As reference to ‘fake news’ and a ‘weaponised’ information space continues to gather pace, Lindsay Mackenzie looks at the issue of Russian propaganda. He examines what lies behind it, how pervasive it has been, and how seriously we should take it. And where does Scotland fit in?
“And my understanding is they’ve [Russia] set up shop in Scotland which is talking about an independence vote from Great Britain. This is a sophisticated worldwide strategy. It hasn’t stopped and it won’t stop.”
The words above were spoken by United States Senator Angus King during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing in Washington DC, at the start of November. The Committee is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
The remarks came during a busy week which saw Facebook, Twitter, and Google grilled by the same committee over their failure to clamp down on Russian propaganda and disinformation during the 2016 US election. Facebook released statistics covering the numbers of ‘Kremlin-linked’ adverts, posts and users. Twitter was criticised for not reporting the extent of automated bots on its platform. Google revealed Russian trolls had uploaded political videos to YouTube.
The Senator failed to elaborate further on who or what had ‘set up shop in Scotland’. While he may have been alluding to specific but unreported cyber operatives, it’s likely his comments referred to the arrival of the Russian state-owned media agency, Sputnik, in Edinburgh last July. Its addition to Scotland’s media landscape in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum caused a stir. Many speculated about the organisation’s motivation in opening an office in the capital. After all, Sputnik, an online platform, and the television channel RT, are described as central pillars in Moscow’s multi-media campaign of trolls, bots, spin, and lies against the West.
With UK Prime Minister Theresa May accusing the Kremlin of ‘weaponising information’, the Electoral Commission investigating money behind Brexit, and a year of nervous elections across Europe, it’s not surprising that the spectre of Russian propaganda has been making the headlines. But what exactly is Moscow up to? Is disinformation and propaganda really a threat? If so, how do we best combat it? And where - if anywhere - does Scotland fit into this picture?
A PAN-EUROPEAN APPROACH
Moscow seeks to take advantage of political tensions across Europe; between countries and within them. Its attempts to divide, distract, agitate, and draw attention to anti-establishment angst are well documented. Much of this has been on display recently; from support for populist parties to brazen but clumsily attempted coups d’etat. Even prospective gas pipelines – such as the controversial Nord Stream 2 – are regarded by some commentators as being a part of Moscow’s toolkit.
The purpose? To weaken the EU and look for schisms within organisations like NATO. Moscow is happiest when Europe is kept busy, juggling its own internal problems.
The Kremlin has flirted with the political left and right across the continent. It has infamously co-opted the French National Front with a loan to Marine Le Pen’s party. At the end of 2016, Austria’s Freedom Party signed a cooperation pact with President Putin’s United Russia. The Kremlin has hosted the leadership from Italy’s Northern League and courted nationalist groups in Bulgaria. In Hungary, Moscow has found a useful ally in Viktor Orbán, the country’s Prime Minister. Mr Orbán criticises EU sanctions, and casts Russia as an influence for his own brand of illiberalism.
The Balkans, too, continue to flag up Russian interference. The Kremlin gave its support to a controversial 2016 referendum in Republika Srpska and gifted military equipment to Serbia. A clumsy - and still murky - coup d’etat attempt in Montenegro last year had Moscow’s fingerprints all over it. Russian-funded lobby groups and NGOs remain active across the region.
While some coverage may have us thinking otherwise, Moscow can’t create division where it doesn’t already exist.
Yet while some coverage may have us thinking otherwise, Moscow can’t create division where it doesn’t already exist. Some European countries will be more prone to interference than others. Historic, religious, and cultural sympathies will play a role. Susceptibility will depend on the strength of existing domestic institutions and other political dynamics, as much as anything else.
Indeed, there is no ‘sophisticated grand strategy’ or coordinated playbook here on Moscow’s part. Think more, opportunistic hedging. The parties, organisations, and individuals mentioned above are not ‘Kremlin puppets’. Relationships have evolved out of certain affinities, shared interests – views on sovereignty, migration, the EU and the US – and political circumstance. They’re also localised; their specifics determined by domestic conditions. It’s also important to appreciate that these relationships are unlikely to be orchestrated from the top down in Moscow. Instead, many will be self-engineered; coming to light through intermediaries, or from amongst lower ranked officials in competition for influence and clout.
All this represents the ‘fast and loose’ game the Kremlin prefers to play. One of the most controversial accompanying elements to this game has been Moscow’s disinformation and propaganda campaign.
FAKE NEWS AND MULTIPLE TRUTHS
In the past few years, ‘Russian propaganda’ has become a global phenomenon. The worldwide information space – increasingly being described as ‘weaponised’ – is now regarded as the frontline in a battle for hearts and minds across the West, and beyond.
