I’m plagiarizing Charlie Sykes of The Bulwalk, but I’ll give a more concise answer to the question than Sykes: Putin is afraid of the truth.
More precisely, he’s afraid that Russians will discover three facts: that he’s invaded a sovereign country that is not run by neo-Nazis; that after a little more than a week of war, he’s killed over 360 civilians; and that he’s turned Russia overnight into an international pariah, crippling Russia’s economy, isolating Russians from the rest of the world, and multiplying hardship for the Russian people.
But the majority of Russians know none of this, and Putin’s success depends on keeping them in the dark. If there were any doubt how important the Russian public’s ignorance is to Putin, his criminalization of independent journalism last week erased it.
The Russian parliament announced a new law imposing up to 15 years in prison for anyone in Russia who published “false information” or “fake news” about the invasion. The Kremlin defines fake news as any information critical of Putin’s war.
English translations of the Kremlin’s announcement used either “false” or “fake,” always with ironizing quote marks, to describe reporting that is now illegal. But I could find no other word than “fake” in translations of this sentence from the same announcement: “If the fakes lead to serious consequences, then imprisonment of up to 15 years threatens.”
That word ought to bring things home for Americans. Like Putin, Donald Trump weaponized the phrase “fake news” to refer to anything critical of him. Rhetorically, “fake” is a two-by-four: blunt, simple, and understood by all. Fake things don’t exist, and the people who report them aren’t simply mistaken but are enemies.
The danger of the Kremlin’s new law is twofold. If Russians don’t have access to the truth, they won’t have reason to push back, in whatever ways they can, against Putin. But for the rest of the world that does have access to honest journalism but lacks the means of knowing who to trust, it’s one more reason to either shrug and tune out, or to choose trustworthy sources based on chance or tribe.
One of the nastiest side-effects of digital technology is how easily it can be used to fool people. Unless you have the time and wherewithal to do a reverse image or video search, it’s difficult to tell the real from the fake, a photograph of a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier last week from one of a Palestinian girl confronting an Israeli soldier ten years ago.
It’s one thing to live under an autocrat who can lock up journalists and another to be subjected to the information mosh pit of the U.S. In the grand scheme, we’re lucky. Legitimate journalists here face an uphill battle economically and professionally, but, Trump aside, there appears little appetite to make it harder for them to report honestly. The Kremlin’s crackdown on the truth should remind us of their value.