On July 10, the U.S. Congress’ House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs held hearings on «efforts to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence». According to speakers, Russia is conducting a disinformation campaign dealing with most of resonant issues – the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, the downing of MH17, poisoning of UK citizens in Salisbury and so on. Speakers were vying to scare the Congress to inflate the atmosphere of the «global scale of Russia’s meddling» in the affairs of the United States and its allies. The Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik have been named the main mouthpieces of Kremlin advocacy, which strive to «destroy the public’s faith in good governance, independent media, and democracy». Let’s review the hearings and what is hidden behind this struggling the so-called Russian propaganda.
Director of project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology Alina Polyakova reporting the US media Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are far behind RT, which the Russian government funds with approximately $300 million annually. Her opinion is increasing funding for these agencies will provide more successful struggle with ongoing disinformation and fake news.
To persuade the Congress, she cited statistics: «on YouTube RT has 2.8 billion views and 3.5 million subscribers. Voice of America has approximately 200 million views and 428,000 subscribers. RFER/RL has 32 million views and about 60,000 subscribers». Facebook and Twitter accounts are facing the same.
However, such a comparison seems strange, if not absurd. Regarding budgets and audience reach, comparing with such media as BBC, CNN or FOX News is more proper. E.g. the budget of the BBC is more than $400 million, the number of YouTube subscribers is even 1.3 million more than RT has. At the same time, unlike the mentioned media, RT was listed as foreign agent, and Sputnik regularly encounters obstacles from the local authorities. For example, Estonia’s officials were forbidden to communicate with Sputnik reporters, let alone regular employees’ detentions and «education talks».
So why this struggle has appeared and increased funding demanded if there are already competitive media that successfully protect Western «democracies» from Russian malign influence and that are not subject to restrictive measures?
According to John Lansing, director of U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which includes the mentioned Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and others, the Russian-speaking audience is the main point, both inside and outside Russia. These agencies are already working with Russian speakers across Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltics, Eastern Europe, Israel and also giving a voice to opposition figures in Russia. According to Lansing, USAGM will continue to prioritize Russian-language broadcasting.
In addition, large amounts of money are allocated annually, providing the work of various NGOs, which are aimed to create «independent» journalism around the world that will not be subject to Russian influence. Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia (ACE) Jim Kulikowski reported $1.3 billion was allocated in 2018 for work with states transitioning from communism.
Thus, the NED is supporting the most popular online information sources in Ukraine’s Donbas region, so that the locals could learn the «truth». In Bosnia and Herzegovina USAID-supported investigative journalists broke news stories about weapons purchases and the presence of Russia-trained fighters in the Republika Srpska, which has friendly ties with the “Russian aggressor”. Intensive activities are underway in Central Asia, which historically connected with Russia. Under the US program local journalists have been sending to the United States to «develop their professional skills», so that later they can influence a 20 millionth audience in the region, and a whole host of similar projects takes place.
It is worth adding that according to the speakers, not only the Russian media pose a threat to the so-called freedom of speech. Under the cover of struggling Russian propaganda and malign influence, there is an attempt to silence any alternative sources, who simply do not agree with the one-sided agenda promoted by mainstream media. Multiple independent media outlets already suffered from the so-called “shadow ban” – the employment of tailored algorithms and other means by the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Google and a number of other mainstream platforms, aimed to narrow and limit the audience’s ability to reach “undesirable” sources of information.
In this regard interesting that the special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center Lea Gabrielle, who scared the Congress with the threat to Western democratic societies and necessity to strengthen independent media, was a CIA-trained Human Intelligence Operations Officer, assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Actually, we are facing a targeted strike on Russia in the information space in terms of the US strategy and suppressing any dissenting media who disagree with the establishment, rather than a real struggle with the fake news and improving the quality of the media.
Moreover, the artificial formation of new Russian threats and following accusations will require increased funding for existing and emerging structures and projects. This artificial nature is the reason why the accusations have so many gaps and inconsistencies, and the evidences provided by Russia are constantly ignored. Finding the real culprit in the downing of MH17 or in poisoning Skripals is not the main point.
Global fellow with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center Nina Jankowicz is convinced countering Russian propaganda should become a budgetary priority. Counting RT’s budget, she noted the United States has not yet had a similar budgetary realization as Russia. Besides Ms. Polyakova offered to establish a USG rapid alert system (RAS) in line with existing in Europe.
It is worth saying 5 million euros were allocated to create the European warning system against online disinformation and six months later The New York Times wrote about a risk of closing the project. The reason – the lack of effectiveness. The only question is how much will the US system cost and how long will it last?
The topic of the hearings is far behind the reality. Russian disinformation is no more than excuse to hit Russia in media space, to create an information monopoly and form a new line in the US budget. There’s nothing like protecting democracy and media independence here.
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