My mother once gave a talk on BBC Radio 3 entitled ‘The Myth of Central Control’, explaining how the British government had no effective control over its expenditure. The phenomenon is hardly unique to the United Kingdom. Governments everywhere struggle to control even the institutions notionally subordinate to them, let alone their countries as a whole. For some odd reason, however, many people think that Russia is an exception, and that everything that happens there is centrally coordinated in the most sophisticated and successful manner. Such are the Russians’ power of control, in fact, that even citizens of other countries (‘Kremlin proxies’) follow Moscow’s bidding in what might be compared to a perfect display of political synchronized swimming.
Of course, as anyone with any experience of Russia knows, this isn’t how things work in reality. But still the myth persists, and pervades the way in Russia is understood by governments in the West.
An example is a new report entitled ‘Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem’, published this week by the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, which is, as the report says, ‘the U.S. Government’s dedicated center for countering foreign disinformation and propaganda.’ If you are so inclined, you can read the report in full here. However, I don’t recommend it, for the reasons that follow.
The report notes that, ‘The disinformation and propaganda ecosystem that Russia continues to cultivate does not stand unopposed. A thriving counter-disinformation community comprised of governments, civil society, academia, the press, the private sector, and citizens around the world who refuse to tolerate these tactics is pushing back.’ Unfortunately, this ‘community’, or as I prefer to call it the ‘disinformation industry’, is marked by such bias and ignorance that it is more a purveyor of disinformation than a weapon against it. This report is no exception.
‘Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem’, it says, ‘is the collection of official, proxy, and unattributed communication channels and platforms that Russia uses to create and amplify false narratives.’ In particular, the report focuses on so-called ‘proxy voices that proliferate pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda,’ specifically 7 rather obscure websites, none of which I can say that I (like most people) ever look at. These websites, the report claims, ‘serve no other purpose but to push pro-Kremlin content,’ a statement I would have thought rather libellous, as well as being an absurd simplification of the multiplicity of motives which impel people to say the things that they do.
We’ll come back to that in a moment. But before getting into specifics, it’s worth citing the report’s basic thesis, which is as follows:
Russia has operationalized the concept of perpetual adversarial competition in the information environment by encouraging the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem that allows for varied and overlapping approaches that reinforce each other even when individual messages within the system appear contradictory.
The perpetual conflict that Russia sees in the information environment also means that officials and state media may take one side of an issue, while outlets with a measure of independence will adopt their own variations on similar overarching false narratives. The ecosystem approach is fitting for this dynamic because it does not require harmonization among the different pillars. By simultaneously furthering multiple versions of a given story, these actors muddy the waters of the information environment in order to confuse those trying to discern the truth.
Think about this for a moment. What we’re being told is that the various ‘proxies’ which are discussed in this report don’t all say the same thing. Nor do they even follow the same line as the Russian government. In fact, on occasion what they say contradicts the Russian government. But that’s just further proof that the Russian government is behind them all!! It’s a cunning plan, you see, to allow ‘multiple versions’ of stories to get out into the public, in order to confuse it. You’ll have to excuse me if I find this more than a little unconvincing.
Perhaps, if the specifics provided by the report were credible, the overarching thesis might be believable too. But alas, they are not. Take, for instance, this graphic which ostensibly shows how Russian disinformation flows, beginning with ‘official government communications’, and then spreading through state media before moving on to the ‘proxy sources’.
In this case, what is supposedly shown is the spread of Russian disinformation about COVID-19. According to the report, the ‘official government communication’ with which this disinformation originally began was a statement by the blowhard leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky (as noted in the bottom left – ‘Zhirinovsky calls coronavirus in China a biological weapon of the USA’).
At this point, anyone with the slightest knowledge of Russia can only scream in despair. As any fule no, nothing Zhirinovsky says could ever be interpreted as coming from the Russian government, let alone as an ‘official government communication’. The GEC’s graphic is, to put it politely, just plain stupid. It speaks volumes to the ignorance of those writing it, as well as the ignorance of their superiors who approved publication.
This isn’t the only example of a basic lack of understanding of the topic under study. The bulk of the report is taken up with exposés of seven ‘proxy sources’, which are allegedly acting as arms of the Russian state in a deliberate effort to spread disinformation and sow discord. These are: the Strategic Culture Foundation; New Eastern Outlook; Global Research; News Front; South Front; Geopolitica.ru; and Katehon.
