Joined: 25 Jul 2005
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, England
|Posted: Fri Apr 10, 2015 10:13 pm Post subject:
|Instead of this lot I have just one line
The West's strategy to control the narrative by sacking honest journalists and producers has been holed under the waterline by Russia Today (RT)
Inside the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors
Fake news stories. Doctored photographs. Staged TV clips. Armies of paid trolls. Has Putin’s Russia developed a new kind of information warfare – fought in the ‘psychosphere’ rather than on the battlefield? Or is it all just a giant bluff
• Read it in Russian/Читайте эту статью на русском: Кремлёвские зазеркальные войны
Thursday 9 April 2015 06.00 BST Last modified on Friday 10 April 2015
The thing that Margo Gontar found easiest to deal with were the dead children. They were all over her computer screens – on news sites and social media – next to headlines that blamed the deaths on Ukrainian fascist gangs trained by Nato. It was early 2014, Crimea had just been taken over by soldiers who seemed Russian and sounded Russian but who were wearing no national insignia, and who Vladimir Putin, with a little grin, had just told the whole world were not Russian at all. Now eastern Ukraine was being taken over by separatists. Gontar was trying to fight back.
She could usually locate the original images of the dead with a simple Google search. Some of the photographs were actually from other, older wars; some were from crime scenes that had nothing to with Ukraine; some even came from movies. Gontar posted her research on a myth-busting website called StopFake, which had been started in March by volunteers like her at the journalism school of Mohyla University in Kiev. It felt good being able to sort truth from lies, to feel some kind of certainty amid so much confusion.
But sometimes things could get more complicated. Russian state-television news began to fill up with plump, weeping women and elderly men who told tales of Ukrainian nationalists beating up Russian-speakers. These witnesses seemed genuine enough. But soon Gontar would see the same plump women and the same injured men appearing in different newscasts, identified as different people. In one report, a woman would be an “Odessa resident”, then next she would be a “soldier’s mother”, then a “Kharkiv resident” and then an “anti-Maidan activist”.
In July, after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, Gontar surveyed the internet, picking up shards of pro-Russian conspiracy theories. She came across the Twitter feed of an air-traffic controller who had spotted Ukrainian army jets following the plane, although she could find no evidence that the air-traffic controller actually existed. She found dozens of sites in Russian and English which, almost as one, suddenly argued that the US had shot down MH17 in a botched attempt to target Putin’s personal jet. There were even claims, circulated by Russian separatist leaders in Ukraine, that the plane had been filled with corpses before it had taken off – a plotline lifted from the BBC TV series Sherlock. The stories were glaringly sloppy, as if their creators did not care about being caught and just wanted to distract from the evidence that Russian-backed militias had shot down the plane. Gontar began to wonder whether she was falling into the Kremlin’s trap by spending so much time trying to debunk its obviously fake stories.
Before long, she found herself, and StopFake, becoming part of the story. Russian media had begun to cite StopFake in their own reports – but would make it look like Gontar was presenting the falsified story as truth, rather than debunking it. It was like seeing herself reflected in a mirror upside down. She felt dizzy.
At times like this, she had always reached out to western media for a sense of something solid, but this was starting to slip too. Whenever somewhere like the BBC or Tagesspiegel published a story, they felt obliged to present the Kremlin’s version of events – fascists, western conspiracy, etc – as the other side, for balance. Gontar began to wonder whether her search for certainty was futile: if the truth was constantly shifting before her eyes, and there was always another side to every story, was there anything solid left to hold on to?
After months working at StopFake, she began to doubt everything. Who was to say that “original” photo of a dead child she found was genuine? Maybe that, too, had been placed there? Reality felt malleable, spongy. Whatever the Russians were doing, it was not simply propaganda, which is intended to persuade and susceptible to debunking. This was something else entirely: not only could it not be disproven, it seemed to vaporise the very idea of proof.
* * *
Late last year, I came across a Russian manual called Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide (The 2011 edition, credited to Veprintsev et al, and published in Moscow by Hotline-Telecom, can be purchased online at the sale price of 348 roubles). The book is designed for “students, political technologists, state security services and civil servants” – a kind of user’s manual for junior information warriors. The deployment of information weapons, it suggests, “acts like an invisible radiation” upon its targets: “The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its self-defence mechanisms.” If regular war is about actual guns and missiles, the encyclopedia continues, “information war is supple, you can never predict the angle or instruments of an attack”.
The 495-page encyclopedia contained an introduction to information-psychological war, a glossary of key terms and detailed flowcharts describing the methods and strategies of defensive and offensive operations, including “operational deception” (maskirovka), “programmatical-mathematical influence”, “disinformation”, “imitation”, and “TV and radio broadcasting”. In “normal war” the encyclopedia explains, “victory is a case of yes or no; in information war it can be partial. Several rivals can fight over certain themes within a person’s consciousness.”
