Russia and the Media as an Information War Tool
Carl von Clausewitz, an early 19th century Prussian general, once said that war is an extension of politics.1 In the modern era, the line between the two has been inexplicably blurred. The internet age has brought with it new and changed forms of warfare; in particular, information warfare is of new importance. Information warfare (IW) is a blanket term that can include different methods ranging from cyber-attacks against internet infrastructure, to espionage of poorly guarded sensitive material, to spreading a certain view through the media. It may also be known as information or psychological operations.2 For the purposes of this paper, IW explicitly refers to the propaganda element. No longer are the generals of information warfare solely censoring productions and jamming radio signals from abroad to attempt to control the image that their populace receives. The propaganda of revolutionary foreign policy has evolved. Russia openly views information warfare as a critical component of soft power, and has underlined the importance of using the media as a tool of “soft propaganda” for controlling the information environment; its most recent and seemingly innocuous weapon is its state-owned international news outlet, RT – formerly known as Russia Today. To understand this new use of media as a weapon, the theory behind RT must be examined, along with the outlet's status, its content and critique, along with the rebuttal of its defenders.
Russian Professor Aleksandr Selivanov, writing in Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer, states that the purpose of IW is “to form a stratum of people with transformed values in society who actually become carriers of a different culture and of the tasks and goals of other states on the territory of one’s own country.” He further states that territory can even be seized through the use of IW by “‘nontraditional occupation’ as the possibility of controlling territory and making use of its resources without the victor’s physical presence on the territory of the vanquished.”3 According to Timothy Thomas, an analyst whose works are published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, Russia's strategy is using IW as a replacement for the loss of ideology.4 Whereas rudimentary IW was a tactic of revolutionary foreign policy in the Soviet past, it is now an entity unto itself – applicable at both foreign and domestic fronts. Russia portrays its IW practices as a method of self-defense.5 There are two fronts of IW – domestic and foreign. On the domestic front, there is a fear of foreign agents. Professor Igor Panarin – a Russian political scientist analyst regularly cited by Russian media for his expertise in IW – accuses the West, particularly through military intelligence operations, of installing anti-government agents in the more liberal media such as Novaya Gazeta and Radio Echo, forcing the Russian government's hand in creating state-run media.6 Despite the conspiracy-theory level of Panarin's claims, the idea that the West is playing information warfare is taken seriously by the Russian media. Defenders of Russia's IW practices regularly quote US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said,
"We are in an information war and we are losing that war. Al Jazeera is winning, the Chinese have opened a global multi-language television network, the Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it is quite instructive.7"
Walter Isaacson, Chairman of the U.S. Government's Broadcasting Board of Governors – which runs state-owned outlets including Voice of America, requested higher funding because “We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies.” He explicitly mentioned channels such as RT.8 This motif of self-defensive soft power has continued. According to RT, the modern information war was started by the United States. Unlike many other international media outlets, RT's coverage is not merely limited to its home nation and the near-abroad. In fact, RT has had a shift from covering mostly Russian news to covering western news with a Russian perspective, or hiring “alternative media”. When interviewed by The New York Times, Aleksei Makarkin, an analyst at the Institute of Political Technology, stated that “The Americans have a view of Russia and they show it to us. Russians have a point of view about America, too, and we want to show it to you.”9
RT is certainly capable. RT now rivals Al Jazeera in Britain as the most popular foreign English news channel.1011 Pew Research shows that RT is the top source for news videos on YouTube.12 American viewers doubled in 2012 from 2011; in some regions of the US, such as New York, viewership nearly tripled, and Nielsen Media Research surveys indicate that audiences tend to prefer watching RT as compared to other international news channels. 13 There is evidence of a continued push for utilizing state-owned media as part of the information war. RT's funding has generally increased every year. In US dollars, RT's budget has gone from 80 million in 2007, 120 million in 2008, 380 million in 2011, to 300 million in 2012 – a slight decrease.14 Recently, President Putin refused to allow Russia's Finance Ministry to slash funding for state-run media, notably including “Rossikyskaya Gazeta” and RT; simultaneously, funding for non state-run news organizations such as ITAR-TASS was drastically cut – ITAR-TASS alone had its funding cut by nearly 40%.15 Furthermore, RT is no longer a single channel, as it has been expanded to Spanish and Arabic broadcasts, bringing RT to three global channels.16 RT's performance has been chalked up to a combination of its young staff, its provocative image, and its “alternative” take. Heidi Brown, writing for Forbes, states that RT uses sex appeal of attractive, young anchors as a method of the Kremlin “using charm... to appeal to a diverse and skeptical audience.” 17
