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Remembering My First Conversation with a Russian About Propaganda and Why It Matters

The information war is not so much about content or outlets as it is about mentality

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

As I was recently musing about America's failure in the 'information war' with Russia - which is to say its inability to get Russians to believe the transparently-false garbage that its own citizens lap up like slop from a trough - I was reminded of the very first conversation I ever had with a Russian a little over 10 years ago.

The conversation of course had nothing to do with the current struggle between Russia and the West in trying to dominate the general narrative of global geopolitics; but it does shed some light on why the West is having such a devilishly hard time competing with Russia in this confrontation. Russians simply don't react to information in the same way that Westerners do. They are much more sceptical by nature and far more difficult to dupe, which is giving the MSM propaganda mill endless fits. The brief exchange below provides a glimpse into Russian scepticism - scepticism that actually borders on outright reactionism.  

I arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan in late 2004 to do a six-month stint of English teaching at a small school there. I was met at the airport by one of the school administrators, an amiable Russian fellow by the name of Dmitriy, who promptly told me to call him Dima. It was around 5:30 in the morning and Dima drove me to a hotel so I could get a bit of rest before heading to the school to inspect my new work environment before heading to an apartment they had reserved for me.

After a few hours of sleep, he arrived at the hotel to pick me up, and we went to the school for a couple hours, where I met with students, teachers, and other administrators. After the introductions and brief orientation, Dima suggested that we go to a cafe and get some lunch before heading to my apartment. It was at this lunch that I was baptised into the fundamental differences in Russian and American responses to the art of propaganda.

Dima, I would later learn from a mutual friend, was very cynical by nature, and quite proudly considered himself an expert in recognizing propaganda in all its many forms. Indeed, years of living under the KGB-backed 'Pravda' publication had made him into a finely-tuned instrument for spotting servings of good old-fashioned government-backed media bullshit. Having the chance to question an actual American (I was the first one he had ever met) about the appalling propaganda of the mainstream media leading up to the Iraq War was an opportunity he was not prepared to miss. 

I can still recall our conversation in detail and even my companion's uniquely-broken English. It went as follows:

Dima: "Say me please, American people really believe all talking heads about Iraq lies for war?"

Me: "Unfortunately, yeah. They're like sheep. They'll believe anything."

Dima: "What is mean sheep?"

Me: "Um, it's like uh, it's an animal - stupid - just standing around until someone eats it - 'bah-bah'."

Dima: Laughing 

Dima: "How is possible American people believe such stupid? Just talking head say: 'Al-Qaeda and Iraq same' and American people say: 'Ok, yes, this true. We go make war?'"

Me: "Well, the media and the government are actually both part of the same big machine. The government wants war, so the media starts to lie to the people to get them to support it. Almost all media that people see and hear is owned by only a few corporations and they cooperate with the government."

Dima: "We had same in Soviet time. Always KGB propaganda say too much lies - lies to Czechoslovakia, lies to Afghanistan, lies to Europe, and too much lies to America. Only, huge of Soviet people not believe such lies. Why American people not same? Why American people have so rich country, too much technology, too much university, and believe such stupid?"

Me: "That's a good question. I don't really know the answer."

Dima: "How you think about it? You are believe American media?"

Me: "Sometimes I do; most times I don't. I studied Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies at university, so I had professors from these countries who told the truth. So the propaganda was very clear to me. Most people don't have that background though. They think the talking heads are experts and always tell the truth."

Dima: "You know, I remember in Soviet time, KGB propaganda say about America: ' In America, the black man - he live in box.'"

Me: "Yeah, some of them do. It's a problem in a lot of the big cities."

I went on eating, oblivious to the pause in the conversation. After about 20 seconds, I raised my head toward Dima and saw a facial expression I shall never forget - one of complete and utter stupefaction. With eyes wide, brow furled, and mouth agape, he stared at me as though I was some sort of alien from another world.

Me: "What?"

Dima: "You say me this right - black man he live in box???"

Me: "Well, not all black men of course; just those who don't have homes. And not just black men, but white men, Hispanic men, and many others who don't have homes."

Dima: "Wait, in America people live in box? How many people live in box???"

Me: "Don't know exactly, but many tens of thousands to be sure. And they don't only live in boxes. Some live under bridges, some live in public shelters, and other places as well."

Dima: "I think you say me joke. I think this not possible."

Me: "I know that your KGB told you a lot of propaganda, but that news was actually correct. There are many people without homes in America."

Dima continued to stare at me with a bewilderment that could only stem from some kind of major discontinuity - like finding out that one's religion is a fraud, or that humans were created by aliens, or being told by your parents that you are not really their child, but an adopted product of a prior rape assault on some totally-unknown biological mother who couldn't bear to look upon you.

So stunning was this revelation to Dima, that upon gathering himself, he pulled out his mobile and called a friend of his named Sasha and proceeded to have an animated conversation about the subject. After about a 10-minute discussion, he hung up, and quietly finished his muffin and coffee without saying much.

I didn't pay much mind to the exchange at the time, but have thought of it much since, and especially since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis - how one people are seemingly inclined to automatically reject what they are told, while another people - much more free in theory - are so easily convinced of the most transparently-absurd nonsense.

Dima was wrong about dismissing the homeless claim out of hand; but that is of minor importance. What is of major importance is that Russian and Western dispositions in regard to what they are told by their governments are fundamentally different. Unfortunately for the West in general and America in particular, this basic lack of understanding of the adversarial mindset is precisely why every effort aimed at pushing their message through is bound to fail. 

There is a vastly-wide chasm between the two camps, with deep scepticism on one side and uncritical credulity on the other; and no amount of increased effort by the West to push its anti-Putin, anti-Russian narrative, is going to bridge that gap.   

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