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The whole pravda about Russian propaganda

Are articles about Russian propaganda now more widely read than Russian propaganda itself? A roundtable discussion. Русский

Dmitry Kiselev gives a presentation about the Sputnik news agency in 2014. (c) Alexey Filippov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Russian engineers prepare to investigate whether the Americans really landed on the moon. Sergey Lavrov declares that US diplomats were frequently among the protesters on Moscow’s streets. These claims aren’t from the draft of a forgotten Tom Clancy novel – they’re the reality of today’s newsfeeds.

Over the past few weeks, the Russian word kompromat [incriminating material] has entered the English language alongside babushka, vodka and sputnik. Alongside the scandal of “fake news”, European states are even more wary of Russian interference on their electoral processes. How should Europe respond? How should any state approach pro-Kremlin propaganda being broadcast to its citizens? And aren’t we exaggerating the force of the “Kremlin’s hidden hand”? 

To address these questions and more, a roundtable discussion was held in early January at the Stereoscope journalists’ club, moderated by Moritz Gathmann (Ostpol, RTVD, Spiegel Online) and featuring: 

Alexey Kovalev (Noodleremover, Russia), Vladimir Soloviev (NewsMaker, Moldova), Gemma Pörzgen (independent journalist, Germany) and Vitautas Bruveris (Irytas, Lithuania).

Moritz Gathmann: Everyone has their own opinion on the extent of Russian media influence on your countries. How strong do you think it is? Can it be measured?

Gemma Pörzgen: I don’t think you can generalise. It’s different in every country. In the case of Germany, for example, I think the problem is grossly exaggerated. Some so-called “experts” have blown it up out of all proportion. There’s a lack of proper research on the subject, that could provide an objective view. There’s a lot of propaganda around propaganda, if you see what I mean.

There’s a lot of propaganda around Russian propaganda

Vytautas Bruveris: The Lithuanian political establishment and media sphere all agree that it is an “information war” or “information aggression”. And they’re not using the terms “war” and “aggression” metaphorically – for them, it’s literal. The Russians are getting ready for armed aggression, “preparing the ground”. And this “war” will be total, 24/7, and waged not only through the airwaves, but everywhere – from social media to any vehicle for cultural influence. And that implies that, potentially at least, the effect will be very dangerous. I must say I don’t share their view: I think it’s been exaggerated in psychological, ideological and political terms. In the first place, you can’t regard either the quality or the quantity of Russian propaganda in Lithuania or aimed at Lithuania as “war” – its real influence on the government and population is marginal.

It’s not hard to measure this influence, although the measurements are, of course, fairly relative. The most obvious one is public opinion polls and observation of what proportion and elements of the public hold pro-Kremlin and anti-Lithuanian, anti-European and indeed anti-democratic views on the main political questions of the day. I believe it’s between a quarter and a third of voters. That’s a lot, of course. But how much can be put down to Russian propaganda? I think the main thing behind this pro-Kremlin mood is a lack of government policy on integration and dialogue with those social and ethnic groups who are least loyal to Lithuania and the west in general, so give their loyalty to the Russian regime.

Graffiti near the regional headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, April 2014. (c) Igor Golovniev / Demotix. All rights reserved.

Alexey Kovalev: “Its real influence on its government and people is marginal” – that’s a really important point. I’m a close observer of how propaganda works in Russia itself and I can say that since 2014 its intensity has fallen rather than increased. Nonetheless, 2016 was the year when Russian propaganda became a global phenomenon, feared by everyone. Although at the same time, whenever it’s subjected to objective assessment – TV ratings, say – it’s clear that it has no real influence on public opinion. The UK rating for RT [a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government – ed.] hasn’t, for example, moved from its previous figure of a few hundredths of one percent. It’s an absurd situation; more people are reading articles about the danger of Russian propaganda than are reading the propaganda itself.

Vytautas Bruveris: I wouldn’t agree about the situation in Russia itself. On the contrary, I have the impression that this real struggle between the regime and the public for keeping it in a state of mobilisation and aggressive isolation is hotting up. And it is also intensifying in the most influential countries of the west, the Kremlin’s real targets. But I agree that its propaganda influence is exaggerated. Why is that the case? The answer is simple: it’s has become a convenient way for western political elites (who are scared to death of "the rise of populism and far-right extremism") to discount their own failures, crises and impotence. There: we have the enemy and chief culprit! We fight [Russian propaganda] and all our problems will be over.

