by Gordon M. Hahn
As the West has turned more and more to Soviet/Russian methods of the ‘big lie’ in order to advance democracy and its interests, the Russia-West propaganda war had produced a post-fact world in which disinformation comes to be believed by its purveyors. Both sides, forgetting the previous disinformation and lies from the most recent crisis of the day, reiterate their previous claims as part of the reason for believing the next series of disinformation and lies surrounding the current crisis of the day. This process of propaganda plague has filled the fake news on both sides of the Atlantic since Georgia through Syria, Ukraine, Syria, Skrypal, Syria again. Russia has its RT and state television; the US has RFERL and state-tied mass media across the West. To be sure, the West has a problem with promoting a united message with messy changes of ruling parties and presidents and the like, but these are usually papered over rather easily. Obama promised a ‘reset’ but behind the scenes the administration was backing the financing of revolutionary forces in Yanukovych’s Ukraine. What followed was the lie of the century so far: that Yanukovych deployed Berkut snipers on 20 February 2014 to shoot 100 demonstrators on the Maidan, sparking and more than justifying his overthrow. In reality — and the evidence is now overwhelming — the Maidan revolution’s neofascist elements organized and executed the snipers’ massacre firing at both police and demonstrators and then using the anger and chaos to seize power in the name of the Maidan demonstrators but in the interests of oligarchs and neofascists that hijacked the significantly Western-seeded and -funded movement. The Maidan is one of the few proven lies — another is Putin’s ‘operational’ lie that the ‘polite little green men’ of March 2014 Crimea were not Russian soldiers. Another is Russian state television news’ claim that an ethnic Russian boy had been crucified by Ukrainians during the Donbass civil war. There many others. A Ukrainian propagandist claimed early in the Donbass civil war that thousands of bodies had been found in a lake in rebel-occupied territories in the Donbass, implying that they had been killed by the rebels and/or Russians. This piece of disinformation contained no other ‘information’ and no source and was never reported again. For most all of the remaining lies, truth is a function performed by which ‘facts’ one’s political orientation prefers. In such a world, the truth is all but unattainable because facts are unattainable as well.
The problem is that system’s built on lies are vulnerable to collapse upon revelation of the truth. Even in the post-fact world, some will seek the truth and the true facts. Therefore, lies can sweep a problem under the rug temporarily, but sooner or later facts threaten to expose the dirt. Meanwhile, the first lie may require further lies to maintain the fiction and eventually one’s true statements will begin to be taken as more lies.
As authoritarian regimes have constructed a democratic facade and democratic regimes degenerate towards authoritarianism, the disinformation imperative renders the still substantial differences imperceptible. The fact that the Russians have gotten better at lying and disinformation compared with their Soviet predecessors and that the West has thrown to the wind any past compunctions it may have had about manufacturing facts has brought the two sides closer together in the information sphere. Andrei Sakharov envisaged a different kind of convergence in which the best in capitalism and socialism would merge to form a more perfect system. Instead, the worst of Eastern disinformation and Western strategic communications and marketing have converged to create an almost impenetrable wall of distortions wrapped in falsehoods inside big lies. As a result, when a Westerner mirror-images Russia through the prism of his expectations from Western life, he or she no longer distorts but enlightens. A few years ago the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published the following assessment of Russian reality. Interesting perhaps, but it was one-sided and therefore, to a great degree, funny stuff if in high demand. Let’s turn it around a little bit as an object lesson on how in the disinformation age East has become West and West has become East. I WRITE IN CAPITALS WHERE I ‘TURNED AROUND’ ECFR’S TEXT REPLACING ‘RUSSIA’ AND THINGS RUSSIAN WITH ‘THE US’ AND THINGS AMERICAN:
“THE US carries out and encourages ‘active measures’ in EURASIA to destabilise and confuse governments and societies. But these are often opportunistic and shaped by local conditions. There is no grand strategy, beyond weakening the EEU, CSTO, SCO and creating a more conducive environment for itself.
