurfaces the next day, tweeted by the infamous Russian UK Embassy account:

This time the background has been blurred, to ensure we can’t have any clue as to where this was taken. There’s no photo of the border so we can see what company owes that particular sign. The outraged photographer only took this one photo. Curious.

Incidentally, it turns out that the poster was actually part of an art competition for “patriotic” posters in 2015. The original poster is somewhat different from the one the Russians have been passing around. It is no doubt extremely controversial, but again this is something made by one man, no doubt largely driven by emotion, participating in a contest. Do I even have to mention that’s a far cry from putting such posters up all over Kyiv, which, incidentally, is a mostly Russian-speaking city?

This, folks, is how the propaganda machine works on a regular basis. This is the bread and butter. Someone creates a fake story, maybe with a photo like this, and then it starts getting redistributed by the usual suspects- Russian government social media accounts and pro-Kremlin media sites.

Just in case you’re wondering- there’s no big controversy with the Russian language in Ukraine. I don’t normally agree with Taras Kuzio, but he has correctly pointed out that there are plenty of Russian language schools in Ukraine while Russia does not have any that I or he knows of. At best I found an article from 2008 which claimed that there were 15 Ukrainian-language schools all throughout Russia at that time, but without any more detail. There have been some laws on language quotas for TV, movies, and radio, but as some Ukrainians told me as far back as 2015, possibly late 2014, the quotas issue is largely an economic protectionist measure. Russia has long toyed around with the idea of limiting the showing of foreign films in its cinemas, and it’s by no means the only other country to engage in such measures.

So in case it’s not yet painfully clear- there is no problem with the Russian language in Ukraine. The language you will most often hear on the streets of Kyiv is Russian. The language I typically use to communicate is Russian. I can understand Ukrainian just fine but if I need to speak and get something done, the fastest, most efficient way for me is to speak Russian or surzhyk and nobody has ever given me any shit for that. I make an effort to speak Ukrainian as much as I can, not because of intimidation but because I want to. Nobody is being persecuted for speaking Russian in Ukraine.

Now maybe those who are so worried about language-based persecution can tell us about the situation with Ukrainian-speakers in the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas or the Crimea. How are they faring?

 

 

Rise of the Russia Grifter Class

If you ever need a quick example of how capitalism does not, in fact, direct resources to the best possible uses, you need look no further than the massive self-help or management consulting industries. Largely unregulated, any silver-tongued charlatan can hawk some kind of psychological snake oil and millionaires if not billionaires will bury them in piles of money. Product development is pretty easy. Just come up with deep-sounding platitudes, common sense advice repacked in your own unique way, folksy wisdom, and of course, counter-intuitive “facts.” The efficacy of what you’re selling cannot be easily measured, so the only way you’re going to fail is if your audience gets bored.

Those who peddle this bullshit may go by many names- consultant, guru, therapist, pundit, lobbyist. But there is a much more appropriate term for such people- grifters. We live in a world that is rife with inequality and arbitrary or unjust authority. As such, those with power require the services of those who help justify something that cannot be justified with logic or concrete evidence. They need people to reassure them that they are wise, politically savvy, and morally upright. They need these people as much as they need lawyers, courts, the police, etc., and for the same reason- they perpetuate and sustain the conditions of capitalism. Of course when we speak about the grifters this way it is a bit of an oversimplification. After all, the grifters themselves have agency and they are basically entrepreneurs trying to survive in a market society. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are peddling bullshit because the market actually demands, nay requires, a lot of bullshit to keep running.

Since 2016 we’ve seen the rise of a new grifter class, the “Russia expert” grifter. To be sure, they started to appear around 2014, when Western politicians suddenly realized that the Kremlin is hostile to their interests (because there was literally no way to notice this prior to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas). However, 2016’s big story about Russian meddling in the US presidential election signaled to grifters everywhere that there was money to be made in the Cold War 2.0.  Enter the instant Russia expert.

Probably the best examples of this would be Eric “Game Theory” Garland and Louise Mensch. The latter, being a politician, is a natural grifter. As for Garland, he’s some kind of management consultant, which means he’s definitely skilled in the art of bullshit. But for every big-name grifter you already know, there seem to be new ones popping up left and right. What are they after? Grants? Cushy think-tank jobs? More media exposure to hawk their services? And what services, specifically?

