Maynard: Countering Russian propaganda by fighting fire with fire

By Robert Maynard

I recently wrote an article about Russia’s ongoing propaganda campaign and how it was part of a larger plan. In that article, I included a quote from a Time Magazine article:

For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology.

The latest revelation on this front is that Russia activated Twitter sleeper cells for the 2016 election day blitz.

So far, these alarms have shed little light on the end game that Russia is playing. Russia is fighting a two front war. On one front, they are pushing back on the Western-led “new world order” that they see as impinging on their national sovereignty. On another front, they are resisting the forces of freedom that led to the fall of the former Soviet Union and the freedom of many behind the iron curtain. They seek an authoritarian order where they are the great imperial power.

They are not the only ones who seem threatened by the wave of freedom that assigned communism to the “ash heap of history.” The editor of Freedom Network Today recently had an interview with Oxford Historian Timothy Garton Ash. Professor Ash chronicled the freedom revolution that was sweeping the globe starting in 1989, but sees a counter-revolution pushing back against the forces of freedom:

We are experiencing a worldwide anti-liberal counter-revolution at the moment. Of course, to a historian it is not surprising that there is a reformation, and then a counter-reformation. There is the French Revolution, there is a restoration. But in the past nine months I have been in China, India, Turkey, North America and Europe. We see real counter-revolutions everywhere as a response to the march of freedom and liberalism. Freedom of speech, economic and social freedom is threatened. Whether we talk about Wladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orbán, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage: For all the differences between these politicians and their movements — and there are some of them — they can be called protagonists of a global anti-liberal movement. This movement is aimed against all the freedoms that have been won since 1989.

This “counter-revolution” fears the message of freedom and is vulnerable to it. As reported by the Freedom Network Today:

Last weekend, the Libertarian Party of Russia was co-organising the Adam Smith Forum, an annual conference on classical liberalism, in Moscow. The topics discussed included railway nationalisation, universal basic income, smart contracts and many more — by no means anyone called for an armed anti-government riot. However, when a group of guests and speakers were going on a lunch break they were brutally searched, arrested and taken to the police station.

French author Victor Hugo once observed that: “more powerful than an invading army is an idea whose time had come.”  Thie idea of freedom is what Putin and his fellow oligarchs fear more than anything else.  They have good reason to fear this.  A recent article by “The Foundation for Economic Education” details how “a grassroots revolution” is starting to chip away at Russia’s authoritarian edifice:

But Monday was the real day for Moscow to celebrate; despite election fraud and institutionalized censorship, opposition candidates in ten local councils unexpectedly won the majority of seats. Adding insult to injury, in the district where Putin himself votes, his party lost all its seats to the opposition — along with seven other councils where the ruling party now holds no mandates.

Among the winners was my colleague and friend Dmitriy Maksimov. He joined the Libertarian Party of Russia in 2012, soon after I became the first party member elected into public office. Since then, he’s combined the unrewarding work of the party Secretary with audacious street activism, a remarkably dangerous thing in modern Russia. Once Dmitriy even attended an anti-censorship rally with his lips sealed by a sticker saying just one word: Putin. A picture of him was soon published in Charlie Hebdo. It’s not international publicity, however, that helped him win the race, but the brilliant team he worked with.

Of course, that victory was not without its costs:

Thirty-five km away from Moscow, in a small town of Pushkino, a coalition led by ex-Chairman of the Libertarian Party Andrey Shalnevleft the pro-government candidates long behind. Andrey used to be the youngest leader of a political party in Russia — something that requires a lot of courage, given that two years ago the leader of another opposition party, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead walking distance from the Kremlin.

People like Andrey, Dmitriy, and many more are not easily scared. In the absence of independent media sources, they campaign door to door, organize public meetings and reveal cases of corruption — and manage to win over a much stronger opponent. When thinking globally, they travel from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok spreading the ideas of liberty. When acting locally, they remember that a successful city is not a result of expensive public projects but of voluntary grassroots activity.

As al Jazeera reports, the Libertarians are not the only ones whose message is resonating with the Russian people:

The campaign was so low-key that Kremlin-controlled television networks hardly mentioned it, and the turnout in Moscow barely reached 15 percent. The Kremlin knew the United Russia party, the ruling pro-Putin behemoth, would predictably win most of the 1,500 council seats.

In Gagarinsky district, it didn’t.

United Russia candidates lost all 12 seats in the district, a leafy neighbourhood of historical buildings dominated by the statue of first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on top of a 40-metre high titanium spire. Opposition candidates fielded by Yabloko, Russia’s oldest liberal democratic party, won here by a landslide.

They used an innovative technological approach to campaigning:

Gudkov’s coalition used a groundbreaking online platform that resembled a Lego toy or a simple video game.

The platform helped more than 1,000 candidates – most of them inexperienced first-time politicians – file registration documents and financial reports, and design and print out campaign leaflets. It helped them transparently collect donations, build teams, post updates online, and even plan door-to-door campaigning.

“We created a new technology of running election campaigns; we call it ‘political Uber’, and this Uber opened up political doors to newcomers,” Gudkov said.

It is past time that Russia’s authoritarian propaganda campaign was countered with a pro-freedom ideological offensive. We made good use of radio to do this during the cold war, so why can’t we ramp up such a war of ideas in an Information Age? Why not flood the world with “political Ubers” supporting brave pro-freedom fighters? We have the technology, but our political leadership does not have the vision. Perhaps such a campaign will have to come from the private sector.

Robert Maynard writes a column for True North Reports. He lives in Williston, Vermont.