Does Putin incite the West to do internet censorship?

Russian president Vladimir Putin has long held the internet to be CIA, and has not made a secret of this belief. He doesn't use social media, which gives some insight into his attitude towards it.

In many ways, Putin is a man of the Cold War, almost perfectly built to handle Russia's affairs in what is considered a new cold war. He thinks in terms of missile numbers, move and countermove.

And there is some truth to the internet being a weapon of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When one looks at its origins, most of the work really was done by a US government agency. Those who work at US agencies often step between other bodies, including the CIA. That doesn't mean it couldn't backfire on the US, however, becoming yet another case of what the CIA calls blowback.

It is clear to Putin and his cohorts that a few things went wrong in the last global struggle against the United States, and they will be determined not to repeat their mistakes. During the first Cold War, the then-Soviet Union, to which the Russian Federation is the modern-day successor, had what is considered to be a stagnant society and economy.

Censorship as the loser's strategy

Censorship was arguably a factor in the failure of the Soviet system. People are driven to find the awful truth about things, or at least see the countervailing point of view. When you restrict access to alternative views, even successfully, the effort almost always backfires.

At present, the aforementioned fault seems to be more apparent in the Western countries than Russia. The least popular variety of boring establishment "journalists", are the loudest in calling for suppressing competing information and curtailing freedom of expression on the very internet the West created and which Putin loathes. An example of this is their backlash against Substack.

Western states and their most obvious and vapid shills hate current Russian media networks such as the award-winning "Putin's propaganda channel" RT and Sputnik with a passion, making exaggerated claims about their apparent influence over Western audiences. In the original Cold War, the Russians didn't even possess such media with which to tempt anybody in the West.

For many unthinking people, there is likely a guilty allure to subversive foreign media, which explains both the alleged fascination of Russians with Western entertainment during the original Cold War and the current popularity of something like RT in Western countries. Western companies and authorities labelling RT as dangerous, foreign, and state-sponsored does nothing to reduce people's fascination with it and may only increase it.

We could see an escalation of attempts to stamp out Russian-backed media, going further than simply placing labels on it and moving more and more towards prosecuting journalists and banning points of view entirely. The West can be expected to be more heavy-handed than Russia, because it is backed up by an arrogant moral certitude implicit even in all news reporting on foreign policy, whereas the Russians merely speak of their national security.

A West no longer for freedom?

The sad reality is that in this Cold War, the establishment in the West is treading a boring path of ideological orthodoxy and restriction, and the foreign adversary is not. This is not just an immaterial difference of ideals in a contest of might, either. The attitude of automatically rejecting "enemy" points of view and denying people the right to even see them is potentially a threat to democratic models, dulling the intellect and pacifying political opposition.

Examples of Western ideological inflexibility are the commitment to imposing frameworks of LGBT rights, minority rights, and the freedom to offend religious sensibilities, even when such things divide their own alliances and cause discomfort especially among culturally diverse states. The West presents such things as universal and set to be accepted everywhere, which is far from certain even in Europe.

Western leaders want Russians to be portrayed as the ones afraid of information, afraid of human expression and liberty, as in the previous Cold War. However, with Western press arbitrarily branding all kinds of media stories as attacks or disinformation that need to be suppressed for the sake of democracy (like the blocked and then unblocked New York Post story in the US 2020 election), it is clear that Western states are at least as intolerant places for online dissent as Russia. The minutiae of how information and people are disappeared in the West and Russia may be different, but that is no basis to argue that the West is morally superior or better justified to make anything disappear.

If Western politicians and journalists are right in their claims about the threat of Russian disinformation and social media accounts, it means Russia has effectively turned what Putin considers to be a CIA weapon - the internet - into a tool against the West. It means the US, particularly the CIA, is profoundly confused about its role in the world, having believed it stood for freedom and encouraged technologies to facilitate just that, only to realise this was a mistake and will threaten American statehood too.

In branding the internet as a tool of foreign subversion of their political systems, Putin's enemies in the West are making his own case for him. Impose greater control and restrictions on what information is allowed online? Exactly what he wanted from the beginning. Only allow information that fits with one's national security interests? The Kremlin will be the first to agree with that sentiment.

The internet might be broken up

If the West wants to subvert adversarial influence and narratives on the internet, it will help Balkanise the internet. If Putin's comments about the internet being CIA reflect his views, then he is looking for this anyway. As such, those who continuously serve up stories and articulate concerns about Russian influence are doing Putin's work to destroy the CIA's weapon. It could be argued, of course, that this weapon should be subverted or destroyed, but that is another conversation.

The spread of deep suspicion about all media and the motives of those who produce it, rather than the content itself, may be the real foreign trick, and a clever one. If foreign interference or sympathising with the enemy is perceived in even a minor act of dissent, or any vocal form of opposition, nobody will be willing to correct or reform anything, which will eventually have repercussions for government and economic performance.