A headline in The Times stopped me dead – “Raab: Putin’s trolls are targeting national newspapers”.
“Britain,” ran the opening paragraph, “is to launch an international effort to combat Russian propaganda this week, after a new study found that a network of trolls is targeting national newspapers to spread pro-Moscow views.”
Now, I’m not sure Peter Hitchens, Rod Liddle and their ‘conservative’ admirers add up to an actual network of trolls, but they definitely spread pro-Moscow news. So at last, I thought, here’s a kindred soul. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is on to them.
I read on: “Research funded by the Foreign Office has found that pro-Russian trolls are posting provocative statements in the online comment sections of The Times, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express to give the false impression that the public supports Russian aggression towards Ukraine.”
Now that’s what I call a let-down. Online comment sections? What about the Op-Ed pages? Just about every Sunday, readers of The Mail are regaled, courtesy of Hitchens, with a vindication of Putin and his aggression towards the Ukraine. (In France, Eric Zemmour provides the same service at Le Figaro.)
The 2014 revolution was, according to Hitchens, a “putsch”, which is a nicely evocative word. One thinks of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, with Hitler and Ludendorff marching at the head of a motley Nazi gang through the streets of Munich.
‘Putsch’ is neatly harmonised with Kremlin propaganda, where the movement that secured the Ukraine’s independence from Russia’s KGB junta is routinely described as ‘fascist’. Any musician will tell you that harmonies don’t happen accidentally: they need to be meticulously developed and eloquently brought out.
Yanukovych’s puppet government, criminal through and through, was, according to our Op-Ed troll, democratically elected and therefore anointed by God. Hence, in addition to being unlawful and generally ghastly, the ‘putsch’ was practically sacrilegious.
Then, of course, Hitler’s regime was also democratically elected. One has to assume that, had Hitchens et al. been writing in the 1930s, they would have fought tooth and nail for the inviolability of the Third Reich. Oops, sorry. I forgot that Nazi analogies are reserved for our ally, the genuine Ukrainian democracy.
Putin is routinely described as a strong leader our Op-Ed trolls wish Britain had, while his murderous regime gets away with only the odd slap on the wrist. Yes, it’s at times naughty, but nevertheless Russia “is the only conservative, Christian country left in Europe.”
I wish Dominic Raab had turned his attention to Op-Ed trolling, although the problem he did highlight is serious too, especially if ignored.
The FSB, previously known as the KGB, must be praised for the ingenuity of their operation, and Russia in general for her progress in public education. In my day, people who could write native-quality English were thin on the ground. Yet the success of Putin’s trolling op shows things have improved no end.
Then of course the Petersburg troll factory may also employ native speakers of English, either full-time or freelance. Some of them might even offer their services free of charge, out of heartfelt commitment to the conservative and Christian values embodied in the KGB.
One way or the other, the trolls compose messages of support for Russia’s crimes and, having signed them with English names, post them in the comment sections of British papers. The comments are then recycled by RT, Sputnik and other propaganda arms of the FSB, and used as proof of a groundswell of British public opinion in favour of Putin.
(I’m singling out Britain for obvious reasons, but the same attacks are being launched in 14 other countries. I’m sure they too have their Hitchenses and Zemmours, augmenting this noble effort in the Op-Ed pages.)
Dominic Raab described this recycling exercise as Russia “behaving exceptionally badly”. Britain, he said, was in an “attritional struggle” with Putin’s regime. In other words, Russia is waging war on Britain, for, any way you cut it, war of attrition is still war.
If so, it must be fought by both sides. And the first sine qua non of informational war is that enemy propaganda must be stopped.
This can only be done at some cost to that fundamental virtue of civilised society, freedom of the press. However, I see no problem with this at war time, and neither has any Western country throughout history.
If we acknowledge that Putin’s junta is indeed waging war on Britain, then it’s hard to discern any substantive difference between today’s trolls and William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, eventually strung up for spreading Nazi lies.
I’m not suggesting that the same fate should befall our own trolls, Op-Ed or otherwise, nor that Putin’s regime is every bit as evil as Hitler’s. It isn’t, yet, and our response to a threat must be commensurate with its severity. That’s why I propose the blue pencil, not the gallows, as the defence weapon.
Our editors should realise we are at war and temporarily suppress their libertarian impulses. They know how to do so already, as I can testify from personal experience. Now they should put that expertise to good use and keep Putin’s propaganda off their pages, readers’ comments or Op-Ed. Desperate times, dangerous measures and all that.
P.S. I’m continuing to expand my English vocabulary by listening to football commentators, native speakers to a man (and these days increasingly woman).
One of them mentioned the other day that a certain team likes to “keep their fullbacks intact”. My first reaction was surprise that the team should limit its concern for the players’ health to fullbacks only.
But then I realised he meant keeping them in place, i.e. limiting their attacking instincts. Isn’t it marvellous how flexible English is? Words can mean whatever we want them to mean.