In April last year, several hundred people marched through the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in honour of the SS Galicia Division, a collaborationist Ukrainian unit from World War Two. The event provoked me to write a piece that was published on RT.com, in which I remarked that by tolerating such marches, Ukraine was tarnishing its reputation.
“The problem here is not that the government is a “fascist junta.” That is clearly an enormous exaggeration. Despite restrictions on the use of the Russian language and the recent repression of some anti-government media and personalities, Ukraine remains a relatively free and open society. It’s not remotely fascist.”
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find my article cited last week by the US State Department as an example of “disinformation narratives describing the Ukrainian government, and a significant portion of the population, as either fascists or Nazis.” Given that I had specifically stated that the Ukrainian state was not fascist, the accusation was demonstrably false.
What’s ironic is that this falsehood appears in a document produced by an organization supposedly dedicated to countering disinformation – the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center. Sadly, though, it’s far from the only untruthful statement that appears in the report in question, entitled RT and Sputnik’s Role in Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem.
Page 29 of the document, for instance, states that claims in the Russian media that a Ukrainian drone killed a boy in rebel-controlled Donbass were untrue. As proof, it cites a report by the OSCE, which, it says, showed that “the boy did not die from a drone.” However, when you open the report in question, you find that it says nothing of the sort.
In short, a government report dedicated to countering disinformation itself contains statements that themselves rightfully deserve the label “disinformation.”
This is not an isolated incident. Western states have funded an entire industry of institutions and individuals devoted to countering foreign “influence operations.” However, the output of this “disinformation industry” is often of such low quality that some have begun to complain that it is itself a major source of disinformation.
Take, for instance, two counter-disinformation institutions mentioned in the State Department report – Ukraine’s StopFake and the European Union’s EUvsDisinfo.
StopFake’s critics include not only those who might be deemed “pro-Russian” but also some who are very much opponents of the Russian government. An example is Latvian-based journalist Leonid Ragozin, who has been charged by StopFake and another Ukrainian counter-disinformation group, Informnapalm, with being a Kremlin agent. In fact, he is an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin and an avid supporter of jailed oppositionist Alexei Navalny. Ragozin accuses StopFake of being “part of a toxic community that has been for years suppressing genuine experts and moderate voices involved in the discussion about the conflict between Russia and the West.” The false accusation against him “illustrates the dubious role played by organizations which claim to counter Kremlin misinformation and propaganda, but in reality, disseminate their own.”
Similarly, a study of the EUvsDisinfo’s work by British academics complained of “blatant distortion.” “Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation according to [its] own definition of the term,” it concluded.
Much the same could be said for Canada’s primary disinformation warrior, Marcus Kolga, who has set up a website named Disinfowatch. Much of what Disinfowatch denounces as “disinformation” consists merely of opinions that happen to differ from its own, sometimes on historical issues (such as pledges made to the Soviets about NATO expansion), that are subjects of considerable debate and disagreement among professional historians. In a recent op-ed in the Toronto Star, Kolga wrote, “As head of state, Putin has abused his power to accumulate at least $200 billion and possibly much more.”Absolutely no evidence is provided for this extraordinary – and almost certainly false – allegation.
A pattern emerges in which institutions created to combat disinformation are themselves churning it out on an industrial scale. But the problem goes beyond that. The disinformation industry promotes policies that resemble censorship. These include proposals to limit access to certain media outlets and to enact stringent “foreign agent” laws of the sort that cause howls of protest when imposed in Russia.
In Canada, foreign policy debates take place within a very narrow set of viewpoints and options. In these circumstances, we should be looking to expand the range of sources open to us. Instead, the disinformation industry seeks to limit our horizons and discredit those it dislikes by labelling them agents of foreign propaganda. In this way, it is taking us in the wrong direction. In the fight against alleged foreign “influence,” the cure is proving far more damaging than the disease.