On June 28, 2019, Free Russia Foundation hosted a conference Finding Practical and Principal Approaches to Countering the Kremlin’s Influence Campaigns While Upholding Sanctity of Free Speech at the Hague, Netherlands. Continue reading Is Propaganda Protected Free Speech?
“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
Free Russia Foundation recently hosted Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two investigative journalists from Russia who specialize in security services and internet surveillance, and sat down to talk about control over the internet in Russia, and whether independent media and civil society can prosper in an environment of growing censorship.
You have written a book about electronic surveillance in Soviet times and in modern Russia, and during the internet era. How widespread is government surveillance of the public today?
Andrei: Surveillance carried out by the Russian security services has not ever been intended for monitoring the entire population. The idea of using surveillance, the very fact of its existence, is to intimidate the public. Surveillance is only employed on people who the Kremlin perceives as dangerous – political activists, journalists, experts, people who express an independent opinion. These people may indeed be under surveillance and materials intercepted by the security services can then be used as kompromat. We’ve seen this in the case of Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny and many others. But the very fact that they are being watched becomes public and later people who have no connection to the opposition or political movements will feel limited in expressing their opinion, including on the internet. As in the old days over the phone, now people are afraid to express their opinions online.
Irina: We can say that, in technical terms, the Russian security services have fallen behind, relatively speaking, compared with their American counterparts, for example. They do not have the technical capability to intercept everyone simultaneously and store this data. But since the Russian security services are not bound by oversight, the possibilities of using intercepted information for their own purposes, including that which is obtained illegally, are unlimited. Therefore, people know that if they are under surveillance – their communications are being intercepted and they are being watched – it means that some kind of repression will follow. It’s not like how the NSA gathers information on you and puts the data on hold until they might need it. In Russia, if you’re in the sights of the security services, it is very bad.
So, the SORM system* is not pervasive?
Andrei: No, we don’t have mass surveillance.
Irina: Although, they would love to have it.
Andrei: They are currently trying to create it, for example by forcing all Internet providers and operators to store data so that security services can have access to it. But there are problems with that since the country is so large that data is not stored in one place, but in different regions. It is not technically possible to analyze the whole country’s data at the same time. Therefore, they rely on targeted surveillance of people identified as potential troublemakers. But it does not work in reverse order, like how American intelligence agencies can analyze data and identify people who speak on a particular topic and then create a circle of suspects.
The Russian authorities have been successful in suppressing independent media, including through online censorship. Strict regulation of bloggers has been introduced, and the regulator Roskomnadzor can close down any online platforms on the basis of extremism and so on. But at the same time there are websites like Meduza, Alexei Navalny’s website, YouTube channel and social media available. The authorities have not been very successfully in blocking the messenger service Telegram. How do you see the Kremlin’s struggle to establish censorship of independent media and the readers’ efforts to bypass it?
Andrei: The Kremlin is bad enough in inventing ways to restrict access to information. But in general it’s very difficult to close access to opposition resources by technical means – readers can use VPN, proxies and still get access to what they want to read or see. The problem lies in the fact that for the majority of people – who do not actively seek out alternative information – the Kremlin creates technical difficulties around accessing that information. A good example of this is what happened to Telegram. People who really want to use Telegram use VPN. But a large number of people who used Telegram, but were not motivated to make a special effort to keep using it, they have left Telegram. According to some findings, up to 70% of the Telegram audience left after the service was officially restricted.
Irina: The internet is too big a challenge for the Kremlin, because it is not traditional media, where you can simply control the media owner or repress the editor in chief. This cannot be done with the internet because it is an environment where information is shared instantly and it is very difficult to control. If something happens, some kind of crisis, and people begin to share information, then it is difficult to control 1,000 users at once; it is almost impossible. The tragic college shooting in Kerch is an example of this. At first, the authorities as always began to promote a narrative that a gas explosion had occurred and that was the cause of the deaths. But the authorities did not even have time to react, as videos from the scene began to appear and it quickly became clear there was no gas explosion. The Kremlin could not stop the flow of information. This gives reason for optimism.
But if we talk about the ability of independent media to operate online, to what extent is it possible? The majority of independent initiatives seem to be based abroad.
Andrei: It’s not just that. The fact is that if you want to establish an independent media platform, you must have independent sources of funding. We now have an increase in investigative journalism. We see a lot of projects, small projects, that do very important work and they really do great investigations on very important topics. But their audiences are very small, or if they are large and considered a threat to the Kremlin, advertisers will not go to them. If you do not receive advertising revenue, what is your alternative? Subscriptions? Subscribing involves identifying users and people fear that they can be identified via the surveillance system and it can be used against them. Therefore, the problem here is not technical; it lies outside the internet. We simply cannot find a business model that would allow us to create truly independent media. So far, we Russian journalists have learned to create media outlets that provide an alternative point of view, but we have not invented models for truly independent media.
What is your prediction about whether civil society will gain strength or somehow change the situation in Russia, particularly in the context of the internet?
Irina: Russian civil society, unlike political parties, is strengthening every day. In addition to the huge number of people participating in the Navalny movement – which is not yet a political party but rather a broad movement of resistance to the Kremlin and the current government – there are a lot of volunteer movements. We have not seen volunteer movements in Russia before; this is new and the movements are coordinated via the internet. There are people helping in many areas, like organizations that help prisoners, women in trouble, disabled people, and so on. All this is civil society activity and if they didn’t have the opportunity to coordinate through the internet, there would be nothing at all. The Kremlin does not like this civic activity, but it cannot do much because it is made up of masses of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands anymore – it’s already in the tens of thousands of people.
Andrei: One of the ways the Kremlin can control the situation is to convince people that they should not engage in political and social activities. The Kremlin has always created the perception that if you have problems with the state, then you will be absolutely alone. There will be a huge Leviathan state that will simply crush you. And that indeed was the case for many years in Russia. If you were an ordinary activist – not a famous journalist or writer – and you had problems with the state, then the state would most likely crush you. What is changing now – and this is thanks to the internet – is that civil society has removed this stigma from so many topics and has created a sense of support. If a person now finds himself or herself in a difficult situation, for example by being detained by the police, there are organizations like OVD-info and dozens of others that will help you. If a person goes to prison – it is no longer as scary as it was 10 years ago because the person will not be left on their own. Even if a person does not have money for a good lawyer, there are already organizations that will find one and help him. And this is something new. It removes the stigma from so many topics, it’s not so scary anymore. It’s still scary, but not so terrible and not so final. And it does not necessarily give confidence in the future, but at least some kind of hope.
Irina: Internet spreads hope.
So despite targeted surveillance as well as self-censorship, the Russian authorities still cannot control the internet as they would like to and that gives hope for some change in terms of strengthening civil society.
Andrei: Yes, the changes are already underway.
Andrei: As Irina said, civil society is growing and this cannot be stopped.
Irina: If it were a totalitarian regime, they could stop it. But an authoritarian one cannot. The regime in Russia, thank God, is not totalitarian.
*SORM – Soviet and Russian electronic surveillance system (Sistema Operativno-Rozysknikh Meropriyatiy, or System of Operative Search Measures). Russian legislation requires all of Russia’s internet service and phone providers to install a device in their lines, a black box that connects the lines to the Federal Security Services, the FSB. The FSB is then able to intercept and store communication and data.