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Propaganda in Ukraine and Dublin

 Propaganda in the Ukraine and Dublin    Gerry OShea

In February 2022, when Putin launched the tyrannical invasion of Ukraine, strange tales of biological warfare began surging across the internet. Russian officials claimed a disturbing revelation for the world: American-funded Biolabs in Ukraine were conducting experiments with bat viruses. Furthermore, they said that U.S. officials had confessed to manipulating “dangerous pathogens.”

This story was completely unfounded. It bore no relationship with reality and was repeatedly debunked, but unfortunately, it had legs.

An American Twitter account with direct links to the QAnon conspiracy network began tweeting about the imaginary Biolabs, racking up thousands of retweets and eventually reaching over nine million viewers.

A version of the story appeared on the Infowars website hosted by the since-discredited Alex Jones, last seen crying on air as he is compelled to part with over a billion dollars to the Sandy Hook families he libeled. Tucker Carlson, still hosting on Fox at that time, played clips of a Russian general and a top Chinese official repeating the Biolab fantasy and pleading with President Biden to stop lying about the non-existent pathogens.

Chinese propaganda leaned heavily into the story. Their official news agency ran multiple headlines like “U.S.-led Biolabs Pose Potential Threats to People in Ukraine and Beyond.”

American diplomats publicly refuted these fabrications, but the Chinese propaganda planners were getting great mileage out of the imaginary labs, and the Asian, African, and Latin American media outlets sharing publishing agreements with Peking all carried the lying account.

In China, an internal memo known as Document Number 9 lists the greatest perils faced by the ruling Communist Party. “Western Constitutional Democracy” led this list, followed in close order by “Universal Human Rights,” Media Independence,” and “Judicial Independence.”

Dealing with the same basic challenge from liberal, progressive forces within Russia, Putin identified what he disparagingly named the “color revolution,” attributing these foreign demands for free thinking to infiltration by outside enemies of the country. Alexei Navalny, a thoughtful leader and a committed democrat, demanded the right to criticize Putin and his cronies. He died last year in a Siberian prison.

This is the core problem for all autocracies: the Russians, the Chines, the Iranians, and others all know that the language of transparency, accountability, justice, and democracy appeals to many of their citizens. Even the most sophisticated surveillance cannot wholly suppress it. Every autocrat and dictator focuses on discrediting these bombshell ideas about human freedom.

Freedom House, a non-profit that advocates for democracy around the world, lists 56 countries as “not free.” The leaders in these places rarely claim that their nation enjoys some kind of utopia. They teach their subjects to be cynical, apathetic and afraid. They are told to be grateful that there is no disorder in their country, unlike the democracies where the citizens always seem to be complaining, marching on the streets and protesting about inadequate services by the government.

Going back to the way the Biolabs story illustrates the propensity among autocratic regimes for spreading lies about countries following a democratic model, I read recently how this promotion of propaganda is also increasingly evident in Ireland, although not by the government or any political party there.

Recently, Fergus Power, an independent local election candidate with strong right-wing credentials running in South Dublin, posted a video online of a policeman escorting young children to school near the Grand Canal. This involved them passing a line of tents used by asylum seekers, allowing Mr. Power to show a photograph of the kids with their police escort on X, formerly Twitter, with a fear-mongering comment suggesting the need for special protection for the pupils because of dangerous people in the tents.

The Tweet claimed that “our people are being forced down very dark and sinister roads and it will not end well.” This message went viral in Ireland and outside. Far-right anti-immigrant groups used it for their purposes.

However, the police explained that their escort policy applies in many busy schools and their policy of accompanying children at the beginning and end of the school day has nothing to do with any encampments.

Further research shows that there is no history of asylum seekers interfering with students on their way to school or going home anywhere in the country.

Last year, Mr. Power again alerted his followers that a seven-year old girl was allegedly raped by four Roma men on the grounds of the Celbridge Manor Hotel in Celbridge in County Kildare and called for a major protest outside the hotel. The police had no record of any young girl being raped in that vicinity, but they confirmed that they were investigating an assault on a child with no sexual component to the alleged attack and no suggestion of Roma involvement.

Last month the French authorities warned their Irish counterparts that the Russian Secret Service has extended its disinformation network to Ireland, and they should expect a program to exploit social divisions around contentious issues such as fear of asylum seekers.

The clash between “information” generated in poisonous social media labs in autocratic countries and the genuine effort by professional journalists and writers in liberal democracies to portray real situations defines the difference between totalitarian regimes and countries committed to a free press.

Gerry O’Shea blogs 

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