Fighting Putin with Putinism

As Vladimir Putin prosecutes his brutal war in Ukraine, Western governments and tech companies have apparently decided the best way to fight Putin is to join him — engaging in censorship and propagandizing reminiscent of the autocrat’s own repressive actions.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has predictably used the war to make his already authoritarian political system even more so. But we’ve seen an alarmingly similar trend take shape in Western countries. ( / Wikimedia Commons)

As Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has stalled and dragged on, the Russian government and its affiliates have tightened their control over information, broadened censorship powers, and generally fostered an atmosphere hostile to dissent in ways we haven’t seen before.

The Kremlin has banned foreign state-funded news outlets, casting them as subversive propaganda, and private companies loyal to the regime have indiscriminately scrubbed all traces of their work from the internet. Those same companies are censoring officially designated “misinformation” on behalf of the government, while relaxing their preexisting censorship rules to allow for the praise of extremist forces fighting on their side and calls for violence against people from the opposing side. The government, meanwhile, has been working behind the scenes with social media influencers to push their preferred narrative onto the population.

Except, wait — these are actually all things that have happened in the United States and across the West since Putin invaded Ukraine. The Russian president has predictably used the war to make his already authoritarian political system even more so. But we’ve seen an alarmingly similar trend take shape in Western countries. With little notice, Western governments and tech giants have taken unprecedented steps to control the flow of information around this war, with consequences we may not fully understand for some time yet.

Changes to Prohibited Speech

The most bewildering of these actions have been the changes made to prohibited speech. Over the past few years, largely due to heightened fears about hate speech and the rising prominence of far-right movements, tech companies have more and more tightened the rules around what you can and can’t say on social media.

Calls for violence have long been barred on social media platforms, central to tech companies’ decision to throw Donald Trump off their platforms last year. Meanwhile, back in 2017, a variety of tech companies purged accounts and pages linked to far-right extremists in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since then, Twitter has changed its microtargeting policy preventing ads from being aimed at hate groups, YouTube has banned content from neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and Facebook has prohibited any praise, support, or even simply representation of white supremacists on its platforms. That included the ultranationalist Azov movement in Ukraine, which was banned entirely from the platform owing to the neo-Nazi views of many of its members.

Fast-forward to the invasion of Ukraine, and these tech giants have apparently decided some praise of neo-Nazis and calls for violence aren’t as bad as others. Just last week, Meta (the rebranded Facebook) permitted users’ calls for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the war, as well as certain calls for death against both Putin and allied Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko — phrases like “death to the Russian invaders,” a spokesperson explained.

There’s a way in which this makes sense: to avoid punishing Ukrainians calling for resistance to their country’s invasion. But Facebook reportedly made this change for eleven other Eastern and Central European countries, including, puzzlingly, Russia. It’s also not clear how strictly this was applied, since Russians living in the UK have reported getting death threats on social media. Adding to the absurdity, Facebook has now changed the policy so that users can’t call for Putin’s death anymore — meaning you can still call for violence against low-morale rank-and-file Russian soldiers, just not the autocrat who orders them around.

Not only has the company’s stance on death threats changed to fit the geopolitical moment, so has its policy on Nazis — specifically, the Azov movement. When the invasion began, Facebook decided to temporarily let users praise Azov, but only in the context of defending Ukraine and only as long as it didn’t include “any praise of violence” (fairly nonsensical, given the nature of war). According to the Intercept, users can post that “Azov has been courageously defending our town” or “playing a patriotic role during this crisis,” but not that “Goebbels, the Fuhrer and Azov, all are great models for national sacrifices and heroism” or congratulations to the group for “protecting Ukraine and its white nationalist heritage.” Any reasonable interpretation of these rules would regard this as something of a propaganda coup for Azov.

