Russia’s propaganda channel RT (formerly Russia Today), available on most cable networks across the entire US, courtesy of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, has been working overtime to influence American viewers and America’s election. Like most propaganda, it begins with a kernel of truth, but then takes a wild turn into false and misleading territory, often in a subtle and emotional way.
This clip is intended to appeal to Left of Center Progressives and sway them away from supporting Hillary Clinton. How? First, it uses classic tropes that invoke dark periods of US history, in this case, communist red-baiting and McCarthyism. As Progressives, we’re ashamed of this history and rightly so. Russia’s RT hooks the viewer with this emotional topic, but then makes this whataboutism-like leap: that by discussing Russia and Putin during the election, the Clinton campaign is like the despicable Joseph McCarthy, who saw something where there was nothing, who advanced his own interests and caused a generation of Americans to lose their civil liberties.
Even though several independent reputable cyber security companies have already confirmed that Russian government intelligence services were in fact responsible for breaching the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, RT makes no mention of this. Instead, it presents the mere discussion of Russia in our election as absurd, conspiratorial and consequently, a smear against Donald Trump. Yes, they say, “just because Trump wants better relations with Russia” the “Clinton campaign is insinuating that Mr. Trump is a traitor.”
That would be a very serious accusation. And a false one. Neither Clinton nor anyone in her campaign has ever used the word “traitor” about Trump. However “traitor” is a word quite regularly used in Russian politics, particularly in the last several years. Since Putin’s 3rd term began in 2012 (he’s been in power since 2000), he has led a brutal campaign against pro-democracy advocates and politicians with the help of the Russian version of RT, calling his opposition “a fifth column,” “traitors,” “enemies of the people.”
Accusing critics of being traitors is of course Stalinist terminology for undesirable people, millions of whom were purged as a consequence during his reign in the Soviet Union in the 1930s [“purged” is a Soviet term for being executed by shooting, starvation, freezing or working to death in a GULAG concentration camp — Ed.].
Putin’s purges are not Stalin’s, thankfully. But they exist. The most extreme is the assassination of tireless democracy advocate and prominent politician Boris Nemtsov, who was smeared as as traitor for months before he was gunned down in the heart of Moscow, at the foot of the Kremlin. His silencing was a deafening signal to all dissenters (“traitors”) to shut up or they could be next.
Not a day goes by in Russian politics without someone being beaten, harassed, intimidated, attacked with bizarre substances (bleach, urine and feces are common), arrested or threatened with any and all of the above. The climate of menace and terror for those wishing to participate in the political life of their country is relentless, brutal and well-documented.
It’s also blatantly absurd for RT to present a piece about Clinton calling Trump a traitor, when it is the Trump campaign that has issued regular calls to “lock her up,” a chant widely used in Trump rallies as well as at the Republican National Convention about Hillary Clinton. Remember Chris Christie’s remarkable mock trial and verdicts of “guilty” shouted by the audience in a call-and-response format. Clinton’s mock trial and condemnation was the essence of Christie’s Convention speech. For a former US prosecutor to be so flippant about something as fundamental as American legal due process was mindboggling and disgraceful.
Democracies don’t call for jailing opponents, or delegitimizing candidates. That is done in Russia and other authoritarian regimes, however. Russia would very much like Americans, who are rightly critical of our government when it has been wrong, to link previous bad acts to Clinton today. That’s a personal smear, and it often works. But it’s also a smear at our very democracy, our constitutional rights, which is even more dangerous.
In fact, Russia under Putin has worked hard to delegitimize democracy as an institution, in the US as well as in Europe, through the use of propaganda disseminated over a wide network of Kremlin-controlled media. Putin wants Russians to view democracy in a negative light and therefore not seek to democratize Russia. Without an opposition demanding fair elections, an end to corruption, going out on the streets to demand freedom of expression and assembly, Putin can stay in power unchallenged forever.
