war on the rocks

Russia’s War on Information

December 15, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin has nearly completed his purge of independent news media in Russia.  “This is not just a war of information,” says one keen analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  “It is a war on information.”

The latest casualties are two of the last major sources of independent news in Russia. Last month, Dozhd TV was booted from cable television channels and lost its office space, and a wave of pink slips from its Kremlin-backed owners has decimated the staff Ekho Moskovy, the venerable and respected Russian news radio station.  These attacks come on the heels of new laws restricting foreign ownership and management control of media outlets (which will drive CNN off Russia’s airwaves in January and likely BBC as well), new curbs on advertising that could bankrupt small and independent stations, and ambiguous regulations that allow the Kremlin to shutter websites and even pull the plug on the Internet at a moment’s notice.

U.S. national interests are best served by a Russia that is free, democratic, and an integrated stakeholder in the international community. Yet that vision is anathema to Putin, whose anti-media campaign at home and propaganda offensive abroad are key elements of his 15-year push toward authoritarianism, kleptocracy, and anti-Western policies that today threaten Russia’s neighbors and, by extension, the United States and its  allies.

Moscow’s legal restrictions are paired with potent lies.  Recent fabrications include stories of Ukrainians using a 13-year old boy as an “electronic target” for missiles, assaults on Russian priests, and wild theories—complete with doctored photos—about Western responsibility for the downing of flight MH17.  Economic sanctions imposed after Russian forces moved into Crimea are recast and spun as calculated Western assaults on the Russian people.

Russia’s war on information does not end at Russia’s borders. Russia Today—now simply called RT—is radically expanding operations into 45 languages with a 40 percent increase in funding.  RT’s marketing line is “Question More.”  But the aim isn’t dialogue and debate, it’s to white wash the actions of Putin as former RT anchor Liz Wahl bravely reported as she resigned on air.  Russia also has launched Sputnik – not the satellite, but a global news agency operating in 34 languages, with a robust online presence and the purported aim of providing “an alternative viewpoint on world events.”

The overt Kremlin offensive is supported by legions of online trolls, attacking publications and people.  These media machines manufacture “facts” like widgets and conjure obscure “experts” and “witnesses” for interviews.  The goal is to foment confusion in viewers and feed conspiracy theories so that fiction—especially the Kremlin’s fables—begin to look like fact.

They also seek—as Peter Pomeranzev and Michael Weiss note in their powerful new report, The Menace of Unreality—to undermine Western resolve by simultaneously backing far-left and far-right movements, especially in Europe. “The aim,” they wrote, “is to exacerbate divides and create an echo-chamber of Kremlin support.”

It’s crucial now that the United States and its allies respond. An entire generation born after the collapse of the Soviet Union—the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th Century, according to Putin—is asserting itself in media, politics, business, and the military in Europe, Russia and its neighboring countries. This generation is being subjected to a Kremlin-sponsored propaganda campaign that is slick, relentless, and modern.  The campaign twists news and information about global events, whitewashes the Soviet past, and grossly distorts the policies, history, and intentions of the United States and its Western allies.  While the younger generation in Russia has adopted Western culture, it is much more anti-American and anti-Western compared to older generations.

The universal corollary to freedom of speech is the freedom to listen.  Commercial media in the West should make an investment in reconstituting foreign bureaus and expand abroad.  To complement that effort, and to go where they cannot or will not go, is where U.S. international media outlets—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America—come in.  These respected organizations aren’t Cold War leftovers, but part of a solid and sophisticated new strategic effort to counter the Kremlin in Russia, in the former Soviet space, and around the world.  First steps should include a fresh new nightly Russian-language TV news program that is on the air in Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union, a raft of new TV programs in Ukraine, and digital offerings that reach millions of Russians and Russian-speakers.

A key difference between the work of RFE/RL and VOA—two of the five media entities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors—and RT, Sputnik, and other Russian organs, is that we promote the freedom to speak, the freedom to listen, and ultimately, the freedom of information.  We encourage audiences to find the truth, to ask critical questions.  Our Internet freedom programs help people access and share the truth and circumvent firewalls erected by regimes that fear their people knowing reality.  We believe in transparency, empowered local media, and in the Freedom of the Press.

The best counter to propaganda is truth and transparency, not more propaganda. Honest, unbiased facts coupled with unimpeded discussion by an informed citizenry is the most powerful weapon against the Kremlin’s disinformation that drains the future from Russia’s people and threatens Russia’s neighbors.

This is not about Russia Today. This is about Russia’s tomorrow.

 

Matt Armstrong serves as a Governor on the Broadcasting Board of Governors since August 2013 and presently chairs a special Board committee examining the purpose and future of VOA. He is writing a book on the development of U.S. public diplomacy from 1917 to 1948 and previously authored the blog MountainRunner.us.  He can be reached at marmstrong@bbg.gov and found on Twitter @MountainRunner.

 

Photo credit: Kremlin.ru