Russia’s Disinformation War

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By: Shannon Mizzi, Columnist

Russian public opinion of the United States has steadily declined in recent years.[i] This has closely paralleled the Russian government’s ramping up of anti-Western, and particularly anti-American, propaganda at home and abroad since its annexation of Crimea. In fact, a dislike of the United States is increasingly a unifying factor among local populations and part of national identity in Russia. The Russian government maintains almost total control of the mass media sphere at home, and is paying renewed attention to international broadcasting giant RT (formerly Russia Today). By limiting information the Russian public has access to, focusing attention on external threats rather than internal problems, and engaging in an international disinformation war, the Russian government garners support for its foreign policy maneuvers—which have generally conflicted with American interests since 2000. At the same time, a majority of Russians say Russia should be more active in international affairs.[ii] This makes Russian public opinion a danger to American security and interests.

While “information war” might seem too strong a term, President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, used the term himself this year with Russian news channel TVC: “We are currently in a state of information warfare with the trend-setters in the information space, most notably with the Anglo-Saxons, their media.”[iii] Domestically, most television stations and a little over 60% of newspapers are government owned. In a sense, in Russia it does not matter if media outlets are state owned, as all media content is subject to Kremlin approval through an agency called Roskomnadzor, or the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies, and Mass Communications. Russian parliament has passed laws that have slowly constricted media space since the mid-2000s, and it is through Roskomnadzor that compliance is assured. It has the authority to blacklist websites, refuse broadcast licenses, and prevent publication of books and articles. Censorship of social media has increased since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, creating a climate of reticence and fear around posting opposition views online, preventing open debate, and encouraging self-censorship.

Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press report ranks Russia 176 out of 194 countries on media freedom. In 2014, Russian parliament passed legislation preventing foreign investors from owning more than 20% of any media outlet.[iv] This poses a direct challenge to all countries that wish to present an alternative viewpoint or provide more objective journalistic content to the Russian public. It also makes it difficult for Russians to understand what’s happening in other countries in an unbiased manner. Another law passed the same year requires Internet users connected to free public WiFi hotspots to go through a user identification process, including the submission of their passport information.[v] Such regulations make Russia a relatively dangerous place for investigative journalism, particularly when looking into government corruption or human rights violations; 34 Russian journalists have been murdered for their investigative work since 2000.[vi]

By all accounts, President Putin keeps close tabs on his public approval ratings.[vii] He is keenly aware of the importance of public opinion and works to modify it by creating a narrative likely to bolster his image. This is accomplished by broadcasting news stories that demonize the West, portraying Russian government action in a positive light, and largely ignoring Russia’s own deeply troubling economic and social problems. Putin’s approval ratings reached an all-time low of 61% just prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics in early 2014, but swung back into the 80s after the annexation of Crimea, where it remains. Since then, Putin’s media empire has successfully convinced the Russian public that its economic woes can be blamed on a western world that wishes to see Russia weakened and will never allow Moscow to secure its “rightful” territory. Immediately following the annexation, Russian public opinion of the U.S. moved from 25% unfavorable to 65% unfavorable, with 90% saying the U.S. was an adversary.[viii]

Westerners are perhaps most familiar with the propaganda styling of the English language, government-funded international news outlet, RT. RT began broadcasting in 2005 with the goal of improving Russia’s image abroad, but after the 2008 invasion of Georgia it was co-opted into Putin’s disinformation framework. Though some news items are covered matter-of-factly, objective reporting is not its primary intention. RT has peddled conspiracy theories such as those claiming that the Ukrainian government orchestrated the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, that the U.S. started the Ebola crisis, that Osama bin Laden was dead before May 2011, and that President Obama was not born in the United States.[ix] At the same time, RT does cover stories that western media outlets have failed to engage with substantively, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement or the initial WikiLeaks scandal.[x]

Russia has waged an expert external disinformation campaign on TV and online about Crimea, claiming that it was annexed of its own free will, and that Russia had to step in to protect those involved in a popular uprising. Russian media outlets have placed articles regarding this and other subjects on popular American news sites like The Huffington Post and Politico.[xi] A pro-Kremlin news outlet even photoshopped U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft into an anti-government rally in Moscow.[xii] The Kremlin also employs internet “web brigades” to overrun comment sections on popular western news sites and even edit Wikipedia pages.[xiii] Where this campaign is most dangerous, however, is in smaller central and eastern European countries that do not have the media freedom or plethora of outlets that most western countries do, and are less able to compare sets of facts and come to their own conclusions.

