Denial is a common tactic used by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the media machine he sponsors. When little green men, Russian soldiers without insignia, started occupying Crimea, Putin denied it. When Russian soldiers spilled across the Ukrainian border, fueling a civil war in the country, Putin denied it.
When Russia intervened in the war in Syria, Putin and the headlines emblazoned on Russian-backed media proclaimed the Kremlin was coming to the rescue to take out ISIS. Reality proved different. Russian bombs were directed not at ISIS hotbeds, but rebel strongholds. In a ruthless campaign to prop up their brutal ally Bashar al-Assad, Russia went on to bomb numerous hospital, schools, bakeries, a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy and the emergency rescue group the White Helmets, among other civilian targets. The Kremlin denied all of it. Its media served to amplify all those denials.
When news came out that the CIA believes Russia had intervened in America’s election to help elect Trump, his transition team denied it: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Invoking Iraq is a common tactic of deflection in Russian media. Asking “What about Iraq?” is meant to bring the conversation to a halt and absolve the Kremlin of any wrongdoing. How dare the U.S. assert any moral superiority after invading Iraq? On my final day of anchoring at RT, when it became apparent Russian forces were present in Ukraine, the news director demanded I pose this question to former Congressman Ron Paul: “The mainstream media has been covering Ukraine non-stop. John Kerry famously said ‘You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext’ Why didn’t the mainstream media challenge the secretary of State regarding pretext to war in Iraq?”
Iraq had nothing to do with the pressing issue at hand, but it served to redirect the conversation to U.S. hypocrisy. The argument was similarly summoned to deflect from Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Russian messaging aims to incite existing tensions and deepen existing divisions. It aims to make angry people angrier and paranoid people more paranoid. Its overarching goal is to instill a deep distrust in the political establishment, Western media, and the concept of democracy itself. In that sense, Trump ran a Russian campaign, enflaming the angry and disillusioned.
But he went further, stepping into territory where even RT producers put their foot down. As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump went on Alex Jones’s show—where he’s peddled lies about 9/11 as an inside job and the Sandy Hook massacre as a hoax—and praised the notorious perpetrator of falsehoods.
“Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump told the InfoWars host. After the election, says Jones, Trump called to personally thank the man who became persona non grata at RT, as producers argued continuing to have him on as a guest was damaging to the channel’s credibility.
We saw exactly what can happen when an armed consumer of Alex Jones, fake news, and disinformation got off the internet to explore a conspiracy in the real world. A man walked into a popular D.C. pizza place last week to “self-investigate” Pizzagate, the bizarre and completely false scandal in which Democratic leaders were supposedly running a child-sex ring, firing his weapon inside the establishment before he was finally apprehended. After he was captured, the man admitted, in an epic understatement, that his “intel was not 100 percent.”
When Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in the shadows of the Kremlin in early 2015, the Russian government denied any involvement. To this day, no one has been held accountable. But many blame the atmosphere of fear, hate, and paranoia instilled by the tightly controlled state media, which casts opposition as an evil danger to Mother Russia.
In the past month, I have traveled to three European countries reacting to Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare at a time when a resurgent Russia is growing bolder and more aggressive. In the Baltic state of Latvia, where Russian occupation is still a painfully fresh memory, Russian disinformation is seen as tool of an existential threat. In Poland, the nation views Russian disinformation as a national-security threat. A press conference and series of panel discussions on the topic was attended by the defense and foreign ministers, signaling the Polish government’s priority to combatting what it views as a serious danger.
It was a different story in Budapest, where press freedoms have been steadily declining. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has developed cozy ties with Putin and the press has taken an increasingly pro-Russian tone, with the government news outlets sometimes parroting headlines from Russian propaganda sites. In October, the country’s largest opposition paper shut down. The growing anti-American sentiment in the country hit me during a panel discussion I was participating in, which included a Trump adviser and Hungarian politician. Zsolt Nemeth, head of the Hungarian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, flatly blamed the wars in Ukraine and Syria on the U.S. Stunned, I found myself the sole voice reminding the audience of Russia’s integral and aggressive role in both conflicts.
Facts are the foundation upon which modern civilization thrives. Medicine and science depend on the consensual agreement of facts, and so does foreign affairs and journalism. Both Trump and Putin use disinformation to channel a message of anger, division, and above all, distrust—telling its listeners to trust no one. Both boldly reject truth and disregard facts.
For Trump as for Putin, reality is something that can be molded or outright dismissed when it would prove damning. It is now up to U.S. institutions, the media, and the American people to declare that a world in which facts don’t matter is not a reality we want to live in.