Narcissus at war

Jun 18, 2024
Bullet casings on the flag of Ukraine. white square for text. concept war in Ukraine

The manipulation of truth and the acceptance of self-fabricated narratives can have devastating consequences, akin to the fate of Narcissus in Greek mythology, who, entranced by his own reflection, was consumed by self-love to the point of destruction. Similarly, the propagation and strategic use of misinformation as a political tool has serious consequences.

In February this year, a Ukrainian group called VoxUkraine published a list identifying certain individuals as deliberate spreaders of Russian disinformation. It included names such as Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, investigative journalist Brian Berletic, and geopolitical analyst John Mearsheimer. Also named were former British diplomat Alistair Crook, former US Colonel Ret. Douglas McGregor, and media personalities like Jimmy Dore and Tucker Carlson.

These individuals had, in fact, been largely raising valid concerns about the US/NATO role in provoking and prolonging the war in Ukraine. They challenged simplistic mainstream narratives that cast the conflict as a case of unprovoked Russian aggression.

This story is interesting because it clearly illuminates the extent to which US and Ukrainian information management has become an obstacle to understanding conditions on the battlefield and within Ukrainian society. These deceptions are dangerous precisely because they are officially sanctioned, have enormous reach, and are widely believed.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) plays a crucial role in this dynamic. Established in the 1980s as a non-governmental organisation to promote democracy, the NED has been instrumental in funding Ukrainian media and civil society groups. This support has been pivotal in reshaping Ukraine’s media landscape over the last decade and influencing the narratives that dominate Western discourse on the conflict. The NED, through its financial support, established a network of media organisations that propagate the Ukrainian government’s official positions while delegitimising its critics.

With significant financial support, VoxUkraine and Detector Media demonise dissent and shape public opinion, mostly targeting domestic and foreign critics of the Ukrainian government and NATO policies. A notable illustration of the hubris of VoxUkraine was during the fall of Avdiivka. The New York Times had correctly reported that hundreds of Ukrainians in the battle for Avdiivka had been captured or were missing, only to be accused by Detector Media and VoxUkraine of “disseminating Russian disinformation.” The Ukrainian fact-check site offered little in terms of a rebuttal, merely citing a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Defence Forces disputing the Times’ story and labelling it “disinformation.” VoxUkraine and the Ukrainian government have been making a maximal effort to discredit any report that contradicts the official narrative.

Moreover, these and other US-funded Ukrainian media outlets produce content in English, which enters American foreign policy discourse through the syndication of VoxUkraine content to major platforms like Yahoo News and via its partnership with Meta. By these means, narratives, not facts, become accepted and influential.

Another crucial aspect is the expansion of censorship laws in Ukraine, allowing the government to shut down all opposition media under the guise of countering disinformation. The intimidation and harassment of journalists challenging the official narrative, being unrestrained, has further solidified the grip of misinformation.

A Ukrainian NGO has gone so far as to add 388 individuals, considered obstacles to further US aid to Ukraine, to what is described as a “kill list”. President Trump, Elon Musk, and dozens of US Representatives are included. Tucker Carlson now finds himself on both of the lists under discussion here.

The implications are profound. As the US government and its contractors continue to shape the narrative around the conflict, the lines between fact and fiction have become blurred.

The parallels drawn by Sachs and others between the current situation in Ukraine and the Vietnam War are valid. In both cases, the US has drawn us into a proxy war thousands of miles away based on threat inflation and domino theory logic, in support of dependent and problematic allies.

Dissent was then, as now, stigmatised, with those questioning the official narrative smeared as dupes or apologists for the enemy.

Ukrainian misinformation poses a great threat because it is believed to be true. The significant financial support from the US government and the expansion of censorship laws in Ukraine have created an environment where misinformation thrives. A divergence between narrative and reality is becoming increasingly apparent.

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.” Legasov’s profound declaration is not merely a philosophical musing; it stands as a cautionary note to Western elites just as it did to the Soviet gerontocracy. Until the architects of the conflict abandon the imperative to smear critics of the war and begin to reconcile themselves to a diplomatic resolution, the war will continue to escalate towards a global catastrophe.

Power centres unwelcome of oversight, loyal dissent, critical study, and independent scholarship quickly fall victim to illusion, just like Narcissus. In the end, “every lie owes a debt to the truth, and sooner or later, that debt must be paid.”
– Russian Nuclear Engineer Legasov.

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