Debunking Russian propaganda is now an industry – unfortunately, a rather useless and misguided one.

The awkwardly named European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force provides the latest exercise in futility. The agency, which is part of the European Union bureaucratic machinery, has gathered several thousand examples of disinformation in the first searchable database of its size, a culmination of its work since 2015.

It’s a gold mine for connoisseurs of Kremlin-sponsored narratives. A search for the German chancellor’s name, for example, yields gems such as “Angela Merkel Offers Congratulations on a Child Marriage,” “Angela Merkel is a Fuehrer of the Fourth Reich,” “Angela Merkel Has a Complex of an East German Woman,” “Angela Merkel Took a Selfie with a Suicide Bomber” and “Angela Merkel Is the Daughter of Adolph Hitler.”

After the laughter comes a serious question: How does one debunk that kind of thing? The Task Force certainly tries. In response to the “Fourth Reich” item, published on a Czech-language site, it writes:

“Angela Merkel is a democratically elected leader, any parallel to the Nazi Third Reich is unsubstantiated.”

Game over for those sneaky Russians. Right?

It’s pointless to fact-check individual bits of Russian propaganda, the way the East Stratcom Task Force does, or the way fact-checking operations do for Facebook. One reason is that fact-checking, predictably, has little effect on audiences whose confirmation biases are stroked by propaganda narratives. A recent Yale University study has demonstrated this with regard to Facebook’s fig-leaf effort. Another, more important reason is that Russian propaganda doesn’t try very hard to pretend that it’s fact-based. Even when it masquerades half-heartedly as journalism, it is, in effect, public relations – it tells stories in pursuit of broader communication goals.

A 2016 paper produced for the European Parliament by the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies contains an elegant formula for the Russian communication strategy versus the EU:

“The ‘attractiveness gap’ between Russia and the EU had to be bridged by improving Russia’s standing – mainly through the promotion of the ‘Russian World’ (Russkiy Mir) – but also by reducing that of the EU.”

The Russian propaganda outlets’ “meta-narrative” to serve that goal is, according to the institute, as follows:

“One key message depicts the West as an aggressive and expansionist entity on the one hand, and as weak and verging on collapse on the other. The EU is portrayed as close to crumbling under the combined pressure of the fiscal and migration crises. The Union is also painted as an unwieldy entity EU strategic communications with a view to counteracting propaganda 9 which is incapable of making decisions due to waves of hasty enlargements to the east. These two representations, in turn, feed into forecasts about the imminent demise of the EU, just as the Soviet Union collapsed twenty five years ago.”

The agenda versus the U.S. is similar and, in a way, derivative of the European one. The U.S. needs to be portrayed as pointlessly aggressive, messy and corrupt – not much different from Russia at its worst. As far as the Russian propaganda machine is concerned, the U.S. can’t do anything right, unless it’s playing along with the current Russian policy goals; the best outcome is if the U.S. fails at something or looks stupid.

The machine will use anything – actual facts, half-truths, conspiracy theories, raw emotion – within this communication strategy. At the end of the day, it’s not important what it uses – it’s only important to understand the framework.

A lot of the counterpropaganda efforts – like the now-discredited PropOrNot project or the Hamilton 68 project – attempt to document the ragtag distribution network of Russian propaganda. But the average person who retweets RT and Sputnik is, as a rule, not a Russian agent. More likely, they are simply naive or lazy, boosting items that appeal to them without going to the trouble of looking for the original source. That, however, is exactly what one needs to do.Once you understand the transparent Russian communication goals, follow the RT and Sputnik reports to the source and do your bit of soul-searching, you’re safe from Russian propaganda (or perhaps consciously aligned with its goals). There’s no more to it than that; it doesn’t take a staff of civil servants or think-tankers. No media literacy classes or multimillion-dollar counterpropaganda budgets are necessary. You’re welcome.

filed under: