Into the grey zone – why are so many progressives falling for Putin’s propaganda?

Image created from a screenshot by the author

Tom Scott investigates the role played by the ‘whataboutists’.

If, like me, you have a lot of left-wing friends on social media you may well have seen posts from some of them asking what right people in the West have to condemn Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, when western countries have themselves perpetrated war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and lent support to countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are inflicting great suffering on the people of Palestine and Yemen.

You may, perhaps, have seen an image on your timeline showing ‘airstrikes in the last 48 hours’ in various parts of the world, with a message saying: “Don’t let the mainstream media’s Eurocentrism dictate your moral support for victims of war. A human life is a human life. Condemn war everywhere.”

Maybe you have shared it yourself. Who would not want to condemn war everywhere?

What you may not have realised is that this image was created by Redfish Media, a Kremlin propaganda operation based in Berlin and run by people who used to work for RT (Russia Today). This is the Russian state-owned TV channel that, for years, churned out a mix of genuine news and slickly produced disinformation aimed at UK and European audiences, until it was sanctioned in the EU in the wake of Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

Redfish describes itself as “objective but not neutral”, and as “with the oppressed”. It is – like RT – clever about mixing some genuine news, including news about recent protests in Russia, along with material designed to promote Putin’s lines on Ukraine. And, among its 154,000 followers on Twitter, are 288 people who also follow me.

The propaganda strategy being used by Redfish with its widely shared airstrikes map is sometimes called ‘whataboutism’, and the extent to which such images and messages are now being shared shows just how effective it is. It works because the people behind it understand their audience so well.

They understand that those who make up this audience are (quite rightly) highly critical of oppressive regimes around the world and empathetic towards the victims of these regimes. It knows that they abhor racism in all its forms. It knows that they have little trust in the ‘mainstream media’ – which are indeed often eurocentric and sometimes misleading in their coverage.

And it exploits this knowledge to suggest that the appalling war crimes being committed against the people of Ukraine are really nothing out of the ordinary, and that it would be hypocrisy to object to them.

Beyond this, propaganda of this sort has a number of other objectives, very well described by Professor Zoe Chance, a specialist in influence marketing at Yale University.

As Professor Chance writes, this kind of material is designed to distract, divide and disempower, and Putin’s propagandists have honed this technique to a fine art over many years:

“Whataboutism distracts you by shifting your attention to something else you care about. You care about Ukrainians’ human rights? What about everyone else? […] The solidarity of the forces uniting against Putin has been swift and shocking, but his troll army was already trained to divide and conquer. In the US, for example, they stoke rage and encourage violence among BLM protesters and white supremacists. Like with Putin’s apparent support of the BLM movement, the whataboutism here is insidious. While elevating the voices of righteously angry marginalised people, it uses their voices as a weapon of division.”

This kind of propaganda has been used before, notably by the Nazis during and before the Second World War. It was deployed internally in Germany, for instance in widely distributed material that highlighted crimes committed by British imperialism. And it was also used externally by the Axis powers in efforts to undermine support for the Allied war effort, in leaflets dropped over British-held territories that highlighted human rights abuses in British-ruled India and the Palestine Mandate, and the alleged ‘hypocrisy’ of anyone who criticised the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.

Japanese propaganda used in India during WW2, Source: King’s Collections, Kings College London,

What’s new about Putin’s exploitation of such propaganda is the power and reach of the platforms through which it can now be disseminated, and the degree of trust that social media confer on such shared material. As Professor Chance observes: “Social media are particularly susceptible to whataboutism and other divisions because we participate in identity groups in which messages spread easily from trusted source to trusted source.”

A number of journalists have long been trying to call attention to the fact that Putin’s mafia state has been conducting an information war against the western democracies (its perceived ‘enemy’) at least since 2014 – the year of the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution in Ukraine that ousted a corrupt Putinist president and set that country on a course towards membership of the family of democratic European nations.

Foremost among these has been the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr, who uncovered the extent of Russia’s involvement with Leave.EU and detailed the sophisticated and extremely effective use of social media platforms – particularly Facebook – during the 2016 referendum campaign. A few days ago, Cadwalladr posted a long Twitter thread summing up how this hybrid war has been conducted and why so many powerful people in the US and the UK have done their best to obscure or ignore it.

It is unsurprising that politicians such as Boris Johnson, who have been major recipients of oligarch largesse, have actively tried to conceal the extent of Putin’s efforts to influence the political process in the UK. This was why Johnson suppressed the Russia Report for as long as he possibly could.

The reasons why some on the left have allowed themselves to be recruited, mostly unknowingly, as agents of influence for Putin’s gangster-capitalist – and now, in my view, brazenly fascist – regime are more complex.

For some, it’s simply a matter of sharing material that seems to echo their own, genuine, concerns. But others are more ideologically motivated. For journalists such as Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton – widely read on the left – Putin’s Russia seems to offer a useful counterbalance to US power.

These journalists have been actively cultivated by Putin’s regime, as have some radical politicians in the US (including, it pains me to say, former US Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, ). They have been very useful to it in several ways, not least in their determined attempts to cast doubt on the overwhelmingly strong evidence of war crimes in Syria committed by Putin’s forces and by his ally Bashar al-Assad, including chemical weapons attacks. And they are now writing and promoting material that echoes and reinforces the Russian dictator’s preposterous justifications for his brutal ‘special military operation’ against the people of Ukraine, including the pretence that this is a response to NATO ‘warmongering’, and that it is aimed at ‘de-nazifying’ a country controlled by fascists.

Ben Norton explains to Li Jinging, an employee of state-owned China Global Television Network, that the government of Ukraine is illegitimate and that “it was the United States that started this war”. Screenshot from Youtube

On 4 March, for instance, Blumenthal co-authored a piece designed to portray Ukraine as a country in the grip of neo-Nazis. Like many such pieces, it used a few scraps of fact (there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, as there are in Russia) to suggest that Nazism in Ukraine is ‘’rampant” and that the country’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is merely an “effective PR tool” to “deflect from the influence of Nazism in contemporary Ukraine”. Ukraine is not, of course, under the sway of neo-Nazis, and the government that is currently defending the country’s right to exist as an independent nation has a strong democratic mandate.

This piece was for a news site calling itself ‘The Grayzone’, of which Blumenthal is the editor-in-chief and which describes itself as ‘an independent news website producing original investigative journalism on politics and empire’. Its name is significant.

The ‘grey zone’, a term often used by intelligence specialists, is defined by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies as “the contested arena somewhere between routine statecraft and open warfare”. It is, in fact, the space in which the disinformation and propaganda material used in Putin’s ‘hybrid war’ is produced, distributed and consumed.

In this zone, ideologues of the far left and fascist right have discovered some strong mutual interests, and have been very much encouraged to do so by Putin’s mafia state, as the US author Alexander Reid Ross described in an eye-opening article of 2018: The multipolar spin: how fascists operationalise left-wing resentment. These people appear to see themselves as active warriors in this hybrid war arena – and there is little doubt whose side they have taken.

I find it almost beyond belief that anyone who thinks of themselves as on the left could be making themselves useful to a fascistic war criminal like Putin in this way. The cognitive dissonance and sheer intellectual dishonesty involved in obfuscating or excusing horrendous war crimes inflicted on civilians is mind-boggling.

But that is where we are, and we need to wake up to it.