‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’
Through increasingly sophisticated and high budget media outputs, glossy adverts, high-profile events and well connected lobbyists, authoritarian regimes from the former Soviet Union (FSU) have learned how to play the Western game, albeit with varying degrees of success. The traditional message that the governments of the FSU were sending to the world was ‘we are just like you’, arguing that they were countries on a rapid transition path to becoming liberal democracies and open market economies, despite whatever evidence to the contrary might exist. However in recent years the framing has become increasingly ‘you are just like us’, particularly from Russian sources but also too from others in the region such as Azerbaijan who chafe against EU and US criticism on human rights standards whilst Western firms continue to seek to make money from them.
Addressing the challenge of Russian backed media and online content within the Western world requires a recognition of the significant challenges facing the European and US media industries. The scale and scope of the challenges facing the media from an increasingly fragmented market of news consumers, where old models of revenue generation are dying, lies beyond the remit of this publication. However, part of the issue relevant to this publication is that Russian media is filling a number of gaps in the market. Identifying Western shortcomings and hypocrisy may flow from a rich heritage of Russian ‘Whataboutism’, but there is clearly a notable section of the viewing public who yearn for more systemic critiques of Western societies, seeing traditional critical journalism as still coming from inside existing elites. RT and Sputnik provide opportunities for some of the more radical voices on the left and right who struggle to get airtime on traditional outlets dominated by voices from more ‘mainstream’ parties and perspectives. As large sections of the internet clearly show, there remains a robust market for conspiracy theory. At a time of increasing diversity of political views, Western broadcasters need to think more carefully about how to provide opportunities for new voices to be heard in debates, if they wish to be able to adequately rebut the critiques provided by RT and others.
However the Russian approach goes far beyond providing platforms to outsiders and flagging up hypocrisy, both real and imagined. Its goal can be to confuse, frustrate and demoralise. Peter Pomerantsev likens it to ‘a hall of mirrors’ where reality feels ‘malleable, spongy’, where the same actors are used in a variety of different roles (‘soldier’s mother’, ‘Kharkiv resident’, ‘Odessa resident’, etc.) with broadcasts with little regard given to whether such deceptions would be identified, where the approach was not even attempting to present a different version of the truth or ‘alternative facts’ but to bury the audience in a blizzard of conflicting information. Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews described the approach as the ‘firehose of falsehood’, that they say is designed to entertain, confuse and overwhelm the audience through an approach that is ‘high-volume and multichannel; rapid, continuous, and repetitive; lacks commitment to objective reality; (and) lacks commitment to consistency’. Such outlets build on the traditional media’s approach to try and provide balance, pitting opposing views against each other irrespective of how widely held or evidence-based they are, taking it to a post-modern, ‘post-fact’ extreme. ‘Question more’, becomes ‘question everything’ including the concept of truth itself.
In a number of cases, the battle of ideas becomes an information war. Regularly the victims of Russian hacking, the three Baltic States have particular sensitivities about Russia’s courting of Russian minorities that make up 25.6 percent of Latvia’s, 25.1 percent of Estonia’s and 4.8 percent of Lithuania’s population. As small states they have so far lacked the resources, and in some cases the political will, to provide programming in Russian, leaving the field open for Russian channels broadcasting across the border, though the recently created Estonian ETV+ Russian language channel has potential to partially address this. While 81 percent of ethnic Russians in Estonia say they trust information provided by Russian News Channels, only 26 percent of ethnic Estonians say they trust the same content, heightening the risk of political differences being further exacerbated along an ethnic divide. Given the state of war between Russia and Ukraine since 2014, Ukraine has banned the broadcast of Russian channels, however satellite firm compliance remains intermittent and a substantial proportion of Eastern Ukraine remains able to receive the signal. More broadly, the febrile atmosphere in European and US political culture at present, while clearly not ‘created’ by Russian initiatives, is clearly being exploited through the mechanisms discussed in this publication, sometimes to the extent of becoming a genuine security challenge.
