Russia’s flagship dezinformatsiya organ is RT (previously marketed as Russia Today), a massively popular cable news network seen on TV sets around the world. RT broadcasts from some 22 satellites and over 230 operators; roughly 644 million people in more than 100 countries have access to it. RT is the second most watched foreign news channel in America after the BBC, boasting 85 million viewers in the U.S. It broadcasts four channels in Arabic, English, German, and Spanish, with physical presences in Washington, New York, London, Berlin, Gaza, Cairo, and Baghdad. It is available in 2.7 million hotel rooms globally. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated unequivocally that RT was created to “try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” In 2015 the Kremlin increased RT’s $300 million budget by 40%, and expanded its reach using other state run outlets to complement RT – such as the use of Rossia Segodnya in Tajikistan and Belgrade.
The Kremlin sees RT as perhaps its most useful tool in a public relations and public diplomacy war with the West. Despite its popularity, RT is roundly seen as a Kremlin mouthpiece by other more reputable outlets; the German paper Der Spiegel last year criticized RT’s “chaotic mixture of conspiracy theories and crude propaganda” while the New York Times characterized the channel’s coverage as “a mixture of legitimate perspectives, half-truths and outright propaganda.”
But is the West’s commitment to freedom of the press well suited to countering Russia’s disinformation campaign? Western news outlets aim to cover all sides of a story, to be as objective as possible, and to rely on all sources. This has helped news sources like RT to be thought of as a credible source, alongside more reputable ones. Western viewers needs to be able to differentiate between the state-run propaganda of a hostile foreign country and the free exercise of speech safeguarded by the First Amendment; support of outlets like Radio Free Europe, committed to supporting democratic values around the world, can help offset the damage done by Russian disinformation.
Russia also uses different approaches in different places. In those countries that already harbor anti-American sentiments, “Russia is deliberately spreading its poisonous propaganda to neighboring countries through the Russian mass media, briefings, and conferences”, discrediting the United Stated and blaming supposed American imperialism. It also uses this propaganda to keep together “Russia’s de facto anti-American coalition with countries such as Iran and Venezuela.” In poorer, less developed countries Russia, is presented as a savior, willing to invest in a struggling economy, as President Vladimir Putin said in an interview about Latin America -“we will… provide Latin Americans with practical assistance in tackling new challenges… and will expand cooperation during relief efforts.”
Russia’s model of dezinformatsiya offers an example for other authoritarian regimes seeking to influence Western perceptions. Even worse, it can shape the way we think about ourselves, subtly changing western values and politics. We must be on guard against this post-Soviet dezinformatsiya, calling attention to the worst abuses of the truth and countering Russian media by supporting more reliable and truthful sources. Russia’s slick propaganda may seem like a harmless relic of the Cold War, but in truth it is a high-tech weapon being used to great effect against the United States and its allies.