Pressure grows from Congress to counter slick Russian media that erodes support for NATO
By Chris McGreal
April 25, 2015
Russia’s sprawling propaganda network may have failed to persuade much of the world that Ukraine is run by Nazis, that Crimea was annexed in a popular uprising and/or that Germany is a failed state. But the barrage of misinformation has convinced some American politicians that the propaganda network is the greatest threat to US security in Europe since the Soviet Union evaporated.
Leading members of Congress are pushing for the US to revive its own propaganda machine, largely dormant in eastern Europe since the end of the cold war, to counter the rapidly multiplying Russian media barrage, from TV channels and news websites to internet trolls and thinktanks pushing the Kremlin line. “Russia has deployed an information army inside television, radio and newspapers throughout Europe,” congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, told a hearing on Kremlin propaganda. “Russia’s propaganda machine is in overdrive, working to subvert democratic stability and foment violence.”
Royce has warned that Russian propaganda “may be more dangerous than any military, because no artillery can stop their lies from spreading and undermining US security interests in Europe”.
Congressman Eliot Engel said the situation required “a robust response from us”. The state department has become so alarmed it appealed to major media companies, including Sony Pictures, for help in combating the Kremlin’s “skewed version of reality”. But there is division over a push by Royce and others in Congress for Voice of America to play a more overtly propagandist role.
In the west, the Kremlin’s most visible mouthpiece is RT television, formerly known as Russia Today. Critics say that under the guise of challenging mainstream news coverage – RT’s motto is “question more” – the station works to discredit critics of the Russian government and justify Moscow’s actions in ways that may be familiar to Royce and other Republicans from Fox News’s efforts to spin the invasion of Iraq, defend CIA torture and question President Obama’s loyalty.
“Russian propaganda is sometimes so crazy, it says such impossible things, it doesn’t have the effect of making people believe them but it breaks down people’s defences,” said Kadri Liik, a Russia and eastern Europe expert on the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “It’s not just lies, in the way of Soviet propaganda. It’s more sophisticated. A kind of violence against the mind.”
The focus of western concern is the Kremlin’s influence on public opinion in the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – where, US officials say, it is seeking to strengthen pro-Moscow nationalism among Russian-speaking minorities and erode support for the EU and Nato.
The limited, existing US counter-effort is spearheaded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency overseeing the Voice of America and similar radio stations aimed at the Middle East, Cuba and Asia. Matthew Armstrong, a member of the board, said: “Kremlin propaganda intentionally and wilfully undermines public confidence through lies and propaganda. It questions – not to find answers but to question the hell out of you so you tune out. It undermines confidence in the media, in democracy, in the EU, in NATO, in the west.”
Liik said Russian minorities in Baltic countries mostly get their news from Russian television. She said that in her country, Estonia, viewers are drawn in by populist, highly produced programmes in which Kremlin propaganda is part of the fare, alongside game shows and drama. Liik said it generally builds on existing sympathy for Moscow, but she is sceptical of warnings that it is fuelling divisions that threaten the integrity of Baltic states. “It’s pretty logical that Russian speakers have a bigger soft spot for Russia’s view on foreign policy. But it’s not just because of what they see on television. It has its roots in education, because many of the teachers who have taught history have a Soviet education,” she said.
“They see what Russia is doing in Ukraine differently from other Estonians, they tend to justify the annexation of Crimea. But when people ask, say, whether anyone feels discriminated against because of nationality, then overwhelmingly they say no. When you ask about language, they say everyone should learn Estonian.”
Baltic governments are not so sanguine but their efforts to counter what Latvia has called an “information war” by the Kremlin are uncoordinated and weak. Latvia, which has the largest Russian-speaking population in the EU, has proposed a Baltic-wide Russian-language channel. Estonia says it will launch its own version later this year.
