Wednesday, September 13, 2017

RT, Sputnik, and Russia's New Theory of War

Jim Rutenberg, New York Times [original article contains links.]

Image from article, with caption: "RT vans in  parking lot outside the network' parking lot outside of Moscow."


RT [JB - see] and Sputnik [see] operate on the stated terms of Western liberal democracy; they
count themselves as news organizations, protected by the First Amendment and
the libertarian ethos of the internet. So over the past decade, even as the
Putin government clamped down on its own free press — and as Voice of America
and Radio Free Europe, the U.S.-government-run broadcasting services, were
largely squeezed off the Russian radio dial — RT easily acquired positions
on the basic cable rosters of Comcast, Cox, Charter, DirecTV and Fios, among
others. The network’s offshoots — RT UK, RT Arabic, RT Deutsch, RT Español —
operate just as freely in other countries (though British regulators have
reprimanded RT UK for content “materially misleading or not duly impartial”).
Macron might have grumbled about RT to Putin, but France is not standing in
the way of RT’s plans to start a new French channel.

By standard media-industry metrics, RT is relatively small. Numbers that RT
commissioned in 2015 from the polling firm Ipsos showed it was watched, weekly, by
eight million people in the United States, placing it among the top five foreign
networks here and in Europe. (Ipsos also found RT was it is watched by 70 million
per week globally; the BBC, using a different polling firm, says its own audience is
372 million per week.) But American television measures itself by the Nielsen
ratings, which RT doesn’t pay to be measured by. Nielsen shows Fox News with an
average audience of 2.3 million people nightly, MSNBC with 1.6 million nightly and
CNN with more than one million nightly. It’s a good bet that if RT thought it would
rank anywhere near them, it would pay to be rated.

But the ratings are almost beside the point. RT might not have amassed an
audience that remotely rivals CNN’s in conventional terms, but in the new,
“democratized” media landscape, it doesn’t need to. Over the past several years, the
network has come to form the hub of a new kind of state media operation: one that
travels through the same diffuse online channels, chasing the same viral hits and
memes, as the rest of the Twitter-and-Facebook-age media. In the process, Russia
has built the most effective propaganda operation of the 21st century so far, one that
thrives in the feverish political climates that have descended on many Western
publics. [JB comment: quite a statement]...

One way of looking at the activities of Russia’s information machine is as a
resumption of the propaganda fight between the United States and the U.S.S.R. that
began immediately following the Second World War. In the late 1940s, the Marshall
Plan, the herculean development project helmed by Secretary of State George
Marshall, flooded postwar Europe with money and advisers to help rebuild cities,
advance democracy and form an integrated economic zone. Joseph Stalin
immediately saw it as a threat — and saw propaganda as one of his best weapons to
contain it.

In 1947, Stalin formed the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), a
Belgrade-headquartered forum to coordinate messaging among European
Communist parties. Cominform used Communist newspapers, pamphlets and
posters to paint the Marshall Plan as an American plot to subjugate Europe. A
representative Soviet poster distributed in Vienna showed an American — identified
by American-flag shirt cuffs — offering aid packages with one hand while plundering
Austria’s gold with the other. Radio Moscow — the state-run international
broadcaster — and Soviet-supported newspapers throughout Europe accused the
“imperialist” United States of pursuing a plan of “dollar domination” to make the
Continent dependent on American goods and services, and of conscripting local
youth to fight American proxy wars elsewhere.

Writing in The New York Times that year, the correspondent Anne O’Hare
McCormick recounted false reports in the Red Army newspaper in Vienna that the
locals were afraid to walk the streets at night lest American soldiers rob and mug
them — propaganda, she wrote, that “may not convince, but it adds to the confusion
between truth and falsehood and fosters that darkness of the mind in which
dictatorships operate.” In a 1947 letter to George Marshall’s undersecretary, Robert
A. Lovett, William C. Chanler, a wartime Defense Department official, urged a
response, warning that “we are making the same mistake that was made with Hitler.”
For the counterinformation campaign, the U.S. government enlisted journalists,
including the Washington Post Pulitzer winner Alfred Friendly and the Christian
Science Monitor’s Roscoe Drummond; Hollywood filmmakers; and the top
marketers of Madison Avenue, including McCann-Erickson and Young and
Rubicam. The new effort — which eventually fell under a new United States
Information Agency — produced upbeat posters with slogans like “Whatever the
weather, we only reach welfare together,” which offered a bright contrast to the
Communists’ anti-Marshall Plan messaging. Operating on the theory that local
voices would have more credibility than American ones, it fed news to foreign
reporters about how well the Marshall Plan was progressing in their countries and
recruited top European directors to produce hundreds of news features and
documentaries that promoted “Western values” like free trade and representative

