Tag Archives: propaganda

Escape from Shawshank (of Stupid)

It’s been a couple days and I’m still overwhelmed by the stupidity that flows from the new think tank called “Investigate Russia.” As is the case with all charlatans in this internet age, the best its defenders can come up with is “LOL THEY MAD!”

Incidentally, that’s basically the same selling point RT uses– they show quotes of American and other Western politicians ranting about RT or Sputnik, and say “Look! We must be accomplishing something!” Then at some point they show Putin or someone from his administration and RT and Sputnik get another massive infusion of cash (much of which no doubt disappears into the pockets of the people at the top).

I don’t know where to begin or end with this idiocy, so I’m going to put forth some of my main points in no particular order.

First of all, I find it funny when some of these people scoff at their apparent lack of Russia expertise. After all, was it not the centrist types who bemoaned the lack of respect for expertise when it comes to issues like Brexit or Trump? Was not the failing of the American people in 2016 a failure to know and acknowledge the facts about politics, the economy, and so on? But of course when it comes to waging information war against a resurgent Russia that is supposedly using an innovative new hybrid war doctrine- who needs experts?

Another thing I find annoying is the willful blindness towards the state of American politics that these people seem to encourage. There is nothing I hate more than someone pretending not to know about events that happened in recent memory for the sake of making a partisan political point. We all know Republican voters, for example, who voted for George W. Bush twice, but called Hillary a “warmonger” in the last election. Many of those same people also pretended that the American economy was doing just wonderfully until Obama got in office (they forget that the crash happened in 2008, whereas Obama wouldn’t be president until January of 2009, and thus inherited all that).

Now what we’re seeing is Democrats or their sympathizers talking about how Russia has sowed discord and polarization into our political discourse starting in the last election. Did these people all just forget that even before Obama was elected president, right-wing media was calling him a Muslim extremist, a foreign-born citizens ineligible for the presidency, a Marxist, and a fascist? Did they forget that back in the early 2000’s, questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq was enough to get you labeled a traitor and, by some people, an “enemy of the state?” Please, centrists- tell me when you think American political discourse wasn’t incredibly polarized.

I’m sure some people with an academic background in American politics could show that it has ever been thus (our polarization today pales in comparison to the period running up to the election of Lincoln in 1860, for example). But if I’m trying to be practical and keep it relevant I’d say that what we see today is an outgrowth of 9/11. If 9/12 was the day we all came together, it seems like 9/13 is the day we decided that half the country was either going to nuke the world (Republicans) or surrender vast swathes of territory to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda (Democrats). It all went downhill from there. Back in the 90’s, talk about black helicopters and invading UN troops was fringe theory you would only hear at gun shows. By Obama’s election it had become mainstream.

And yet Team Anti-Deza and its legion of fans (who seem to be die-hard Hillary supporters still hoping there’s a magical way to overturn last year’s election) seem to be sincerely acting like they don’t know about any of this. They act as if none of this stuff was a big deal until last year, when they heard about RT and Sputnik for the first time in their lives. They actually seem to think that a significant amount of Americans might have switched their political views based on $100,000 worth of Facebook ads. I guarantee you that anyone who saw those ads reacted with “Yep! That’s old Crooked Hillary alright!” or “This is Republican bullshit!” and moved on. That’s where we were at that point, and that’s where we’ve been for a long time.

I’m starting to get tired of writing about this topic so I’ll sum up with something I alluded to in a thread on twitter the other day. Yes, Russia is waging an information war against the West, though not for the reason most people think it is. Defending against information war isn’t like defending against a conventional war. It’s more like counter-insurgency, perhaps even more complex. Imagine a war in which shooting the enemy actually makes them stronger unless you manage to shoot them precisely in the back of the kneecap or their right elbow. In such a scenario, it makes no sense to line up machine guns and pour into the enemy with a hail of lead. Information war requires nuance, deliberate strategy, and indirect approaches (OMG GERASIMOV DOCTRINE!!!). But what it requires most of all is something I’m afraid US leaders don’t want to countenance, and it might explain why they’re always going to be more amenable to listening to the likes of McKew or Max Boot.

