Another shot in the propaganda war

In recent weeks, fear of ‘Russian propaganda’, ‘disinformation’, and ‘information warfare’ has reached somewhat hysterical proportions, as seen most clearly in the case of alleged links between Russian hackers and US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Yesterday, British information warriors Edward Lucas and Peter Pomerantsev joined in with a report published by the Center for European Policy Analysis entitled Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe.

The report is pretty much standard Lucas/Pomerantsev fare: Russia, they write, ‘regards the post-1989 settlement of Europe as both deplorable and temporary. It sees democracies and open societies as a threat, because they may “infect” Russia with their ideas. It aims to undermine a rules-based multilateral security order in Europe that it regards as unfair and unsustainable.’ To this end Russia is using disinformation against the West, ‘overtly – through foreign-language television … and covertly, using notionally independent journalists, experts and commentators’. Moscow’s aim, say Lucas and Pomerantsev, is ‘not to convince or persuade, but rather to undermine. Instead of agitating audiences into action, it seeks to keep them hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid.’

The authors make a number of policy recommendations designed to counter this ‘Russian propaganda’. I don’t have space to go through all of them, so I will focus here on three which struck me as particularly disturbing.

First, Lucas and Pomerantsev propose what looks rather like censorship. ‘A strong regulator is key to ensuring broadcasters maintain journalistic standards’, they write. The authors praise a three-month ban imposed by the Lithuanian government on the TV channel RTR Planeta, adding that, ‘a strong case exists to create an international commission under the auspices of the Council of Europe that would evaluate channels for hate speech, disinformation and other faults.’ What these ‘other faults’ are is not defined, but in the case of RTR Planeta they included offences such as encouraging ‘discord and a military climate’ and inciting tension ‘against the EU and NATO states.’

Second, Lucas and Pomarentsev suggest the creation of what they call a ‘working group on historical and psychological trauma’ designed to counter the Russian narrative about Nazi collaborators in the Second World War. They explain that many in Ukraine and the Baltic states do not regard those who fought alongside the Germans as ‘fascists’. Lucas and Pomerantsev speak positively of the efforts of the Ukrainian government to reframe commemorations of the war to reflect ‘these mixed memories’, saying that such efforts ‘show how to use historical themes for a positive effect, helping heal divisions and move on from past traumas’. In essence, they are suggesting that governments promote the idea of a moral equivalence between those who fought against the Nazis and those who fought alongside them. Lucas and Pomerantsev clearly feel that the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany provides Russia with a historical propaganda tool, and that we should deprive Russia of that tool by rewriting history. This is a mistaken approach. They would be far better off resisting the sort of historical revisionism they propose and instead pressuring the Ukrainian government to stop directly and indirectly promoting collaborationist symbols. Were that to happen, it would become that much harder for Russians to complain of a fascist revival in Eastern Europe.

A third proposal in this report is perhaps even more bizarre. Citing efforts to deradicalize Islamic militants, Lucas and Pomerantsev write that, ‘Similar initiatives should be undertaken with radicalized, pro-Kremlin supporters, those on the far left and the far right, and Russian speakers.’ Are they suggesting anti-brainwashing programs for people who watch RT or read Russia Insider? I really don’t know what to make of this.

There is, of course, much more in this report, but most of it isn’t any better than this. Lucas and Pomerantsev seem to share the misperception by many politicians that it isn’t their policies which are wrong, it is just the way that they are communicated to the public. Clamp down on your opponent’s propaganda and improve your own, and all will be well. This approach may be emotionally satisfying, but it ignores the deeper reasons why people choose to disbelieve you and believe somebody else. At one point, Lucas and Pomerantsev mention a Russian-language Estonian TV channel which ‘focuses on town-hall and talk-show type programming to help disenfranchised audiences feel understood’. Perhaps if the Russian-speakers weren’t disenfranchised in the first place, this wouldn’t be necessary.

It’s only propaganda when they do it

A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention this weekend. The first was in The Times, and claimed the following:

President Putin has launched a secret propaganda assault on Britain from within its own borders, The Times can reveal. The Kremlin is spreading disinformation through a newly opened British bureau for its Sputnik international news service, and is infiltrating elite universities by placing language and cultural centres on campuses. Analysts said that the push was part of Russia’s military doctrine, which specifies the use of ‘informational and other non-military measures’ in conflicts.

The Times is particularly alarmed by the fact that, ‘the University of Edinburgh accepted £221,000 from the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation to host Britain’s first Moscow-sponsored language and cultural centre. The foundation has also opened centres at Durham University, which accepted £85,000, and St Antony’s College, Oxford.’ According to The Times, ‘A Nato source accused Russia of “operationalising information” from within Britain. “The Russian information effort is to muddy the waters, to create uncertainty,” he said.’

The second article was published in Sunday’s New York Times. In this, the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul claims that ‘Everywhere, autocrats are pushing back against democrats, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is the de facto leader of this global movement.’ America must resist this movement, McFaul says. Otherwise, ‘The threats will grow and eventually endanger our peace, as we saw in Europe and Japan in the 1930s, and Afghanistan in the 1990s.’

What exactly should America do? McFaul suggests:

Just as the Kremlin has become more sophisticated at exporting its ideas and supporting its friends, so must we. We should think of advancing democratic ideas abroad primarily as an educational project, almost never as a military campaign. Universities, books and websites are the best tools, not the 82nd Airborne.

But it’s best not to do this openly, McFaul admits. He says, ‘Direct financial assistance to democrats is problematic: A check from an American embassy can taint its recipients. America’s next president should privatize such aid and help seed new independent foundations.’

So, let me get this straight. Russkii Mir openly provides money to the University of Edinburgh for the study of Russian language and culture. That constitutes a ‘secret propaganda assault on Britain’. Ambassador McFaul proposes giving money to Russian universities through disguised channels and for decidedly political purposes, and that is ‘advancing democratic ideas’. ‘Nuff said!