BERLIN – Until recently, the phenomenon of Russian government propaganda was only interesting to a small group of Russia experts, news junkies and counter-propaganda fundraisers. It was mainly seen as a tool for keeping Russians supportive of Vladimir Putin. No longer. Thanks to post-U.S. election blame games, and the upcoming election season in Europe, how the Russian state pushes its messages to Western audiences is a hot political topic. It’s also woefully misunderstood.
As the Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev, who started his own project to debunk Russian government propaganda, puts it: “The fight against fake news has itself turned into fake news. It’s a kind of meta-propaganda.”
Take a widely quoted Washington Post story that relies on an anonymous group of “concerned American citizens” that calls itself PropOrNot and aims to “identify, help counter and eventually deter Russian propaganda.” The article cites PropOrNot estimates that “stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.” The PropOrNot report doesn’t explain how the group arrived at that number, but it does identify such established left-wing, libertarian and right-wing sites as the Naked Capitalism blog, Zero Hedge and Drudge Report as conduits for Russian propaganda.
PropOrNot uses an unhelpfully broad definition of “Russian propaganda.” It includes, for example, stories about the alleged weakness, aggressiveness or corruption of “the opponents of Russia,” a long list that includes “the U.S., Obama, Hillary Clinton, the EU, Angela Merkel, NATO, Ukraine, Jewish people, U.S. allies, the ‘mainstream media,’ and Democrats, the center-right or center-left, and moderates of all stripes.” Then, it goes on to describe how the alternative news sites, blogs and social media accounts repost or cite each other’s information, amplifying the effects of “Russian propaganda.”
That, of course, is how modern-day news distribution generally works. The Washington Post enjoyed the same effect from the uncritical sharing of its unsubstantiated piece despite the protests and critiques it drew from figures such as the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Fortune media writer Mathew Ingram.
PropOrNot’s list of “tells” that a website is part of the Russian propaganda effort includes what it describes as hyperbolic alarmism, anti-Western conspiracy insinuations, racism, gold-standard nuttery and attacks on the U.S. dollar, 9/11 trutherism, anti-Semitism, anti-GMO paranoia and generally ridiculous over-the-top assertions, which cite Russian propaganda outlets as “evidence.”
The PropOrNot view of what constitutes Russian propaganda is extreme, but the mainstream characterization of Russian propaganda is surprisingly close to it. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution on the need to counter propaganda by Russia and the Islamic State militant group, aimed at the following ills: distorting truths, provoking doubt, dividing member states, engineering a strategic split between the European Union and its North American partners and paralyzing the decision-making process, discrediting the EU institutions and trans-Atlantic partnerships, which play a recognized role in the European security and economic architecture, in the eyes and minds of EU citizens and of citizens of neighboring countries, and undermining and eroding the European narrative based on democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.
Essentially, both PropOrNot and the European legislators are suspicious of the same thing: Narratives that contradict a certain official, accepted, centrist, politically correct line. Those narratives, however, have existed for decades, sometimes generations — since the days when Russian propaganda had totally different goals than today, focusing on the support of left-wing movements.
Russia’s state-owned propaganda TV station, RT, launched its English-language channel in 2005. Sputnik, the multilingual Russian propaganda agency, went online in November 2014. Both have succeeded in infiltrating the increasingly powerful alternative news universe, delivering Russian propaganda as just one of the ingredients in a heady cocktail. The move was deliberate and RT led the way, changing course about a year after it was formed. As the station’s editor Margarita Simonyan described it to the Financial Times’ Max Seddon:
I noticed that mainstream Western TV channels, especially CNN and ABC, show the same thing. It really ate me up inside. I realized that there are quite a lot of people in the world who don’t think that’s how it should be, so it probably makes sense to make something for them. Obviously if our audience is Kremlinologists and Russia watchers, then that’s very few people.
RT and Sputnik are lavishly funded. RT’s 2016 budget, according to the channel itself, is $247 million. As far as alternative media goes, RT is the 800-pound gorilla. It can pay lavish fees to contributors, shoot professional video anywhere in the world, pay for professional-looking reporting.
The Russian state product is attractively packaged and free. The effect, of course, is that the “crazies” that populate the alternative news sphere, those dismissed by the mainstream, consume pro-Vladimir Putin information with their general diet.
During the U.S. election campaign, I talked to far-right Americans who had long since stopped paying attention to the mainstream media — but who respected RT and, by extension, Putin because both had infiltrated their alternative universe. The same, of course, is happening in Europe today. Putin is not the main dish Russian propaganda outlets are serving — he’s just a spice that goes well with the alternative diet those who eschew mainstream media seek.
For years, few people paid attention because the fringe was the fringe. Then it turned out there were enough of them to swing a U.S. presidential election. But the suggested methods of fighting Russian propaganda miss the target. PropOrNot has developed a browser plug-in that warns a user that a site is part of the “propaganda network.” The European Parliament resolution calls for reinforcing the EU Strategic Communication Task Force, which, among other things, produces the regular Disinformation Digest to debunk Russian propaganda.
Consumers of alternative news sites, however, don’t care if Russian propaganda is mixed in with the content they consume because they don’t believe EU or U.S. government propaganda is any better. Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, asked about his regular appearances on RT, seemed unable to tell the difference between the Russian state channel and CNN.
The only effective way to counteract Russian propaganda would be to do what RT and Sputnik do so well — beam messages at the same target audience. But democracies don’t have that prerogative: Done openly, it would just look ridiculous; done surreptitiously, the risk of exposure is great and trust in democratic processes could be undermined. Putin, for his part, is proud. He congratulated RT and Sputnik on the European Parliament resolution, praising their “effective work” and decrying the “degradation of democratic ideas in Western society.”
That leaves private, professional media with plenty of homework to do. How did we end up more mistrusted by a large segment of Western readers and viewers than state-funded Sputnik or RT? Did we perhaps follow government narratives too closely and uncritically? These are inconvenient questions, and it’s harder to ask them than to get involved in a misguided war on propaganda that ends up stigmatizing legitimate criticism and media diversity. But looking for ways to communicate with the voters of Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and the other nationalist populists is probably one of the most important tasks for the media these days.
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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