“Truth is the first casualty in war.” This oft-quoted truism attributes back to 1915 England. The news and views coming from the past five weeks of the Russian “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine reminds us that this profound 107-year-old saying is as true as ever.
“Controlling the narrative” emerges as important as managing war itself. War information and disinformation, morale-boosting “news” vs. enemy morale-defeating “news,” manipulation of civilian populations for behavior control or conversely for war sacrifices, and even commercialization of war events for profit – all this quickly fires up along with the jets, rockets and tanks, all grinding humans and towns and cities to bloody dust and debris.
Recall the early “news” leading to the Russian invasion. Even as he surrounded Ukraine with 190,000 troops, shipping massive tons of equipment and weapons into Belarus and the eastern border of Donbas, Vladimir Putin assured the world “not to worry,” that all this was only a “routine military exercise.” And the world and Ukraine itself deeply wanted to believe him – such blind hope costing valuable preparation time.
“Just a military training,” was the first “truth” that turned out as total lies and deception. “Russia never invades other countries,” Putin said. Now we learn how this squares up, as Putin later declared, “Ukraine isn’t actually a real country and never was.” A kind and fatherly Putin was simply reuniting the Nazi-tormented victims of Ukraine’s drug-fueled leadership back to his loving, caressing hands of Mother Russia.
Propaganda often creeps up on you before it explodes into full bloom, revealing the evil behind it. But despite the “just a military exercise” propaganda, it wasn’t long until entire towns and cities were bombed to rubble with thousands of those civilians Putin was “saving” instead turning up dead in mass graves, shockingly tied up, raped, tortured, abused. The gory images we’ve all seen this week lay to rest the “genius” and “savvy” of the Donald Trump-admired Putin, as America got to see the images Russians never will. Most Russians will never know of the atrocities their nation has committed.
Putin is playing the world while suffocating information from his own people. Before the Russian war propaganda machine fired up, most Russians didn’t want a war. They didn’t want their sons coming home in bags or boxes or not at all and didn’t want disruptions in their lives. So, when the inconvenient truths of war finally bleed out with sobbing mothers and grieving fathers, it’s handy to have absolute control of all channels of information and messaging. “Nothing you are seeing, or hearing is true…what I tell you is the only truth.” Putin has achieved 100% control of all Russian media. It’s news and information La-La land in Moscow…
Think we have fake news in the U.S.? Putin forced ALL non-state information outlets closed and shuttered in Russia. No independent radio or TV. Facebook is shut, Twitter gone, and more internet modalities are being crimped. Protest is all but forbidden. Even saying the word, “war” is an offense itself, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Thanks to state-controlled “truth,” unknowing Russians know in their hearts Putin wouldn’t murder of all their Ukrainian brothers and sisters and cousins and mothers and fathers and children…
So, when is a war not a war? When in Russia you can’t say it is, and there’s no free press to educate the obvious to anyone who could otherwise read or hear.
Next time you hear any politician point to wide swaths of the American press and slander it, “fake news” – don’t buy that lie! Call out that political hack as a Putinist lackey! Thankfully, our robust news sources are usually more right than wrong, and our content laws are particularly light touch. Still, it’s up to you and me personally to vigilantly guard our minds from manipulation as our press can still be the Wild, Wild West.
Be grateful we have the chance and the choice on what we consume – even if we don’t like what other sides may say!
Still, propagandized news and manipulation persists; will always persist, and this war has refocused our collective heads on the importance of reason, research and common sense when consuming nearly any commercially delivered content.
As mini-Putin, Donald Trump has emerged as a free press enemy. Of the U.S. press, Trump literally proclaimed, “They are truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” As frighteningly Putinish as this sounds, Trump and his acolytes’ constant fake news!” attacks against news coverage attempt what Putin’s press shutdowns have in fact achieved: To cause citizens to disbelieve and avoid all opposing information while establishing your side as the “one true source.”
Indeed, while you’re told it’s “fair and balanced,” relying on only one news source, or all-similar sources, is programming your own brain for propagandized manipulation.
This past week Trump again assisted Putin’s authoritarian propaganda machine. RT (Russian Times) ran a front-page story featuring Trump decrying not Russia but rather the “radical left politicians now running America” as America’s greatest enemy. It’s Trump’s opponents who are ruining America. Democracy itself is therefore flawed. Piling on, “Biden’s weakness has given us the Ukraine disaster.” It’s not Putin’s war machine that’s caused these atrocities, instead it was Biden who personally triggered this. What a nice propaganda cluster bomb Trump gave Putin against an unwitting and news-blockaded Russia.
Russians are going to have a hard time being critical thinkers with their critical press coverage eliminated. The Ukraine War reminds us just how urgently valuable our free speech and free press are. Don’t let anyone demonize our freedom of information and communication. That’s an authoritarian’s trick, perfected by Putin, attempted by Trump, and deployed by despots through all history.
Today we know propaganda from all sides exists and we’re being sold something constantly. There’s a war on, and vested interests are all in, selling their sides of the story for personal, corporate and national gain. Be mindful of content creators as well as the content, itself. Today, more than ever, we must remain vigilant, critical thinkers.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.