On The Russia Moment

Expanded notes from a Facebook exchange with South Africa’s Damon Leff about Russia Today and allegations of Russia hacks:

 

1. Most credible Western sources note that Russia Today is Kremlin-funded. It would not be able to operate unless it reflected Putin Administration aims and interests.

 

2. Is television producer Peter Pomerantsev biased about Russia Today’s funding? Two relevant quotes from Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is PossibleThe Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014):

 

Russia Today is Russia’s answer to BBC World and Al-Jazeera, a rolling 24/7 news channel broadcastng in English (and Arabic and Spanish) across every hotel and living room in the world, set up by presidential decree with an annual budget of over $300 million and with a mission to “give Russia’s point of view on world events.” (p. 46)

 

And:

Once things had settled down it turned out that only about two hundred of the two-thousand-or-so employees were native English speakers. They were the on-screen window dressing and spell-checkers of the operation. Behind the scene the real decisions were made by a small band of Russian producers. (pp. 47-48).

 

Is Russia Today funded the same way as the BBC and CNN? The BBC is funded by an annual license fee and its BBC World Service reflects UK Government interests. CNN is privately funded via Time Warner and there is academic work on the so-called CNN Effect (Piers Robinson and others).

 

A BBC or CNN comparison involves things like journalistic standards, editing choices, narratives, and guest selection. If you watch any of these stations for a long time period then you can observe this for yourself. Having watched RT for a year for me it is interesting — and it has clear biases.

 

3. If Russia or Wikileaks hacked the Democratic National Party in mid-2016 then they are not going to say ‘yes’ when confronted. Effective deception and information warfare operations involve several layers of plausible deniability. For example, Ray McGovern’s recent claim to Russia Today that email has a “tracing mechanism” omits that this can be re-routed in an information warfare operation.

 

4. The Central Intelligence Agency has claimed Russian involvement in the hacks. Articles critical of the CIA that allege a fake campaign against Russia (such as by CounterPunch‘s Dave Lindorff) are often either more about domestic politics or about the CIA’s historical operations in other countries.

 

5. In a multipolar world it is important to debias your worldview and to consider situations from other viewpoints. For example, in PhD research I look at Russian sources on nuclear strategy and Islamic State. But in doing so you should not be a naive idealist about others’ aims and intentions. Russia’s Putin Administration has particular strategic goals. It is helpful to be familiar with Russian sources such as geopolitics expert Alexander Dugin who is quite open about Putin Administration goals and intentions.

 

6. Russia also has a history of effective disinformation and tactics like Kompromat: compiling dossiers of compromising information about public figures. Kompromat fits how Wikileaks released information about Hillary Clinton’s senior campaign officials but not Donald Trump’s campaign. Russia Today often adopts a ridicule strategy on public figures it doesn’t like. What this suggests is that such tactics and strategies are migrating from Russia to a United States or Western context.

 

7. It is helpful in assessing Russia Today to have some familiarity with the propaganda work of writers like Jacques Ellul, Jason Stanley, Randal Marlin, Edward S. Herman, and Noam Chomsky. The emergence of new players like Russia Today also reflects the maturation of inter-state rivalry using new communications and media platforms.

 

8. Having an academic background can be misunderstood by activists. You learn what argumentation and evidence is. You often get to be immersed in the scholarship of a particular field. You learn from specialists. You may have relevant industry experience. (In my case, working as a journalist and writing / editing for the Disinformation website for almost 10 years.) You learn to do careful source evaluation of all sources. This stance can be frustrating to some issues-motivated activists. They may want a simple enemy.