So much has been written in the wake of the U.S. presidential election on the topic of Russian propaganda that it can be hard to keep up, especially given that some of America’s most supposedly-reputable news outlets such as the Washington Post have routinely published questionable material on the subject. But a few new developments in the psychological war, at least, appear to be more definite signs of escalation.
Russia announced last week that it has created a new military branch of “information warfare troops,” according to the Associated Press.
“Propaganda should be smart, competent and effective,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reportedly said, without describing much further what the new information warfare branch’s mission would be.
Retired Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, head of defense affairs committee in the Russian lower house of parliament, reportedly gave a similarly brief and somewhat cryptic statement regarding the branch, saying it would “protect the national defense interests and engage in information warfare,” while adding that part of its mission is to defend against cyberattacks.
Though you’d be forgiven for not knowing, given recent media coverage, last week’s statements from Russian officials “marked the first official acknowledgement of the existence of such (information warfare) forces,” according to the AP. Unofficial reports detailing Russian propaganda activities, of course, are nothing new.
The Kremlin’s army of internet trolls, for instance, has been described in news reports going back years now. Indeed, given the somewhat hysterical tone adopted by some media outlets with respect to Russian propaganda and “election hacking” following Donald Trump’s win, it is worthwhile to take a step back and look at some of the coverage of the subject that predates November 2016.
“Information warfare is not just about getting your own message across,” The Economist‘s Edward Lucas wrote in a late 2014 article. “It also involves confusing, distracting, dividing and demoralising the adversary. That is what Russia is doing to the West, notably through outlets such as RT (the multilingual television channel formerly known as Russia Today).”
If Russia’s RT has aimed at confounding the American populace in the years since Lucas wrote his article, it appears to have been doing a decent job. Or perhaps it is just that the American mainstream media have been doing terribly at theirs. In either case, many Americans, including news professionals, along with the outlets they work for, seem somewhat confused.
After running a story with the headline “If Russia Today is Moscow’s propaganda arm, it’s not very good at its job” in January, the Washington Post reported earlier this month on a new U.S. government-funded propaganda campaign — in the form of a 24-hour Russian language TV network called Current Time, which sounds a lot like what you might expect an American response to RT to sound like. The Post described Current Time — apparently with no sense of irony — as a “way to get real news to Russia.”
CBS News also reported on Current Time’s official launch in recent weeks, noting that the network had begun initial operations last year. “In a complicated world, it can be difficult to tell what’s real. But Current Time tells it like it is,” CBS quotes a narrator as saying in a promotional video for the network. “Current Time serves as a reality check, with no ‘fake news’ or spin.”
The Post notes that Current Time is a joint project of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — U.S. government propaganda agencies that until recently were both subordinate to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but which have come under more consolidated control within the executive branch under the Trump administration. The article goes on to do little more than mindlessly regurgitate the government spin machine’s spin.
“The content of Current Time is intended to provide ‘fair and accurate reporting, serving as a reality check on disinformation that is driving conflict in the region,’ the network said,” according to the Post‘s editorial board. “In other words, this is an attempt to beam straight talk into countries where state-backed propaganda is far more prevalent.”
The Post‘s article should embarrass any professional journalist, which may explain its generic editorial board byline. After promising “straight talk” from government propagandists, it then goes on to use the tried and true propaganda tactic of repetition.
“Outside Russia, from the Baltics to Central Asia, there are millions more potential viewers, and many of them have had no Russian-language alternatives to Moscow’s TV broadcasting,” according to the Post‘s editorial. “They should welcome the straight talk.”
The Post‘s editorial comes across as bizarre given its essentially uncritical praise of what is clearly a new government propaganda program, especially in light of criticism the paper has recently received for printing unverified claims of anonymous intelligence agents. The editorial neglects to mention one fact, however, that might clear up at least some of the confusion — that the Post‘s owner, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, secured a $600 hundred million contract with the Central Intelligence Agency shortly after buying the newspaper in 2013. So much for the straight talk.
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