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Before the Russian full-scale invasion, a visit to the YouTube channel of propagandist Anatoliy Shariy would automatically play a video, not a personal message from the channel owner but a video congratulation from American director Oliver Stone. In a soothing tone, Stone commended the blogger, saying, “You have struggled to find the truth in journalism and for the truth in the Ukraine situation. I truly emphasize with you and strongly feel that a miscarriage of justice has happened, and it’s very important that it be fixed. I wish you great good luck in your journey to get at the truth here and bring to the world the light we need.” This is the same filmmaker who once confessed, “I knew nothing about Ukraine until I talked to Putin. And then I learned more.” Stone, known for his strong anti-American views, naturally resonated with the propaganda narratives pushed by Russia. So the blogger and the director got along easily. Shariy, fueled by the desire to elevate his status through celebrity endorsements, subsequently posted additional videos where motivational speaker Nick Vujicic and boxer Mike Tyson lauded his blogs and “bravery.” We wrote more about this here.

These video testimonials are essentially marketing stunts, leveraging a service where one can hire famous people to film congratulatory messages for various occasions at a certain fee. For instance, the keyboard player from the rock group Bon Jovi offers this service for $300, while the actor who played Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter charges $600. Shariy seemed ready to engage them too, but things didn’t proceed as planned. A controversy erupted concerning the endorsement of Shariy’s political endeavors, prompting Vujicic to declare he was unaware that his video would be used as a political endorsement, requesting its removal.

By involving celebrities, Shariy sought to convince his followers that he enjoys recognition and approval from some of the world’s most prominent figures. He implied that these eminent personalities, encompassing famous boxers, filmmakers, and motivational speakers, were endorsing his activities genuinely. Through this manipulative strategy, Shariy aimed to validate the narratives he disseminated in his videos, hinting that these celebrities supposedly supported his views as well. This article delves into the methodology of the Russian propaganda machine in utilizing the appeal to authority tactic and examines its potential hazards.

Using the appeal to authority, a time-honored tactic in the toolkit of propaganda manipulation, individuals rely heavily or exclusively on the credibility, reputation, or experience of a particular person or source to substantiate their argument, sidelining any other concrete evidence or rational argumentation. This method gains traction due to the public’s tendency to hold celebrities’ opinions in high regard, thereby allowing their stances to shape public opinion substantially. Russian propaganda frequently harnesses the influence of celebrities or well-known public figures to bolster their political narratives. Historically, this method was utilized by the USSR with the adoption of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s quote, “I would learn Russian only for the fact that Lenin spoke it,” intending to encourage Russian learning and foster the spread of communist ideology through the revered authority of the Soviet leader and renowned poet.

In modern times, propagandists employ similar tactics, making claims such as the necessity to obtain a Russian passport because Gerard Depardieu got one, or advocating for Ukraine to cede territory, backed by statements from renowned American diplomat and strategist Henry Kissinger, who purportedly sees no alternatives.

Propagandists also frequently resort to quoting individuals with high social standing and authority. The mere mention of titles such as “former US intelligence officer,” “prominent European politician,” “distinguished Western intellectual,” or “ex-member of the European Parliament” tends to enhance the perceived credibility of the source. Adding descriptors like “Western,” “American,” or “European” further amplifies this effect, giving the illusion that even enemies acknowledge the validity of the Russian arguments. This strategy typically prevents the audience from scrutinizing the credentials of the so-called “experts” by seeking independent sources or inspecting their social media profiles. They are unlikely to find out who the “well-known European MP” is who complained that Medvedchuk’s channels were being attacked by extremists and promised to look into the matter or who the “Italian politician” is (no, it’s not Berlusconi) who regularly visits the occupied Crimea and claims that the annexed peninsula is experiencing dramatic economic growth.

