Last week I posted on the subject of media bias, and also discussed the topic with my students. After a long debate, one of my students asked what we could do about it. Not a lot, was my reply, except be aware of it and bear it in mind when forming opinions on any given topic. Then I added a caveat: don’t overcompensate and start assuming that because the media distort many issues, they distort everything and that you cannot trust anything that you watch or read. And just because you no longer believe all the propaganda produced by your own country, don’t start believing that produced by others, or turn into a conspiracy theorist. It is a short step from scepticism about Western media and governments to becoming a 9/11 truther.
What brings this to mind are the reactions this week to the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. The immediate response of many of those who dislike the prevailing negative Western narrative about Russia was to claim that the murder was a ‘false flag operation’ carried out to discredit Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and to destabilize Russia. The perpetrators, according to this version of events, might have been members of Russia’s liberal opposition or perhaps the Ukrainian secret services.
Claims of this sort are not uncommon. As I have said elsewhere, the rebels in Ukraine were most likely responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17. Similarly, I think that it is probable that it was rebel artillery which hit a civilian bus in Volnovakha on 12 January, killing about a dozen people. Neither incident, I believe, was intentional. These were probably unfortunate mistakes of war. But many of those who reject the mainstream Western narrative about the war in Ukraine disagree – these attacks, they believe, were also ‘false flags’, designed to prejudice international opinion against the rebels.
Why do people believe these things, despite the evidence to the contrary? The answer I think is that having become disgruntled with the Russophobia of the Western media, people turn to alternative news sources, such as RT (if all they speak is English), the internet, or Twitter, and instead of treating these sources with the same distrust as the Western mainstream media, instead believe every word they produce. In short, they overcompensate. Having decided, for instance, that the Western version of events in Ukraine is inaccurate, and that Russia is not entirely to blame for the conflict there, they come to believe the opposite – that Russia isn’t to blame at all, and the whole business is the product of a devilish plan hatched by the USA to weaken Russia. Believing that Western claims about Russian involvement in Ukraine are exaggerated, they preposterously insist that Russia is not involved at all – that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and never have been.
Mark Galeotti notes that one of the problems of the current state of Russia-West relations is ‘the death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be one side or the other.’ Either you believe that Putin is an evil despot, or you believe that he represents the genuine will of the Russian people. Either Russia is an imperialist aggressor, or is itself the victim of Western aggression. Either the Russian media is a source of non-stop propaganda, or the Western media is. The possibilities that Putin is not an evil despot, but that he isn’t a liberal democrat either; that Western media are flawed, but Russia media are too; that the government in Kiev is largely to blame for the war in Ukraine, but that Russia also shares the blame; that Ukrainian artillery kills civilians, but rebel artillery does too; all these and more are ignored, as balance is abandoned in favour of simplistic partisanship. It is worth remembering that nobody has a monopoly of the truth, and nobody has a monopoly of untruth either.