27 February 2017
In the last few months, pro-Moscow media have a shown markedly increased tendency to label any Western media attempt to debunk Kremlin disinformation as “Russophobia” or anti-Russian propaganda. Just as Moscow fails to see the NATO military buildup in Eastern Europe as a reasonable response to its invasion of Ukraine and threatening gestures elsewhere in the region, it also fails to understand that U.S. and EU countermeasures to the Kremlin’s aggressive information campaign are a consequence of its own actions. The most unfortunate result of these accusations is to increasingly confuse and exhaust average people, who find it more and more difficult to tell the difference between facts and false news when they watch Russian media.
The Kremlin is especially angry with recent decisions by two Western parliamentary institutions. First, on 23 November 2016, the European Parliament passed a resolution on “EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties.” That resolution invites member states to develop coordinated strategic communication mechanisms to support attribution and counter disinformation and propaganda in order to expose hybrid threats. Second, the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal 2017, approved 1 December 2016 by the U.S. Congress and signed by departing President Barack Obama, called for the creation of a committee “to counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence, including by exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.”
The reaction of Russia and pro-Moscow commentators to these moves has been severely critical. One example is a 16 December 2016 report, EU’s Infowar on Russia: Putting in Place a Totalitarian Media Regime and Speech Control, written by Jon Hellevig, a Finnish lawyer and businessman with business connections in Russia. “After a decade and a half of intensive anti-Russian propaganda, the Western mainstream media and their masters … have doubled down on their propaganda with a campaign of declaring all critical alternative media and dissidents as ‘fake news” sources,” Hellevig wrote. His report, which reads more like a lengthy opinion piece, was published by the European Independent Center for Hybrid Threats Research in Finland, an organization founded by Finnish pro-Kremlin activist Johan Bäckman, The name of the organization is confusingly similar to the European Centre for Countering Hybrid Threats, which launches this spring in Finland.
Hellevig stated that both media freedom and freedom of speech in general have dramatically declined in the West, and that both the European Union and the United States are heading towards totalitarian media regime and speech control. said it also claims that the West blames Russia for its own wrongdoings; in the EU resolution one could easily exchange “Russia” for “EU” or “U.S.” and, as the report says, “then you will have an exact list of what they have been up to against Russia during the last two decades while Russia has successfully struggled, notwithstanding the West, to become a free society.” The report concludes with a warning: “They are desperate. And they will all be wiped out soon, very soon.”
But the Kremlin has also made it clear that it has no other choice than to protect itself. First came a new Information Security Doctrine signed on 5 December 2016 by Russian President Vladimir Putin. This strategic planning document concentrates on both cyber and information threats, and has as its goals the “strategic deterrence and prevention of military conflicts that may arise as a result of information technologies” and the “neutralization of information and psychological impact.” Second, on 22 February, the Interfax news agency reported that Russia has created a new military force to conduct “information operations” against external foes. In addition to taking offensive measures, the new structure will be responsible for counter-propaganda. Third, that same week, the Russian Foreign Ministry launched a website with examples of “false news spread about Russia.”
On 6 February, Sputnik, the Russian government-controlled news agency, accused Estonia’s independent fake news-busting website Propastop and the Estonian government of waging an information war against Russia. This apparently was a reaction to the list of Kremlin propaganda outlets—including Sputnik, RT, Lenta.ru, Regnum.ru and Ren.tv—that Propastop had published earlier that day. It was meant as a warning for Estonian companies thinking about advertising their products on websites that spread disinformation.
The line between disinformation websites and debunkers got even more blurred in a 13 February article titled “5 real news sites you should read.” The Duran, a pro-Kremlin website, listed “some trusted resources” that one should read “in the world of fake news,” including RT and Sputnik, two main Russian state propaganda channels.
This bias—blaming someone else for one’s own wrongdoings or others for lying about one’s lying—is similar to the “wolf cries wolf” disinformation technique, which is named after an Aesop fable. It describes the Kremlin labeling of Western attempts to fight disinformation as “disinformation and propaganda.” By sowing confusion, the Kremlin distorts the media. It becomes unclear who commits disinformation, and eventually the audience is exhausted.
What should Western media outlets do to make themselves less vulnerable to Russian accusations? Russian media analyses need a solid ground, and making a clear distinction between propaganda and disinformation would be helpful. Disinformation is built on false facts; propaganda is built on opinion. False facts can be debunked; propaganda cannot.