As aforementioned, RT's coverage is self-admittedly aimed at giving a “Russian perspective” of events in the West – or, more accurately, RT has a hard agenda of representing the state view in a positive light. There are two sorts of coverage that RT provides, much like other cable media outlets: talk shows, and regular news. Talk shows featured on RT are of particular interest, as RT has shown willingness to be the soapbox for dissident voices in the West – not merely Russian critics. Anti-war Marine veteran, libertarian activist, and self-proclaimed anarchist Adam Kokesh was featured in a show entitled “Adam versus the Man” on the English RT, regularly criticizing the US government.18 His show also interviewed anarchist philosopher Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian and host of the popular, online, anti-government podcast Freedomain Radio.19 Adam Kokesh and others also regularly interviewed Alex Jones, founder of InfoWars.com, an online platform for anti-government conspiracy theories. 20 Recently, Julian Assange, founder of the Wikileaks organization was even given a show, although Assange openly stated that he believed that would not have been the case had Russian documents been part of Wikileaks.21 RT's regular operations, from advertisement to news, have also come under fire as an example of being propaganda, right down to its slogan of “Question more.” RT correpsondant William Dunbar resigned in protest, claiming that RT was intentionally censoring the Georgian side of events in their coverage of the 2008 South Ossetian War.22 RT placed ads superimposing US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's face together with the question of “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” in Britain, and these ads were quickly banned in American airports.23 The Southern Poverty Law Center criticized RT as pushing conspiracy theories and white supremacy in its 2010 intelligence report by Sonia Scherr, which also accuses the channel of making the United States “look bad,” and that it gives the false impression that many of these individuals are taken seriously in mainstream political discourse.24 Cliff Kincaid of the conservative media-watchdog group Accuracy in Media called Kokesh a “Russian agent of influence and a member of the Moscow-funded 'resistance' to the U.S. Government on American soil...KGB TV,” and he cites former KGB agent Preobrazhensky's conspiracy theory that RT is nothing more than “propaganda... managed by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.” Kincaid goes further, blasting those who appear on the program as “playing into Moscow's hands.” Preobazhensky further states that RT is “a part of the Russian industry of misinformation and manipulation.” 25
It would be a mistake to label RT as simply old-school propaganda. According to James Painter, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, RT and other channels like it represent a new wave of “soft-propaganda” but the staffers within instead view themselves “counter-hegemonic” media. While there is a bias, Painter says, Western media is hardly free of such a bias, even in corporate media such as FOX News. Painter goes on to say,
If there is evidence of a soft or hard agenda in a station’s coverage, it can of course be debated if this is a result of a conscious agenda, or rather as a product of an unconscious ‘attitudinal’ set of values... [this can be] seen as another example of a more general trend observed in different parts of the world, namely the growing phenomenon of ‘news with views’. The abundance of new 24x7 channels and news web sites makes it more possible to choose a source of information which confirms a news consumer’s particular point of view. Fox News is the classic example of this, but there are plenty of others. 26
Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon.com, shot back at critics of RT by answering criticism with criticism.
Let’s examine the unstated premises at work here. There is apparently a rule that says it’s perfectly OK for a journalist to work for a media outlet owned and controlled by a weapons manufacturer (GE/NBC/MSNBC), or by the U.S. and British governments (BBC/Stars & Stripes/Voice of America), or by Rupert Murdoch and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal (Wall St. Journal/Fox News), or by a banking corporation with long-standing ties to right-wing governments (Politico), or by for-profit corporations whose profits depend upon staying in the good graces of the U.S. government (Kaplan/The Washington Post), or by loyalists to one of the two major political parties (National Review/TPM/countless others), but it’s an intrinsic violation of journalistic integrity to work for a media outlet owned by the Russian government. Where did that rule come from?
