By: Sam Skove, Columnist
Photo Credit: The Economist
The Kremlin has successfully used digital media to stoke conflict in Russian-speaking communities abroad, ranging from Ukraine to Germany. The West and its allies have responded with a variety of measures, chiefly aimed at providing informed counterpoints to Russia’s misinformation. However, one RAND study indicates that merely disproving Russian propaganda may not work, as readers’ of online media often adhere to the first take they see on a given topic. Therefore, if they read Russian propaganda first, that information tends to stay with them, even if they later read more accurate accounts. The United States should therefore seek to not only provide counterpoints to Russian information, but to discredit the source of information itself, thus inoculating readers from its effects.
The Kremlin has most effectively used Russian-language media abroad in the Ukraine crisis and in stoking tensions in Germany’s Russian community. Official media channels, as well as an array of social media bots, heavily promoted pro-Russian narratives during Russia’s annexation of Crimea and later involvement in Eastern Ukraine.[i] While it is difficult to measure their influence, Crimea’s overwhelming vote to join Russia in 2014 was in some part influenced by these claims, which falsely argued that Kiev sought to purge ethnic-Russians from Crimea.[ii] The Kremlin used media to spread false claims again in Germany in January of 2016, when state-run Channel One claimed that asylum seekers had raped a young Russian-German girl.[iii] The claims, which German police eventually concluded were false, led to mass protests by Russian immigrants and even accusations of a German cover-up by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The West and others have sought to respond to Russian propaganda by launching their own Russian-language news sources dedicated to reporting the news accurately and discrediting individual stories. In February of this year, the United State’s Voice of America launched “Current Time,” a Russian-language news channel that will be distributed via cable, satellite, and digital platforms. The news outlet appears to be a serious effort by the United States to improve its counter-messaging abilities, given its 100 person editorial staff and commitment to broadcast 24/7.[iv] The EU and other states also back a range of counter-propaganda groups. One of the most prominent of these groups is StopFake, a Ukrainian news service that exists purely to expose lies promoted by the Russian state-controlled or state-friendly press.[v] The lies debunked by StopFake often seem easily recognizable as fakes—one Russian-language story claimed Ukraine was planning on printing money with Hitler’s face on it, while another stated the Ukrainian president, while drunk, had given an amputee a soccer ball as a gift.
However, a report by the RAND Corporation indicates that successful counter-propaganda focuses on discrediting entire news sources, not just individual articles. According to the RAND study, readers’ first impression of news is often their strongest.[vi] Even if that news is later exposed as false, readers will often forget this and be left believing that the first story was accurate. Indeed, in situations where Russian media outlets completely fabricate their stories, they are automatically the first news a reader has seen on a given topic. According to this logic, Russian propaganda is actually at its most effective when it is completely false, even if these falsehoods are easily exposed.
As the RAND study notes, though, readers are less likely to trust a media source if they are aware from the beginning that it is not credible. Then are, in effect, inoculated against false news.
The West should therefore focus its efforts on discrediting entire outlets, rather than disproving individual stories. There are a variety of ways this might be achieved. Firstly, nations with large ethnic Russian populations, like Latvia or Ukraine, can publicly shame Russian state-run outlets. Britain’s media regulator Ofcom has done this repeatedly in regards to false reporting by Russia’s RT.[vii] Secondly, the West can launch public campaigns that develop readers’ ability to think critically about Russian news sources. These could include online ads that test readers’ ability to tell fake news stories from real ones, for instance, or education programs that teach students how to make sure news sources are legitimate.[viii] While neither of these methods will completely discredit Russian propaganda sources in the eyes of its readers, it will at least be better than focusing solely on providing more Russian-language news sources like “Current Time.”
[i] Lawrence Alexander, “Open-Source Information Reveals Pro-Kremlin Web Campaign” Global Voices, July 13, 2015, accessed November 29 https://globalvoices.org/2015/07/13/open-source-information-reveals-pro-kremlin-web-campaign/.
[ii] Peter Hobson, “’Russia Is the Motherland’ – Crimean Schoolchildren on the Annexation,” The Moscow Times, April 29, 2015, accessed March 12, 2017, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/russia-is-the-motherland-crimean-schoolchildren-on-the-annexation-46228.
[iv] Jan Lopataka, “Radio Free Europe, Voice of America Launch New Russian-Language TV Channel,” Reuters, February 8, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-rfe-idUSKBN15N13Y.
[v] Andrew Kramer, “To Battle Fake News, Ukrainian Show Features Nothing but Lies,” The New York Times, February 26, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/26/world/europe/ukraine-kiev-fake-news.html.
[vi] Paul, Christopher and Miriam Matthews. “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016, 6.
[vii] Mark Sweney, “RT Faces Ofcom Inquiry Over Turkish Government Genocide Claim,” The Guardian, April 25, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/apr/25/rt-faces-ofcom-inquiry-over-turkish-government-genocide-claim.
[viii] Katherine Schulten and Amanda Christy Brown, “Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News,” The New York Times, January 19, 2017, access March 12, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/learning/lesson-plans/evaluatingsources-in-a-post-truth-world-ideas-for-teaching-and-learning-about-fake-news.html?_r=0.