Friday, May 6, 2016

Propaganda By Any Other Name

One of the important issues I'll have to deal with as the Public Affairs Officer in Vilnius, Lithuania, is the Russian propaganda bombarding the Baltic states. I recently attended a screening of a documentary film about this. Considering how best to respond to Russia's well-financed and pervasive propaganda machine, it raises the question of what is and what isn't propaganda.

What makes information propaganda? Does the mere fact that a government is funding that information make it propaganda? America's Voice of America and Britain's BBC are two obvious Western examples of government or public-funded broadcasting. But I certainly would not lump those media outlets in the same category as the Kremlin-funded Russia Today (recently renamed to the more ambiguous RT).

Maybe propaganda means information that attempts to twist public opinion a certain way. However, by that loose definition, you could label just about any news organization in America as propaganda.

In America, we are extremely sensitive to any perception that the U.S. might be engaging in propaganda, so we go out of our way to avoid any such accusation. Only in the last couple of years has the Smith-Mundt Act been updated to account for the Internet; and, oh boy, did that stir up a hornets nest of conspiracy theories about how the State Department would start brainwashing Americans.

Russia does not engage in any such moral deliberations. Nor is it confined by, say, the truth. This gives Russia an advantage in the information war in which we find ourselves. So how should we respond? The biggest challenge is that people who are particularly susceptible to spin - especially when it confirms their existing biases - are rarely influenced by rationality. In other words, you can't always counter conspiracy theories and propaganda with logic.

At the very least, we should hold ourselves to higher standards than RT, for example. But we have to sometimes get down in the mud where these conversations are taking place. It's a delicate tightrope walk between maintaining our integrity on the one hand and refuting the half-truths and outright lies told about us in a way that will resonate with those who want to believe the worst about us.

It's a challenge I'm looking forward to facing in Lithuania.