It seems that one new mutation of the instant Russia expert (often identified by a total lack of Russian language knowledge and/or significant experience in Russia) is the Russian propaganda expert. This is someone who claims to have special insight or expertise into Russian “information warfare” techniques. Since the US and EU both seem interested in some kind of counter-propaganda (because it’s relatively cheaper than actually fixing the problems that make them vulnerable to that propaganda in the first place), there’s definitely money on the table.

How do you know you’re dealing with one of the new Russia grifters? Well one thing to look for is an utter lack of new insight or revelation in their writing. Most of the time they are just rehashing others’ work. There’s never any meat to their explanations- it’s just safe predictions or blatantly obvious observations. For a case study look no further than this piece by Brett Bruen, for The Hill.

The first thing we need to look at is Bruen’s bio, which I quote in full here:

“Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.”

Hmmm… Solid academic credentials no doubt. But notice anything missing there? Russia? Eastern Europe? Europe? Now apparently he has diplomatic experience, but given that Obama’s foreign policy was not much better than previous administrations, I’m not going to be automatically cowed by that CV. The biggest warning sign is “D.C.-based consulting firm.” I smell a lobbyist. But let’s not judge too quickly. Let’s see what insight this guy can give us into Russian information war in the near future.

“Last year was just the start. Next year, Russia’s intelligence and information operations will kick it into high gear. There are several reasons I am making this prediction.”

What does kicking it into high gear even mean in this context? When exactly was it in low-gear? How do we even measure this? While Russian election meddling has had very mixed results, we can only assume that those responsible for Russia’s information war prefer to keep their lucrative positions, and will thus continue to fight for funding. Does this mean they’ll increase their activities? Maybe not. They may decide to use more subtle, efficient tactics. They may jettison a lot of poorly-performing propaganda techniques to focus on those which get more attention. Basically this prediction is meaningless.

“First, the congressional races are an even easier target.”

Are they, though? First of all America’s House of Representatives is largely the product of massive gerrymandering back in 2010. In general, Congress as a whole has a very low turnover rate. If actual American candidates have such a hard time challenging incumbents, how will the Russians challenge them? There’s also the question of why Russia would even attempt to influence the outcome, but of course Brett has an answer for this.

“Second, their outcome will largely determine whether current sanctions stay in place or if even stronger ones are enacted.”

Oh right! The Senate passed that bill to increase sanctions on Russia and require congressional review for any presidential proposal to remove or ease the sanctions! That’s it! The Russians will want to influence the midterm elections in order to get people into Congress that would approve of Agent Trump’s efforts to remove sanctions! It’s so simple!

Oh wait a minute…That recent sanctions bill passed the Senate with a vote of 98-2. Looks pretty bipartisan to me. The Magnitsky Act, arguably the first sanctions against Russia, was also a bipartisan move. The majority of Republicans seem more than happy to pass sanctions on Russia, and you know the Democrats are game since the party’s elite is still convinced that Russia is totally responsible for ruining last year’s planned coronation.

Now given these obvious facts plus everything I’ve already pointed out about incumbents, low midterm turnouts, and gerrymandering, tell me exactly who Russia is going to back in 2018. They’re not going to have a pool of Dana Rohrabachers and David Dukes on whose behalf they can intervene.

Let’s also not forget that apart from this new sanctions bill, foreign policy is typically the domain of the president. Therefore it would be extremely difficult for the Russians to even figure out who they should support, assuming they could even find a significant number of useful candidates (and they won’t).

Moving on…

“Finally, last year was an unmitigated success for Russia. Doubt and division across America’s democracy was pushed to new heights. If I’m sitting in the Kremlin, 2018 offers me the chance to continue to stir the pot and further undermine confidence in Western democracy.”

There’s a lot of people in high-up Russian circles who would definitely, if not publicly, dispute that “unmitigated success” characterization. For one thing, Americans were clearly capable of making American democracy look like a circus- just look at the Republican primaries alone. But while the Russians have definitely scored from the outcome of the election (and keep in mind nobody has come up with convincing proof that Russian meddling had more impact than poor campaigning or other domestic factors), they also stand to lose a lot. As Mark Galeotti has pointed out time and time again, Trump is unpredictable, and Russia’s biggest advantage was the predictability of its opponents. The continuation of sanctions and the surprise cruise missile strike on Syria were just two examples of how Trump’s unpredictability is a major headache for the Kremlin.

