OVER THE last six months, the Russian propaganda machine has pursued a two-pronged strategy toward its domestic audience. The first prong, used to justify Russia’s takeover of Crimea, is a replay of what Hitler called the “Big Lie” — a false historical narrative in which the pro-democracy forces in Ukraine are portrayed as US-backed fascists out to commit genocide against ethnic Russians. Repeat a story often enough, the idea goes, and a majority of the population will come to accept it.
The second prong, adopted after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, might be called the Big Confusion. Faced with an event that threatens your Big Lie, start a disinformation campaign. Fill the domestic airwaves with so many bizarre rumors, conspiracy theories, and paranoid fantasies that a cynical public stops caring what really happened.
Russia’s propaganda effort also has a global dimension. In the last few years, the Kremlin has launched a slick, fast-paced satellite TV channel, Russia Today (RT), which pays top salaries to British and American broadcast journalists willing to repeat the same messages in English. A surprising number of viewers are tuning in.
How should the US government respond? Should it fight fire with fire, bombarding Russia and Ukraine with counter-propaganda? Or should it do what comes naturally to a democratic society with freedom of speech and the press — gather the facts, articulate the values at stake, and disseminate both as forcefully as possible, even if some aspects of the story do not reflect well on the United States?