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To inform, or disinform: Russia’s new propaganda war

Propaganda comes with a lot of myths and delusions, as the term has been widely overused in the past. Usually linked to rigid principles and a core ideology, it might seem inappropriate or inconsistent to use it nowadays, since we are overwhelmed by all kinds of theories, from the most conspiratorial to the more credible ones. Yet, we should not avoid the topic. As we are witnessing a new global-scale competition in the media sector, propaganda seems to be appearing once again. Western democracies, the cradle of countless independent newspapers, are witnessing a general crisis of confidence, general transition to the Internet and a declining quality of journalism.In light of such a crisis, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a new model of journalism is emerging. This model is characterised by a vertical chain of command, similar to military organisations, and an ambiguous attitude to the truth. The competition seems unequal; the latter type is becoming increasingly widespread and the traditional model of journalism, based upon a long tradition trust between the author and the reader, is gradually losing ground.

October 21, 2016 - Luc Maffre - Articles and Commentary


The new media fueled an information revolution and gained importance everywhere with the advent of the Internet, which allowed it to reach a significant number of people faster and cheaper. In Western democracies, where independence of the press has been guaranteed, the new media has been a helpful tool in exerting pressure on the state. However, in Russia, press freedom has been very limited.The tradition of opposition media was totally annihilated during the communist era and despite the hopes for the development of free media environment following the collapse of the USSR, Russia has followed the path of heavy propaganda. Recently, a new global strategy has been set in motion, linked to the notion of soft power.

President Putin himself recognised the concept of “weaponisation of information”’. In a 2014 interview, he declared: “The rapid progress of electronic media has made news reporting enormously important and turned it into a formidable weapon that enables public opinion manipulations. The intense media warfare has become a mark of the times, when certain nations attempt to monopolise the truth and use it in their own interests”. Since then, the so-called “weaponisation of the information” has become an essential tool of Russian foreign policy, and several specialists acknowledged that Russia has been using information as a weapon. The term “information warfare” was coined a while ago, taking its roots in the Cold War and the rise of communication technologies, however, “weaponisation of information” appears to be a rather new phenomenon.

“Weaponisation of information” is achieved through mass propaganda and disinformation. As Edward Lucas and Peter Pomerantsev describe it, “[Russian propaganda] has been growing in sophistication, intensity, reach and impact. Russian efforts are carefully orchestrated, thoughtfully targeted, generously funded and professionally produced”. At the core of this new kind of journalism (as propaganda is conducted by large media groups), the truth is not necessarily important and there is a strong sense of relativism. Since the Kremlin “exploits the idea that the ‘truth’ is a lost cause and that reality is essentially malleable”, there is no protection from an Orwellian world in which the people must believe all the facts emanating from the Party (in addition to forgetting everything else). The independent journalist is thus unable to perform their traditional watchdog role. One can therefore wonder what the impact of such a system is? What are the main characteristics of the Russian disinformation? What are the prospects for the future?

Origins: The Soviet dezinformatsiya

Russian disinformation takes its roots in the Soviet dezinformatsiya, whichconsisted of operations aiming at influencing the opinion-making process in the West through different fakes and forgeries. At the time in the US, under the Reagan administration, a working group was set up in order to fight this kind of disinformation and “exposing base falsehoods that no reasonable person would countenance as acceptable diplomatic discourse, as opposed to mere propaganda or persuasion”. For example, it was asserted that AIDS was a creation of the CIA.

Comparing Soviet and contemporary Russian disinformation is not fully irrelevant, although each of them serves a different purpose. In the USSR the ultimate goal of disinformation was to spread the same hegemonic ideology in every part of the globe. Today, the new Russian disinformation, a bit more volatile and scattered, does not seek to change our ideology, but with its high intensity is based upon what we might call a realpolitik.

Chris Walker, the executive director of the InternationalForum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, coined the expression Democracy Containment Doctrine. It means that authoritarian regimes are working with each other, to fight against Western democracies. This kind of realpolitikis visible in the recent improvement in the relationship between Turkey and Russia, characterised by very weak links and an ad hoc alliance. With new means, new organisation and new doctrine, contemporary Russian propaganda has taken a very different shape.

A diffuse and tailored propaganda

Various methods are currently being used by the Russian media in order to comply with the Kremlin’s orders. In this context, several independent organisations (such as Infowar, Stopfake) were established to fight against the phenomenon in different countries (particularly in Ukraine, where propaganda peaked) and a list of different methods used by the Kremlin has been put together. Russian disinformation is very active internally and externally; however, it can take various forms depending on a country.

Usually, according to Lucas and Pomerantsev, “The message is customized for particular markets, varies from country to country, and includes both local and foreign policy themes”. The final goal is to generate a state of confusion, by keeping the people distracted and passive. “Its aim is not to convince or persuade, but rather to undermine. Instead of agitating audiences into action, it seeks to keep them hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid”, the authors argue. Therefore, Russian disinformation is protean and not homogeneous. Different narratives may clash depending on the targeted area. Disinformation can take any form if it helps to spread an atmosphere of confusion and fear, and the new Russian media have so far been very successful.

A powerful dialectical

Over the past few years, Russian TV has mastered the art of forgery. In 2014, Perviy Kanal reached a peak when it broadcasted a story about a boy crucified by the National Guard of Ukraine. The story was made up from scratch and even though the channel issued an apology a few days later, the information had already spread.  In its propaganda, the Russian media have been using a Second World War-like rhetoric. As the report based on Boris Nemtsov’s findings reads: “the Ukrainian government became the ‘Bandera-ite’ [supporters of Stepan Bandera] and ‘Nazi’ government, and, just as it had done from 1941 to 1945, Russia was once again fighting fascism”.

