Hours after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, leaders of the Ukrainian Catholic Church urged all people of goodwill to do three things: pray, give generously to relief efforts and stay well-informed.
That last recommendation has proven to be almost, if not equally, as crucial as the first two.
More than once – whether in a direct interview or during one of his public appearances – I have heard Archbishop Borys Gudziak, leader of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S., stress the importance of consulting reliable sources for information on the war and its long historical backstory.
The exhortation is born of an all-too-keen awareness of how truth has been among the many casualties of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and how lies have fueled Russia’s unrelenting repression of its ancient neighbor. Whether threatened by scepter or sickle, generations of Ukrainians have fought to the death in attesting to truth and to freedom, as a constellation of hardworking historians – among them, Timothy Snyder, Ivan Lysiak Rudnytsky (who taught at La Salle University for a time), Serhii Plokhy, Ihor Ševčenko, Anne Applebaum, Anatolii Babynskyi and Roman Szporluk – have helped Westerners to see.
The battle continues to be an unrelenting one, however, as the Kremlin – which has now suppressed all independent media within Russia, on pain of “criminal” punishment – draws on decades of experience in cultivating what the U.S. State Department calls a “disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.”
The federal agency notes this toxic environment rests on several structural pillars: official government communications, state-funded global messaging through domestic and foreign media, proxy sources (especially among sympathetic nations like China), weaponized social media, and “cyber-enabled disinformation” through hacked and cloned websites.
And you don’t need to know a single word of Russian, or much about the facts of the war, to enter into this realm of confusion and cynicism. Thanks to modern communications platforms, the Kremlin’s “firehood of falsehood” sprays the corners of the earth in multiple languages, among them English, Spanish and Arabic.
Russia’s state-controlled RT (Russia Today) network – whose chief recently said she welcomed the prospect of global famine due to the war – has invested heavily in expanding its presence among Spanish-speaking countries, as well as in English-speaking African nations.
Quite often, pro-Kremlin messages are wildly contradictory. For example, when images of Ukrainian civilians massacred in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha first emerged, Moscow said the photos were staged, showing actors rather than actual corpses. Later, the same outlets accused Ukraine of slaying its own – a fiction repeated to me by a friend, who had stumbled across RT videos online and had unwittingly thought them credible.
Russian propagandists pivot smoothly between such opposing versions, since their goal often isn’t so much to fully convince as to confuse – to raise sufficient doubt and frustration that the reader (or viewer, or listener) cynically concludes there’s no sure way to know the truth, and attempts to arrive at it aren’t worth the effort.
One popular Fox News host, whose clips are regularly played on Kremlin talk shows, exemplifies this approach with his repeated claim that he’s “just asking questions” about various issues, inviting shrugs and eyerolls instead of research and reasoning.
For Christians, cynicism and apathy aren’t options: truth is sacred, because truth is not something that can be manipulated at will, but Someone whose will itself is supreme and life-giving: “Since God is true, the members of his people are called to live in the truth. In Jesus Christ, the whole of God’s truth has been made manifest … he is the Truth” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2465, 2466).
Before a sneering Pilate, Christ proclaimed that he “(came) into the world to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37), and we the baptized are “witnesses of the Gospel and of the obligations that flow from it” (Catechism, 2472), with martyrs providing “the supreme witness to the truth of the faith … even unto death” (Catechism, 2473).
In contrast, lying “is a profanation of speech,” since “the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others” (Catechism, 2485).
Indeed, the Catholic faith takes an unequivocal position against the world’s ecosystems of disinformation and firehoses of falsehood: “Moral judgment must condemn the plague of totalitarian states which systematically falsify the truth, exercise political control of opinion through the media, manipulate defendants and witnesses at public trials, and imagine they secure their tyranny by strangling and repressing everything they consider ‘thought crimes’” (Catechism, 2499).
Never before in human history has so much information been accessible to so many – and Scripture reminds us that “much will be required of the person entrusted with much … still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:48).
May we have ears to hear and hearts to discern the truth – in the voices of Ukrainians, and in all of our brothers and sisters of goodwill.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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