Putin's War in Syria: A Case Study in Fake News

Putin’s War in Syria: A Case Study in Fake News

Last weekend, those grand dames of nuanced political thought, Teen Vogue, published an article apropos of Donald Trump’s “gaslighting” of America. Within, author Lauren Duca outlined the ways that Trump’s team is using lies, opinions and fake news as a tool, driving people to doubt their own version of reality, and indeed their sanity, making them ripe for manipulation and reprogramming.

Does that seem crazy? Well that’s the entire point of gaslighting, and these days, with our ubiquitous access to information combined with conflicting interests’ abilities to propagate it, encouraging the masses to doubt the veracity of absolutely everything is a relatively simple task; feeling insane is the new normal for anyone with the propensity to dig deeper and consider views conflicting to our own. Just make the mistake to delve into the comments section of almost any news article shared on social media and you’ll be confronted with conflicting opinions each presented with as much certainty as the last, replete with condescension, indignation and seemingly sound supporting evidence.

The conflict in Syria, and the victory in Aleppo by Syrian troops and their Russian enablers, is a perfectly contentious topic to enter into the horrible world of hyper-contrariansim and its attendant self doubt. For every Guardian article on civilian suffering there are manifold commentators claiming that it’s all bullshit, or that it’s contradictory of western mainstream news outlets to be running stories like this when America and its NATO allies started the war/created and still fund ISIS/are responsible for the civilian deaths. Many of these commenters come forth with links to offer proof and, amongst all the YouTube links (why do conspiracy theorists love YouTube links?), there seem to be some pro-Assad, anti-NATO stories coming from news outlets.

This is ironically anecdotal, but in my experience the vast majority of actual articles espousing this contrary view of the siege of Aleppo are either Russian government news outlets (RT News), Russian sponsored surrogates (Sputnik), malicious ideology-shifting conspiracy theorists that feed off the Russian narrative (Alex Jones’ Infowars), or any other outlet that seeks to profit of the puerile anti-Americanism that inevitably rises in progressive Westerners after nearly a century of the United States being the global hegemon and aggressively seeking to maintain its dominance. In particular this week there has been a video doing the rounds of a freelance journalist’s dismantling of the Western, mainstream media’s reportage of the siege on Aleppo, which is very convincing until you realise that the journalist, Canadian Eva Bartlett, has been contributing to RT since at least 2013.

This pro-Russian, anti-USA worldview is understandable for individuals indoctrinated in the post-USSR Russian system and their version of history, global events and particular narratives of good vs evil (note: they read the opposite to those on our side of the Cold War). If, however, one grew up on the other side of history, an unwaveringly anti-American sentiment is either due to a grossly oversimplified worldview combined with a desire to be a contrarian edgelord, the sad and lingering remnants of some previously noble grudge leading otherwise astute commentators to liken American foreign policy to that of the Third Reich (hi John Pilger), or the fact that you’re on the payroll for, or profiting from, propagating this Western contrarian perspective.

Russian media is increasingly owned and controlled by the Russian government. The agendas are set by the Kremlin, and in addition to spreading and validating the Russian worldview and advancing Kremlin geopolitical aims, the other mandate of the Russian state press is to discredit Western narratives. As a political tool it makes sense, and it’s working, with much of the pro-Brexit and Trump support coming from people who subscribe to the Kremlin narrative. It’s no coincidence that Putin’s Russia feels threatened by a strong and unified EU, and its geopolitical objectives are empowered by Trump and his Putin-friendly cabinet. If it suits the Kremlin’s objectives, there is nobody to hold these outlets to task over the propagation of fake news.

Mainstream media outlets, in the western sense, are huge corporations that employ numerous educated, career journalists. While this presents a unique set of problems when it comes to conflicting interests, for these news hubs to be reporting fake news on an issue as transparent as Syria, as some have suggested, would require conspiratorial collusion on a colossal scale — entire newsrooms banding together to wilfully spread falsehoods, thousands of people acting maliciously without experiencing a pang of conscience and blowing the lid off the whole goddamn conspiracy. Mainstream media outlets are beholden by many things, profit margin primarily, and the ideology of owners and editors another, but unlike Russian state media, they don’t simply act as the propaganda arm of the government, and as such find it more difficult to run a uniformity of opinion. Conflicting voices will arise and criticism is invited, as opposed to in Russia, where speaking against the official line can get you shot.

The only sane way to engage with this confusing information landscape is to be highly critical of the media you absorb — determine the publisher’s intent and how that may shape the information you receive. This isn’t about residing in an echo chamber — a “free thinker” is someone whose views grow and change according to the information they absorb — but about insulating oneself against the increasing pervasiveness of fake news and propaganda. The narrative coming out of Russia, and being spread by those with a vested interest in appearing anti-American, is carefully sculpted to justify, normalise and bolster the Kremlin’s foreign policy. If it’s not in your best interests to support Putin and his international cabal of far and alt-right strongmen, then perhaps disregard his state media as the propaganda it obviously is. When we cut through the bullshit and see the information we receive as a product of its intent the obfuscation of our sanity begins to clear and we can recognise the gaslight flickering in our periphery.

Do you disagree? Are you one of the Kremlin’s trolls? Butcher the english language in the comments section, Komrade Boris. We’ll return to our regular TWYA broadcasting next week; I just had a case of the crazies that I had to shake.

Cover via HuffPost

Ex-editor of Australia’s Surfing Life, current producer and host of 50 Fiestas, Barcelona resident and drinker of all the wine, every last drop of it.