Fighting Back: the war against the Kremlin’s propaganda
11. 6. 2015 / Craig Proctor
A poll commissioned by the Kremlin in 2003 taken in America showed that the vast majority of the population polled viewed Russia in a negative light. The main connotations associated with Russia were with Kalashnikovs, Molotov cocktails, communism, the KGB and Russian mafia. The Kremlin’s conclusion was that the West was overly concentrated on anti-establishment Russian personalities such as Gusinsk and Mikhail Khodorkovsky with the Western media’s focus often falling on events such as Khodorovsky’s arrest and subsequent trial. Moscow decided to change the Western perception, be it real or imagined by the Kremlin, by employing soft power through the medium of a foreign news agency. http://snob.ru/selected/entry/69275 Svetlana Mironyuk, a former employee and advisor to Gusinsky, was tasked with making this happen.
The Kremlin’s new approach resulted in Russia Today going live internationally in 2005. It was originally set-up with about $30,000 and employed 300 journalists a large number of them from abroad tempted by the high wages on offer. To begin with Russia Today broadcast in English and Russian, however, due to its success, Spanish, Arabic, French and German have been progressively added to the list of its output languages.
Russia Today as a mode of soft power broadcasting light stories about Russia and Russian culture was shown to have failed during the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008. During the conflict Russia was quickly blamed by the US and most EU countries. Following this the channel was reborn as RT. RT has proven to be far more successful with most of the language additions and broadcasting-destinations such as Argentine taking place after its transformation. The transformation also involved RT’s move into social media, which has included the launching of the FreeVideo project for “media professionals”. In RT’s own words “FreeVideo, Russia’s first English-language video agency… gives users free online access to broadcast quality RT footage”. Thanks to this, and direct posts to YouTube from the channel, RT has managed to saturate the internet with its productions. As proof of this RT was the first YouTube channel to reach over a billion views. In this way RT has dramatically increased in its international popularity using a combination of alternative views, anti-Western propaganda and conspiracy theories that appeal to those who feel marginalized and ignored throughout Europe and the Americas. The substantial increases in RT’s funding assigned directly from the national budget pay testament to how highly the Kremlin values the media outlet. However there has been a slow but steady move against the Kremlin’s propaganda machine coming from Europe and abroad.
Since the Maidan protests and the beginning of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, a flurry of articles have been printed in the world media calling for alarm and often warning their readerships not to be too easily taken in by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Beyond traditional and well-founded news outlets, attempts to counter or preemptively disarm the Kremlin of its propaganda the last year or so has also seen the founding of smaller broadcasters, which have set challenging the Kremlin’s view of things as their main aim. Among their ranks are the websites Meduza and StopFake.
Meduza is currently based in Riga and has a rather simple philosophy of trying to give fair and balanced news reports on events happening in the former Soviet Union. Whereas, StopFake is something rather different. StopFake was founded at the beginning of March 2014 by graduates and students of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv. The project is non-political in the sense that they do not have any affiliation with or support any Ukrainian political party. Their mission statement declares that “the actions of this group are directed at the preservation of Ukraine as a sovereign and independent state”. StopFake’s “actions” are a counteroffensive against the Russian media. Their website consist of a mixture of articles on the current situation in Ukraine and their own specialty, namely a daily updated list of Russian media stories that the group have managed to debunk. A further and quite inventive use of StopFake has been an attempt to educate the public, meaning mainly internet savvy users, how to spot fake articles themselves. This is done by informing users how they can track photographs and captions attached to internet articles and check for duplicates as well as their origins using any simple internet browser. The project has quite quickly picked up a reasonably wide following amongst programmers, IT specialists and the likes, many of whom have offered their expertise in assuring its wider development. In addition to this the Ukrainian Hromadske TV, web channel, which gained considerably in its popularity during the Euromaidan and successive Maidan protests, has also given its support to StopFake making their broadcasts a common feature. The initiative has attracted some attention in the Western media with the Guardian even picking up on their activities. Of slightly more interest, however, is the location of most of their readers. Unsurprisingly Ukrainian internet users were the main group to visit the site in its first year, but Russia came a close second with almost 3 million hits. The popularity of StopFake grew sharply in its first few months, but has fallen quickly since October 2014. It is hard to stipulate the reasons for this but there is a strong possibility that it was a case of preaching to the converted and as such has lost its charm. It is unlikely that those who are most strongly persuaded by the Kremiln’s line would ever even come into contact with StopFake. It is therefore likely that StopFake has seen its day; however it still provides us with a good example of what Ukrainian civil society can achieve when it has the momentum even if it is just for a brief time. That said, the site may face a revival as the situation once again worsen in Eastern Ukraine.
In addition to these two new outlets there was also a discussion earlier this year in the US senate in which a group of congressmen called for a revival of the old propaganda machine to counter Russian efforts to promote the Kremlin’s “skewed version of reality”. I can be assumed by this that they were referring to Radio Free Europe or something with a similar style of production. Congressman Eliot Engel declared that “a robust response” was required to counter Russia’s propaganda. More recently, the EU has also made a move in the same direction. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, assigned the Czech journalist Jakub Kalenský the managing role at the head of a new department within the European External Action Services with the aim of fighting Russian propaganda. The aim of the new department is to “supply genuine information, counter Russian disinformation and the current hybrid war taking place in Ukraine”. It is as of yet not clear exactly how Kalenský plans on countering Russian propaganda and who his target audience will actually be but we are sure to find out in the not too far future.