Let us lead with a bold and almost unbelievable fact: Targeted Russian propaganda has infiltrated the United States and many other countries.
Russian media outlets reported spending more than $146 million on foreign influence operations and propaganda in the U.S. since 2016, with over $16 million on propaganda targeting the U.S. in 2021, OpenSecrets’ analysis of new Foreign Agents Registration Act records shows.
And that’s just the spending that Russian foreign agents have disclosed to the Justice Department under FARA.
-Anna Massoglia, opensecrets.org
Let that sink in.
We are caught in the intense crossfire of an information war. The Russian state seeks to reshape the world order to the disadvantage of democracies. As a result, our democratic systems—government, elections, news media, etc—are frequent targets of deligitimization campaigns intended to spread suspicion and doubt, heighten the divide between domestic political parties, and drown out authentic discourse.
Let’s acknowledge an unfortunate reality. Russian propaganda turns people into zombies. It takes its cues from terrorist propaganda—it’s both radical and monotheological. Anything that doesn’t come from one of their “trusted” sources is rejected as quickly as a reflex. It seems no amount of logic, proof, consensus, or anything else can persuade these people to open their eyes. It becomes impossible to find common ground because there is none, and it can cause deeply painful feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion, self-doubt, and hopelessness. Sick as it is, that’s by design.
This insidious propaganda machine aims not just to spread lies but to break the very concept of truth. Everything is true. Everything is false. It just depends on who you talk to. We wish we could say it didn’t work, but it already has. Russian propaganda has effectively divided the Free World, turning us against ourselves and twisting our sentiment in Moscow’s favor by getting us to see each other as the enemy rather than Putin’s violent, Hitler-reminiscent regime.
But hope is not lost.
Our recent tendency toward isolationism, self-interest, and apathy, which play into the hands of Putin, can be reversed if we understand the Free World’s true strength: The power of our alliances that emerged from the ashes of World War II. Even the strongest dictators tremble before our collective might. Alliances are one of the things democracies do well that dictators and autocratic regimes simply don’t. The reason is simple. Democracies are aspirational—they grant people something in return for their loyalty: peace, freedom and prosperity. Dictators simply establish subjugation through fear, which only works in the absence of hope, which democracies engender. That’s why Putin is so adamant on stomping out this hope from Ukraine. He recognizes the natural tendency of democracy is to spread to neighboring countries and that is a threat to his rule.
To preserve the Free World, we must meet these cyncical tactics with a strong and courageous message of unity and hope that, standing together, we can face down and crush any and all strongman dictators who would promote our fall and subject mankind once again to the horrors of war, genocide, tyranny, and subjugation.
How to Counter Russian Talking Points
Defeating propaganda can only achieved by telling the truth—even when the people you are talking to refuse to listen. We must continue to speak the truth no matter what responses we receive in return.
Pay special attention to these talking points, which originate in Russian state propaganda and crop up on social media and fringe news sources. If you see these arguments, don’t let them go unanswered.
“It’s America’s fault because we provoked Russia”
Whatever party or political views you align with, be on the lookout for anyone suggesting that our country is less trustworthy than a dictator who lies constantly and has squashed all independent news organizations in his country. The purpose of this talking point, of course, is to frame Russia as the victim or at least the lesser of two evils—so that you’ll sympathize instead of fighting back.
“The West is simply Russophobic”
Russian propaganda presents the West as suffering from a “frenzy” of anti-Russian sentiment. The goal here is to make it look like we are overreacting to the threat, but keep in mind that Putin is currently assaulting the sovereign nation of Ukraine and threatening nuclear war. This isn’t phobia—it’s a real danger and the consequences are blindingly clear.
“Ukraine is filled with Nationalists and Nazis”
The idea that Ukraine is a haven for either Nationalists or Nazis is patently absurd. While the claim is often backed up with anecdotal examples that would exist in any country and has nothing to do with the government, anyone who’s lived a day in Ukraine could tell you plainly that it’s a sham argument. In the last election, the Nationalists won less than 2% of the vote. Meanwhile, claiming the Jewish President of Ukraine is a Nazi is a complete failure of basic logic. The purpose of this propaganda is to cause you to equivocate. Who wants to help Nazis and Nationalists? The bottom line is that if you doubt the goodness of Ukrainians, you’ll be less likely to support them.
“This is a civil war”
This claim pre-dates the full-scale invasion and therefore self-debunking, but the misunderstanding still persists among some. Since 2014, Putin’s regime hoped to frame the conflict in Donbas as a civil war, even though Russia was antagonizing. For 8 years, the Russian state radicalized, supplied, and led the separatist forces in the region.
The purpose of this propaganda was to get Americans to view the crisis as an internal conflict, so we would feel less inclined to get involved. Remember, Putin doesn’t have too many sympathizers in the US, so American non-involvment constitutes a win for his regime. But make no mistake this is a war by Russia against Ukraine and a component of the larger war between dictators and democracies.
This certainly feels like a sane talking point that builds on kind instincts. After all, what normal person is pro-war? Sadly, this reasonable sentiment disguises a sinister motive of Russian propaganda. Make no mistake—There is already war. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives. When people repeat this Kremlin talking point, they feel assured of the goodness of their position. But in practice, this argument aims to clear Putin’s passage to trample over free nations by manipulating your caring reflex to oppose war.
Think of history. Are you against The Allies fighting Hitler in the Second World War? Non-intervention extended the bloodshed. Had Europe been united earlier, Hitler wouldn’t have gotten as far. Letting a completely unjustified war continue and allowing the balance of power in the world to tumble out of control is the least anti-war position imaginable.
“There’s nothing we can do”
This is less a case of overt propaganda and more a targeted emotion. Helplessness and loss of hope stop people from taking action. There is hope! The tide is beginning to turn against Russian disinformation. The #1 thing we can all do is raise awareness. Spread true information about the brutality of this Russian invasion. Keep the discourse on the millions of lives being destroyed, not the price of gas. A simple #StandWithUkraine post on social media is enough to send a signal that others who want to show support have the support of others. Due to the Russian nuclear arsenal, engaging Russia militarily endangers the whole world—our weapons are limited to sanctions, which we can demand from our representatives, and our united voices that will never yield to this kind of evil. Americans must set aside domestic rivalries to confront global brinksmanship. Americans must work together despite our differences to defeat this common enemy.
“Sanctions hurt the poor; elites in their mansions don’t care”
Ever the strongman, Putin routinely laughs off sanctions from the West. It’s easy to feel deflated that they won’t work. However, this is only a bluff meant to demoralize us. In fact, powerful, united sanctions without loopholes are an effective and peaceful way to exert pressure on Moscow to end this war, which is the real reason this talking point exists—to demoralize us and even make us feel guilty and responsible for the consequences sanctions have on regular Russians.
The truth is that sanctions have been carefully chosen to maximize impact on the Russian elite and oligarchs. The Russian people are not to blame but will surely continue to feel the pain their dictatorship is imposing on them. We cannot be responsible for that pain. The more clear it becomes to Russians that Putin has led them down a destructive path, the more difficult it becomes for Putin to continue his destruction in Ukraine.
“I’m just asking questions”
A commonly-voiced refrain of conspiracy theorists everywhere, this phrase is usually said stridently as if from a know-it-all rather than humbly like a student. The proliferation of conspiracy theories against our government drives a wedge through our common bonds and is unquestionably to the advantage of other countries who wish to undermine our credibility. “Just asking questions” is a euphemism for “Just casting doubt”. We should all ask questions but we should also be prepared to accept the truth.