The UK and Denmark have pressed for EU financial assistance to independent Russian-language channels. Germany is planning to produce its own broadcasts aimed at the Baltic states’ Russian speakers. The US launched a news programme, Current Time, aimed at the region but it drew few viewers. Royce and Engel are pushing legislation to move the Voice of America away from what it sees as its traditional role in countering propaganda with independent news reporting in order to have it explicitly broadcast in support of US foreign policy as well as greatly expand its television output.
But that has met resistance from officials who say it will erode the credibility of western broadcasts – already regarded by some of those they are intended to influence as yet more propaganda – and play into Kremlin hands that foreign news is no more credible than Moscow’s broadcasts.
Armstrong said the BBG had been pushing a plan for a number of Russian-language TV stations run by the Baltic states that would put together their own well-packaged broadcasts by drawing on a pool of high-quality, populist fare, such as US dramas, mixed with credible local reporting. “The short of it is no one has really stepped up to participate,” said Armstrong.
Although the Baltic states have been the focus of American attention, US officials are also disturbed by the impact of Kremlin messaging on former Soviet satellite countries. Scores of professionally designed news websites with a pro-Moscow tilt have sprung up in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, often playing on disenchantment that post-communist societies are not living up to expectation to portray western Europe as in decline and Russia as the future. The US says they are backed by a small army of internet trolls and Moscow-funded thinktanks.
Andrew Weiss, former director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs on the White House national security council staff, said pro-Kremlin messaging was encouraged by political leaders sympathetic to Putin and those with business ties to Moscow.
“The Russian government tries to play off anti-Americanism, which remains a significant force, as well as to use the well-oiled and tested machinery of influence peddling and mutual commercial benefits to promote its cynical view of how the international system should work. In some countries, particularly in eastern Europe or central Europe, those forces are very powerful.”
The EU is pushing back with a plan to launch a “mythbusters” taskforce to challenge Kremlin claims that it is anti-Russian. NATO, which the pro-Moscow media has accused of driving the conflict in Ukraine to undermine Russia, has established an information centre in Latvia with a similar goal.
Liik is doubtful western efforts to change the minds of those sympathetic to Moscow will have much effect: “People focus on communication, how to get our message across. But they don’t notice we have a problem with our message. We are not really necessarily living the model we are preaching,” she said, noting that US and western European claims to stand for human rights and democratic freedoms often ring hollow when others look at events in the Middle East, and politics appears corrupted by money.
“When you live in London, you know that’s not the norm. But when you’re a Russian, you read about it and you think, of course, that’s how things work, everything is for sale, it’s no different from Russia. I think we don’t really understand the way our political model comes across, how people who live in different societies interpret our reality through their own experience,” she said.
Voice of America
The radio station was founded within weeks of the US entering the second world war, with its first broadcasts aimed at Germany. After the war, it focused on news and opinion aimed at the Soviet bloc.
It was accused of being a propaganda tool, in part because it was directed against the US’s enemies and spawned stations such as Radio Marti, aimed at Cuba. Its journalists insisted that they maintained editorial independence.
Shortly after 9/11, a VoA report on Afghanistan included remarks by the then leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar Mohammed, prompting the Bush administration to accuse it of giving a platform to terrorists. Since the end of the cold war, VoA has suffered budget cuts. Congress is seeking to redefine its role to make it explicitly broadcast in support of US foreign policy.
The TV channel was founded as Russia Today under Vladimir Putin in 2005. Initially an English-language satellite news channel, it now also broadcasts in French, German, Arabic and Spanish and has stations dedicated to the US and UK.
It presented itself as an alternative voice to western media, prepared to challenge orthodox views. The WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and British MP George Galloway have presented series on RT offering alternative perspectives on current events. It has faced accusations of being a propaganda voice of the Kremlin, particularly on issues where Moscow is involved.
The British regulator, Ofcom, has found RT in breach of its rules on impartiality. One of its US-based presenters, Liz Wahl, resigned on air in 2014, accusing the station of broadcasting propaganda. Another presenter, Abby Martin, criticised Russian intervention in Ukraine in a broadcast.