I had always imagined the phrase “information war” to refer to some sort of geopolitical debate, with Russian propagandists on one side and western propagandists on the other, both trying to convince everyone in the middle that their side was right. But the encyclopedia suggested something more expansive: information war was less about methods of persuasion and more about “influencing social relations” and “control over the sources of strategic reserves”. Invisible weapons acting like radiation to override biological responses and seize strategic reserves? The text seemed more like garbled science fiction than a guide for students and civil servants.
Information war was less about methods of persuasion and more about “influencing social relations”
But when I began to pore over recent Russian military theory – in history books and journals – the strange language of the encyclopedia began to make more sense. Since the end of the cold war, Russia had been preoccupied with the need to match the capabilities of the US and its allies. In 1999, Marshal Igor Sergeev, then minister of defence, admitted that Russia could not compete militarily with the west. Instead, he suggested, it needed to search for “revolutionary paths” and “asymmetrical directions”. Over the course of the previous decade, Russian military and intelligence theorists began to elaborate more substantial ideas for non-physical warfare – claiming that Russia was already under attack, along similar lines, by western NGOs and media.
In 2013 the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov, claimed that it was now possible to defeat enemies through a “combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns”. This was part of a vision of war which lay not in the realm of physical contact but in what Russian theorists described as the “psychosphere”. These wars of the future would be fought not on the battlefield but in the minds of men.
Disinformation and psychological operations are as old as the Trojan horse. But what distinguished the Kremlin’s approach from that of its western rivals was this new stress on the “psychosphere” as the theatre of conflict. The information operation was no longer auxiliary to some physical struggle or military invasion: now it had become an end in itself. Indeed, as the Russian encyclopedia for its practitioners concluded: “Information war … is in many places replacing standard war.”
The idea was clear enough. But what could “invisible radiation” really achieve? Was it simply an attempt to put a hard edge on what the Americans call “soft power”, conducted through cultural outreach and public diplomacy? Or was it really some new form of war – one that could outfox Russia’s enemies without firing a shot?
* * *
Towards the end of last year, I flew to Estonia, the tiny Baltic country – population 1.3 million – that sits 150km west of St Petersburg. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, there had been much talk that Estonia could be next in line. (“Today Crimea: Tomorrow Estonia?”, as a headline in the Spectator put it.) A few months before my visit, President Barack Obama had jetted to the capital Tallinn to make a public pledge of America’s commitment to the country’s security. “The defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said. “So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the Nato alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.”
As Toomas Ilves, the president of Estonia, walked me down a long corridor in his Tallinn residence, he pointed out portraits of the men who led the country during the country’s first period of independence – between the fall of the Russian empire in 1917 and its occupation by the Soviets during the second world war. They had not met happy fates: “This one was shot, this one was disappeared – apparently killed – this one was deported,” Ilves said as we passed each picture.
Ilves was dressed in his trademark tweeds and bow tie, a counterpoint to his mission to make Estonia the most digitally progressive country in Europe. The government has declared internet access a human right; citizens can vote, get medical prescriptions, deal with taxes and bank electronically and pay for parking with a mobile phone. A new school programme requires all pupils to learn to code from the age of seven. Ilves, who probably tweets more than any other head of state, peppers his conversations and speeches with references to the latest technology.
This “e-Stonia” project is practical – a search for an economic niche – but also symbolic. It is a way to tear away the country from its Soviet stereotype as Moscow’s backward province. That break with the past seemed final when Estonia joined Nato in 2004 – a moment that was meant to mark the emergence of a new digital Estonia on the international stage, free forever from Russian coercion.
Since Soviet times, every year on 9 May, which is known as Victory in World War Two Day, Russian nationalists and war veterans living in Estonia had long gathered to celebrate in the centre of Tallinn, at a statue known as the Bronze Soldier – a large Aryan-looking hunk who commemorated Soviet victory over the Nazis. Around a third of Estonians are Russian, or at least primarily Russophone; the vast majority of these are descendents of Russians who were relocated from the Soviet Union after the second world war, while thousands of Estonians were being deported to the gulag and scattered across the USSR. Between 1945 and 1991, the number of Russians in Estonia rose from 23,000 to 475,000. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, new citizenship laws required Russians who had arrived after 1945, and their descendents born in Soviet Estonia, to pass Estonian language tests to gain citizenship. Tensions began to grow. Many of the Russians do not see themselves, or their parents, as colonisers: according to the official Kremlin line, Estonia “voluntarily” renounced its independence in 1941. Some felt like second class citizens in the new Estonia: why weren’t prescriptions available in Russian? Why couldn’t Russophone towns have street signs in Russian?
When Russian nationalists would gather at the Bronze Soldier to sing Soviet songs and drape the statue with flags, Estonian nationalists began to organise counter-marches at the same spot. In 2006, one Estonian nationalist writer threatened to blow the statue up. In March 2007, the Estonian parliament voted to move the statue to a military cemetery – officially, for reasons of keeping the peace. But Russian politicians and media responded furiously. “Estonian leaders collaborate with fascism!’’ said the mayor of Moscow; “The situation is despicable,” said the foreign minister. The Russian media nicknamed the country “eSStonia”. A vigilante group calling itself the Night Watch camped around the Bronze Soldier to protect it from removal.
