Russian propaganda vs. EU’s propaganda?

Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, and the UK have backed plans see  to combat Russian propaganda. What’s your view on this, do you think it is possible to counter Russian propaganda effectively and still not just pushing own propaganda , which could be also not entirely desirable? Read few comments.

Nina Khrushcheva, Associate Professor, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, The New School

George Orwell once said, All propaganda lies even when it tells the truth. When you start countering one’s propaganda you have no choice but to create your own. Russians lie because they think the West has already lied. For them, the message of human rights, and so on, rings hollow given the US (and other countries) involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, NSA program, etc. So from where the Russians stand, the West started its propaganda of high moral ground and superiority against Russia first. This kind of approach is hard to confront. The more Europe does propaganda the more it feeds into the Russian idea that the West is already engaged in propaganda, and only pretends it’s not. In fact they believe it is insidiously making the Russians to take the blame. In the Cold War the West was able to confront Soviet propaganda because there was a truly superior message, Western superior way of life. Europe no longer has this luxury, so it has to come up with something that people want. Message of freedom and democracy has been somewhat discredited. The West needs to show that it can unwaveringly follow its own principles, stand by its words, no bend with politics one way or another. They should worry about their message less. Now is the time when actions speak louder than words.

Ievgen VorobiovAnalyst, Polish Institute of International Affairs

I’ve been hearing this idea discussed in almost every gathering of EU officials and experts since, I guess, April last year. Crimea and then Donbas showed just how effective Russian propaganda is in reinforcing the traditional warfare efforts, and that finally got many people starting to think about it. That is good news, but it ends there. I am yet to hear what kind of format such media outlet would have and what audience they would cover.

Russian propaganda does indeed need to be countered, but the EU cannot do it in the same format that Russians are doing it. The key reason is that it requires a combination of both media activities and intelligence efforts: see, for example, how Russian Anna News was using intelligence personnel in Syria and the links that LifeNews has with Russian secret services. Secondly, Russian propaganda outlets often uses and abuses structures created by the Europeans: for example, Russians hold a stake in Euronews. Closing these “loopholes” would be a first step to countering Russian propaganda, but may be controversial for obvious reasons.

In terms of setting up an “anti-propaganda” outlet, I really think it is easier to build up on the existing structures through funding and training than setting up completely new structures, for example Delfi in the Baltic countries and Hromadske/Stop Fake have been doing some good job in the Baltics and Ukraine respectively. One lacuna I can think of is Western Europe, in particular Germany and France have had no alternative sources for its local Russian communities, which may partially explain why many ethnic Russians there are supportive of the Kremlin.

Mark Galeotti, Clinical Full Professor of Global Affairs, Center for Global Affairs, New York University

There certainly is an urgent need to combat Russian information warfare, but the EU needs to play to its own strengths rather than be tempted to try and play the Russians at their own game. We certainly do not need an EU equivalent of RT, and while services such as RFE/RL (and the BBC, and the other quality European media services such as France24) are powerful instruments, they are powerful precisely because they are broadcasting the truth rather than propaganda. Regulators certainly need to take a strong line with Russian broadcasters that use freedom of speech as an excuse to spread lies and incite extremism. Likewise, supporting non-governmental organisations that conduct and support investigative journalism in Russia or which fact-check Russian claims and draw attention to their misdirections and outright lies ought to be a priority–and a little bit of money spent on this, or on supporting independent Russian-language media outfits like Meduza in Latvia, will go a long way, compared with the massive sums that would be spent and probably wasted if the EU gets into the propaganda business.

That, for me, is the concern. When I hear talk of EU action plans and high-level meetings to discuss strategic communications, I fear that instead of relying on the truth and nimble and dedicated journalists to uncover and report on it, we’ll end up with something ponderous, propaganda by committee–just at the time when Moscow has learned how to use modern media techniques to their own advantage.

Fabian Burkhardt, PhD Researcher, Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies, LMU Munich

I certainly welcome the initiative for more, and better EU public diplomacy and strategic communication because – independent of Russia’s new assertiveness with its propaganda – the EU has problems anyways to connect to its own citizens and portray the EU with a positive vision rather than a bureaucracy doing crisis management to save the euro etc. In this sense the more attractive this public diplomacy initiative will be and the more unififed EU member states will act the better. One of the key tactical measures of Putin’s foreign policy has always been to divide and rule the EU, so a unified approach will be key, certainly also a strong EU support for those countries which are more exposed to Russian propaganda.

