A protester holds a "Z" sign during a rally organized by Serbian right-wing organizations in support of Russian attacks on Ukraine, in Belgrade, March 4, 2022.

A protester holds a "Z" sign during a rally organized by Serbian right-wing organizations in support of Russian attacks on Ukraine, in Belgrade, March 4, 2022. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images / Milos Miskov

Putin’s Propaganda Machine Is What America’s Far-Right Wants

National security leaders must learn to fight disinformation at home, too.

Take a good look at the propaganda machine. The total control of information and messages from the airwaves to the internet, the fawning over the infallible leader—it’s all quite impressive.

I’m not talking about Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. I’m talking about America’s far-right media, on display at two conferences in Orlando last week, and every night on cable TV. 

It’s hard to watch Russia's version of journalism and not think of the American far-right’s version of it. Indeed, the connections are both direct and philosophical—and of import to national security leaders. 

But there’s a deeper connection as well. America’s right-wing partisans wish they had what Putin has: control of the information and messages that flow to the body politic. That’s not an accusation; it is their goal

In the past few months, we’ve seen just how closely related the two are, Putin’s propaganda and our own. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, America’s far-right denied the looming threat as a wag-the-dog conspiracy concocted by deep-state Democrats and centrist Republicans, or tried to blame President Joe Biden. Russian propaganda outlets gleefully put those clips into heavy rotation

Two weeks into the invasion, far-right leaders continue to sow doubt on war reporting, claiming or implying there is an elite conspiracy to keep Americans uninformed, and often parroting Russian propagandists’ distortions and lies

“We have to question everything we’re told,” said a recent chryon on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show. 

Steve Bannon, who ran Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, declared on his own show that Americans should not support U.S. aid for Ukraine “until we get a full briefing of what is going on, with facts.”

So, while commentators and security legends by now have called the Ukraine war a wake-up call to Americans for many reasons, allow me to add one more: If you look upon Russia’s state-controlled, loyalist media with horror, then it’s time to wake up with equal concern toward America’s own rising partisan propaganda machines. There have already been calls for security professionals to add America’s far-right extremism to their portfolios. It’s time to do the same for domestic far-right propaganda. 

Even Bad Propaganda Can Work

Outside of Russia, where information flows freely and journalism still exists, Putin’s laughably bad propaganda looks as rusty and outdated as the war machines they’re using in Ukraine. Last week, for example, Russia’s embassy in Canada tweeted a statement saying that the Russian Army “takes all measures to preserve the lives and safety of civilians. The strikes are targeting military facilities only.” Ukrainian citizens and Western media soon debunked those lies with articles, photos, and videos

On Thursday, in a press conference Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov simply “said that Russia did not attack Ukraine,” according to the BBC. 

But these bizarre messages are resonating with the American far right, whose media personalities are happily carrying Moscow’s water. On Wednesday, for example, former Trump campaign spokeswoman A.J. Delgado, said the news that Russian bombs have targeted orphanages, cancer wards, and maternity wards was “probably bullshit.”

The Russians, just like the American far-right, are trying to undermine public trust in institutions and sources that challenge their power, so they’ve turned their sights on the world’s journalists. In their statement, Russia’s embassy in Ottawa complained, “We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of lies, fake news”—one of President Donald Trump’s signature phrases—“distorted and fabricated facts, aimed at discrediting our actions.”

Inside Russia, Putin has tightened his control over information with extraordinary and desperate measures, shutting down the few remaining independent liberal media outlets. On Thursday, one week into his full-scale invasion and after unexpected battlefield losses, Russia’s Duma moved a new law to criminalize unfavorable news coverage–something Trump openly desired for years. Faced with new restrictions, Russia’s last remaining oppositional media is fleeing. The BBC and CNN suspended broadcasts. On Tuesday, the New York Times pulled its reporters from Moscow. 

Russia is also working to cut off social media, limiting access to Twitter and banning Facebook entirely.  

The American far-right also has tried to put a leash on social media platforms, and for the same reason as Putin: its increased policing of the veracity of their claims. (Research shows social media is not “censoring” conservative opinions, just demonstrably false statements.) Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer and former Facebook CEO, said on Tuesday that such platforms fight those who seek to control information with war propaganda.

“Social media is bad for dictators. That’s why Putin took us down,” Sandberg told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble. “In a country like Russia, the media was completely controlled by one voice. That’s what social media changes. What social media changes is the ability of people to post and to speak.” 

