As you know, I’m writing a book on propaganda. In the beginning, during my most preliminary research, I took a piece of paper, drew a line down the middle and wrote WEST and RoW (rest of the world) across the top of each column.
As I filled it in, I averaged only two or three examples of Russian propaganda to every hundred from the West. I wondered if this was a consequence of Russia’s superior propaganda machine (which seemed ridiculous on the face of it), or my inability to read Russian (which would lead me to overemphasize Western sources), or, perhaps, the that the West censors and blocks Russian propaganda (so I don’t have access to it).
The last of those three options seemed most probable, but, to be frank, it’s rather easy to get around Western censorship, at least on the Internet which has become the primary locus of all censorship and propaganda.
There are only four vectors of propaganda — this assumes the world neatly divides into two opposing factions (such a binary assumption is wrong, of course, but during wartime, it does seem to shape the minds of propagandists).
- Western censoring of non-compliant Westerners as well as propagandizing the citizens of Europe and America
- Western censoring of incoming propaganda from the Russia
- Russian censoring of non-compliant Russians as well as propagandizing it’s own citizens
- Russian censoring of incoming propaganda from the West.
I had assumed that a country such as Russia that did not have a constitutionally protected tradition of free expression would be more likely to censor. As far as I can tell, however, Russia rarely censors. It’s truly amazing. If you take a Russia-bashing article from a Western source, say, the NYT, you’ll be able to find it translated into Russian and available on typical open-source channels there.
Whether the Russian people read Western propaganda is unclear, but obviously, they have the option to read or view just about anything they wanted. On top of this, since English has become the global language of many educated people, an article or video untranslated from English that is circulating in Russian blogs and discussion groups is mostly understood by this stratum of society.
In contrast, very few Americans or Europeans speak Russian or other Slavic languages. Thankfully, machine translations are usually good enough to get the gist, though not the nuance, of an article or post written in Russian. American public schools have never stressed the subject of foreign language. It’s just not considered important or relevant to most people in my country. Most Americans expect – quite arrogantly! – people from other countries to speak English. The only language Americans seem to know is Spanish, the oral language of most immigrants.
What about the fourth vector of propaganda — do Russians censor or propagandize their own population? It should be noted that Putin himself was a former KGB agent so it’s likely he has more than a passing understanding of mass manipulation and censorship. Yet, for the most part, I have seen very little spin in Russia. I have noticed a hesitation to talk about Russian war casualties in their media, though in his New Years speech, Putin, uncharacteristically, addressed the families of those who had lost a loved one. I have never seen a tally of Russian war dead – Americans, during the Vietnam war, were given a daily tally of their dead young men in the nightly news, by comparison. Today, the American media is silent about Ukrainian war dead; reporters also outright lie about the number of dead. Understandably, though not transparently, the Russian media may not want to draw attention to the number of Russian soldiers that have been killed in this war, even though it’s about is a tenth of what the Ukraine is experiencing — this wouldn’t be much consolation to Russian families who have, in Putin’s words, “one fewer person at the Christmas table.”
The bottom line is that the Russians don’t propagandize or censor anywhere to anywhere near the degree done by the West, particularly the United States.
What about the West … do Westerners try to propagandize Russian citizens? I would think so. This has been their pattern during wartime, including the cold war. The idea that undergirded the old Radio Free Europe was that citizens in the USSR were unable to learn about the free world, therefore the West had a moral obligation to let these brainwashed people know what free expression and life in the West was like. (I remember my father telling me this). America, then, served up the news – in a good way? – that the Russian people presumably wouldn’t have heard from their own media/government.
But now, in an Internet age, Russians have access to the information the rest of us have and I can’t find much evidence that it’s censored. In fact, I’m discovering that Russians may have access to MORE than that available to typical Westerners. Perhaps it’s time for a Radio Free America provided by the Russian Ministry of State Security (SVR and FSB)?
If they wanted to, any American could google the Russian foreign ministry website, for example, where he or she would find English translations of major speeches given by Putin and other Russian leaders – after a delay of a few days. In many places in Europe, however, these speeches have been censored. I have never seen any English speeches translated into Russian, by the way.
Of the four vectors of propaganda, then, the biggest and most dangerous appears to originate from the West. Our countries are propagandizing us. We should be deeply concerned about the degree to which the West censors and propagandizes its own citizens. In France, where I am now, I get Russian propaganda through back channels. It’s a bit freer in America, but not much, and maybe not for long.
As a rule, Europe tends to censor, to block information: America tends to propagandize, to lie. (The English do both … quite well).
Dumbed down schools in the United States have created two generations of Americans vulnerable to government’s lies. The degree to which the CIA and FBI have been censoring social media is being exposed by the Twitter files, but the degree to which Western intelligence feed us false narratives, or one-sided narratives, is something we haven’t quite grokked yet.
It’s truly horrific that the West, which had once conceived of itself as a bastion of freedom, has become a modern incarnation of the old USSR, more so than Russia itself. I am reeling from the small discoveries I’m making as I research. My image of America has been shattered, frankly. I still love, greatly, the values of heritage Americans like myself, though the government now seems increasingly alien.
I fear it.