Russia is using propaganda to create an alternate reality for Russian minorities in Eastern Europe that discredits democracy and could incite violence, analysts said at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Moscow devotes hundreds of millions of dollars annually to propaganda that is "flexible and skillfully adapted to the geography of the audience." The Kremlin’s programs include RT and Sputnik, state-funded news outlets aimed at Western Europe and the United States, as well as a variety of media platforms designed to influence the Russian population and ethnic Russian minorities in former Soviet states.
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Rather than persuade Americans and Europeans to accept the Russian government’s view of events, Aron said that RT and Sputnik instead seek to "devalue the notions of democratic transparency and accountability, to undermine confidence in objective reporting, and to litter the news with half-truths and quarter truths." They do this, he said, by capitalizing on Western media principles, such as leaving value judgments out of reporting, to spread disinformation and erode trust in the media.
Yet these Russian news outlets have achieved "paltry" ratings in Western democracies, which have "a highly competitive media environment that exposes people to a wide range of facts and interpretations," Aron told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation.
The Kremlin’s propaganda efforts have been more successful in the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe—home to millions of Russian-speaking minorities. Some harbor grievances against their home governments, which endorse a different national language, and have access to fewer alternative news sources outside of Moscow’s Russian-language programming.
Russian television is "viewed by millions of people, especially ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, outside Russia," Aron said.
Through the "weaponization of information," the Kremlin uses "news and analysis as a means of provoking strong negative emotions, potentially leading to hatred, incitement and, ultimately, the justification of violence," he added.
U.S. officials have accused Russia of supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine—where there is a large Russian-speaking population—in a conflict that has resulted in more than 8,000 deaths since last April. Given the far-reaching influence of Russian propaganda in Baltic countries such as Estonia and Latvia, officials now fear that Moscow could instigate violent incidents in those states that would serve as a pretext for Russian intervention.
One analyst in Estonia has said that Russia has created a "separate reality" for Russian speakers in the country that poses a challenge to the state’s democracy, according to Aron.
StopFake.org, a website created by a journalism school in Kiev, Ukraine, has exposed several examples of fake news stories from Russian outlets.
Last July, Channel One, one of Russia’s most popular television networks, interviewed a woman from eastern Ukraine who alleged that Ukrainian troops had a crucified the son of a pro-Russian fighter and killed his wife by tying her to a tank and dragging her through the streets. The woman said that several civilians in Sloviansk witnessed the event.
However, residents later told journalists from other news sites that they did not observe any beatings or executions and that Ukrainian forces were polite and professional. The woman interviewed by Channel One was also married to a separatist militant.
Just last month, Russian media and Russian-linked sites in Ukraine reported that Ukrainian troops and nationalist fighters would be sent to Syria to help the rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad, citing Ukrainian government documents. Moscow has sought to prop up Assad’s regimein recent weeks with a barrage of airstrikes against rebel groups, including some backed by the United States.
Yet the documents referenced in the Russian media reports contain several inaccuracies and appear to have been forged, according to StopFake.
Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute who researches Russian propaganda, said citizens in the Baltic countries, for example, have become cynical about all news sources, whether Russian or Western. But they tend to prefer the entertainment value and sensationalism on offer from the Kremlin.
"In a landscape where viewers trust no one, they are still most entranced by Russian television channels which, according to Latvian focus group respondents, ‘are emotionally attractive, because some news you watch as an exciting movie. You don’t trust it, but watch it gladly,’" Pomerantsev said.
Both Pomerantsev and Aron urged the U.S. government and civil society groups to provide more support to news sources such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that can counter Russian propaganda with local and narrative-based stories. The counter-propaganda efforts will require a long-term commitment, they said.
"From the sophisticated exploitation of Western media patterns and vocabulary to outright lies and crude fakes, the goal remains the same: to undermine the people’s trust in democratic politics and policies and in free and fair media," Aron said. "As this effort is vital to the maintenance of the present Russian regime, it will be with us for a long time."