The 'Ukraine did it' conspiracy theory is dangerous: Here's why

The 'Ukraine did it' conspiracy theory is dangerous: Here's why
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Speaking with reporters recently, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial GOP senator blocks bill aimed at preventing Russia election meddling Russian diplomat says election meddling wasn't discussed at White House, contradicting Trump MORE appeared to bolster the claim that it was Ukraine — and not Russia — that interfered in the 2016 election, saying "Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down." He did so despite the findings of the U.S. intelligence community he once led that the Ukraine conspiracy theory was peddled by the Kremlin.

He is not the first public official to do so.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE repeated the false theory on Fox and Friends. Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), when asked whether Russia or Ukraine is to blame for 2016 meddling, told Fox News, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any of us.” He briefly walked those comments back, before reversing course once again and repeating the conspiracy theory on Meet The Press.

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Such remarks are irresponsible — not just because they disregard objective truth, but because they fuel the perception that there is no objective truth to begin with.

Democracy depends on the notion that there are knowable facts, and that the public can understand them and put them to use in making decisions of self-government. Disinformation operations — like the one the U.S. intelligence community confirms Russia is perpetrating at this moment are not just about spreading un-truths, but about devaluing the notion of truth itself. In doing so, they strike at the very premise of democratic systems.

Spreading the Kremlin-backed “Ukraine-did-it” conspiracy is damaging because it implicitly disregards the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community, multiple bipartisan congressional investigations, and the U.S. Department of Justice — that Russia conducted a "sweeping and systematic" interference campaign in 2016 that continues to this day.

A central goal of Kremlin-backed disinformation operations is to encourage skepticism of democratic governing institutions — including those responsible for providing unbiased information, representing the people, and dispensing impartial justice. To the extent that citizens are left questioning whether they should hold in regard their very system of government, Russia benefits.

Russia benefits too from making the country more polarized, and thereby harder to govern. That’s why so much of the Kremlin’s efforts in 2016 focused on increasing the salience of the most polarizing views that already existed on both sides of the political spectrum to make them appear more prevalent.

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When public officials repeat or give credence to Russian propaganda, they risk contributing to polarization by perpetuating a bifurcated information space with two sets of beliefs for two parties.  Because framing Ukraine for the Kremlin’s 2016 misdeeds could make support for Ukraine a partisan issue, Moscow has a specific interest in doing so. That’s because it could imperil U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, which has traditionally drawn support from both sides of the aisle, not least because it is so essential to that country’s efforts to defend against and push back on Russia’s territorial aggression.

Russia has a long history of promoting alternative narratives designed to deflect culpability for the Kremlin’s misdeeds. After the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine by Russian-affiliated rebels in 2014, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released doctored satellite images that falsely fingered Ukraine. They used similar tactics last year, after Russian military intelligence poisoned former British-Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom. Then, Russian state-controlled news agencies endorsed conspiracy theories designed to deflect blame onto the United States, the U.K. government, a drone, and even Yulia Skripal’s future mother-in-law.

When authentic domestic voices pick up Moscow’s narratives and spread them across the information space, they hand the Kremlin a victory. The involvement of American citizens triggers protections on expression, which make it more difficult for responsible actors to react without infringing speech. In this way, the Kremlin seeks to turn one of our greatest strengths — our system of open, vibrant, and well-protected public debate — into a vulnerability.

Our leaders should not fall victim to these tactics. Instead, we need them to take responsibility for the health of our information ecosystem — and for our democracy more generally — by resisting the temptation to repeat falsehoods, no matter how politically or personally expedient. Surely there is room for robust, even fractious, public debate — but our country is at its best when that debate is rooted in reasonable, competing views of established truth.

Jessica Brandt is head of research and policy at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.