America went into the propaganda war with distinct advantages. At the time,

the Marshall Plan was pumping $13 billion into Europe, while the Soviets were
taking $14 billion out in the form of reparations and resource seizures; America’s
image abroad was as squeaky clean as it would ever be. “This was the time when
finally the United States came of age as an international power — when it still had its
virginity, as it were,” David Reynolds, a Cambridge University history professor, told

America’s mid-century propaganda success set the tone for the decades to come. It

was not entirely a matter of America’s having a better story to tell, and savvier
storytellers, than the Soviet Union did. Soviet propaganda did, in fact, work on the
people it reached. A controlled study conducted by a professor at Florida State
University in 1970 found that Americans who listened to Radio Moscow broadcasts
developed more open attitudes toward the U.S.S.R. than those of average Americans.
The problem was that very few Americans did hear Radio Moscow: It was available
only on shortwave radio and on a handful of American stations — including WNYC
in New York — reaching less than 2 percent of the adult population in the United
States as of late 1966. Meanwhile, Voice of America, the United States’ equivalent
service offering a mix of news, music and entertainment, was reaching 23 percent of
the Soviet adult population by the early 1970s. Later studies found that up to 40
percent of the Soviet Union’s adult population listened to “Western broadcasting” of
one sort or another, in spite of aggressive Soviet signal-jamming efforts.

And unlike the Soviets, the United States benefited from the existence of a vast

ecosystem of nongovernment media that, even when it crossed swords with the
American government, still reflected an American outlook and implicitly promoted
American cultural values. The first international, 24-hour networks to come online
in the 1980s, like CNN, were American, and they provided their audience — which
eventually included many behind the Iron Curtain — an unsparing view of the last
days of Communism: student protesters staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square,
protests and strikes in Poland, East Germans exulting on the ruins of the Berlin
Wall. When Mikhail Gorbachev signed his resignation, ceding power to the new
presidency of Boris Yeltsin in the last official act of Soviet Communism, he invited
CNN to capture the moment in his Kremlin office suite. ...

That year, with the Russian economy rebounding thanks to strong oil prices,
Lesin and Alexei Gromov, Putin’s press strategist, secured the approval and
financing to start the network, which they called Russia Today. To run the new
operation, they hired a 25-year-old TV reporter named Margarita Simonyan.
When she heard she got the job, “I almost fainted,” Simonyan told me recently. ...

Simonyan grew up poor in Krasnodar, a southern Russia river town, and was 11
when the Soviet Union collapsed. “We adored the fact that we are now going to be
like America and taught like America and to be even patronized by America and be
America’s little brother,” she told me. “It didn’t feel in any way humiliating or
contradictory to the Russian pride.” Her infatuation with the United States led her to
apply for a slot in a new State Department “future leaders” exchange program, which
placed top students from the former Soviet Union in United States high schools to
“ensure long-lasting peace and understanding between the U.S. and the countries of
Eurasia.” [JB emphasis]

For one academic year, she attended a public high school in Bristol, N.H. “She

was fascinated with news,” Patricia Albert, whose parents hosted Simonyan, and
who remains close with her, told me. “Maggie,” as the family still calls her, would sit
transfixed every night when she joined them on the couch to watch the local news,
“60 Minutes” and “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather.” But she also came to
resent some of her American classmates for what she viewed as their sheltered
naïveté. “ ‘Do you have dogs?’ I remember that,” she told me. “I still have a letter I
wrote to my parents saying, ‘I can’t believe they are seriously asking me whether we
have dogs.’ They were grown-ups — 18-year-olds — in a normal high school in New
Hampshire, which is supposed to be a sophisticated place.”

Back home in Krasnodar, her view of the United States, like many Russians’,
started to curdle after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against the regime of
Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, with which Russian had strong ethnic,
cultural and political ties: “Our Slavic brothers and sisters,” she told me, leaning
forward for emphasis. “You bombed them with no permission, with no reason,” she
said, “and in one day you lost Russia.”

As a journalism major at Kuban State University, Simonyan landed an
internship and, quickly thereafter, a correspondent position at a local TV station.
Her patriotism and feel for the American-style production techniques she had seen
on TV in New Hampshire — which had not yet come to Russia — helped her rise
quickly through the ranks of state journalism. She covered the brutal Chechen
military campaign in 1999 and 2000 that helped solidify Putin’s political standing as
he ascended to the presidency, and the 2004 Beslan school siege, which earned her
the government’s “Strengthening the Military Commonwealth” medal.