“The first element in this plan is for Congress and the American public to continue straight on our current path. Democrats crying foul, Republicans largely feigning concern and defending their wins. President Trump creating daily distractions. Most importantly, no real action being undertaken to manage or mitigate our country’s exposure to version 2.0. This allows Moscow to prepare mostly unfettered, an even bigger assault on much smaller targets next year.”

Oh hey, why am I quoting this paragraph? No reason other than to show that it is utterly superfluous. There is nothing of value in it whatsoever.

“The vulnerability of the congressional elections is seemingly obvious.”

Eeeehhhh…No. It’s actually quite the opposite for the reasons I pointed out above. See the Kremlin has to have candidates it wants to win in order to properly interfere in the election. See Wilders, Le Pen, etc.

“Instead of manipulating national and international media, you can focus on a few local outlets where voters in those districts get most of their news.”

Huh? Who assumes that people in small towns get most of their news only from local outlets? Big cities have local outlets, and people in smaller towns and cities still have internet, cable TV, etc.

“The key races aren’t fought in the cities. Journalists in small towns are often less experienced and more easily manipulated.”

What exactly is this based on? Local journalists have often uncovered serious scandals, often better than those working for big corporations with no local expertise and a shoestring budget.

More importantly, manipulating the news at this level might arguably be much harder, because smaller locales have a more tightly-knit community. Pizzagate, a ridiculous conspiracy theory that was cooked up by American morons on the internet, got traction because it centered around a restaurant in a hipster-ish (or so I’ve read) area of DC, a major city where many Americans have never been (I, for example, have only been to the airport for a short layover). Now just imagine someone trying to manipulate the local Smallville Weekly Examiner with a story claiming Ma and Pa Walton’s Country Home Family Diner is running a secret child sex-trafficking ring. As stupid as the Pizzagate conspiracy was, it’s much easier to believe terrible things about people when they are faceless others living far away in places you’ve never been.

There’s another problem with trying to manipulate local media and interfere in congressional races- first of all there’s a lot of them, and second, there are a lot of local issues to learn about. One thing we’ve seen with Russian trolling efforts is that they are often laughably poor. Casey Michel on Twitter has often provided numerous examples of the hilariously bad English seen on a pro-Russian “Texas separatist” Facebook page, for example.

 

“Moreover, just a handful of races can tip the balance of power. Russia will concentrate their power in those places. This also allows them avoid the exposure a national influence operation involves.”

Again I’m forced to ask how they’re supposed to get around the gerrymandering issue and who are they planning to back, because so far this looks like a pretty shit plan to me. It’s important for me to point out here that I’m not saying they won’t try to interfere in the congressional elections. I can even see the value in interfering simply to cause disputed elections and more domestic chaos. But the author is clearly implying that the Russians will try to interfere with a specific goal of achieving certain outcomes and he has ignored so many basic features of the 2018 elections that if I hadn’t read his bio, I’d assume he was a foreigner. Russian perhaps?!

So far what we have here is something that was clearly intended to sound like analysis, but which is utterly devoid of any real content and utterly lacking in any sort of insight. It would have been much better if he’d just written “They interfered in the last election and they’ll probably keep doing it because it causes a lot of problems.”

“Having coordinated America’s first modern campaign to counter Russian propaganda in Europe, I’m all too familiar with how they work.”

I feel like if this is what his background is, I should have at least heard of him so far. In any case, Europe and America were way behind Ukraine in countering this propaganda. Furthermore, much of the counter-propaganda effort has boiled down to nothing more than fact-checking. While this is useful, it doesn’t really do much to rollback the effects of the propaganda. The main reason for this is that the West has no suitable counter-narrative. They don’t even seem to think a counter-narrative is even necessary, beyond some platitudes about human rights, democracy, and a “rules-based order.” But that’s a topic for another article.

In any case, being in charge of such a new effort doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. In this case I’d actually argue that I have more expertise with such propaganda having been in several target audiences for Russian propaganda, plus my experience in Russia and my connections who work or used to work in the Russian state-run media.

“The potency of their tradecraft is found in its successful manipulation of facts.”

Tradecraft! One hundred intelligence points awarded!

