Monday

22nd Apr 2019

Feature

EU to strike back at Russian propaganda

  • Use of state media to shape opinion in Russia and Europe has grown exponentially (Photo: Asteris Masouras)

It’s not long since Russia emerged from the stone age of public diplomacy.

But its evolution has been so aggressive that EU capitals are preparing to take counter-meaures in an atmosphere of growing alarm.

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  • Putin’s ideology sometimes finds a receptive audience in unlikely places (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Rewind to 2005, and Russia’s EU embassy in Brussels, for instance, had just 20 staff, few of whom spoke English. Its ambassador, Mikhail Fradkov, a grumpy apparatchik, hid from press. Getting a Russian line on anything was all but impossible.

His successor, Vladimir Chizhov, a fluent English speaker who is fond of his own jokes, changed things.

Embassy personnel grew to over 120. Young, well-groomed press officers answered their mobiles and replied to emails. Chizhov gave interview after interview and popped up in every other seminar and black tie party.

In the run-up to its G8 presidency, in 2008, Russia hired outside help. It began with Ketchum, a leading PR firm in the US, then G-Plus and Hill & Knowlton in Europe, then Dimap, Reti, Kreab Gavin Anderson, Weber Shandwick, and Saylor Company.

Its PR brigade had its first test in the 2008 war on Georgia and the 2008/2009 Ukraine gas crisis.

Go to a Russia-linked event and you would mingle with ex-EU officials, now G-Plus staff, pitching Kremlin ideas. Open your inbox and you would find ready-to-paste Kremlin quotes. Google “gas” and “Ukraine” and the top hit was a pro-Gazprom site called gazpromukrainefacts.com.

In one audacious project in late 2009, the now-defunct Russian news agency, Ria Novosti, even tried to hire a Brussels PR firm to improve the image of Stalin.

The amplification of the Kremlin's voice abroad was accompanied by silencing of independent media at home.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist who works for Levada, an independent Russian pollster, told EUobserver that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s information campaign had three phases.

Three phases

In the first stage, from the moment he came to power in 2000, he began to extend state control over TV broadcasters, such as Ren TV or Channel 1.

In the second phase, which gathered momentum after post-election protests in 2011, he began shutting down independent print and online publications, such as Lenta.

The third phase - war propaganda - began with Georgia in 2008 and resumed with Ukraine in February last year.

“In the Russia-Georgia war, we had an emergency situation when all media channels suddenly gave one point of view. There was no opposing view, or it was presented as the view of subversives, of the enemy”, Volkov said.

“Now, we’ve had to endure the same mode, but for almost one year already … Every news broadcast is about Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine. Then something else. Then back to Ukraine. It’s in talk shows, films, and songs. It’s all over the air and it’s overwhelming. But the more people see it, the less they understand what’s going on. It’s not information. It’s about creating emotions - scare stories about Ukrainians crucifying Russian children. A few facts, but mixed with fabrications and twists which are appealing to the imagination”.

The message has various themes.

It says Russia is a great power again; the EU and US are in decline; the West wants to contain Russia; the Ukraine revolution was a Western coup; there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine; Crimea is quintessentially Russian.

It also contains irrational ideology.

On one hand, Ukrainians and their Western sponsors are “fascists” and people who fight them are like the heroes of the Spanish Civil War.

On the other hand, Russia is a defender of orthodox European society and the strong nation state. Its dog whistles are xenophobic, islamophobic, and homophobic.

Nerijus Maliukevicius, a scholar of propaganda at Vilnius University, echoed Volkov’s words that “the more people see it, the less they understand”.

“It’s not an information war, it’s a disinformation war. It’s about creating strategic uncertainty: that nobody knows what the truth is, so they should be loyal”, Maliukevicius told this website.

In recent years, the Kremlin’s reliance on PR firms has waned.

But its use of state media to shape opinion in Russia and in Europe has grown exponentially.

Its flagship is the RT broadcaster, which has a budget of $300 million a year, employs 2,000 people in 16 countries, and airs shows in English, French, German, and Spanish.

In 2014, it launched Sputnik, an online newswire and radio station which puts out content also in Czech, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese.

The same year it revamped Tass, a 100-year old news agency, which now has a free-of-charge, English-language website that publishes stories which look like Reuters or AP.

Its discovery of the Internet goes further: Putin’s chancellery onlines English-language transcripts and photos of events faster than Germany or France. The Russian foreign ministry tweets quotes in real time.

The campaign also includes “troll farms” - warehouses of people paid to post pro-Kremlin comments, tweets, and blogs. One facility - Internet Research, owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, a St Petersburg restauranter and Putin friend - pays 400 people, who work 12-hour shifts in a 2,500 square metre building, twice the salary of normal reporters.

Some of the media structures exploit loopholes in European law.

BMA, a firm owned by Kremlin-friendly oligarch Oleg Solodov, owns some of the best-watched TV channels in the Baltic states and uses material from Russia’s Ren TV and Channel 1.

A few of its holdings are registered in Latvia, where private broadcasters, unlike in the UK, can air political ads. But others are registered in a letterbox entity in the UK, because “foreign” firms can broadcast in Latvia in Russian without translating programmes into Latvian.

Who’s listening?

The Russian campaign’s impact on public opinion in the West, where it competes with other media, is limited.

A survey by US pollster Pew last year noted that negative views of Russia in Europe rose from 54 percent to 74 percent after Russia invaded Ukraine.

But at the same time, far-right and pro-Russia political parties which share Putin's ideology are, for a mixture of reasons, rising in popularity in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, and the UK.

The ideology sometimes finds a receptive audience in unlikely places.

“The last time I wore my uniform in Paris I was shouted at and spat on by Muslims in the street … Say what you want about Putin, but he might be Europe’s last chance to save itself”, a French former military officer recently told EUobserver.

