Pro-Kremlin media have bombarded the world with reports of fascists, crucified children and beheaded pro-Russian militiamen throughout the conflict in Ukraine. Many of those stories were proven to be fictions, or else peppered with facts that serve an extremely tendentious interpretation of events.
However, some Western analysts believe that at least a few of those Russian arrows — however bent and untrue — have reached their target, and that Moscow has managed to impose its vision of the conflict in Ukraine on the rest of the world. Seeing the apparent success of Russian propaganda, political scientists and media analysts sounded the alarm with the result that the West now takes Moscow’s “information war” very seriously.
The European Union’s foreign affairs department announced that it was launching a rapid response unit to combat the misinformation spread by Russian media, and BBC announced plans to expand broadcasts to the Russian-speaking audience.
Reporters Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev have written in numerous publications about the information war and warned that the Kremlin is waging an attack against the West. And in a separate paper they write: “Feeling itself relatively weak, the Kremlin has systematically learned to use the principles of liberal democracies against them in what we call here ‘the weaponization of information, culture and money,’ vital parts of the Kremlin’s concept of ‘non-linear’ war.” But is the threat to the West emanating from the Kremlin really so great?
According to some analysts, improving Russia’s image abroad has barely been the primary goal of an information campaign. Vasily Gatov, a Russian media researcher based in Boston, suggests that instead of promoting a positive image of Russia abroad, the actual goal of RT is to implement an “armed response” in the West and the Russian liberal media. Their goal is to create anti-Russian hype in the American and European press, and to use such an “anti-Russian narrative” in Russia’s domestic policy.
Gatov argues that since 2007 Putin’s Russia stopped trying to promote Russia’s image internationally, instead using soft power wherever possible for the personal gain of the Kremlin elites. Other researchers, however, point out that Russia kept investing in its image abroad up until recently.
Russia has had an advantage over the West right from the start in prosecuting the information war. Any democratic government has far less opportunity to deliberately use information as a weapon. But just the same, Russia is losing its information war in the West.
One of Russia’s main tools of influence in the West is the state-owned channel Russia Today. Founded in 2005, the channel was initially quite successful in winning a Western audience. In his book “Kremlin Speak: Inside Putin’s Propaganda Factory,” Wall Street Journal correspondent Lukas Alpert explains that RT attracted the American left and right by using strategies that combine skillful use of the Internet, conspiracy theories and a willingness to address issues that major U.S. media ignore.
The channel’s popularity continued to rise up until the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, after which many viewers criticized RT for its biased coverage of the war. For example, in Britain in 2014 RT was found four times to be in breach of the broadcasting code for impartiality by the media regulator, Ofcom.
The result is that Russian news channels reached only 9 percent of all Ukrainians in 2014, down from 19 percent in 2012. Two-thirds of Ukrainians are skeptical about the objectivity of Russian news programs, and even in the country’s south and east, less than one-third of respondents believed that Russia’s role in the crisis was “mostly positive.” In the rest of Ukraine that figure was less than 3 percent.
The RT strategy is probably focused more on selling its alleged “success in the West” to the Kremlin than on truly impacting Western public opinion. The low overall quality of the information campaign is also a contributing factor.
Why is the Russian information campaign in the West so unsuccessful, despite lavish government funding? Because Moscow has not managed to equip its effort with any new form or content. Its disinformation campaign concerning Ukraine is based on distorting information that is freely available to the “enemy,” denying obvious facts, disseminating false or unverified information and generally following the principles of a Soviet-era military disinformation campaign.
Moscow Times: Kremlin Is Losing the Information War (Op-Ed)