Debunking pro-Russian propaganda on the web

By Malyuta Skuratov:

Putin riding a horse. Photo: Jedimentat44 (CC 2.0)
Putin riding a horse. Photo: Jedimentat44 (CC 2.0)

“The real weapon was not the rifle but the megaphone. Being unable to kill your enemy you shouted at him instead.” – George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia


Conspiracy theorists of the world, unite! Scraping the bottom of the barrel, Russia has finally managed to re-establish herself as an ideological centre of gravity. Putin’s friends range from various far right movements to the anti-capitalist left. This transversal and bizarre coalition includes anyone who blames Western liberal democracy and the United States for all sorts of misdemeanours, like the emergence of ISIL in the Middle East. Russia is viewed as the last bastion that upholds unspecified “traditional values”, the rise of Russia as an alternative to the current world order. Basically, anyone who blames the Great Satan (USA) for anything that is wrong with the world is welcomed as a member of this club.

The enemies of Western liberal democracy have found an unlikely ally in the internet and social media. When used in the context of a free society, these new media are a powerful instrument of democratisation. Yet they are particularly vulnerable to the manipulation of undemocratic entities. We live in a Kafkaesque scenario, where the government of a semi-despotic country distorts reality by turning against us the very instruments of information that are the lifeblood of any liberal society, threatening checkmate on democracy. What is most worrying is that some of the most vocal backers of the Kremlin’s policies are found in the West.

Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose have reincarnated in the English-speaking presenters of Russia Today, the overseas television network that broadcasts the Kremlin’s point of view to the West. RT mixes news reporting with interviews and talk-shows that give space to those Western pundits that are particularly critical towards “Western hegemony”. Just as it was during the Cold War, a major theme broadcasted is racial inequality in the US, which is supposed to expose the alleged corrosion of the Western social fabric. Other classics include the above-mentioned American sponsoring of ISIL and police brutality in the US. Then there is the Ukrainian chapter. According to pro-Russian propaganda, there is absolutely no doubt that what happened in Kiev is nothing short of a neo-Nazi coup d’état.

The issue is not confined to RT. Sputnik, a Kremlin-sponsored news agency, even managed to imply American responsibility for the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Sputnik stated that the murder could have been an attempt to fuel Western hostility against Russia or against Putin himself (a thin difference in the current state of things, it must be noted).

Then there is Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), a website connected to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government. RBTH regularly features articles that are critical (or semi-critical) towards the Russian government, therefore presenting itself as an independent information resource. In this way, it can easily publish articles that try to disprove Amnesty International’s reports on Crimea. It is the mixture of reality and deceit that gives the Kremlin such a powerful weapon. Propaganda that incorporates counter-propaganda is sociological dynamite.

In a recently published book, Peter Pomerantsev exposes the control of the Russian government over the country’s television networks, and the impact this has on Russian society. We are now seeing the next step of that process, with the attempt to influence the Western public as well. In this phase, a new element is the prominence of internet-based propaganda. From pro-Russian trolling in the comments section of the Guardian’s website to elaborate videos that portray a bare-chested Putin riding a laser-eyed bear, the English-speaking internet is being injected with heavy doses of pro-Russian disinformation. The situation is worse in central Europe, where former communist bloc states are particularly susceptible towards Russian propaganda because of historic and economic ties.

Russian agit-prop represents a considerable threat for European security, so much so that some European countries have decided to increase their engagement with public information. But this is hardly going to be enough. Russian-financed media offer an alluring counter-narrative to the reality of a dissatisfied Western public prone to buy into easy explanations.

While independent journalist struggle to make a living, pro-Russian trolls are paid handsomely for their services. It is therefore unsurprising that the latter prosper in the current state of things. Russia must recognise that this is as detrimental for the West as it is for her. However, what is most dangerous is not this clique of professional propagandists, but the silent mass of those that further their message. Some do it artfully, others are naively conquered by the pro-Russian narrative. They all end up supporting a system that threatens the very foundations of our society.

A response at the institutional level is undoubtedly needed, and some steps have already been made in this direction. Civil society can do its part by debunking the fabrications of pro-Russian advocates. The weaponisation of information is an essential part of Russian hybrid warfare, and only an integrated approach can counter it.

Malta Skuratov is the pseudonym of a Doctoral candidate King’s College London.

The author would like to thank the government of the Russian Federation and its associates for kindly providing the material this article is based on.

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