Inside the Kremlin’s propaganda playbook, where “nothing is true and everything is possible.” But from Moscow to Washington, there’s still a way to fight back.
My latest story for Latterly.
The idea that news could be purposely fake has shocked a lot of Americans. But in Russia, the separation of news from truth has a longer and more recognized history.
A popular Soviet-era political joke centered on two newspapers of record: Pravda (“Truth”), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and Izvestiya (“News”), the official newspaper of the Soviet government.
“In Pravda there is no news, and in Izvestiya there is no truth.”
We often think of “fake news” as being easily identifiable—suspicious-looking links with odd URLs, gratuitous ads and overly dramatic headlines scattered in our search results or drifting in our social media feeds. But what if the major television news networks and newspapers of record, the sources we implicitly trust to inform us each day, peddled those same untruths and alternative facts? What if they relayed and repeated only the information and angles approved by the White House? That scenario describes contemporary Russian media.
In the opening pages of his 2014 book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, British journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes that in a place as vast as Russia, television “is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country. It’s the central mechanism of a new kind of authoritarianism, one far subtler than 21st century strains.” The goal of Kremlin television, he continues, is “to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment. [It] mixes show business and propaganda, ratings with authoritarianism. And at the center of the great show is the President himself.” Modern sets and studios, sharply dressed hosts and anchors, breaking news coverage, pop culture gifs on social media—Russian state television has them all, using “the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.”
Beyond television, the Kremlin’s wider approach to Russian media is simply to own it. In its 2016 Freedom of the Press report on Russia, Freedom House noted that the “Russian state controls, either directly or through proxies, all five of the major national television networks, as well as national radio networks, important national newspapers and national news agencies. The state also controls more than 60 percent of the country’s estimated 45,000 regional and local newspapers and other periodicals.” Even the state-owned gas giant has its own company, the aptly named Gazprom-Media. This ownership gives the Kremlin editorial control over the national news cycle. And if an outlet is not directly controlled by the state, the owner is usually a close friend or associate of President Vladimir Putin’s, or an executive who understands the importance of towing the line.
The government also wields extensive supervisory and censorship power through a federal agency known as Roskomnadzor. It can flag websites or posts based on specific keywords or phrases, such as “protest rally,” and has blocked sites ranging from Pornhub to LinkedIn in Russia.
A smattering of critical coverage and independent media outlets still operate in print, online and on the air, giving the perception of differing perspectives. But these outlets are embattled. They face the financial pressures now hurting the media industry everywhere, plus smaller audiences and the looming threat of a Roskomnadzor crackdown. Multiple newsrooms (RBC, Forbes Russia, Lenta.ru, RIA Novosti, Gazeta.ru, Dozhd TV and Kommersant, to name a few) have seen top editors fired or pressured to resign and staffers quit in protest, with organizations swiftly restructured or even dissolved. This pressure had often followed reporting on particularly sensitive topics, such as Putin’s personal life or Russian actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Broad, vaguely defined laws in Russia, including on “extremism” and “separatism,” have been used to prosecute journalists, bloggers and social media users. Eventually, for many Russians, the advantages of writing an investigative report or a critical blog post were outweighed by the potential consequences for their reputations, employment, companies, and even freedom or physical safety. Self-censorship is one of the most effective forms of media restriction in Russia. Journalists have learned which topics to tread lightly around, or avoid altogether.
The irony, however, is that criticism in the abstract can still run. Putin and the Kremlin condemn corruption, bureaucracy and government ineffectiveness generally in statements and in town hall meetings, but this official nod generates national press on the issues without the need to enact actual reforms. Political debate that is too piercing, investigative reporting that is too robust and penetrating, or a critical argument against Kremlin insiders that is too well-sourced, runs the risk of attracting official and legal attention.
Dictating the parameters and framework for discussion in domestic media is useful; doing the same abroad is even more advantageous. “Putin decided that doing things outside of Russia is more powerful, and pays more dividends, than reforming things or actually fixing things inside Russia,” says Anatoly Yakorev, the director of the Center for Business Ethics & Compliance in Moscow and an expert on anticorruption and transparency issues.
