(Washington, DC) Russian media serves a steady diet of stories about how the crashed Malaysian airplane was filled with already-dead bodies; definitive proof that Ukraine shot it down to frame the Russian separatists; and even evidence that it’s the same Malaysian jet that vanished in March in the southern hemisphere, stored secretly and deployed now in a plot to hurt Russia. (For a sample of this coverage—I don’t know how representative—see the English version of Pravda today.) Maria Snegovaya reports that the Russian media generates very strong domestic popular support for Putin’s policies.
Western writers like Julia Ioffe criticize Russian propaganda. Russians write back in the comment fields to denounce such criticism. Many make tu quoque arguments: America does all of this, too (i.e., the propaganda, the killing, or both). They are correct that the following problems are not limited to Russia but are also prevalent in countries like the USA:
- Deliberate manipulation of public opinion by governments and media companies;
- Macho, militaristic nationalism and its reliable appeal to mass publics;
- Confirmation bias, or the preference for information that reinforces one’s existing views and interests; and
- Valuing the lives of one’s own countrymen far above the lives of foreigners.
Without these phenomena, it would be hard to explain why the US invaded Iraq after 9/11, how most Americans can forget US involvement in Central American genocide when the victims’ children try to migrate across our borders, or how we can tolerate assassinations by drone missile.
On the other hand, making the tu quoque argument is not good for Russia or for Russians. The United States and other democracies have mechanisms for error-correction and accountability that may be badly flawed and frayed today, but that are still hard-won and worth fighting to defend. They are absent in Putin’s Russia. Russians are the primary victims of that lack.
One mechanism is partisan competition. George W. Bush dominated American public opinion at the onset of the Iraq War. But a little-known Illinois state senator was one of those who strongly criticized the invasion. Six years and a few months later, that state senator succeeded Bush in the White House, having benefited politically from his opposition to the war. I am not satisfied by the Schumpeterian justification for elections—that they allow us to vote the incumbent idiots out when their performance becomes intolerable. But a Schumperian democracy is better than none at all. Incumbents are vulnerable; the opposition has powerful incentives to criticize them. Those protections are missing in Putin’s Russia.
Additional protections come from a genuinely independent civil society and press. I realize it is hard to demonstrate that the press and civil society are more effective in the US than in Russia, since they are not working all that well here. Mark Kleiman writes:
Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. … It’s a scary picture. What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.
That is a claim of equivalence. I heard a similar argument in June from a Russian delegation of academics who visited me in my office. They insisted that they have more NGOs (millions!) than we do and that Putin funds them to ensure their independence from Western influence. I had no crisp refutation to offer, nor was I interested in asserting our system’s superiority. The worthwhile question is not which country has a better public sphere. But I am highly skeptical that Russians are, in fact, being served by an independent press or a robust civil society. If my skepticism is correct, then they and their neighbors (not Americans) are the ones who will suffer.