When she took the helm of Russia Today the following year, Simonyan modeled
the new network on CNN and the BBC, and she hired TV consultants from Britain to
help give Russia Today a modern cable-news look and feel. (The RT studios in
Moscow, when I visited them this spring, were as state-of-the-art as any I’d seen in
the United States.) “Nobody in Russia had experience of that kind,” Simonyan told
me. “Twenty-four-hour news had not been established yet.” One of her employees,
Andrey Kiyashko, who started at RT in his late teens, told me: “CNN, BBC — we were
watching it and taking notes on how to be broadcast journalists.” ...

Russia Today — incorporated as an independent company with state financing
— was getting into hotels and even American cable systems. But three years into its
existence, the network still had not gained much notice or had much discernible
impact abroad. Simonyan says he concluded that the network’s mission of solely
focusing on Russia needed revising. “We had basically too much Russian news,” she
told me.

So in 2008, Russia Today began to reposition itself. The network was
reintroduced with a new name, RT, and hired McCann — the same American
advertising firm that once helped the United States sell the Marshall Plan. It soon
debuted a new satellite channel in the United States, RT America. Instead of
celebrating Russia, Simonyan’s network would turn a critical eye to the rest of the
world, particularly the United States. As Peskov sees it, the idea was: “Why are you
criticizing us in Chechnya and all this stuff? Look at what you are doing there in the
United States with your relationship with white and black.” He went on: “RT said:
‘Stop. Don’t criticize us. We’ll tell you about yourself.’ ”

With that, he said, “all of the sudden, Anglo-Saxons saw that there is an army
from the opposite side.” RT’s new slogan, dreamed up by McCann, was “Question

RT America set up shop in a glass-fronted office building in Washington a
block and a half east of the White House. The new network promised to feature
stories that “have not been reported” or were “hugely underreported” in the
mainstream media, Simonyan told The Times in 2010. In line with the Marshall Plan
dictum that natives have more credibility than foreigners, it was staffed by American
hosts: an incongruous mix of telegenic, ambitious but inexperienced broadcast
journalists like Liz Wahl, whom RT recruited from the local television station in the
Mariana Islands, and later-career itinerant expats like Peter Lavelle, a bankerturned-reporter
who previously worked as a stringer for United Press International’s
Moscow bureau and contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
From early on, the channel’s interviews highlighted Sept. 11 “truthers,” who
believed the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job, including Alex Jones, whose
segments, ranging freely across the broader spectrum of conspiracy theories — from
Osama bin Laden’s staged death to the all-powerful machinations of the Bilderberg
Group — became regular occurrences on the network. When I asked Simonyan about
the Sept. 11 conspiracy theories, she replied: “Some guy in the states who worked for
us — he doesn’t have that position anymore — was a bit into that. I didn’t pay any
attention to that. When I did, I almost killed everybody.” But, she said, it went with
the territory. “We do have our mistakes sometimes, like The New York Times does,
like everything does,” she said. “We correct them.”

To the extent that RT had any clear ideological bent, it was a sort of all-purpose
anti-establishment stance that drew from both the anti-globalization left (the
network hosted a Green Party debate) and the libertarian right (it lavished attention
on the Rand Paul movement). Its news coverage emphasized poverty and racial
injustice, and it found its breakthrough story in the Occupy Wall Street protests. As
Wahl, who quit RT in 2014, wrote later in Politico Magazine, “Video of outraged
protesters, heavy-handed police and tents pitched in parks portrayed America as a
country in the midst of a popular uprising — it was the beginning of the inevitable
decline of a capitalistic world power.” The coverage, which earned RT one of its
International Emmy nominations, brought the network into alignment with Julian
Assange, whom Simonyan brought on to host an interview show that ran for a dozen
episodes in 2012.

At the time, state journalism back in Russia was enjoying a kind of renaissance
under Dmitri Medvedev, who was elected president in 2008. (Russian presidents are
limited to two consecutive terms; Putin endorsed Medvedev as his successor and
served as his prime minister before returning to the presidency.) The main Russian
international news service, RIA Novosti, hired journalists from The Moscow Times,
Agence France-Presse and Reuters, following the philosophy that Russia served its
interests best by providing traditional warts-and-all news, with a Russian voice and
perspective. “There was no talk about censorship,” Nabi Abdullaev, a former Moscow
Times deputy chief editor who oversaw RIA Novosti’s foreign-language news service,
told me. “All they wanted from me was quality professional standards in reporting;
that was it.”