It’s an absurd situation; more people read articles on the danger of Russian propaganda than the propaganda itself

Alexey Kovalev: I’m just talking about the figures – state TV channel budgets, both domestic and international, are being cut, projects are being wound down and so on, although RT has just had an increase in its funding for French Language broadcasts. But it’s important to distinguish here between channels serving a purely domestic audience (where the amount of propaganda is indeed absurd) and those targeted at Russian speakers (not necessarily ethnic Russians) living in other parts of the world, or foreign language broadcasting aimed purely at international readers and viewers. This last category, however, throws up some interesting figures: if you look at RT’s site, you will see that its largest visitor group consists of people living in Russia itself.

Television presenter Tina Kandelaki speaks to Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, at a “Pionerskaya Chteniya” meeting in 2011. (c) Ekaterina Chesnokova / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Moritz Gathmann: But what’s the situation in Moldova?

Vladimir Soloviev: The most popular TV channels in Moldova are Russian ones: Channel One, RTR Moldova and NTV, in that order. I don’t have any up to date figures for specific programmes, but when I looked into it a couple of years ago, the most popular were “Pole Chudes” [literally, Field of Miracles – ed.], based on the U.S. game show Wheel of Fortune, the “Let them Talk” talk show and other entertainment programmes. I don’t think anything’s changed since.

Moritz Gathmann: But I heard that the [Russian] channels themselves aren’t available, and are even banned, in Moldova. Moldovan channels just rebroadcast part of the content, most of it entertainment, right?

Vladimir Soloviev: Yes, local channels do rebroadcast Russian ones. But it’s not all just entertainment. Here, for example, is the schedule of Prime, Moldova’s most popular channel, which rebroadcasts Russia’s Channel One (Romanian link).

Alexey Kovalev: What’s happening with Russian language broadcasting on Moldovan State TV? I ask because at the start of 2016, German journalists kept phoning me about the “Operation Liza” case and evidently I was the first person to disclose that there were hundreds of thousands or even millions of Russian speakers living in Germany and that they all watched Channel One and had no contact with German media. Not all of them, of course – I wouldn’t want to exaggerate. I’ve watched Russian language forums on German TV, and the most common question asked on them was how to access Russian TV channels (“my granny / mother-in-law wants to know”). The usual answer was – don’t bother watching them, just sit your granny in front of the National Geographic channel and the atmosphere at home will be much healthier.

If your granny asks how she can watch Russian TV channels, just sit her in front of the National Geographic channel – the atmosphere at home will be much healthier

Vladimir Soloviev: Here we have the Moldova 1 public TV channel where you can watch the news and some other programmes in Russian, all locally produced.

Moritz Gathmann: but as far as I know, it also shows Romanian channels, doesn’t it? But just business news?

Vladimir Soloviev: Yes. The amusing thing is that Prime, the most popular channel - the one that rebroadcasts Russia’s Channel One – is owned by Vlad Plahotniuc, the country’s most prominent oligarch and leader of the ruling Democratic Party. He and his party colleagues talk a lot about “Russian propaganda” and the lack of an alternative to joining the EU. But this doesn’t stop them rebroadcasting this notorious “propaganda” and earning money for it.

Alexey Kovalev: But doesn’t Moldovan state TV’s take on controversial issues – Crimea, for example – sometimes contradict Russian channels’ output?

Vladimir Soloviev: If I bothered to pay close attention to their content, I could tell you. But I don’t. If you want to know Moldova’s official position on things like Crimea, I would say that it’s not unanimous, because the recently elected president Igor Dodon regards Crimean as Russian, whereas the PM doesn’t.

In Moldova, all the channels are run by people directly or indirectly connected with politics, and (whether pro-western or pro-Russian) used as weapons in internal political battles

But I also need to say that Moldova doesn’t have any state owned TV. There’s a public TV channel. But in general all the channels are run by people directly or indirectly connected with politics, and are used as weapons in internal political battles. And both the “Russian tanks”, spewing diesel fumes on the outskirts of Chișinău and the “Gayropean paedophiles” are equally active in this battle for hearts and minds.

Alexey Kovalev: It’s also important to stress the fact that there isn’t any state-owned TV, just a public TV channel, because no one in Russia seems to understand the difference between state and public media. Even many educated liberals think the BBC is the same kind of animal as Channel One – a propaganda mouthpiece that receives direct instructions from the British government. But how does this Moldovan public channel work – to be blunt, how closely does it reflect the public mood and discussions on controversial issues? How much does the government interfere, openly or otherwise, in its work?

