With some Western pundits and journalists accusing the Kremlin of interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential race and contributing to Donald Trump’s victory, Moscow and Washington increasingly find themselves engaged in another information war.

The emergence of “black lists” for media once again highlights the fact that Russia and the West are in a state of perennial confrontation in the information space. Photo: AP

During the beginning of the Cold War, an American politician presented a black list, which comprised more than 200 names. Those included on the list were labeled as Communist spies or agents. The person who stigmatized them in 1951 was Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. senator from the state of Wisconsin. This is how “McCarthyism” and the Witch Hunt to find Communist sympathizers started in the U.S. and extended through the 1950s.

Almost 65 years later, at a time when Russia and the U.S. find themselves locked in another confrontation (which some experts describe as a “new Cold War”), the creation of black lists to stigmatize or punish opponents is becoming commonplace in bilateral relations once again.

For the last four years, both sides have been imposing mutual sanctions, with the “black lists” of undesirable figures having been expanded since 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis was at its peak. One of the most recent examples is the ban placed on former U.S. Ambassador and Stanford Professor Michael McFaul, who is now unable to visit Russia. After the controversial victory of Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. elections, McFaul found himself blacklisted.

Meanwhile, in 2016 a team of anonymous journalists and experts initiated the so-called PropOrNot project, a website that has created yet another black list, containing the names of about 200 online media outlets, labeled as “sites that reliably echo Russian propaganda” or are just “bona fide ‘useful idiots’ of the Russian intelligence services.” The list contains both English-language media outlets based in Russia and their American counterparts. [Russia Direct was initially included in the list but has since been removed - Editor's note].

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In fact, the list is very diverse and ranges from such famous media sites as the far-right Drudge Report, well known for its criticism of the Kremlin, to sites like Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today, which is seen by many Western and Russian experts as aggressive propaganda). The Washington Post described the PropOrNot project as "a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds."   

Under scrutiny

According to the initiators of the project, the sites included in the black list “are worthy of further scrutiny,” because they believe that “the American people have the right to know when foreign governments are trying to mess with them.” The website appeared during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, when the Democrats accused the Kremlin of hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and interfering with the campaign.

At first glance, it resembles a new edition of the notorious and conspiracy-fueled McCarthyism, which today means alleged accusations and public attacks on political opponents. However, the authors of the list don’t think so.

“We are not accusing anyone of lawbreaking, treason, or ‘being a member of the Communist Party’,” they argue on their website. “We fiercely believe in the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and have no interest in seeing anyone punished for exercising them… When outlets and individuals echo, repeat, and refer their audience to Russian propaganda, we're going to highlight it. They have the right to do that, and we have the right to call them on it.”

However, despite the obvious importance and relevance of such projects and their good intentions, such black lists might mislead inadvertently, at least because of some flaws in their methodology. In the case of PropOrNot, this methodology includes “a combination of manual and automated analysis” to identify the websites that they see as “Russian propaganda outlets."

Such methods might have their own advantages. However, the key flaw is that such lists might detect the stories, which cannot be seen as separate pieces, but rather as a counterbalance and a part of a broader discussion. Probably, these articles might be perceived as containing some controversial information, yet they could also be presented with all necessary context and background to see the bigger picture.

In other words, automated analysis might inadvertently include those websites that try to be well-balanced and present both points of view, an attribute that is essential for high-quality journalism. While "automated" analysis might not take into account important and subtle nuances, manual analysis could add up to pure cherry-picking to confirm one’s opinions and judgments.

“The PropOrNot site has received what appears to be justified criticism,” said Gregory Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio and Radio Free Europe and a contributor to Foreign Affairs and POLITICO. “It goes without saying that expressing views that coincide with the Kremlin’s, or may be seen as pushing a similar agenda, isn’t necessarily propaganda — that is, biased, misleading information aimed at promoting a certain line. However, ‘propaganda’ is increasingly seen as the publication of views that differ from one’s own — and in painting so many news sites and outlets as propaganda with such a broad stroke only contributes to the breakdown of debate that any healthy democratic society needs.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert from Carnegie Moscow Center with 25 years of experience in independent journalism, argues that it is necessary to separate state propaganda like RT and Sputnik (as well as the “Russian trolls” websites) from well-balanced and analytical resources, even though the latter might be supported by the state or the governmental agencies. The affiliation doesn’t necessarily mean bad quality and lack of integrity, because there are a lot of nuances, which the Western public might not be aware of and would prefer to ignore. Western journalists and media researchers should “take into account nuances,” he told Russia Direct.