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On the night of 26 April, as the statue was about to be removed, Russian crowds started throwing bricks and bottles at Estonian police. Riots broke out. There was mass looting. One man died. Russian media, which are popular in Estonia, reported that he was killed by police (he was not), that Russians had been beaten to death at the ferry port (they had not), that Russians were tortured and fed psychotropic substances during interrogation (they were not).
The next day, employees of the Estonian government, newspapers and banks arrived at work to find their computer systems down, crippled by one of the largest cyber attacks to date. E-stonia had been taken offline.
Today, many in Estonia are convinced the whole affair was coordinated from Moscow. Yet nothing can be proven. After the cyber-attack, a nationalist Russian MP and spin doctor, Sergey Markov, told the media his assistant had coordinated the attack with the help of “patriotic hackers” – but said that he was working independently of the Kremlin. The Estonian security services claimed to have observed meetings between the Night Watch vigilantes and the staff at the Russian embassy. But proving the unrest had been coordinated by the Kremlin was a different matter. All that could be said for sure was that someone wanted the Estonian government to know it was not as safe as it thought. But safe against what? “Sometimes we wonder whether the point of the attacks is only to make us sound paranoid and unreliable to our Nato allies,” Ilves suggested. “And thus undermine trust in the alliance.”
A guiding tactical concept in the Russian information war is the idea of “reflexive control”. According to Timothy L Thomas, an analyst at the US army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, and an expert in recent Russian military history and theory, reflexive control involves “conveying to an opponent specially prepared information to incline him voluntarily to make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action”. In other words, to know your adversary’s behaviour patterns so well you can provoke him into doing what you want.
One well-known example during the cold war would take place at the annual Red Square army parades, when the USSR would show off its nuclear weapons and ballistic rockets to the world. The Soviets knew this was one of the very few moments western analysts would be able to see their arsenal, and they would plant fake nuclear weapons with exceptionally big warheads meant to send the west into a panic about the power and innovation of Soviet weaponry. “The aim,” writes Thomas, “was to prompt foreign scientists, who desired to copy the advanced technology, down a dead-end street, thereby wasting precious time and money.”
In Soviet times, “reflexive control” had been the subject of extensive academic study, pioneered by VA Lefebvre, a mathematical psychologist who, according to Thomas, “described reflexive control within the context and logic of a reflexive game”. In the early 2000s, a biannual magazine dedicated to the subject was published by the Russian Institute of Psychology, with articles about the “algebra of conscience” and “reflexive games between people and robots”.
Applied to the landscape of information warfare, “reflexive control” means that the Estonians are kept guessing about the Kremlin’s intentions, and paralysed by inability to formulate a response to provocations whose origins and aims are impossible to determine – whose aims, in fact, may simply be to induce an overreaction. “When Russian politicians make threats about being able to conquer Estonia, does that mean they would actually invade?” asked Iivi Masso, Ilve’s security adviser when she joined us at the president’s residence. “Are they just trying to demoralise us? Or do they want western journalists to quote them, which will send a signal to the markets that we’re unsafe, and thus send our investment climate plummeting?”
* * *
A few months after my visit to Estonia, I attended a Nato policy seminar in Kiev that was intended to address these new challenges. The seminar was held in what looked like the ballroom of a grand hotel, with stucco columns and mirrored ceilings. At the head of the room was a small Cornishman, rocking backwards and forwards in front of a PowerPoint presentation. This was Mark Laity, a former BBC defence correspondent who is now the head of strategic communications for Nato.
Projected on a large screen behind Laity was a flowchart that explained the building blocks of a narrative: how conflict leads to the desire for resolution, which is played out through “actions, participants and events”. It was the kind of thing students are taught in the first year of film school, or in undergraduate courses on literary theory. The presentation stressed that the world should be seen as a “system of stories” inside a “narrative landscape”. For the attendants, mainly military men and civil servants, this was a new way of looking at the world. They took notes studiously.
Nato remains undefeated on the battlefield, but Laity wanted to make clear that the “narrative landscape” represented a new and unfamiliar battleground – one in which Nato no longer appeared to hold a clear advantage. This realisation has dawned more clearly over the past year, as the Kremlin appears to be trying to test the limits of the cold war alliance, in sometimes subtle, sometimes overt ways. The semantic lock that seals the North Atlantic treaty is Article 5, which states that a military attack on one Nato nation is an attack on all. Obama cited Article 5 in his Tallinn speech, describing it as “crystal clear”. But what if you could undermine this principle without firing a single bullet? Would a cyber-attack on Bulgaria by unknown actors sympathetic to Russia invoke Article 5? What about a tiny insurrection in a Baltic border town, organised by locals with suspicious ties to Russian security services? Would all the countries in Nato go to war to keep Estonian electronic banking online?
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Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin seems to have sought to tease and provoke its western neighbours by more conventional means as well. (Russia, of course, insists the reverse is true.) In 2010, one Russian warship was spotted in Latvian waters; in 2014, the total was 40. Latvian aeroplanes were scrambled five times in 2010; in 2014 that figure was over a hundred, as Russian planes swooped into Baltic airspace. Meanwhile, in February, Russian bombers were spotted off the coast of Cornwall.
