Russian propaganda efforts could soon run up against greater competition from the United States, which is looking for new ways to reach Russia’s population and counter the Kremlin’s ability to control the news cycle.
"The information war could sooner or later undergo a shift in the balance of power — not in Russia’s favor." Сollage by Andrei Zaitsev. Photo: AP / Reueters
Moscow has taken note of Washington’s desire to improve the quality of U.S. radio and TV stations broadcasting in foreign countries. The question being asked in Russia is: Will these reforms lead to a new round of information warfare between Russia and the United States?
At the state level, the Soviet Union has always led the world in the art of bubble blowing. The Kremlin never pinched pennies on foreign propaganda, especially for its main mouthpiece. Originally called the Novosti Press Agency (NPA), later becoming RIA Novosti, the organization was housed in an imposing edifice on Moscow’s Garden Ring.
The agency employed thousands of people, and NPA offices were set up all over the world. In the 1980s the agency had correspondents in such far-flung places as Suriname. Back then, this South American country was governed by the leftist Desi Bouterse, and the Kremlin decided that the country could not be ignored, despite its population numbering a mere 180,000 people.
Even today, the scale of Russian propaganda exceeds its American counterpart. Government subsidies flow into the state-funded information group Rossiya Segodnya, established by the decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin and headed by ardent propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov (a highly odious figure for Russia’s liberal press), as well as the TV station RT (formerly known by its English name, Russia Today). The latter hired some venerable pros from the U.S., Britain and other Western countries, who might have been offered much higher salaries than the ones they got back home.
It is not surprising, given the huge investment in the channel, that RT quickly became one of the highest-rated companies abroad, and in some cases, outperformed its powerful rival Al Jazeera.
US efforts to counter Russian propaganda
The new chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is reported to be media manager Andrew Lack, a former head of NBC News and well known domestically. Lack’s duties will include general management of the stations Radio Liberty, Voice of America, Radio Marti, TV Marti and others.
A recent interview with Lack for The New York Times made waves in Moscow. In it, he compared the propaganda influence of RT with that of Islamic State. In response, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan announced that the station would file a complaint with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, since comparing RT to a terrorist organization is totally unacceptable.
Lack will be hard pressed to out-propagandize the Kremlin, which does in fact seem to be one of his main tasks. In recent years the BBG has made a number of tactical errors that have significantly reduced Russian interest in Voice of America and Radio Liberty.
In the Soviet Union, these American radio stations, alongside Deutsche Welle and other Western voices, were an important source of knowledge for Soviet citizens about their own country and the rest of the world, since national TV was heavily censored and measured out in doses.
“Let’s not forget that in Soviet times about 42 million people regularly listened to Voice of America in Russian, which indicates how little people believed in Soviet propaganda,” says renowned Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner.
However, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union (later Russia) began to thaw, Washington decided that permanent broadcasts to its former ideological enemy were no longer necessary. In 2012, Radio Liberty’s Russian medium-wave service was shut down.
According to former radio commentator Mikhail Sokolov, that led to a loss of audience, which at that time numbered around 100,000 listeners daily. Simultaneously, then-president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Steven Korn appointed Masha Gessen as chief editor of the Russian service of Radio Liberty, which provoked a rather mixed reaction in the Russian media community. Massive layoffs ensued, and the Russian service was effectively crushed. Ratings fell catastrophically, and Radio Liberty’s website quickly lost up to 90 percent of visitors. “What happened at Radio Liberty was a gift to Putin,” said Sokolov.
The dismantling might still be in process were it not for a six-month review initiated by BBG, largely in response to the sharp drop in website traffic. Gessen was removed from her post, and life at Radio Liberty gradually began to normalize. The station has since regained its old format, and the website is extremely popular once more, offering daily live discussions on the most pressing Russia-related issues, of which there is no shortage.
Radio Liberty is now winning hands down against similar competitors, such as Britain’s BBC World Service, which since 2008 has been systematically cutting Russian service staff and broadcasting hours in Russia.
The Achilles’ heel of U.S. propaganda is the endless bureaucracy and lack of competent managers in the field. It often happens that reforms of stations broadcasting to foreign audiences are carried out at home in the United States in knee-jerk conditions with little thought or consideration.
Perhaps the reason is that in previous years, U.S. propaganda was intrinsically designed not to increase the flow of information, but to impress foreigners with facts about the country’s social and economic achievements. And from this point of view, the information war could sooner or later undergo a shift in the balance of power — not in Russia’s favor.
Cartoon by Khalil Rahman
The impact of the economic crisis
“While foreign viewers try to figure out where the boundaries between truth and fiction in Russian propaganda are, intellectuals and Kremlin opponents comfort themselves with the thought that the crisis will force the authorities to cut funding for RT,” writes online newspaper Gazeta.ru.
However, recent events suggest otherwise: 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 for RT and Rossiya Segodnya.
As for the cuts, in the main so far they have touched only “domestic” state media. It is reported that TASS, the central information agency for the whole of Russia, will shortly face a 25 percent reduction in staff.
Censorship in Russia
Amidst all this, the country is witnessing a rapid rise in censorship. Roskomnadzor [Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media] recently issued a warning to the reputable newspaper RBC and five other media outlets for publications that allegedly insulted the feelings of Muslims.
“This is the first time in many years that a warning has been issued for publishing religious cartoons,” notes newspaper Vedomosti. As it happens, only through a magnifying glass could one discern on the pages of RBC a man in a turban holding a “Je suis Charlie” placard under the words “All is forgiven.”
Russia’s grip on the hefty propaganda stick it is accustomed to brandishing in the face of mounting financial and economic turmoil could begin to weaken. That may lead to some hand wringing by the Russian authorities, as well as a re-thinking of how to proceed next in the information war with the West.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.