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West Losing ‘Information War’ With Russia

Congressman: U.S. broadcasting ‘in disarray’

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / AP
• April 16, 2015 5:00 am

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The West is losing a vital information war against Russia as the Kremlin employs a global strategy to distort reporting about its destabilization of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, media analysts told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The Kremlin now wields a vast media apparatus to distort information, promote conspiracy theories, and obfuscate observers about the crisis in Ukraine, where Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula last February and has since supported an insurgency in the eastern part of the country.

Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and author of the book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, said in congressional testimony that the Kremlin can now reach 30 million Russians outside the country with multiple media platforms—including in Ukraine and NATO countries such as Estonia and Latvia. U.S. and Western officials have raised concerns that Russia could use these outlets to incite ethnic tensions and foment instability in former Soviet states.

The news channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today, offers its content in English, Spanish, German, and Arabic and reaches a global audience of 600 million. When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down last July over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine and 298 people were killed, RT published stories alternately blaming NATO and Ukrainian fighter jets—despite all available evidence pointing to Russian missiles launched by the separatists.

Other Russian websites reported claims by rebel leaders that the passengers were already dead before the plane departed. RT has also worked with state broadcasters in Syria and Argentina to further its global reach.

Additionally, the Kremlin sponsors a radio and Internet news service called Sputnik that plans to disseminate content in 30 different languages. Companies known as "troll farms" are funded by Russia and have employees solely devoted to saturating Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms with the Kremlin’s message, Pomerantsev said.

"This is not merely an ‘information war,’ in other words, but a ‘war on information,’" he said. "If the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate. Sooner or later, the public will give up trying to understand what happened, or even bothering to listen."

Pomerantsev said research by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) indicates that European audiences have lost trust in both Russian and Ukrainian news sources and have embraced a number of conspiracy theories. The Kremlin is allying with both far-right and far-left parties across the continent to sow instability.

Russia’s brand of information warfare predates the Ukraine crisis, Pomerantsev said. An early example occurred in Estonia in 2007.

"When Estonian authorities decided to move a Soviet war memorial from the center of the city, Russian media went into a frenzy, accusing the Estonians of fascism," he said. "Russian vigilante groups started riots in the center of Tallinn. A massive cyber attack disabled Estonia’s government and banking sectors. Moscow was sending a message: despite its membership of NATO and the EU, Estonia was still vulnerable, and the Kremlin could cripple it even before Estonia had a chance to invoke NATO’s Article 5."

To counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s "weaponization of information," Pomerantsev urged Western support for a variety of independent news sources, including counter-propaganda sites such as Stop Fake and The Interpreter, media investigations of the Kremlin’s funding and corruption networks, and higher quality journalism in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

While Putin is reportedly spending more than $600 million annually on propaganda, Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) said U.S. international broadcasting "is in disarray." Royce noted that programming led by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has failed to attract audiences in Eastern Europe, and both the leaders of the BBG and Voice of America have recently resigned.

"What U.S.-backed news and information that does get through is a thimble of journalistic credibility in an ocean of Russian-driven news distortion," Royce said.

"The American people need much more from [the BBG] if we’re going to respond to the rapidly evolving media environment and better secure the long-term security interests of the United States," he added.

Royce sponsored legislation with Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) in the last Congress that would have substantially altered U.S. broadcasting overseas, including the creation of two main news agencies with new leadership structures. He said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Tuesday he would soon introduce a similar bill.

Published under: Russia, Vladimir Putin