The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion He worked in Russian media. He recognizes the same tactics at Fox News.

Vehicles belonging to Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT near Red Square in central Moscow in 2018. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

In a newly released report, U.S. intelligence agencies outline how Russia yet again sought to subvert American democracy. The findings confirm that the Kremlin tried to plant damaging disinformation about Joe Biden among associates of then-President Donald Trump.

That report and others that preceded it are important, because the foreign threat to American democracy is real and growing. But they should not distract us from a disturbing reality: The most serious danger to the United States from the Russian propaganda playbook doesn’t come from Moscow. It comes from Manhattan, where Fox News prime-time hosts broadcast conspiracy theories and disinformation while mimicking tactics that insiders in Russian media easily recognize.

One person who finds the United States’ right-wing media ecosystem all too familiar is Peter Pomerantsev, who was born in the Soviet Union but fled and later settled in London. When Pomerantsev was in his 20s, he decided to return to Russia. He soon landed a plum job at the heart of Russian television production.

While Pomerantsev worked in entertainment TV, he regularly swapped stories with colleagues who were focused on “news” production— which was laced with state propaganda. Pomerantsev describes how they attended Friday meetings used to set Kremlin-backed news agendas for the following week.

Pomerantsev now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, and his latest book illuminates why propaganda is so effective at dividing us. Today, he watches American right-wing television news — particularly Fox News, Newsmax and OAN — with dismay. And he tells me that a career in Russian media would be perfect preparation for working at those networks.

“It’s the same game,” Pomerantsev explains. “It’s the same rhetorical tactics, the same intellectual tactics, the same psychological tactics.”

Specifically, Pomerantsev points to two major areas of strategic overlap. First, there’s a shared war on facts that tries to convince the viewer that accountability is a fool’s errand because true objectivity does not exist.

“There’s this kind of pop-postmodernism, where Sean Hannity will say things like objectivity doesn’t exist, everybody’s biased,” Pomerantsev says. He points to Hannity’s infamous interview with Ted Koppel, in which he contrasted his own style with what he sees as the charade of “objective” facts in other areas of the press. “I don’t pretend that I’m fair and balanced and objective,” Hannity bizarrely boasted.

“That’s exactly the same argument the Russians make,” Pomerantsev says. He recalls a famous phrase uttered by Dmitry Kiselev, a prime-time TV host who was also appointed by Vladimir Putin to run Kremlin’s international propaganda network, Rossiya Segodnya. “Objectivity is a myth that is proposed and imposed on us.”

Prominent Republicans have parroted that argument, mimicking the Russian apparatus by challenging the notion of objective truth. In one television appearance, Newt Gingrich argued that it doesn’t matter if crime is down if Americans “feel” that crime is up. As Gingrich put it, “The current view is liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are.”

That devaluation of facts inflames polarization in a particularly insidious way, because it allows a “choose your own reality” media culture. How can you compromise to solve problems or hold politicians accountable if you can’t even agree whether a problem or a scandal is real or not?

Pomerantsev sees another commonality between Fox News and Russian media. Both, he argues, treat news as entertainment, complete with characters designed to depict those who hold opposing viewpoints as buffoonish caricatures. “They turn everything into a Jerry Springer show. ... Essentially, Tucker Carlson has ‘idiot liberals’ on.” Fox, he says, likes to present extreme left-wingers whose positions can be easily caricatured; Russian TV uses cartoonish members of the opposition as objects of ridicule.

In both Russia and the United States, Pomerantsev argues, that kind of discourse creates a corrosive cynicism that erodes democracy. It forges partisan identities that are defined by an “us vs. them” mentality, reinforced with a destructive dose of conspiracy theories.

So, what’s the way out?

“The big mistake people make is to think: ‘What if we just give them the facts?’ It’s got nothing to do with that,” Pomerantsev says. “You’ve got to understand what you’re dealing with. They’re giving people a sense of identity, giving people meaning and giving people a way to interpret the world.”

To break the cycle, the United States needs better regulation and a shift in the economic model around cable news. Fox News, OAN and Newsmax’s prime-time style might be familiar to Russians, but it is utterly alien to Canadians, Britons or Germans. Most prime-time political shows in functional democracies are far more rational and restrained, partly because they face more robust regulation.

But we also need to ensure that it no longer pays to polarize. Advertisers should face more market pressure from consumers to ensure that they support only programming rooted in facts rather than dangerous conspiracy theories and tribalistic lies. The Kremlin might always back those who spread divisive propaganda, but Americans are free to push back against those who fund it.

None of this discounts the threat posed by Russia itself. Putin is trying to undermine our democracy. But by allowing the rise of media outlets that use Russian-style tactics to create destructive, long-lasting polarization, we’ve been doing the job even more effectively ourselves.

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