Senators Rob Portman and Chris Murphy recently introduced the “Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016”, a bill that would create a new coordinating body, the Center for Information Analysis and Response. According to the bill, the Center, funded to the tune of $20 million, would:
- lead and coordinate the collection and analysis of information on foreign government information warfare efforts;
- establish a framework for the integration of critical data and analysis on foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts into the development of national strategy; and
- develop and synchronize government initiatives to expose and counter foreign information operations directed against U.S. national security interests and advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.
As long as the Center’s main goal is to better measure, quantify and understand the actual threat posed by Russian (and Chinese) propaganda, it will be money well spent. There is a lot of overheated and loose rhetoric flying around the Western press about the effectiveness of Russian propaganda efforts, and it is backed by very little hard analysis. Getting good metrics will allow for a more intelligent conversation about what must be done.Nevertheless, it increasingly looks like the bill’s sponsors, as well as the broader community of Russia and China experts in the West, have already decided that the threat is grave and must be actively fought. These assumptions deserve a second look.In presenting their bill at the Atlantic Council a few months back, the Senators made much of the fact that while the flagship Russian propaganda network, RT, spends $400 million per year on its Washington bureau alone, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) receive roughly $750 million annually for all of their operations worldwide. But RT’s bloated operating budget, it turns out, is not a relevant measure of its effectiveness.A recent story over at the Daily Beast cited a leaked report showing that RT hugely exaggerates its global viewership. The report, compiled in 2013 by the staff of a rival TV station in a bid to convince Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that he was misspending his propaganda budget, states that the average daily viewership of RT programs in the U.S. does not even exceed 30,000 people—the apparent threshold for being ranked by Nielsen. (As of May of this year, three years later, RT was still not being ranked by Nielsen.) In Europe, RT’s reach is similarly anemic. Its most notable measurable success was in Great Britain, but even there, its numbers have been dropping, with the slack being picked up by Al-Jazeera.On YouTube, where RT boasts impressive-sounding subscription figures to its “channel” (“over 3 billion views” reads a banner on its page), the report dryly notes that the main draw is “soft news” on “bums, metrosexuals, etc.” Beyond features on bums and metrosexuals, 81 percent of the views on YouTube went to clips of accidents and natural disasters—“reports” built around user-submitted video content. Only 1 percent of the views were political in nature. The most watched clip of Putin? Him singing “Blueberry Hill” to a rapt fundraiser celebrity audience in Saint Petersburg, an audience which included Gerard Depardieu.RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan angrily denounced the leaked report as a fake, and gestured at proprietary Nielsen research data commissioned by the network itself. When Simonyan was asked to release the commissioned reports, she refused to, saying that anyone interested in can just go Google it. (Readers are encouraged to try to find the mythical report for themselves.)RT is without doubt a safe haven for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and other fringe types. It is also true that RT intentionally replaces verifiable facts with opinions of kooky “experts” in its news programs. But the likely real impact of the foreign propaganda network makes it pointless to fight RT’s agenda. Its marginal message remains where it belongs: in the margins—especially in the U.S., which has one of the most vibrant and strongest media sectors in the world.To understand why RT has been so lavishly financed despite various controversies swirling about it, one should keep in mind a key principle about how government financing works in Russia: “For every stolen ruble, there are five being wasted.” (This theorem of the modern Russian state was sublimely, and more profanely, articulated by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.) I have my own corollary: Whatever state-financed project is being planned in Russia, in 99 percent of the cases, its major purpose is to steal governmental money. In Russia, we even have a special term for this phenomenon: to disburse the budget.Actually, the truth is that even in private companies in Russia, managers almost always steal from owners. Sometimes they steal so much and so brazenly that planned projects never get realized. This is what happened with a failed start-up called Kommersant-TV, an initiative of Kommersant Holdings, which belongs to Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. The same happened to a failed media project of another billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov. This is exactly why Russian rockets do not fly and brand new tanks stall on parade grounds.One should not worry too much about the figures RT receives annually from the Russian budget. They are being perfectly “disbursed”.Another aspect of Russian propaganda that is being widely discussed in the West is how the Kremlin is buying ultra-right wing politicians across Europe, and is thus influencing EU politics. Countless gallons of ink have been spilled over an $11.7 million loan that France’s Front National received from the First Czech Russian Bank in 2014—purportedly to buy the party’s support for Russia’s stand on Crimea. And pundits who really should know better have pointed at the result of the recent referendum in the Netherlands on whether or not Ukraine should be part of the EU, as evidence of the Kremlin’s superhuman propaganda prowess.No less a heavyweight than French intellectual (and TAI board member) Bernard-Henri Levy, speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington last fall, insisted that Vladimir Putin is spreading his own ideology all over the world by bribing European politicians. When I pressed him to specify just what Putin’s ideology actually is, Levy gestured at a broad illiberal and repressive agenda, basically at odds with the Enlightenment ideals of the West.With all due respect to BHL, he is mistaken. Putin has no developed anti-Western ideology to speak of, and he should not be credited with having a brilliant plan for pushing such an agenda. