With the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors and numerous Western journalists warning about the Kremlin’s propaganda, does it really pose a threat to the West?

Employees of RT TV channel (former Russia Today) prepare for a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin to its headquarters in Moscow in 2013. Photo: AP

A recent report for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), based on assessments from 30 foreign policy and public diplomacy professionals, indicates that Washington is becoming more and more preoccupied with the Kremlin’s rejuvenated and aggressive propaganda campaign.

According to the report, the Kremlin is outpacing the White House in promoting its position abroad while leaving the BBG (a federal agency founded in 1994 that oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America) behind.

"Competitors with anti-U.S. messaging are fomenting an information war - and winning - while U.S. international broadcasting is challenged to keep pace with competitors and changes in the media landscape," it says. “U.S. international communications strategy should be rebuilt from the ground up."

As the Ukrainian crisis started, numerous warnings about the threat posed by the Kremlin’s propaganda came from different sources and media outlets. While some, like The Economist’s Senior Editor Edward Lucas, called on their colleagues to boycott RT (formerly Russia Today, a TV network that has received significant financial backing from the Kremlin), others compared the menace posed by Russia’s propaganda with that of ISIS, which has beheaded American journalists and destroyed historical and cultural landmarks.

After the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the warnings about the Kremlin’s subtle propaganda techniques came from respected British and American media outlets. The Guardian editorial board argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his PR team use the idea of pluralism to mislead people and confuse “those who would seek out the truth with multiple expressions of distracting PR chaff.” “The tactic is to create as many competing narratives as possible,” The Guardian clarifies. “And, amid all the resultant hermeneutic chaos, to quietly slip away undetected."

A contributor of the New York Times echoes this view while claiming that “the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth” is at the core of the Kremlin’s information strategy, which allows Putin to replace facts with disinformation, distract people and “muddy the water to a point where the audience simply gave up on the search for truth.”

All these accusations are not unfounded, given the increasing activity of Russian propaganda media outlets (RT and Sputnik) and their lavish funding. In mid-January, citing the Russian Ministry of Communications and Mass Media, Russian media reported that the government would allocate an additional 23 billion rubles (about $405 million in today's currency terms) for RT and Rossiya Segodnya, a news agency.

In addition, those previously involved in the information war are very clear about their mission and put into context the so-called “troll factories” of the Kremlin. For example, a professional Russian troll revealed in an interview to Radio Free Europe (RFE) how “thousands of fake accounts” on Russian and foreign social media are created to aggressively promote the Kremlin’s position both inside and outside of the country and to create the appearance of pluralism.

Such increasing activity in social media and growing flow of information lead to a dangerous mixing of opinion with news, which aggravates the problem. Some journalists agree. According to Gregory Feifer, a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Moscow, “The rise of blogs, social media and the seemingly constant drift of editorializing into what used to be the province of on-the-ground reporting has blurred the lines between news and opinion.”

Feifer believes that Kremlin propaganda “certainly exploits Western pluralism by casting doubt on facts and opinion that contradict its own line.”

“The difference between that and media pluralism is that the Russian government secretly tries to pass off manufactured lies as real reporting,” he told Russia Direct. That's a very clear line. It's successful because the Kremlin only has to cast doubt on opposing narratives – it doesn't have to prove anything. Real reporting requires an established standard of verifiability.”

Likewise, Daniel Hallin, a professor in the Department of Communication of the University of California in San Diego, believes that “the concept of pluralism can definitely be used as a tool of propaganda, to undercut respect for the truth.”

“Within the U.S., this was the tactic used by the tobacco industry for many years, to promote the idea that there were different points of view about whether tobacco had negative health effects, essentially to create doubt,” he told Russia Direct. “And that tactic is now being used by the oil and gas industry to sustain doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.” 

Does the Kremlin’s propaganda really pose a threat to the U.S.?

Although some American journalists point to the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s massive information campaigns, they don’t see it as a threat. Feifer agrees that, “Kremlin propaganda has become so pervasive and pernicious that no Western media can compete with it inside Russia.”

By casting doubt about facts on the ground during the Ukrainian crisis, Kremlin propaganda has been actually effectively splitting Western opinion. However, Feifer believes that “Kremlin propaganda doesn't pose an immediate threat to the United States.”

“Rather, it has been effective at influencing the public policy debate about Russia and Ukraine by casting doubt on Western narratives,” he added. 

Andrew Roth, a Moscow reporter for The New York Times, echoes Feifer’s view. 

