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This Week in Info War

Kremlin reacts to U.S. measures targeting propaganda

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The Kremlin-backed television station RT America reluctantly registered on 10 November with the U.S. Department of Justice as a “foreign agent” in the United States, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian broadcaster RT announced. In January 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that the TV station—available via cable to U.S. viewers—is “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” and that it aided Moscow’s campaign to interfere with last year’s presidential election in favor of Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. After that report, the Justice Department urged RT America to comply with registration requirements under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Under the act, RT must disclose financial information. Meanwhile, on 15 November, a Washington, D.C., area radio station owned by a company called Reston Translator—which recently agreed to rebroadcast news provided by the Russian state-funded news outlet Sputnik—also registered under FARA. 

In the run-up to the filing, Russian lawmakers and Foreign Ministry officials—citing their right to free speech—repeatedly complained about pressure from U.S. officials and warned they would retaliate against U.S. media in Russia. On 14 November, Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s new ambassador to the United States, visited RT’s Washington office and tried to reassure employees. “We stand behind our own,” he said, according to the Russian Embassy. The next day in Moscow, Russia’s lower house of parliament unanimously approved a bill authorizing the government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents.”

Within hours of the measure’s passage, the Russian Justice Ministry sent warnings to several Western news services. The letters did not specify what potential restrictions they could face, but lawmakers have said designated media could be forced to comply with detailed financial reporting requirements, to label published material as coming from a foreign agent, or perhaps eventually be shut down entirely. Garri Minkh, the presidential administration’s representative at the Duma, told state-run news agency TASS that President Vladimir Putin “supports” the Duma bill. Russia’s upper house was expected to take up the measure on 22 November, after which it heads to Putin for his signature.

Meanwhile, Russian officials have reacted furiously to the steps taken by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to restrict the flow of Russian disinformation through their sites. According to detailed company disclosures sent to Congress in October, Russian agents intending to sow discord among American citizens disseminated inflammatory Facebook posts that reached 126 million users, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter, and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service. The Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian troll company linked to the Kremlin, reportedly was responsible for disseminating much of the divisive content. 

The Kremlin has not been pleased by the countermeasures taken by these companies. An RT executive complained of “unprecedented political pressure” after Google reportedly removed RT from a premium package of YouTube channels. Russia’s RT and Sputnik both called Twitter’s decision to no longer accept advertising from them a “McCarthyist witch hunt.” After Google blocked material from the Federal News Agency—a Russian online site—an agency spokesman complained that “someone does not like the truth that our correspondents working in Syria were showing.” He said, “it is political censorship, benefitting the U.S. government in order to limit the spread of information about the fight against international terrorism.” Such cynical twisting of democratic principles to rationalize Kremlin policies is unconvincing, but likely to increase as the West at last takes steps to counter Russian meddling.