Yale’s Timothy Snyder says Russia pioneered “fake news”

Historians in the News
tags: Russia, Timothy Snyder, Trump, Fake News



President Donald Trump claims he coined the phrase “fake news.” (He didn’t.) But the actual art of “fake news” was pioneered by the Russians in the 1990s and 2000s, and they used it to try to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election. 

This is the argument Yale historian Timothy Snyder makes in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom. According to Snyder, it was Russian leaders who first mastered “fake news” in the digital era, and they did it as part of a broader strategy to disorient their own society. That strategy goes something like this: Use the internet and TV to flood society with misinformation, demonize the institutions charged with uncovering facts, and then exploit the confusion that results. 

This, Snyder argues, is how Russian oligarchs in the Putin era control citizens: They cultivate enough chaos so people become cynical about public life and, eventually, about truth itself. In the 2010s, Russia began to deploy these techniques abroad as a means of destabilizing Western countries. In Trump, they found a particularly useful tool, someone they could use to stoke America’s internal divisions and subvert democracy. 

I spoke with Snyder about how this happened and why he thinks the great triumph of Russian foreign policy in the 21st century is its ability to create chaos in Western democracies using the tools it perfected on its own citizens. 

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You argue in the book that Russia mastered the art of “fake news” and misinformation long before anyone else, and that that’s the main reason why they’ve been so influential in a world governed by the internet and social media.

Timothy Snyder

Russia doesn’t really change; the world changes around Russia in a way that helps Russia. We tend to think that the key to power is economic and technological strength, but that’s not the whole picture. Russia’s economy is not big and they don’t really innovate technologically, but they’ve always led the world in understanding the psychology of power.Psychological warfare is what they’ve done best going all the way back to the Bolsheviks. 

Throughout the Cold War, Russia was always better than us when it came to penetrating their enemies and breaking them down from within. Rather than smashing things overtly, they would work from behind the scenes to cast doubt on things. They’d insert their people into enemy organizations and slowly create chaos from inside. They’ve always excelled at turning people against each other. 

Russia lost the Cold War because the Cold War was decided by economics and technology; it was a material competition. But after the Cold War, we moved into a different world, a world defined by the internet, and that’s a much more psychological world. The techniques they’ve been honing for decades are much more powerful in this new digital world, where emotion dominates and everyone is connected and there is so much information floating around. This is a world of information warfare, and that suits Russia’s strengths. ...



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