Seriously though, is the successful manipulation of facts really an exclusively Russian propaganda feature? This is one of those cases where it is definitely not whataboutism to say that tons of actors, from politicians to pundits manipulate facts. If anything Russian propaganda, in certain contexts, is unique in the sense that it will often totally invent stories almost out of thing air, and then continually repackage them until you can’t easily determine the original source and thus can’t tell whether they are real or where they came from. Even this is not terribly original. I’d say the most unique thing about Russian propaganda is the fact that they will do this often with very poorly concocted stories which are easily debunked. They seem to believe there is some value in the continual use of such poorly constructed stories.

“They then use their own of affiliated media outlets to ensure the information gets traction. Yet, they don’t expect most voters to tune into Russia Today. Instead, they are betting a blogger, an activist group, or local journalist will report on it or share on their own networks. This tactic can be used independently or coupled to their intelligence work, as it was in the presidential race. “

Here there is some truth to this, but what is new or insightful here? What do we learn from this? It’s nothing that hasn’t been said by plenty of people for the past two or three years now. Also he’s ignoring how much of RT’s content actually comes from mining Western conspiracy theories. It seems zero effort has been made to attack homegrown propaganda. Gee, I wonder why that might be…

“There will be hacks. Yet, the damage won’t come from the information their intelligence service will expose on campaign plans or questionable stuff staff were saying and sharing. The new danger comes from that ability to manufacture seemingly authentic material. Emails you didn’t write that insult key constituencies will suddenly appear on Wikileaks. How can you disprove them? Even if you do, time and credibility will be lost. More importantly for the Russians, confusion will be created.”

So the country that has acquired a reputation for cyber-attacks will keep doing them. Okay. Could have saved some words there. Also, earlier he points out that important races will be decided in smaller towns where people get their news from local sources (his assertion). Now we’re supposed to believe these people will be browsing Wikileaks? Will local reporters see the material on Wikileaks and report on them? That’s possible. But it’s also possible that for the reasons I stated above, it will be easier for them to investigate and find out they are false.

“Many will say that we have seen this before. Yet just as in France this year and in our own presidential campaign last year, the size, scale, and sophistication of this information operation will be unprecedented. Its potency will be far greater in 2018.”

Did someone forget to tell him that Russia’s efforts to do this in France failed miserably this year? In fact, Macron’s team even found a way to play the hackers at their own game.

“Having refined their tools and tactics, we can expect a much more dangerous version to emerge. They will be firing from their asymmetric arsenal of influence at small town and suburban America, where the key races will take place.”

Again. Gerrymandering. Candidates hostile to Russia. How are they going to deal with any of that? Are they going to somehow get voters to write in some local Putin-loving defective en masse? What’s the plan here?

“It will be like the Cold War era movie I remember watching as a kid, “Red Dawn.” Except this time, it will be massive armies of Russian propagandists landing in Middle America. We will need more than the spunk of a teenage Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen to defeat them.”

Um no, it will be nothing like Red Dawn, especially since even if this did actually happen as you say, the Russian propagandists don’t literally come to America at all. The only sense in which this analogy works is that this article is analogous to the kind of right-wing paranoia that inspired Red Dawn.

“So where are the preparations for this new Russian assault? Why are the government, political parties, and the news media not preparing more countermeasures?”

Gee, Brett, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I bet you do, and you’ll happily tell our government what to do, for a modest fee of course!

I’m going to leave Brett for a bit and just say that this Russia grifter class is not just a group of harmless wannabe spies. Apart from the money and resources they suck from governments, they actually aid Russian propaganda efforts in two ways. One way is by portraying Putin as being more powerful and influential than he actually is. Putin’s domestic propaganda, which is the propaganda most important for his survival, incidentally, is almost entirely dedicated to portraying the Dear Leader as a defender against Western encroachment. Not only does he stubbornly oppose them, but he trolls them while doing it. Another way is by the propagation of Garland/Mensch-like conspiracy theories. These tend to generate a lot of low hanging fruit that can easily be picked off by pro-Russian writers. A favorite tactic of the RT Op-Edge is to pick on the easily debunked claims of some Western journalist, and then imply that all Western coverage of Russia can be dismissed for its Russophobia.

The other way it helps Russian propaganda is by securing and increasing funding for outlets like RT and Sputnik. As Alexei Kovalev has pointed out many times in the past, Western government hysteria about these outlets has become a kind of performance metric for them. They collect quotes of Western leaders angrily railing against RT and Sputnik and then use them as proof that they are doing something. This, of course, is basically just scamming the Russian government, but in terms of information war the effect helps the Russian propaganda machine.