In the eyes of propagandists, the endorsement of an authoritative figure is perceived as irrefutable, irrespective of the context or the quality of the arguments presented, dismissing the possibility of diverging perspectives. This approach seeks to establish the neutrality and validity of the narrative pushed by the agitprop. The danger of this tactic lies in its potential to dampen critical thinking, inhibiting individuals from evaluating issues independently, considering varied viewpoints, or questioning the statements made by authoritative individuals. Essentially, reliance on an “authority figure” can foster the acceptance of incorrect, deceptive, or obsolete information under the pretext that the person is more knowledgeable or has exclusive access to the “truth.” This strategy aims to validate specific interpretations of events or phenomena, potentially normalizing fringe ideas if propagated by famous personalities, thereby presenting them as less extreme. Consequently, Russian propaganda seeks to cultivate a fabricated “consensus”, wherein a global celebrity seemingly advocates for rationality while authorities conceal factual data.

Lars von Trier: “Russian Lives Matter Also”

In August 2023, renowned Danish director Lars von Trier publicly criticized Denmark’s resolution to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets, articulating his disapproval through a post on his Instagram page. He captioned pictures of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen inside the cockpit of an F-16 with the words “Russian lives matter also,” drawing a parallel to the slogan central to the Black Lives Matter movement, which spearheads the fight against racism and the discrimination of black people. Von Trier’s stance, however, hinges on a twisted rationale: portraying Russians as the victims in the conflict and asserting that aiding Ukraine only extends the duration of the war rather than hastening its conclusion. According to him, withholding Western weapons from Ukraine would lead to a quicker surrender and, thus, a swifter end to the conflict, sparing “innocent Russians” from harm. This perspective was swiftly picked up and disseminated by propaganda outlets, which framed it as the “progressive” Danish populace denouncing their government’s hawkish stance and cautioning against supplying Ukraine with fighter planes.

Responding to von Trier’s statement, propagandist Margarita Simonyan remarked tellingly, “This isn’t far from ‘Donbass lives matter too’. This shatters the existing narrative surrounding the causes of the war. If every great director begins to vocalize such opinions, maintaining any narrative would be impossible!”

Roger Waters: Putin “No Bigger a Gangster” Than Western Leaders

In August 2022, Roger Waters, a founding member of the iconic band Pink Floyd, was invited by Russia to speak at the UN Security Council. In his speech, he unequivocally labeled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as illegal, stating, “I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.” Despite this, he proceeded to enumerate several reasons which, according to him, vindicated Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Waters defended Putin, alleging that the Russian leader’s offer to forge a joint security system with the West was spurned. Previously he argued that Putin was “no bigger a gangster” compared to the leaders in the West. This stance mirrored sentiments Waters had expressed previously in an open letter to Putin and during other public engagements.

Propaganda channels were quick to capitalize on Waters’ remarks, “Users of the American segment of the social network Twitter supported one of the founders of the British band Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, who said that it was NATO expansion that provoked the Ukrainian crisis... Waters has hit the nail on the head. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned about the deployment of short- and medium-range missile launchers in Ukraine.” Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, chose to sidestep Waters’ condemnation of the invasion, instead lauding him for his “accurate analysis of events.”

Commending Waters’ speech at the UN, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chief of the Russian Security Council, posted on his English Twitter account: “In the UN, Roger Waters is razing the ‘Wall’ of lies built by the West. Shine On You Crazy Diamond!” This was a nod to Pink Floyd’s renowned tracks The Wall and Shine On You Crazy Diamond from the album Wish You Were Here.

Noam Chomsky: Russia as a “Humane Aggressor”

Noam Chomsky, a distinguished American linguist, philosopher, and political activist, has recently become a notable figure on the Russian segment of the Internet owing to his critiques of the United States and his justification of the war against Ukraine. Chomsky fervently opposes the Western censorship of Russian media outlets, such as the ban on Russia Today, contending that access to alternative perspectives is more restricted now than it was even during the Cold War era. He draws parallels between the conflict in Ukraine and past wars in Vietnam and Iraq, rebuking Washington’s apparent disregard for the perspectives of the Global South, which often perceives no distinction between American and Russian foreign policies, thereby opposing sanctions against Russia. The propaganda machine frequently echoes Chomsky’s viewpoints, which align with Russian perspectives, often lauding him as “the most cited scholar of the 1980s.” In May 2023, Chomsky claimed that Russia was acting more humanely than the United States in Iraq, “Let’s look at the victims. I only know the official numbers… the official UN numbers are about 8,000 civilian casualties [in Ukraine]. How many civilian casualties were there when the US and Britain invaded Iraq? When the USA and Britain were smashing Baghdad to pieces, did any foreign leader go to Baghdad? No, because when the US and Britain go to war, they go for the jugular. They destroy everything: communications, transportation, energy — shock and awe — everything that makes society function.”