Why is RT vilifying Clinton and favoring Trump? It’s obvious. Trump, wittingly or not, is a dream-come-true for Putin’s Russia. He’s uninformed about geopolitics, especially about Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and takes Putin’s public statements at face value. He accepts Russia’s false narrative–proved over and over–that Russian troops aren’t fighting in Ukraine. He’s also publicly stated that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was probably legitimate because Crimeans wanted to become part of Russia. He also believes Russia wants to combat the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS), when there’s plenty of evidence that Russia is in Syria to prop up Assad and its own stature as a world player.
Trump hasn’t yet repeated Putin’s narrative that Ukraine’s democratic revolution in 2014 was a “US-backed coup.” But that hasn’t stopped RT, which repeats this outlandish claim at every opportunity.
RT is part of Russia’s larger information war campaign against the West, using maskirovka and other psychological warfare techniques to deceive the enemy. RT keeps its viewers fixated on US history of coups and blacklisting rather than on Russia’s present brazen and unprecedented conduct today–in waging war on its neighbor Ukraine, in bombing civilians in Syria with incendiary bombs, and in hacking into Democrats’ election officials’ offices in order to influence the 2016 US election.
Hillary Clinton has every reason to believe Russia is indeed working to influence our presidential election against her, and, contrary to what you’ll hear on RT; she has credible evidentiary grounds to back up that belief. Not to mention the well-known grudge Putin holds against her personally for speaking out in support of Russian pro-democracy protesters in 2011-2012.
But you will not find any of this mentioned on RT or on her sister English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik International. No, you will see plenty of slick, hip images of the blacklist days and you will be reminded to feel ashamed and horrified at what your country has done. RT knows how to push our Progressive social justice buttons, quite persuasively. “Remember McCarthy? What about the blacklists?!” This is how Russian propaganda on RT works. You will be led by the nose with this form of whataboutism from McCarthyist red-baiting attitudes about Russia to Clinton’s statements about Russia, as if they were the same. How could you possibly vote for another Joseph McCarthy?!
You may not like Clinton, she’s been a politician for decades after all. But she is no Joseph McCarthy. She even famously tried to reset relations with Russia when she was US Secretary of State. That proved a failure, but not for want of trying.
Trump on the other hand is a open bigot who abhors the First Amendment, has probably never actually read the US Constitution, has no qualms characterizing all Muslims as terrorists including veterans who gave their lives for their country. He openly supports torture and god knows what other war crimes he would embrace as president. Trump is truly frightening, a reality RT is working overtime to distract you from, while whipping up your anger and shame about bad US history and conspiracies about emails and charities.
I used to watch RT quite often over the last decade for stories mainstream media regularly missed or paid little attention to. Initially I didn’t even know RT was Russian or that it was funded by the Russian government. I only noticed that RT‘s niche was social justice issues, and it seemed to do it well. You could find interesting stories on Central America and Occupy Wall Street, austerity in Europe and the like. These weren’t covered in mainstream press, not nearly enough for Progressives like me.
But after events in Ukraine in 2014, RT took a fairly drastic turn not just to presenting stories and viewpoints missed elsewhere. It actively began promoting ever-outlandish tales, hiding the truth, masking proven facts of Russia’s military invasion. I know this because I follow Russian and Ukrainian media and politics closely. The amount of vitriol and distortion leveled at Ukraine’s popular uprising against a corrupt Putin pal was astounding.
Today Russia has returned to a mind-boggling level of propaganda at home and abroad through outlets like RT. In Russia, people have come to call their TV the “Zombie box” because it has brainwashed the average population against the US, against Europe, against democracy, against anti-war protesters, and even against the very act of protest itself. It’s truly heartbreaking to watch what Russia has done and continues to do in Ukraine and now here in the US, brazenly using its propaganda tactics to demoralize & destabilize democracies as it slips back to the authoritarian, mean, paranoid and resentful country I was born in behind the Iron Curtain.
A version of this essay appears at Euromaidanpress.com