Russian media outlets are watched across the world. Opinion remains divided as to their real influence on political developments.

Vladimir Soloviev: It interferes, but… it’s tactful about it. At NewsMaker, we recently published in detail on how Moldova’s TV market works (Russian link).

Moritz Gathmann: But if the influence of Russian language media is not as great as we think, who’s hyping it up, and why? And what’s the result? As far as I know, Lithuania has continued its ban on Russian media.

Vytautas Bruveris: I’ve already told you why this “battle” is intensifying in the west and even turning into a new trend. Of course, there’s nothing new about that – it happens each time the west is facing a crisis, whether internal or external. Military and political circles have their own interests, while the media recognise the public’s need for an overarching explanation for everything and/or is simply sexy. It’s just the same in Lithuania, except that here you also find a provincial need to be in the front line of the battle for civilisation and have a decisive historic mission, just like 25 years ago.

Alexey Kovalev: Because the battle with “Russian propaganda” has already turned into a fully-fledged industry in which many people, including myself, have had successful careers. It would be stupid to give them up because of the negligibility of our field of study. That’s one reason.

The battle with “Russian propaganda” has turned into a fully-fledged industry in which many have had successful careers

Vladimir Soloviev: I also see it as an industry, with budgets that need to be spent. In Moldova the subject is a best seller on the internal political market. In 2015 the current mayor of Chișinău (and deputy chair of the right wing Liberal Party) won his third election thanks to the fact that he spent most of his election campaign fighting Russian tanks. But there’s nothing new about the city looking like the site of some kind of urban warfare.

Gemma Pörzgen: You’re right there, Alexey. There are so many people in the market who used to cover security issues and have now lost their jobs. But now they’ve seen the chance to get back into business. There are also lobbying groups such as the Atlantic Council, who have started running conferences all over Europe on the same subject: “The rising influence of Russian propaganda”.

Alexey Kovalev: The second reason is that Russia’s standard reaction to anything is to ban something, so it’s really amusing to observe from Russia how the most anti-Putin governments behave in exactly the same way as Putin himself. A ban is such a simple response to complex questions that no one wants to answer.

Vytautas Bruveris: Yes, they do that, but let’s be clear and accurate in our interpretation of it. Media? What media? This is the propaganda of a dictatorship. But I’m still against a total ban on it. I don’t even know why, it’s just an instinctive thing. I would prefer for all these channels just to be punished as and when – they break the law, they get a clobbering. So far, that is what’s happening, but the pressure just to ban the lot is of course constantly increasing.

Alexey Kovalev: “a clobbering” – isn’t that what dictators do?

Vytautas Bruveris: Don’t twist my words. If propaganda spreads lies and foments ethnic and social hatred and war and clearly breaks Lithuanian media law (which is among the most liberal in Europe) in other ways, then it should be penalised. By legal means.

Alexey Kovalev: But then Russian propaganda says exactly the same thing about the Lithuanian (Latvian, Estonian) media.

Vytautas Bruveris: But that’s ridiculous and, in any case, totally outside the bounds of our discussion. Are we now going to discuss whether Russian state-owned media are right about their Baltic counterparts and what they consider illegal about them?

Alexey Kovalev: Why not? Even the most blatant propaganda is not 100% fabricated (the famous “crucified boy” hoax was a rare exception). And it doesn’t invent issues and contradictions – it merely presents those that already exist, albeit through a distorting mirror. So if Channel One or “Vesti Nedeli” [a popular round-up of the week’s news – ed] is telling viewers about horrifying infringements of Russian-speakers’ rights in the Baltic states, neo-Nazi marches and NATO incursions, and their Russian speaking viewers take all this in and agree with it, it might be a good idea to understand their motivation.

A ban is such a simple response to complex questions that no one wants to answer

Vladimir Soloviev: I find the question of our home-grown Moldovan propaganda much more relevant. It sidetracks public debate towards “bloody Putin”, the “damned Yankees” and “Gayrope” and away from our real problems. And everyone’s happy – each politician has their own furrow to plough. Pro-Russian left wingers fight with Brussels to defend the traditional family; pro-western right wingers fight with the treacherous Kremlin over European integration. And it’s all been going on for ages.

Alexey Kovalev: It’s interesting how “bloody Putin” and “Gayrope” somehow go together in people’s minds. In Russia, you have to choose who to fight – either “bloody Putin” or “Gayrope” – and we would recommend you to choose the former.

