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Why Some Far-Right Circles are Contributing to Vladimir Putin’s Disinformation Campaign

Why Some Far-Right Circles are Contributing to Vladimir Putin’s Disinformation Campaign
21st March 2022 Beatriz Buarque
In Insights

A few weeks ago, one of the main Brazilian far-right platforms responsible for producing documentaries, promoting books, organising events, and hosting Internet shows with the intent to “rescue good values, ideas, and sentiments inherent to the Brazilian people” uploaded a video on its YouTube channel featuring a discussion on the war in Ukraine. One of the guest speakers criticised the behaviour of some conservatives who have praised Vladimir Putin for his supposed courage in announcing a military attack to de-Nazify Ukraine and “rescue” the country from the decay supposedly caused by Western influence. “It is bizarre,” he said. Well, a careful look at the messages released by Russia’s government will reveal that this trend is not really bizarre.

In his speech on 24 February, while explaining the reasons for a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin questioned the credibility of Western politicians, political scientists and journalists, affirming that what they write and say is an “empire of lies.” Later on, he attacked Western countries for their alleged continuous attempts to destroy Russia’s traditional values in an attitude that would eventually lead to Russia’s “degradation and degeneration.” And a few minutes after that, he explicitly established an antagonism between the globalist West and Russia by claiming that “those who aspire to global dominance have publicly designated Russia as their enemy.” In these three passages, Vladimir Putin touched upon three themes often found in far-right circles: that Western mainstream media, the government, and academics are deceiving, producing content that serves a multicultural, progressist, and globalist agenda; that Western governments (also known as the ‘establishment’) are responsible for the erosion of traditional values; that Western governments are working towards global dominance as a means to have full control of its populations (bodily, ideological, and even spiritual – some might say). Three conspiracy theories that discursively delimitate who are them (the enemy) and who are us (the victims).

While examining Vladimir Putin’s speech, it is interesting to notice how this antagonism between us (Russia) and them (the West) is constructed in an absolute and apocalyptical way: the first is represented as the ‘pure good’, the second is shown as ‘pure evil’, echoing Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style. The presence of ‘pure evil’ poses an existential threat to the ‘pure good’, motivating the appearance of ‘militant leaders’ who position themselves in a battle between good and evil in which only the elimination of ‘pure evil’ can be considered a satisfactory outcome. From a historical perspective, this exaggerated feeling of persecution is frequently associated with strong feelings of dispossession, a common feature observed in both Vladimir Putin’s discourse and contemporary far-right. In this sense, the answer to the question ‘why are some far-right circles praising Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine?’ seems to stem from their shared feeling of dispossession.

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

In politics and pop culture products, Russia has historically been opposed to the United States. In many far-right circles, remnants of the red scare are still present as observed in the news produced by some of its media outlets, affirming that the war of Ukraine is solely the first move towards the revival of the Soviet Union or saying that the war is a distraction to enable the emergence of Russia and China as superpowers, which will consequently force Western countries to pay tribute to their authoritarian regimes, restricting even more the freedom of Western citizens. If Russia is still associated with the communist threat, how come some far-right actors have suddenly started referring to Vladimir Putin as a hero? The answer can be illustrated with an article recently published by an American publishing house known for its white nationalist content in which the writer says that Mr. Putin has never done any harm to him. Instead, he is opposed to the vulgarity, anti-White behaviour, and global promotion of homosexuality pushed by the World Economic Forum, NATO, European Union, and American globalists. In a nutshell, the enemies of Vladimir Putin are basically the same the enemies of many far-righters. It is like the popular saying ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. The origin of the feeling of dispossession in both of them is personified in the figure of Western liberal elites.

From this perspective, Vladimir Putin is no longer perceived as a representative of a former communist empire. Conversely, he is considered an inspiration insofar he had the ‘courage’ to ‘bring down the deep state’, to seek ‘independence from the Rothschild’, to send a powerful message against anti-white globalists. These are only a few demonstrations of sympathy towards Vladimir Putin’s military attack in Ukraine found in three far-right media outlets all based in the United States. In her analysis of far-right responses to the attack on Telegram, Sara Aniano identified a similar trend. Criticism towards Ukraine and its citizens was far more common than criticism towards Vladimir Putin. Some posts openly referred to Vladimir Putin as a hero who had the courage to ‘get rid of Soros’ or even ‘save mankind’.

