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Oliver Stone, Patron Saint of Truthiness

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Film director Oliver Stone says he knows what really happened in Ukraine this year. His version of events surrounding the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February provides a fitting ending to a year that contributed new facets to the notion of "truth."

According to Stone's rambling Facebook post, he has recently been in Moscow to interview Yanukovych, who lives in self-imposed exile in Russia, for a "new English language documentary produced by Ukrainians" (the Ukrainians being, presumably, supporters of Yanukovych -- people with enough plundered wealth to produce a million documentaries).

Stone reportedly wanted to do a film on Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met briefly this year, but it looks as though that didn't work out and he got Yanukovych as a consolation prize. After talking to him for four hours, Stone became convinced that "CIA fingerprints" were all over the sniper shootings of protesters, cops and random bystanders around Kiev's central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, last February, just before Yanukovych agreed to an early election -- and abruptly fled the capital.

"Remember the Chavez 'regime change'/coup of 2002 when he was temporarily ousted after pro and anti-Chavez demonstrators were fired upon by mysterious shooters in office buildings," Stone wrote, evoking images of the strange events in Venezuelan capital Caracas. "It’s America’s soft power technique called 'Regime Change 101.'" And he added: "A dirty story through and through, but in the tragic aftermath of this coup, the West has maintained the dominant narrative of 'Russia in Crimea' whereas the true narrative is 'USA in Ukraine.' The truth is not being aired in the West."

These words are music to the ears of Kremlin propagandists. The state-owned Russian news outlets are playing Stone's views big. The TASS news agency's headline is, "Stone to Make Film on Yanukovych to Tell Spectators Truth About Maidan Events."

"Truth" became a fighting word in Russia and Ukraine this year. Upon seizing a town, both sides in the eastern Ukraine conflict immediately shut off the other side's TV channels, as if that could make the local population switch allegiances.  

The Kremlin reached new heights in weaponizing information, surprising many in the West with its technical sophistication. Russian state TV broadcasts now look and feel like the shiny western products they imitate, and propaganda outlets such as LifeNews do a lot of real, impressive reporting, so even an eyewitness can begin to doubt what he has seen. Elsewhere, the Islamic State has achieved a similar coup. Stories about the U.S. losing a propaganda war to it have abounded in recent months. 

This has been a great year for reinforcing the paranoid-conspiratorial view of media coverage -- that it's really a clash of information war machines in which journalists are knowing or unknowing grunts. I think Margarita Simonyan, head of Putin's foreign-language propaganda network, RT, holds that view. (When I tried to interview her recently, she at first agreed, but I then received a message from her assistant saying RT was studying what I'd written about it before -- "standard procedure" -- and then silence followed. I never got the interview.)

"Truth is so multifaceted that there's no point in lying," a virtuoso spin doctor told me a few years ago. Stone is no stranger to the world of many truths: His biggest achievement, the movie JFK, put him at the center of a controversy as a "truther" (although his George W. Bush film, Wangered 9/11 conspiracy theorists because it was not radical enough for them).

Making art bordering on conspiracy theorism is intensely rewarding. In any given instance you are sure you are sure to find lots of friends among people who already agree with you, even if you never convince anyone else. When you do something those friends disagree with, there will immediately be adherents of a different "truth" to give you a hug.

Journalism in the same vein is life imitating art. You shuffle links, YouTube videos, maps, eyewitness accounts. You thrust and parry, you spar and shoot to kill, only to see your opponent rise and throw more information-like garbage at you. It's exciting -- almost like being in a Stone movie.

Believe me, a guy on the front line, an unwilling sergeant in this war you think you're witnessing: This world view makes no sense. Information war is a nice concept for extracting budgets from politicians: indigent Ukraine is even forming an information ministry because the leaders there feel they have to fight Russia in the news arena. It's good for little else, however, because the real, bloody wars are not fought over factoids, bits of news, even the looming guilt or innocence of politicians and military commanders.

They are fought over broad concepts that people pick up from their life experience, which includes propaganda but is not limited to it. And they're always won by the side with the stronger convictions -- convictions that usually aren't the product of media narratives. Consider what happened in Venezuela in 2002. After unknown snipers fired from their rooftops at people attending rival rallies for and against President Hugo Chavez, international media reported the regime was responsible. When Chavez was ousted, the U.S. immediately endorsed the successor government. In 47 hours, however, Chavez was back in the presidential palace, returned to power by his numerous supporters. If the CIA sent the snipers and aided the coup, it was beaten by ordinary Venezuelans who wanted Chavez.

In Kiev last February, Yanukovych fled and never returned because a majority of Ukrainians clearly hated him. The results of two national elections since his overthrow show that they want to move away from the country's Soviet heritage, which Yanukovych represented, and toward westernization. Are these voters swayed by propaganda? Some probably are, although a lot of others I met in Kiev don't even watch TV or read the news on the Internet that much. Some have worked in the West as migrant laborers, others have traveled widely, studied abroad, worked for Western companies. They have also been to Putin's Russia. What they saw gave them pretty definite ideas of how they wanted, and didn't want, to live. If the CIA had a hand in Yanukovych's ouster, it was not the decisive factor.

I'm afraid this applies to Islamic State, too. A propaganda war against it will not deter certain kind of people from embracing militant Islam. They are led to it by a sum of experiences in which media inputs are not the decisive factor.

Of course, people's convictions are not always right -- Chavez was a bad choice for Venezuela, and the Islamic State is a disastrous choice for those who join it. I think most Russians are wrong to back or passively accept Putin, but Ukrainians may also be wrong about their country's European future: It may be more like Greece's than like Poland's.

Yet people know their mind when they risk their lives in wars and revolutions. It's a mistake to assume they don't. I think U.S. President Barack Obama meant that when he said this in the recent National Public Radio interview:

America's never been in the business of colonizing other countries and grabbing their resources; we've never been in the business of bullying folks into doing things that we can't do for ourselves. Where we have done that, by the way, it's never worked out all that well. That's not our best tradition. Our best tradition is when we just lead by example and when we are strong and secure and we're standing up for what we believe in.

As a journalist, I know my writings do not really affect real-life outcomes. They invite people to look at examples that I find interesting. When they pay attention, they will probably see things from a different angle than I do, because their experience will be different from mine. It's impossible for me to know what they will do with the resulting picture that forms in their minds. Truth, in its actionable form, is an informed gut feeling. Stone, and those who share his conspiratorial mindset, are welcome to sell their art as "truth", but if they don't know the difference, they are mostly deluding themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net