“Counterpropaganda” as a Form of Propaganda

24.08.2017

When during the so-called “stagnation period” of the 1970s in the former Soviet Union I seriously took up my English language studies, one of the aims of doing so was the desire to “break free”, to quote  Freddie Mercury, of the narrow confines of official Soviet propaganda. Of course, quite a few Soviet citizens also listened to the Munich based stations such as Radio Liberty or Free Europe in various local languages. However, for me, it was hardly satisfactory, and not only because the Soviet authorities used to jam these stations. Though not knowing at the time that these stations were financed by the CIA, it was immediately clear, even for a young student, that these media outlets were mirror images of the Soviet Communist Party propaganda outlets. Therefore, my choice was mainly the BBC World Service. Listening regularly to its news programmes, I not only enhanced my language skills but also acquired a taste of different visions of the world. The Soviets jammed Western radio stations and restricted the access of its citizens to foreign media mainly because quite a lot of what was transmitted, even by those openly propaganda outlets, was true. The absence of civil liberties, an ineffective and wasteful economy and especially the poor quality and shortage of consumer goods were obvious for most Soviet citizens and therefore information coming from the West was quite plausible, relatively effective and therefore also biting. Hence the need to counter it. Of course, this does not mean that in the Soviet Union everything was merely propaganda, while the West was imparting unadulterated truth.

Already as far back as 1928, Edward Louis James Bernays, one of the pioneers of the American propaganda machine, in his appropriately entitled book Propaganda, considered that manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy (though later he preferred instead of the word ‘propaganda’ the term ‘public relations’ therefore also becaming known as ’the father public relations’). Bernays wrote:  ’The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country [...] We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society [...] In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind’ (E.L. Bernays, Propaganda, Routledge, 1928, pp. 9–10). In parallel with the increase of the US dominance in the twentieth century world, the reach and the content of its propaganda also became internationalised. During the Cold War years the geopolitical confrontation was accompanied by an ideological conflict where propaganda from both sides played a significant role.

After a short lull in the 1990s, a new propaganda war is heating up. However, today it is the West, which during the Cold War was indeed freer and more open than its erstwhile adversary, which is increasingly trying to block its people from information flows coming from the East, especially from Russia. Yes, Russia has its propaganda outlets which broadcast in English and other European languages. But any objective and critically minded observer should acknowledge that this is all small potatoes in comparison to the grasp of Western mass media. Mainstream Western TV stations, newspapers and internet sites are increasingly becoming more and more biased in their coverage of international affairs. For example, the CNN that I watched in August 1991 during the coup d’état attempt in Moscow to see and understand what was really going on, has today lost even the pretentions of objectivity and impartiality, especially when using Russia to attack Trump or Trump to attack Russia,  fueling Russophobia and endangering international peace. Now, it is the political leaders of the West and its mainstream media that are afraid of the information coming from Russia because it is biting. In its efforts to completely suppress alternatives, the Euro-Atlantic narrative has gone so far that many in the West have started questioning: is it really possible that our governments are always right (including when invading Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or bombing Belgrade over Kosovo), while Russia is automatically wrong, even when she acts the same way Western powers do (e.g. in Syria), since she inevitably and always has ulterior(dishonourable) motives. Russia’s information outlets, which reach beyond its borders, are still in their relative infancy. Yet, NATO, the EU and Washington are all ratcheting up their propaganda machines, allegedly to counter Russian propaganda. Today, the West has reason to worry not because Russian propaganda is more massive than theirs, but because of the widening chasm between the dominant Western ideological narrative and global realities. It is an increasingly troubling development for critically-minded and intelligent people in many Western, especially European, societies. There are, of course, many conscientious, courageous and highly professional journalists and experts in the mainstream media in the West. Sometimes dissident voices can be heard, though not often enough. However, there is an intellectual background – both temporal and spatial – in every society that determines the dominant narrative, and today, by means of globalisation generally and the spread of the English language as its major component, the Western narrative has an innate advantage.

American historian Robert W. Merry writes that besides encircling Russia with its military allies, ‘the demonization of Putin by American’s intelligentsia has been nearly unprecedented in peacetime’. He warns that it ‘is difficult to envision where this could lead, short of actual hostilities’ (‘Stop Poking the Russian Bear’, The National Interest, September-October 2017). Paraphrasing the often-used phrase ‘they attack us not for what we do, but for what we are’ (i.e. because they hate our freedom and prosperity) when speaking about Islamist terror attacks against Western targets, I would say that Russia is indeed demonized in the West not for what it does but for what it is. This country is one of the main obstacles to American dominance in those areas that Washington considers its zones of vital interests, which after the collapse of the Soviet Union covers practically the whole world. This explains such virulent anti-Russian propaganda under the banners of countering Russian propaganda.   

In Europe, new propaganda outlets allegedly created to counter Russian propaganda are proliferating. Already in 2015, the EU set up its Strategic Communication Task Force to counter ‘fake news’ allegedly coming from Russia. In Prague, the European Values Think Tank has set up a Kremlin Watch Monitor that publishes its weekly updates on ‘the Kremlin disinformation efforts’ and so on. Recently, in July of this year, even the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) created its Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) to ‘expose Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to subvert democracy in the United States and Europe’ within which the Hamilton 68 project is called to ‘reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s attempts to influence the Americans’ thinking’. However, as the American weekly The Nation observes in an article appropriately entitled ‘Our Russia Fixation is Devolving into an Assault on Political Discourse’: ‘The project’s timing is auspicious, given that Congress included $250 million for the purposes of countering Russian propaganda in the new sanctions bill aimed at Iran, Russia, and North Korea. Among other things, the new funding would seek to “build the capacity and resilience of civil society, media, and other nongovernmental organizations in countering the influence and propaganda of the Russian Federation in such countries.”’ (The Nation, 7 August 2017) However, ‘there are a few problems with the new project’, writes The Nation, ‘the first being that the tweets GMF highlights as “Russian propaganda” cannot be said to be propaganda by any meaningful measure of the term’ since the information in those tweets, though depicting in unfavourable colours some Western politicians, all reflected true and real facts.

Let’s take as an example the story of Russia influencing the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States, including the Kremlin’s alleged hacking of the email network of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Most Western politicians and the mainstream media seem to believe this story as holy script. However, when in August 2017 some non-mainstream American sources published a study by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), which showed that there simply could not have been any hacking; instead it must have been an insider who had copied files showing Hillary Clinton and her campaign team in a negative light, the mainstream media, instead of taking up what should have been a real scoop, had its mouth buttened up. Moreover, even if most of the allegations against Russian meddling in the American elections were true, this would not have been something unheard of. Washington has long done and is still doing this openly and proudly in different parts of the world. Senator John McCain and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland did not hide their faces in the winter of 2014 in the streets of Kiev, supporting opponents of the President Yanukovych of Ukraine, to say nothing about the telephone conversation between Nuland and the American Ambassador to Kiev on the future composition of the post-coup d’état government. In matters international, the American political elite and mainstream media unmistakably follow the maxim: Quod licet Iovi, not licet bovi (what is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the ox).

If, in my youth, it was English that helped many break free from the narrow confines of Soviet propaganda and see the world from more than one angle, today’s youth in the West, if they don’t master the language of Pushkin (or Chinese), should at least be able to watch, read and listen to alternative information sources in their own languages. Fake news, half-truths and other forms of brainwashing have always existed. Seeing through them cannot be achieved by jamming, screening and demonizing those who think differently. Such methods have always been counterproductive to the interests of societies that use them, and today they severely undermine efforts of combatting common and real threats to the very survival of humankind.    

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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