Extra Hands in the Disinformation Campaign

Another point of convergence between Vladimir Putin’s discourse and the far-right concerns their views about Western mainstream media. At the very beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Russian president stated clear that Western media cannot be trusted, reinforcing the distrust sowed by far-right actors. At the same time that civilians were being killed and Ukrainian cities destroyed, the world was engulfed by an information war in which the use of digital media has blurred even more the boundaries between fantasy and reality. While dozens of Ukrainians were bravely exposing themselves in front of the camera to share their anxieties and suffering with the world, their pictures and testimonies were being manipulated by individuals from both Russia and Western countries with the intent to cast doubt on the veracity of the damage caused by the invasion.

Distortion is a form of deception characteristic of information wars. According to Matt Bishop and Emily Goldman, information is either fabricated or falsified as a means to induce the enemy to react in a particular way. The manipulation of information to perform strategic functions is not new. What seems particularly intriguing in the current war is the fact that a disinformation campaign developed by a particular state has found resonance in its enemy. As a result, in addition to having solely its own apparatus devoted to the production and dissemination of false information, it has also found some extra hands in the other side of the digital battlefield, especially when the messages openly attack Western elites.

Let’s take the conspiracy theory that the United Stated was funding and secretly producing infectious diseases in its alleged labs in Ukraine as an example. While speaking to journalists on 3 March, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov affirmed that his government had data indicating that the Pentagon was worried about its ‘biowarfare labs’ in Kyiv and Odessa. Even though the conspiracy theory was quickly debunked by US officials and mainstream media started referring to it as a conspiracy theory in an attempt to de-legitimise the narrative disseminated by official representatives, far-right media outlets kept reproducing Lavrov’s statement as a fact. Even those outlets that were not enthusiastic of Vladimir Putin’s approach embarked on the biolab conspiracy theory through headlines emphasising that the US government was ‘funding’ the production of biological weapons in Ukraine. This conspiracy theory not only spread like fire across far-right media outlets and QAnon channels but it also gained media exposure on Fox News through the show hosted by Tucker Carlson. Interestingly, Russian authorities are said to have make an exemption to the censorship imposed to content produced by Western media with the special intent to broadcast Carlson’s show.

Decades before the emergence of digital platforms, Hannah Arendt reflected on the potential impact of a ‘web of deceptions’ that is no longer in the hands of a few individuals and targeting well-defined enemies but, instead, ends up engulfing whole groups of people on both community and national levels. Fake news and conspiracy theories, two categories of false information that found on the Internet the perfect medium to proliferate, are now used as weapons of war by both sides, damaging the fabric of society and drowning the world once again in a mass of suspicion. Conspiracy theories are naturally appealing because they offer simplified explanations to complex events. In the case of the war in Ukraine, the main narrative pushed by Russian officials has reduced the complexities of this event to a battle between ‘pure good’ and ‘pure evil’ with the difference that, at this time, disinformation campaigns are no longer restricted to local and national communities. By targeting a common powerful enemy (the Western liberal elites) both Russian authorities and some far-right actors expand even more the ‘web of deception’. While their hands are focused on spreading lies, Ukrainian citizens mourn their friends and relatives killed in the war. With their hands, they pay respect to those who died fighting for their right to exist as Ukrainian citizens. With their hands, they express their resistance in both battlefields: the physical and the digital.

Beatriz Buarque is a Lecturer in Conspiracy Theories and Democracy at King’s College London and a PhD Candidate at The University of Manchester, UK. She is currently examining how and why conspiracy theories often found in alt-right circles (cultural Marxism, deep state, great replacement, white genocide) have been legitimised in online spaces. She is also the leading investigator of the international research group MAFTI (Mapping the Far-Right ‘Truth’ Industry). Her primary research interests include the alt-right, conspiracy theories, digital politics, and the politics of truth.