Speaking for America, our politics have devolved to where they are now because for decades, both parties have shown almost open contempt for their constituencies. The Republicans openly praise policies which fork over more public resources to the super-rich and leave Americans destitute, while the Democrats assure us they’re very upset about all that but any attempt to change the system would be essentially demanding a multi-colored flying pony. In the 1990’s, the GOP decided to go full culture war, making anyone who disagreed a degenerate traitor. In the same election the Democratic party, under the leadership of Bill and Hillary, happily threw the working class under the bus and embraced all manner of neo-liberal policies as well as “compromise” with the Republicans. In 2016 we could see the disaffection on both sides. Trump’s victory in the primary was a revolt against slavishly pro-business policies; GOP voters wanted a politician who spoke like the talk radio pundits they listen to on the radio, the people who get them fired up. Democrats also rebelled by voting for Sanders, but the Clinton machine won and, contrary to the abject lies of some of her supporters, the overwhelming majority of Sanders supporters held their nose and voted for Hillary (much more than Hillary supporters who voted for Obama in 2008). And though Trump won, I get the feeling that nobody in America at this point is really satisfied with the result.

I look around at my old city, and while I see improvements, I also see ominous signs. A centrally-located shopping mall that used to be the mecca of my youth is now dying. On one street I see block after block of stripmalls with just a few businesses open- the rest are just vacant, their tenants long gone. We’re far from Rust Belt level degeneration here, but when I left this was one of the fastest growing cities in the US. These conditions, especially when paired with a political system that seems openly disdainful of the population, build anger, resentment, and cynicism. Here we have fertile soil for Russian propaganda to take root. Or if you prefer another analogy I’ve made in the past- our immune system has been compromised, allowing the virus to spread.

Our media is also contributing to the rot. It pretends to care about the issues I raised above, but instead they blamed poor working whites for Trump when in reality it was largely middle to upper-class whites who supported him. This message just tells rural and working class whites that they are to blame, that they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them, and that they’re basically beyond hope because their cities and towns are dying with no solution in sight (Hey! Just learn to code!). And after the media moved on from the poverty porn, they went into full Russia! Russia! Russia! mode. Do you have any idea how infuriating it is for a working class American who’s concerned about the state of the country to turn on the TV and see endless babble about Russia? You might as well be talking about Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe. Yes, Russia did interfere with the US election, and yes there are serious improprieties in the relations certain members of Trump’s campaign had with Russians, but this is one story. I’d also argue it’s one part of a much larger story about the influence of money in politics and the way capitalism puts profit above things like ethics.

Now this might seem like a digression, but everything in those three preceding paragraphs goes to explain why our governments prefer to listen to people like McKew and not people who actually know what they’re talking about. The McKews, the Schindlers, the Mensches- they don’t tell the government they have to change. It’s basically perfect the way it is. Russia is just a foreign policy issue- and American foreign policy can never actually be wrong, only misguided. According to their narrative, America has every right to cry to the world about Russia interfering in its election without ever acknowledging that the US has a long history of doing this same thing, often more egregiously and with fatal results, without apologizing for this behavior, and without voicing a commitment to ending this kind of foreign policy all around.

And what about the polarization of American politics? It’s certainly not the fault of the Republican party’s long history of courting extremist groups and conspiracy narratives. It’s certainly not the fault of the Democrats continually throwing their constituency under the bus, breaking promises, and lecturing their voters about how real change isn’t possible so they should be satisfied with means-tested unpaid internships in New York City-based startups. No- American political discourse was totally rational and refined until RT showed up. This is what our leaders want to hear; it absolves them of both guilt and any responsibility. The Russia grifters are basically selling miracle diet pills to people who don’t want to get up off the couch and stop eating junk food all day.

Whatever these grifters peddle as solutions, you can bet they’ll have nothing to do with improving American education, healthcare, or living standards. If anything we’ll probably see some Silicon Valley-sourced bullshit like an AI algorithm designed to “fight Russian fake news on social media,” but which inevitably ends up weeding out countless stories which are factual, yet critical of US foreign or domestic policy. Beyond that, we’ll probably see a whole plethora of fact-checking sites which will basically be copy-pasting stories from already existing fact-checking sites, as if anyone who believes Soros is funding antifa to start a civil war in order to justify a UN military invasion is going to be swayed when a government-funded website tells him that story is confirmed “FALSE.” This is the kind of idiocy our politicians will happily piss away our tax dollars on. That and salaries for grifters, of course.

