The reason Russian propaganda works is because we’re fooling ourselves

In a recent Washington Post article, Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas warned of the increasing danger Russian propaganda poses to Europe — particularly for the fledgling democracies along the European periphery.

“Fifteen years ago,” they caution, “the idea that foreign disinformation might be a problem for European countries seemed ludicrous.” But today the business model that used to fund investigative journalism and foreign is in severe crisis and the digital age “has made it harder for people to judge the accuracy of what they see and read.”

Together they’re launching a counter-disinformation center at the Center for European Policy Analysis to push back against what they perceive to be a grave foreign threat. The U.S. government, the European Union and NATO have all recently begun stepping up their own counter-information operations as well — there’s only one problem with these initiatives. Today, the biggest threat of disinformation isn’t coming from some foreign adversary. It is coming from within.

In a revealing study, the Associated Press recently announced that President Obama’s administration had set a new record for failing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests. According to AP, “People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests.”

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist James Risen has accused the current administration of being ‘the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation,’ for subpoenaing journalists and pressuring them to reveal their sources — sometimes even going so far as to squash their stories altogether.

In the social-media dominated 24hr news cycle it can be difficult to figure out when the White House is spinning a story behind the scenes. Consider this profile of President Obama’s ‘foreign policy guru,’ Ben Rhodes, from New York Times the Magazine:

Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies.

Speaking of spying. Only three years ago the world was shocked to find out about the NSA’s PRISM program thanks to the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden. The fact that this whistleblower has to live in exile for fear of persecution is probably the biggest propaganda coup of Putin’s regime. The NSA was illegally collecting the metadata of millions of Americans, including their phone records — and the phone records of our closest allies. While the program was itself authorized by a secret FISA court order.

Since then The Intercept revelations of a secret drone war being waged from the Hindu Kush to the Nigerian Delta, have raised many questions about the U.S.’s endless ‘Global War on Terror.’ Several Americans have been killed, sometimes on purpose and sometimes accidentally. Without whistleblowers we might not have known at all, much less how their extra-judicial killings were authorized. According to the Washington Post, “It’s enough to make you wonder how many Americans have been killed by U.S. drone strikes — and how many were killed on purpose.”

In short, the United States and European allies have managed to destroy much of their credibility over the last few years when it comes to transparency and accountability. Secrecy breeds conspiracy — and conspiracy is fertile ground for propaganda. The scariest thing about the hit stories coming out of Russia’s state-run propaganda machines, RT and Sputnik, is how readily we can be fooled into believing them. Not because we are inundated with too much information, as Applebaum and Lucas claim, but because our own government’s have recently made a bad habit out of making it difficult for their citizens to separate fact from fiction.

The best way to counter propaganda is through a renewed commitment to transparency and accountability. If we could trust our own governments to behave transparently we wouldn’t need to be so afraid of others when they don’t.

Applebaum and Lucas are noted Eurasian analysts and journalists who have covered Putin’s rise from KGB strongman to one of the world’s most powerful autocrats. Lucas, for his part, was writing a book on The New Cold War as far back as 2008 when almost everyone else was asleep at the wheel. Today his polemic stands as an awkward reminder of how ill-prepared the United States and European governments were to adapt to changing geopolitical circumstances. This is not meant as a criticism of their call to arms in the fight against disinformation — but as a reminder that it’s always been easier to point at a foreign threat than confront inner demons.

As part of some research I’m doing, this morning I was going over the Harmel Report, a revealing set of unclassified NATO documents going back to the 1960’s. I was struck by some of the similarities between now and then. Especially the unyielding paranoia among European and U.S. strategic planners that Russia is capable of splitting the ‘West;’ while recognizing that this is not a possibility so-long as Europe is politically viable; and finally, the implicit recognition that there’s usually a limited amount of truth in propaganda.

Here’s an excerpt from the archives:

The Soviet attempts to produce a split in the Western world […] As Soviet policy, traditionally, is realistic, a politically strong NATO would induce the Soviet to take that factor into consideration in the shaping of its own policy and aIl other things being equal, seek peaceful co-existence with the NATO countries. One of the immediate aims of the Soviet Union is to preserve the cohesion of the Eastern bloc and the communist countries. To that end, the picture of the aggressive Western power is held out as a terror, but this is no longer as effectual as it used to be, one of the reasons being that certain Eastern European countries have become aware of the peaceable intentions of the West. Another apparent Soviet aim is to gain influence in the developing countries with a view to winning their support in the United Nations and elsewhere and, on the whole, to be able to add as much weight as possible to the Eastern side of the scales. This gives rise to the Soviet rivalry with the West. Soviet propaganda and the struggle for the political support of the developing countries reveal the difficulty in keeping alive the Soviet image of the Western powers as aggressive imperialists — except, of course, in the ‘Vietnam conflict.

Europe and the United State’s top strategic, political, and economic thinkers were consulted for the Harmel Report in the 1960’s. They knew then, that the best way to counter to Soviet propaganda was Western European political freedoms and a strong economy. A lesson that continues to be true today. That last line about Vietnam is revealing, though. It stands as evidence to the damage that horrific military interventions can do to a country’s international standing— these interventions can often be the source of that limited amount of truth that makes propaganda believable for some. It is no coincidence, that in our own time, some of the government’s least transparent activities are done in order to hide information from the public about the ongoing war and its consequences.

A long period of Western triumphalism now seems to be receding into perpetual doubt. The very institutions and values that were championed at the end of the Cold War are everywhere being challenged — from within and from without. Perhaps what is needed now is not more potentially unnaccountable government agencies profiling social media users. The information they collect and produce will readily be dismissed as counter-propaganda by Russia’s state-controlled media anyways. Instead, we need to resuscitate the very values that those institutions are supposedly built on. A renewed commitment to transparency, government accountability, and the freedom of the press is the best counter to Russia’s propaganda machine.

Ryan McCarrel is a Ph.D. Candidate at University College Dublin’s School of Geography where he focuses on geopolitics, borders and world (dis)order. He’s written articles for Foreign Affairs, The Diplomat,, and Open Democracy. He blogs at the Accidental Geographer. You can follow him on twitter @ryanmccarrel

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