Greenwald further argues is that there is a hypocritical view of RT by those in the West, for doing – what he argues – the West does in Russia. Josh Kucera, a journalist specializing in Russian affairs, states that “RT covers the US like US media covers Russia – emphasizing decline, interviewing marginal dissidents.”27 RT itself has come out in self-defense, stating that while they are state-funded, they are editorially independent. The media outlet further goes on to say that it readily embraces its role in in what it claims is an information war declared by the US.28 The editor in chief of RT adds, in response to criticism over supposedly negative reporting on America, that they are merely applying the same standards Western reporters use in covering Russia.29 Adam Kokesh stated in much plainer language, revealing his reasoning behind dissident use of the network as a soapbox,
Truth is the best propaganda. I love it! I really love the concept of that. It's funny: People say we're hiding shit as a network. No, no—we put the fact that this is propaganda right out front. We're putting out the truth that no one else wants to say. I mean, if you want to put it in the worst possible abstract, it's the Russian government, which is a competing protection racket against the other governments of the world, going against the United States and calling them on their bullshit.30
It is obvious that RT has a bias, if not indirect control by the Kremlin. What RT is not, however, is “Pravda 2.0.” No permeating ideology is attached to RT, and it has been used as a platform for adversarial journalism – the only string attached is that the information is anti-hegemonic, typically painting Russia's rival states in a very negative light. The Kremlin obviously finds RT useful, having tended to increase funding almost every fiscal year, but the individuals attached to RT are anything but “useful idiots” as displayed by Kokesh's frank statement on his lack of love for the Russian government. Nevertheless, state-run media will continue to be an important part of soft power and revolutionary diplomacy. There is, and has been for some time, a raging war for the hearts and minds of citizens. The use of the media as part of information warfare is not unique to Russia – Russia did not start it, but Russia has certainly been more apt about it. RT has been confronted with relatively few incidents of outright misreporting, no more than average. The critics themselves of RT have often been ideologically biased; Kincaid even attempted to make the case that RT was “extreme left propaganda” due to their interviewing of Americans on the far left, despite the fact that the Kremlin as of today is anything but liberal. RT is more than just a vanity project, and RT is not merely a tool of the Kremlin, but neither is it purely objective. Then again – there may not be such a thing. One may state that all media is propaganda – RT does not claim otherwise.
«Анатомия несопротивления.» Lenizdat.ru. 2 July 2012. <http://lenizdat.ru/a0/ru/pm1/c-1105568-0.html#1>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Adam Vs The Man: Episode 1. RT. 11 Apr. 2011. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jM1xmSeMDE>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
“Alex Jones on RT's Adam vs the Man.” InfoWars.com. 4 May 2011. <http://www.infowars.com/alex-jones-on-rts-adam-vs-the-man-bin-laden-dead/>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
“A New Kind of Visual News.” Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. 16 July 2012. Web. <http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/youtube_news>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Bassford, Christopher. “Clausewitz and His Works.” 23 Sep. 2012. Web. <http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Bassford/Cworks/Works.htm>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Brown, Heidi. “Springtime (For Putin) In Russia” 27 Feb. 2008. Forbes. <http://www.forbes.com/2008/02/26/putin-russia-today-vote-oped-cz_hb_0227putin.html>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Burell, Ian. “From Russia With News.” The Independent. 15 Jan. 2010. Web. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/from-russia-with-news-1869324.html>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
“Corporate Profile.” RT. <http://rt.com/about/corporate-profile/>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Dunbar, William. “They Forced Me Out For Telling the Truth About Georgia.” The Independent. 20 Sep. 2010. Web. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/william-dunbar-they-forced-me-out-for-telling-the-truth-about-georgia-2083870.html>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Greenwald, Glenn. “Attacks on RT and Assange Reveal Much About the Critics.” Salon. 18 Apr. 2012. Web. <http://www.salon.com/2012/04/18/attacks_on_rt_and_assange_reveal_much_about_the_critics>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
“Is RT state-run?” RT. 17 June 2011. Web. <http://rt.com/usa/news/rt-government-broadcasting-radio/>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
“It's Official: RT is the Enemy.” RT. 19 Oct. 2010. Web. <http://rt.com/usa/news/us-money-media-wars/>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
Johnson, L. Scott. “Toward a Functional Model of Information Warfare.” Central Intelligence Agency. Web. <https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/97unclass/warfare.html>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012.