RT and Sputnik are widely regarded as two of the major players. The former launched in 2005, the latter in 2014. The amount of state money behind both is significant. In 2016 RT’s budget was $247 million. This explains much of its professional editing, impressive studios, and high profile guests. Both agencies seek to emulate the look of their Western equivalents while breaking, as the Russian president put it, “the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams”. The heads of RT and Sputnik regard themselves as trailblazers, leading this ‘post-mainstream’ media. Dmitry Kiselyov has berated objectivity as a “myth being imposed on us”. Margarita Simonyan - Editor-in-Chief of RT - has echoed similar sentiments: “There is no objectivity – only approximations of the truth”.
Neither RT nor Sputnik look to promote a specific Russian view. In fact, they rarely mention Russia. Instead, they actively highlight points of tension across the West and undermine the distinction between fact and fiction. Both spread myth and rumour. Both tolerate (and encourage) conspiracy. They indulge 9/11 truthers, fake experts, and made-up translations. Their coverage of the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 did much to reveal their true motivation. Both RT and Sputnik released a myriad of ‘alternative stories’ and accusations – through documentaries, reports, and articles – to sow confusion and scepticism in the face of the overwhelming evidence: that the plane has been downed by a Buk missile brought in from Russian territory, fired from a field controlled by pro-Russian fighters.
In amongst all this, these agencies do report the news. They can highlight issues, whether it be fracking or prison violence, that larger news organisations have been slow to pick up. But in general, talking points are simply taken from other outlets. RT’s Margarita Simonyan tried to convince as many people as possible that the channel broke the US Occupy Wall Street story. It didn’t.
The likes of RT and Sputnik also provide an echo chamber for those who have existing anti-establishment views. These organisations have gained a following – in part – because they are seen as giving two fingers to a Western corporate media monopoly. A recurring contemporary theme in the UK (notably strong in Scotland) is that the BBC can no longer be trusted: Sputnik and RT may have an agenda, but so does it.
The BBC’s critics may have much to nourish their disgruntlement - but to suggest an equivalence between it and the Russian agencies is both disingenuous and worrying.
The BBC’s critics may have much to nourish their disgruntlement - but to suggest an equivalence between it and the Russian agencies is both disingenuous and worrying. In creating a platform where the conspiratorial exists alongside the anti-establishment, RT and Sputnik hope to find an audience amongst citizens who rail against the perceived ineptitude and untrustworthiness of their own leaders and institutions. That these outlets take their cues from a Russian government which has violently dismantled media freedoms, suppressed free speech, and killed journalists and dissidents, seems of limited importance to those who regard anti-establishment and anti-Western rhetoric as bold, critical journalism.
WHAT ABOUT SCOTLAND?
This takes us back to Senator Angus King’s remarks to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last month. The Senator failed to clarify his remarks about who exactly had ‘set up shop’ in Scotland. It seem likely his comments referred to Sputnik’s arrival in Edinburgh last July. There are justifiable reasons to question why Russian state media would locate itself in Scotland’s capital, of all places. Was it cheap office space? Or something more nefarious?
One can see how the restive political climate in Scotland after the referendum could make an attractive venue. After all, Scotland is home to a variety of anti-establishment narratives; from simmering anti-UK sentiment, to scepticism on major defence issues like NATO membership and Trident. Perhaps Sputnik saw Scotland as a ripe environment for “telling the untold”.
Moscow showed some – albeit limited – interest in the 2014 Scottish independence vote. Moscow’s Public Institute of Suffrage sent over election monitors who claimed to find voting irregularities on referendum day. RT talked openly of a rigged result. Fighters in eastern Ukraine accused the UK government of falsifying the outcome.
The vote in Scotland was also used by Russian politicians in an attempt to legitimise the illegal annexation of Crimea. Valentina Matvienko – Chair of the Russian Upper House – commented that the Crimean independence referendum that followed the arrival of the ‘little green men’ was “an absolutely legal action in line with international practice – just like the Scottish independence referendum”. One of Sputnik’s very first articles was ‘2014: A Year of Secession’, which listed Crimea along with Scotland as evidence of changing attitudes towards sovereignty, culture, and national boundaries. How many Scottish independence supporters would be happy with such a comparison?
Political expediency is a fickle thing. While Moscow depicts Russian separatists as Western-backed terrorists, those in Europe are now regarded as fulfilling their right to self-determination.
Moscow has not always been so willing to illuminate independence aspirations in Scotland. Its previous hostility towards the idea was driven by its own nationalist concerns within Russia. But political expediency is a fickle thing. While Moscow depicts Russian separatists as Western-backed terrorists, those in Europe are now regarded as fulfilling their right to self-determination.
