In modern Russia, the administration is comfortable using lies to muddle their people. If you push out several completely contradictory stories, the truth becomes buried, or at least discredited along with the other clearly untrue stories. If you make an effort to shed doubt on the news outlets, NGOs, and individuals who use facts to show when a statement is demonstrably untrue then it becomes harder for people to settle on one single statement as being true, in amongst a series of statements that are not. People are naturally inclined to trust authority, so when the government makes an official statement it carries weight against an individual or single news outlet.
This approach was perfected under Communism, especially Stalinism. At various points, whilst millions were starving, industry and the economy were collapsing, even up to the denial and then underplaying of the Chernobyl disaster, the government would state that reality was one way, when it was really the complete opposite. Audacious lies are harder to deal with than small ones.
.. Currently, when the Russian government denies something that is demonstrably true, or makes a statement that can be proven not to be true, there can be a number of reasons why they do this.
1. Telling a lie because you believe it
Putin is notoriously cut off from the world. He does not use the Internet, and receives very short briefings from a close circle of people around him. Those people are unlikely to want to upset him, or contradict him. Being surrounded by people who depend on your favour to remain in position, or even remain alive, means you increasingly get less and less real information. It becomes an extreme version of the echo chambers we’re all becoming trapped in by Social Media algorithms.
.. under Stalin the KGB was brilliant at collecting intelligence, but useless at analysing it. When people reported intelligence that was counter to the world view of Stalin, they generally ended up dead. So increasingly the intelligence was edited, or mis-interpreted to support the existing set of beliefs of the leader.
So it is possible, and some pundits suggest this, that Putin actually believes the world view the Russian government expresses through its propaganda, much as Stalin’s Russia really believed the country was riddled with foreign spies, and was at constant threat of invasion — assumptions that history have shown us were completely wrong.
With Trump we have to consider some assumptions. He has been rich and powerful for a long time. Therefore, he is likely to have been surrounded by yes-men who only enforce his world view and opinions rather than challenging them. He does not brush shoulders with reality on a daily basis, living the life of a billionaire. He also does not read, and watches a very narrow spectrum of media. Now he is President he is even more cut off from the world, and instead of taking advantage of a state machinery that could leave him amongst the best informed people in the world, he has eschewed Intelligence briefings, and other input from independent sources.
.. It would be fair to say that Trump is not highly educated, well read, or particularly well informed. This applies to most of his Cabinet, which is noticeably unqualified and poorly educated.
.. On top of this many of them are religious fundamentalists, which clouds their interpretation of facts with an ideology that is not open to challenges. The same applied to Stalinist Russia, when the Communist ideology came before facts and could over-rule them.
2. Telling a lie aimed only at your core constituency
Another way to interpret Trump’s lies are to conclude that he knows they are not true, and he knows we know they are not true, but that they are not aimed at us.
When the Russian government claims, for example, that it is clear a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down the MH17 passenger plane over Ukraine, it’s possible they know that we know this is not true. But the lie was told to foreign media like the BBC so that it can be played back to their own people in Russia and used to undermine reports of evidence that it was a Russian army missile that brought the plane down. They don’t care that we know it isn’t true, because the message is not for us. It is for their own people, and for those confused enough to have their belief in the official investigation findings undermined by a bare faced lie.
In effect, the messages are broadcast to everyone, but only one specific audience matters.
.. So with Trump, when he says the New York Times is failing, he may not care that we all know that is a blatant lie — factually not true. He could just be speaking to his core voters, whom he knows will not see any counter argument and may believe him. It is important to him that they don’t trust any media that will criticise him.
.. The same applies to his claim that Obama tapped his phones. He may know that most people will realise this is nonsense. But that core of people who only get news from Breitbart, and believe the conspiracies, will also believe this one about Obama. That in turn helps him undermine any findings in the future from investigations into his links with Russia.
If he can undermine the media that will broadcast this, and sew seeds of a conspiracy against him, he can blur any negative news about his links with Russia.
.. If this means his Tweeting is just aimed at securing that base of core voters, his Twitter feed seems slightly less insane.
.. he is able to take advantage of the echo chamber of the Trump constituency.
.. They are not trying to convince anyone new to get behind their narrative, they are just securing the narrative amongst those who already follow them.
3. Telling lies to undermine Truth
Kasaparov summed it up well in this Tweet:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Once truth is an undermined currency, as the Soviet Union proved, people give up caring altogether. People knew things were not true, but knowing that made no difference, and saying so was dangerous, so they stopped engaging with truth or facts.
The liberal media and Democrat politicians are talking about reaching the point where Trump’s core voters, the white working class, realise he has conned them. It is assumed that once they lose their healthcare, do not gain jobs, and see the Swamp ever more swamp-like, they will rebel and vote against him.
.. But if Trump can ensure they do not believe facts shared by the media, and do believe lies propagated by him and his supporters, then they may never realise they were conned, and may not that see things are not as good as promised. Or they will believe it is outside forces, not Trump. Blaming Obama for everything is laying the ground for that
.. In Russia, the government blames America, the EU, NATO, Russian liberals, or any other outside force for the demise of their economy, the loss of civil liberties, and indeed anything bad. Putin and the Administration are never to blame.
.. Trump will say that unemployment is up, even when data shows it is down. He will claim any success as his, and will blame China, Obama, the Democrats, or others for any failures. If that does not work, he will just rubbish any news that undermines him.
.. a natural skill of his, or whether it is a clever strategy of his advisors
.. the people around him are already skilled in manipulation of the truth. Paul Manafort advised former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych
.. Manafort will have become very well versed in Russian style manipulation of Truth through this work and will have taught Trump these lessons when he was his advisor. Then
Bannon ran Breitbart, which makes a business of manipulating the truth, and outright lying.
.. If within a few years a large swathe of the country either believes the Trump messaging, or does not trust the mainstream media, or thinks the Democrats are evil and corrupt, or just does not know what is true or not anymore, then Trump stands a chance of a second term regardless of how his first term goes.
.. To survive: read Russian novels like Master and Margherita
.. When you hear Trump lie, pause to ask yourself which type of lie it might be.