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Russia's Media Machine Looks West

Russia's international news agency Sputnik's website: "Western Attacks on Russian Media Merely Prove That It Is Telling Truth"
Russia's international news agency Sputnik's website: "Western Attacks on Russian Media Merely Prove That It Is Telling Truth"

It's May 2 in Odesa and a doctor is trying desperately to rescue pro-Russian protesters -- more than 40 of whom will die -- trapped in the Ukrainian city's labor-union building.

"As a doctor I rushed to give help to the one who could be rescued, but I was stopped by pro-Ukrainian Nazi radicals," he writes on Facebook, using a slur repeated relentlessly by Russian public figures and media to describe Ukraine's new rulers following the February ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. "One of them pushed me rudely, promising that soon I and other Jews of Odesa are going to meet the same fate."

A gripping account, but a fake one. The Odesa "doctor" did not exist. The person who posted the story had used a photo of a dentist based 2,000 kilometers away in Russia's Karachai-Cherkessia Republic and the page soon disappeared.

No matter; the post had spread widely online and made its way into mainstream Western media with an opinion piece by journalist John Pilger in "The Guardian."

2014 was the year Kremlin-backed media went global. In Russia, state television painted a picture of a vengeful and immoral West encroaching dangerously on Russia's "historic" sphere of influence, while Moscow expanded foreign-language outlets like RT and created a new information agency to prompt what some have called a new "information war."

It is not clear if the Odesa doctor was an organic Internet fabrication or the result of the work of a growing number of Russian-paid "Internet trolls." But for Russian state news outlets, which appear at ease repeating Internet rumor or creating their own, it may be a distinction without a difference.

'Propaganda Is Now Journalism'

In 2014, a regular viewer of one of Russia's three main state television channels may have learned that Ukrainian soldiers crucified a 3-year-old boy in a public square in the eastern city of Slovyansk; or that Nazi-style concentration camps were being built to hold Russian-speakers in Ukraine's east; or that top Ukrainian officials were conspiring with Satanist lamb torturers.

They're fabrications, but some 50 percent of Russians -- among an estimated 94 percent who get their news from TV -- say they trust state television more than any other source, according to a poll released by the independent Levada Center earlier this year (the next most reliable source was friends, family, and neighbors, at 20 percent).

And Andrei Kondrashov, a host on the state-run Rossia TV channel, expressed a note of pride to RFE/RL's Russian Service when explaining state media's role in the merging of journalism and state messaging. "I wouldn't draw a strict line between these two notions, because in an age when we have two systems, two civilizations standing against each other, no one distinguishes one from the other because they merge into one," Kondrashov, said. "Now any propaganda in the media is essentially journalism."

The state-run narrative has long dominated at home but as Russia and the West face their worst crisis since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow has shown increased interest in messaging to the West as well.

In November, Dmitry Kiselyov, the country's propagandist in chief who earlier this year warned on a popular weekly program that Russia is the only nation in the world that could turn the United States into "radioactive dust," launched the Sputnik news agency, which he says will broadcast in 34 countries in 30 languages by the end of 2015.

At the same time, the budget for RT, the pro-Kremlin international television news channel formerly known as Russia Today, is to rise to 15.38 billion rubles (some $280 million) next year.

The outlets do not aim "to convince or persuade, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid, rather than agitated to action," say Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, in "The Menace Of Unreality," a report for the Princeton, New Jersey-based Institute of Modern Russia, released in November.

Winning Hearts And Minds?

Still, some wonder if the Kremlin's efforts abroad are actually effective.

"For the people who say it's a real danger, I wonder if they're being somewhat alarmist" says Kevin Rothrock, the project editor for RuNet Echo, a site that tracks the Russian Internet. "When it comes to really quantifying the strength or influence of this kind of propaganda no one's ever done this for me in a convincing way."

Although RT boasts that its broadcasts are available on over 630 million TV sets around the world, there is little data on actual viewership.

But Pomerantsev and Weiss point to coverage of the July Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 disaster as an example of how Moscow's strategy can work.

There is strong evidence that pro-Russian separatists were in possession of a BUK missile launcher thought to have been used to shoot down the plane, killing all 298 passengers and crew. But led in the West by RT, Russian news agencies have worked to sow doubt by broadcasting a string of easily debunked theories tying the disaster to the West and Ukraine.

The effort appears aimed not at convincing casual news viewers that one side or another is responsible for the downing of the plane, but at implanting the idea that it is still an open question.

Several small-scale efforts have sprung up since March, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, to push back against Moscow's efforts.

Yevhen Fedchenko, the director of Kyiv's Mohyla School of Journalism, founded, a website in English, Russian, and Ukrainian created to "refute distorted information and propaganda about events in Ukraine." He says sites like his should not work to "compete with the Russian propaganda machine," but to thoroughly report the news in as many places as possible.

Pomerantsev and Weiss call for a larger, coordinated strategy that would include a "disinformation charter" and "counter-disinformation editors" to push back against what they call the Kremlin's "weaponization of information."

"We're facing a challenge here that has not really been faced before," Weiss said on RFE/RL's Power Vertical podcast. "And I'm sorry to say that the Putin regime and its surrogates are incredibly adept at playing this game."

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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