But that all changed shortly after Putin’s presidential re-election in 2012. The
following year, with no warning, Putin signed a decree effectively bringing together
RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia, the broadcast service previously called Radio
Moscow, under the umbrella of a new organization called Rossiya Segodnya. The
Kremlin appointed as its manager Dmitry Kiselyov, state television’s most popular
host, known for homophobic rants and his taste for conspiracy theories. Kiselyov
went to greet the shocked staff a few days later, delivering a speech that one staff
member surreptitiously recorded and posted to YouTube.

“Objectivity is a myth,” Kiselyov said. “Just imagine a young man who puts an
arm around the shoulder of a girl,” he went on, “and tells the girl, ‘You know, I’ve
wanted to tell you for a long time that I treat you objectively.’ Is this what she’s
waiting for? Probably not. So in the same way, our country, Russia, needs our love. If
we speak about the editorial policy, of course, I would certainly want it to be
associated with love for Russia.” Journalism, he said, was an instrument of the

Three weeks later, Kiselyov announced that Margarita Simonyan would serve as
the new organization’s editor in chief. Simonyan renamed RIA Novosti’s
international branch Sputnik — “because I thought that’s the only Russian word that
has a positive connotation, and the whole world knows it,” she told me. Kiselyov
presented it as a defensive weapon, saying it was for people “tired of aggressive
propaganda promoting a unipolar world” from the West. Meanwhile, Simonyan
made new plans for RT that included expansions in Britain and Germany. Together,
RT and Sputnik would be the nucleus of an assertively pro-Russian, frequently anti-West
information network, RT in the mold of a more traditional cable network and
Sputnik as its more outspoken, flashy younger sibling.

At the time, Putin was angry about pro-democracy protests that had attended
his re-election, which RIA Novosti had covered. But the Russian leadership was also
thinking about information strategy in new ways. In early 2013, Valery Gerasimov, a
top Russian general, published an article in a Russian military journal called VPK.
Gerasimov had observed Twitter and other social media helping spark the Arab
Spring. “It would be easiest of all to say that the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ are not
war and so there are no lessons for us — military men — to learn,” he wrote. “But
maybe the opposite is true.” There were new means through which to wage war that
were “political, economic, informational,” and they could be applied “with the
involvement of the protest potential of the population.” Russia’s military doctrine
changed its definition of modern military conflict: “a complex use of military force,
political, economic, informational and other means of nonmilitary character, applied
with a large use of the population’s protest potential.”

Military officials in America and Europe have come to refer to this idea
alternatively as the “Gerasimov doctrine” and “hybrid war,” which they accuse
Russia of engaging in now. When I asked Peskov about those charges, he shrugged.
Everyone was doing it, he said. “If you call what’s going on now a hybrid war, let it be
hybrid war,” he said. “It doesn’t matter: It’s war.” ...

In other cases, the network simply nudged along existing or nascent conspiracy
theories: about Hillary Clinton’s health, about a Google plan to rig the election
for her, about stock conspiracists’ obsessions like the Rothschild family, the
Bilderberg Group and the Illuminati. In general, the social-media matrix is
so opaque, with anyone able to set up an account under any persona . ...

Even the declassified intelligence assessment seemed to struggle to
describe what, exactly, made the Russian outlets’ influence on the election so
nefarious. It described RT and Sputnik as sitting at the center of a sprawling social-media
network that included “third-party intermediaries and paid social-media
users, or ‘trolls.’ ” But it provided no detail about how that might have worked.
The best illustration I was able to find came from John Kelly, the founder and
chief executive of a social-media marketing and analytics firm called Graphika. Kelly
has been studying the movement of information online since 2007, when, as a
communications graduate student at Columbia University, he became interested in
the social dynamics of political blogs: the ways in which different sites found and
related to one another and amplified one another’s work. He taught himself how to
code and developed a program to quantify and map the flow of information within
the blogosphere. That led to work on State Department-financed projects at the
Berkman Klein Center of Harvard University, mapping the blog networks of Iran
and, later, Russia. As the gravitational center of online conversation shifted from
blogs to social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, he studied those too.
Eventually he built a searchable database that captures millions of social-media
interactions, stores them and analyzes them to determine social neighborhoods in
which users share ideologies and interests, which he now mostly uses for private

Shortly after the election, academic and corporate clients hired him to track the
proliferation of “fake news” — that is, unequivocally false content. He confined his
search to social accounts that shared fake news at least 10 times during the last
month of the campaign. This September, in his airy, loft-style office suite on the
West Side of Manhattan, he called up the results of the study on a laptop screen.
They were visualized as a black sphere on which each of the 14,000 fake-newsspreading
accounts appeared as a dot, grouped and color-coded according to
ideological affiliation. The sphere was alive with bursts of purple (“U.S.
Conservative”), green (“U.S. Far Left”), pink (“Pro-Russia/WikiLeaks”), orange
(“International Right”) and blue (“Trump Core”).

