‘Big Lies’ proliferate in Russia, as they do in the US
The Kremlin’s well-oiled disinformation machinery has been activated to create narratives both externally and internally about Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine: “It isn’t a war at all;” “Russia is liberating Ukraine from drug-addled Nazis;” “NATO is the aggressor and Ukraine and the United States are on the verge of chemical and bio warfare against Russia,” and “we must defend ourselves.” And, of course, the lazy dismissal of everything you hear in the West is “fake news.”
Here in America, commentators have expressed disbelief — sometimes marked by a tinge of superiority — that the Russian people are buying it. This demonstrates remarkably little self-awareness given our own ongoing vulnerability to bad information.
Are we forgetting that just over a year ago people attacked our Capitol fueled by a lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election?
There have been multiple stories about Ukrainians who are met with stubborn denial when they describe Russia’s aggression on the ground to their relatives in Russia. We see images of throngs of Russians showcasing “Z,” a symbol of support for the invasion. On social media, mocking clips of Russians’ ignorance about current events are everywhere. My 12-year-old showed me a video on Tik Tok of a rather pathetic wealthy Russian woman crying because she could no longer buy coveted items but had no idea why. Experts have described how Russians’ perception of Ukraine has been manipulated over generations by campaigns dehumanizing Ukrainians and planting the myth of Russian imperial rights.
Public opinion polling in Russia is complicated, particularly given incentives to self-censor or preference falsify. This is doubly true today due to a new law prohibiting Russians from deviating from Kremlin talking points about the war, punishable by 15 years in prison. Recent surveys show 68 percent support the war in Ukraine. I was surprised it was not higher given the complete shut down of independent media and the difficulty accessing accurate information. Domestic outlets are shuttered, and international bureaus have stopped operations. Though no great firewall has been built yet, the social media landscape has also changed. The Kremlin has blocked Facebook; Twitter has been disrupted, and Tik Tok no longer allows posting.
So, what’s our excuse? We are not for want of information sources, yet Americans swallow lies in shocking numbers: 71 percent of Republicans believe Biden’s victory was illegitimate. This is not a “fringe” group; this is the vast majority. And it is not only the general public — let us not forget that 147 Republican lawmakers voted against the certification of the elections citing the Big Lie. Were they unable to access information, a situation Russians face? Would they go to prison for acknowledging the truth? Of course not. Endless reporting following the 2020 elections debunked the lies spread by Trump. Complaints filed in court by the Trump campaign were dismissed, including by Republican-appointed judges. Audit after audit — even those completely controlled by Republicans, from Arizona and Wisconsin to Georgia — confirmed Biden was the winner. The Trump administration’s own officials evaluated the elections as the most secure in history. The truth is all around us.
Disinformation about our elections is dangerous for democracy. Dis-, mis-, and mal-information about COVID-19 is life threatening. From conspiracies that vaccines insert microchips or inflate your testicles to pushing horse wormer to fight a virus, Americans again and again have been dangerously duped.
We also see Americans’ susceptibility to the same Kremlin lies about the war in Ukraine that have traction in Russia. Tucker Carlson, one of the most popular and influential figures on the American right, quickly became the Kremlin’s golden boy, his videos and quotes headlining on Russian state media. He parrots the most harmful lies about Ukraine, often through insidious questioning suggesting NATO is the aggressor, of that the U.S. and Ukraine are producing bioweapons to attack Russia, or “What has Putin ever done?” Sadly, we have heard similar sympathies from members of Congress. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spoke at a white nationalist rally where participants chanted Putin’s name; she also took to the floor of Congress spouting Kremlin talking points about biolabs in Ukraine. The laundering of information goes both ways. The Russian outlet Renegade Inc. shared articles from the U.S. fringe conspiracy site “National Pulse” to build on the bioweapons conspiracy, which has gathered steam in the American public imagination.
Listening to the painful frustration of those Ukrainians who try to get through to their relatives in Russia is heartbreaking. It also has a glimmer of familiarity. Absolutely incomparable in gravity, but I know the mind-numbing experience of arguing with someone so steeped in poisonous lies they’ve lost all sight of reality — and the helplessness when you realize that you cannot get through.
They say more speech is the antidote to bad speech. Is having endless information at our fingertips making us more informed and truth-bound, or more confused and lost?
I doubt we are living in a more fact-based reality today than, say, when I was a kid in the 1980s when people watched nightly news on three channels. One of the most damaging — but deceptively empowering — MAGA phrases is “do your own research.” Research has been belittled to scrolling through never ending social media conspiracy sites.
The Big Lies — about our faith in our electoral outcomes, our health, a devastating war in Ukraine — are effective not only in societies with restricted speech and media, where it is more understandable, but also in the so-called beacon nation of free speech and information abundance.
This reality has led some towards solutions of “managed information” — the Goldilocks approach of “just right” regulations to ensure better information. But there is insufficient evidence that this can be achieved or is effective. Let alone the thorny questions of who decides.
Has removing Trump from Twitter resulted in fewer people believing election lies or hardened those views? Trying to tackle the supply-side of information flow in a free society is a bit like squeezing a water balloon — it will come out somewhere and may only push us further into divided spheres of reality and distrust of the other. It also completely neglects the cause of bad information, the motivation to sow distrust, hate, and fear in search of power and influence. After all, information warfare is just a tool in a more sinister mission.
The complicated cure — and challenge of our time — is addressing the source but also the demand-side: ourselves.
We must foster a more resilient, discerning citizenry, less susceptible to rabbit holes of conspiracy and less fearful of change and complexity — durable communities with strong social cohesion, high levels of societal trust, and low corruption. This will require a long term, whole-of-society approach, through civic education, civil service, local media investment, and community building. Some countries, like Finland and Sweden, have already gotten started. We have no time to waste.
Laura L. Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.