Russia, Where All the News Is Fake

Russia, Where All the News Is Fake
Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

We are only as good as the information we get. Only as grounded, as enlightened, as capable of forming rational opinions about our political leaders and making intelligent decisions about our lives. If we’re fed lies, we’re lost. If we subsist on fiction, we dwell in a fantasyland.

Russia right now is to some degree a fantasyland. It’s a place where the government-promoted narrative about what’s happening in Ukraine is ruthlessly edited, audaciously manipulated and almost diametrically opposed to the truth.

And while that hasn’t quelled many Russians’ opposition to the war, evident in courageous protests throughout the country, Vladimir Putin’s fictions are prominent and pervasive enough to have profoundly negative implications for any possibility of peace: Why would a decisive majority of his people pressure him to end his brutal land grab when they’re made to believe that it’s a limited operation blown wildly out of proportion by a Russia-hating West, a necessary act of self-defense and a noble, altruistic bid to liberate decent Ukrainians from brutal Nazis in their midst?

To win people’s hearts, a leader can do the hard work of improving their lot. Or a leader can take the cheaper and easier route that Putin has chosen and try to wash their brains. That’s what censorship of this magnitude amounts to: brainwashing. Putin is providing a definitive tutorial about the paramount importance of a free press and the fatal destructiveness of its antonym. We should heed it closely — because the warp of reality that Russians experience at the hands of a repressive government we in the West often inflict on ourselves.

The Russian government has moved to restrict social media, lest Russian propaganda be challenged by competing and less flattering versions of events. And on Friday, Putin signed a new law that “mandates up to 15 years in prison for any coverage the state deems ‘false information’ about the military campaign”, as Neil MacFarquhar explained in The Times on Tuesday.

What qualifies as “false”? Using the word “war” for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, for one example. Describing the influx of its troops as an “invasion”, for another. “Special military operation” is the phrasing Putin prefers, so that is the phrasing the Russian people get. And it’s a locution that casts the economic sanctions that are strangling Russia as the opportunistic overreaction of enemies who have long been intent on destroying the country. Who would buckle under such evil? What self-respecting Russian would surrender?

Neil evaluated several days of Russian news coverage and marveled at “the extent of the Kremlin’s efforts to sanitize its war”. He noted that at a recently televised gathering with female pilots and crew members from Aeroflot, Russia’s state airline, Putin was asked about the likely outcome of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and his answer completely disregarded “the reality of Ukraine — the violent destruction of cities and towns by the Russian military, the civilian deaths, the desperate exodus by millions of refugees”.

Instead, Putin “referred to the government in Kyiv as Nazis about 10 times”, Neil wrote. “The word is repeated endlessly on every broadcast. To reinforce the idea, news channels frequently show black-and-white footage of actual Nazis”.

The consequence? “As Ukrainians deal with the devastation of the Russian attacks in their homeland, many are also encountering a confounding and almost surreal backlash from family members in Russia, who refuse to believe that Russian soldiers could bomb innocent people, or even that a war is taking place at all”, Valerie Hopkins explained in The Times on Sunday.

Starved of accurate information, Russians gorge on disinformation, including a widely circulated claim that the United States is developing biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. “This is preposterous”, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a Twitter thread last night, adding that it exemplifies “the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent”.

It’s astonishing how far people can travel from the truth. Then again, it’s not. We have watched it happen here in the United States, among many of our fellow Americans, in regard not to Russia and Ukraine but to the 2020 election, to the safety and efficacy of vaccines, to so much else.

Instead of benefiting fully from a free flow of ideas and data and genuine insights, too many of us volitionally make do with an unrepresentative trickle. If the result isn’t an alternate reality nearly as comical and tragical as Russia’s right now, it’s a distortion nonetheless, and a dangerous one to boot. We are only as good as the information we seek.

Frank Bruni is a professor of public policy at Duke University, the author of the forthcoming book The Beauty of Dusk, and a contributing Opinion writer.

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