As the world’s attention again turns to whether the U.S. and Russia can cooperate, this time in Syria, it is important to be aware of the different impediments that stand in the way of such cooperation. Although Russia has showed a willingness to use military force in pursuit of its goals — Georgia, Crimea and now Syria spring to mind — scholars and analysts have increasingly also drawn attention to newer “soft” attempts at projection of power by Russia, including in particular its stronger presence in the sphere of international media. This most notably includes the Russia Today television channel as well as its companion Web site rt.com.
Late last spring, a conference was organized at George Washington University by Robert Orttung on the subject of this new form of “information warfare” between Russia and the West. In a bid to summarize some of the findings from the conference and make them available to a larger audience, I posed the following question to a number of the panelists: What are the options for the West in responding to Russia’s information warfare? Slightly edited versions of their answers appear below:
The first step to recovery is always acknowledging there’s a problem. Prominent voices like Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have warned us of the dangers of RT, the Kremlin-funded satellite TV/YouTube channel/Internet site that purports to “Question More.”
There are those who claim the warnings are just the work of alarmist neo-conservatives. They’re not. The spread of ideas matters. If it didn’t, Russia wouldn’t be in the idea-spreading business.
That’s why politicians from Ukraine, the European Union and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have all urged their governments to join the fray.
Among the ideas: force RT to register as a lobbyist or foreign agent; pour more money into U.S.-funded Russian-language services; create a new E.U.-funded news service to counter Russian “disinformation campaigns”; or start a Ukrainian state-funded channel to counter Russia’s message. Some even say, let’s just ban the thing altogether.
The problem with every one of these ideas is that they run roughshod over Western free-speech values. More government news services, to counter Russia’s government news services, is just propaganda fighting propaganda. Labeling RT a foreign agent replicates Russia’s own egregious “foreign agent” registration requirement. And imagine the fun First Amendment scholars would have with an outright ban on RT. Not to mention RT itself, where attacks on the channel are a news staple.
We know the free-speech argument isn’t likely to stop calls for declaring an “information war” against Russia. But anyone who’s thinking of arming up might want to first read this study by the European Endowment for Democracy. It offers a blueprint for “Bringing Plurality and Balance to the Russian Language Media Space.” Translation: Governments should be proactive in supporting fair, accurate watchdog reporting by independent Russian-language media, instead of cranking out more propaganda themselves.
The primary goal of Russian information warfare in the current environment is to obfuscate the true situation regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Russia seeks to diffuse the responsibility for the conflict to a wide range of international and Ukrainian domestic actors. This effort is part of a wider campaign to highlight inconsistencies and double standards in Western society.
The best response to such a campaign is to ensure that Western accounts of events are entirely truthful and backed by the most complete set of evidence possible. Western countries cannot and should not seek to beat Russia at its propaganda game. Efforts to always paint Western actions in the best possible light will be exposed if they are not based on the real course of events. And every instance in which they are exposed will only contribute to the Russian narrative that all international politics is cynical and that no side in the conflict can be trusted. In the long run, if Western representations of key events in the conflict are seen be neutral observers as uniformly highly reliable, the Russian narrative will be discredited in the public sphere.
Robert Orttung, associate research professor, and Elizabeth Nelson and Anthony Livshen, research assistants, George Washington University:
The West’s best option in responding to Russia’s information warfare is to stay engaged by closely tracking what Russia is doing and maintaining strong bonds between the U.S. and European countries. Our analysis of RT’s YouTube strategy shows that the main goal of Russian propaganda is to drive a wedge between the members of the Western alliance. Describing the methodology Russia uses and making populations aware of RT’s government funding, rather than responding to every accusation, will neutralize the station’s ability to “divide and conquer.”
Russian propaganda employs a sophisticated campaign that sends a variety of different messages to different audiences in Western countries. While tailoring themes to each audience, Russia seeks to undermine Western unity by calling into question the central values that Western countries claim to promote. By pointing out real problems in Western societies, Russian media seek to demobilize Western citizens by instilling in them the belief that their governments are hypocritical. At the same time, RT portrays Russia as playing a positive role in areas such as Ukraine and Syria that Russia’s leaders consider of top importance.
Simply ignoring Russia’s information warfare is not a good option. RT has demonstrated an ability to set the agenda for its millions of Western viewers through a strategy of inserting its message into videos aimed at a young and active audience tracking the ups and downs of the news cycle.
Many commentators in the U.S. are worried about what they see as Russia’s use of “disinformation” and “ideology” as a means to attack Western values. U.S. politicians are particular concerned about RT, Russia’s state-funded international broadcasting service.
The challenge of responding to RT lies in the difficulty of drawing clear lines between information and propaganda. There is indeed clear evidence that the Russian government has actively shaped some of the messages disseminated by RT. And a healthy skepticism and critical position vis-a-vis RT’s reporting is absolutely justified, as some, though by no means all, of its reporting is backed by scant evidence and has clear blind spots on Ukraine and on the failings of Russia’s elites.
At the same time, the concern about Russian propaganda and information warfare rests on an outdated and self-serving understanding of ideology. For one, it narrowly locates ideology in the official doctrine of states, usually foreign ones; RT is seen as Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine.
An alternative view of ideology conceives it in wider terms, as a discourse “addressed to another and lives only in the other’s response.” In this view, messages disseminated by RT are far more than the misguided opinions of an autocrat. They are meaningful for Russians, because they are born out of Russian reality and history, and shape political and social life – as such, they need to be taken seriously. Moreover, even though Russian media are dominated by state-controlled discourse, our research shows that this discourse does not fully saturate society — as is evident in domestic social media, journalistic and artistic critiques. Much like any media, RT is taking part in domestic and global conflicts about meanings.
Martin Zapfe, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich.
If information “warfare” is indeed a security challenge, it seems only logical that NATO could play a role in countering Moscow’s efforts to subvert the alliance and to weaken the transatlantic bridge. However, as an alliance of democracies with many divergent national interests, member states have always been wary of making NATO more “political.” And countering Russia’s campaign of disinformation touches issues at the heart of every democracy: freedom of the press and freedom of expression. This is dangerous turf for a military alliance.
Thus, allied and European leaders are quick to point out that countering Russian propaganda requires not counter-propaganda but stating the truth and calling things what they are. This means profiting from the potential of democracies through honest and courageous leadership, not endangering it through some “allied counter propaganda offensive.” Countering Russia’s information warfare risks politicizing NATO and requires being prepared to mitigate the attendant costs.