It happened so quickly in the mainstream American imagination. Russia went from being merely part of the rogues’ gallery of American adversaries to an opaque, Oriental Reich bent on global conquest. Russia is on its way to being another North Korea—a country about which people will believe anything, as long as it’s bad. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, people are seriously discussing whether or not Russia is about to conquer Scandinavia. Russia didn’t even invade all of Ukraine, but the US Pacific Northwest better watch out.
Despite liberal fetishism of the idea that “knowledge is power,” information doesn’t confer power or spread based on its quality alone. Stories about the depravity of America’s enemies are amplified because of how they serve the interests of the powerful. A bellicose Russia is an ideal vector for stories that make America look good. It gives the US a chance to perform concern for high-minded ideals. For additional traction, these narratives are reduced to the simplest moral binary. When these elements are married, it guarantees that you’ll be hearing that story–whether it’s true or not. All of these elements came together this week in a widely circulated hoax, concerning anti-Semitic flyers being handed out by Russian-allied separatists in Donetsk. The hoax encapsulates American propaganda’s favored tropes: whitewashing the actions of America and its allies and ascribing Nazi-like behavior to America’s enemies.
The story was that pro-Russian elements had disseminated flyers in the separatist-friendly Ukrainian region of Donetsk, ordering local Jews to “register.” The letter, with its threatening, anti-Semitic nature containing overtones of the Holocaust, caused “an international scandal.” The American mainstream media, from Drudge Report to ThinkProgress, took it up and amplified the story. The letter made its way to Secretary of State John Kerry, who called it “grotesque.”
It certainly would have been grotesque, if it had been true. However, the letter was a hoax, fabricated for as-yet-unknown ends. The content of the letter itself should’ve raised questions. A portion within accused local Jews of collaboration with the “Bandera Junta.” A group aligning themselves with Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian figure who collaborated with the Nazis, would be an unlikely ally for Donetsk’s Jews. The American media loses its already anemic critical faculties to make America’s enemies look identical to the Third Reich. Beyond the American media’s receptiveness to this message, this narrative is very friendly to America’s interests in the Ukraine. At this point, aligning the pro-Russian separatists of Ukraine with right-wing anti-Semites accomplishes a whitewash of America’s support of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis.