A CONFOUNDING aspect of today’s global conflicts is the use of soft power: propaganda, news, social media, cybermischief, deception, leaks and other means to influence hearts and minds and thereby prevail over an adversary. The digital age has greatly accelerated the importance and use of these techniques, and Russia has demonstrated a dark mastery of them, especially since its invasion of Ukraine three years ago. How should the West respond, and, more broadly, how can free and open societies answer propaganda from authoritarian regimes? Should America stoop to the same behavior? Or should free societies just hope that their existing news and social media will be a sufficient bulwark against the tide of falsehood and deliberate confusion?
An intriguing and important U.S. attempt at an answer was formally launched last week . Current Time television, a product of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, is a 24/7 Russian-language television network based in Prague and aimed at audiences inside Russia as well as the borderlands of the former Soviet Union. The content of Current Time is intended to provide “fair and accurate reporting, serving as a reality check on disinformation that is driving conflict in the region,” the network said. In other words, this is an attempt to beam straight talk into countries where state-backed propaganda is far more prevalent.
Russians get a large share of their news from television, and the state has an outsized role in controlling and running most broadcast and cable channels. (The online, independent TV Dozhd is an exception.) But Russians also flock to social media, where they can see Current Time video, which will also be available on a website or by satellite. Outside Russia, from the Baltics to Central Asia, there are millions more potential viewers, and many of them have had no Russian-language alternatives to Moscow’s TV broadcasting. They should welcome the straight talk.
Both organizations behind Current Time are funded by the U.S. government. The staffs of both VOA and RFE/RL are made up of professional journalists. They do not want to be U.S. propaganda tools, and they envision a television product that is fact-based and unflinching. A key to the success of Current Time will be whether the reports will be deemed credible by audiences that have been fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism in recent years. Breaking through to these viewers is a worthy goal, but it won’t be easy.
The Trump administration can help by keeping its hands off Current Time, avoiding the temptation to turn it into a U.S. propaganda machine. The idea is not to replicate well-funded Russian disinformation outlets such as RT and Sputnik. For its part, Congress has for some time been asking for a more robust answer to Russia’s information war. This is one attempt, using real news and straight programming and reflecting the highest and best values of our open society. Congress ought to make sure it is properly financed and politically unhindered.