-Kramer, Andrew. “Russian Cable Station Plays to U.S.” The New York Times. 22 Aug. 2010. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/23/business/media/23russiatoday.html?pagewanted=all>. Accessed 3 Dec. 2012
1 Christopher Bassford, “Clausewitz and His Works.” 23 Sep. 2012.
2 L. Scott Johnson, “Toward a Functional Model of Information Warfare.” Central Intelligence Agency.
3 Timothy Thomas, “Russian Information Warfare Theory: The Consequences of August 2008.” pp 5. The Foreign Military Studies Office.
4 Timothy Thomas, “Russian Information Warfare Theory: The Consequences of August 2008.” pp 4. The Foreign Military Studies Office.
5 “It's Official: RT is the Enemy.” RT. 19 Oct. 2010.
6 Igor Panarin. “The Information War Against Russia: Operation Anti-Putin.” Schiller Institute.
7 Kirit Radia. “Sec. Of State Hillary Clinton: Al Jazeera is 'Real News', U.S. Losing 'Information War.' ABC News.
8 “It's Official: RT is the Enemy.” RT. 19 Oct. 2010.
9 Andrew Kramer, “Russian Cable Station Plays to U.S.” The New York Times. 22 Aug. 2010.
10 “RT Leads Al Jazeera in UK'S Barb Ratings.” RT. 16 July 2012.
11 “Russia Today Catching Up With Murdoch's Sky News.” ITAR-TASS. 22 Nov. 2012.
12 “A New Kind of Visual News.” Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. 16 July 2012.
13 “'Russia Today' Doubles its U.S. Audience.” Russia Briefing. 7 June 2012.
14 «Анатомия несопротивления.» Lenizdat.ru. 2 July 2012.
15 “Putin Forbids Funding Cuts To State-Run Media Outlets.” Gazeta.ru. 30 Oct. 2012.
16 “Corporate Profile.” RT.
17 Heidi Brown. “Springtime (For Putin) In Russia” 27 Feb. 2008. Forbes.
18 Cliff Kincaid. “KGB TV to Air Show Hosted by Anti-War Marine Vet.” Accuracy in Media. 5 Apr. 2011.
19 Adam Vs The Man: Episode 1. Produced by RT. Hosted by YouTube.
20 “Alex Jones on RT's Adam vs the Man.” InfoWars.com
21 Jerome Taylor. “Hello, Good Evening and Welcome to My Country House Prison: Assange Makes His Talk Show Debut.” The Independent. 18 Apr. 2012. Gale: Questia.
22 William Dunbar. “They Forced Me Out For Telling the Truth About Georgia.” The Independent. 20 Sep. 2010.
23 Ian Burrell. “From Russia With News.” The Independent. 15 Jan. 2010.
24 Sonia Scherr. “Russian TV Channel Pushes 'Patriot' Conspiracy Theories.” Southern Poverty Law Center. 2010.
25 Cliff Kincaid. “KGB TV to Air Show Hosted by Anti-War Marine Vet.” 5 Apr. 2011.
26 James Painter. “The Boom In Counter-Hegemonic News Channels: a Case Study of TeleSUR. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. 2006.
27 Glenn Greenwald. “Attacks on RT and Assange Reveal Much About the Critics.” 18 Apr. 2012.
28 “Is RT state-run?” RT. 17 June 2011.
29 Andrew Kramer. “Russian Cable Station Plays to U.S.” The New York Times. 22 Aug. 2010.
30 David Weigel. “Pravda Will Set You Free: Russian's Answer to FOX News and MSNBC.” Slate. 27 June 2011.