This juxtaposition should be enough to confirm Moscow has no interest in legitimately supporting independence movements. Rather, it opportunistically seeks to stoke division where it can. When Sputnik’s Spanish service posted – between September 11 and 27 – 220 stories on the Catalan independence crisis, it wasn’t out of impartial enquiry. Misleading headlines were accompanied by a bizarre fascination with comments from Julian Assange, who is hardly a Spanish expert. The EU’s East Stratcom task force raised the alarm. The Spanish newspaper, El País, claimed fake news was being used to weaken Spain. According to Senator Angus King, Scotland may be next in the firing line.
LET’S TEMPER THE HYSTERIA
Senator King’s remarks on the Russian media in Scotland encapsulate much of the exaggerated panic around Russian disinformation. The worry isn’t unwarranted - but the response has often been misjudged.
As already outlined, Moscow’s influence is not static so generalisations aren’t particularly constructive. How susceptible a population is to disinformation will be determined by a variety of pressure points within an individual country. Its influence in Scotland will be markedly different to what might be possible in, say, Estonia.
Yet the current broad brush approach to ‘Russian propaganda’ risks us over-indulging in wild accusations about the power of Russian state media in the West. Russian disinformation is a problem. It is a poisonous and toxic addition to an evolving media environment. But this can be recognised without entertaining speculative hysteria. There is little that is productive about the Lithuanian foreign minister comparing RT to “military marching in Crimea”. Some of the language used around ‘information warfare’ - and allusion to the ‘weaponising’ of information - can also be unhelpful.
Worrying too much about the reach of Russian state propaganda has had its consequences, for sure. But it has also elevated Mr Putin’s reputation in a way, and to an extent, that is unmerited.
The questions we should be asking about Russian disinformation and propaganda (whether RT, Sputnik or even disparate social media activity) are somewhat less sensational: to what extent, if any, does it influence populations and governments? Does it actually shape domestic political narratives? Or does it reflect and reinforce existing prejudices?
It’s difficult to gauge the answers to these questions. On the other hand, it’s very easy to offer an exaggerated sense of things, amidst an already discordant mish-mash of competing voices. The current chaos we see in the US is a testimony to this. Worrying too much about the reach of Russian state propaganda has had its consequences, for sure. But it has also elevated Mr Putin’s reputation in a way, and to an extent, that is unmerited. The Russian President is constantly portrayed as a grand strategist, pulling Europe apart at the seams. But he is not. In fact, he has marginalised Moscow in the eyes of many previously agnostic Europeans, and turned once friendly countries (like France) against it. He has helped to rejuvenate NATO, and wider transatlantic defence spending, along the way.
RESPONDING TO THE THREAT
There is no silver bullet to tackle Russian propaganda. Moscow will continue to probe divisions where it can. We should take this seriously and respond. However, too often we focus solely on the top-down, rather than bottom-up. This has led to the establishment of watchdogs, the passing of resolutions, and the funding of organisations to debunk individual stories. These may be useful - but they’re short-term sticking plasters. The ambivalence that many people seem to demonstrate toward the likes of RT and Sputnik reflects an underlying disquiet in our own societies. What has caused the evolution of an environment where these media agencies find an audience?
Our politics has become increasingly adversarial, reductive, and competitive. 24-hour news culture seems to fetishise disaster. Single-issue bubbles and a host of niche content providers have filled new gaps. Media plurality is a good thing which should be protected. But the decline in trust of established media sources has helped create an environment where innuendo and rumour can achieve the status of truth. Such an environment is ripe for exploitation – and not just by Moscow.
So what can we do? We should remember that disinformation, propaganda, fake news, or whatever term we use, only works if there is a susceptible audience. This means the best way to counter it is by maintaining strong, reliable, accountable, and independent media institutions. Improving analytical, digital, and critical thinking skills, updating media literacy for the 21st century, and boosting local journalism would all be welcomed, too. The worst thing we could do, however, would be to engage in ‘counter-propaganda’, or to undermine democratic principles through imposing restrictions or bans. If a media organisation breaks the law, it should be punished like any other. But trying to shut down access to it would be a futile and - in the current climate - counterproductive move.
Finally, blaming external actors for internal strife is a very Kremlin-like activity. It would be prudent to remember that RT or Sputnik are not responsible for our own anti-EU or anti-democratic views, even if these organisations might seek to stoke them. One should be careful to not miss the forest for the trees.
Lindsay Mackenzie is a European security analyst specialising in Russia. He writes regularly in the national media on these subject areas. Lindsay works with CABLE. He is on Twitter at: @l_pmackenzie
Feature image: © Sputnik/ Alexey Filippov.