“I believe the goal of Russia's propaganda in the international context is to muddy the waters just enough in order to prevent an overwhelming response from the West. Barring any Western actions, Russia has much more flexibility to exert its will in Ukraine,” he told Russia Direct.

Roth is skeptical about the BBG claims that the U.S. is losing an information war with Russia.

“Few Americans are going to be convinced to support Russian policy by agencies like RT,” he explains. “U.S. news agencies cover politically explosive events like Ferguson, so it is not revelatory when RT covers it too. RT may be able to make inroads among liberals and libertarians but its not going to eclipse other TV news networks.”

However, Roth admits that, for the U.S., the problem in winning hearts comes about in the countries that are closer to Russia “physically, economically, and perhaps spiritually.”

His Russian counterpart Georgy Bovt, an experienced journalist and an expert at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, agrees that Russia is outpacing the U.S. in conducting information wars on its territory and in its zones of influence, while the U.S. is obviously winning hearts and minds on their territory, as he noted in a telephone interview with Russia Direct.

Likewise, Feifer points out that U.S. state media, unlike the Kremlin, doesn’t seek to boost its audience in the former Soviet Union countries and it lacks original, hard-hitting reporting. He blames BBG for being too bureaucratic and spending a great deal of time on “recycling news already being reported by much smaller, nimbler outlets.”

“If the BBG believes America is losing the propaganda war, it should blame itself as much as anyone or anything else,” he said. “Although U.S. government-funded media such as the surrogate-broadcaster Radio Free Europe has plenty of good talent, it is dreadfully mismanaged and produces a lot of waste.”

"Barring any Western actions, Russia has much more flexibility to exert its will in Ukraine." Photo: AP / Reueters

Meanwhile, Professor Hallin doesn’t agree that Russia is winning the information war. He assumes that “supporters of foreign broadcasting organizations in the U.S. are exaggerating” the impact of foreign propaganda to a large extent to increase their budget and “to push the organizations more in the direction of becoming propaganda outlets.”

Alexander Gasyuk, a foreign affairs correspondent at the Russian official daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, who served as the chief of the newspaper’s bureau in Washington, DC from 2010 to 2013, agrees.

“The debate on the Capitol Hill regarding the information war with Russia has the sole reason of getting more money from the U.S. federal budget,” he said, pointing to the fact that the “so-called ‘Kremlin’s foreign propaganda’ issue was raised by the BBG, which is itself an United States government agency specifically designed and responsible for projecting American ‘soft power’ overseas.”

“Also the very fact that the U.S. government is going to counter Russian media with state funds is suspicious and means that there is no difference in the ways Washington and Moscow are going to engage each other in informational warfare,” he added.

The role of bias in the information war between Russia and the West

Some high-profile journalists believe that being biased is not necessarily bad. Promoting and defending your position during information wars, especially amidst the Ukrainian crisis, is a necessity, they would argue. In this context, they seem to implicitly regard neutrality as weakness, not as the criterion of good journalism.

“It’s a war. It’s the question of survival. I am at war. I am not here to play diplomatic games,” said Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of The New Times during the EPIIC Symposium at Tufts University in February, when asked about the role of media in igniting tensions during the Ukrainian crisis.

Nabi Abdullaev, editor-in-chief at The Moscow Times, doesn’t agree. He argues that, “Neutrality is one of the tools helping journalists to meet the most important criterion of high-quality journalism: credibility of reported information.”According to him, this tool allows to fulfill the professional task of a journalist by informing the audience about facts, not by creating an attitude about events."

In contrast, Hallin argues “good journalism doesn’t have to be neutral,” but “it does have to be independent and honest.” 

At the same time, Bovt doesn’t believe that objective journalism exists. “Journalism is always subjective and biased to a certain extent,” he said, pointing out that any attempt to be neutral and present two positions is very flawed, because “it is always possible to present two positions in such a way that one of these positions wins.”

“Such narratives I see in the Western media,” he said. “They seem to observe the principles of objectivity, but what is most important [in this context] is the final narrative created by media.”

Feifer echoes Bovt, noting that, “every topic picked, interview question asked and quotation or information selected for reporting reflects the views of reporters and editors.”

“Some American news media suffer from trying to appear ‘neutral’ by reporting the views of representatives of both sides of an issue without providing enough context or pointing out the faults of one or both sides' arguments,” he said.

However he doesn’t see it as bad journalism. 

“There's no such thing as truly objective reporting,” he explains. “The goal of every good journalist is or should be to enable the reader to make up his or her mind. I find some of the best reporting in publications whose editorial lines I don't like.”