A propaganda war is not really a war


The New Yorker ran a long article about Russian propaganda and how the Russian government sees propaganda as a weapon of war.

The article, though one-sided, contains interesting information.  My problem with it is that the writers treat propaganda—including truthful propaganda—as the equivalent of war.

The U.S. government during the past 15 years has waged war by means of aerial bombardment, targeted assassinations, economic sanctions, arming terrorists and warlords and actual invasions of  foreign countries that do not threaten us.  Russia has done some of the same things, although on a smaller scale.

There is a strong possibility of a military confrontation between Russia and the United States that could risk a nuclear war.

Russian attempts to influence American and European public opinion seem fairly benign in contrast.

I first read the New Yorker article right after reading an article in The Guardian about a right-wing billionaire named Robert Mercer and how he and his minions use a combination of data analytics, artificial intelligence, social media and behavioral psychology to deliver political propaganda targeted to individual voters.

Valery Gerisimov, the Russian chief of staff, is probably at least as sophisticated as Mercer.  I thought about the likelihood that the Russian government is using such techniques.

But there are limits to the power of propaganda.  Propaganda works only when:

  • It deals with something outside your personal experience.
  • It reinforces something you already believe.
  • You don’t get to hear any opposing view.

Within that framework, it’s possible to get people to believe all sorts of things.  For example, it was possible to get some people to believe, as Soviet propaganda in the 1980s claimed, that the AIDS virus originated in biological warfare laboratories in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

But propaganda is not omnipotent.  Targeted messages on Facebook are not a form of mind control.

It is important to expose covert sources of propaganda, whether by a Robert Mercer or the Koch brothers, by the Russian government or some other foreign government or even by the U.S. government.  But the important thing to remember about propaganda is that propaganda, as such, is neither true nor false—it is whatever serves the propagandist.

The two main examples of successful Russian propaganda mentioned in the article were the leaking of a tapped phone conversation by Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland about her plans to bring about regime change in Ukraine, and the alleged Russian leaking of e-mails by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Both are examples of true information that the public had an interest in knowing.  Was it an act of war to make them known?

Wikileaks has long been a source of true information that the U.S. and other governments don’t want known.   Does this make Julian Assange Public Enemy No. 1?

We Americans don’t need firewalls, as in China, to protect us from arguments and information that the government doesn’t want us to hear.  We have the right to judge for ourselves what’s true and what’s false.  What we need is what we’ve always needed—the power of critical thinking, and a free and independent press.


Trump, Putin and the New Cold War by Evan Osnos, David Remnick and Joshua Yaffa for The New Yorker.

The New Yorker’s Big Cover Story Reveals Five Uncomfortable Truths About U.S. and Russia by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.



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