All these manoeuvres put Nato in a double bind. Not reacting would show the organisation to be pointless. Thus the necessity of Obama’s trip to Tallinn, or of British defence secretary Philip Hammond’s tough words, in March, that “Russia has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security”. But, on the other hand, the Kremlin knew perfectly well that Nato had to respond. What if it does not take more than that to make Nato look impotent?
If the battle shifts to the “psychosphere”, Nato’s military supremacy is irrelevant – indeed it becomes an achilles heel as the alliance’s very might makes it more unwieldy and more dramatic to subvert. Last winter, I met with Rick Stengel, the US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, and one of those responsible for formulating the American response to Russia’s ambiguous information operations. Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine, works out of the Washington office from which George Marshall once designed the reconstruction of Europe after the second world war. On weekends he commutes home to New York City, where I met him at his local coffee shop on the Upper West Side.
“At Time, my motto was, ‘We explain the world to America, and America to the world,’” Stengel told me. He sees his new job as the application of this philosophy to a larger stage, one where patient storytelling, based on identifiable facts, can still win the day. Since the annexation of Crimea, Stengel’s team have compiled lists of facts, which it circulates on social media, in an attempt to contradict Kremlin disinformation – like an official US government version of the Ukrainian StopFake website. Stengel calls it “a reality check to the Kremlin line”.
His attentions are not confined to Russia: the State Department has also launched a Twitter campaign against the Islamic State, called “Think Again Turn Away”, which aims to deliver “some truths about terrorism” in order to discourage recruits from joining Isis. (Given Isis’s high recruitment rate, it is not entirely clear that this is meeting with much success.) It is an approach steeped in the premises of liberal journalism: if Stengel presents better arguments and stronger evidence, he believes he should win the debate.
* * *
At the time that I met Stengel in November, posters for RT – Russia’s state-run international news channel – were plastered all over Manhattan. RT America, which began broadcasting in 2010, had launched an advertising campaign promising an alternative view to the American mainstream media. “Before I was sworn in, I had never watched RT,” Stengel told me. The channel is funded by the Kremlin, with an estimated budget of $230m per year, and services in English, German, Spanish and Arabic. RT claims to have a “global reach” of 700 million people, and says its video clips have received over 2bn views online, making it “YouTube’s leading news provider”.
The mantra of Margarita Simonyan, who heads RT, is: “There is no such thing as objective reporting.” This may be true, but RT’s mission is to push the truism to its breaking point. At a time when many in the west have lost faith in the integrity and authority of mainstream media organisations, RT seems dedicated to the proposition that after the notion of objectivity has evaporated, all stories are equally true. In America, where polls show that trust in the media has never recovered to levels seen before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, RT’s posters showed George W Bush celebrating “Mission Accomplished” – with the tag line: “This is what happens when there is no second opinion.” It was hard not to nod in agreement with the message.
The posters, however, do not offer any argument for trusting Putin’s TV network; their main message is that you cannot trust the western media. It is all too easy to show that RT’s coverage is rife with conspiracy theories and risible fabrications: one programme showed fake documents intended to prove that the US was guiding the Ukrainian government to ethnically cleanse Russian speakers from western Ukraine. Another RT report investigated whether the CIA had invented Ebola to use as a weapon against developing nations. Presenters rarely challenge the views of “experts” during discussions of subjects such as the Syria conflict – where Moscow has backed President Bashar al-Assad. One regular guest has suggested that the Syrian civil war was “planned in 1997 by Paul Wolfowitz”, while another has described the death toll as “a joint production of CIA, MI6, Mossad”.
The foibles of RT have been well-documented, not least by StopFake, but journalistic credibility does not seem to be what the network is striving for. If a commitment to the impossibility of objective reporting means that any position, however bizarre, is no better or worse than any other, the ultimate effect, which may be the intended one, is to suggest that all media organisations are equally untrustworthy – and to elevate any journalistic errors by the BBC or New York Times into indisputable signs they are lackeys of their own governments.
The conspiratorial flights of fancy that fill up RT’s airtime are reminiscent of “active measures”, the old-school KGB psy‑ops tactics that the Soviet defector Oleg Kalugin described as “the heart and soul of the intelligence services”. Departments dedicated to active measures did not seek to collect intelligence. Their aim, said Kalugin, was “subversion: to drive wedges in the western community, particularly Nato, and weaken the United States”. A favourite tactic was to place fake stories, “dezinformatsiya”, in international news outlets. One story from the early 1980s presented painstakingly concocted medical proof that the CIA invented Aids to kill off the African-American population.
Once the KGB would have spent months planting well-made forgeries. The new disinformation is cheap, crass and quick
Where once the KGB would have spent months, or years, carefully planting well-made forgeries through covert agents in the west, the new dezinformatsiya is cheap, crass and quick: created in a few seconds and thrown online. The aim seems less to establish alternative truths than to spread confusion about the status of truth. In a similar vein, the aim of the professional pro-Putin online trolls who haunt website comment sections is to make any constructive conversation impossible. As Shaun Walker recently reported in this newspaper, at one “troll factory” in St Petersburg, employees are paid about £500 a month to pose as regular internet users defending Putin, posting insulting pictures of foreign leaders, and spreading conspiracy theories – for instance, that Ukrainian protestors on the Maidan were fed tea laced with drugs, which led them to overthrow the (pro-Moscow) government.
