Russian and Western think tanks are taking a closer look at the media narratives being propagated by the other side. Not surprisingly, Russian experts point to the bias in Western narratives, while Western experts point to disinformation in Russian narratives.

With the start of the Ukrainian crisis, the degree of suspicion and hostility between Russian and Western media is rising. Photo: RIA Novosti

In May, Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist, and Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist, launched a counter-disinformation initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Its main goal is to monitor, collect, analyze, rebut and expose Russian disinformation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

A year ago, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) launched a new annual analytical report (World’s Media Hostility Index), which aims at analyzing the world’s media content and monitoring it for anti-Russian bias. RISS views its Media Hostility Index and overall examination of the international media space as an essential part of the country’s national security maintenance.

The mere appearance of these two initiatives less than a year apart demonstrates an increasing degree of suspicion and hostility among Russian and Western media towards each other. Taking a big picture view, they also reflect the current situation in Russia-West relations and the new reality of the information war.

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The bottom line is that both initiatives point to the rivalry between analysts in Russia and the West, whose aim is to promote their own truth and to debunk the opponent’s propaganda. The risk is that, by doing so, they will only widen the gap between them.

The word "propaganda" in recent years has become a new favorite word in the media world. Google Trends show that interest in the word "propaganda" has been rising over time in the ‘news search category’.

Last year's report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “Propaganda and Freedom of the Media,” also raised the question of the decreasing quality of reporting both in Russia and the West.

Stanislav Budnitsky, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees that reports such as the Hostility Index come as an unsurprising response of the Russian expert community to the work of their Western counterparts.

“Since the Ukrainian crisis started, as part of a new round of the information struggle between Russia and Western countries and alliances, a great number of widely publicized reports deconstructing the Russian media campaign appeared under the auspices of Western-based think tanks,” Budnitsky told Russia Direct.

The international context of the information war

Since 2014, with Russia’s incorporation of Crimea and the escalation of tensions in Eastern Ukraine, both of which are seen in the West as an act of Russian aggression, the Western media has launched a policy of discrediting Russia’s image in the world, the authors of the RISS report claim.

At the same time, they point out several major targets of Western media campaigns during the last two years: the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine and the incorporation of Crimea; Russia’s military campaign in Syria; and the prolongation of sanctions on Russia. The authors also highlight unprecedented media pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin personally.

However, Western journalists and experts see the situation differently. Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas wrote in their recent Washington Post column that Russia’s propaganda today “does not seek to promote itself, but rather to undermine the institutions of the West, often using discordant messages."

"RT pumps out scare stories about migrants, and also portrays the West as racist and xenophobic," Applebaum and Lucas said, pointing out that "the Russian use of social media as well as a huge range of online vehicles — “news” websites, information portals, trolls — are beginning to have an impact."

In rebuttal, Russian state-funded media, like RT or Sputnik, argue they are driven by a different rationale for doing their job: Given the global preponderance of the Anglo-Saxon media, they have the right to use modern media methods to tell their side of the story to counter-balance the one emanating from the West.

Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, pointed out during during a Valdai Club event that Western media and experts analyze Russia and its foreign policy as the personal responsibility of its President Vladimir Putin, ignoring the country’s national interests, which is misleading by its nature.

Last year, the RISS report on media hostility indicated that the crisis in Ukraine was the central topic for the Western media, which criticized the Kremlin's policy. However, in 2015, the focus shifted from Ukraine to Syria, which is quite understandable. Many experts foresaw that the world community would become “tired” of the Ukrainian crisis.

Accordingly, attention to the issue of Ukraine started to fall in January 2015 while the Syrian topic has become popular since September-October of 2015, when Moscow decided to deploy its military in Syria. The Google Trends tool demonstrates how Syria surpassed Ukraine by popularity of searches during 2015 in the news search category. This change was flagged by the RISS report.

World Mass Media Hostility Index 2015

On Mar. 28, RISS, a think tank established by the Russian President in 1992, presented its new report “Foreign Media in 2015: Anti-Russian Vector.” The research by RISS attempts to identify those media that critiseze Russia most.

While working on this new report during 2015, RISS experts have been monitoring mass media content of 60 countries, ultimately analyzing about 65,500 original publications. The object of the research was an original media publication that provides a reader with a value judgement about Russia or its leadership’s actions. In other words, it examined how the world’s mass media interpret Russia’s role on the international arena, taking into account Russian relations with other states and assessing the key developments in Russia’s domestic politics.

