“He who neglects the truth in small matters cannot be entrusted with important matters.” -Albert Einstein
The Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights some of humanity’s best and worst. In December 2021, 100 countries sent representatives to President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit. The aim was to affirm the global commitment to democracy during a period of rising authoritarianism. In the end, pledges and commitments to democratic reform were made, and the White House declared 2022 a “year of action.”
Four months later, in very real terms, the summit goals and the threat of an autocratic takeover are being fully tested as Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, Russia has engaged in massive information warfare. Russian state-sponsored destabilization efforts directed against Ukraine have been underway using a variety of domestic and international, formal and informal media. The Kremlin has flooded the news space with stories stating that Ukraine and the West are planning a false flag operation and that Ukraine is in fact a Nazi state.
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The message aims to establish that Russia has a humanitarian duty to protect Russians from the Ukrainian genocide. The information war has spread far beyond the two countries. The world is witnessing the struggle between democratic and authoritarian forms of government, militarily and in people’s minds.
Of particular significance is President Putin’s order to shut down all independent media and institute a 15-year prison term for anyone who criticizes the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For those who believe in democracy, these actions have reinforced the importance of sincerity and transparency in leadership, and freedom of expression as fundamental.
To date, elected leaders of both political parties in the United States have presented a largely unified front against Russian aggression. However, the information war on Ukraine on social media is also raging here in the United States. Social media feeds are filled with harrowing images, videos and stories with descriptions, indicating they are from scenes of the current crisis.
And while legitimate coverage of the operation showed horrific scenes of destruction and turmoil, some of the images appearing on social media have turned out to be fake, outdated or unrelated to the fighting in Ukraine. By spreading false narratives, social media can open the door to skepticism about veracity at a time when acting in unity is crucial. In fact, the question remains whether a partisan political divide over the military invasion, fueled by social media, will develop in an election year.
So what does this mean for elected leaders in the United States? It is certainly a difficult time for truthfulness here as well. The growing political division has led to a decline in trust, even defamation, of people with different views.
Additionally, some elected leaders here resort to half-facts and false narratives in an effort to “excite” supporters and make a quick buck. In these politically divided times, presenting half-truths as the whole truth – or floating a completely false narrative – is often considered acceptable if it supports our party’s position on the other party’s ills.
Unfortunately, some of us have become complacent about our divided state. But the stakes couldn’t be higher for entire populations when truthfulness is seen as optional or inconvenient. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is a stark reminder that if we fail to seek the truth from elected leaders, we are likely heading for the bottom.
Ethical leaders must be truthful and they must be unifiers if we are to triumph over conflict. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress virtually, President Biden and, in essence, the nation. His words rang with stakes, “I want you to be the leader of the world; to be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.