The solution? Reader education.
It’s a wee bit more than that, but reader education should be the basis of moving ahead. Society ignores reality as a whole, we must change that. Most of our domestic upheavals are caused by trolls exploiting that ignorance.
For all the propaganda thrown at us on TV and social media, we can be confident of winning the battle of ideas
In 1976, aged 22, I went with a student delegation to Prague. Then it lay behind an iron curtain that few of us thought would be lifted in our lifetimes. We had gone to meet the members of the secretariat of the International Union of Students (IUS), which had its headquarters there. At the airport we were conducted past the queues waiting to be assessed by grim-looking men at passport control, and shown straight to a chauffeured car that took us to an office in the city centre to meet our hosts.
I hadn’t thought about this journey for years, about the dreary encounter with the forty and fifty-somethings who supposedly ran the IUS, their speeches about peace and solidarity, their appeals to our internationalism, their rooms full of dusty publications, pennants and posters. And then this week David Jones, or @DavidJo52951945 as he/she/they were known on Twitter, was outed as a likely Russian agent who had been spreading propaganda helpful to the Putin government. And I realised that this was an updated version of what had been going on all those years ago.
Back then, during the seemingly endless Cold War, the battle was on between the Soviet Union and the West for the allegiance of developing countries and what were known as “progressive forces”. Being a student I was a potential progressive force. Women were another. Trade unionists were a third. Youth a fourth. Lawyers a fifth. Honestly. Peaceniks were the best of all. And for each of these the Soviet apparatus created or maintained a front organisation. The IUS was one of them; the World Peace Council was another.
They claimed to be doing one thing: cementing friendship and concord between peoples the world over while in fact they were doing another. Their conferences, booklets and fact-finding trips all carried the foreign policy message of the Kremlin: We love peace and brotherhood; the Americans love war and division.
The Soviet Union enjoyed one advantage over the Russians who succeeded it and who are now prosecuting the Second Cold War. Its advantage was that there were millions of communists and socialists who believed in the innate superiority of its system or at least its potential superiority. Except in the very last days there were always people who wanted to be Soviet. I don’t think anybody in the world, who isn’t already, wants to be Russian.
So there is almost no positive message that Russia can use to beautify itself. Consequently its propaganda effort has turned almost entirely to the business of denigration and disruption. He’s gone now, but if you looked hard at the emanations of @DavidJo52951945 you could see a pattern. They are like symptoms which separately don’t tell you more than that someone is unwell, but which taken together suggest a specific disease.
Nobody who isn’t one already could wish to be a Russian today
The symptoms are: hostility to immigration with an emphasis on the threat the “influx” poses to western values; support for President Assad in his battle against jihadists; denial that Syria has been responsible for chemical attacks; contempt for the European Union; claims that the West provoked the crisis in Ukraine; scepticism that the Russians were in some way responsible for the shooting down of Flight MH17; talking up any suggestion that electoral systems in the West are rigged; emphasis on any success by ethno-nationalist parties in Europe; a division of the sentient world into craven followers of the lying “mainstream media” on the one hand, and discerners of the truth on the other.
Most or all of these give you a New Cold Warrior. Or an idiot. Because what the Russians appear to be engaged in is not a series of stabbing attacks, but of judo throws. They’ll put the stuff out there but it’s we in the West who do their work for them.
The Republicans backed Donald Trump last year despite his support for the birther conspiracy, which held that Barack Obama was not born in the US and was therefore ineligible to be president. Theories such as this put any Kremlinbot or bonkers website to shame. By endorsing Trump, the party essentially said that defeating the Democratic candidate was more important than the integrity of the presidency. But that was their choice. Putin didn’t force them into it. When British MPs of all parties queried whether there was “proof” that Assad had used chemical weapons, they weren’t instructed by the Russian foreign ministry. @DavidJo52951945 can’t succeed without our active connivance.
And there’s our weakness. As a corollary to the freedom to be clever, we permit our fellow citizens the freedom to be stupid and wrong. This week, for example, as floods swept Houston, Trump supporters on social media were busily repeating the claim that during Hurricane Katrina President Obama went golfing. Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005. Obama took office in 2009.
There’s no legislation that takes out a @DavidJo52951945 and allows continued free expression. There’s no law on “fake news” that wouldn’t founder on the first attempt to create a definition. And yet I would still bet on our victory.
We could and should be less dumb and more discriminating. Schools and parents have their work cut out teaching the young the difference between information and dezinformatsiya. It’s the equivalent of knowing which adults to trust and which to avoid at all costs. Yet we have one big thing going for us.
A while ago I interviewed a woman who had been in China during the Cultural Revolution and had waved the Little Red Book with the other Maoist militants. But something happened when she saw Chinese propaganda newsreels of westerners doing the same thing. What a society, she thought, that permitted those who opposed the government to speak out! She became a dissident.
Marx glowers in Highgate cemetery because our society could easily cope with his ideas being expressed and debated. Putin’s opponents fear for their lives because his society is too fragile and frightened for him to risk their free expression. He is far more scared of us than we need be of him. Oppose him, yes. Quake because of him? No.
The second night we were in Prague all those years ago, the aged student leaders took us as a treat to a nightclub. I had never been to one before. It was Le Carré, really. There, under a silver ball, the gloomy but privileged nomenklatura of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic drank champagne and ogled young female graduates of the people’s education system.
There is only so long you can keep a pretence going.