And naturally, the grifters are easily spurred to anger when someone endangers their grift by questioning their expertise or their claims. So expect to be labeled pro-Russian or worse, a Kremlin agent, if you question any of these people. Meanwhile the real Kremlin agents will continue having a field day making fun of these grifters, picking that low-hanging fruit, and using their idiotic output as material from which to weave their narrative about “Western Russophobes and their paranoid hysteria!” This is largely why the entire Russian state press is apparently laughing their asses off about the Morgan Freeman video.  This is also why I suggest Team Anti-Deza ought to be labeled for what they actually are- unpaid Kremlin PR.

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Durp Impact

I’m going to be busy for the next few days, I think. Take a look:

I’ve already made some preliminary responses to the video on Twitter, but there is a ton of stuff to unpack here. What is disturbing is the apparent lack of expertise one sees in the advisory board of the organization which put poor Mr. Freeman up to this.

How bad is their “investigation” so far? Well earlier this morning my friend Alexey Kovalev caught this gem:

He’s wrong though- this is Valery Gerasimov. Shapeshifting maskirovka to disguise one’s identity is a core tenet of the Gerasimov doctrine. If you say otherwise, it’s obviously because you’re a subtle propagandist dog whistling that Russia isn’t a threat and Putin is just a peace-loving leader who wants to cooperate with the West to solve global problems. That is an entirely rational thing to imply.

Anyway, you can catch the rest of the reactions here. Freeman’s video demands a much more detailed response from me, and as I am apparently still jet-lagged (earlier I thought otherwise but I was wrong), that will have to wait a bit. For now let me just say that Freeman is mistaking Hollywood for history and politics. He’s given us a movie pitch instead of actual insight into Russia’s ruling regime and why and how it interfered in America’s politics.

Lastly, so I don’t have to put it at the front of my next piece on this subject, let me just remind readers that saying “the threat isn’t what the hacks are saying it is,” is in no way equivalent to saying “Russia’s not a threat” or “Russia is for peace.” The problem with these grifters is that while they play up the threat, they also offer poor solutions, if any. If I believed Russia was as dangerous and powerful as these people say it is, I think I’d be coming up with more radical solutions that what I’ve seen from the grifter community so far. In any case, if you believe you’re “at war” with Russia, and Russia is the enemy, then you ought to be study the enemy as it is, and not what you wish it to be.

I also know that some members of Team Anti-Deza would chafe at my population-centric solution proposals. To that I must say- If you have the money to spend on high-tech “anti-propaganda” computer programs, NATO military exercises, and fact-checking projects, surely you could spare a little for healthcare, education, or literally anything that might make more Americans think that their government actually gives a little bit more of a shit about them than say, Saudi princes. Russian propaganda channels have mastered the art of appealing to disaffected, disenfranchised Americans and other Westerners. If you don’t want to speak to them, RT and Sputnik are more than happy to do so.

Stay tuned and we’re going to deal with Morgan Freeman’s movie pitch very soon. It brings me neither joy nor pleasure to do this. Would that this day never have come, but it has been forced upon me.

 

 

 

Clearly You’re New Here

In the latest chapter of America’s Ongoing Struggle to Explain Trump Without Acknowledging its Massive Problems With Racism and Wealth Inequality, we learned that Facebook took $100,000 from shady Russian companies for political ads targeting the US. According to some claims, the ads had a potential audience of 70 million Americans, so theoretically, the Russians might have done more to reach certain voters than the Hillary campaign.

But seriously though, there are some huge problems with this latest bombshell, some of which are addressed in this article in Vanity Fair, which points out:

“The psy ops campaign described by Facebook, however, mostly predates the D.N.C. hack. Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said in a blog post later Wednesday that most of the 3,000 Russian-linked ads it sold between June 2015 and May 2017 didn’t reference the election, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. The ad buy was also relatively small, relative to the impact of fake news posts and misleading information in the media. Only about one quarter of those were geographically targeted, and of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016. But they wouldn’t have needed voter data to be effective. According to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia wasn’t initially focused on boosting Trump specifically but rather sowing discord in the early months of the election. That tracks with Stamos’s conclusion that the Russian ad buys “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum.”