During the research process, such publications were sorted out and professional linguists together with country experts defined their tonality (neutral, positive or negative) towards Russia and conducted further analytical examination. Everything was done manually using no data-processing software. Such approach, according to the authors of the report, resulted in high-quality objective results.

The authors of the RISS report characterize 2015 as demonstrating a substantial decrease of Western media hostility towards Russia. They suggest that such drop might well be a result of increasing anti-terror cooperation between Russia and the West and overall revitalization of the dialogue.

Terror attacks in Paris and Brussels played a significant role in understanding the existence of a real common enemy that threatens everyone despite political tensions between Russia and the West. Thus, ultimately, the degree of hostility between Russia and the West decreased. However, the number of countries with negative tendencies towards Russia increased, report summarized.

Elizabeth Schimpfössl, a fellow at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies of the University College London, offered a different reason behind the decrease in media hostility towards Russia. “The hostility index is likely to have gone down because there was no similar incident in 2015 comparable to Russia's Crimea policy in 2014,” Schimpfössl told Russia Direct.

According to the RISS research, the so-called anti-Russian media policy in 2015 is generally conducted by the Anglo-Saxon countries. They are joined by Japan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Belarus along with a majority of the European Union member states. However, the outliers of the EU in 2015 are Italy, Belgium, France, Moldova and Czech Republic. The only states where positive tendencies in Russia media coverage are dominating are Syria and Cuba.

On the other hand, a quite distinct rise of criticism toward Russia was spotted in Northern Europe, where Norway and Finland have moved from the "neutral" camp to "hostile." Another interesting revelation is that Belarus and Armenia, both partners in Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, also changed the tone of their media rhetoric. The authors of the report connect it with the rise of opposition media in those countries.

Talking about BRICS countries, the most significant change happened in Brazil and South Africa, where media were largely hostile to Russia in 2014. However, in 2015 they have moved to the neutral position due to other domestic problems.

In the context of Russia’s Syria policy, it is quite interesting that Saudi Arabia toned down its hostility towards Russia. However, this can be explained by a dialogue that was built between Russia and the Kingdom during the Saudi defense minister’s visits to Russia in 2015 and Putin’s meeting with the Saudi king on the sidelines of the G20 Summit.

Expert reaction to the RISS report

The new Media Hostility Index, along with the recently launched disinformation initiative of CEPA, not unsurprisingly generated a fair amount of skepticism among experts.

“The Hostility Index’s research methods seem highly subjective," Budnitsky argues. "The study analyzes tens of thousands of media articles while admitting to 'not implement software-assisted methods of information analysis.' In other words, the authors base their interpretations on personal understanding of what is “negative,” “neutral,” or “positive” coverage, with no reproducible method to confirm their findings.”

Likewise, Alexander Titov of Queens University Belfast criticizes the RISS report.

“There is a stated assumption that there is a foreign state’s policy on information, which this report analyses," he said. "This very premise raises the question of whether the authors completely understand how the media operate in Western countries, for example, to what extent it is shaped by public opinion, the editorial boards, individual authors and what room there is for an effective state policy.”

“The methodology does not consider that talking about Russia in the media can also be a sign of care and interest," said Schimpfössl. "Hence, there is less hostility in countries where Russia does not appear much on people's horizon.”

In general, initiatives and projects like the RISS report or the counter-disinformation initiative spearheaded by CEPA seem but another example of the ongoing information war.

“[The RISS report] feels like a propaganda exercise (in the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word)," Titov argues. "If the report is based on several premises pointing to either negative or neutral attitudes, this does not leave the room for a nuanced approach. However, it's a characteristic step in the overall increase of media propaganda in both Russia and the West.”

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Speaking of the CEPA’s initiative, which professes to spot counter-disinformation coming from Russia, Budnitsky notes that, “It does not signal a qualitatively new stage in the ongoing information warfare but only adds to the long list of existing reports, organizations, and initiatives focusing on this area.”

CEPA’s initiative also seems to be a “good example of attempts at politicization of the media in the West,” argues Titov, “which reflects some disorientation from the appearance of an alternative to mainstream Western version of events that have taken traction.”

Schimpfössl noted that it is hard to see constructive elements in any such reports. They are just a logical continuation of the political and geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, which has now infiltrated into the media and even academia discourse.

While it is quite clear that both sides resort to such tools to defend their interests, it hardly contributes to a genuine analysis and understanding of each other.