Propaganda in the age of Putin

The past year has seen a sea-change in the Russian propaganda machine.

It was exactly 12 months ago that foreign gays, led by a small group — including Dan Savage, the kids at Queer Nation NY, and me — started our own little uprising against the Russian government generally, and Vladimir Putin personally, in response to Russia’s increasingly draconian crackdown on its gay minority.

We ran circles around Putin and his cronies, and we made quite a little dent in the Russian president’s previously impervious (and imperious) armor. Our “silly” Russian vodka boycott galvanized the international media, public, and eventually governments around an issue of which many were previously unaware.

David Remnick, in his excellent new piece about Russia in the New Yorker, quotes Putin loyalist Sergei Markov complaining about how every time he’s interviewed by the foreign press, all they want to talk about is the gays:

Markov, who speaks decent English, frequently goes on foreign television to make the Kremlin’s case… “I don’t want to talk about gays—but every time they ask about gays!”

That, my friends, is the definition of PR success.  When your opponent starts whining that you won’t leave him alone, you’ve won (or at the very least, you’ve scored some major points).

"Tsarina Putin."

Tsarina Putin.”

But while last year the Russian’s PR response was laughable, this year they seem to have caught their stride.  Not on the gay issue, per se — we’re still running circles around them on that one, though the topic has subsided for the time being. But rather, the Russian government appears to be doing a better job getting its anti-American message out there generally, and its messaging on the Malaysia Airlines disaster (and its overall war in and on Ukraine) in particular.

I’d read last year, or perhaps the year before, that the Russians were basically hiring sock-puppets (businesses that create fake online presences on Twitter, on Facebook, or in the comment sections of blogs) in order to boost their international image, especially online.  And I definitely saw an uptick in pro-Russian comment-chatter on my site, AMERICAblog, though it was still of pretty bad “moose and squirrel” quality English and messaging.

And the same thing happened a few months ago on the White House Web site, where a Russian company based in St. Petersburg posted a petition (written in really bad English) on the White House Web site demanding that Alaska be given back to Russia. The Russians got a real chuckle out of that one. And while the petition was silly from a US perspective, and hardly caused the White House (or any other American) much anxiety or embarrassment, the Russians got a good laugh out of it, and that’s more than they’ve done before.  Don’t underestimate the ability of even a dumb Internet campaign to rally the troops back home.  From the Russian perspective, they “got one” on the White House. Our non-chalance was irrelevant to their ultimate goal, which was to feed the flames domestically.

I was thinking about all of this again when reading Remnick’s piece.  A few sections particularly came to mind (but do read the entire thing, it’s quite good). First this, from the only-recently former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul:

In the Moscow of Putin Redux, Michael McFaul could not hope to make many inroads. And with every week his and his family’s life in Moscow became more unnerving.

“They ran all kinds of operations against me,” McFaul told me when we met this winter at the Olympics, in Sochi. There were demonstrators outside Spaso and the American Embassy. Russians, presumably paid stooges, posted on social media that McFaul was everything from a spy to a pedophile. There were death threats. Russian intelligence agents occasionally followed McFaul in his car, and even showed up at his kids’ soccer games. The family felt under siege. “They wanted us to know they were there,” he said. “They went out of their way to make us feel their presence, to scare us.”

Those two grafs disturbed me greatly.  What in fact did the Russians do to successfully psyche-out the American ambassador?

  • They had protests outside the embassy and the official residence (yeah, so?).
  • Called him names on Twitter (hello, welcome to the Internet).
  • Death threats — okay, that would suck.  But I mean, you’re a high-profile US political figure in a somewhat hostile country, so this doesn’t particularly shock me.
  • Russian agents following you — I’d have assumed they were always following you, and probably listening in to every conversation they could. McFaul should have grabbed his iPhone and walked over and interviewed the agents on camera, then put it on Twitter and YouTube.

As for showing up at the kids’ soccer games — that was a nasty, and rather daring but ultimately brilliant move.  Why brilliant?  Because it appears to have freaked out the US ambassador, while the Russians paid zero price for their below-the-belt chutzpah.  Why didn’t McFaul and the US government simply announce to the world that Putin was having the ambassadors’ children followed, and score a major PR coup against the Russians — no idea. The Russians were playing dirty, and we weren’t playing at all.

There’s more in the article, about how the Russians constantly zinged McFaul on his poor Russian and embarrassing slips of the tongue.  The exact kind of things I’d do if I were going after a Russian, or any other official, American or otherwise.  It’s not terribly sophisticated what the Russians are doing, but they’re doing it, and they’re getting better.

One of our writers, Jon Green, had written a (critical) piece about Hillary Clinton the other day, and in it he noted a comment she made about how the US needed to get better at messaging.  Jon took umbrage at the comment, and its underlying implication that messaging matters:

In the aforementioned appearance on the Daily Show, the woman who until recently was America’s top diplomat got her chance to talk about impediments to American diplomacy. Her diagnosis of the problem? We “have not been telling our story well,” and we need to “get back to” telling it. She then said that it was a mistake to “[withdraw] from the information arena,” implying that if only we met Russian propaganda in places like Ukraine with propaganda of our own, à la the Cold War, we’d have more respect abroad.

I’d disagree with Jon on this one.  I get his point — that America’s problems in the world go far beyond messaging. But I’d disagree with anyone who thinks messaging, PR, public diplomacy, or propaganda (choose your vernacular) isn’t hugely important.

As a public advocate (among my many other hats), I can tell you that the very first thing I think about when trying to achieve any particular policy goal is how I’m going to use public pressure to force my opponent into submission.  I am a guy with a computer. I don’t have a million bucks or a million soldiers. I do, however, have a way with words, an audience that’s learned to trust me, and an ability to use the Internet to create a whirlwind of pain for anyone who gets in my way.  That’s communications. It’s messaging. It’s what the gay community did to Vladimir Putin. And what we did to America Online, Ford Motor company, Microsoft, Barilla pasta, and so many more companies and politicians across the globe. It’s using the Internet (and TV, and radio, and the print press) to beat your opponent into submission by spinning a message, and defining him, faster than he can ever hope to respond.

Kremlin propaganda chief Dmitri Kisilev (aka Dmitry Kiselyov). If this is the best they've got, bring it on.

Kremlin propaganda chief Dmitri Kisilev (aka Dmitry Kiselyov). If this is the best they’ve got, bring it on.

It’s asymmetric warfare gone mobile. And the US needs to get better at it. We have the nascent talent. I’ve traveled the world with my Internet political consulting work over the past 17 years, and no one does online-pain like Americans. We’re good, really good, at this.

But, to paraphrase a recent president, you don’t respond with a diplomatic démarche when the other guy is stalking your kids.

And you don’t let him rail against the west’s “pro-gay decadence” when his over-the-top propaganda minister makes Richard Simmons look like a Marine.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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