The West dismantled much of its capacity to oppose Russian propaganda after the Cold War. Now an emboldened Vladimir Putin is leaving us prey to bad, damaging, mistaken, misleading and dangerous ideas, writes Brian Lee Crowley.
By Brian Lee Crowley, March 21, 2017
Canadians to whom all this talk in America and Europe about Russian-inspired fake news seems a rather paranoid fantasy that has nothing to do with us are about to get a rude awakening.
We are preparing to send Canadian troops to Latvia as part of a NATO tripwire mission to warn off the Kremlin from expanding its destabilising efforts from Ukraine to the Baltics and beyond. That will put us directly in the Russians’ crosshairs and we should be preparing for an onslaught of Russian fake news about appalling criminal misbehaviour by our troops (as has already happened to the Germans leading a similar mission in Lithuania) and a wholly imaginary “public outcry” by Latvians who will allegedly want no part of NATO “warmongering”. Nor will our military presence be the only target: Russian disinformation aims to undermine trust in all institutions, including business.
Since the end of the Cold War we have forgotten the power of ideas to inspire people to action. If people do not have access to sound ideas, however, the alternative is not silence. On the contrary: the space we have left unoccupied will rapidly fill with bad, damaging, mistaken, misleading and dangerous ideas.
At least some of the audience then become unwitting instruments of the ideas’ originators. Propaganda is the obeisance that demagogy and autocracy pay to the human desire to understand and to do the right thing.
Since the end of the Cold War we have forgotten the power of ideas to inspire people to action.
Remember that after the fall of the Berlin Wall the West’s greatest disarmament was not in military hard power, but in soft power; we dismantled virtually all our capacity to respond to Russian propaganda. In the Cold War, fiction was confronted with truth: Radio Free Europe/Liberty, the BBC, Radio-Canada International and others projected credible facts in local languages to those behind the iron curtain.
We laid down those arms.
Russia did not. If anything the Kremlin has redoubled its efforts, with the result that in ideas terms the west today is bringing a knife to a gun fight. Unsurprisingly we are getting shot up.
As Estonian-Canadian documentary filmmaker and author Marcus Kolga says, what the Kremlin does best is to sow doubt. And it does that by undermining facts with conspiratorial theories; theories which are rooted in anti-Zionism, homophobia, xenophobia and a general mistrust of our established institutions– political, social and economic.
By corroding trust, Putin breaks down established relationships and gains the upper hand. The west’s solidarity –that ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR– was based on trust in each other and the values we collectively represent. The most potent weapon the Kremlin possesses is the ability to sow doubt in the minds of the populations of the west about who is doing what to whom and why.
The Americans are playing right into the Kremlin’s hands with their reaction to Putin’s clear attempts at manipulation of the US election via hacked emails, hacking claims the Russian government does not deny. By making the issue one of Russian influence over President Donald Trump and his advisors, rather than the Kremlin’s malevolent intentions, the US political class is helping to fertilise the very seeds of mistrust that the Kremlin is trying to sow.
People in business cannot afford to be indifferent to this phenomenon as undermining confidence in the trustworthiness of our economic institutions is every bit as much grist to the Kremlin’s mill as attacking our politics. A 2014 story about explosions at Columbia Chemicals’ plant in the US proved to be a fake story planted by a Kremlin troll farm dubbed “The Internet Research Agency.”
The most potent weapon the Kremlin possesses is the ability to sow doubt in the minds of the populations of the west about who is doing what to whom and why.
Russia, a major energy producer, is alarmed about the fracking revolution that has increased oil and gas production and lowered costs in the west. According to a US intelligence report, the Kremlin is running an extensive disinformation campaign about the health, environmental and other dangers of fracking. Also in their sights: LNG and oilsands.
Countering Kremlin dezinformatia will not be easy. It’s not just a matter of presenting the truth via facts and fact-checking in a limited -print/radio/TV- environment but adjusting our strategy to the new media “ecosystem”, one where convenient fictions become reality, and debate can be instantly conjured up on fantasy issues.
In a world where conspiracy theories targeting business and political leaders and institutions are hugely popular and no one seems interested in any philosophy that cannot be printed on a T-shirt, trust will become increasingly scarce. Yet trust, and especially trust in institutions, is the foundation on which market economies are based. Indeed, according to one economist, “If you take a broad enough definition of trust, then it would explain basically all the difference between the per capita income of the United States and Somalia”. If we do not defend it, who will?
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.mli.dev.pcomms.ca.