A Russian-language media within the EU should certainly be strengthened, and not just in the Baltics because given 3-5 million Russian-speakers in Germany is a very substantive amount. My very subjective opinion (I haven’t seen any good research on how they actually consume media) on that is that many watch Russian TV and thus buy at least some of the Russian message, or at least get confused, lose trust in parliamentary parties and “mainstream media” because “everything is propaganda” or “there is no truth, eveyrbody lies, politics is a dirty thing” etc. With the Pegida movement in Germany we see that there is quite a lot of ground and perceptiveness for this kind of anti-mainstream talk, and RT Deutsch and other media outlets that are against “mainstream” media very cynically play with this widespread media fatigue. According to a recent representative survey 69% of Germans have little or no trust in the media, and this trust is in particular low when it comes to coverage of Ukraine and Russia. This is a larger trend which certainly needs to be taken serious by policy makers and the media alike.

As far as what concerns the media regulators I am quite skeptical. There is the Presserat (press council) which has several instruments to reprimand media if the act against the press codex. But these instruments are rather weak. As for law suits against media I cannot say anything specific as I am not a media lawyer, but my gut feeling is that the value of press freedom and freedom of opinion will be held high, and RT somehow often manages to do the balancing act short of things that could be used in court. What might be more effective is to strengthen the journalistic and expert community, i.e. to shame and blame those that cooperate with propaganda outlets. Again, this would only make sense if there would be a pan-EU effort, i.e. networking between major media, conferences on that topic including journalists, academics and policy makers, and how to counteract propaganda (and media fatigue) would be very helpful, and the EU could provide funding for that. Also I am very much in favor of Peter Pomerantsev’s idea of an NGO such as a transparency international for media which could work on codes of conduct, and actual criteria how to measure, compare and thus expose “propaganda”, because so far the concept is very broad and unclear. And before we don’t really understand what propaganda is, how it should be defined we cannot do anything against it.

Olga Oliker, Director of the Center for Russia and Eurasia, Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation

Propaganda is not, in and of itself, a terrible thing. It’s what every government does when it puts out public information. It’s not the same thing as unbiased journalism, and it shouldn’t be passed off that way, but it’s not inherently evil.

An effort to improve public information can be valuable. But when governments try to influence public opinion, they play a dangerous game, because their efforts can easily backfire if people feel they are being manipulated.

During the Cold War, Western propaganda outlets such as the US Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe were effective because they told publics in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union things that those publics knew (or suspected) to be true, albeit contrary to what their own government media outlets told them. The comparative advantage that those outlets had was truth.

In the current environment, there are a lot of sources of information, and people can pick and choose what they agree with. This makes it more difficult to deliver messages effectively for any one actor, except to those who already agree. So devising ways to counter others’ propaganda are a challenge. In the case of European efforts to counter Russian propaganda, I think it may be important not simply to spread a message, but to once again identify the comparative advantage. In this case, it may not just be telling the truth (which some people are just not interested in, or perhaps they find alternatives more appealing). But I wonder if the comparative advantage is not what a free press offers: debate, a variety of views, direct engagement with misinformation to debunk it. So it may not be about blocking alternative viewpoints, but rather engaging them.

Tomas JaneliūnasAssociate Professor at Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University

There could be a lot of efforts and means to counter Russian propaganda. However the first thing should be to recognize and explain the methods used by Russian mass media. I don’t believe that a kind of EU-sponsored propagandistic media could make any visible effect on Russia’s behavior or attitudes of Europeans. People usually just simply do not buy propagandistic stuff. However there should be some efforts made to show the real image what Russia is constructing about Ukraine, about domestic Russian politics and international affairs. To expose all fake attempts of Russia’s propagandistic machine and to create more resistance for such propaganda among society in Western and especially Eastern European states. This requires journalistic investigations, patience and resources (time, people, money). And maybe EU institutions could provide some assistance for projects dedicated to expose harmful propaganda activities.

Stephen BittnerProfessor of History, Sonoma State University

I think this is silly and ultimately discrediting to the countries that undertake it. The citizens of Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, and the UK are more than capable of deciding on their own what constitutes government propaganda. Contrary to Russian citizens, whose television viewing is mostly limited to an array of state-controlled networks, Westerners live in political environments where the freedom of the press is protected. Among other things, this freedom includes the right to spout nonsense and bizarre, unsupported conspiracy theories, both of which can be found in abundance on RT.

In short, the West should not act like Putin’s Russia in order to protect itself from Putin’s Russia.


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