“We need to fight,” Sandberg said, “fight for access, fight to make sure social media exists so people do get information from all over the world and that information is valid and real.”

As journalists and social media platforms dwindle in Russia, Putin-controlled media has fed the populace fiction. A disheartening number of Russians are cheering on Putin’s war as a result, but families are split over what to believe. Some desperate mothers are publicly criticizing Putin cronies, and resorting to calling a hotline in Ukraine to find out where their sons went. Yet the painted letter “Z” symbol on Russia’s military hardware in Ukraine has fast become a nationalist virtue signal. Others compare the “Z” to the Nazi swastika, but to us it has echoes of the “Punisher” logo that has become a totem of right-wing militia and the white extremists who thought they’d overthrow the U.S. government with the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Now close your eyes and imagine the United States in this or any war, but the only information Americans can know comes through its own propagandists of the far-right. 

To be sure, plenty of Americans are confused already. On Monday, Tucker Carlson—whose own network calls him untrustworthy—used a clip of a mixed-martial-arts fighter to deliver a dose of debunked conspiracy theory along with his contention that Republicans who support Biden’s decision to help Ukraine fight off Putin’s invasion are guilty of “lunacy.”

“You know, here’s my first thought: I’m not going nowhere to fight none of these wars for these politicians,” Bryce Mitchell says in the clip. “I’m staying at home and when the war comes to Arkansas, I will dig my boots into the ground and I will die for everything I love and I will not retreat.” He added, “I don’t know what’s going on, to be honest, brother. I really don’t. There’s been so much stuff, and I don’t think anyone knows…” before drifting off into a tirade about Hunter Biden, tax dollars to “bribe” Ukraine, and homeless veterans.

Carlson ignores that the fighter admits to not knowing the basic facts of the Ukraine conflict, and lets the debunked conspiracy theories pass unremarked. Instead, the Fox host put words into the fighter’s mouth to say that Mitchell’s folksy opposition to Biden’s intervention in Ukraine is correct because the U.S. military is supposed to “defend” only America. 

“That’s why we call it the Defense Department. It is not called the Department of Nation-Building or the Bureau of Trans-Evangelism,” Carlson said, throwing in another far-right culture war non sequitur.

Carlson is the far-right’s most popular messenger, watched by an average of 3.5 million Americans each night, which is sometimes four times as many as, say CNN’s Anderson Cooper. 

“Tucker Carlson is the only person on TV talking any sense about Russia / Ukraine. Our leaders ignore him at their (and our) peril,” tweeted one far-right pundit who used to work for Carlson’s Daily Caller.

Yet national security elites seem determined to do so. Search some of the top U.S. think tanks websites: Carlson is mentioned just seven times by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, nowhere by the Center for a New American Security, but 85 times by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. At the Council on Foreign Relations’s website, he is mentioned 42 times—but only eight since 2020. 

It’s almost as if some never learned their lesson from 2015, when the natsec establishment hoped they could make Trump go away by ignoring him. Or when everyone ignored the right’s openly-stated, disinformation-fueled plans for the Jan. 6 insurrection, perhaps the most troubling national security incident on American soil since the 9/11 attacks. That day was made possible by 40 years’ worth of right-wing, anti-government propaganda. Propagandists continue to lie about it more than one year after.

State media watch

How can Putin think he can get away with blatant propaganda, in today’s world? It wasn’t long ago that Trump thought he could. By installing loyalists to run Voice of America and its sister overseas news services, Trump briefly turned the United States’ fascist-fighting information organizations into his own personal PR shop. One Trump-era broadcast into Cuba called George Soros “a nonbelieving Jew of flexible morals.” 

Fearing that Trump would order these organizations to target Americans with propaganda, security experts at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice urged lawmakers to act. Congress failed to do so. The only thing that stopped Trump was losing reelection. If he hadn’t, would VOA and Radio Free Europe now be partnered up with Putin’s TASS? 

The First Amendment limits what the U.S. government can do to the free press. U.S. troops are not going to invade 30 Rockefeller Center and take over NBC News. But they don’t have to as long as the far-right’s propaganda machine is able to chip away at trust in American journalism—and as long as Americans fall for it, and elect politicians who love to do it.

When far-right freshman congressman and media darling Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina won his seat in November, he boasted that he was focused on rhetorical bomb-throwing, not governing: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” Cawthorn was elected while trumpeting false claims about election fraud, predicting “bloodshed”  and envisioning “having to pick up arms against a fellow American.” Last weekend, he was caught on tape calling Ukraine’s comedian-turned-war president Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug” whose government “has been pushing woke ideologies.” 

