The Ukrainian government, in an attempt to counter the narrative of the Russian-backed rebels, announced last month that it would be recruiting an iArmy of media volunteers. This is not an ideal means of countering biased narratives on Ukraine. No amount of sleek propaganda can pave over the failings of a political system that cannot hold itself accountable. If Ukraine’s government pursues this route, it cedes the moral high ground to propagandists.
There is a method to these distortions. The purpose of this disinformation campaign stands as a monument to the cynicism and disrespect that Putin’s government has for foreign audiences, but also, its own citizens. The Kremlin relies on a tried-and-true template to inform Russians that their hardships are trivial in comparison to those experienced by the rest of the world, and also that their troubles are someone else’s fault. The message is that there is no reason to look at local actors: someone else is to blame, probably from an cadre of foreign-financed putschists whose ranks are composed of soldiers’ mothers, LGBT activists, filmmakers, and journalists.
Yet despite the fact that the Russian people should just shut up and be happy with what their leaders have given them, the leaders are clearly very worried that people are not convinced. Maybe they’re not happy, and will not just ”shut up”. Putin’s confidants would not throw so much time and money into these efforts if they believed otherwise.
Propaganda is tricky. After all, only those who want to be fooled can be fooled over and over again. However, when the system is designed to cater to the fools, it makes it difficult for those who are not fooled to have their voices heard, and for those in power to be held responsible for their actions. This is why every week there is a new group singled out as “the fifth column”. These are the people who have to be shouted down so the leadership can carry on without having to worry its legitimacy will be challenged in the streets.
The government’s supporters turn the tables by challenging the legitimacy of the aforementioned groups to even express themselves. When Russians are told to blame “The Other”, they are being told that their government will refuse to recognize any arguments that do not blame “The Other” for social problems. To be heard about any issue, you must embrace the narrative. Shout that your opponent is a hireling of the CIA, a closet pervert who listens to the BBC regularly and was once seen within the vicinity of the Ukrainian consulate. Then, maybe, the government will do something about your problem.
While the Ukrainian government has not copied and pasted these methods entirely into its playbook, it has started to take in bits and pieces of them by jailing reporters on debatable charges of treason and trying to create its own propaganda machine to “counter” the Russian narrative. The logic of the troll army is the same everywhere: hide your government’s own inequities by railing against “enemies” outside of the state, which is narrowly defined to exclude domestic critics. It is so much easier than actually engaging with your problems. Instead, enemies are debased as foreigners in their own country, agents of mysterious forces no one can actually see. The message is that your grievances are only worth hearing when you present them in the same distorted way the Russian government presents the evening news.
But what harms the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy even more than propaganda mills, civil liberties violations, fascist militias bearing their teeth against elected politicians, and questionable military actions is that a grand bargain has been struck with some very corrupt people and institutions. Most of the garish mansions being named and shamed on state TV belong to those who have fallen afoul of the new order and fled the country. Those who have made peace with it are understood to be safe from such scrutiny.
This is very much a symptom of the old Ukraine, and it would do the government and its supporters well – especially in the EU, which claims to want to bring Ukraine into its fold – to remember that, bit-by-bit, such behavior delegitimized the deposed Yanukovych Administration. Ukraine can only hope to prevail over the separatists by becoming a country where transparency and accountability prevail. This means overcoming a fear of honest journalism. A narrative that answers enemy propaganda with friendly propaganda will be one that illusionists control.