Is it Propaganda or is it Real? You Decide

You probably heard the stirring tale of the 13 Ukrainian border guards who were blasted to pieces by the Russian Navy after their defiant refusal to surrender their tiny outpost on Snake Island in the Black Sea. The initial story was that the small garrison responded with “go f*** yourselves” when the Russians demanded their surrender, prompting an overwhelming barrage of fire that killed them all. A Ukrainian Thermopylae it was called, and you couldn’t have asked for better material for propaganda.

Everyone uses propaganda

Turns out, they’re all alive and well. The story has been one of many which should remind us to be careful about what we choose to believe when a crisis is just beginning.

The early days of COVID-19 were defined by shocking rumors and videos of Chinese pedestrians dropping dead on the street and a disease which threatened to wipe out entire cities.

We know how that turned out, but that hasn’t stopped the situation from being reenacted in response to the fog of war in Ukraine.

The Snake Island story was almost unanimously reported as verified fact by Western media and instantly went viral on social media; the fact checkers have been conspicuously absent here so far.

The cynical reading of the Snake Island story would be that it was pushed in Western media to appeal specifically to Americans who might like to see a “remember the Alamo” moment before they cheer on further escalations that could lead to a war with Russia.

The “Ghost of Kyiv” and other invented hero stories coming out of Ukraine might be serving the same purpose. Every nation uses propaganda in wartime and stories like this are a natural result of any conflict in which public support must be rallied.

Be skeptical about colorful war stories for now

The Ukrainian government celebrated the Snake Island defenders as martyrs but the Russians later announced that they had surrendered without incident. Footage of the prisoners apparently proved this, as the Ukrainians have now confirmed that the men are alive.

Moscow says that they will be allowed to go free provided they agree to not take up arms again, a policy which Russia is advertising in an attempt to convince Ukrainian soldiers to give up and quit the war. Results have been mixed so far.

It’s a private tragedy for each of the Snake Island defenders, who have had their real service converted into a propaganda piece by an overeager audience which admired them for their fictional deaths.

Snake Island is an important but not indispensable post and the men had no chance of defending it against overwhelming odds. There should be nothing at all dishonorable about surrendering under the circumstances they found themselves in.

Now, however, the defenders will discover that millions of people around the world assumed they had decided to become martyrs for their country. It must be quite difficult to be a martyr who wasn’t actually martyred.

There will undoubtedly be other dramatic tales from this war which turn out to be nothing more than propaganda, but disappointed audiences should remember that these are real human beings, and the fact that they are still alive to return to their families is better than any fictional hero tale.

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