The trust deficit is not going to be bridged by responding to propaganda from the former Soviet Union with propaganda from the West or its allies. A multi-level approach is needed. There is clearly an important space for myth busting, fact checking and propaganda exposing tools, to try to challenge and push back against the flood of erroneous or confusing information. A lie may still be able to get half way across the world before the truth has got its boots on but through effective use of social media, efforts to debunk obvious untruths can be disseminated swiftly. Ukrainian site Stop Fake, founded by Kyiv Mohyla Journalism School staff and students, provides one of the most effective and innovative services, casting a critical eye over some of the claims made in the Russian and Russian-backed media. Such work is now being augmented by official channels such as the work of the EU’s East Stratcom Taskforce who are coordinating a network of experts in government institutions and civil society to compile the EU Disinformation Review in both Russian and English. The involvement of such institutions does show that policy makers are beginning to take the challenge seriously but their work must not crowd out non-governmental organisations whose independence is an important weapon in the information battle. All those involved in such work need to act collaboratively to ensure that information and analysis is widely shared.
Secondly, the need for independent, evidence-based investigative journalism is extremely high given the challenges set out in this publication, yet its availability has been decreasing due to the erosion of resources in newsrooms. Filling the emerging gap is of critical importance and part of the solution has been the use of donor-supported coalitions of independent journalists who conduct the research themselves before partnering with news organisations to publish their findings. Some of the most important examples of these are the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The donor model has its own flaws, in terms of funding stability and ensuring that they can follow their own journalistic priorities rather than focusing on the priorities of the person who pays the bills, challenges they share with colleagues in traditional media outlets.
Facts may be essential but they are not sufficient. As Natalya Antelava points out there is a need to explain the stories behind the facts. Narratives matter and for a mainstream audience often production quality matters too. Again here consortia of investigative journalists may be better placed to get to the depth and scope of story required but nevertheless pressure needs to be put on editors and proprietors to support in-depth reporting rather than simplistic pieces to camera.
Specifically looking at the media challenges in the post-Soviet Space, the European Endowment for Democracy has made a number of important recommendations in a major report entitled Bringing Plurality and Balance to the Russian Language Media Space, edited by contributor to this collection Justin Schlosberg. The EED recommends the creation of five new structures:
- A regional Russian language news hub (or proto news agency) to share high-quality news on a membership or affiliate basis, which also includes collecting citizen journalist and stringer material, facilitating collaborative investigations, fact checking and providing translations
- A ‘content factory’ – a cooperative of regional broadcasters, jointly commissioning quality programmes in Russian that would be available to all members free of charge. Content should include quality documentaries and entertainment, including film, drama and social reality shows, focusing on local issues. Commissioning and buying content, it could be a ‘marketplace’ of programming for the Russian-language media
- The creation of a centre of media excellence to improve research and information
- A basket fund of governmental and private donor money to support media initiatives
- A future multimedia distribution platform, with a global brand, to ensure that the produced content reaches the widest possible audience
If properly implemented, these recommendations could help provide the architecture to help local media outlets, both public and private, develop content that viewers might prefer to the existing Russian offerings. International public broadcasters such as the BBC and PBS should consider what documentary and entertainment content could be provided at accessible rates to independent broadcasters in the region, potentially through such a content marketplace mechanism as well as providing such content to the nascent BBC World Service and BBG television services in the region. The fusion of popular entertainment and news, although in retreat on Western domestic channels, has been shown to be an effective way under other authoritarian regimes of ensuring interest in a channel and ultimately securing viewers for news and current affairs output. Further thought should also be given to the ability of such content to be provided in local languages, where feasible and necessary, to further boost the diversity of independent quality content.
Where possible, the emerging Russian language television offerings from the BBC World Service and the BBG need to obtain greater access to satellite transmission to give them a chance of reaching older viewers, in addition to growing their web presence. These organisations need to ensure that their governance structures provide them with clear independence from their home governments. The recent decision in the 2016 US National Defense Authorization Act has transformed the role of the Board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors from managing the organisation into an advisory role, with a Chief Executive directly appointed by the US President in greater control. Irrespective of any organisational advantages of having someone in operational charge, the case since 2015 when the board appointed its own Chief Executive, direct Presidential appointment could be seen to undermine the organisation’s operational independence.
