Russian propaganda is powerful; we can only fight it together.
With a master-propagandist and former-KGB strongman like Vladimir Putin, what he says doesn’t really matter all that much. No one outside Russia believes a word he says anymore, anyway. Most Russians probably don’t even believe him.
Just over one month ago Putin was angrily denying having any plans whatsoever to invade Ukraine and how dare other world leaders suggest such a thing. He very politely agreed to a cease fire during a sit-down with French President Emmanuel Macron…then invaded the Ukraine a few days later.
Propaganda is powerful, but it isn’t impenetrable. With a well-jaundiced eye, separating the truth from Putin fan fiction is possible.
For instance, when the Russian media reported that the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan appeared to be winding down, just a few days before Kabul fell, people paying close attention to the political situation in Russia over the past few years knew immediately that the fix was in.
In a way, it was the worst sign yet for the people of Afghanistan. The vast majority of the other global news outlets were reporting the exact opposite by that time- that the Taliban position was very strong. If the media mouthpiece of Vladimir Putin was saying the Taliban offensive was winding down, the exact opposite must have been true. As indeed it proved.
Considering the close relationship Russian officials were cultivating with Taliban leadership in the months leading up to the U.S. military withdrawal, the statement was obviously intended to further Russia’s potential interests in the country and win favor with Afghanistan’s new ruling party.
The war in Ukraine, like the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, is but one battle in an overarching global war against propaganda. The answer to propaganda isn’t to censor and police the internet; controlling misinformation that way would be impossible. A better solution is to find instances of proven propaganda and expose it to the disinfectant of media sunlight so that people can better identify it and protect themselves.
There is a new and powerful weapon against Vladimir Putin, against propaganda, possibly against war itself: The Information Age.
The internet and social media have given us an opportunity not afforded previous generations confronted with war. The combination, plus everyone having a video camera in their pocket, is currently our most strident defense against propaganda and media manipulation.
Had we used this weapon sooner in the long-simmering war between Russia and the Ukraine, this entire heartbreaking episode in world history could have been averted.
Prior to the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in February, NATO membership was being withheld from the Ukraine, ostensibly due to charges of corruption. Scratch the surface of that excuse, however, and Russian appeasement emerges as the real reason.
That and a Russian propaganda campaign designed to undermine Ukraine in advance of the kind of full-scale military invasion NATO membership might have prevented.
“While a certain part of the charge of corruption within the Ukraine was correct, all of the former soviet states experienced corruption after the fall of the USSR,” says Olena Shevchenko, a Ukrainian citizen who fled her homeland over month ago with her teenage daughter after a childhood friend invited the family to stay in the U.S. “That the Ukraine was singled out among all the former states was the result of Russian propaganda.”
Looking back, keeping the Ukraine out of NATO was a very short-sighted strategy. It was ever, at best, a temporary appeasement of Vladimir Putin. At worst, it was the result of a years-long propaganda campaign to undermine an emerging nation like Ukraine with charges of corruption.
Information and propaganda are still constantly at war in the press.
“The casualties in Ukraine are being way undercounted,” says Ms. Shevchenko. “Maybe 10 or 20 times that number of people have already died. The humanitarian disaster cannot be overstated. It is so important to get this.”
The censoriousness and propagandist tendencies of the Russian government can’t be combatted by other types of censorship and propaganda meant to shield the world’s delicate eyes: The world needs the truth and more of it.
There is a new battle being fought between nations at war- and even nations at peace. It has not gone unnoticed that information, how it is spread over social media in particular, is a very powerful force.
Information warfare, cyber-warfare, hacking, economic sabotage and other tactics are routinely used by governments like Vladimir Putin’s. Russia has been conducting such operations against the Ukraine for years; China does the same thing to Taiwan.
Information warfare is easy, bloodless. With a few keystrokes, someone 10,000 miles away in another country can orchestrate chaos and sow disunity almost anywhere.
One of the ways Russian propagandists and information warfare technicians tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election was to set up dueling protests at the same time, same place.
It’s easy; create one event, create a second, conflicting event through a proxy, then sit back and enjoy the ensuing clash.
Everyone talks of Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, while ignoring the fact that Russia has attempted to exert influence in other elections, too. As have many other countries.
The Chinese Communist Party has a content farm far superior to that of the Russian government. The CCP adopted in 2003 a strategy it calls the “Three Warfares”. It involves using information warfare to undermine faith in institutions, devalue currency, sabotage economic prospects and increase internal division along existing lines. Sound familiar?
The CCP is known to have used this strategy against Taiwan and India.
In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with all the various political agendas at work- the Russian government wants to present one picture; the U.S. government and its allies want to present another picture in order to avoid being drawn further into the conflict; the Ukrainian government has an entirely different set of policy goals- it is hard to know what to make of the media coverage.
But fighting Putin with information may already be bearing fruit. It has been all but impossible for him to keep a lid on his crimes in the Ukraine. Too many pictures.
Some of the latest polls- for all polls are worth these days and this one may well have been influenced by the aforementioned Russian propaganda machine- indicate the Russian population is 70% behind Vladimir Putin.
In nearby Belarus, however, officer ranks have already been impacted by the horror stories pouring out of Ukraine. Convincing people not to fight for Putin is only one part of the importance of spreading true, first-hand accounts of what is really going on in Ukraine far and wide.
Fighting propaganda is a war-preventative. Had we acted much sooner to protect Ukraine, to help the still-fledgling nation meet the criteria of NATO, the people of Ukraine wouldn’t be suffering as they are today.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)