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American Alarm Over Supposed Russian Propaganda Is ‘Only the Old Panic in a New Guise’

“Have the Russians really manipulated our politics and enslaved us in a post-truth world?” asks Jack Shafer of Politico Magazine. (Flickr / CC 2.0)

The prospect of Russian propaganda infiltrating American media has raised alarm in recent weeks, to the point that mainstream publications such as The Washington Post have cited McCarthyite sources in reporting on the issue. Numerous news outlets have exacerbated the situation by spreading the Post story without proper vetting.

But anyone familiar with American history knows that “propaganda has always been with us and always will be,” says Jack Shafer of Politico Magazine. In a piece posted Saturday, Shafer traced the evolution of Russian propaganda, from Cold War scares to modern internet chaos.

“[O]bviously, the Russians now serve mounds of disinformation into our media diet,” Shafer writes. “But is this contamination anywhere near as dangerous as some of the heralds make it out to be? Have the Russians really manipulated our politics and enslaved us in a post-truth world?”

Shafer explains that our “anxiety about foreign propaganda goes back to at least the World War I era,” and that these fears “prompted the U.S. to build its own propaganda machine to disseminate its counter-claims, broadcasting news from the U.S. point of view into Europe and the Soviet Union.”

“This fear of foreign propaganda persisted into the late Cold War era, too,” Shafer writes. “So how distressed need we be today during peacetime about direct but discreet doses of Russian propaganda from venues like RT and Sputnik, myriad Russian disinformation and trolling operations going into the media stream, and the Russian-inspired fake-news adulteration of other sites?”

He continues:

I, for one, am having no trouble sleeping at night. Nor do I see a reason for a House Un-American Activities Committee reunion. The current panic over propaganda led by the American media and the government is only the old panic in a new guise with social media and non-mainstream news outlets taking the bulk of the beating. I wonder if Russian propaganda would be Topic A had Hillary Clinton beaten Donald Trump. The election post-mortems have been searching for a reason, or even a hint of a reason, for Trump’s victory, and the theory that Russian propaganda might have influenced voters has enticed both journalists and government officials. …

In this sense, the shrillness of the propaganda debate reveals a deep distrust of citizens by the elites.

Even the internet, and its ability to spread “fake news” like wildfire, shouldn’t send Americans into a frenzy, Shafer argues. “While it’s true that propagandists have never enjoyed such cheap and universal methods of distribution, the same technology makes it equally convenient for debunkers to search and destroy propaganda,” he says. “We need to combat it the way we combat all bad ideas: with our vigilance and wit, knowing that we can’t ever completely expunge it from the atmosphere.”

Read the entire piece here.

—Posted by Emma Niles

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