Russia, Iran, China, and Venezuela may seem to have little in common besides being run by authoritarian, kleptocratic, and opaque regimes—qualities that often make them take anti-American and anti-Western positions. But here’s what else they share: all four destabilize democracies by manipulating what they deny at home: the free flow of information.
Disinformation has long been a tool of war, to be sure. Soviet disinformation campaigns blamed Western interests for anything from the Kennedy assassination to the spread of AIDS, and gullible or willing Westerners either believed it or spread what they knew to be lies.
But today’s disinformation may be even more insidious due to the diversification and democratization of media, which puts the user in the role of filter and makes the principle of “caveat emptor” paramount. Today’s campaigns may also be feeding on—or contributing to, as causality isn’t clear—the current political upheavals upending long-standing democratic arrangements. They also have a decidedly anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic bend.
The campaigns are also racking up victories. The rejection of an economic treaty with Ukraine by Dutch voters in a referendum last week can be laid solely on Russian propaganda, while the ascent of a leftist political party in Spain is due, at least in part, to the fact that an Iranian-funded television network gave its leader free air time.
Infiltrating the Airwaves
Governments are taking action against Russia. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has ordered a probe into whether the Kremlin is leading a disinformation campaign to destabilize Germany. Lithuania last week banned a Russian channel for “inciting discord, warmongering, [and] spreading biased information.”
China, meanwhile, is surreptitiously taking over radio stations in America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe to spread its propaganda to unwitting listeners who may not know who’s controlling the message. China also forms pressure groups in all these countries to spread the impression that its policies have grassroots support, as it did recently in the United States during a visit by President Xi Jinping and in Australia to try to prevent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from raising China’s aggression in the South China Sea while on a visit to Beijing .
Meanwhile Telesur, created by Venezuela’s dictator Hugo Chavez before his death and now kept in business by his even more erratic and clownish successor Nicolas Maduro, beams its anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-West message to millions of Latin Americans.
These propaganda outlets benefit from the fact that often viewers or readers don’t know they’re consuming Russian or Venezuelan propaganda. The casual web surfer who happens upon a story by “PressTV” about a Russian general warning NATO not to expand further (like into Sweden) will have no idea that PressTV is an arm of the Iranian state.
Neither would someone consuming news on Telesur’s website know it’s funded by Caracas. Those viewing this catchy rap video homage to “Ossatian patriots” would also have no idea the Kremlin is behind it—unless you knew that the “Republic of South Ossetia” is a puppet regime in a part of the sovereign country of Georgia that Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded in 2008.
Shopping for the Disaffected
But even when they did know they are watching foreign outlets, disaffected people in democracies may still watch. Part of the reason the Iranians, Venezuelans, Russians, and Chinese are succeeding is that there’s a growing sense throughout the West that traditionalist institutions—from news outlets to traditional parties—have failed their constituents. This leaves a vacuum for alternative views and analyses. That these outlets seek out ethno-nationalists in the far right, as in the Netherlands, and anti-capitalists and anti-free traders the far left, as in Spain, shows they are shopping for the disaffected anywhere they can find them.
Google “Telesur and disinformation” and the first several hits you’ll get are media reports or academic papers on how Telesur is fighting Western disinformation by presenting an alternate view. I have written, here and elsewhere, critically on how the Western media has a leftist bias, but even Walter Cronkite at the height of his power was trying to report on the Vietnam War the way he saw it.
One would have to hope that the people writing for the Russian outlets Sputnik or RT know that fascism does not indeed permeate politics in Ukraine, which is fighting a Russian invasion. As for the people who run PressTV, they might as well believe that Israel does indeed harvest the organs of Palestinians killed in clashes.
It’s bad enough the dictatorships running Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran suppress information at home, while using its free flow among the democracies to subvert them. The fact that they’re feeding on the real anxiety of those feeling left out and estranged from the power centers can only make this situation worse.