There is a much bigger question with this story, however. Speaking about the potential size of the audience is meaningless without looking at what that money actually bought and how effective the ads would be. So what did these Russian buyers get for their money? Here’s a fine example:

hillarysharia

Now if I read my audience correctly, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to explain that the quote and claim in this meme are obviously false. This thing doesn’t even have a verification code!  But I ask you now- who would be convinced by this thing? More to the point- who among those who at the very least were considering voting for Hillary in 2016 would have been convinced to change their vote or stay home based on seeing something like this on their Facebook feed? If you want to see more, have a look at this gallery of ugliness.

It’s pretty clear that the majority of these “memes” closely resemble the kind of crap your elderly relatives often share, which is the “Web 1.0” equivalent of forwarded chain emails. If you were fortunate enough never to receive one of those, they were typically fake photos or stories about some God-fearing Christian Marine humiliating a pompous atheist professor. These stories, like their social media descendants, are basically designed to confirm conservatives’ worldview. I’ve never heard of someone viewing such material and actually changing their political views based on it. I could see it happening to a younger person just forming their political views, but only after a long period of only consuming this messaging with no alternatives. Otherwise this kind of propaganda wouldn’t convince anyone.

Basically the sensible centrists are acting as if they didn’t know America’s politics have been ridiculously polarized for decades now. They’re acting like it wasn’t just eight years ago when the mainstream conservative media was either implying or explicitly declaring the Democratic president elect to be:

-Not a natural born citizen of the USA, thus ineligible for office.

-An attendee of a madrassa! 

-A Muslim Marxist Fascist who attended a bad Christian church.

-A possible anti-Christ, who was destined to confiscate Americans’ guns, institute socialism, and give away the United States’ sovereignty to the United Nations or some other “New World Order” global government.

Eight years later, Obama hadn’t done any of the things conservatives had been screaming about for years, but do you think that changed their minds? Do you think any of them said “I was so terrified that Obama was going to bring in UN troops and deputized street gangs to come take my guns and send me to a FEMA reeducation camp to turn me into a gay transsexual Muslim, but he didn’t even attempt to do any of that! All that hatred and anxiety for nothing! My face sure is as red as the flag I thought Obama was going to fly over the White House!” Of course nobody said that. They went from “Obama’s going to bring the Marxist Sharia Apocalypse” to “Hillary’s going to bring the Refugee Sharia Apocalypse” without blinking an eye. Hell, they even called Hillary a warmonger. Many of these people are the same folks who would call you a treasonous coward for opposing the Iraq War during the Bush administration, but in 2016 it was fine for them to play Chomsky.

I could go on, but I think this suffices to show how liberals, especially those freaking out about Russian-bought memes, don’t really understand how conservatives think after all these years. Liberals think that most conservatives are just uneducated and unaware of the “facts.” If someone just provided them with facts instead of right-wing memes, they’d see that Hillary is the obvious choice, and the Democratic establishment is totally right when it comes to policy and the party needs no significant changes. But alas, Russia added to the already bloated supply of right-wing memes and thus these people voted for Trump.

In reality, even if Facebook had cut these people off from nearly all their sources of “fake news,” whether domestically-produced or imported from Russia, these people would most likely not have been swayed toward Hillary. They would just use some other medium with which to share their “memes.” These people get a high out of hating “liberals” and “leftists,” by which I mean the caricature of those types they have in their heads. Facts are not going to sway them, because if they accept a fact that contradicts their belief, that forces them to acknowledge that the pansy-ass, latte-drinking, elitist, Social Justice Warrior Cultural Marxist beta cuck was right, and they were wrong. If you believed that such people imperil “Western civilization,” which you think you’re trying to preserve, would you agree with them? Would you admit your mistake and apologize? Of course not- this is war.

