Who is falling for the laughable disinformation beamed out every hour by RT, Vladimir Putin's TV station?
Around five years ago, RT — which changed its name from Russia Today, presumably calculating that viewers would be too dumb to guess its provenance — stopped dealing in subtle propaganda and started dealing in cartoonish propaganda.
Whereas its editors used to infuse news reports with sedulous pro-Kremlin bias, they now broadcast 1930s-style grotesquery. "Kiev is run by a fascist junta!" "The Syrian rebels gassed themselves!" "The 9/11 attacks look like an inside job!" "Flight MH-17 was actually brought down by the Ukrainians!" (This last claim prompted the anchorwoman charged with reading it to resign on air and walk off the set.)
It all evokes a passage from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four:
"Goldstein was delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party — an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it."
Around five years ago, an RT interviewer — a Russian woman with big lips, big eyelashes, and excellent English — spent 20 minutes trying, with increasing shrillness, to get me to say on air that the Iraq War had been a long-planned act of American aggression. Although I had opposed the war, I did my best to point out that Saddam Hussein had invaded a neighboring state without provocation, and had afterwards refused to comply with the ceasefire terms, but she just got angrier. I decided after that not to appear on the channel again.
It was around then that RT started handing out participation fees to politicians. There has been a kerfuffle this week about the readiness of MPs in both main British parties to trouser cash for going on air. Being paid for offering your opinions is a politician's paradise and, as the channel gets weirder, the fees rise.
Why, though, did RT go from being a mainstream TV station, albeit with a clear Putinite stance, to being a kind of parody propaganda channel? The answer tells us a great deal about how news, and our relationship to it, is changing.
You're not supposed to come away from an RT report thinking that the West started the conflict in Ukraine, or that the Boston marathon bomb was planted by the U.S. government. You're supposed to come away thinking that all news is nonsense. CNN, Fox, RT, the BBC — they're all bovine excrement. The aim, in other words, is not to deceive but to discredit, disillusion, and dishearten.
And you know what? It's working. Last year, at around the time of the presidential election, trust in the media reached a nadir — lower than at any time since Gallup started asking the question in 1972.
Our news habits are in transition. Fifteen years ago, we got almost all our information from a limited number of print and broadcast channels. Now, there are innumerable online TV shows and blogs and opinionated YouTubers. Some of them bring a degree of specialist knowledge to the reader that was inaccessible in the days of the old media. Some are borderline insane. We can't always tell which is which.
In time, a new equilibrium will emerge. Good and reliable sources will drive out false ones through market forces. Conspiracy theorists will be pushed to the fringes. But, for now, it's all jumbled up, and people are not sure what to believe. RT brilliantly exploits that sense of confusion, interlacing more or less serious news reports with interventions from 9/11 truthers and UFO enthusiasts.
Sensing a genuine — and in many ways justified — cynicism about the old media in the West, RT flatters that cynicism. You, our viewer, it implies, are too smart to fall for the garbage that the legacy media want you to believe. At least, you're balancing your outlook.
This is real "fake news" — the dezinformatsiya that is generated as a matter of state policy and by state employees. If you doubt me, count how many Russian trolls and bots swarm around this article when it appears online, especially on Twitter.
Look at how rapidly the phrase "fake news" has come to apply to almost all media outlets in America. Russia's economy may be no larger than Spain's but, when it comes to sapping the confidence of its opponents, it is the world champion.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.