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The Kremlin's Fake Fake-News Debunker


(Cartoon by Yevgenii Oliynyk, RFE/RL)

The Russian Foreign Ministry's idea of "proving" something is fake news is...putting a stamp over a screenshot of the article that reads: "Fake: Contains False Information."

That's it. No point-by-point rebuttals. No disputing of an article's premise, logic, or conclusions. No counterarguments. No context. Nothing.

Just a stamp that says, in effect, "It's fake because we say it's fake."

The Foreign Ministry rolled out its new truth-squad website this week amid much fanfare.

It claimed to "debunk" stories in the Western media about French officials accusing Moscow of hacking its presidential elections; Russia deploying missiles in violation of the INF Treaty; Montenegro alleging that the Kremlin attempted to stage a coup against its government; Moscow considering returning former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to the United States, and Russian diplomats dying under mysterious circumstances.

And all they needed to do it was a big red stamp.

This, of course, sparked a lot of snarky mirth on Twitter.

And compared to sites like Ukraine's StopFake or the European Union External Action Committee's Disinformation Review -- which go to great lengths to rebut Kremlin-sponsored fake news point-by-point and fact-by-fact -- the Russian effort looks pretty lame.

It certainly doesn't live up to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova's claim that the site would "make an example of such propaganda dumped by various media outlets" by "providing links to their sources."

Nope. No links. No sources. Just a stamp.

But in reality, there is a method to the Foreign Ministry's madness and it's one of the oldest Kremlin tricks in the book. It's whataboutism upgraded for the digital age.

Simply put, you accuse the other side of doing what you are doing. There's no need to offer proof. Just make the accusation, make it loudly and persistently, and count on short attention spans to do the rest.

And the result is the moral equivalency the Kremlin seeks.

With a nod and a wink, it says: sure we put out propaganda, but so does the West. So does The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Telegraph, NBC News, and The Santa Monica Observer -- to name the five media outlets the Foreign Ministry claimed to have "debunked."

We're all equally dishonest and we're all the same.

And all that is required is a red stamp.

It's the same strategy the Kremlin uses when it deploys observers to report on "fixed" Western elections, sets up NGOs to monitor Western human rights abuses, or alternative versions of groups like Transparency International to track Western corruption.

It's the Kremlin's twisted version of soft power. And while it doesn't nearly convince everybody, or even most, it convinces enough people to be effective.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or Follow @PowerVertical

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