Last week, CBS News interviewed a Ukrainian stuck in Kyiv. Like many Ukrainians, she has family in Russia, and she was describing what happened when she phoned her aunt to tell her that Russia was bombing her city.
Her aunt told her, “You don’t know who did that. We’re seeing one thing on the news, you’re seeing another.”
The Ukrainian replied, “It’s not the news for me, it’s my reality. It’s what I see with my own eyes.” She sent her aunt photos of the bombing and of her mother in an underground shelter. Her aunt blocked her.
The Russia people live in a world created by the Kremlin. Fake news – a phrase the Kremlin adopted from Donald Trump – means anything that contradicts what the Kremlin wants Russians to believe. Outside Russia and its client states, all but the willfully blinkered understand this. A minority inside Russia understand this.
In less than a decade, the phrase “fake news” has taken a remarkable semantic journey. The concept was created by American researchers to describe hoax websites that posed as news agencies to spread invented “news.” It wasn’t long before Donald Trump co-opted the phrase to refer to anything critical of Donald Trump. Putin, or Putin’s people, recognized the usefulness of “fake news” as a rhetorical dagger. The phrase gave license to disregard, even demonize, anyone critical of Putin.
As far as I know, none of this is seriously disputed.
I worry more about the Russian aunt. I understand, firsthand, her reaction to information that does violence to what she loves. She’s Russian. She loves Russia. And because she’s exposed only to state-controlled media, she loves Vladimir Putin. She takes him at his word. When something contradicts him, her natural reaction is to deny the information, and when denial isn’t possible or effective, to turn away. The more persuasive the contradictions seem, the stronger the pull to turn away. It takes courage to look some facts in the face.
I am wholeheartedly with the Ukrainians. Ukraine is the victim; Russia is the aggressor. But that Russian aunt haunts me. It is a hard thing to bear witness to facts that threaten what we love.