Truth decay

Our political liars play into Putin’s hands

The East German secret police headquarters in Dresden is now a tourist attraction, a museum of the Cold War. You can visit the cells and sit on a chair that Stasi operatives used for interrogations, swivelling their victims from side to side so they had no control. It’s a clever disorientation technique, a reminder that in the East German state, the Stasi – the Ministerium für Staatsicherheit – and their Russian bosses, were in charge of every part of your life. One old piece of furniture is like a definition of totalitarianism.

Herbert Wagner was my guide in the cells. He’s a wiry, sharp-witted man in his seventies, a former Mayor of Dresden. As a young engineer when the Berlin wall came down, Wagner led protesters who surrounded Stasi HQ. They persuaded the once-feared secret police that East Germany was finished. The Soviet Union was collapsing. The Stasi disarmed, went home and ultimately disbanded. Wagner and his comrades then walked across the road to KGB headquarters, a large and impressive villa.

As the crowd chanted and considered how best to get the Russians out, a man opened the front door. In flawless German he told the protesters that the KGB were packing their bags and returning to Moscow but anyone entering the building would be shot. The voice belonged to KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin. Herbert Wagner’s story reveals the calm demeanour of Putin in a crisis, and also the ruthlessness of the Kremlin leader we see now on our TV screens as he refashions Europe over the bodies of unarmed Ukrainian civilians. Wagner, like other Europeans of the communist era, recognised that you can take a man out of the KGB, but you cannot take the KGB out of the man. 

Putin uses violence, of course, but his totalitarian streak extends to something potentially more damaging to democracy, and yet less obvious. Like the Stasi chair, Putin’s KGB strategy of dezinformatsiya – disinformationturns Russians and the rest of us this way and that, confused between facts and convenient fictions. On 21 March 2022, for example, a pro-Kremlin tabloid published Russian ministry of defence figures reporting 10,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine.

The figures were suddenly removed from the website. Then the newspaper claimed the website was hacked and a “faked insert” introduced. Which version is true? I have no idea. That’s the point. Confusion. The endemic confusion between truth and falsehood in Russia is compounded in western democracies by lies from our own public figures when politicians act – as Lenin might say – as “useful idiots”. Putin wins without firing a shot when democratic leaders lie with impunity because deliberate deceit undermines the most cherished of our democratic norms. Voters believe lying to them should be punished. Often it isn’t. Academics speak of “strategic lying” and “truth decay”. Whatever you call it, it’s Vladimir Putin’s Fifth Column.

A few months after Colonel Putin left Dresden, in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Russian-made tanks invaded Iraq’s oil-rich neighbour Kuwait. US President George Bush, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, formed an international coalition that defeated Iraq’s army of almost a million men, the fourth largest in the world, in just five weeks. At that time I was living in Washington, where White House staff spoke of “a turkey shoot”.

Iraq’s Russian tanks, artillery and other weapons were no match for American spy satellites, electronic jamming equipment, Cruise missiles, and high-tech aircraft. Industrial age armour was literally blown away by information age weapons. US politicians and intellectuals, including Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Alvin Toffler, spoke to me of a “Third Wave”, the information revolution which they said was changing our world more profoundly than the agricultural and industrial revolutions had done before it.  At the peak of the US-UK “special relationship”, there were prophecies of a “unipolar world”, the triumph of liberal democracy and the “end of history”. In May 1991 the Queen addressed a joint session of Congress, her speech punctuated by standing ovations: “Just as our societies have prospered through their reliance on contract, not force, so too will the world be a better place for the spread of that mutual respect and good faith.”

It took years for western politicians and commentators to recognise that the President Putin who came to power at the turn of the millennium was still the KGB Putin of 1990. Only now he was worse – supercharged by the billions he and his oligarch accomplices looted from the Russian people, energised by the unchallenged power of dictatorship, and untouchable with his finger on the nuclear trigger. Even before Putin’s cyberattack on Estonia in 2007, the military action in Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Crimea in 2014, his quiet subversion of western democracy from within had begun.

Putin’s tools included money to grease his regime’s access to western elites, and the information age weaponisation of disinformation made easier by our own gullibility. Putin had a plan for greater Russia, but instead of an inconvenient ideology like Communism or Nazism, he had a style, the authoritarian style of a man of uncountable wealth and power. As rich as Jeff Bezos, but with nukes.

This combination of money, arrogance and power seduced Putin’s populist fanboys and Mini-Mes: Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungary, Salvini in Italy, Syria’s Assad and many others. Farage described Putin as the world leader he most admired. Boris Johnson managed to see not just the good side of Putin’s gold-encrusted Russian mates, but also of Putin himself. In 2016 Johnson lauded Putin’s “ruthless clarity” in backing Assad in Syria’s civil war. The United Nations calculated that this “ruthless clarity” resulted in 350,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons and the displacement of millions of civilian refugees. 