So if they don’t actually turn back Russian propaganda and basically help it both indirectly and directly, why are these grifters the darlings of the Western establishment these days? Why can’t someone like me get in on this Russian propaganda-debunking business, given my experience?

The draw for the grifters lies in the fact that they tell Western leaders what they want to hear. “All those social problems you refuse to deal with? That’s not your fault. It’s Russia. They’re exploiting those problems.” This is particularly pleasing because it means that people who keep talking about those problems, activists, for example, can be tarred as Russian propagandists, doing the bidding of the Kremlin. You know, that almost reminds me of this other government I know, but I digress.

 

Bullshit self-help gurus succeed because they tell their clients something they want to hear. Sometimes, the therapy works. Many times it doesn’t. Most of the time it’s impossible to measure.

So it is with the Russia grifters. They’ll keep spitting out lots of intel-speak like “tradecraft” and “active measures” and they’ll keep raking in the dough until there’s a new big threat on the horizon. We’re witnessing the decline of the phony Islamic terrorism expert (see Sebastian Gorka)  and the ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. I’d imagine the next incarnation will most likely be the phony Chinese propaganda expert, but looking at Chinese foreign-language propaganda so far, it looks like it will take a while before Western politicians can be successfully duped into seeing it as an existential threat.

 

UPDATE: I’ve updated the piece regarding the Senate vote, as a source I read today said it was 98-2 and not 97-2 (I’d seen the figure somewhere before and assumed someone abstained). Also it appears the new sanctions bill discussed in this article is floundering in the House, with the opposition coming from Republicans. They’re claiming that it’s a constitutional issue, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s really going on- all House Republicans are compromised Russian agents!

The Importance of Being Ideological

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.

An Onion of Stupid- The Philosophy of Fakes

One need not spend much time analyzing fake Russian news stories to notice that many of them were made with virtually no effort. Such fake stories are so horrendously bad that they fit the definition of “not even wrong,” which is what you call something that would require considerable improvement simply to achieve the status of “incorrect.” As such, dealing with such fakes is an exercise in philosophy. You must question and debunk every angle, and some answers only raise more questions.  To a thinking person, a fake story on this level is like an onion of stupidity; peel back one layer and there’s another below it.

As a case study let us look at a recently debunked fake story from the outlet that excels in producing effortless fakes- Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defense network. At first glance, it’s a pretty straightforward fake story. It posits that Ukraine has become so impoverished that it is threatened by mass hunger. So much so that people are actually stooping to the level of trying to steal bread crumbs from pigeons.

Let us begin with the general theme of the article, the skin of the stupid onion, if you will. We should already be suspicious about the fact that this article is about mass hunger in Ukraine. See, Russians have a habit of not caring about real mass hunger in Ukraine stretching back to tsarist times. That they are suddenly concerned now sets off alarm bells.

With that out of the way, we can get down to the juicy inner layers. Not the basic facts about the story, mind you, as StopFake has already debunked it. No, let’s ask the philosophical questions here. For example, the basis of the story is this photo of a woman who we’re supposed to believe is trying to steal breadcrumbs from a flock of pigeons. But without any context, does it not look like she is the one who is, in fact, feeding the pigeons? This is still too superficial, however, let us dig deeper.

What we need here is a thought experiment. Suppose we accept the premise that this woman is actually trying to steal crumbs from the pigeons. This one singular account is being used as proof of widespread hunger in Ukraine. But there’s a flipside the wily authors never thought of! Those crumbs did not get there by themselves; someone threw them. That means that Ukraine has at least one person so well-off that they can afford to simply throw bread away on the street. Surely if one person so hungry they need to steal from pigeons can be extrapolated as mass hunger in Ukraine, then one person who can afford to toss bread to pigeons can be similarly extrapolated to support the idea that Ukraine is full of people so wealthy that they are literally able to throw food away without care. Truly in a starving country there would be few willing to throw out still-edible bread.

So which is it? Crushing poverty and famine or middle class wealth and food waste? Truly the woman reduced to snatching crumbs from pigeons is canceled out by the person whose economic situation is good enough to allow throwing food away.

But we can go even deeper! The story goes on. In StopFake’s debunking story, we see that Russian media outlets also alleged that Ukraine is going to implement ration cards for basic food products. However, much of Russia is known to suffer from Soviet nostalgia, and the Soviet Union was forced to turn to rationing several times in its existence. During the Second World War this was quite understandable, but what about during Perestroika in the 1980’s?

