by James M. Baker
On a trip to Berlin last November I noticed a small stand situated between the U.S. Embassy and the Reichstag building. It included a Russian flag as well as the flag of St. George, and a banner in Russian reading “Germany has not been liberated from fascism!” The people manning the stand were canvassing passersby with fliers in multiple languages, and discussing what they claimed to be the return of fascism to Europe via the ongoing situation in Ukraine. It was unclear where the protesters were from or if they were supported by Moscow. Two things, however, were clear: they were native Russian speakers, and they were presenting the same misleading narrative the Kremlin has delivered consistently since the beginning of the crisis.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this. Westerners are accustomed to public protests and the expression of personal opinions in public forums. Moreover, freedom of speech is a fundamental pillar of Western society. However, on a deeper level, it represents a dangerous and insidious shift away from traditional forms of soft power and threatens to undermine the West by using its own freedoms against it.
The use of Western liberal policies against the West as a tool for political gain manifests most strongly online. Recently, The Moscow Times, an independent English language news publication based in Moscow, chose to suspend the discussion forum on their website due to the onslaught of trolls seeking to kill public dialogue, explaining, “Due to the increasing number of users engaging in personal attacks, spam, trolling and abusive comments, we are no longer able to host our forum as a site for constructive and intelligent debate…” Many other websites covering Russia-related issues have made similar decisions.
The Twitter and Facebook pages of Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul are regularly attacked, as well as those of any prominent American or Western politician who publicly discusses any Russia-related policy issue. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that The Times of India recently featured a piece on a former Kremlin “cyberwarrior” confirming long-held suspicions of Kremlin-backed Internet trolls.
In addition to disrupting meaningful public dialogue online, the Kremlin is also working hard to have its voice heard formally and has gone to great lengths to do so. Kremlin-created and funded mass media projects such as Sputnik International, currently publishing in over sixteen languages worldwide, and RT news, which has opened bureaus in many prominent world cities, are quite sophisticated in their use of Western media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and are gaining traction.
All of this adds up to an information war being waged online and on TV that the West is clearly losing. Ironically, Western liberal values and political structures are being used against the West to whitewash facts and blur the lines between truth and conspiracy. While it is indisputable that Russians should and do have the right to express their viewpoints, they present the West with very difficult questions. How do we preserve freedom of speech and democratic principles when they are deployed against us by those who clearly do not respect them? And how should we respond to such assaults without infringing on our own right to freedom of expression?
Clearly, the West cannot respond in the same manner. Sending foreign nationals to Red Square to reach out to Russians would surely result in the arrest and detention of those involved. And a sophisticated Western “media offensive” that targets Russians in Russian, as Ambassador McFaul and Peter Pomerantsev have suggested, is not likely to be successful because Russia does not respect freedom of the media. As Russia constricts its population’s access to independent media and makes life very difficult for foreign media organizations in the country, the likelihood of outside information reaching Russian eyes and ears is diminishing rapidly. Even using Internet resources such as YouTube would not be effective as the Kremlin is not above shutting down Russian domestic access to Internet services, while simultaneously deploying them as a political tool abroad.
The free flow of information and opinions we see today is a positive characteristic of our time, but it is also easy to exploit. As more conservative and authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China become more aggressive in exerting their influence, the online media war is only going to intensify. If we do not develop effective tools for dealing with the dissemination of information—particularly information produced by our adversaries for political purposes—we risk seeing more suspended discussion forums, or worse, media websites blocked altogether, threatening the very principle of freedom of speech.
About the Author
James M. Baker is a writer, teacher, and freelance translator living in Moscow, Russia. He received his B.A. in International Studies from the School of International Service at American University in 2009 and worked as a trade associate for the Senate Finance Committee before moving to Moscow.