This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 4 December 2016

Russia’s state-owned RT network will start broadcasting in French next year, the Moscow Times reported on 8 December. The government has allocated $19 million for the project. The network already broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic, and in 2014 had announced its intention to create a French-language channel; a website in that language is already up and running, but the ruble’s devaluation forced the government to temporarily freeze the rest of the project. The channel’s main studio and staff will be located in France, according to RT Chief Editor Margarita Simonyan.

The timing of the launch is probably linked to France’s 2018 presidential elections. The current front runner is conservative Francois Fillon, who reportedly has a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pro-Kremlin candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front party, is also in a strong position, according to several public opinion polls.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress should be congratulated for taking action against Moscow’s disinformation warfare campaign. The bipartisan Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act—designed to help U.S. allies counter government propaganda from Russia, China and other nations—passed the Senate on 8 December as part of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Conference Report. The bill will help Washington fight foreign propaganda and disinformation by establishing an interagency center housed at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize U.S. government counter-propaganda efforts. Among other things, it creates a grant program for experts, NGOs, think tanks, civil society groups and others outside government that conduct counter-propaganda related work. This will better leverage existing expertise and empower local communities to defend themselves from foreign manipulation.

The support provided by the new bill would be much needed. As this week’s Estonia CEPA monitoring brief shows, Moscow’s propaganda machine already has begun to use invented narratives about the incoming administration to advance its foreign policy goals. On 30 November, several Russian-language news sites published a fake story on Donald Trump’s first phone call to the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—claiming that when the three Baltic leaders began talking about Russia’s aggression, Trump got so angry he told them to shut up and ended the call. The fiction was actively shared on social media websites throughout Russia and the Baltic states. The Kremlin’s goal in this instance is an old one—to promote the narrative that the United States will not stand by the Baltic states when it comes to countering Russian aggression.