The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s new control tactic is the one Hannah Arendt warned us about 50 years ago

Fake fact-checks, designed to sow confusion, are Putin’s latest trick for undermining faith in media — and the truth

When the truth is this ugly, an authoritarian leader’s strategy is to call the truth lies: Rescue workers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, that was damaged by Russian shelling. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
5 min

You don’t need belief. All you need is confusion.

That’s how authoritarian leaders manage to control the populace, the great German political philosopher Hannah Arendt once explained.

“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer,” she said in an interview nearly five decades ago.

When that happens, people lose the capacity not only to act but even to think and judge. “And with such a people,” she concluded grimly, “you can then do what you please.”

Arendt knew of what she spoke. She was a survivor of the Holocaust who devoted herself to the study of totalitarian regimes. It was Arendt who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the chilling mentality that guided the SS officer Adolph Eichmann, convinced that in helping to craft Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, he was simply a man “doing his job.”

Flash forward to a new war in Europe and a new diabolical way to confuse the populace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia: a raft of Russian-language videos that bill themselves as fact-checks of falsehoods by Ukrainian propagandists — but are actually fakes themselves.

This is next-level disinformation, a mind-bending 21st-century version of what Arendt warned us about.

One video pushed by pro-Russian sources on social media made a big show of dunking on footage of a huge explosion in an urban area — claiming that while Ukrainian propagandists had tried to present it as a recent missile strike in Kharkiv, it was actually an unrelated explosion from 2017, according to an analysis by the investigative news outlet ProPublica.

The unspoken message? Don’t believe all these reports you’re seeing of Russian missile strikes in Ukraine! The catch? This supposed fact-check was a pure straw man: ProPublica’s analysis found virtually no evidence that the above-mentioned explosion footage was being trafficked on social media at all, let alone by Ukrainian propagandists presenting it as something it’s not.

This is some twisted stuff: actual lies spread by what looks like the debunking of lies.

Through Putin’s looking glass: How the Russians are seeing — or not seeing — the war in Ukraine

The phony fact-check videos — there are about a dozen of them — have garnered more than a million views on the messaging app Telegram and are finding a ready audience on Twitter, too. No one knows their precise source or sources, but pro-Russian officials are doing what they can to spread them. A screenshot from one of the fake debunking videos was broadcast on Russian state TV, ProPublica reported; another was circulated by an official Russian government Twitter account.

The researchers who examined the videos see an obvious purpose, one that will resonate with those who know their 20th-century European history.

“The reason that it’s so effective is because you don’t actually have to convince someone that it’s true. It’s sufficient to make people uncertain as to what they should trust,” Patrick Warren of Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, which led the research in the story, told ProPublica.

And when the legitimate press has been run out of the country, there’s no way to know or check.

As Russian forces bomb civilian targets in Ukraine — including, horrifically, a maternity hospital in an attack that killed three this week and injured 17 others — the truth is too ugly. So the strategy is to deny, accuse and obfuscate.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed reports of the hospital bombing as “information terrorism,” according to Reuters, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov scoffed at the “pathetic shouting about so-called atrocities by the Russian armed forces.”

It’s all part of Putin’s much broader campaign to control the message in Russia. That includes shutting down the independent press, blocking Facebook and making journalistic truth-telling — described as “false news” if it doesn’t hew to the party line — a crime punishable by a prison term. Even the words “war” and “invasion” are off limits.

On Thursday, the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom tweeted out photographs it claimed were evidence that a popular beauty blogger was masquerading as a woman injured in the Mariupol hospital bombing. (“Wondering how the Russian government will deal with being accused of war crimes?” the Russian-born American journalist Julia Ioffe noted darkly on Twitter. “By accusing the injured pregnant women of being actors in makeup.”)

This is how journalists figure out if all those Ukraine videos are real

Part of the reason this tactic works is that there are so many faked-up videos and photographs circulating on the Internet these days that skepticism really is necessary. Indeed, it’s unwise to share such images unless they are from a reliable source that is doing serious verification and vetting.

There could be no doubt, though, of the memorable photograph that appeared on many newspaper front pages Thursday — including The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today and others around the world — showing an injured pregnant woman being carried on a stretcher amid the rubble of the bombed-out hospital grounds.

In the digital age, keeping reality under lock and key isn’t as feasible as in Hannah Arendt’s day. What is possible, though, is sowing endless doubt.

Truth will out,” wrote Shakespeare in an era much further removed than Arendt’s from our own dystopian moment.

Maybe so, but Putin and his henchmen will do their best to make people unable to recognize it. And, “with such a people,” as Arendt put it, “you can then do what you please.”

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