I’m Sick of Medium’s Russian Propaganda
“Were these Russian soldiers? No. They were local self-defense forces.”
“We are not going to go to war with the Ukrainian people.“
— Vladimir Putin, March 2014, while annexing Crimea
So I was reading an article on Ukraine today in the Medium app. And at the bottom it recommends other articles for me to read. Which articles?
First it offered me CODEPINK’s article “STOP THIS WAR S**T!!!” which tells us, without evidence, that Russia did not invade Crimea and that whatever it was that Russia did do was somehow the result of a U.S. “coup”. The “little green men” who overthrew the government of Crimea? They don’t mention them. Nor do they mention the Maidan Revolution, or its sea of Ukrainian protestors as far as the eye could see.
No, CODEPINK silently implies, it had nothing to do with Ukrainians rallying to get rid of a corrupt leader who made a sudden swing away from the EU toward Russia. It wasn’t about the Defense minister calling the army to Kyiv on Feb. 19, or the Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister signing a decree authorizing the use of live ammunition against protesters on Feb. 20. It wasn’t about the 108 people killed, or the 1100 injured. It’s not about Ukraine’s parliament voting 328–0 in favour of removing Yanukovych from office (122 other lawmakers did not vote). No, of all this was just a U.S. “coup”:
CODEPINK, who couldn’t even get the year right (protests started in 2013, but not the ouster), doesn’t have to explain how 328 elected Ukrainian politicians voting this way is actually a U.S. coup because it’s not mentioned. By ignoring the facts, they don’t have to explain anything, and of course Russia’s not-an-invasion isn’t called a coup, but rather a “people’s vote”. A vote conducted by who exactly, CODEPINK? Which parliament voted to hold a “people’s vote” in the first place?
(For an alternative to this far-left nonsense, have a look at this this takedown video by Adam Something, who is also left-wing but doesn’t trust Putinist propaganda so much.)
Then, Medium suggests “EU bans Russian media: For the plebs shouldn’t know too much!” by Ashish Shukla:
Of course, the EU didn’t ban “Russian media”. What they banned was TV broadcasts from Russian State media outlets (specifically RT and Sputnik) for their systematic disinformation. Independent Russian media remains available, including independent pro-Putin media.
Oh, and the RT and Sputnik web sites remain available in the EU.
So if Europeans want to hear stories about about how hundreds of civilian deaths plainly recorded on camera are just “Ukrainian provocations”, and how the immense destruction in Mariupol was actually done by Ukrainians themselves, they just visit these websites instead of watching it on TV.
Meanwhile, Russia started mandating in 2019 or so that various Russian news sources and individuals that Putin’s administration deems “undesirable” must label themselves as “foreign agents”. Which they did.
Then, as soon as the war started, these “foreign agents” started getting blocked from the internet. Russia blocked over 2,300 websites including independent Russian news outlets such as The Moscow Times and Meduza, and Russian human rights groups such as OVD-Info, leaving behind only outlets that keep their mouths wired shut or actively support Putin. (And if you think any news outlet critical of Putin or the “Special Military Operation” is not blocked in Russia, please, tell me the name of this mythical unicorn.)
But of course, none of this bothers Ashish Shukla, who doesn’t even mention it. Putin should be able to tell Europeans whatever it wants, while Europeans and Russians themselves are banned from speaking freely to Russians!
By the way, this is the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre, labeled “дети” (“kids”) in huge letters, which held over 1,000 civilians. Russia bombed it anyway. I wonder what RT has to say about this?
Let’s find out:
So let me get this straight. Ukrainian forces are stranded in Mariupol and have been under siege for over three weeks. Like the many civilians trapped there, they have not had an electric grid, heat or food deliveries for over two weeks. But they decide to take a “time-out” from fighting the Russians to plant their limited supply of explosives on a theatre full of children.
