There is growing concern among Western nations that Russia is outwitting them when it comes to influencing public opinion.
To read the media in Europe and the United States, we are currently engaged in an information war that the Russians are winning. However good the Kremlin may be at transmitting its opinions to a wider audience, there are certainly limitations to such a strategy, writes Mark Galeotti for The Moscow Times.
Russian media campaign lacks subtlety
Before we begin to consider the implications of an information war, it is important to recognize that Moscow is certainly attempting to undermine Western ideals using a multifaceted campaign in the media. RT acts as a mouthpiece for the Russian government, and its coverage sometimes features analysts of questionable integrity.
We could debate the merits of RT and its attempts to portray certain officials, including State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, in a bad light. However it must be said that far from churning out positive coverage of Russia and the ideals it claims to represent, RT appears to be carrying out a negative campaign.
If the aim is to exert a positive influence on how the rest of the world perceives Russia, it is failing. Surveys carried out by the Pew Research Center show that from 2013-2014, positive views of Russia did not increase in a single region of the globe, and negative views of Russia rose from 54% to 74% in Europe.
Choke hold on information within Russia
Ar home, Russian state media does a great job protecting President Vladimir Putin, and his approval ratings just hit an all-time high despite the economic struggles of the country. Although Russia is having some measure of success in provoking debate in the West, the effects of its information program are more keenly felt in the former Soviet states, where domestic news is often underfunded. In such a situation the state-supported Russian media has great success in dominating the debate on key issues.
In Germany, surveys reveal that the majority of the population would not want to support a NATO partner if it were attacked by Russia. Although some commentators claim that this unwillingness to support the alliance is due to Russian propaganda, it could just as likely be seen as a symptom of tiredness with integration. Germany has been forced to bail out various European Union members, and its populace may be tired of sorting out other people’s problems.
However the continued debate over the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, and its supposed links to neo-Nazi groups, obscure the fact that Russia’s continued presence in the country is inexcusable under international law, and provides evidence of the success of Russian propaganda.
Benefits of “information war” should be questioned
The changing media landscape of the West makes us more susceptible to rumor and badly researched half-truths. Electorates believe that they are being lied to by traditional power structures like politicians and the media, which makes them more likely to believe alternative points of view.
Despite their supposed sophistication, Russian troll farms have been outed and we have to question the efficacy of a policy which has left any comment which may suggest a pro-Russian bias subject to howls of derision and accusations of being a troll. However the effects of the campaign are still confusing the public in the West.
At a time when we are overwhelmed by a cascade of information, it is hard to know which sources to trust. Although most readers will know the difference between well-researched reporting and pure speculation, the Russian information war appears to be having some success with those who have no appetite for a considered analysis of the unfolding situation.
However the strategy is not foolproof, and the Kremlin is liable to turn people away from its messages through careless mistakes such as the easily-detected hacking of the German Bundestag.
Propaganda war looming?
In response to the Russian program, the European Union has announced the formation of an “East StratCom Team” which will promote certain messages within the union and its “Eastern neighborhood.” While the EU may be struggling to gain public approval in England and Greece, it could have an important role to play in those Eastern European countries which still have a significant minority population of ethnic Russians.
Russian media is having some success sowing the seeds of discontent among these populations, and the EU counter-initiative needs to arrest that slide. However great the temptation to publish outright propaganda, it should be avoided in the interests of integrity. If the alternative to lies is more lies, then the populations of Eastern Europe and Russia are faced with an unattractive choice.
The very weaknesses of the West, skepticism, a multitude of opinions, and an appetite for analysis, are also its strengths. These principles should not be lost in a race to the gutter.