Taken together, all these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.
* * *
The mindset that the Kremlin’s information warfare seems intended to encourage is well-suited to European citizens at this particular moment. In a recent paper called “The Conspiratorial Mindset in an Age of Transition”, which looked at the proliferation of conspiracy theories in France, Hungary and Slovakia, a team of researchers from European thinktanks concluded that the “current period of transition in Europe has resulted in increased uncertainty about collective identities and a perceived loss of control. These are in turn the ideal conditions for the proliferation of conspiracy.” Conspiratorial inclinations are especially rife among supporters of rightwing nationalist and populist parties, such as the Front National in France or Jobbik in Hungary – which support, and are supported by, Moscow. (Marine Le Pen admitted in November that the FN had taken a €9m loan from a Moscow bank owned by a pro-Kremlin businessman; she insists that the deal had nothing to do with her support of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.) Some 20% of the members of the European parliament now belong to parties – largely on the far right – sympathetic to Moscow.
The significance of these parties has grown in tandem with the decline of trust in national governments. At moments of financial and geopolitical uncertainty, people turn to outlandish theories to explain crises. Was this the “invisible radiation” that the Russian information-psychological war encyclopedia had referred to? Once the idea of rational discourse has been undermined, spectacle is all that remains. The side that tells better stories, and does so more aggressively – unencumbered by scrupulousness about their verifiability – will edge out someone trying to methodically “prove” a fact.
Whatever else might be said of the Kremlin’s information strategy, it is undoubtedly in tune with the zeitgeist: one that is also visible in America and Britain, where what Stephen Colbert memorably called “truthiness” can run roughshod over fact-based discourse.
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“There are two possible approaches to information war,” the encyclopedia states. The first approach “recognises the primacy of objects in the real world” and attempts to spin them in a favourable or unfavourable direction. The “more strategic” approach, it continues, “puts information before objects”. In other words, the encyclopedia seems to be saying that reality can be reinvented.
Russia is hardly alone in its exploration of these methods. In Asia, China has deployed a potent mix of psychological and legal warfare to strengthen its claims to hegemony over the South China Sea. A 2013 report called “China: The Three Warfares”, prepared for the Pentagon by a group of scholars led by Cambridge University’s Stefan Halper, describes the Chinese response to a standoff with the Philippines over a disputed shoal claimed by both countries, which involved economic sanctions, psychological intimidation (in the form of military ships sailing into Filipino waters) and a media campaign depicting Manila’s behaviour as dangerously “radical”. “Twenty-first-century warfare is guided by a new and vital dimension,” writes Halper, “namely the belief that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins.”
“Journalists are taught to report both sides,” Stengel told me with frustration. “When the Kremlin says there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea they have to repeat it. How do you combat someone who just makes stuff up?”
Maybe it was the jet lag, or the way darkness descends so suddenly over Manhattan in midwinter, but as I walked away from my meeting with Stengel, I couldn’t help contemplating a vision of a future inundated by disinformation, where no argument could ever be won and no view had more authority than any other. But almost immediately, I caught myself: what if fears like mine were part of the game? In information-psychological war there are no clear victories, no flags to be planted and borders to be redrawn, only endless mind games in the “psychosphere”, where victory might be the opposite of what you initially supposed. Is the purpose of RT, for example, to spread news, conspiracies and opinions? Or is its purpose to project an impression of Russian strength and confidence – which means that talking constantly about its brazen attitude only augments that perception?
I began to wonder whether the very idea of information-psychological war – with its suggestion that Russia had discovered a shadowy weapon for which the west has no answer – was itself a species of information warfare. Perhaps the encyclopedia, and talk of “invisible radiation” that could override “biological defences”, was simply one more bluff – like the fake nuclear weapons that were paraded through Red Square in order to lead overeager western analysts down a hall of mirrors. And if this was simply a 21st-century update of that classic example of “reflexive control”, inducing your enemy to do what you want him to – then, I wondered, was this essay, the one you are reading, part of the plan?
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Peter Pomerantsev is the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: the Surreal Heart of the New Russia, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week
• This article was amended on 9 April 2015 to fix a typo: the earlier version referred to 1915 where 1917 was meant.
• This article was amended on 10 April 2015 to clarify that RT America launched in 2010 and to correct an error: RT does not broadcast in Serbian.
"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung
Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 13 Jan 2007
Location: Westminster, LONDON, SW1A 2HB.
|Posted: Tue Sep 19, 2017 9:13 am Post subject:
|RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War
How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century — and why it may be impossible to stop
By JIM RUTENBERG SEPTEMBER 13, 2017
One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.
But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.
The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.
Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.
But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.
By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”
The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.
That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.
An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.
The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.
Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West. In the months that followed, politicians perceived by the Russian government as hostile to its interests would find themselves caught up in media storms that, in their broad contours, resembled the one that gathered around Merkel. They often involved conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods — sometimes with a tenuous connection to fact, as in the Lisa case, sometimes with no connection at all — amplified until they broke through into domestic politics. In other cases, they simply helped promote nationalist, far-left or far-right views that put pressure on the political center. What the efforts had in common was their agents: a loose network of Russian-government-run or -financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts.
After RT and Sputnik gave platforms to politicians behind the British vote to leave the European Union, like Nigel Farage, a committee of the British Parliament released a report warning that foreign governments may have tried to interfere with the referendum. Russia and China, the report argued, had an “understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals” and practiced a kind of cyberwarfare “reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion.” When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia visited the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, at the palace of Versailles in May, Macron spoke out about such influence campaigns at a news conference. Having prevailed weeks earlier in the election over Marine Le Pen — a far-right politician who had backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea and met with him in the Kremlin a month before the election — Macron complained that “Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign.”
RT vans in a parking lot at the network’s studios in Moscow.
JAMES HILL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
But all of this paled in comparison with the role that Russian information networks are suspected to have played in the American presidential election of 2016. In early January, two weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, American intelligence officials released a declassified version of a report — prepared jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency — titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” It detailed what an Obama-era Pentagon intelligence official, Michael Vickers, described in an interview in June with NBC News as “the political equivalent of 9/11.” “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” the authors wrote. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency.” According to the report, “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
The intelligence assessment detailed some cloak-and-dagger activities, like the murky web of Russian (if not directly government-affiliated or -financed) hackers who infiltrated voting systems and stole gigabytes’ worth of email and other documents from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. But most of the assessment concerned machinations that were plainly visible to anyone with a cable subscription or an internet connection: the coordinated activities of the TV and online-media properties and social-media accounts that made up, in the report’s words, “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.”
The assessment devoted nearly half its pages to a single cable network: RT. The Kremlin started RT — shortened from the original Russia Today — a dozen years ago to improve Russia’s image abroad. It operates in several world capitals and is carried on cable and satellite networks across the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. RT and the rest of the Russian information machine were working with “covert intelligence operations” to do no less than “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order,” the assessment stated. And, it warned ominously, “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.” On Sept. 11, RT announced that the Justice Department had asked a company providing all production and operations services for RT America in the United States to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a World War II-era law that was originally devised for Nazi propaganda. Also on Sept. 11, Yahoo News reported that a former correspondent at Sputnik was speaking with the F.B.I. as part of an investigation into whether it was violating FARA.
Russia has dismissed the intelligence-community claims as so much Cold War-era Yankee hysteria. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s chief editor, told me the allegations against the network smacked of “McCarthyism.” Still, Russian officials are remarkably open about the aims of RT and Sputnik: to “break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon global information streams,” as Putin himself put it during a visit to RT’s Moscow headquarters in 2013. Russia’s argument about RT’s rightful place in the American media landscape is not all that different from the one Roger Ailes made when he started Fox News: If you thought Fox looked conservative, he would say, maybe it’s because you were liberal. In Russia’s case, it’s: If RT looks biased, it’s because you live in a bubble of Western arrogance and hypocrisy. You’re the one who’s biased.
Plenty of RT’s programming, to outward appearances, is not qualitatively different from conventional opinion-infused cable news. RT America’s current roster of hosts includes the former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges, Larry King and the former MSNBC star Ed Schultz, who told me that the network allows him to cover news that may not otherwise “get the proper attention that we think it deserves.” (And, he added, “the health care is outstanding.”) Its fans point to its coverage of political perspectives that aren’t prominent on mainstream networks — voices from the Occupy movement, the libertarian right and third parties like the Green Party. The network has been nominated for four International Emmy Awards and one Daytime Emmy.
This makes RT and Sputnik harder for the West to combat than shadowy hackers. You can tighten your internet security protocols to protect against data breaches, run counterhacking operations to take out infiltrators, sanction countries with proven links to such activities. But RT and Sputnik 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 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.
In April, I went to visit Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, at his Kremlin office. Peskov, who is 49, works in the presidential administrative headquarters, a prewar building with a grand facade but cramped hallways and offices inside. He has been a spokesman for Putin since Putin first took office in 2000 and is almost always hovering on the edge of the frame in Putin’s photo ops, whether it’s at a gathering of international heads of state or as the president is positioning his pads for a star turn in an exhibition hockey game. The whole presidential-press-attaché-as-celebrity thing is finally starting to hit Russia — Peskov’s lavish wedding to a former Russian Olympic ice-dancing gold medalist in 2015 made the tabloids — but his work look is more Politburo than Paul Smith. He has bushy reddish-brown hair and a mustache, and always appears to be suppressing a sly smile, even when he is frowning.
