Russia and the West have long denounced one another for spreading disinformation. In a new report published by The Interpreter magazine, and entitled The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, authors Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev go a step further and accuse Russia of ‘weaponizing’ information. Weiss and Pomerantsev have also discussed their findings in a podcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Power Vertical blog.
The report’s primary thesis is that Russia is using information not as propaganda, but rather as a ‘weapon’ in a campaign of ‘aggression’ against the West, in order to ‘confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze’. ‘The border between “fact” and “fiction” has become utterly blurred in Russian media and public discourse’, claim Weiss and Pomerantsev, ‘the notion of “journalism” in the sense of reporting the “facts” or “truth”, has been virtually wiped out.’
Unfortunately, the report is couched in terms which suggest that it more suited to political polemic than objective journalism or academic research. Take, for instance, this segment out of a particularly polemical paragraph:
Land that was not so long ago the cynosure of the worst atrocities of modernity has once again become an active war zone, above which commercial airliners filled with hundreds of foreign-born innocents are blown out of the sky with impunity. A former KGB lieutenant-colonel, rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe, stands an excellent chance of outstripping Josef Stalin’s tenure in power and now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries. As if to demonstrate the seriousness of his threat, he dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers into their airspaces on a near weekly basis.
Let us dissect this segment bit by bit:
- First, the authors’ use of language distorts reality by suggesting that things which have happened just once are regular occurrences, so making them seem more threatening. Note, for instance, the plural word ‘airliners’. Precisely one airliner has been shot down over Ukraine. That is bad enough, but Weiss and Pomerantsev use deceptive language to suggest something even worse. Also, observe how the authors claim that Putin ‘now speaks openly of invading five separate NATO countries’. This no doubt refers to a statement by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that Putin told him that if he wanted to he could have troops in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest within two days. The word ‘speaks’ suggests a regularly repeated, ongoing habit, whereas in fact we have one instance in which Putin allegedly ‘spoke’. This is a subtle difference, but it is important.
- Second, the story of Putin threatening to invade NATO countries is entirely uncorroborated, and comes from a source with a strong interest in making Putin look bad. But even if true, it does not constitute speaking ‘openly’ of invading NATO countries given that the conversation was private. Moreover, we don’t know why Putin said what he did (if he did). Perhaps he did so in response to a threat from NATO, as a way of saying ‘don’t attack Russia because Russia can hit back hard and fast’, in which case his statement was defensive in nature, not aggressive. Context is everything, but Weiss and Pomerantsev make no attempt to address this. Instead they suggest that it is an objective truth that Putin is even now openly threatening to attack NATO. This is deceptive.
- Third, note how Putin is described as ‘rumored to be the wealthiest man in Europe’. Strictly speaking, this is not a lie. There is a rumor to the effect that Putin owns a majority share in the commodity trading company Gunvor, giving him a personal wealth of $40 billion. The problem with this preposterous rumor is that the only source for the information is an entirely unsubstantiated claim by Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, who is a cousin of the deceased exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a man described by a British judge as a liar. Repeating unfounded rumors is an easy way of blackening somebody’s reputation, but it is not good journalism.
- Fourth, the paragraph repeatedly slips in irrelevant points whose only purpose is emotional – to turn the reader’s mind against Putin by means of association. See how I slipped in the stuff about Berezovsky in the last bullet point, to turn you against Belkovsky by associating him with a liar. Weiss and Pomerantsev use this trick repeatedly. Thus we have a reference to the ‘worst atrocities of modernity’, as if the current war in Ukraine is somehow comparable; then we have a mention of the KGB; and finally there is a comparison with Josef Stalin, a man who oversaw the deaths of millions of people. Weiss and Pomerantsev at no point directly tell readers that they are making these comparisons, but their intent is clear.
- Finally, we read that Putin ‘dispatches fighter jets and long-range nuclear bombers’ into the ‘airspaces’ of NATO countries ‘on a near weekly basis’. But a complete list of incidents involving Russian aircraft assembled by the European Leadership Network lists only two NATO countries (the Netherlands and Estonia) as having their airspace violated in the past twelve months, one of them (the Netherlands) only once. Even the more regular alleged intrusions into Estonian airspace (about five in the past six months) are not ‘near weekly’ and in any case ‘result from an unsolved airspace issue where Russian air traffic control overlaps Estonian airspace.’ Furthermore, none of these intrusions involved nuclear bombers. Such aircraft have entered the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of the United States, but ADIZs are not part of national airspace and entering the American ADIZ is a not a violation of U.S. sovereignty. Contrary to what Weiss and Pomerantsev write, there are no instances of nuclear bombers entering the airspace of NATO countries.
All these distortions appear in just one half of one paragraph. The authors accuse the Russian media of disinformation, but they are guilty of the same thing themselves.
Also interesting is the organization Weiss works for. The Interpreter magazine is a product of The Institute of Modern Russia, whose president (and source of funding) is Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of another disgraced former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is relentlessly hostile to the current Russian government. So too is The Power Vertical podcast. The Americans did not found and subsidize Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War for the fun of it. Rather, these radio stations had the specific purpose of subverting communism in eastern Europe. To some extent, the subversive objective remains unaltered, at least as far as Russia is concerned. You don’t turn to The Power Vertical if what you are looking for is balanced discussions of modern Russia reflecting multiple points of view.
In short, The Interpreter and RFE/RL are ‘weapons’ too. Weiss’ and Pomerantsev’s report is very much of a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Or as the Russians say, ‘чья бы корова мычала а твоя молчала’: some people’s cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet. Hence the title of this post.