Vladimir Soloviev: Interesting isn’t the word. Everything’s interesting here. And there’s no problem with freedom of speech. The only people with problems are the independent media, who are really short of cash. The marketplace has turned into a monopoly, and that includes advertising. NTV Moldova (owned by the Russian socialists) has traditional family values. Prime (owned by Channel One) has “bloody Putin”. It’s what’s called balance.

Alexey Kovalev: Speaking of which, I’ve just been looking at the traffic on three versions of Sputnik [an international media brand owned by the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya – ed.] – Moldovan, Latvian and Lithuanian. The Moldovan site is getting the most hits – 700,000 a month (very few for Russia, but a lot for Moldova). The Lithuanian site gets 250,000 a month – a direct consequence of the ban (it was getting less than 100,000 before), and there’s evidently something wrong with the Latvian one, because all their traffic measurement figures are showing statistical inaccuracies.

Moritz Gathmann: And what’s that about?

Vladimir Soloviev: Well, its content is pretty tabloid. Take a look at this. Or here’s another example. How can you not measure the traffic?

But if you look at the number of subscribers to the Moldovan Sputnik on Facebook, there are very few – only 3,000. I don’t know about Odnoklassniki [a popular Russian social media site – ed.] – I’m not on that. But Facebook is really popular in Moldova – more popular than Twitter.

The content of television newscasts over the past few years has rapidly deteriorated into garbage on the air. Photo CC-by-SA-2.0: David Stillman / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Alexey Kovalev: That’s cool – so it’s pure clickbait, with no connection to promoting a political position.

Vladimir Soloviev: No, there is a connection. But I’m afraid that if you compare the clickability of political material with articles about prostitutes, the prostitutes will always come out on top.

Moritz Gathmann: So then I’m interested in the question, “What is to be done?” Nothing? There are a number of options: the well-known EU Disinformation Review; there’s also the proposal by the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) to create a content generation factory and build a Russian language rival to Russia’s state media on the basis of existing independent media, or there’s simply a ban on Russia media, from Sputnik to Channel One.

Gemma Pörzgen: Some of the ideas in the European Foundation for Democracy’s report made good sense. It seems to me that our first priority is to support journalism and media criticism, which is not yet very well known in many countries. The general public should be able to use the media wisely and distinguish between facts and bullshit. The media themselves should also be more honest and, for example, control their use of PR material, including “native advertising”, which is also propaganda. In other words, the war on propaganda should be about more than just denouncing one lobbying group and ignoring others. 

In today’s world it’s impossible to “prohibit” any information, as its prohibition will only make it more enticing

Alexey Kovalev: To the question “What is to be done?” I would firstly like to answer “start by taking a look at myself” and asking myself whether I am blameless in this respect, or whether I sometimes try to make inadequate facts fit into a previously arrived at conclusion and so on. I’m not pointing the finger, I’m literally talking about myself – I had a look at the contents of my own site over a year and realised why people were saying that “it’s the same old propaganda, only the other way around”. So if that doesn’t change, no “content factory” can be of any use. The ideologisation of fact checking is only leading to a wider gap between the talkers and the listeners, and people will just be constantly accusing one another of “propaganda” and “fake news” (as is already the case).

I can certainly tell you what shouldn’t happen, and that’s option No 3. In today’s world it’s impossible to “prohibit” any information, as its prohibition will only make it more enticing, as happened with the Latvian Sputnik site. And then there is the side effect, that any ineffective ban just plays into the hands of Russian propagandists. As it is, the editor in chief of RT and Russia Today Margarita Simonyan meticulously collects every article on “the dangers of Russian propaganda”, translates them and publishes them accompanied by triumphant commentaries of the “see how scared they are of us” type, and I have no doubt that her budget for next year will depend on the number of hysterical articles published about RT, and her personally.

Moritz Gathmann: What do you mean by “the ideologisation of fact checking”?

Alexey Kovalev: It’s about how sites like EU Disinformation or Polifact rate Trump and Clinton’s answers to the same question, and give Clinton a “mostly true” and Trump a “mostly false”, although they both gave more or less the same answer.

Or you can take a British example – the Brexit story was covered by two fact checking sites, infacts.org and fullfact.org, the first clearly “partisan” (i.e. it supported the “Remain” faction) and the second more neutral and objective. The first failed both in terms of traffic and in general, because its side lost. And I know why that happened – it should have been trying to sway the other side’s supporters, but instead it portrayed pro-Brexit politicians as goblins sitting on dustbins and so on. And the audience it was trying to reach was naturally put off by this. That’s what I meant by the ideologisation of fact checking – the supposition that “our side” couldn’t be wrong.