When I asked Peskov what Putin meant by RT’s mission to “break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon global information streams,” he went into something of a dissertation, speaking in English with obvious relish and little room for interjections. “The whole trend of global media was set by Anglo-Saxons,” he began. “It’s like the first conveyor belt. It was created by Mr. Ford in the United States.” (It wasn’t, but Ford was the first major manufacturer to use the technology on a grand scale.) But now, he went on, “the conveyor line is not only working in G.M., in Ford — it’s also working in Citroën, in Renault, in Mercedes-Benz, in Toyota, everywhere in the world.”
Something like the dissemination of Ford’s conveyor belt, he said, was now happening in media; the sort of global news networks the West built were being replicated by Russia, to great effect. What was making “the whole story successful,” he said, “is a tectonic change of the global system that all of a sudden started to develop 10 years ago.”
The transformation and acceleration of information technology, Peskov said, had unmoored the global economy from real value. Perception alone could move markets or crash them. “We’ve never seen bubbles like we’ve seen in the greatest economy in the world, the United States,” he said. The same free flow of information had produced “a new clash of interests,” and so began “an informational disaster — an informational war.”
Peskov argued that this was not an information war of Russia’s choosing; it was a “counteraction.” He brought up the “color revolutions” throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which led to the ousters of Russian-friendly governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the mid-2000s. Russia blamed American nongovernmental organizations for fomenting the upheavals. But now, Peskov argued, all you might need to shake up the geopolitical order was a Twitter account. “Now you can reach hundreds of millions in a minute,” he said.
By way of example, he pointed to “this girl, from show business, Kim Kardashian.” Kardashian is among the most popular people in all of social media, with 55 million Twitter followers, nearly 18 million more than President Trump. “Let’s imagine that one day she says, ‘My supporters — do this,’ ” Peskov said. “This will be a signal that will be accepted by millions and millions of people. And she’s got no intelligence, no interior ministry, no defense ministry, no K.G.B.” This, he said, was the new reality: the global proliferation of the kinds of reach and influence that were once reserved for the great powers and, more recently, great media conglomerates. Even Peskov sounded slightly amazed considering the possibilities. “The new reality creates a perfect opportunity for mass disturbances,” he said, “or for initiating mass support or mass disapproval.”
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 democracy.
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 me.
RT International’s newsroom in Moscow.
JAMES HILL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
America’s midcentury 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. Finding his own pen out of ink, Gorbachev turned to the CNN president at the time, Tom Johnson, who lent Gorbachev the Mont Blanc he had in his breast pocket. After making sure the pen wasn’t American-made, the last Soviet leader used it to sign one of the most important documents in Russian history. “You have built your empire better than I built mine,” he told Johnson.
Mikhail Lesin, too, wanted to build an empire. Around the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, he was in his mid-30s, running Video International, an early big Russian ad firm, of which he was a founder. Video International was credited with bringing modern, American-style techniques to Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign, and after Yeltsin’s victory, the president rewarded Lesin by placing him in charge of his presidential communications operation.
Lesin was a sharp-witted hard drinker who was concerned about Russia’s image in the world. He had a vision for an international network that would familiarize Russia in the same way that CNN familiarized America. But the chaos of the later Yeltsin years, in which the ruble collapsed and Yeltsin’s government foundered, made such a thing impossible.
Lesin found a more receptive patron in Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 1999. Putin — who, as a deputy in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office half a decade earlier, once chauffeured Ted Turner around the city — was an attentive student of the power of television. At times, he could not contain his frustration with the way the foreign media covered Russia. “All they can talk about is crisis and breakdown,” he complained to a nationalist youth group in 2005.
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.
President Vladimir Putin speaking with RT journalists in Moscow in 2013.
JAMES HILL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
When she heard she got the job, “I almost fainted,” Simonyan told me recently. We were sitting on plush couches on an exclusive, dimly lit floor of Voronezh, a fashionable restaurant in the Khamovniki district in central Moscow. “Dr. No,” the James Bond film about a plan to disrupt the American space program, was on a TV screen opposite us. Before us was a spread of venison, oysters and shrimp, themselves an unsubtle statement: They were imported from Russia’s far east, a menu adjustment in response to the sanctions and countersanctions that had cut off Western food imports.
Simonyan, who is now 37, is petite with a wide face, dark hair and green eyes. Her name appears more times in the declassified U.S. intelligence assessment than anyone’s besides Putin’s, but she seems a somewhat unlikely candidate for an American national-security threat. When the report dropped, she wrote on Twitter: “They are kidding, right?” At the restaurant, she told me: “I never planned to be a part of a weapon. I have two children, and I’m very, very peaceful. I don’t like wars. Any wars.”
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.”
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.”
At the beginning, the network’s mission was to reverse the global view of Russians “as bears that roam the streets and growl,” as Lesin put it in an interview in 2001. (Lesin was found dead in a Washington hotel room in 2015. The city’s medical examiner attributed his death to blunt trauma to the head. While the incident remains the subject of much speculation, federal investigators have said they believe Lesin’s death followed a prolonged bout of heavy drinking.) An early BBC content analysis found nothing all that remarkable in the network’s Russia-centric coverage and noted that it even included criticism of the Russian bureaucracy.
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 she 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 More.”
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 banker-turned-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 country.
