A few years ago, I wrote an article outlining some of the efforts of the former Soviet and current Russian governments to undermine faith in Western science through propaganda aimed at promoting pseudoscience. I discussed longstanding efforts to promote UFO and ancient astronaut mysteries, and I late described how Russian Twitter bots had been caught spreading UFO and ancient astronaut memes along with medical pseudoscience and extremist political views aimed at sewing discord among Americans. For my efforts, I receive a barrage of criticism that I had given the Russians too much credit for propaganda, particularly when I highlighted instances where ancient astronaut theorists repeated Russian propaganda claims or proudly admitted to receiving Russian “secret” information. Some even appeared on Russian propaganda outlets, and Ancient Aliens devoted several glowing episodes to praising Putin’s Russia as a source of UFO mysteries.
Now the New York Times has published an examination of Putin’s efforts to do the same with coronavirus and other medical disinformation, using the same techniques previously employed for AIDS disinformation and UFO conspiracy theories:
The Russian president has waged his long campaign by means of open media, secretive trolls and shadowy blogs that regularly cast American health officials as patronizing frauds. Of late, new stealth and sophistication have made his handiwork harder to see, track and fight.
As the Times reported, Russia’s propaganda network RT has received 4 billion views for its YouTube videos, averaging one million per day. RT is notorious for its use of UFO and ancient astronaut material, among other popular conspiracy theories, to draw viewers in to its web of anti-Western, pro-Russian propaganda.
The identification of Putin as a major player in online disinformation stretches beyond the Times. The State Department offered the same conclusions in testimony before Congress last month, which sparked angry but implausible denials from Russian government and media officials.
I concluded years ago that Russia wanted to intentionally weaken Americans’ faith in science. And what do we see in the Times report?
Analysts see an effort not only to undermine American officials but also to accomplish something more basic: to damage American science, a foundation of national prosperity. American researchers have won more than 100 Nobel Prizes since 2000, and Russians five. Geographically, Russia is the world’s largest country, but its economy is smaller than Italy’s.
So, it appears that once again an analysis of pseudoscientific material identified precursors to more serious and sustained challenges to what we might, for better or worse, think of as consensus reality. It’s a canary in the coal mine, showing us what is coming down the pike. It’s probably worth paying more attention.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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