Liberals simply can’t understand this because they can’t imagine how anyone could ever believe such things. They must be duped, confused, or stupid. For them, the age of ideology ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and what triumphed is a system that’s based on cold hard facts, data, and GDP growth. Sure, some people get screwed or killed by the thousands in this system, but we’re making omelettes here. This isn’t to say that the bizarre beliefs Trump supporters have are correct or even that they’re not incredibly stupid. But it’s a lot easier to woo people to your side when you tell people you care about them and their plight, that you’ll be their voice, than it is when your message is basically “drop all your expectations; the best you can ever hope for is extremely modest, incremental change over a period of many years.” In a sense, the liberal centrists’ “moderate” or “realistic” worldview can be just as delusional and inaccurate as the Trumpling’s belief that building a wall will restore America to full-employment. Apart from understanding why Americans won’t be swayed by “the facts,” the liberals ought to ask themselves why so many Americans have become so cynical and mistrustful of the media that they would find the most ridiculous conspiracy theories plausible.

Without being able to answer or even understand that question, the Democratic party elite comes off even worse, because the implication is that a massive amount of Democratic voters or at least Democratic-leaning voters changed their votes to an extremely repulsive candidate simply because they saw some Russian made memes with over-the-top, racist rhetoric. In reality the Russians just created more of something that had already been there- right-wing propaganda. There’s zero reason to think it was any more effective than the already-massive right-wing media machine that has existed for nearly three decades now. Even the messages the Russians used were just ripped off from already existing right-wing talking points. I could write another dozen pages on how idiotic this whole affair is, but I doubt it would help. These days questioning the efficacy of Russian attempts to influence the US election is automatically equated with denying that they interfered at all. Saying the Russia doesn’t do things one way is similarly equated with saying “Russia isn’t a threat.”

Sure, Russia intervened in the election and it does pose a threat (though the threat it poses to the US is far less than to Ukraine or Georgia), but this isn’t cause for America’s self-professed leaders to start acting like America’s politics haven’t become incredibly polarized and radicalized in the past decade or so. And speaking of which, do these geniuses truly believe that things would have been much better on that front had Hillary won? The whole point of Russian interference was to put the legitimacy of her victory under suspicion, and Trump himself was telling his rabid supporters the election would be “rigged.” If you’re not busy pretending you can’t remember the past eight years, think about how the right reacted to Obama’s victory in 2008 and then imagine how they’d react to a Hillary victory in 2016 after the DNC email leak plus the Orange Loser screaming about three million illegal votes. Then again, I can understand why many Hillary supporters can’t imagine the bloodshed and domestic terrorism that would result, seeing as how some of the same people were seriously advocating that the electors give their votes to Hillary instead of Trump.

At the end of the day, folks are missing the lessons of this whole Facebook ad scandal. The first is yet another lesson about the danger of money in politics. Prior to this election, there was a lot of talk about the so-called Citizens United ruling, which prohibited many restrictions on political ads and led to the creation of Super PACs, which might have a bit more sway over American elections than a St. Petersburg troll factory.  Now, however, we’re talking about Facebook taking $100,000 from Russia- and nobody else it seems.

The other takeaway is that the Russians were able to find an audience in the US because they learned how to talk like all the other angry conservatives. They saw an opening and they charged through it. America’s immune system is weak after decades of bad domestic and foreign policy, and it shows in both spheres. How do you build up that immunity again? You do it by focusing on the American people instead of whining about how your precious “qualified” candidate didn’t win. You need to present a better vision of the future and when you manage to get any power at all, you need to work towards that goal and produce concrete results. Or you can go on blaming a foreign government for your failures, and start advocating for restrictive laws that could just as easily hurt or otherwise restrict American citizens. And then you will have fulfilled the message of Putin and his state media- you’ll have made America like his Russia.

Truth vs. Information War

 

Sometime before I left Ukraine I began to feel a strong case of burn-out with this so-called “information war” between the West and Russia. I, of course, made my career so to speak on not joining a “team.” For example, I supported and continue to support Ukraine primarily for ideological, moral reasons, not simply because of heritage and certainly not because of the stance the US government took on the matter. More importantly, I do not see everyone who claims to support Ukraine or oppose Putin’s regime as an automatic ally.  This isn’t rocket science; it’s called having principles and trying to be consistent. Unfortunately, that’s a very lonely path these days, and that’s what makes it so easy to get burnt out.

