Tiptoeing through the minefield of the propaganda war
London - It is a well-worn dictum that the first casualty in war is the truth and it has rarely been more appropriate than in the context of the Syrian conflict.
The challenges that confront the media in covering any war have been compounded in Syria, where on one side access and information are strictly controlled by the regime and on the other the activities of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other rebel groups put much of the country off-limits to reporters.
They have been obliged to a great extent to fall back on secondary sources, ranging from the ostensibly neutral and trustworthy to the nakedly partisan. As mainstream journalists tiptoe through this minefield of potential misinformation, they also have the task of navigating a mounting propaganda war between Russia and the West.
A war of words that intensified in recent years over conflicting narratives of events in Ukraine and Crimea has switched focus to Syria, where Russia’s military intervention at the end of September left the United States and its allies scrambling for a coherent response. Governments of all stripes are capable of spinning the news through partial information, obfuscation and sometimes outright lies.
It is an established feature of public diplomacy that one side will accentuate the negative when it comes to assessing the actions and motivations of its rival. Thus, the initial US response to Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September was to contest Moscow’s assertion that the first air strikes were principally aimed at ISIS targets and to question Vladimir Putin’s ability to impose a military solution.
In Ukraine, and now Syria, Western spokesmen are up against a Soviet propaganda machine of industrial proportions. Kremlin-backed outlets such as RT — formerly Russia Today — and the multimedia Sputnik agency, launched in 2014, unswervingly push the official line.
These outlets boast of providing an “alternative” viewpoint on events to English-language and other international news consumers, something Putin’s domestic critics complain is largely denied to the Russian audience by the increasingly tightly controlled media.
The official Russian media do not limit themselves to pushing the Kremlin line. They also provide an additional outlet to a range of Western critics of US policy, from thoughtfully engaged commentators to fringe conspiracy theorists on both the left and right of the political spectrum.
They provide a forum for institutions such as the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalisation, which specialises in 9/11 conspiracy theories, has a reputation for speaking up for dictators such as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad and is firmly behind Russia’s stance on Ukraine.
These and other outfits rely, in turn, on the Kremlin-backed media to reinforce their world view.
Through the megaphone of social media, unsupported conspiracy theories, generally founded on the thesis that the origin of all the world’s ills can be traced to the United States, rapidly go viral. If the mainstream media chooses to ignore them, they are denounced in the blogosphere for being part of a cover-up.
Earlier this year, the conservative Washington-based Judicial Watch published a declassified 2012 US intelligence document that predicted the possible creation of an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. Through the sounding board of social media, this rapidly generated online headlines and tweets along the lines of “US created ISIS”.
Anyone who cared to read the document in full, among them left-wing American Middle East commentator Juan Cole, discovered it revealed nothing of the kind. He described it in his blog as “just a clickbait story or an unfounded conspiracy theory”.
However, the failure of the mainstream media to play along was denounced by websites such as MintPress News, which wrote: “Possibly more terrifying than the report itself may be the fact that this information has been virtually blacked out across global mainstream media. This silence… illustrates the complicity of the English-speaking media, in collusion with government, to keep people ignorant of the harsh realities of US style realpolitik.”
The Kremlin-backed Sputnik, an enthusiastic recycler of MintPress News, could not have put it better itself. As a recent Sputnik headline read: “Democracy in Action: US Media Issues Instructions How to Bring Russia Down.”
Some Russians suggest the media onslaught goes too far. “Aggressive and deceptive propaganda… worse than anything I witnessed in the Soviet Union,” Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Centre, Russia’s polling organisation, told the BBC at the height of the Ukraine crisis.
One weakness of the message from Russia and the pro-Putin blogosphere is that, in reality, Western readers need look no further than their own media and opposition politicians for forthright criticism of past and present failings of Western policy in the Middle East.