The dangers of overcompensating

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.

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4 thoughts on “The dangers of overcompensating”

  1. As far as Nemstov is concerned:

    I would bet decent money on the perpetrators being right wing groups who wish to put pressure on the Kremlins “dove” equivalent.

    Reasons:
    -Where Nemtsov was shot was far more important then that he was shot. Shooting a former high level politician close to the Kremlin and perhaps right under the eyes of the FSB (it can be reasonably assumed that he was under observation) sends a very clear message. “We can shoot formerly powerfull people close to the kremlin while the FSB is watching!”.
    -I would rule out western or Ukrainian services. A direct false flag hit in the Kremlin? This would probably be the most “risky” operation any western service undertook in the last 50 years. Contrary to what people think, Spy agencys tend to be risk averse. As far as the Ukrainians are concerned: They are no strangers to murder, but the SBU had always had its issues, and its efficiencies has been greatly decreased following the post Maidan purge.
    -Someone who wanted to shoot Nemstov for non political reasons (there are people with such motives), for example over women or over Nemtsovs business dealings, would have likely found a way to shoot him somewhere which is not 200 meters away from the Kremlin.
    -An assasination by the “Russian hawks” for whom the current Russian leadership is insufficiently hawkish would have the means, it would have a motive, and they may assume that their influence over the security services is sufficient to prevent any punishment to “important” people.

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  2. Wonderfully balanced article.
    Of course there is propaganda on both sides, except the pro-Russian side refuses to admit it. For them Russia is completely innocent and she is just “defending herself” (funny that she’s defending herself in Ukraine); the rebels’ army never made the mistake of shooting even one civilian, unlike any army in the world they are nice and polite with everybody; the Serbs never killed anybody in the Yugoslav wars, they were just victims; the Orthodox Church never swallowed the Greek-Catholic Church by order of Stalin, it “returned by itself to the mother church”, and so on.

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    1. You find plenty of self criticism in places like “Russia in Global affairs” or similiar publications.

      The tragedy is that, after western propaganda moved very very far away from the truth, Russian propaganda did not use this opportunity to stay closer to the truth then the west does (being closest to the truth in a Propaganda war is somewhat akin to defending a fortified position in a real war), but took this as a “licence” to expand the distance between their PR and the truth even more.

      Where the Russians are actually more “truthfull” is the military side. People like Cassad or El-Murids assessment on the military situation are usually quite accurate, which is not really the case for their political “assessments”.

      In a way, Orwells assesment about war being the last bastion of truth in a propaganda world applies to the rebels. To win in war, they have to face reality and act accordingly to it. If they dont, they will perish.

      Kiev is under no such stress, and thus lies in order to manipulate the “home front”. If their own soldiers believe these lies, and thus fail to break out of encirclement etc. then this doesnt matter a lot to the Kiev goverment.

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