Ukrainians fighting the Kremlin’s propaganda machine release report on what they’ve learned
While I’ve been regularly sharing, reposting and ReTweeting the efforts of my friends, colleagues and students in Ukraine over the past year and a half, I must admit that there are times when I kinda lose track of what’s really happening over there.
I can’t quite express in words how proud and humbled I am by StopFake.org, the online effort by Yevhen Fedchenko, the Mohyla School of Journalism, and the Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism, to report the truth and counter the cynical, evil lies that are being daily concocted by the Putin regime to mislead and delude people around the world. Their efforts these past few years have made me feel like a spoiled gringo, as so often happens when I work with journalists in countries where the government or cabals of criminal oligarchs decide to crush a free and independent press.
Which is why it’s even worse to see us doing it to ourselves.
This report by Yevhen (click to open .PDF) makes it abundantly clear what’s been going on; that the tired, easy “View From Nowhere” that is so often the bane of actual truth-telling, has been cleverly co-opted by the Kremlin in much the same way that the Koch brothers have been using it to enable the spread of their anti-intellectual, anti-climate change propaganda.
First, the scale of the problem:
From the very beginning, Russia’s propaganda machine was designed to target a much wider audience than Ukraine or Russia’s other neighbours. The real aspiration is to achieve global media dominance.
Not only does it distort reality to breed hatred and manipulate the political and historical context in Russia itself, setting it on an anti-Western course and inflaming warmongering attitudes towards Ukraine, but it is also used as a powerful weapon against core human values on a global scale. One of the central premises of the contemporary Russian agitprop is to deny that democracy in general, with free media or free elections, actually exists anywhere in the world. The core of the Kremlin’s propaganda, both inside and outside Russia, is a post-modernist denial of everything.
Much like the “ducktalk” of the dystopian novel 1984, the Russian propaganda machine seeks to drain all meaning, all truth from the news. There is no truth. There are no facts. There is only spin.
And the only spin is blind, unquestioning loyalty to the ideology.
Some examples of how that is achieved:
These propaganda distortions have a terrifying underlying philosophy and purpose:
There is no new ideology contained in current Russian propaganda, because Russia does not have one ideology. Instead, it borrows a little from everything. In this way, the system can produce a large number of “small propagandas”, each of them targeting a specific audience.
The more messages the better; this multiplies the confusion. To paraphrase Peter Pomerantsev, one could argue that the aim is not to provide a sole narrative, but to create clashes of narratives in order to confuse different audiences with different messages. Of course, one can easily identify some grand narratives: that Ukraine is a fascist state created by a corrupt US government that is killing their own people in Ferguson; that Ukraine is a collapsing state; or even that it is the US/NATO who are fighting in Ukraine – and that, of course, there are no Russian forces on the ground.
Yeah, that made me stop for a second too. The Kremlin’s propagandists are clever enough to seize on current events and weave them into their narrative, which only strengthens the impact on the audience.
But who is the audience? Who is susceptible to this steady stream of faked news, distorted quotes, denial of reality? Is anybody actually fooled by all of this?
It is particularly difficult to disparage conspiracy theories. The consumers of conspiracy are already inclined to believe that there can be no coincidence: someone is definitely behind the curtain, masterminding the realm of politics and the media, war and peace, elections and trade. In this shady world, “Blame the Other” and “whataboutism” are substitutes for facts and rational decisions.
This is what makes audiences happy with Russian propaganda and receptive to it. In many corners of the world, people are relieved to know that someone else can be blamed for their own problems. Exploiting irrational and delusional thinking – that is what truly sets contemporary Russian propaganda apart from its Soviet predecessor, and makes it so effective and dangerous.
I keep flashing back to that moment in “The American President” where the Michael Douglas character denounces the sly, scheming opponent who offers no solutions to any actual problems – but sure can always tell you who is to blame.
And if by this point in the narrative, you’re not actually drawing parallels between what Fox News does on a daily basis, and what Yevhen is talking about here, then perhaps it’s time to check in with MediaMatters.org, RightWingWatch, Crooks&Liars, and all the other fact-based online news sites that have had to spring up in the last decade or so. I see them as something akin to “digital antibodies” that the body politic has generated in reaction to the way that the rest of the media has abrogated its responsibility to report the truth, rather than just safely refuse to take a stand and blindly repeat “he said-she said” story that’s been ginned up by spinmeisters.
What to do about this abysmal state of affairs – this poisonous level of discourse that makes us stupider, weaker, more vulnerable to manipulating snake-oil salesmen?
I’ll let Yevhen have the final words.
Outlets representing agitprop should be delegitimised and stripped of any journalistic rights and privileges, such as access to information, granting interviews, invitations to be part of debates and discussions, participation in professional media associations, reception of awards, etc.
“The problem of the Western media is that it chooses fairness over truth,” observed Edward Lucas.