Tiptoeing through the minefield of the propaganda war

Friday 30/10/2015
A multi-screen display in Moscow of Vladimir Putin’s September 28th speech at the United Nations.

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.