If there is something worse than democratic politicians swooning over a murderous dictator, it’s their emulation of his style of lying. Johnson, Trump and other Putin admirers have weaponised “truth decay.” The phrase was coined by the US think tank the Rand Corporation. Rand defined it as a phenomenon which “has taken hold over the last two decades, eroding civil discourse, causing political paralysis, and leading to public uncertainty and disengagement”.

Those two decades coincide with Putin’s leadership in the Kremlin. Truth decay’s four key ingredients, Rand said, are “increasing disagreement about facts; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact; [and] declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.”

A 2021 academic report by university professors Ivor Gaber and Caroline Fisher explored a blatant part of truth decay, “strategic lying”. They saw it in “recent electoral successes – the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the 2019 general election in the United Kingdom, and Trump’s victory in 2016 and his increased electoral support in 2020.” The authors said these events “point to an apparent growing tendency for politicians caught lying not to be punished at the ballot box”. Even now Trump’s falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen remains a key part of his 2024 re-election appeal, a campaign based on a massive, shameful, strategic lie.

The Washington Post concluded that “by the end of his term, Trump had accumulated 30,573 untruths during his presidency – averaging about 21 erroneous claims a day. What is especially striking is how the tsunami of untruths kept rising the longer he served as president and became increasingly unmoored from the truth.” Even more striking is that no serious American commentator thinks Trump’s career of lying rules him out from a second term in the US presidency. On the contrary. For Trumpists, the lie is exactly why they support him.  

Gaber defines “strategic lying” as first “telling a blatant untruth in the full knowledge that within minutes of its dissemination it will be called out as a lie, but for a number of reasons this doesn’t appear to matter… second… to ensure that the subject matter of the lie stays at the top of the news agenda… third… to sow confusion making audiences immune to messages from opponents that might cut through the misleading narrative – the post-truth environment incarnate.” Gaber’s examples include Dominic Cummings’ notorious “strategic lie” on the Brexit bus that the UK gave £350 million a week to the EU.

Gaber notes that in the UK a slurry of lies – more recently those involving partygate, cronyism, dodgy Russian contributions to Conservative party funds, the cost of Number Ten wallpaper and other well-publicised examples – also “doesn’t appear to matter” to many British voters. And that’s the point. Putin wins the disinformation war not because western politicians are puppets, but because their home-grown lies kill trust in democracy itself.

The US research group Freedom House, created in 1941 to counter the totalitarian threat from Stalin and Hitler, sounded the alarm. They noted in 2022 that we have witnessed 16 years of decline in democracies in various ways because “authoritarian countries have gained enormous power in the international system, and freer countries have seen their established norms challenged and fractured.” Among those “established norms” is the idea that repeated lying by leaders cannot be tolerated in a democracy. It’s tolerated now. And that means that listening to TV or radio news, reading newspapers or clicking on social media, we are all now like Stasi interrogation victims on a revolving chair. We are pushed this way and that by contradictory and uncheckable information, buffeted by the deliberate strategic lying from supposedly democratic leaders who act shamelessly and – astonishingly – without penalty.

Putin’s disinformation has blighted the past two decades. The Kremlin lied about the murder by polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; about the attempted murders of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018; about the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17 in 2014; about Russian attacks on Georgia and Estonia, and complicity in the chemical attacks in Syria; about the poisoning of critics including Alexander Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza. And now he lies endlessly about Ukraine. But who has time to investigate and separate fact from fiction?

In 1951 the German philosopher Hannah Arendt summarised why ordinary citizens tolerate leaders who lie: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.” In Britain we have “work” events where you bring your own booze; parties which are not parties; large donors to the Conservative party who apparently expect no favours; cronies who obtain government contracts – on merit, of course; others who fail upwards yet end up in the House of Lords.

We hear that everything the Prime Minister does is “world-beating” or “world-leading”, while every hospital extension is a “new” hospital, and every “new” police officer isn’t just to make up for the more than 20,000 police posts already cut by the Conservative government. Brexit is “done” of course, except it is constantly being renegotiated; Brexit’s a success, despite shrinking the UK economy and the creation of new bureaucracies… and so on. And on. The fault isn’t with Putin or our own meretricious politicians. It’s us. For too long we have tolerated, enabled, even rewarded liars and their lies with our votes.

On 25 March the Daily Mail front page splash headline announced: “KREMLIN: BORIS IS OUR No.1 ENEMY.” The Kremlin wouldn’t lie, would they? And a British newspaper wouldn’t uncritically print a front-page story sourced to Putin’s propaganda chief, would they? Because if they did, we’d all be twisting this way and that on a revolving chair and we’d be “people for whom … the distinction between true and false no longer exists”.

Gavin Esler’s “The Big Steal” podcast series on Vladimir Putin’s many thefts is available online. He’s also the author, most recently, of “How Britain Ends”

Current Affairs

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