In fact, the censorious algorithms tech companies have created in recent years means they’re actually taking down content critical of Azov. Middle East Eye associate editor Asa Winstanley had his Twitter account locked for pointing out the Nazi Black Sun symbol shows up on the uniforms of Ukrainian forces, something drawn from photos posted by both NATO and the Ukrainian foreign ministry. Deeming it “abusive behavior,” Twitter both locked his account and hid the tweet.

Bear in mind, similar points about the Ukrainian far right have appeared in mainstream outlets like MSNBC, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and others. Meanwhile, some, like Germany’s state-funded broadcaster Deutsche Welle, are doing the opposite, whitewashing Azov and claiming its armed regiment “can no longer be classified as a right-wing extremist body.” As always with the post-2016 censorship rules, big, well-funded mainstream outlets are completely immune to the larger discussion about misinformation and content moderation that plagues independent, web-based journalism.

Whatever you think of Azov and the far right’s involvement in Ukraine — and there’s good reason to take the concerns seriously — this should alarm you. The standards for which speech is permissible and even necessary and which is so dangerous and beyond the pale it must be urgently controlled and suppressed has shifted at the click of our fingers, all at the behest of the geopolitical interests of Western governments. Who knows how they’ll shift again, once those interests change.

Fighting Propaganda With Propaganda

This goes beyond Big Tech firms like Facebook and Twitter, which have a cozy relationship and even share personnel with Western governments.

Take search engine DuckDuckGo, which has long pitched itself as a privacy-conscious alternative to Google, a company known to track its users for commercial purposes and collaborate with surveillance agencies. Two weeks into the invasion, DuckDuckGo’s CEO and cofounder announced it would “down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation” as a response to the war.

“Sites like RT and Sputnik that deliberately put out false information to intentionally mislead people directly cut against that purpose,” a company spokesperson told me when I asked for clarification about which sites were being targeted and the company’s definition of the above terms. “That’s why we worked with our partners to down-rank them.” The company’s spokesperson stressed that “this isn’t censorship, it’s just search rankings.” I’ll leave it up to readers to decide if they’re satisfied with that.

Meanwhile, the US government is also using the Internet to promote its own preferred narratives. The White House earlier reached out to thirty TikTok stars to brief them about the war and push back on the Kremlin’s disinformation, viewing the platform as a critical news source. Of course, in the process, it pushed its own disinformation and propaganda.

Naturally, the influencers were not told about Washington’s refusal to negotiate over Ukraine’s NATO entry or the very real problem of Ukraine’s far right (which would undercut the case for US weapons shipments). And in stressing its noble intentions of defending international law and territorial sovereignty, the White House failed to mention US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen or Israel’s years-long colonization of occupied Palestinian territory.

RT Does Not = Endorsement

Finally, there’s the international ban on Russian state-owned media, principally cable news outlet RT (formerly Russia Today). Whatever your exact feelings about RT’s programming, anyone should be alarmed by the speed and ferocity with which the network has been banished from Western airwaves and had all trace of it scrubbed from platforms like YouTube.

Of course, RT soft-pedaled Russia’s war from the start, describing it with Putin’s preferred language of a “special military operation” and casting it as an attempt to “liberate” and “defend” Russian separatist–controlled areas rather than as the full-scale invasion and regime change operation it quickly revealed itself to be. This is, needless to say, a corruption of the mission of journalism.

But anyone who thinks this kind of thing is grounds for government obliteration of a press outlet should be careful. Mainstream media in the United States alone, which is read and viewed all over the world, has long served as a megaphone for a variety of extreme pro-war voices who have successfully urged, or want to urge, illegal wars just as disastrous as the one Moscow is fighting now.

The Superbowl-style coverage of the Iraq War by CNN and other mainstream US outlets was criticized even at the time for uncritically parroting the administration’s talking points and taking a patriotic tilt, with one of the network’s stars even admitting the press had “self-muzzled.” British state-funded broadcaster BBC was the most reliably pro-war, pro-government outlet in the UK media ecosystem when it came to the conflict. Television everywhere faithfully broadcast the staged toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, a publicity stunt aimed at deceitfully backing up the invading forces’ narrative that they were being greeted as “liberators.” This is neither the first nor last time the US government has tightly controlled media portrayal of the wars it’s involved in, having learned from Vietnam what can happen when you let an independent press be too independent in a war.