Given that Russian families currently spend around 80 percent of their income on basic essentials like food, it seems like it isn’t Ukraine that needs to worry about rationing.

This is all good fun, but seriously speaking- what is the point of such blatantly fake stories? Readers who are less familiar with the Kremlin regime’s tactics and narratives might have trouble understanding why these media companies keep employing writers who put so little effort into their stories. This is what someone who cares about the concept of credibility thinks when confronted with blatantly falsified stories which are ridiculously easy to debunk. There is a strategy behind this, however.

First, one must understand that in the top levels of the Kremlin press there are people who believe that objective truth doesn’t exist. More importantly, they have convinced themselves that all media works this way, especially that media which criticizes the Kremlin or questions its claims. These people want to continually popularize that same worldview among the Russian population, hence stories like these.

It’s not that Russians actually believe these obvious fakes; they’ll often tell you they don’t. But what the Kremlin wants them to think is that all media is the same, and if the Russian state press makes up poorly veiled fake stories, then the foreign media must be doing the same thing. This process is duplicated by the Kremlin in other realms as well. For example, they do not deny that there is massive corruption in the Russian government- they just insist that it’s the same in every country. Censorship in Russia? Here’s a story about censorship somewhere in the West! The message is that free press, democracy, rule of law, etc. don’t exist anywhere.

When you look at it that way, that is when you finally peel away all the layers of the stupid onion, you begin to understand the function that even the most laughable phony story serves.

 

 

Fake News? You Don’t Say!

So America just elected an incompetent, possibly insane billionaire president, and now it seems the media’s got a new coping strategy to adjust to the inevitability of a Trump administration. Oh wait, hang on, what I really meant is that they have totally flipped out and started a new moral panic about “fake news.” Naturally we have to pretend that fake news is a new phenomenon, because anything less might suggest we have some serious problems with our society- from corporate consolidation of media and the relentless profit-driven scramble for ratings and views, to the lack of critical thinking in education and the ridiculous idea that all opinions are equally valid. Just to be sure, some folks in the media would have us believe this is an external threat, specifically one coming from Russia. Put simply, this is bullshit, but I’ve got a lot to say about fake news so please strap yourself in.

lies

American liberal, 2016

I guess the logical place to begin is by saying that fake news is nothing new. Liberals did virtually nothing to oppose the corporate takeover of AM radio in the 80’s and 90’s, which, along with the revocation of the “Fairness Doctrine,” essentially turned America’s talk radio medium into a non-stop sewage pipe belching out right-wing propaganda. Even big names like Rush Limbaugh weren’t averse to spreading conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. If you want to know the roots of some of the wackier Hillary-related conspiracies today, you really have to start with something called The Clinton Chronicles. For those of you too young to remember or not from the US, American politics during the 90’s basically consisted of outrageous scandal after outrageous scandal, and many conservatives were acting as if the US had been taken over by a radical socialist junta. The lexicon included terms like jack-booted government thugs, black helicopters, and New World Order. And then…in 1996…it wasn’t just radio anymore.

Fake news reached new heights with an actual fake news cable TV network, known as Fox News. While the claim that Russia influenced this most recent election is highly dubious, Fox News certainly swayed a US election within four years of its existence. An outside observer might think that American liberals rallied against a foreigner-owned TV network that engaged in all manner of dishonest tactics, but that’s not necessarily true. The documentary Outfoxed spoke of something called the “Fox effect,” whereby other TV networks moved to the right in order to get a piece of Fox’s action. This had disastrous effects during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, as one might expect, but hey- capitalists gonna cap.

 

It’s also worth noting that around this time, Alex Jones was building his media empire. In addition to Jones’ non-stop conspiracy mongering from 1996 onward, you also had sites like World Net Daily, founded in 1997. And in case you think I’m picking on right-wingers too much (as if that’s bad), remember Oliver Stone? JFK was a boring, conspiracy theory laden production which came out a few week after the Soviet Union broke up. These aren’t just pre-Russia Today; they’re pre-Putin. The simple but inconvenient (for some) fact is this: Virtually all Russian propaganda for foreign audiences is nothing but rehashed conspiracy theories, largely from the United States.