“This involves a wide range of actors, from officials and the media, through military threats, to business lobbies and spies. Russia pursues different priorities in different countries. This is largely determined by the correlation between the strength of countries’ national institutions and their vulnerability to WESTERN influence.
“Nonetheless, there is an effort to coordinate certain operations across platforms. Insofar as there is a command-and-control node, it is within the WHITE HOUSE, which is perhaps the most important single organ within the US’s INCREASINGLY de-institutionalised state: POLITICIZED INTELLIGENCE, PRESIDENTIAL VIOLATIONS OF CONSTITUTION, CORRUPTION BENEFITTING FAMILY AND FRIENDS, ETC.
“Without giving up hope of persuading WASHINGTON to change its policies DEMOCRACY-PROMOTION AND DESTABILIZING COLOR REVOLUTION POLICIES, RUSSIA AND EURASIA must nonetheless address its own vulnerabilities: ‘fixing the roof’ rather than simply hoping the rain will stop. Among other things, this includes addressing democratic backsliding in parts of the continent” (www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/controlling_chaos_how_russia_manages_its_political_war_in_europe).
Thus, assuming the ECFR’s analysis is correct, Russia has simply returned the West’s favor, turning to internal influence and destabilization operations in response to the West’s democracy- and opposition-promotion measures, which, in the West’s case, however, is backed up and followed up by NATO expansion.
The disinformation continues even when one side is writing about the supposedly unique disinformation efforts of the other side. Thus, a Western analysis of Russia Today’s bias and propagandistic distortions is filled with one-sided inaccuracies:
“A breakthrough arrived in August 2008 with the five-day Russo-Georgian War. Provoked by widespread Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Russia Today shot back with highly defensive, pro-Russian coverage of the conflict, framing Georgia as the aggressor against the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.13 In particular, its false reports of genocide in Ossetia by the Georgians captured international attention for their brazenness and cemented the network’s reputation as a mouthpiece of the Kremlin.14 Ultimately, an EU post-mortem report revealed that responsibility for the conflict had been divided between Georgian initiative and a disproportionate Russian response; neither the Western nor Russian narratives about the war had been factually accurate.15 However, Russia Today remained unrepentant about its bias, claiming that it had been an intentional stratagem to counter the anti-Russian bias of Western media. Margarita Simonyan proudly declared that Russia Today gained greater international visibility and recognition for being the only English-language outlet ‘giving the other side of the story – the South Ossetian side’.16” (www.europeanvalues.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Overview-of-RTs-Editorial-Strategy-and-Evidence-of-Impact.pdf).
The above leaves out Georgia’s claims of a Russian genocide committed against Georgians in the war. It also leaves out Sky News’s own claims that Russian forces were killing thousands in the first hours of the 5-Day War in which less than a thousand were killed altogether, counting all sides. I still have yet to see RFERL repent for its continuing lies about the Maidan or Sky News about its Georgian war lies. Then of course there is the infamous FOX News mistake of putting South Ossetians on the air in the expectation that any non-Russian will damn the Russians only to find out that Ossetians, North and South, view Russia as an ally and protector against Georgians and Muslims in the region. FOX’s response to their mistake was not to try and learn something about the region and inform their viewers but it was rather to cut off the Ossetians hoping they would correct their views during a break. When that did not happen the interview was abruptly terminated (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBPBdW2wXpc). Did the Russians learn that even their own cynicism was too limited. You can decide listening to Putin’s remarks on the FOX faux pas (www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iwSsIBQm68).
There was a time when the US government lied only when the most vital interests were at stake, not as a matter of course in daily ‘public diplomacy’ work. No more.
Not just Russians, not just Americans, not just Republicans and not just Democrats are engaged in ‘fake news.’ They are all engaged in disinformation wars. Consequently, we are all liars now. There is no truth, there are no facts – just your side and my side, their side and our side. Such a state affairs cannot end well.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.