People with half a brain might wonder why Ukrainian “nationalists”, who have no source of replacement explosives, would use their limited supply of ordnance to obliterate a civilian building filled with their own citizens. Who is it that “nationalists” hate again? Is it their own citizens, or foreigners? Gee, I think it’s Russians. You might also wonder, “why didn’t Azov ever do anything like that before Russia invaded?” (“Actually”, the Putin propagandist explains, “Ukraine was committing ‘genocide’ as demonstrated in these debunked videos and that’s why Russia had to launch a Special Military Operation, which is Not a War!” Not a war unless you want to spend years in prison.)
Other people, such as Ashish Shukla, worry not for the tens of thousands of people killed, or the $63 billion in damage to Ukraine in a single month. No, the real tragedy here is that Putin State Media is being deprived of “free speech” in Europe!
So, what else does Medium recommend for me? “Putin and the fighter pilot” by Julian Macfarlane:
As you can see on Twitter, I’ve been closely following the Ukraine war. On Thursday, March 31, I saw Bucha under Russian control on OSINT maps. My first inkling that the Russians had left Bucha was two days later, on April 2, when I saw video of numerous dead bodies strewn about on a street. Russia immediately claimed the video was faked (but they were shown to be lying). Satellite footage would later show that some of those bodies had been lying in the same place for weeks… so again, Russia claimed no satellite was filming on March 19 when the photo was taken (which is just untrue. I did see someone with access to the database confirm this, though I can’t remember now who it was. Please let me know, because Google often has trouble finding debunkings if they’re not already on Bellingcat.)
And if you’re following this closely, you already know there is a mountain of other evidence for Russian war crimes. So yeah, this is the shit that finally prompted me to write this article.
Why is Medium suggesting these articles to me?
Here’s how it works. In the West we have democracy. As such, support for sanctions against Russia, and Ukrainian aid, depends on the will of our people. Putin needs to indoctrinate his own people to make sure they fight his war and don’t assassinate him, but he also needs to indoctrinate as many other people as possible, for three reasons.
- To weaken support for sanctions and aid to Ukraine
- To maintain his pre-existing fanbase outside Russia
- To cause internal conflict in the West (a longstanding goal—this 2020 video, which predicted the invasion based on a 1997 book, explains)
But the Free World faces three serious problems.
First, we don’t have good mechanisms for fighting disinformation or misinformation. Western news outlets are more likely to ignore misinformation instead of debunking it, because they take it for granted that they are trusted, when in fact they are not. And whether due to underfunding or a devotion to “balance”, some Western news outlets love to do “he said, she said” reporting. “Ukraine said this, Russia said that”… without mentioning that Russia has a long history of baldface lying. For example:
Another way to look at this is that our civilization lacks the infrastructure to counter the lies that are constantly swirling around the internet. Basic facts like “who destroyed that theatre” could be called into question just by people repeating “Azov did it” over and over. Free news outlets that everyone can read have a shortage of money for investigative reporting (and even if they had the money, they could always boost profits by skimping out on the investigations). Paywalled news outlets may have the money, but most people can’t read them due to the paywalls, and they still lack a strong incentive for objective reporting.
Our second big problem is that most people think it’s okay to choose to believe something, instead of letting evidence guide their beliefs. And most people think that figuring out the truth is easy. These ideas are both wrong. The internet is a battlefield, and every day an army of zealots — many of them popular — are trying to confuse you with heavily biased and partisan ideas. Figuring out who is correct is hard work. You can’t “choose” this problem away. (Here’s a tip though: look for people high on the thinking ladder: people who change their views in light of evidence.)
We can be thankful that Russia’s information war was so poorly executed that most left-wing and right-wing zealots did figure out that Putin’s war is morally wrong. Most of us even figured out that Russian state media lies! On many other issues, though, the zealots win — on the left wing, on the right wing, or both. And although Russia is losing the information war, it continues to fight and it continues getting support from zealous fans in the Free World. We must be careful and vigilant lest we fall prey to them.
Our third big problem is that algorithms, such as Medium recommendations, can’t tell what the truth is, and never will. Humans could intervene and block the bullshit, but by then most of the damage is done. What about people who saw these articles before they were censored, and believed them? All they can see is big bad tech companies censoring the ‘truth’. If the people who were censored don’t lose their account, their articles will talk incessantly about the horrors of Western censorship, how unjustly they were targeted, and how you must not trust tech companies or the mainstream media. If they do lose their accounts, they may simply regain their following on a new platform like Substack (which might pay more anyhow).