If you’re accused of being the mouthpiece of the FSB and the CIA at the same time, it means you’re doing everything right

Vladimir Soloviev: I can give you another example – our NewsMaker site. Initially it was openly funded by the US State Department, then by the EED and now also by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Unlike Sputnik, we can’t boast of 700,000 visits to our site per month, but we know that we are a source of information that people believe. And we just go on doing our job – to inform. There is a demand for authenticated information. Every now and then we do a kind of StopFake exercise, or a critique, if you like: we take a high-profile but untrue story and explain what is wrong with it. And our readers always thank us for it.

Moritz Gathmann: But can such a project be commercially successful?

Vladimir Soloviev: Let’s start at the end. We’ve had very little commercial success so far. We’ve been going for two years. We launched ourselves into the height of the regional crisis on all fronts in August 2014, and are still there. Also, as I have written before, the marketplace has turned into a monopoly, and that includes advertising. Of course there is a chance. And they do regularly read us.

Moritz Gathmann: But surely the (supposed) fact that “they are bankrolled by the State Department” doesn’t mean that your readers see you as pro-West and “for hire”?

Alexey Kovalev: In Russia that would certainly be a discrediting factor. Even amongst our loyal readership, let alone those who are less loyal. I’m funding the project out of my own pocket and all I hear every day is that I’m “a State Department whore”.

Vladimir Soloviev: To some extent that’s the case here. Commentaries on our work regularly end with the remark, “well, we know where they’re coming from; they have the State Department behind them”. But I start from the fact that, in the first place, no State Department has anything do with our editorial policies. When Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland gave our villain-in-chief the red carpet treatment, we wrote about it – they were playing a “he may be a bastard but he’s our bastard” game. And in the second place, no one with the facts at their disposal has ever been able to justify any accusation of bias at us. The proof of that is we get flak from both sides – we’re run now by Moscow, now the State Department, or sometimes by Moscow on State Department money.

Alexey Kovalev: Thanks for your answer – now I can be sure that when you’re accused of being the mouthpiece of the FSB and the CIA at the same time, it means you’re doing everything right.

Perhaps our only hope is in the Russian dictatorship itself – that in the end, it will fall apart, screw itself up and collapse

Moritz Gathmann: Vytautas, what’s your take on your Lithuanian “elves’” “battle with the trolls” that we recently read about in the Washington Post?

Vytautas Bruveris: That was a bit of private enterprise. I suspect, of course, that it couldn’t have happened without help from state and security structures, but still, anyone living in a free country can amuse themselves as they wish. Yes, we have bots and trolls in our FaceBook and comments on our main portals. And they obviously do their job. But their effect, so far as I can see, is minimal, as is the “fight” with them. But that’s not what we’re here for today. It’s just a bit of showing off, exhibitionism.

I’ve got three points to make. The first is that all Ministries of Truth and other state bodies supposedly combating propaganda but in fact spreading it are bullshit, a meaningless waste of taxpayers’ money and a way for politicians, state officials, military and other propagandists to indulge in self-aggrandisement. And so are the “correct” media. And the main thing is that this is a direct infringement of the basic principles of democracy.

The second is that there is a problem, albeit one less apocalyptic than it is presented. The Kremlin will continue its attempts, both open and covert, to influence the internal social and political processes of the principal Western countries, and in the first place exploit these countries’ internal problems – chiefly migration and terrorism – to meet these ends. That much is obvious, and must be resisted. And strong independent media remain our best means of directly deconstructing and analysing both Russian propaganda and Russia’s regime as a whole. After that, we need a strong and independent political elite, and a critically and democratically minded society. And so on, from A to Z.

And my third point: I realise that we can’t expect any positive change of that kind in our societies in the near future. It will probably only get worse. Which means that our only hope is in the Russian dictatorship itself – that in the end, as always, it will fall apart, screw itself up and collapse. There’s no alternative!

Moritz Gathmann: Thank you all for this frank discussion.

Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes. 

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About the author

Moritz Gathmann is a German freelance journalist who writes on Russia and the post-Soviet space for Ostpol, RTVD and Spiegel Online. He is also the coordinator of N-Ost’s Stereoscope project.

Gathmann is joined in discussion here by Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev (creator of Noodleremover.ru), Vladimir Soloviev (founder of Moldova’s NewsMaker.md), the independent German journalist Gemma Pörzgen, and Vytautas Bruveris of Lithuania’s Irytas.


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