December 3, 2019  |  Updated December 3, 2019

The Tech Giants Are Normalizing the Kremlin’s Propaganda

By Jakub Kalenský
By de facto recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia, Apple has done something that so far, just a handful of autocratic or dictatorial regimes in the world, like North Korea, Sudan, and Syria had done. Photo: Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Objectivity is a myth which is proposed and imposed on us,” said Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s lead propagandist—and as we can see day after day, his subordinates and other pro-Kremlin journalists all over the world dutifully follow this ideology.

There are no objective facts in the world of pro-Kremlin disinformation machinery, and reality can simply be invented in defiance of any inconvenient reality. Despite all the well-documented violations of international law, Kremlin propaganda will keep repeating that Russia has never violated international law (see the cases from 2016, 2017, and 2018). Despite all the brutal repressions of independent voices in Russia, the regime’s propagandists will claim Russia is the world champion in freedom of speech. There are thousands of similar cases of blatant lies spread by the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem.

In his book Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder describes how influential Russian thinkers, like those from the nationalist and anti-liberal Izborsk Club, and leading representatives of the regime like Vladimir Putin or Sergei Lavrov treat factuality as an enemy. “The liberal order that produced factuality, one member [of the Izborsk club] wrote, was the work of ‘the world backstage, the core of which are the Zionist leaders’,” writes Snyder. According to him, the numerous fictions and contradictions of the Russian information machine “were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality.”

And not only are the pro-Kremlin journalists following this strategy at home, they also try to impose it on audiences outside of Russia via local mutations of RT, Sputnik, and other segments of the vast pro-Kremlin media ecosystem.

It is for this reason that Apple’s decision to show Crimea as part of Russia in the company’s applications is a massive propaganda victory for the Kremlin.

Of course, the regime’s pseudo-journalists were immediately celebrating Apple’s decision with their typical nobleness, laughing at Ukrainians and their idea of national “dignity.” But that’s not the chief element of the Kremlin’s victory.

The most important point here is that Apple tacitly agreed with the Kremlin’s leitmotiv thought, and with the whole philosophy that they are trying to impose on the rest of the world—that there are no objective facts, there are just different points of view. When someone is in Russia, they will see Crimea as Russian. When outside of Russia, they will see Crimea as non-Russian. The Kremlin’s real victory here is that some facts now depend on where you currently are, not on objective reality.

The objective facts are clear in this case. The international community does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The United Nations have adopted a resolution that condemns the illegal referendum in Crimea already in 2014, and the organization has reiterated this position once again last year.

By de facto recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia, Apple has done something that so far just a handful of autocratic or dictatorial regimes in the world, like North Korea, Sudan, and Syria, had done; as well as some of the marginal neo-Nazi and Stalinist political groups.

Unfortunately, Apple is not alone. Facebook’s decision to prohibit fact-checkers from verifying politicians’ posts is of a similar nature. This position is a different way of saying that the same facts can be different depending on who describes them. If a non-politician promotes a lie, it can be fact-checked and marked as a lie; but if a politician promotes the exact same thing, it miraculously becomes a non-lie. Facts have not changed, only the speaker has changed—but that is apparently enough for Facebook to stop calling a spade a spade.

With this type of approach, objective reality becomes irrelevant and what matters is only who makes a statement. It also gives the Kremlin clear and explicit instructions on how to conduct a disinformation campaign that dodges any moderation from Facebook. All they have to do is hire a local politician who will be spreading their lies for them—something we know that the Kremlin is actively doing and has been for years.

Apple and Facebook are sending a cynical message. The tech giants are saying that facts are unimportant—if you are a politician, or if you are the Kremlin, you can have a different reality than the rest of the world, and we will help you to have that.

But this decision threatens to have wider consequences. As Snyder shows in his book On Tyranny, “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.”

Apple and Facebook should choose whether they have given in to the pressure of those who are trying to destroy facts, and thus democracy and rule of law, or if they will stand up to protect these institutions. It is impossible to have it both ways, and attempted neutrality will only help the liars and aggressors.

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