The impact of Putin’s campaign inside Russia and in Russian-speaking exclaves in Europe is huge, however.

Levada, the Russian pollster, notes that Putin’s approval rating is over 85 percent. About 20 percent of Russians would like to own a Putin t-shirt. Seventy five percent of them believe there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

“Before the Ukraine war, between 2008 and 2014, the Russian regime had a legitimacy crisis and lost one third of its support”, Levada’s Volkov said.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union was very traumatic. But the annexation of Crimea made people feel they are part of a great power which doesn’t have to ask anyone’s permission before it acts. That’s why Putin is so popular, including with the Russian intelligentsia … they accept Russia’s isolation. Their anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism is rooted in Russia’s loss of great power status”.

Volkov added that many Russians see media in a different way to EU broadcasting standards.

“About half the people we survey tell us: ‘That’s true. It might be propaganda. But this is war and this is how wars are fought. It’s an emergency, so propaganda is justified’.”

Counter-strike

For their part, EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday (19 March) agreed to strike back.

They said, in their summit conclusions, for the first time, that there’s a “need to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaign”.

They also tasked the EU foreign service, “in co-operation with member states and [other] EU institutions” to “prepare by June an action plan on strategic communication in support of media freedom. The establishment of a communication team is a first step in this regard”.

The EU foreign service team is to work with other officials, picked from relevant departments in the European Commission and EU Council, and to consult with EU states’ embassies in Brussels.

The June plan is to contain proposals for specific projects and budget lines.

The initiative stems from two informal papers circulated in recent months, which give an insight into what the EU might come up with.

The first - dated 9 January and signed by Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, and the UK - called for EU aid for independent, Russian-language broadcasters in order to “provide competitive alternatives to the Russian production available in the EU television market”.

It also called for: “strategic communication teams in EU delegations” overseas; “regular political discussions on the issue of Russia’s disinformation campaign” by EU ambassadors and foreign ministers in Brussels; and “a permanent platform, where the EU and Nato could exchange views on strategic communication”.

The second - dated 6 February and written by EU presidency Latvia - was more hawkish.

It urged EU institutions and national regulators to clamp down on “disinformation campaigns produced by actors outside the EU which try to influence, challenge, and undermine our societies and influence EU policy in our neighbourhood”.

It said the commission should “complete the evaluation process of relevant audiovisual legislation as soon as possible” and “provide an interim report on possible circumvention of national media laws”.

It also said the EU should help countries like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine to fortify “regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms and media ownership transparency”.

The group of EU states pushing the project has grown to include Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Their experts hold meetings in EU capitals, sometimes inviting US counterparts to join them.

But the enterprise faces internal hurdles.

One EU diplomat said the “usual suspects” - the same countries which oppose EU sanctions on Russia, i.e. Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, and Spain - say the project runs counter to EU values on media independence.

“It was a battle, and it’s quite an achievement, that we’ve got all the EU leaders to speak out on ‘Russia's disinformation campaign’. We wanted conclusions that spoke of ‘Russian propaganda’. But some capitals didn't want to put ‘Russian’ and ‘propaganda’ in the same sentence”.

Other initiatives

The EU’s June plan will draw on other initiatives.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which host large Russian-speaking minorities, are already funding extra Russian-language broadcasts.

“These people [the Russian minorities] live in information ghettos”, Vilnius University’s Maliukevicius noted.

“What we’re trying to propagate is the concept of ‘information security’, along the same lines as ‘energy security’, which is already accepted in the EU”.

The European Endowment for Democracy (EED), an EU offshoot, is also spending €500,000 of Dutch money on a feasibility study on “how to respond to the lack of plurality in the Russian-language media sphere”.

It has created a group of 90 government experts and media professionals.

The EED’s Bianca Baumler told this website the kind of questions they're asking: “What type of audiences need more choice in their information sources? What platforms can be used to reach them? How can we strengthen existing outlets that provide independent information in Russian? Where are potential synergies, for example through content exchanges or joint production platforms?”.

She said the EED will present final ideas in June to “complement” the EU foreign service’s work.

It remains to be seen when the EU machinery will generate its first content, what it will say, and who it will manage to reach.

Levada’s Volkov noted that 90 percent of Russians regularly watch state TV, while just 30 percent (rising to 60 percent in Moscow and St Petersburg) have access to independent media.

He said non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a hard sell because Russian people have been mourning its loss since “at least” the 1990s.

Fifth column

But he also said there's a Russian audience for Western ideas.

Levada polling shows that support for Crimea annexation has dipped from 88 percent to 84 percent “because of the growing awareness of the cost of this conflict, both in human and economic terms”.

Support for Russian military incursion in east Ukraine has fallen from 70 percent to 40 percent for the same reason.

Volkov said the EU media effort should contain negative and positive messages.

On the negative side, it should give more information on the cost of Putin’s actions and “try to expose the scale of the propaganda effort being deployed against Russian society”.

On the other side, it should spotlight the EU’s humanitarian effort in Ukraine. It should also highlight Russia’s contribution to European history and culture, as well as opportunities for ordinary Russians, such as visa-free travel, if there is a rapprochement.

The Russian sociologist noted that EU values - specifically, on free press - hold intrinsic appeal and should be protected.

“Just think whether what you do is in accord with your own principles, whether it might be more harmful if you lose your identity even if you counteract some Russian propaganda”, he said.

He added that what the EU does in Ukraine will be more important than anything it says.

“Those people in Russia who search for alternative information and for facts are watching the Western position on this conflict”, he said.

“If the West abandons the situation and says ‘OK. Nothing can be done’, those people in Russia who are still interested in the West and who believe in Western ideas - what Putin would call the ‘fifth column’ - will also feel abandoned. It would be foolish to lose and betray these people”.

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