Russian propaganda receives such with enthusiasm. For instance, the notorious Ukrainophobe Zakhar Prilepin regarded Chomsky’s stance as a “solitary voice of reason.” According to the propagandist, despite the fact that Chomsky’s father was born on the territory of modern Ukraine, the philosopher’s outlook starkly contrasts “the adoration of everything Ukrainian that is currently fashionable in the West”.

Steven “I’m Russian” Seagal: I Saw Hundreds of Ukrainian Nazis

The American actor Steven Seagal, who became a Russian citizen in 2016, has aligned himself with the A Just Russia — For Truth party since 2021. Seagal shares a unique relationship with Putin, with both being born in 1952 and being holders of black belts in Japanese martial arts — Putin in judo and Seagal in aikido. They openly express mutual admiration and respect for each other. “I am Russian, my grandfather is from Vladivostok. On February 24, I was abroad, but I came back to Russia because this is my home,” Seagal declared in August 2022.

“Now I am making a documentary, traveling around the Donbas, talking to Ukrainian prisoners. They say they are treated with dignity. I have seen hundreds of Nazis. The teachings of Stepan Bandera are very widespread in Ukraine, there are hundreds of thousands of followers who want to fight and kill. This is the doctrine they believe in, many have swastikas and portraits of Hitler on their bodies,” he said, reinforcing one of the central narratives that justifies Russian aggression.

In recognition “for his great contribution to the development of international cultural and humanitarian cooperation,” Putin conferred upon Seagal the Order of Friendship in February 2023.

Oliver Stone

Stone, a renowned American film director, screenwriter, and producer celebrated for his feature films and historical documentaries, is a three-time Oscar recipient, with his last win in 1989. His intrigue surrounding Russia and Putin sparked following the flight of the former US intelligence officer, Edward Snowden. Seeking to delve deeper into the espionage scandal, Stone journeyed to Russia, securing an interview with Vladimir Putin. In 2016, Stone premiered the conspiracy-centric film Ukraine on Fire, showcasing interviews with the Russian president and “dissident” Viktor Yanukovych, along with former Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko. Through the lens of this film, Stone echoes the Russian perspective on the 2014 events in Ukraine, casting the Revolution of Dignity as a “CIA conspiracy”. Following this, in 2017, he unveiled a four-part series titled The Putin Interviews. Propagandists claim that during its creation, Stone “was obstructed by the authorities and numerous politicians in America”. By 2021, Stone brought forth another production, Revealing Ukraine, drawing from narratives supplied by Viktor Medvedchuk, a former MP of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform — For Life, who had not yet been charged with high treason, and his spouse, Oksana Marchenko. This film, bearing a tone consistent with key Russian propaganda narratives, omits mention of Russian acts of aggression and includes segments of an interview with Putin.

Oliver Stone supports the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and regards Putin as a “great leader”, claiming that “not the monster that has been pictured by the American propaganda machine”. He has found favor in the eyes of Russian propagandists, hailed for “not being afraid” of the American intelligence services and “Putin’s critics”. He has acquired a reputation as a visionary prophet, having allegedly predicted the onset of the “special military operation.”

There exists a faction of scholars, thinkers, and celebrities in the US and Europe who, while critiquing the prevailing geopolitical situation, inadvertently align themselves with staunch anti-American and “anti-Western” sentiments. They believe that everything the United States is involved in is vicious and doomed to decline. Such viewpoints are seamlessly incorporated into Russian propaganda narratives, which juxtapose the “glorious Russia” against a “decaying West”. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the Cold War era, where individuals residing in Western nations, though not communists, defended the ideals and dogmas of the Soviet Union. These individuals, termed “useful idiots”, were driven by benevolence, romanticized notions, or sheer naïveté, making them opportune tools for propaganda. This strategy continues to be presently employed by the Russian propaganda machine, cleverly leveraging the clout of these “useful idiots” while pragmatically exploiting their influence to further their agenda.

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