Opinion

Trump’s friend Putin urges Americans to question more. The hypocrisy is rich.

Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, speaks to the press at the presentation of Russia Today and Russia al-Yaum English and Arabic news channels, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007 in New York.
Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, speaks to the press at the presentation of Russia Today and Russia al-Yaum English and Arabic news channels, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007 in New York. AP

Marketing to Americans, the Kremlin-sponsored global television network – Russia Today – challenges viewers to "Question More." That award-winning slogan is at the top of its website and appears on billboard ads in major markets, asserting that there is always more to uncover beneath the surface of every story.

In a world where “fake news” has become a powerful meme fueled by President Donald Trump’s charge against journalism he dislikes, questioning more is a good idea. After all, critical thought is a key to understanding the motivations of institutions and individuals. Everyone should question more.

RT’s gambit, however, should be questioned a bit more too. Why does this Russian network put so much emphasis on its slogan?

In the American context, it wants its U.S. audience to question the American political system by playing to conspiracy theories and an underlying belief that corruption lies at the heart of all American politics. Unfortunately, this is fertile territory, from congressmen who stash cash in freezers to administrations ginning up intelligence to support a war. A 2015 Gallup poll showed three out of four Americans believe their government is corrupt.

RT’s approach intends to turn an already skeptical American electorate into a distrustful mob of political cynics.

Questioning more is what candidate Trump did before coming into office – with dramatic success. He did it entertainingly, and he was full-throated about it. He did it by questioning the status quo and attacking conventional wisdom, establishment politicians, and the two-party system. He pointed out the basic inconsistencies and unfulfilled promises that are part of any democratic process. He questioned democratic consensus-building approaches and asserted they were inefficient and self-servingly corrupt. Candidate Trump exposed and emphasized the ugly process of making political sausage.

His was a logic based on a few factually observable phenomena and believably fabulist tales, further awakening citizen fear and disgust and building a sense of powerlessness and victimhood for the “forgotten men and forgotten women.” Russia recognized it, because it was a familiar tactic, and eagerly offered an assist. Indeed, sowing confusion through sophisticated information operations is a particular skill Moscow has mastered.

RT’s encouragement to question more is part of a conscious and active effort by the Kremlin to undermine American democracy by leveraging its weaknesses. Russia uses American freedoms to erode faith in American institutions. It is what national security professionals refer to as an asymmetric approach to information warfare.

This approach is effective against open societies like those of the United States or Britain, where press and speech freedoms are protected and journalistic institutions are independent. Democratic systems defend and protect the rights of individuals and institutions to say almost anything – regardless of its truth. RT takes advantage of those First Amendment protections.

Inside Russia, however, the rules are very different. Questioning political structures and leaders can lead to severe retribution. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, an active critic of President Vladimir Putin, questioned more. So did Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Both bravely challenged Putin and the status quo. Both were assassinated. No more questions.

Unlike Russia, open societies and their leaders traditionally celebrate the uncomfortable role of journalism and political opposition. Now RT, which also claims to be the most viewed YouTube news network, is exploiting that freedom to undermine the norms enabling it to operate freely within the United States. It is an aggressive game that tests the limits of openness and threatens the survival of American political and journalistic institutions.

Making matters worse, this practice has gone global and further targets American friends and allies. Borderless technologies dissolve information barriers, making democratic societies around the world susceptible to this form of Russian disinformation and propaganda practice. At the same time, authoritarian regimes increasingly protect themselves by using technology and intimidation to create information cocoons that block out inconvenient truths and uncomfortable facts.

A Russian seeking accurate information about the shooting down of Malaysian flight MH-17 or insight into Putin's private wealth will have to dig deep and search wide to find anything.

Open societies’ answer to bad information is supposed to be the value, dominance and prominence of good information. Amplified falsehoods delivered by semi-credible sources, however, find plenty of receptive ears – whether they are tall tales about a former president’s birth certificate or a Pope’s political endorsements. Inconveniently, social media favors the oddball, conspiratorial, and entertaining – regardless of a story’s value or truth – reinforcing false narratives.

America is struggling to confront this challenge, but other countries are taking direct action. French President Emmanuel Macron clearly feels the threat to his nation, directly calling out Russia. At his first meeting with Putin, Macron said that RT and Russia’s Sputnik news agency “did not behave like press outlets, but behaved like agents of influence and propaganda” spreading “serious falsehoods.” Identifying the problem is a good first step.

Russian efforts target America and its friends and allies by highlighting democratic dysfunction, sowing internal division, and cultivating citizen cynicism. Why is this the case?

The only way to find out is to question more.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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