This is not to say that all Russians have been taken in by Putin; after all, 15-20% of people disapprove of his job performance despite the danger inherent in opposition. The point is that the Russian people should be able to decide what they think for themselves, and are currently prevented from doing so. The U.S. can help foster press freedom in Russia and promote American and European security by properly resourcing mechanisms to engage in this information—not disinformation—war itself. It should avoid regulating RT out of the marketplace in the U.S., as this would feed into Russia’s narrative; leave RT alone and instead counter its obfuscation with sunshine. The United States should make better use of its own soft power-focused international radio station, “Voice of America” (VOA), and ensure that it does not become a mouthpiece for the American foreign policy establishment—though some in Congress would like to see it as such. Rather, it should provide objective reporting on international and American news if it wants to maintain the same level of credibility with listeners it now enjoys. In Russia, most people are aware they do not have complete freedom to voice political opinions.[xiv] In scenarios like this, people look for alternatives, and VOA should be a fair, balanced, straight-reporting alternative for people all over the world.

Congress, and the Departments of State and Defense should dedicate more research and resources to digital diplomacy, which will be valuable in combating online disinformation, not just from Russia but future militant groups that rely on social media propaganda for recruiting, as ISIS has done. The U.S. should continue to denounce Russian censorship and crackdowns on the use of social media platforms, and, in the longer term, should work on U.S.-Russian relations and eventually incorporate Russia into a European security framework in an effort to promote greater stability in future relations.

Though Russian propaganda mechanisms are focused on bolstering Putin’s political security, this is a danger that will last beyond Putin’s time in office. It has created a siege mentality, convincing the Russian public that it is locked in a struggle for survival, with a West that wants to see it fail. Putin’s extra-territorial ambitions make the Baltic countries, with their sizable Russian-speaking minorities, uniquely vulnerable (all of the Baltic states are members of NATO). This circular system—a propaganda machine so smooth that is has created an alternate reality for its citizens, making it almost invulnerable to charges of inherent bias—needs a carefully considered and thoroughly modern American response.

[i] Jennifer Benz, et. al., “Public Opinion in Russia: Russians’ Attitudes on Foreign Affairs and Social Issues,” The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Research Affairs, University of Chicago, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “‘Russia at war with Anglo-Saxon media’–Putin spokesman,” RT, March 27, 2016.

[iv] Alec Luhn, “Russia tightens limit on foreign ownership of media,” The Guardian, September 26, 2014.

[v] “Passport now required to use public Wi-Fi in Russia,” Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI), August 8, 2014.

[vi] “Freedom of the Press, 2015 Report,” Freedom House, 2016.

[vii] Michael Birnbaum, “How to understand Putin’s jaw-droppingly high approval ratings,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2016.

[viii] Jennifer Benz, et. al., “Public Opinion in Russia: Russians’ Attitudes on Foreign Affairs and Social Issues,” The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Research Affairs, University of Chicago, 2015.

[ix] Karen Mendez, “Centro de investigacion biologica de EE.UU. Fort Detrick? Detras delbrote de ebola?” RT, August 7, 2014.

[x] John O’Sullivan, “Russia Today is Putin’s weapon of mass deception. Will it work in Britain?” The Spectator, December 6, 2014.

[xi] Daisy Sindelar, “The Kremlin’s Troll Army,” The Atlantic, August 12, 2014.

[xii] “Pro-Kremlin Media Share Fake Image of U.S. Ambassador at Opposition Rally”,

The Moscow Times, September 21, 2015

Carl Schreck, “Photoshop Wars: U.S. Ambassador ‘Attends’ Russian Opposition Rally… And the Moon Landing,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, September 21, 2015.

[xiii] Caitlin Dewey, “Flight MH17’s Wikipedia page edited by Russian government,” The Toronto Star/The Washington Post, July 21, 2014.

[xiv] Jennifer Benz, et. al., “Public Opinion in Russia: Russians’ Attitudes on Foreign Affairs and Social Issues,” The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Research Affairs, University of Chicago, 2015.

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