The first thing to note about these ‘proxies’ is that they are hardly household names. Let’s face it, not a lot of people in the United States have Katehon on their internet ‘favourites’ list. If this is the biggest danger the USA faces from Russian ‘disinformation’, then it’s not much to worry about. But that’s by the by. The real problem, as I see it, is the effort to paint all these rather obscure websites as being arms of the Kremlin. Perhaps in one or two cases, it might be partially true, but in others the label of Kremlin proxy is ridiculous.
Take, for instance, Geopolitica.ru, which as the report says, ‘serves as a platform for Russian ultra-nationalists to spread disinformation and propaganda targeting Western and other audiences. Inspired by the Eurasianist ideology of the Russian philosopher and Eurasian imperialist Alexander Dugin.’ Let’s take that as true. Does that make Geopolitica.ru a ‘Kremlin proxy’? Not at all. Quite the opposite in fact. Duginite ‘ultra-nationalists’ are far from being friends of the Kremlin, let alone people who take orders from the Russian state, guiding them in what disinformation they should spread. These guys have their own agenda. For sure, it’s not one I particularly like. Nor is it one that the US government should like. But that doesn’t mean it’s all part and parcel of some disinformation ‘ecosystem’. It’s just a bunch of people on the political fringe spouting their own version of reality on the internet. Nothing more, nothing less.
The same could be said of the Katehon think tank and website. The report notes its links to the wealthy conservative businessman Konstantin Malofeyev and his Tsargrad TV station, as if that somehow proves that it’s under the control the Russian state. But again, rather the opposite would appear to be the case. Neither Malofeyev nor Tsargrad could in any way be said to be part and parcel of some deeply integrated Russian information ‘ecosystem’. They are perhaps a little less extreme than Geopolitica.ru, but still somewhere out there on the fringe, and not at all a part of the Russian state’s media empire.
The report says that ‘Katehon’s leadership appears to have ties to both the Russian state and the Russian intelligence services.’ ‘Appears’ is the crucial word here. The evidence is the presence on the think tank’s board of economist Sergei Glazyev and various politicians and retired generals and intelligence officials. In the first place, Glazyev is very much not a voice of the Russian state (quite the opposite – he is very much a critic), while politicians, retired generals, and so on are pretty much par for the course on the boards of think tanks in the United States and most of the Western world. Do we call those Western think tanks ‘linked to the state’, and claim that what they do reflects state policy?? Not at all. Nor should we in the case of Russia.
Then there is the case of Montreal-based Global Research, which is run by ex-University of Ottawa professor Michael Chossudovsky. Let’s go back to that statement that these ‘proxies’ ‘serve no other purpose but to push pro-Kremlin content’. The report provides absolutely no evidence that that is so in Chossudovsky’s case. It does show that Global Research has established some links with the other so-called proxy sources, but that is far from being evidence that the organization exists to serve the Kremlin’s interests. In fact, Chossudovsky’s history suggests that he is ideologically driven. Global Research comes across very much as being his own, personal creation, aimed at pursuing his own, personal agenda. The fact that this agenda is decidedly leftist in orientation, and as such hostile to American capitalism and imperialism, doesn’t make him or his website an arm of the Russian state.
As for the other proxies, the evidence that they are operating as parts of some coordinated ‘ecosystem’ is equally tenuous. We are told, for instance, that the Strategic Culture Foundation is ‘directed by Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)’. Maybe it is, but we’re not given any evidence to back up the claim. And so on.
All in all, therefore, a picture is painted of a multiplicity of dangerous websites, spreading different types of disinformation, all as part of a coordinated campaign by the Russian state. But the examples provided fail to fit the model. Statements by an oddball opposition politician; ultra-nationalist and conservative websites; cranky blogposts by a retired lefty professor in Montreal – none of them amount to very much even by themselves, and none of them provide evidence of a centralized conspiracy directed against America.
That’s not to say that these are the type of websites I would recommend. But it’s a huge, huge mistake to assume that everything which either comes from Russia, or is some vague way connected to it, is operating as part of a Kremlin masterplan. If there’s a lot of anti-American stuff on the internet, or a lot of conspiracy theories about this, that or the other, it’s not because somebody is directing people to produce this stuff. Rather, it’s because people don’t like the Americans or believe the conspiracy theories in question. And they do so for their own reasons. If you want to tackle the problem of disinformation, you need to start addressing those reasons, not go about chasing phantoms of disinformation ‘ecosystems’. That, however, would be difficult, and mean asking some questions to which you might not like the answers. It’s easier simply to blame the Russians. And besides, no doubt it pays well too!