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IN AN attempt to deflect media attention away from her government’s sordid disarray, Theresa May used her speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet this week to accuse Russia of mounting a “sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption” in an attempt to “sow discord in the West.”
Of course Russia probably is doing something like this, but so too is every other state on the planet. Thanks to good ol’ capitalism and the free market, every country with an internet connection is probably trying to “sow discontent” somewhere. It’s all part of the desperate bid to gain more control of the world’s resources before global climate change renders Earth inhospitable.
May also denounced Russia for “deploying its state-run media organisations” to produce “fake stories and photoshopped images” in its bid to undermine the West.
But are RT and Sputnik, Russia’s most prolific international media companies, taking direct orders from the Kremlin to deliberately cause friction in the West?
As yet we haven’t been presented with any evidence to suggest that they are. And besides, it would seem Western media is sowing division in society pretty well themselves. Remember when the Daily Mail urged its readers to Crush the Saboteurs?
Still, the mainstream media is willingly going along with the narrative that Vladimir Putin is the only nefarious source influencing elections and referendums around the world from the dark recesses of the worldwide web. Should we expect anything else from our corporate media?
After all, the idea of a shadowy cabal secretly controlling the world is intriguing and has been popular with conspiracy theory crazies, anti-semites and assorted racists for centuries. Plus, fear sells newspapers just as well as sex.
However, the shock and outrage generated by the story reveals a blinkered and hypocritical view of the West’s role in the world.
According to research by US political scientist Dov Levin, the US has meddled in the elections of 45 countries, from Albania to Uruguay, as many as 81 times between 1946 and 2000.
And then there are all the coups and government overthrows Britain and the US have either tacitly or implicitly supported (Iran and Chile), the assassinations (global drone warfare) and outright invasions all over the world.
What about all the authoritarian regimes (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan and on and on) the two countries support with financial aid, weapon sales, state visits and such?
Seems a bit rich to complain about Russian electoral meddling when your government invites a range of unelected foreign despots to hang out with our unelected, blue-blooded head of state.
Britain and the US have meddled with each other's democracies plenty. In 1940 Winston Churchill had the Secret Intelligence Service set up a covert organisation in New York City. Part of its mission was to inundate US newspapers with fake news stories to win over support for joining the second world war.
The intelligence agencies of both countries have also manipulated Western media. Of course, the leaked stories of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are the primest of prime examples here.
Another one involves the PR consultancy firm Hill and Knowlton, headquartered in New York. It was paid $12 million by the Kuwaiti government at the behest of the George Bush Snr’s administration to mobilise public support for the first Iraq War back in 1990.
The company, under the name Citizens for a Free Kuwait, arranged for the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US to testify in Congress in the guise of an ordinary girl.
In perfect, US-accented English, she told Congress: “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” It was false.
None of the above is hidden from our history books. It was all just a google search away. So it would appear that Vladimir Putin is pretty late to the game. So why all the outrage?
When the West covertly influences other countries or its own citizens, the Establishment and the mainstream media pays it little attention. But when Russia uses Twitter “bots” during the EU referendum to tap into the West’s latent racism, there’s public outrage.
After the terrorist attack on London Bridge last year, one Russian-controlled Twitter bot posted: “Muslim woman pays no mind to terror attack, casually walks by dying man while checking her phone #PrayforLondon #Westminster #BanIslam,” accompanied by a picture of an obviously distraught woman.
The Tweet inflamed the internet and ended up as fodder for Islamophobic stories in the Daily Mail and The Sun. The whole thing says more about the British people who “liked” or “retweeted” it and Lord Rothermere’s and Rupert Murdoch’s rags than Russia’s evil machinations.
In their seminal book on propaganda functions of the media, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Herman highlighted how people abused by US enemies were portrayed in the media as worthy victims, while those treated with equal or greater severity by it or its allies barely merit mention and so are deemed unworthy.
The authors say: “We would also expect great investigatory zeal in the search for enemy villainy and the responsibility of high officials for abuses in enemy states but diminished enterprise in examining such matters in connection with one’s own and friendly states.”
Nothing written here is an attempt to exonerate Putin, his dictatorial and kleptocratic government or dodgy foreign policy. If Russia is actually meddling in foreign elections (and messing about with the circle jerk nature of social media isn’t that), then that needs to stop.
But we and media must stop pretending that the West is the big victim. To do that, when our governments have done so much worse, would diminish the West’s crimes and further defile the victims.
The simple assertion that RT and Sputnik are sowing discord at Putin’s behest without evidence is an attack on the freedom of the press and the human right to free expression. We must not sleepwalk into a dystopian future.
Ben Cowles is the Morning Star’s deputy features editor. You can join his Twitter circle jerk on @Cowlesz.
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