Yeah, it’s wordy title, but Russian propaganda is complicated issue that affects the left globally. I have been thinking about this a lot recently and what follows are some conclusions I came to with the help of some clever people who study this sort of thing.
Being, in many ways, between the USA and Russia, the British left has had a complicated relationship to Russian foreign policy. Many view it as a necessary check on American Imperialism. In some instances, hostility to American foreign policy has muted into support for Vladimir Putin and his own brutal Imperialism.
I have criticism of any left wing politics that involves support for a brutal authoritarian who surrounds himself with, and represents the interests of, billionaire oligarchs. Until recently, I thought that this flirtation with Putin (usually expressed as sharing Russia Today news posts that support the Kremlin's line in left wing Facebook groups) was a peculiarly British thing.
I had assumed that things were different in Germany and that the German left would be united in their opposition to Putin. This is because Germany is the major player in the two institutions that are the most effective check on Putin, the EU and NATO. Britain is trying desperately to walk away from one and austerity is testing its commitment to the other. During this period of national navel gazing, we are leaving the crucial work of standing up to Putin to Germany.
This neat assumption that I had made was shattered recently when I read a paper called Make Germany Great Again by Anne Applebaum, Peter Pomerantsev, Melanie Smith and Chloe Colliver and published by Arena, based at the Institute of Global Affairs (IGA) within the LSE.
The paper looks into the Kremlin's attempts to interfere with last year's German Federal Election. The paper’s authors (who shall henceforth be referred to as Applebaum et al to save space more than anything else) look at the Kremlin's attempt to use online propaganda to influence the far right in Germany and the Russian-German community. However, the sections of the paper I read with the most interest were about the Kremlin's attempts to influence the far left in Germany.
The German left is a not the single monolithic institution I had naively assumed it was. Applebaum et al say that several groups on the Germany left are critical of Putinism, usually those who support feminism, environmentalism and human rights. There are also left wing groups that flirt with Putinism - as some elements of the British left do. These tend to be anti-Imperialist, anti-Zionist and against US hegemony.
I was surprised to learn that there are significant Putin-sympathetic groups on the Germany left. Applebaum et al say that the main German radical left party, Die Linke (literally The Left) has: "grown closer to the Russian government in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine." This is characterised by following the Kremlin's line on NATO, the US and Syria.
Some groups have a more complicated relations with Russia, such Alliance 90/The Green Party who criticise Russia as being undemocratic, but in the words of Applebaum et al: "occasionally portrays the Kremlin as the victim of the West." There are also groups on the German left that are strongly opposed to Putin, such as the anti-fascist movement.
After reading the work of Applebaum et al, I felt that this divide between pro and anti-Putin left wing groups in Germany is not a difference in ideology per se. It's not about different outlooks on the world or different thinking about the Putin regime. I believe it shows the differing media diets of different left wing groups.
Applebaum et al talk about how in Germany: "the far left users in our network map showed far less reliance on fringe outlets as top sources of information than those in the far right." Applebaum et al also state that the German left as a whole is less likely to share disinformation and more likely to debunk fake news.
I believe that this will be reflected in the German left wing groups that are anti-Putin. Certainly, what I have seen in Britain is that the left wing groups that are the most scornful of mainstream media are the ones that are most likely to be sharing Kremlin propaganda. British left wing groups with a varied media diet, are generally more hostile to Putin.
Applebaum et al talk about the: "rapid expansion of transnational networks of information and toxic speech." It would be wrong to see Putin as the spider in the middle of this web or as some kind of sinister puppet master of online hatred. Nationalists the world over, from Donald Trump’s supporters to Britain First, have been effectively organising online either with or without any aid from Putin. It would also be wrong to think that the infiltration of Kremlin propaganda into political debate is exclusively a right wing problem.
Applebaum et al have recommendations for the media in Germany to tackle the problems of pro-Kremlin propaganda. I think we need to take on these recommendations as a project for the left and not to leave it up to Western governments that have their own agenda to push - or might just do a terrible job of implementing the recommendations.
For example, Applebaum et al recommend that Germany: "invest in sustainable digital literacy programmes" and that "critical thinking skills need to not only be taught in schools, but also delivered via media and public awareness campaigns for adults." I can imagine this being done terribly. Imagine government infomercials telling worried parents about the signs that their child is reading Russian propaganda. Then imagine this ad campaign designed by a committee in the most centrist dad way possible. Noble as at intentions of this campaign would be, the state does not have the ear of the people the campaign needs to reach.
The left needs to tackle on this important work of teaching critical thinking and digital literacy so that well informed citizens can spot media propaganda, whether it's pro-corporate, pro-Russia bombing whoever they feel like this week or pro-America bombing whoever they feel like this week.
Applebaum et al also talk about the need to: "reduce the financial incentives for disinformation." As social media sites monopolise and sell our attention, and are more than happy to spread Russian propaganda or extremist content in the process, then a left wing critiques of these media companies and why they care more about making money than protecting their values of our society is necessary. We can’t talk about financial incentives for disinformation, without critiquing capitalism itself.
At the end of reading Make Germany Great Again, I was aware that the issues I thought were local to the British left are global. There are many similarities between Britain and Germany. How "wedge issues", such as immigration, are exploited by the far right or how a loss of trust in the mainstream media is creating gaps in the media diet that pro-Kremlin news sources are happy to fill.
The changes to media and technology of the last ten years present a global challenge to the left and to the Western governments. The left needs to globally rise to this challenge and offer a means for people to understand this brave new world that we live in. If we don't then the vacuum of media authority will be filled by authoritarians of one stripe or another. We need to be critical of Putin, and of our Western governments, and of the media companies that are "disrupting" how politics is done with new technology.
There is a lot of passion on the left right now and a lot of good new ideas. There has never been a better time to be on the left and there is a huge need for a prominent left wing narrative in our politics. I believe that we can make the difference the world needs.