Indeed, some Russian media outlets are affiliated with governmental agencies, but it doesn’t prevent them from criticizing the authorities and pursuing non-partisan journalism. For example, Echo of Moscow radio station, which is seen by many as an opposition media outlet and is known for its long-standing criticism of the Kremlin, is owned by Gazprom-Media, a company that has close ties to the Kremlin. However, as its Editor-in-Chief Alexei Venediktov argues, the radio station pursues an independent editorial policy.

“According to Echo of Moscow’s editorial code, the only person that determines the editorial policy of the radio station is the editor-in-chief,” he told Russia Direct in a March interview. “Without doubt, our stakeholders have certain rights…But they cannot ask me to censor the content and interfere in our editorial policy... In my view, any media should oppose the decision-making of the authorities, because those in power already have the opportunity to say something good about themselves.”

Feifer agrees that Echo of Moscow follow journalistic integrity, however he points to its drawbacks. “Echo of Moscow is often excellent despite the fact that it’s ultimately controlled by Gazprom-Media, but there are certain topics, including those directly affecting Putin, it doesn’t touch,” he said.

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Moreover, some Western journalists might also ignore the subtle difference between propaganda and soft power. By definition, those websites that promote the country’s soft power will be labeled as the ones that “echo” the Kremlin’s propaganda. And this could also mislead because soft power and public diplomacy are not the same thing, despite their superficial similarities (for example, the mission of improving the image of the country by promoting culture, literature and the like).

In contrast to soft power, propaganda nurtures hostility between people (including journalists), strengthens negative stereotypes, misleads, manipulates, stigmatizes and, finally, purposely ignores the other point of view to impose its own agenda. At least, this is how many experts define propaganda.    

To what extent should journalism be well-balanced?

Amidst such an environment, the value of dialogue and well-balanced journalism seems to be decreasing. Russia Direct got in touch with the authors of the PropOrNot black list. When asked about their methodology and the necessity of being objective or finding the right balance between the two extremes, they said that “neutrality, objectivity and attempts to keep balance are abstract ideals, but we can approach them.”

“We believe in well-balanced (critical) journalism, and staying critical is especially important in the context of brutal authoritarian oligarchies determined to control the media, manipulate the public through propaganda, and marginalize legitimate dissent. Russia currently falls in that category,” a representative of the PropOrNot team added.

He argues an alternative point of view can be seen as propaganda if an outlet consistently meets the criteria of propaganda, “without critically analyzing the Russian state line it echoes” or “if other journalism provides information about the internal decision-making of the outlet, such that they actively embrace Russian state policy or seem to be state-controlled.”

Indeed, many Western journalists appear to be trying their utmost to withstand or stigmatize what they see as the Kremlin’s propaganda, as indicated by the report prepared by The Institute of Modern Russia, “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money.

Its authors — well-known journalist Peter Pomerantsev and his colleague Michael Weiss, affiliated with The Daily Beast and The Interpreter — call for tracking and revealing  “the Kremlin’s networks” by creating what they describe as “truth squads” or establishing “counter-propaganda editors” to pick apart what might be called “all the news unfit to print.”

Meanwhile, Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and a specialist on Russian security affairs, highlights that “good journalism is not about balance for its own sake.”

“Yes, analysis ought to be as objective as possible, but the facts are facts, and a fetishistic commitment to some abstract notion of balance ought not to give falsifications equal airtime,” he told Russia Direct. “The trouble with informational wars, though, is that they tend to devour objectivity. The present Russia-West conflict is a case in point, as the Kremlin's undoubted attempts to push propaganda and undermine fact is also empowering those in the West who are equally eager to "weaponize information."

Likewise, veteran journalists argue that there is no such thing as truly objective journalism.

“Every decision from the choosing of topics, interview subjects and questions to the selection of information, quotes and descriptions to include in a story reflects reporters’ and editors’ views,” Feifer told Russia Direct. “However, simply reporting various sides’ views of an issue is hardly better. The best well-balanced journalism also provides the necessary context and analysis for readers’ to make up their own minds, striving for objectivity while also using good judgment to identify the real issues and what’s at stake."

However, David Johnson, editor of Johnson’s Russia List, a prime source for Russia watchers around the world for 20 years, argues the lack of objectivity might mislead sometimes.

“In the paranoid and politicized atmosphere about Russia in the U.S. these days, anything can be said and published about Russia. And believed, at least for a time. And nobody says they made a mistake,” he told Russia Direct. “Anyone paying serious attention to what Russians say is a suspect, even in academic and D.C. think tank circles. And this is a huge danger. America's ‘Russia experts’ are in crisis.”

“What is particularly sad is that most of these ‘name’ experts remain silent about the extreme pieces and notions about Russia that appear in our media,” he added. “In fact, those with active Facebook and Twitter feeds often promote alarmist and careless pieces. To stop paying attention to [Russia’s narrative] as many seem to have done is the road to ignorance and mistakes. American foreign policy in the last 50 years bears witness to this problem of overconfidence of one's own ideas and neglect of the other.”

