Moral clarity is needed in countering anti-Western propaganda

14 March 2015

EFD Fellow Anna Borshchevskaya calls on the Western policy-makers to be more committed to countering anti-Western propaganda.

March 16 marks the anniversary of the referendum on Crimea’s independence, held under the barrel of a Russian gun. Ahead of this date, the Kremlin is planning to unveil a movie “The Road to Homeland” on state TV channel Rossiya-1 on March 15. The channel had aired excerpts from the movie earlier this month. The film will provide Russian President Vladimir Putin’s version of why “Crimea is ours,” as one headline in the Russian press described it.

Anti-American and anti-Western propaganda coming out of Russia, but also China, Iran, ISIS, and other anti-Western players continues to proliferate worldwide. The latest Kremlin movie is but a drop in the bucket.

The West needs to do a better job in countering this propaganda. One way we can do this is by clearly stating our values.

At its core, the onslaught of the massive and effective anti-Western propaganda is an attack on Western culture and values. They portray the West as “eroding” traditional societal values, as an aggressor that meddles into internal affairs, even as they use Western tools (from Twitter to American-style PR campaigns) to achieve these aims.

Fighting this battle is hard. Authoritarian regimes suppress dissent and unilaterally spread their one narrative. In the absence of alternative viewpoints, it is easy to brainwash the public. A democracy by definition cannot—nor should not— use such measures. We seek the truth. We recognize that it can be complicated and have different angles. We believe alternative viewpoints amplify our understanding of the truth and therefore welcome them.

Out of this line of thinking logically flows the idea that objective reporting of accurate facts is crucial. Decisions—and opinions for that matter— should be based on the most accurate data available.

But as we strive to stay true to these principles, we sometimes forget the importance of expressing our values. Moral clarity matters. We forget that our values are the reason why we strive for the truth to begin with.

An expert who previously consulted with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) told me on condition of anonymity, “Something may be lost in the battle of ideas if the weapons in our arsenal are limited exclusively to news reporting.”

The expert added, “Sometimes we may tie ourselves up in knots with certain definitions of objectivity. Objectivity also requires objectively transmitting our core values, not always saying ‘on the one hand, and on the other hand…’ some things are black and white….While we should reflect the interests of our audiences, we shouldn’t shy away from directly promoting our values as well, and not apologizing for these.”

This is a sentiment I privately hear from other experts also. One reason authoritarian regimes are so effective, is they provide a story that is easy to understand, however false it may be. And they present presents one clear perspective. Indeed, a headline “Why Crimea is ours” is simple, direct, and has perspective. Another expert told me privately that sometimes he tunes into Kremlin-funded RT simply to get a clear sense of Putin’s perspective—RT makes it is so easy to understand. Western media, on the other hand, he said, is often just too confusing in its attempt to cover all bases. Putin makes no apologies for his belief that Crimea is his; why should we apologize or be ambiguous about stating it belongs in Ukraine?

As a small child in the Soviet Union, I recall listening to Voice of America with my family precisely because it was the voice of America. I wanted to hear an American view. America stood for certain values and ideas; hearing them opened an entirely different world, where a better life was possible.

The world has changed since the Cold War. Putin’s Russia is anti-Western but is not the Soviet Union. Each region is different, so countering anti-Western propaganda, say, from ISIS, may require different tactics than from the Kremlin. But one common thread in this complicated battle should be a core message of Western values, and a Western perspective on world events, stated clearly and unapologetically.

This article originally appeared here.