And Western governments’ hostility to RT goes well beyond its current war coverage or its risible COVID-19 misinformation. As a 2017 report from US intelligence agencies laid out, what made RT part of a concerted Kremlin “influence operation” in their eyes was its antiestablishment coverage of topics like third-party candidates, Occupy Wall Street, government surveillance, its “criticism of the US economic system,” its “anti-fracking programming,” and coverage “overwhelmingly focused on criticism of US and Western governments.”

We might also think back to 2019, when CNN successfully pressured Facebook to purge Russian state-funded Maffick Media from its platform, because its antiwar content happened to be “completely in line with what we’re hearing from the Kremlin” (even as another journalist who worked on the story acknowledged it made “legitimate arguments”). It’s worth remembering that Qatar’s state-owned network, Al Jazeera, was for years similarly accused of being a terrorist propaganda outlet, to the point that Washington repeatedly targeted it with military attacks and imprisoned one of its reporters for years in Guantanamo Bay.

This purge of RT means it isn’t just Moscow-friendly war coverage that’s been shrouded from Western eyes. All 550 episodes of journalist Abby Martin’s RT show have now been erased from the internet by YouTube. Martin, who condemned Moscow’s illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea live on the network, had used the show to cover matter like corporate malfeasance, human rights abuses, protest movements, and much more. Comedian Lee Camp’s RT show — which even an unfriendly NPR segment admitted “doesn’t proselytize for Russia” but rather “satirizes America” — has likewise been disappeared.

This has all happened so quickly and been so meekly accepted that it looks like very grim foreshadowing. Given the vast scope of legitimate reporting that’s been deemed tantamount to enemy propaganda and disinformation since 2016 — and given a political climate where liberal thought leaders are now calling for antiwar commentators to be investigated and even detained without trial — it’s worrying to imagine what extreme steps might be viewed as legitimate if and when the US government does end up actually going to war.

After all, if you genuinely believe critiques of NATO and Western foreign policy, for instance, are Kremlin talking points or even security threats, why stop at RT, with its relatively minor audience and influence in the West, and not go after more popular, influential outlets that voice these ideas?

The Tragic Irony

The tragic irony is that these measures mirror the authoritarian steps taken both during and before this war by Putin, who is quite rightly viewed in the West as a dangerous autocrat contemptuous of basic freedoms.

Long before this war, Putin had the very kind of tech censorship regime that Western politicians and commentators demand more and more for their own societies, where the government pressures tech companies or circumvents them to remove or discourage online speech it doesn’t like. Since it began, the Russian government has passed a variety of laws against what it calls “false information” about the war and disseminating “fake” details about its forces’ actions. It’s banned, blocked, and shut down independent news outlets that contradict official talking points, banned Instagram, and barred access to foreign media outlets for their “deliberate and systematic circulation of materials containing false information.” And of course, it has paid TikTok influencers to spread its preferred narrative about the invasion.

Obviously, these measures are more extreme than what we’ve seen in the West so far. But they’re rooted in the same mindset: that the free flow of information is simply too dangerous to trust ordinary people with and that the government and other bodies need to regulate and calibrate what’s said and reported so that it hews to their narrative, which is obviously the noble and correct one. Of course, what counts as dangerous and what counts as acceptable will have to constantly change according to what the political realities are at any given point in time.

Every year seems to bring some unprecedented new lurch in this direction in the United States and other liberal democracies, and over the course of just the past three weeks, we’ve already seen several. Let’s hope the war comes to an end soon, for the sake of ordinary Ukrainians, and for the sake of democracy at home.