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 the weeks after the 2016 election, the American political debate was overtaken by suspicions that Russia had played a role in the election in a significant way. There were the hacks of the D.N.C. servers, which intelligence agencies pinned on Russia well before Election Day. But there was also a sense that Russia’s media and social-media machinery had contributed to the informational chaos — the fake news and conspiracy theories that coursed through social-media feeds — that characterized the final stretch of the election, to, it turned out, Trump’s benefit.
In a handful of cases, picking through the tangles of information, true and otherwise, that shaped the election, it was possible to isolate a single strand that could be traced to Russian news sources. One of the most striking cases came in late July 2016, when Sputnik and RT reported that thousands of police officers had surrounded a NATO air base in Turkey amid rumors of a coup attempt — a report that turned out to be exaggerated (there was a planned, peaceful demonstration, and the police were there to secure the area in preparation for a visit the next day by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff). Three internet-security analysts, now working together at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, followed the story’s progress through the social-media landscape. Within the first 78 minutes, a large number of Twitter accounts — many of which they identified as pro-Russian bots — picked up the flawed story and blasted it out in some 4,000 tweets, one of the researchers, a former F.B.I. agent named Clinton Watts, testified before the Senate last spring.
Nahed Al Ali, an anchor for RT Arabic, reading a news bulletin in the RT Arabic studio in Moscow.
JAMES HILL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Some of the accounts added the hashtag “#Benghazi” and warned that thousands of Muslims were on the brink of acquiring the nuclear weapons held at the NATO base. Others included “#TrumpPence16” hashtags, along with words like “America,” “Constitution” and “conservative.” Large numbers of the tweets included accusations that the “MSM” — mainstream media — wasn’t covering the attack. The RT story racked up thousands of shares on Reddit and was picked up on David Duke’s webpage. About two weeks later, in an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN, Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort, said: “You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists.” He claimed the media had ignored it. Watts told me: “That’s when we were like, ‘Whoa, this is a whole new level.’ ”
But such clear-cut instances were rare. 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, that “you can only crack a piece of it,” Watts’s colleague J.M. Berger told me.
After the D.N.C. staff member Seth Rich was, according to the police, murdered in a botched robbery attempt on July 10, one of the first inklings of the conspiracy theory that continues to swirl around his death — that he might have been behind the leaked D.N.C. emails that WikiLeaks distributed that summer — was a video posted to YouTube on July 29 of the American RT host Lori Harfenist wondering aloud: “No one in the media is reporting that one of the D.N.C.’s employees who had ready access to the email servers was just mysteriously murdered in the middle of the night?” But far-right media outlets, and the Republican presidential nominee, had spent the election trafficking in baseless conspiracy theories, too. As Simonyan pointed out to me, “Fox raised similar questions” about Rich’s death.
And RT’s coverage of Trump had not been wholly uncritical. Chris Hedges, the former Times correspondent, said Trump had “a penchant for lying and deception and manipulation,” and Ed Schultz pleaded with his guests: “Who’s going to stop Donald Trump?” 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 clients.
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-news-spreading 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.
RT flew in several members of its leadership team from Moscow for a ceremony and held a cocktail party in the lobby of the General Assembly building, with hot plates and canapés of shrimp dumplings and meatballs and ham. Giant banners proclaimed “RT: Member Broadcaster of the United Nations In-House Network.”
After some mingling, the crowd moved into an auditorium with long pressboard tables and the standard-issue U.N. headsets and digital clocks. A number of officials gave speeches, including Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., who would die suddenly in the Russian Mission in New York the following month. (The cause of death was withheld according to diplomatic protocol, though the New York police told The Times they did not suspect foul play.) Alexey Nikolov, RT’s director general, also addressed the group. Nikolov is bald with a kindly face and a lilting voice. He began by explaining that he was reading from notes because he was emotional.
His speech was about his mother, who grew up under Stalin. She was orphaned at 3, “when she was thrown out of her apartment in the middle of Moscow winter together with her brother, when their parents were arrested by the N.K.V.D., the Stalin secret police,” he said, speaking haltingly. “My grandfather, her father, as she only found out many years later, was tortured and executed. And my grandmother, her mother, died in a labor camp. And similar stories happened to millions of my compatriots back in the 1930s.”
He was building toward something. “What I see today is more and more frequently people produce the highfalutin talk about using the word ‘propaganda’ that eerily echoes those dark days of the Soviet era, when even thinking their own thoughts, not to mention speaking or printing them, was a crime.” People, he declared, “must have the right to know different news, coming from different sources, and then make their own judgment.”
It was an addendum to “Question More.” Yes, question more, but also consider more — more news sources, more versions of reality. It’s a point that you really can’t argue with: 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 now.”
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.)
It also reflected the genius of “Question More”: 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.
Listen to Jim Rutenberg discuss how the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century on “The Daily” podcast.
'Suppression of truth, human spirit and the holy chord of justice never works long-term. Something the suppressors never get.' David Southwell
Martin Van Creveld: Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: "Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother."
Martin Van Creveld: I'll quote Henry Kissinger: "In campaigns like this the antiterror forces lose, because they don't win, and the rebels win by not losing."