“What is the cost of lies?” asks Valery Legasov, the Soviet nuclear physicist at the heart of the hit HBO series ‘Chernobyl’. “It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.” That warning is both remarkably familiar and disturbingly apt in an age dominated by fake news and alternative facts, especially because the famed Soviet obfuscation machine has found new life under Vladimir Putin’s watch in contemporary Russia, write Natalia Arno and Vladimir Kara-Murza.
Dutch prosecutors have announced charges against four pro Kremlin separatist commanders for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which resulted in the death of the plane’s 298 passengers. Rather than offer an apology to the families of the 298 people who died in the crash, the Kremlin propaganda machine has opted for obfuscation and disinformation, blaming the Ukrainian government — which didn’t control the territory from where the missile was fired — and the C.I.A., saying Putin’s plane was the intended target of the American intelligence agency. These lies may not have fooled anyone in the Netherlands, but given the near-total state monopoly on the media in Russia, many people there seemed to have taken the Kremlin’s story at face value.
On Friday, June 28th, a group of policymakers, prominent journalists, international legal scholars and free speech advocates will come together in The Hague for a public conference designed to find effective responses to the Putin regime’s unprecedented assault on truth and free public debate. Far from being redundant, the question of whether propaganda is protected speech is central to the policy debate over Kremlin disinformation. The key irony is that illiberal regimes like Putin’s are able to exploit the very freedoms they deny their own citizens to wage information warfare in the West. Free speech is an essential liberty and also a gaping vulnerability. How can we reconcile the two?
Free speech: Essential, yet not absolute
First, it is important to note the divergent approaches Russia and many Western democracies have taken to controlling the flow of information. While Western democracies seem to have only just recently begun to grapple with the policy implications of massive foreign disinformation campaigns and the perceived collapse of truth, reason and facts in public debate, Russians have spent the better part of a century living in a ‘post-truth’ world.
A current example can be found in the Chernobyl series. Rather than tell people living near Chernobyl that the plant was spreading radioactive contaminants into the air, Soviet leaders instead urged children to go outside for May Day festivities and didn’t evacuate the nearest town of Pripyat for 36 hours. Nor did then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev warn neighboring countries that a dangerous cloud of poisonous gas was headed their way, out of fear of looking weak to domestic adversaries. Putin and his coterie of oligarchs fit within this long, insidious tradition of post-truth politics.
As our friend, the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, described the regime’s propaganda in one of his final interviews: “[Putin] programmed my countrymen to hate strangers. He persuaded them that we need to rebuild the former Soviet order, and that the position of Russia in the world depends entirely on how much the world is afraid of us… they operate in accordance with the simple principles of Joseph Goebbels. Play on the emotions; the bigger the lie, the better; lies should be repeated many times. This propaganda is directed to the simple men; there is no room for any questions, nuances. Unfortunately, it works.”
In the West, democracies have clung to the capitalist model of a ‘free marketplace of ideas.’ As US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously argued in a 1919 dissent: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
Vladimir Putin, however, believes in a healthy dose of state intervention to sway perceptions of reality his way. State-run NTV is dutifully producing its own series on Chernobyl, with CIA agents responsible for the meltdown of the reactor while heroic apparatchiks fight to save lives rather than running to avoid exposure to radiation. The Kremlin’s view of what happened at Chernobyl will be artfully produced and pit “good” Soviets against “evil” Americans. It will likely be one the most trumpeted TV shows in Russia this year.
Protecting the public pursuit of truth
Faced with the real-world consequences of Putin’s propaganda, Western societies are coming to understand that free speech may be an essential liberty, but it has never been absolute. Words that could create a clear and present danger for societies have routinely been prohibited. Just as falsely crying “fire” in a crowded theatre would seldom be considered protected speech because of the dangers such a lie can provoke, several European countries have already taken action against speech that incites ethnic, racial or religious hatred. Much of the Kremlin’s disinformation fits into those categories.
So how can we adapt our understanding of protected speech in light of the disinformation threats we currently face? How can an ideological opponent compete with Putin’s army of trolls, none of which are operating in good faith? A marketplace of ideas can only function where competition is protected. The key policy challenge facing today’s political leaders is how to safeguard a free marketplace of ideas against a sort of ‘information dumping’ where foreign disinformation campaigns inhibit a free and fair exchange of ideas in the public sphere. On 28 June, we hope to find ways to meet that challenge.
Natalia Arno is the President of the Free Russia Foundation in Washington, DC. Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prominent Russian democracy activist and author and chair of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.
This article was originally published on EU Reporter