Real fake news

While politicians come and go, the lasting damage is in the lingering popularity of Soviet-style agitprop propaganda from loyalist far-right media operations deliberately masquerading as journalism. These outlets—designed to look, sound, and feel like journalism—are de facto paid actors, directors, and scriptwriters of a carefully crafted fiction that would make the Kremlin proud. They call themselves reporters and operate in pretend newsrooms like Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, Carlson’s Daily Caller, Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, and upstarts like One America News Network and Newsmax. They are different from older conservative magazines like the National Review and Weekly Standard, whose writers did not try to impersonate straight newsrooms (and, indeed, intermittently opposed Trump’s 2016 election). 

The new wave of far-right fake newsrooms is so blatantly troubling that some have questioned whether it crosses legal boundaries for broadcast news. In December, however, Gigi Sohn, Biden’s controversial nominee to head the FCC, promised Congress she would not heed liberal calls to revoke the broadcast licenses of conservative outlets, even though she advocated considering it as a private citizen and has called Fox “state-sponsored propaganda.” FCC rules say it is “illegal for broadcasters to intentionally distort the news.” Newsmax and OANN backed Sohn, who awaits confirmation. (It’s not a new idea. In 2017, Trump suggested  the FCC revoke the broadcast license of NBC News over a news segment he disliked. The FCC commissioner at the time said he did not have that authority.) 

Fox, the first cable TV network built to counter American journalism, may have smelled an opportunity to throw caution to the wind. The nation’s most popular network fell off with Trump loyalists but has won many back by shifting even further to the right. Out went several of Fox’s true journalists, notably Chris Wallace, who had seen enough. In came more firebrands and personality hosts, like Jesse Watters, most famous for producing an openly racist segment in New York’s Chinatown. Fox’s rightward shift is so extreme that its respected Pentagon correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, has become a momentary darling of the left simply for fact-checking Carlson, Sean Hannity, and other pundits. 

(There but for the grace should go MSNBC, which declared in 2015, before the rise of Trump, that it would move away from the left, but then leaned left hard, and is now reportedly once again sorting out how to better separate hard news from opinion.) 

Right-wing media is clear about where it’s heading. Two weeks ago, Fox and several of its competitors set up shop on the Orlando expo floor of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Why should national security leaders care? Because they influence Americans. As CPAC leader Matt Schlapp said, “There is no other conference like this in the world. We’re the largest annual conservative conference in the world on politics, and now we do two in this country, and we’re doing them overseas.” 

It was the weekend before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At CPAC, where Trump once hugged the American flag—keynote speakers hammered Biden’s foreign policy as “weak,” many declining to criticize Russia or Putin. Across town, at the even-farther-right’s America First conference, they chanted, “Putin! Putin!” A subsequent poll found Trump voters had a better opinion of Putin than Biden.

What is to be done

The tricky question is, in a society built on free speech, what can be done?

The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act forbids the U.S. government to use propaganda on Americans at home. But it shouldn’t have to. The answer to bad speech is, as ever, more speech—but focused speech. Defense and national security leaders can use time-tested methods to marginalize extremist messaging. Five years ago, two legal scholars drew upon Cold War lessons to lay out three steps for fighting Russian disinformation: First, the national security community must respond to partisan propaganda with a collective, and preferably nonpartisan voice. Second, it must organize its leading voices to flood the zone with messages that marginalize disinformation. Finally, credible leaders must actively respond to propaganda, countering the lies and calling out those who spew them. These sure sound like they could help at home.

The good news is, this thinking already exists in the U.S. government. The recommendations paraphrased above were written by co-authors Ashley Deeks, a University of Virginia law professor now serving as a White House associate counsel and deputy legal counsel on Biden’s National Security Council, and Sabrina McCubbin, a UVA student who is now a lawyer at the Pentagon. And that’s just one idea. 

America needs freedom of speech, and it needs the widest possible range of voices to be heard to sustain the marketplace of ideas a democracy needs. But partisans have never been interested in a fair fight, and George Washington knew it when he warned Americans to unite against such “factions” of his day. CPAC’s Schlapp said it plainly: truth is not what they seek. In their eyes, anyone who disagrees with Trump and the far-right isn’t just wrong, they're not even American. 

“The problem with Trump’s critics is that, in the end, Trump isn’t the problem. America is the problem,” said Schlapp.