We’ve all seen propaganda. We know what it looks like, how it’s supposed to make us feel, the ways it objectifies outsiders. It tends to feel corny. It preys on nostalgia or outdated notions of national pride that get elevated to mysticism. Lies we acknowledge with winks and nods. We’re in on the joke so it’s all okay.
This barbarous invasion of Ukraine is something different. There isn’t even the merest pretense, a seed of discord that could rationally germinate into a justification for war. The popular hot take in the American media echo chamber is that Putin is reconstituting czarist Russia and cementing his legacy in the process. It is the story we’ve told ourselves so there is some rational motive behind the killing of innocents. Otherwise it’s too nakedly aggressive to fathom. And that all may be true, but I think there is more to it. It’s a logical end to our entertainment-based information ecosystem that is too easily manipulated. We call it fake news, an apt description, that feels Orwellian when said aloud. It’s too normalized and pervasive. We’ve accepted the term without really considering the ramifications. There are millions of people susceptible to the narrative goals of fake news purveyors because they have cult-level affinities to the tribes controlling the narratives. They are too committed to ever understand that they’ve been duped.
How else do we reconcile the fact that Putin, according to credible sources, holds strong domestic support while the welfare of Russia’s citizens is declining precipitously? Political power and economic prosperity are generally correlated, but not in this case. I know the calculus of an autocratic regime is a little different, and the reason is the power, unprecedented in scale in our time, to shape and own the minds of followers. It’s one thing to get people to buy into a policy that will negatively effect their livelihood, but it’s something much more sinister to manifest mass scale groupthink that works in opposition to the most basic needs of human needs – food, shelter, water, air.
I don’t live in Russia and I only have second-hand knowledge of the kinds of things Putin and his regime are broadcasting to their constituents. They are farcical, but not farcical enough for people not to believe. It’s not really clear that such a line exists. I do know fake news is working. The only way I can answer why is by looking to the American political system and the parts and people that are similarly broken. We have more in common than many like to think.
If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that seemingly normal people need an object of scorn to help them define themselves in contrast. It can be anything. It can also change over time. The actual ideology is less important than the idolatry of a person or group of people. In America we have people who talk of freedom but only for certain people. They see the country as a beacon of democracy that is also mired in massive electoral fraud. An entire political party has gone from antagonism towards Russia based on liberal democratic grounds, to being enthralled with ethno-nationalist power, to then flipping once again towards support of liberal democracy when confronted with horror of unprovoked war. If your head is spinning then try to imagine how fake news plays in a place that is fully through the looking glass and seeing a world that doesn’t exist in objective reality.
The situation in Ukraine is what happens when fake news stops being a battle of wills and takes up arms.