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In A War of Ideas, Banning Russian Propaganda Does More Harm Than Good

6 minute read
Mchangama is the CEO of the Future of Free Speech Project at Vanderbilt University, a Senior Fellow at FIRE and author of Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media

Seven years in prison was the sentence local Moscow politician Aleksei Gorinov received for denouncing the Russian army´s massacre of civilians in Bucha. Other journalists and dissidents have been detained and charged under the “fake news” law Russia passed to silence criticism and scrutiny of its war of aggression in Ukraine.

But politicians in democratic societies are pushing for censorship as well.

A few days after invasion, the European Union suspended the broadcasting activities of the state-sponsored media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik on the ground that Russia was engaging in a “systematic, international campaign of media manipulation and distortion of facts” that threatened the democratic order in EU member states. On March 4, the European Commission clarified that social media companies “must prevent users from broadcasting…any content of RT and Sputnik” — a clarification broad enough to include content posted by users attempting to counter Russian propaganda.

The ban on RT and Sputnik was upheld in July by the EU´s General Court, which called necessary to stop a “vehicle for propaganda” in support of Russian “military aggression.” The court held that the temporary nature of the prohibition did not violate the right to freedom of expression.

It may be tempting to view the judgment as a “win against Russia.” After all, the core of free speech is to protect the weak against the powerful, not state-sponsored media outlets serving the interests of authoritarian regimes by spreading lies and propaganda. But freedom of expression is a human right that should only be restricted in truly exceptional circumstances, such as when the life of the nation is at risk. Neither EU member states nor the US are at war with Russia. And given the overwhelming support for Ukraine and the unpopularity of Putin in most Western democracies, it is highly doubtful that Russian propaganda is able to persuade large numbers of people that its war of aggression is justified.

And history offers numerous examples of emergency speech restrictions threatening the very democracies they were supposed to protect.

At the outbreak of World War I, Britain controlled nearly 60 percent of the world’s undersea cable networks, allowing it to establish the world’s first global system of mass surveillance and censorship. “Cable censors” filtered traffic running through key nodes, with the aim of covering “all telegrams that touch British territory at any point.” The scope and purpose quickly expanded to the point where there was hardly “any department of human activity during the war that did not come within the purview of the cable censorship.” This included waging war on “rumors, propaganda and misinformation.”

But the telegraph was also used to disseminate propaganda, with censors and journalists often working side by side to curate pro-British viewpoints on the global stage. After the war ended, cable censorship proved too addictive to ditch. It was repurposed to counter anti-colonial dissent throughout the British empire.

The United States also resorted to systematic censorship during World War I. The Espionage Act banned a long list of false information deemed harmful to US war efforts, sending droves of anti-war activists — and even a presidential candidate — to prison for peaceful opposition to US participation in the war. The government even created a censorship board to filter all communication between the US and foreign countries and to prevent “false” and “demoralizing” statements. By the end of the war, the board had compiled a list of the names and addresses of more than 250,000 potential suspects.

After World War II, the UN held an international Conference on Freedom of Information tasked with developing global standards, a consensus having formed that propaganda and false information constituted a threat to world peace. But the East Bloc, led by the USSR, was adamant that true freedom of information and the press required government control and censorship to combat “Fascist or aggressive propaganda, or the dissemination of false or distorted news.” The US, as leader of the democratic West, rejected restrictions and underlined the importance of free speech and access to information as the best remedy against propaganda and fake news.

But there were also differences of opinion that prefigured today’s debate. Princeton professor John B. Whitton argued that a John Stuart Mill-style belief approach to free speech “may have been sound a hundred years ago, [but] they are of very doubtful validity in the age of the short-wave radio and the ‘beamed’ program of subversive and revolutionary propaganda.” The celebrated First Amendment theorist and Harvard professor Zechariah Chafee strongly disagreed. “We never know that a statement is false,” he argued, “but only that the tribunal decides it is false.” Chafee maintained that establishing truth was “a task for a historian and not for a law court.”

The same holds true in our digital age, with all the propaganda and disinformation swirling online. Freedom of expression protects not only the right of the speaker, after all, but also the right of a reader, viewer or listener to access information. One problem with the EU’s strategy is that it impedes the online collaborative efforts that not only document Russian war crimes, but that also expose and debunk Russian propaganda and disinformation in real-time. Digital forensic reporters such as Bellingcat and Oryx rely on open sources — including Russian media — to find nuggets of information that can be pieced together to provide a more accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. This includes providing evidence of war crimes and horrific human rights abuses. Banning such access to information may thus hurt those most likely to effectively combat Russian propaganda.

What’s more, when modern democracies censor, they provide legitimacy to censorship by authoritarian regimes. In March, Russia cut access to Western state-sponsored media such as the BBC and Deutsche Welle whom the Kremlin accused of spreading “false information” and “anti-Russian” views about the war in Ukraine. After the General Court upheld the EU´s ban of RT and Sputnik a Kremlin spokesperson responded, “Of course, we will take similar measures of pressure on Western media that operate in our country” and added, that “Europeans are trampling on their own ideals.”

Democracies must understand that, in the digital age, it’s impossible to effectively shield citizens from hostile propaganda and disinformation without compromising the egalitarian and liberal values of democracy.

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