The Soviets lost the Cold War partly because of their crude propaganda. But the Kremlin learned its historical lesson. The recent news about Facebook selling ads during the 2016 election to a Russian troll farm and Russia creating fake online Americans to push anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda show that Russia is now fighting a new kind of war with great finesse — and is taking Americans by surprise.
But it shouldn’t be. Disinformation has long been a Russian strategy to manipulate its own citizens and to undermine U.S. democracy. During the Cold War, the U.S. government took concrete measures to identify and combat propaganda filled with Marxist rhetoric and improbable claims, and Americans’ ability to recognize such propaganda became central to the country’s defeat of the Soviet Union.
Yet President Vladimir Putin has found considerable success by waging a new version of the old propaganda war with the West. Russia’s global messaging today is nimbler, subtler and better funded, giving the Kremlin an edge in advancing its expansionist goals. But without the familiar ideological cues and division lines from the “first” Cold War, many Americans appear to have lowered their guard, accepting more nuanced, more pervasive Russian lies as just another point of view.
So how did Americans lose their sense of what was foreign propaganda and what was not? Part of it has to do with changes in the country’s propaganda machine. During the Cold War, Soviet authorities struggled to sell their political message to the masses around the globe. Marxist ideology and party control ensured that Soviet journalists strictly penned stories that followed the party line, ultimately limiting what Soviet scribes could say.
Spreading the revolution by planting news in international newspapers often meant sounding ridiculous. In the 1940s and 1950s in particular, pieces on outlandishly efficient Soviet factories, brilliant-yet-unknown Russian inventors and happy collective farmers went off to news agencies across the world. But few wanted to publish the dispatches because they were poorly written, unbelievably boring and patently untrue.
This kind of fake news stifled, not strengthened, Soviet efforts to remake the world. To Western readers and viewers, Soviet “news” easily stood out for what it was: propaganda.
The United States took this threat seriously, despite its frequently crude presentation of Soviet ideology, hype and hyperbole. Stories about train engineers who drove four-kilometer-long trains across Siberia at breakneck speeds were easy to dismiss, ultimately making America’s own systematic (and successful) propaganda efforts less complicated, as well.
To push back against Soviet propaganda in a global battle for influence, the U.S. government actively used the Department of State, the CIA, the U.S. Information Agency and various cultural organizations to showcase the most appealing aspects of the American way of life and to promote half-truths and deceptions of its own. At home, the U.S. government mobilized for vigilance against Soviet influence in political and cultural life, most notably during the McCarthy era.
After his homeland’s humiliating defeat in the Cold War, Putin recognized that escalating and transforming the propaganda war is central to challenging U.S. dominance. While Americans may now pay more heed to Russia’s efforts to expand its territory and political influence worldwide, they continue to dismiss the role of the Kremlin’s global disinformation meant to mold public opinion in favor of Russia’s ambitious geopolitical goals. In its sophisticated form, greater scale and effectiveness, the modern propaganda has changed in style, but not in purpose from the Cold War.
Under Putin, the Russian media has gained unprecedented power to spread global lies once again. But this time, news is free from the Marxist-Leninist logic and language, and it explicitly emulates Western journalism — both in appearance and the content of the news. Newscasters dress smartly and argue and schmooze with a panache their Soviet predecessors could have never matched. The government-funded news channel RT (formerly Russia Today) broadcasts in multiple languages, while its page claims that its top YouTube broadcasts get 1 billion views per day. RT has also hired veteran U.S. broadcasters such as Ed Schultz to give the channel credibility in the United States.
In the new “hybrid warfare” the Kremlin champions, anything goes: War need not be declared; intervention should be deniable; all government and private resources can be mobilized to advance Russia’s goals.
Technology plays a key role. For instance, Moscow uses hired trolls and algorithms known as “bots” to replicate its message to the world. The news about immigration and terrorism that they amplify, to take one example, aims to undermine trust in the Western order by portraying the West as tottering on the edge of apocalypse.
More importantly, its content fits easily into the liberal-loathing echo chamber conservatives have created. The irony: The hugely popular Fox News, with its right-wing, historically hawkish, anti-Soviet audience, now eagerly replicates the Russian perspective.
The Soviet government never dreamed that millions of patriotic Americans would read — and believe — Pravda. But as Russian-generated stories zip around the Internet and through conservative media circles, propaganda is proving to be an effective tool to undermine the values and cohesion of the West.
There’s no instant solution to the problem of Russian manipulation of Western news, but some things can be done. Elected officials from both parties must pressure the Trump administration to undertake aggressive countermeasures, such as Internet literacy initiatives and efforts to flag Russian propaganda, disinformation and fake news. The State Department accepting the funds earmarked by Congress for that purpose would be a good start.
The United States won the Cold War against a sickly Soviet state, but now Russia poses a different kind of threat. Under Putin, Moscow’s effort to undermine moral authorities and credible news sources will only get more intense. Russia overcame key limitations of the Soviet state’s propaganda machine. At least when it comes to shaping a global information strategy, its leaders are learning from the past.
In the United States, the challenge is perhaps the opposite: to snap out of the historical frame of mind, not just that of the Cold War, but the post-Cold War, and to understand clearly Russia’s new disinformation strategies of today.