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This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note – 11 September 2016

The Kremlin may cut funding to key state media outlets between 2017 and 2019, the newspaper Vedemosti reported on 13 September, citing recommendations from the Russian Finance Ministry. News agencies targeted include TASS, the state TV channels, international TV broadcaster RT and Rossiya Segodnya, which oversees the Sputnik online news and radio broadcast service. The latter two media are key weapons in the Kremlin’s information war arsenal. Print publications such as Rossiyskaya Gazeta also could have their subsidies decreased. 
The size of the cutbacks has yet to be approved, but the Ministry has recommended that government funds “not exceed the amount needed to create socially relevant content.” TASS received about $28 million in state funding this year, while RT got $292 million; some of its funding also may come from banks and companies friendly to the government. Rossiya Segodnya received about $103 million. This year’s allocation to RT already reflects a 9 percent reduction compared to 2015, though Rossiya Segodnya received a slight increase from 2015.  

The latest cuts are likely the result of Russia’s continuing economic problems, among them the ruble’s decline due to low world oil prices (80 percent of RT’s expenses are incurred abroad), and Western sanctions imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. The earlier reductions last year forced RT to postpone channels in German and French, though it debuted a new channel in Chinese.  

It is difficult to assess what the Kremlin has been getting for its money, since no reliable figures for RT’s worldwide audience exist (in the U.S., RT typically pays cable and satellite services to carry its channel in subscriber packages). A December 2015 study by respected Western media analysts found that RT has a large audience for its YouTube programming in English, Russian, Spanish and Arabic; its U.S. and German channels are smaller but still get more than a million views per month. Viewership for RT’s French and UK channels are minuscule. The report says RT uses human-interest stories without mission-related ideological content to attract viewers.

On the other hand, leaked documents from a rival network—now-defunct RIA Novosti—suggest RT is failing in its mission by exaggerating its audience and impact in the West. “RT persistently pretended that it was much more important and much bigger than could be confirmed by any data,” a former RIA-Novosti employee told the Daily Beast in September 2015. “While RT’s internal reporting told …the Russian government that they’d managed to overcome CNN and BBC in terms of viewership, no signs of this could be found in reliable data.” Regarding RT’s much-hyped online presence, the documents indicate that its most-watched videos on YouTube mostly pertain to “metrosexuals, bums and earthquakes” rather than anything political. In fact, RT’s most popular content is video reposted from other news agencies.

Given uncertainties about RT’s actual audience, the budget cuts are unlikely to blunt the overall effectiveness of the Kremlin’s information war weapons. Moscow’s greatest apparent successes in recent months have not been via TV but through its army of Internet trolls which seek to mold Western public opinion—in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the United States. The Kremlin will likely continue using a mix of weapons—as demonstrated by CEPA’s briefs this week—carefully targeted to different audiences and with nuanced messaging.