BBG Watch Guest Commentary

Because of some of their unique national traits, quite a few Americans, including younger journalists unfamiliar with Soviet and Russian history, have fallen from time to time for propaganda and disinformation spread by the Kremlin on satellite television and social media. Some of it may be a result of unfamiliarity with foreign policy issues, but American distrust of authority also plays a role. Some Americans accept without questioning claims that Russia was until recently or still is an essentially democratic nation, now under threat from the West, and therefore must defend itself. Kseniya Kirillova, a Russian journalist who studies these issues, explains why some Americans fall for such propaganda from the Kremlin. “Many Western journalists simply cannot conceive of the scope of lying in today’s Russian state media and continue to judge the information flowing out of Russia by the same criteria as information from any other source,” Kirillova wrote. A Russian version of her article, “Слабость Запада” (“The West’s Weakness”) was posted online by Radio Liberty.

Why Americans Fall For Kremlin Propaganda


By Kseniya Kirillova

Everyone who follows the Russian state media in one way or another knows that for years they have used propaganda to justify every crime ordered by the Kremlin, especially war crimes, as a response to an alleged ever-increasing “external threat.” Every such action by the Russian government is portrayed as a “necessary response” to allegedly hostile policies initiated by the United States.  Russian leadership, from Putin down to the last diplomat, echo the theme alleging that “NATO is breaking its promise not to expand in the East.” They accused the U.S. of “invading the sphere of Russia’s vital interests and organizing a coup in Ukraine.”  America “supports a Fifth Column,” “provoked a civil war in the Donbas region in Ukraine,” and so on.

Such ideas, successfully deployed inside Russia, have been refuted more than once by  Western journalists. Articles debunking the myth that “the West humiliated Russia” and demonstrating that today’s confrontation is a result and not the cause of Russian aggression have been published in the West.  However, despite this, the arguments used by Russian officials continue to enjoy some resonance among certain groups of Americans.  The Kremlin media and the army of trolls working in tandem with them have hit accurately upon the weak spots of Western societies and successfully exploited them, to the Kremlin’s advantage. Some of these weak spots are:

1. Some Americans are naïve about foreign policy.  Traditional American pragmatism does not extend into areas outside of personal interests – and the situation in Russia and Ukraine certainly is not among those. It follows that the majority of Americans remain uninformed on obscure matters of foreign policy and are susceptible to believing what they are told. Moreover, media reporting about these foreign policy issues is not important enough for them to engage in fact-checking.

2.  Russian propaganda plays on Americans’ distrust of their own government.  Most Americans, including those who are highly patriotic, distrust politicians and corporate media. Americans consider a critical and suspicious attitude toward authority to be one of the main features of their democracy and see it as a guarantee against an authoritarian rule.  By itself, this is an admirable trait, but Russian propagandists have taken advantage of it with remarkable frequency.

The idea that government is a “necessary evil” from which one may expect any sort of villainy runs strongly within American political culture. Hollywood regularly portrays the FBI or the CIA suddenly discovering that they are only pawns in a large conspiracy, a power struggle between good and evil, which forces them to fight not only the bad guys but also their own government. Even the main characters in the cult serial “The X-Files” discover after years of looking for “little green men” that high government officials are not only hiding the truth but conspiring with the aliens. Therefore, regardless of any information received from official U.S. sources and mainstream media, revelations offered by the Russian propagandists often are viewed as a breakthrough opportunity to discover an alternative point of view.

3.  Some American news outlets contribute to the spread of Russian propaganda-inspired conspiracy theories.  Over a year ago, the well-known American analyst Paul Goble noted that many Western journalists have long confused balance with objectivity. They feel they must show every side of an issue regardless of the veracity of the information and its source. This encourages Moscow to flood the internet with many different versions of reality in the belief that Western news media will accept them as “part of a historical record,” something that, in the final analysis, must have happened because it was reported. Many Western journalists simply cannot conceive of the scope of lying in today’s Russian state media and continue to judge the information flowing out of Russia by the same criteria as information from any other source.

4.  The cult of professionalism in America also plays into the hands of Russian propagandists. Unlike most Russian, the  average American does not consider himself or herself to be an instant expert on geopolitics. Many Russian citizens today are so hooked on state television offering opinions on world politics that every Russian blue collar worker thinks he knows and is eager to share his knowledge about NATO’s “real plans” against the Soviet Union thirty years ago.

Americans tend to look at things more sensibly. They do not consider themselves experts on every foreign policy issue. For this reason, they may accept the opinions of Russian spokesmen in the belief that they know best what is happening in their own country. The opinion of a fanatically self-righteous person on an issue of geopolitics may be accepted by an average American the same way as the opinion of a foreign policy professional deserving the highest level of trust.

5.  The Kremlin is an avid exploiter of American politeness and political correctness. Americans don’t feel obligated to argue until exhaustion to prove they are right about something. They are prepared to keep mum and retreat, especially when they see that the subject of discussion is more important to their interlocutor than to themselves. The Russians who believe Kremlin’s propaganda, and especially  the army of well paid  Russian trolls, will defend the correctness of their opinions as if it were a matter of life and death. Most Americans placed in this situation prefer to politely retreat to avoid hurt feelings. In this manner, even if they disagree with the other side’s arguments, Americans do nothing to hinder the spread of propaganda.

Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s spin doctors are perfectly aware of the West’s many weaknesses and are adept at exploiting them. Despite the spread in the West of Russian “active measures”  designed to confuse the public and to split the Western alliance, the United States is still unable to find a way to respond to the information war waged against it and to respond to the threat in such a way that the response would not impinge on the basic principles of American democracy.
Kseniya Kirillova is a U.S.-based Russian journalist who focuses on analyzing political processes in modern Russia.