When we look at the “information war” as this conflict that began in earnest in 2014, it is often portrayed in the West as a conflict between truth on one side and Russian propaganda on the other. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. The reason we see the conflict this way is only because the Russian side has been intentionally and enthusiastically flooding the internet with literal disinformation, often in the form of easily-debunked, poorly fabricated fake stories. Since a lot of the West’s counter-propaganda consists of debunking those stories, it gives the impression that Russia lies while the West upholds objective truth. The former is still very true, but the latter simply isn’t.

While many people on the Western side of this conflict are far more grounded in reality than Russia’s propagandists, they still tolerate myth-making and creatively interpreting history to score political points today. In other words, they’re fine with occasionally doing the same thing the Russian government does when it suits their purposes.

For a perfect example of this, look no further than the controversial video released by NATO about the “Forest Brothers,” the name that refers to the Baltic resistance movement after WWII.

 

Naturally, the Russian government’s reaction to the release of the film was to go ape-shit and start screaming about Nazis. Indeed, it is true that some of the Forest Brothers, much like many members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were former Nazi collaborators. From what I saw, however, the Western response to Russian hysterics wasn’t a call for a nuanced study of the Baltic resistance as a whole, but rather dismissal and whataboutist references to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

To see what’s wrong with this film, I recommend reading this piece by Jewish and Holocaust historian Dovid Katz. If you don’t have time, here’s the main takeaway:

“As for the flawed NATO film, it could be ameliorated by an additional moment of explanation about the featured group’s Nazi connections. True, that might cancel out its value in the West’s informational war against Putinist aggression. But our information war, unlike Russia’s, needs to be based on Western values and historic truthfulness. An alternate solution suggests itself: Make a film about the many brutal evils and crimes of Soviet Communism, perhaps focusing on the very area where the Zapad 17 exercises are slated to be held.

As is often the case, there is a “simple” solution to what is being sold as a “complicated” problem.”

Some might object to Katz’s criticism, saying that the film celebrates only the resistance to Soviet occupation, not Nazi collaboration. But in this climate, try to imagine the shoe was on the other foot. If Russia released, for example, a short film celebrating the victory at Stalingrad, for example. I guarantee you Twitter would be alive with people tweeting about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in response. See, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact totally invalidates the Soviet Union’s role in defeating European fascism and Japanese imperialism, because it was collaboration (indeed it was), but the actual Nazi collaboration of groups like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists doesn’t count because…uh…later they were betrayed by the Nazis and they…uh…killed maybe a few hundred German personnel.*  This is classic whataboutism- “This thing isn’t bad because your side did this, but the thing your side did is still bad.” One can scream about Russian propaganda as much as one wants, but at the end of the day this is just the same thing, only dumber in some cases.

More importantly from a practical point of view, without correcting this kind of behavior it will never be possible to win hearts and minds among Russians, the only people who can ever halt the imperialist behavior of their rulers for good. Western pundits would like to think that they’re just urging Russia to take responsibility for its past actions. While it is true that Western countries often fail to live up to this standard, there’s a lot more of this accountability in the West than in Russia right now. Unfortunately, the real message the West has been sending over the past decade or so isn’t being interpreted that way. In reality it looks more like the West is telling Russians they must accept the Western interpretation of their own history, while countries like Ukraine, Poland, or the Baltic states are free to tell whatever narratives they wish. While it’s not true that Western media totally ignores the whitewashing that goes on in those latter countries, the attention they receive is nothing compared to what Russia gets for basically the same activity. Does anyone really expect Russians to take a more critical view of their history when they can easily see Ukrainians who defend figures like UPA-leader Roman Shukhevych by repeating nonsense like “every nation has a right to their own heroes?”** 

Obviously it is very possible for a person to both debunk Kremlin lies and on the other hand support lies and myth-making which suits them. The latter does not somehow invalidate the former. But such people don’t really have any right to claim they are standing up for truth. They are standing only for truth when it suits them. The Russians are doing the same thing, it’s just that the truth rarely suits the Kremlin.

