Opinion: The futility of trying to pop Russia’s propaganda bubble

By Rich Moniak

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski proposed suspending sister city ties with Vladivostok. Her intentions were to “tell our friends in Vladivostok that the criminal acts of the Russian President and Russian armed forces are wrong and must be condemned.” The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly didn’t approve it by a vote of 5-4.

How much influence it would have, even if passed unanimously, is questionable. Not only because the Russian propaganda machine is difficult to penetrate. America’s credibility in any foreign country is undermined by our battered news media and the public’s inability to agree what constitutes important truths here at home.

The debate and vote were covered by all three of Juneau’s news outlets. Their job is to ensure our government is transparent and to hold them accountable for the decisions they make. The competition between the outlets serves as a check against erroneous reporting.

The true, unedited KINY News story about it was posted in full on the official Telegram messaging service by a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry Office in Vladivostok. It even provided a link to the resolution on CBJ’s website.

[Assembly narrowly rejects suspending relationship with Russian sister city]

But unlike our government, which doesn’t dictate a news outlet’s content and language, the state-owned Russian News Agency TASS grabbed that story and turned it into propaganda for Russian President Vladimir Putin. They removed Gladziszewski’s defense of the resolution and Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs’s condemnation of the war. And as previously directed by Putin, they changed the word “war” to “the special operation in Ukraine.” That version was distributed to Russian news outlets across the country.

Kevin Allen, the KINY reporter who wrote the story, spoke with Vladislav Ruslanovich, an attaché from the Foreign Ministry Office in Vladivostok, and confirmed its citizens were informed of the Assembly’s decision not to suspend the sister city relationship.

He then sought Gladziszewski’s reaction to how the story traveled across Russia.

“First of all, there was no disagreement on the Assembly about condemning the actions of the Russian president’s attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine” she told him. “There was universal support for the citizens of Ukraine as they fight to defend their democracy and the right to determine the fate of their own nation, and if Russian media has seized on this story, and somehow are painting as support for the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine, nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Foreign Ministry office in Vladivostok posted its own follow-up, although this time in an abbreviated form with some official commentary. The post’s author wrote they “had the courage to publish Ms Gladziszewski’s comment,” which they did exactly as it appeared on KINY. He then challenged Allen to “have the courage to publish our comment on the situation in Donbass.”

I don’t know what comment that referred to because it was the only mention of Donbass in that post or anywhere else on the webpage. And Allen told me Donbass never came up during his conversation with Ruslanovich.

Regardless, it’s obvious the citizens of Vladivostok are getting information about the war from Russian sources that can’t be effectively challenged by anyone here. That’s even harder after the damage former President Donald Trump inflicted on the mainstream news media by calling them “the enemy of the people” and relentlessly referring to them as “fake news.” The fact that about 30 percent of Americans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen shouldn’t impress them either.

Without question, Putin’s goal to divide our nation was aided by those competing storylines. Ironically, his war Ukraine gave us a common cause to unite around.

But the history of our wars in Afghanistan and of Iraq suggest that will last only as long as it holds our attention. At the start, Americans were largely united behind both. But as they dragged on, popular support faded. And after that unified sense of national purpose was gone, many directed their anger and resentment across the political and cultural divides here at home.

Now, we’re trapped in competing versions of America’s truths. And if we lack the courage to resolve them, the citizens Vladivostok won’t likely find much benefit to having a sister city anywhere in America.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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