Censorship has always been with us. When you wrote a “letter to the editor” in 1985 and didn’t get published? That’s censorship. The difference was that in 1985 people didn’t think much about it. A majority of people understood that cranks existed and shouldn’t be given a microphone, and that newspapers didn’t have enough space for everyone, so the censorship seemed more acceptable then. What people didn’t understand was that some cranks and liars are very persuasive and charismatic, and that you could be convinced if those cranks ever got a microphone and became popular in your own political party. And then the internet gave them a microphone, and some of them became popular in your party.
1985 TV news did not broadcast the opinions of random cranks and lunatics, and then later revoke those opinions after millions of people had seen them. The cranks could post posters on lampposts, they could pin bullitins to local bullitin boards, they could speak at Town Hall and join a local association, but with the tools cranks had available at the time, only occasionally could their message spread to millions of people.
The internet changed these dynamics dramatically. As people stopped buying newspapers, traditional media lost most of its funding and much of its reach. Meanwhile, millions of people every day are seeing a crank’s convincing presentation with charts and graphs about <insert conspiracy theory here>, and only then does it get censored, creating an illusion that tech companies engage in an unprecedented rate of censorship.
Today’s biggest bullshitters earn millions of dollars directly from their loving audiences, people who gladly pay to be fed specific opinions with a predictable bias. Perhaps no single Russian propagandist earns a ton of money thanks to their “safety in numbers” approach, but they sure do get their message out!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I strongly support free speech and I’m no fan of “cancelling”. To me, the problem is not Medium or the internet itself, but rather our lack of infrastructure for dealing with misinformation, and our society’s lack of discipline about what people choose to believe. Simply put, beliefs require evidence, simple repetition of a belief is not evidence, not enough people appreciate this, and so people repeat what they’ve heard, even on such professional-looking sites as Medium.
We have no reputation system to mute those legions of Russian shills automatically, almost no one is paid to do debunking, and there is no grassroots web site devoted to gathering, cataloging, searching and aggregating evidence (as I have advocated). There are some limited exceptions such as Bellingcat’s crucial work of questioning Russian disinformation. But Bellingcat’s funding is limited, and what little funding they do get earns them scorn (they received €5,000 from a contractor in Washington in a two-year period? For shame, say the socialists! But wait a minute, how much is that per month? €208. How many researchers can they hire for €208? Is €208 even enough to cover server costs?)
And many other controversial topics don’t even have a good equivalent to Bellingcat.
A company like Medium can’t solve problems this big. The best it can do is to recommend less bullshit to people, and bring out the banhammer when it gets too popular.
And that’s a lousy solution, because it is based on unreliable human judgement by a group of humans that many people don’t trust in the first place.
But I, for one, would like to see that lousy solution put in place as long as the alternative is to do nothing and let the Russian trolls win.
My audience is very tiny, so if this sort of thing bothers you too, consider sharing it. (Those 50 claps are all from my wife.)
By the way, this great video by Vlad Vexler, from before the war, will help you understand Putin, and if you’re in the U.S. I recommend this episode of Frontline about Putin’s darker side (it’s blocked outside the U.S., but here’s my summary of it). Vlad didn’t seem to expect the full-scale war that occurred, though, and I believe that’s because Vlad thought Putin would lose such a war, while Putin genuinely thought he would win quickly (as indicated by this leaked propaganda and Michael Kofman’s analysis). Putin may have trusted analysis suggesting he could get the same kind of quick win he got in Crimea — intelligence from people who didn’t expect a war but did expect to be rewarded for optimism and scolded for pessimism.
While Russia has been relying on a lot of easily-debunked lies and forgeries, the disinformation potential of modern AI is skyrocketing. Have you heard of deepfakes or GPT3? If not, you soon will. Disinformation will get much more convincing and voluminous over time. We need to get out ahead of it, and we’re not.