Relying on such rhetoric has been beneficial for the Kremlin, since anyone who disagrees to fight the Nazis (whether real or imagined) is automatically an enemy of Russia. The media have created an atmosphere of hatred towards the imagined enemies designed by the Kremlin and it has become extremely easy to discredit the opposition in this way.

On the international level, the situation is slightly different. There are no guiding principles, except to spread fear in order to influence public opinion. In this regard, the Russian media largely select and repeat the news, fostering a climate of confusion and fear. Topics such as terrorist attacks, problems of the integration of Muslims and tensions between communities are broadly reported. For instance, the favorite topic of Russian media reporting on France is immigration, a deeply dividing issue. By doing so, the Russian media hope to foster the rise of forces supporting Kremlin’s positions.They also seek to provide an anti-US exchange platform for the most popular activists, including Julian Assange, Pepe Escobar or Edward Snowden.  Having access to vast resources, RT even created The Julian Assange Show, a format close to a TV show. One of the aims has been to spread a cool, young and dynamic image of Russia as a state protecting freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, against the US imperialist ogre.

Finally, one should also take into account the “packaging” of the information. The great strength of the Russian media in comparison with their Western counterparts is their unlimited resources, but they also rely on better storytelling. A study showed that Bulgarian news often relied on the Russian media concerning the crash of MH17 flight, simply because of better storytelling. Also, by offering a lot of footage of the war in Syria, Russian media have more to offer compared to other news channels.

Assessing the impact of Russian propaganda

The intensity of propaganda remains impossible to assess, due to the small amount of information disclosed by the media. According to StopFake.org, a fact-checking website, “only those fakes that were debunked by StopFake.org amount to more than 500 cases in just two years”. In this respect, a study conducted in 2014, is quite telling about the intensity of propaganda in Russia: “The number of mentions of the Ukrainian nationalist organization Right Sector in the Russian media at a certain point significantly exceeded mentions of Putin’s United Russia party– despite the fact that Right Sector garnered less than 2 per cent of the votes cast in  the Ukrainian elections”. The name “Right Sector” was mentioned approximately 20,000 times, while the United Russia around two times less. It is impossible to precisely describe the effects of such a propaganda on the population, but president Putin clearly managed to annihilate Russian opposition over the years.

In the European Union, many believe that there is no such a thing as a visible Russian propaganda outside of Russia. Yet, several intellectuals have been trying to warn people against Russian links and influence in Europe. An investigation conducted by the Guardian’s journalists revealed a number of such links, especially in the United Kingdom. In Germany, Russian propaganda is trying to target an estimated three to four million Russian-speakers, heavily relying on the refugee issue. As Boris Reitschuster explains, the idea behind the propaganda is to destabilise the EU in order to deal with each country as a separate entity.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a lack of studies on the topic, especially in Western and Central Europe. Moreover, it remains difficult to assess the real impact of Russian disinformation, given the intensity of the phenomenon.

Perspectives for the future

The Russian authorities perfectly managed the transition from the print to the web. In fact, a deregulated information market and a growing relativism have proven to be helpful for Russian propaganda. As Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev argue, “The Kremlin’s approach is based on searching out and exploiting systemic weak spots and soft underbellies in the dominant liberal concept of globalization, providing good a sort of X-ray of the vulnerabilities of 21st-century liberal democracy”.

When talking about perspectives for the future, a few factors need to be taken into account. First are resources. In 2013, Russia Today claimed to have a budget of $300 million and, according to Weiss and Pomerantsev, “the channel is especially popular online, where it claims to have received over a billion hits, which would make it the most-watched news channel on the net”. At the same time, the Western European and US media are facing serious economic troubles.  It is likely that the Kremlin will maintain the same strategy in the near future.

Second, Russian media challenge the traditional model of journalism based on trust between the medium and the reader/viewer, as there is no incentive to present the truth. For instance, a few months ago, the largest TV network Rossiya 24 heavily manipulated interviews and footage from France in order to give the impression that some protesters opposed the European Union and migration. This kind of manipulation has been a strong advantage for the Russian media, not responsible for the quality of information they disclose.

Third, the overall political context is important; the European Union appears weak and divided and does not provide any clear answer to various problems such as the migration crisis, the Brexit, the economic crisis, the war in Syria, etc. This lack of common policy is a breeding ground for division and hatred. For President Putin, it makes more sense to deal with separate countries rather than to face a unified stance of the European Union.

Finally, President Putin understood the power of the new media and television very early on. We must be realistic, since most of the Western efforts to counter the phenomenon of disinformation have actually been counterproductive. The novelty in the new Russian disinformation strategy is its universality; unconstrained by any heavy ideology, it has no particular form or limits. Reacting to this type of disinformation is complex, especially if one does not understand how it works. Even though a few initiatives were launched by the European Union and NATO, the Kremlin is gaining popularity in the collective imagination in a world weary of American hegemony. Moreover, the contemporary Russian video productions are not any less attractive than those of Hollywood, and the Kremlin has perfectly internalised the type of communication that appeals to a young audience. As a study by the European Endowment for Democracy noted: “Respondents in focus groups among ethnic Russian audiences in Latvia said that news on Russian TV channels is ‘emotionally attractive, because some news you watch as an exciting movie. You don’t trust it, but watch it gladly’”. Thus thevirtual world wins over reality, and it is likely that this trend will continue.

Luc Maffre is an MA student of political science at Warsaw University.

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