Within the fake-news network, Kelly explained, RT was high on the list of most-followed
accounts, but it was not the highest — it ranked No. 117 out of roughly
12,000 accounts he was tracking. Its website was the 12th-most-cited by the fake-news
consumers and purveyors — ahead of The New York Times and The
Washington Post but behind Breitbart and Infowars.

What was more interesting was who followed RT. It drew substantially from all
quadrants of Kelly’s fake-news universe — Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders
supporters, Occupy Wall Streeters and libertarians — which made it something of a
rarity. “The Russians aren’t just pumping up the right wing in America,” Kelly said.
“They’re also pumping up left-wing stuff — they’re basically trying to pump up the
fringe at the expense of the middle.”

Nearly 20 percent of the fake-news-spreading accounts, Kelly’s analysis
determined, were automated bot accounts, of the sort the American intelligence
assessment claimed were working in tandem with RT and Sputnik. But who was
operating them was unclear — and regardless, they were far outnumbered by
accounts that appeared to belong to real human beings, reading and circulating
content that appealed to them. In this paranoid, polarized and ill-informed subset of
American news consumers, RT’s audience crossed all ideological boundaries.
In January, just a few days after the release of the declassified intelligence
report, RT hosted a party in New York. The occasion was the United Nations’
decision to add RT to the internal television system in its Turtle Bay headquarters.
For nearly any other broadcaster, this would have been a minor achievement, but in
Moscow, it was considered a coup and a rebuke of U.S. intelligence. There were 20
channels in the U.N. system, and as the network saw it, counting RT among them
was a new testament to its influence: It was sharing a small dial with BBC World and
CNN International, at the heart of the diplomatic world. ...

Of course everyone should be open to other perspectives and different
takes on the news. In large part, this is why outlets like RT and Sputnik have proved
so vexing to the West — and especially so in the United States. The far-right media,
and even the president, have embraced what a couple of years earlier might have
been the fringe of political discourse. Their financing aside, how exactly do you draw
a line between RT and Sputnik and, say, Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and
confidant of the president of the United States, who has also trafficked in conspiracy
theories about Seth Rich and mysterious illnesses possibly afflicting Hillary Clinton?
Or Infowars, Alex Jones’s paranoid media empire, to which Trump gave an interview
during the campaign?

It’s hard to imagine Russia’s state-backed media getting any traction in the

United States if there wasn’t already an audience for it. For some subset of
Americans, the intelligence report singling out RT and Sputnik was just another
attack from the supposed “deep state” that Breitbart, for instance, had been fuming
about for months — and it was less than surprising when, this spring, Sputnik hired
a former Breitbart reporter, Lee Stranahan, to start a radio show in Washington. As
Stranahan told The Atlantic, though his paycheck might now come from the
Russians, “Nothing about it really affects my position on stuff that I’ve had for years

When I asked Simonyan recently what she made of the proliferating attempts to
map RT’s influence in the Russian information network that United States
intelligence agencies describe as a hybrid-war machine, she replied by email: “These
projects simply blacklist all reporting, including by American media, as some pro-Russian
campaign if any facts or views in them don’t support the right kind of
narrative.” At the moment, she said, that narrative was: “All world problems are
Putin’s fault.” In her view, “it’s the sad history of McCarthyism repeating itself.”
(These were arguments that echoed Trump’s own.) ...

Every attempt to contain or counteract the Russian state-backed media’s influence
simply validated it. Churkin, the ambassador, acknowledged as much at RT’s U.N.
 ceremony. As he stood to speak, he seemed to be almost bouncing on the soles of 
his feet, delighted at RT’s newfound prominence. “Everybody watches them,” 
he said. “Diplomats do it, ambassadors do it, foreign ministers do it, heads of state
 and government do it.” In an oblique allusion to the recent American intelligence
report, he noted that some people had been criticizing the network, but perhaps
 this was not such a bad thing. Grinning, he said: “They sound as if they are
P.R. representatives of RT.”

Jim Rutenberg is The New York Times’s media columnist and writer at large for the

magazine. Jaclyn Peiser contributed reporting from New York and Alexandra
Odynova contributed reporting from Moscow.

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