I’d urge my fellow “fighters” in this information war to be consistent in their principles and to respect history and the study of history.  History does not belong to one nation; it belongs to humanity. Every attempt to distort and deny it is a slight against human memory, against the story of humanity. None of these nationalist myths actually do anything to repel Russian aggression; they actually provide grist for the Kremlin’s propaganda mills and generally make people dumber.

As for practical advice to those who actually care about being on the side of truth and not just being on a side, I would recommend the following:

-Stop whitewashing Nazi collaborators or groups who committed atrocities just because they are seen as anti-Russian. We Americans already have a shameful past of getting into bed with former Nazis or their collaborators because we decided that Communism was a bigger threat. Incidentally none of that activity actually helped roll back Soviet influence. Instead it just got a lot of people killed for nothing.

-Stop tolerating whitewashing of such figures by nations who feel “threatened” by Russia. For one thing, Russia is not the Soviet Union, ergo all the whataboutist talk about Molotov-Ribbentrop is really moot. The sad fact is that some countries just fought on the wrong side in WWII, and they need to get over that fact the way countries like Germany or Italy (yes, yes, Italian Co-Belligerent forces excepted) did. A good way to do this is by encouraging people to separate their modern independence from historical organizations that often had nothing to do with said independence.

-Stop pretending that World War II was stared by both Hitler and Stalin; it was started by Hitler, who would have gone to war with or without the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Of course the USSR’s shameful history of collaboration associated with the pact must be taught, but it should be taught in the context of the time, a time when all the major powers collaborated and engaged in appeasement because they all believed they weren’t ready for war. In any case, I repeat that Russia is not the USSR and thus all this talk about Molotov-Ribbentrop is utterly irrelevant to the Kremlin’s actions today. If the Russian ministry of education adopted this Western view of WWII for its school curriculum, would that change anything about the immoral, authoritarian nature of the Putin regime? Absolutely not.

-Don’t let the Russian government get away with monopolizing the victory over fascism in WWII. Instead of trying to invalidate the Soviet Union’s contribution by idiotically pointing out Molotov-Ribbentrop, try pointing out the fact that six million Ukrainians served in the Red Army; at times Ukrainians made up at least 15% of the Red Army’s strength. One in four Belarusians died fighting for the Soviet Union, often as partisans. Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, and other peoples whose nations were not directly threatened with invasion and occupation fought in the ranks of the Red Army. In short- the Russian Federation has no right to dictate how the history of the war should be remembered by former Union republics, some of which (Ukraine, Belarus) experienced the war on a far more destructive level.

These are just a few of the recommendations I can give to those who want to fight lies with truth, and not just other lies.

I realize I might lose some supporters by calling out something on “my side,” but I don’t care. I lost plenty of comrades because I stood up for Ukraine when many Western leftists had bought into the Kremlin propaganda. Better to be right than popular.

I can continue to fight against propaganda and the distortion of history, but I cannot continue to be a part of an “information war” that seems to be nothing more than passive-aggressive internet trolling as a substitute for actually opposing the Kremlin’s aggression and assault on reality.

 

*I’m sorry but I’ll be blunt- If you’re Ukrainian you probably shouldn’t be complaining too much about Molotov-Ribbentrop. That’s why we have Galicia, Volyn, Bukovina, and Bassarabia today. If you’re comfortable giving those territories back, then you can talk. Moreover, most of Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at the time. Ukrainians in Poland welcomed the invading Soviets, and even the nationalists, at the behest of the Germans, fomented a not-too-successful uprising against the Polish government in 1939. I’m terribly sorry but Ukraine is up to its elbows in responsibility for the carve up of the Polish 2nd Republic whether on one side or the other. Also I find it rather cynical that those who would defend figures who slaughtered Poles by the thousands in Volyn often act as though they’re so concerned with the fate of interwar Poland. Again, this just shows how this side isn’t about moral principle or consistency, but just “winning” a game of historical narratives.

** Yes, I have seen Ukrainians online use this defense numerous times, repeating it almost verbatim as a mantra in both Russian and Ukrainian. No, most Ukrainians don’t see Shukhevych or the UPA as national heroes, which is one reason why every attempt to glorify them in Ukraine typically meets with great controversy.

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?