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Meanwhile, Galeotti argues that an ideological approach is “a massive challenge for today’s journalism. As the battle lines get drawn between Russia and the West, it is harder and harder to maintain a degree of objectivity, to hold on to nuance, and to avoid being forced to decide "which team you're on."

However, PropOrNot believes that “ideology is necessary and useful, but should be disclosed.” 

"We are very clear about our agenda and goals, as are many other projects, researchers, think tanks, opinion-writers, etc. However, Russian troll farms, comment-bot networks, and fake-media sites conceal their agenda and goals, while loudly complaining that others do the same. That's an issue,” PropOrNot told Russia Direct.

‘Our’ truth – ‘their’ propaganda

Regardless of the well-intentioned mission of PropOrNot and the fact that the Kremlin is indeed conducting a robust information campaign, the emergence of “black lists” for media once again highlights the fact that Russia and the West are in a state of perennial confrontation in the information space, with “media hostility” and “propaganda” becoming buzzwords or a tool of stigmatizing and discrediting one’s opponents.   

In May 2016, 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 mission echoes the goal of PropOrNot: monitoring, collecting, analyzing, rebutting and exposing what they see as the Kremlin’s propaganda in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

A year ago, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) launched an annual report, “The World Media Hostility Index,” which aims to monitor global media for what the pro-Kremlin pundits see as anti-Russian bias. They view their initiative as an attempt to defend the country’s national security. In March the think tank presented its new report, which included a very evocative and controversial title: “Foreign Media in 2015: Anti-Russian Vector.”

The emergence of such initiatives within one year of each other indicates that the degree of suspicion and hostility among Russian and Western journalists towards each other is increasing, just like it was during the Cold War. In fact, it stems from the fact that both Russian and American journalists try to promote or impose their own agenda under the disguise of research, be it independent or state-funded.

In short, “our” truth is “your” propaganda. “What one government sees as the truth, the other would prefer to see as propaganda,” wrote media experts William Hachten and James Scotton in the recent edition of their book, “The World News Prism.”

Such a hostile environment hampers dialogue and leads to a dead end. Last year's report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “Propaganda and Freedom of the Media,” raised the problem, while pointing out that the quality of reporting both in Russia and the West is decreasing. Being neutral and well-balanced becomes a risky tactic during an informational confrontations, with middle-of-the-road journalists being stigmatized by both sides. Yet, this is the only way to tackle the problem.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These words, ascribed to famous French 18th century philosopher and writer Voltaire, now sound like an idealistic statement, ridiculed and ignored by both journalists and partisan pundits.

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Thus, the very idea of dialogue is compromised due to the lack of trust between Moscow and Washington. You don’t necessarily agree, and you can “profoundly disagree,” but you should be able to “set aside your own preconceptions,” to understand the position of a different side and go beyond your narrow thinking, said California Governor Jerry Brown during the Oct. 17 Fort Ross Dialogue, which took place at Stanford University this year. (Russia Direct organized a round table during the forum). It is not a matter of being able to agree; it is a matter of being able to listen and seeking to understand each other better, Brown added.

“There should always be dialogue, but on a level playing field,” a PropOrNot spokesperson told Russia Direct. “State-to-people dialog is different from people-to-people dialog. Russian state media is allowed to operate freely in the U.S., and ... it lies relentlessly in the service of regime policy - but the Russian media sector is captured by the state, while independent Russian media is contained and suppressed. When Russian media is as free as American media is, a level playing field for dialog will be possible.”

Dialogue is suspended

Nevertheless, today neither Russia nor the U.S. seem to be interested in such a dialogue, as indicated by how intransigent many Russian and American journalists and pundits appear to be in their convictions.

“You Russians and we Americans! ... So far apart from each other, so seemingly different, and yet... in ways that are most important, our countries are so alike,” said prominent American poet Walt Whitman. Indeed, Russia and the United States sometimes look very similar.

Today, unfortunately, they are similar in how they respond to both real and imagined threats. In Russia, it means discrediting opponents as the “fifth column,” “foreign agents,” undesirable organizations, or “CIA agents.” In the United States, it means labeling those who disagree with the nation’s domestic or foreign policy imperatives as the Kremlin’s "useful idiots," purveyors of “fake news” or instruments of “Putin’s propaganda.”

UPDATE: The article was updated on Nov. 29 to include comments from Gregory Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio and Radio Free Europe, and a contributor to Foreign Affairs and POLITICO. Russia Direct also received comments from PropOrNot on Nov. 30 and included them in the story. In an email, PropOrNot promised to take Russia Direct off their black list.