Influencing perceptions outside of Russia, in Russia’s favor, is an irresistible and invaluable opportunity to benefit the Kremlin on the international stage. Recently, for example, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian military will form units dedicated to information warfare. “Propaganda must be smart, competent and effective,” Shoigu was quoted as saying.
Ironically, Russian misinformation finds a place in the Western media environment because of its commitment to pluralism. RT and Sputnik are two multilingual outlets that promote their coverage as offering an “alternative perspective” or a “Russian viewpoint,” which of course, subtly, means the Kremlin’s. RT’s slogan is “Question More.” Sputnik describes itself as a broadcaster that “tells the untold.”
In Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev describes RT as “a new type of Kremlin propaganda, less about arguing against the West with a counter-model as in the Cold War, [and] more about slipping inside its language to play and taunt it from inside.”
Notably, the Kremlin’s goal isn’t necessarily to manufacture and disseminate outright falsehoods—though a few pro-Kremlin media have reported condoms contribute to the HIV epidemic, Westerners can marry animals and the CIA is sponsoring Osama bin Laden in the Bahamas. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has even created its own website to expose Western “fake news.” By presenting contrarian facts, obscure figures and conspiracy theories, Russian media undermine trust in institutions—including, ironically, the media itself. The Kremlin doesn’t need to attack a democracy, or an election, or a public figure; it just needs to present the possibility that it might have, or could. This is an important feature of Kremlin propaganda: perception.
The United States now has its own version of the “great show” Pomerantsev describes, a personality-turned-president at its center. President Donald Trump combines an obsession with show business and ratings, and a love and disdain for the media.
Yet in his quest for ever-growing fame, public adoration and approval, he displays an unprecedented and disturbing approach. Critical coverage, negative polls and even hard data are “fake news.” Information that contradicts existing evidence and backs up his own assertions and preset narrative isn’t false, but rather “alternative facts,” in the words of Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway.
Trump tweets early in the morning to focus the day’s new coverage on him and the topics he wants to see covered. Outlets whose coverage is to his liking are “fair and balanced,” while those he finds disagreeable are “failing” and even blocked from press briefings. His advisers have ridiculed specific networks’ contributors, and Conway complained that no media figures had been fired for their poor election coverage. Trump has gone so far as to call networks that report objectively and factually the “enemy of the American People.”
It’s Trump’s embrace of fake news—wielding information as an official tool regardless of its veracity—that is strikingly Kremlin-esque. Whether information is true doesn’t matter: It represents a side, a position to defend. Trump paints all negative coverage of him as lies by virtue of its being critical. Similarly, the Kremlin considers all Western news as fake by virtue of it being Western.
But, hearteningly, American media and their commitment to telling the truth have proven to be robust. Many Americans are appalled by the lies emanating from the White House, and TV anchors continue to call out lies and misrepresentations and chastise Trump surrogates for professing easily disprovable falsehoods.
“The only way to counter any propaganda is to take the high road, the moral high ground,” Yakorev said. Propaganda “is all being driven by emotions, by distorted information, by misinformation, to provoke a reaction. Honesty, transparency, integrity … this is all what counters it.”
Combating official lies by sticking ever more boldly and firmly to these principles, to objectivity and the truth, is how to push back against propaganda—whether it’s coming from the Kremlin’s news agencies or the resident of the White House. As long as we continue to expect and demand truth from our sources of information, to hold people accountable for their language and the meaning of their words, we can deny propaganda its audience.
As Trump’s reality-show presidency unfolds, the emphasis on the weight and power of Trump’s persona, rather than the constraints, traditions and norms of his office, is most worrying to Yakorev. Trump takes the criticism directed toward him and his administration strikingly personally, as if faulting him is by extension faulting his vision for the country. And how can you oppose a guy who just wants to make America great again? “Personalities are beginning to matter more than institutions,” he said. “With powerful institutions in place, personalities don’t matter as much.”