So why is the media and all of liberaldom panicking about fake news now? Well one thing is that for years, they dismissed it and made fun of it. Now, in a way, it seems to be upsetting their precious liberal order, and so they’ve suddenly decided it’s a problem. But as I alluded to in the beginning, admitting too much would require choices they don’t want to make such as free higher education or more critical thinking classes in school (I suspect liberals are too cowardly to face the inevitable conservative backlash over this). Thus, the threat needs to come from somewhere else, as this recent Washington Post article claims. 

Yet there’s something rather amusing about that article. It relies on an anonymous source (the reason they have given for their anonymity doesn’t hold water) based in the US. In other words- exactly the same tactic that actual Russian fake news uses all the time, i.e. misrepresenting a dubious source. And just like any other fake news story, WaPo‘s article got cited by other publications, such as Gizmodo. Way to fight fake news, guys!

There’s also a far more serious issue at stake when we allow charlatans to pin all their woes on Russian propaganda- they are in fact helping Russia’s propaganda war. Recently we’ve seen a perfect example of this with the EU resolution against Russian propaganda.

First of all, the resolution was proposed by Anna Fotyga, a member of Poland’s Law and Justice Party. In case you hadn’t heard, that’s the same party that wants to criminalize women for having abortions and recently dug up the remains of Poland’s ex-president to prove that Russia somehow caused his plane crash. Why is her proposal so hypocritical? Well as it turns out, the Law and Justice Party’s propaganda in many ways mirrors Russian propaganda about the European Union, i.e. Europe is nothing but gender-bending degenerates rapidly being overrun by Muslim migrants. What is more, the party’s politics in Poland are eerily similar to those in Russia. The media and courts come under attack for their independence. History is rewritten as “patriotic” and those who dissent by insisting on staying factual are punished. So to sum up this point, though it is a minor one, the resolution was proposed by the least qualified person to speak out against propaganda.

But far more important was the fallout of the resolution. If you read RT or Sputnik’s reaction, you’d think they’re totally pissed about this resolution, but I assure you they are not. Shortly afterward Putin actually congratulated Russia’s “journalists” in response to the news. Do you know what that means? It means no funding cuts for a while.

See the only performance metric RT and Sputnik have is basically “Look! The West is afraid of us! See how angry they are?” They almost literally say exactly that in their own material meant for Russian consumption. Every panicky op-ed demanding that the EU do something about this Russian propaganda is liable to be snatched up by the propagandists themselves so as to justify their already inflated budgets in this time of crisis. So you can imagine how the Kremlin reacts when they find serious public figures in the West actually claiming that Russia swayed the election in favor of Trump. As immature and childish as the RT/Sputnik performance metric is, the widespread panic over Russian propaganda says “This is working. We’re winning. Let’s keep going and see what else we can do.”

What then, is the right way to respond to the threat of fake news? First of all- it’s domestic. Deal with it. Second, fake news and echo chambers are a symptom of our capitalist society. If this last election taught us anything, it’s that the ruling class on both sides of the political spectrum is extremely out of touch with much of the country, including their own constituents. If someone doesn’t start addressing the social causes of this, then Americans will continue checking out of real politics and tumbling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and fringe politics. So what is to be done?

In counter-insurgency warfare they have this term called the “population-centric” strategy. While it’s hard to find historical examples of purely population-centric strategies and not every population-centric strategy resulted in victory, in general this strategy tends to work much better than its opposite, known as “enemy-centric” strategy. The current Western approach to Russian propaganda could be termed as an enemy-centric strategy. Every proposal comes down to responding to the Russians, which is problematic because as we have seen, the West can’t control Russia’s actions (though I suspect they don’t want to).

What I propose is a sort of population-centric strategy, meaning that the focus is put on American and Western societies. It means opening up more dialog, addressing controversial issues, and actually resolving those problems that alienate people and perpetuate cynicism. This isn’t going to be easy. It means we’re going to have to start talking to people with bizarre politics, many of whom may display traits of cult-like brainwashing. But there is ample research to suggest that attacking someone’s beliefs, however absurd they may be, only causes them to double down and retreat further into a bubble. Meanwhile if Western institutions do more to address people’s needs, provide more tangible, visible stability and prospects for advancement, and also show accountability for their past actions, many people will open up and be willing to talk.

Do I believe that Western governments will adopt such a strategy? Personally I’m skeptical, because doing so threatens the status quo even more than Russia ever could, but at least we could say we warned them.