There is a lack of comprehensive and publically accessible region-wide data about Russian media penetration or indeed the popularity of domestic media channels. An accurate ratings system only functions in some states in the region, in others such figures do not include satellite broadcasts and in others accurate data is not accessible at all. There is a strong case for region-wide survey work that can give an accurate analysis of media reach, particularly in the South Caucasus and where possible Central Asia where information gaps exist.
When responding to the issues of lobbying, advertising and regime promotion, similar principles apply, with the need to improve transparency and public scrutiny. Human rights organisations have become adept at using major sporting or cultural events hosted by repressive regimes as a way of raising awareness about the problems that country faces. There are also opportunities for strengthening UK and EU lobbying registration, which in most cases remains voluntary. Moving this to a broader mandatory basis could help ensure that those working on behalf of foreign governments (and others) are open about their dealings with politicians and officials. Independent NGOs and donors should consider providing greater support to Parliamentarians to coordinate the activities of country interest groups and where appropriate arrange country visits for them, as otherwise this support is provided by pro-regime lobbing groups or Embassies. Increased public awareness of Russian and other government activity in the European NGO environment is important but it must not bleed into the kind of ‘foreign agent’ hysteria that FSU governments utilise to shut down Western and internationally supported NGOs at home. Laws must be applied effectively but equally to all groups rather than specifically targeting those supported by foreign governments or oligarchs, with efforts to improve transparency wherever possible. As with a more effective approach to media, progress in these areas will be assisted by a healthy dose of self-criticism focused on Western organisations and institutions complicit in helping post-Soviet regimes burnish their international reputations.
In what is increasingly becoming a battle over the use of soft power and information, Western institutions have been losing ground. Western governments, NGOs, donors and the general public need to become more aware of the challenges they now face and must take action in order to protect and strengthen their domestic institutions and societies, while enhancing support for human rights in the former Soviet Union.
 The Bible – King James Version, 1 Corinthians 13:12. Translated in less poetic versions as ‘What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror’ (Good News Bible).
 Where any criticism of human rights standards in the Soviet Union not answered but deflected back by pointing out flaws in the West. A brief primer on Whataboutism is provided by The Economist, Whataboutism, January 2008, http://www.economist.com/node/10598774
 In this author’s view this need for greater diversity relates specifically to non-violent or discriminatory political viewpoints rather than a need for greater airtime for fringe science, academic or conspiracy theories.
 Peter Pomerantsev Inside the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors, April 2015,
 Linda Kinstler, How to Survive a Russian Hack: Lessons from Eastern Europe and the Baltics, February 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/02/russia-disinformation-baltics/515301/
 Central Statistics Bureau of Latvia, http://www.csb.gov.lv/sites/default/files/skoleniem/iedzivotaji/etniskais_sastavs.pdf; Statistics Estonia, Population by nationality, 1st January by year, http://www.stat.ee/34267 and Alvydas Butkus Lithuanian population by nationality http://alkas.lt/2015/12/16/a-butkus-lietuvos-gyventojai-tautybes-poziuriu/
Broadcasting Board of Governors, Role of Russian Media in the Baltics and Moldova, February 2016, https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2016/02/BBG-Gallup-Russian-Media-pg2-02-04-164.pdf
 European Endowment for Democracy, Bringing Plurality and Balance to the Russian Language Media Space, June 2016. A summary of its findings is available at https://www.democracyendowment.eu/news/bringing-plurality-1/
 Ron Nixon, U.S. Seeking a Stronger World Media Voice, January 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/22/us/broadcasting-board-of-governors-names-chief-executive.html?_r=0
 The UK runs a statutory scheme, the Register of Consultant Lobbyists, which only covers those who lobby Government Ministers and Civil Service Permanent Secretaries. The wider industry runs a voluntary scheme, the UK Lobbying Register (UKLR). At an EU level only registered lobbyists are given passes to the Parliament and Commission, though this can be easily worked around.