Letter to the Editor: How Russian Propaganda Appears on Simpson’s Campus (Part 2)

by Dr. Safin, Special to the Simpsonian

In Part 1, my goal was primarily to respond to the lecture to correct the false narrative that Russia is acting defensively rather than acting as an aggressor and committing war crimes against civilians. Now I hope to encourage you to always ask “who does this serve?” whenever you engage with political messaging (propaganda). By reflecting on who would agree with the message, who it serves and who it harms, you can better decide for yourself if it is an idea worth propagating. The tricky part is that something can be factually true and still misleading or harmful. One common and painful example of bringing up a real statistic in a dishonest way is responding to instances of police brutality with statistics about gang violence to shift the conversation about crime rates in communities of color. It is dishonest, because the goal isn’t to address the latter issue, but to distract from the former issue. It is this standard practice of “whataboutism” that Russian propaganda has perfected. 

Here, I wish to highlight Russia’s online propaganda campaign, but I do not want to absolve any of us of the responsibilities that we have to make our own decisions. In other words, my message is “be mindful” rather than “it’s all Russia’s fault.” Indeed, Russia does not create social issues in the U.S., but rather it exploits them. Starting around 2014–the year Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea–the Russian troll farm has amplified divisive messaging, aiming to amplify societal rifts. In the U.S., this included pushing “All Lives Matter” posts as well as anti-police posts on competing Facebook pages. The goal wasn’t to support racial justice nor to support the police – it was to misinform and divide. The Kremlin Operatives have followed the same strategy after their 2022 invasion of Ukraine, using their official verified social media accounts to bring up other refugee crises, but not with the goal of helping other refugees, rather to cynically distract from the massive humanitarian catastrophe they were creating. This operation was in part successful, as when I started posting on social media to get help for my family, I received replies calling me racist for caring more about my family than for people I have never met. (As a researcher of prosocial behavior, I assure you, each and every human cares more about their loved ones than they do about strangers. This is normal. This is human.)

Again, I don’t think you should care more about Ukraine than Syria or any other country, but interestingly the people who were previously active in organizing to help Syrian refugees were very supportive towards me, while those who were aggressive towards me were silent about Syria prior to the invasion of Ukraine. That tells me their goal isn’t about helping other refugees, but reducing support for Ukraine. Why would they do that? Some are hired Russian trolls, some may share Putin’s politics and support his repressive policies, but what about the rest? My guess is that it’s some version of cognitive dissonance and the discomfort caused by knowing something truly awful is happening. Crimes against humanity in other parts of the world are easier to ignore as the governments (e.g., Syria, China, Yemen, etc) try to suppress information. In the case of Ukraine, because it is not a civil war like so many conflicts, the government empowered journalists and civilians to document and share the atrocities. In fact, unlike China or Syria, Ukraine has tried to draw attention to the war crimes being perpetrated on its territory and has organized English-language social media accounts to reach a wider audience. This created much more evidence of the crimes and severe toll, so to cope some people chose to dismiss it as fake news, propaganda or even “white privilege.” Indeed, history is filled with examples of people refusing to believe what’s right in front of them, because it’s easier to ignore it. I am guilty of this as well, so I am not telling you what to believe. You get to make up your own mind, but as you do, ask yourself who benefits from your position and who may be harmed by it.

Be sure to look for the third and final part of this series of submissions in future Simpsonians.