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The ‘We’re Just as Bad as Russia’ Crowd

No, Glenn Greenwald and Sohrab Ahmari: Censorship in the U.S. is not comparable to what goes on in Putin’s Russia.
September 23, 2021
The ‘We’re Just as Bad as Russia’ Crowd
A protester holds a placard reading "Putin - No!" during an opposition rally in central Moscow, on March 10, 2019, to demand internet freedom in Russia. - Thousands of people rallied against Russia's increasingly restrictive internet policies which some say will eventually lead to "total censorship" and isolate the country from the world. The mass rally in Moscow and smaller events in other cities across the country was called after the Russian lower house of parliament backed a bill to stop Russian internet traffic from being routed on foreign servers, in a bit to boost cybersecurity. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The other day, Russia had an election, as Russia does. Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, won two-thirds of the seats in the Duma, surprising no one. Also unsurprisingly, there were allegations of massive voter fraud and dirty tricks, such as candidates changing their names to confuse voters. Genuinely independent opposition candidates, such as ones associated with jailed anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, mostly got barred from running on grounds of “extremism.” And, just before the election, the Russian government pressured Google and Apple into removing Navalny’s “smart voting” app, which allowed voters to vote in a way that would inflict maximum damage on United Russia.

Then, maverick journalist and Deep State nemesis Glenn Greenwald decided to use this as an occasion to declare that election interference by “Big Tech” in the United States was just as bad. This was occasioned by new reporting that the emails on Hunter Biden’s laptop related to his business dealings in Ukraine have been confirmed as authentic. In October 2020, Facebook restricted linking to a New York Post story about the laptop and Twitter disabled it altogether, on the grounds that it promoted hacked material. Many journalists also dismissed it as likely foreign disinformation.

Let’s put things in perspective here for a moment. First of all, despite the attempted “censorship,” the Hunter Biden laptop story ended up getting huge play in social media—magnified by the controversy about the tech platforms’ actions. (Also, in the wake of that controversy, Twitter changed its “hacked materials” policy so that only links to content posted by the hackers themselves would be off-limits.)

Second, the story got a lot of play in the conventional media as well. Greenwald fulminates about the fact that many reputable journalists, including CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, described the emails as part of a “Russian disinformation campaign” meant to help Trump in the election. But that’s not refuted by the confirmation of the emails’ authenticity. Blitzer described the emails as “unverified,” but the comments about Russian disinformation referred to a larger effort to smear Biden. (And while the emails are authentic, the suggestion that they indicate wrongdoing by Joe Biden—rather than Hunter Biden’s attempt to capitalize on his father’s name—is completely evidence-free.)

What’s more, even journalists who were anxious to downplay the laptop story were forced to discuss it by the very nature of the American media. In his thread, Greenwald tweeted an October 24, 2020 CNN clip in which Christiane Amanpour insisted that the emails shouldn’t be discussed because they are not authenticated and that it’s not the media’s job to authenticate them. But the clip also shows Amanpour sparring with then-Republican National Committee spokeswoman Liz Harrington, who is talking about the laptop story and making claims about its importance. Some censorship. I can assure Greenwald that in Russia, where state-owned television has blacklisted opposition figures for years, television hosts do not have on-air arguments with Navalny spokespeople.

Of course, this kind of moral equivalency is nothing new for Greenwald. In March 2014, when Abby Martin, a leading host on RT, the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda network formerly known as Russia Today, made a 60-second statement at the end of one of her shows condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Greenwald used the occasion to thunder against the hypocrisy of American journalism in the Intercept.

“American media elites awash in an orgy of feel-good condemnation . . . love to mock Russian media, especially the government-funded English-language outlet RT, as being a source of shameless pro-Putin propaganda, where free expression is strictly barred (in contrast to the Free American Media),” Greenwald sneered, suggesting that Martin’s 60 seconds of courage actually put the American media to shame because of their failure to question the war in Iraq. Never mind that RT is a Kremlin-controlled channel for foreign consumption, with virtually no audience in Russia—whose last independent domestic TV news channel, Dozhd (TV-Rain), was just then facing a government-orchestrated campaign to get it dropped by cable TV providers. (It now survives only online and has been subject to constant government harassment, including, most recently, designation as a “foreign agent.”)

In 2021, at least, Greenwald argues only that censorship in the United States is as bad as in Russia, not that it’s worse. Meanwhile, the brave “no, America is worse” position was staked out by New York Post op-ed editor, anti-liberal scourge, and David French foe Sohrab Ahmari.

Look, I’m a media critic myself. I think there’s a big problem with progressive groupthink and bias in the mainstream media ecosystem. But the comparison to Russia—where independent media critical of the regime have been reduced to increasingly tiny and beleaguered islands of dissent; where the government frequently blocks undesirable websites; where posting satirical memes can get you arrested or placed on a list of “extremists” that leads to a variety of restrictions (for instance, on the amount of money you can withdraw from your bank account in a month); where journalists have been jailed for covering or even mentioning unauthorized protests—is both ludicrous and offensive. In Russia, posting the wrong link can do more than get your Twitter account deactivated, as happened to the New York Post in the aftermath of the laptop story; it can get you locked up.

Let’s leave aside for now Ahmari’s cavalier dismissal of arrests and assassinations (hey, everyone “condemns it plainly,” so what’s the big deal?). It’s hard to believe that Ahmari is completely clueless about the highly sophisticated system of information control in Russia, where the state works closely with a wide array of ostensibly private individuals and entities, employing not only outright coercion but disinformation and smears to destroy critics—whether via “investigative” exposés on government-controlled TV channels such as NTV or “fake news” planted on the Internet. More likely, he just doesn’t allow such facts to get in the way of his narrative.

There was a time when mocking the notion of American freedom and arguing that we just have more hypocritical and sophisticated repression than places like Russia was a province of the left. Now, such arguments—still a hodgepodge of false equivalencies, bad-faith analogies, and stunningly ignorant assertions—have become an area of agreement between large segments of the left and the right. The effect is still the same: to whitewash repression abroad in order to score political points at home.

It’s a particularly odd position for self-styled conservatives, who still claim the mantle of patriotic devotion to “American greatness.” “Actually, we’re a repressive regime that has no business talking about freedom and may even be worse than regimes that murder journalists”: definitely not your parents’ patriotism.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday, a contributing editor to Reason, and an associate editor at ArcDigital.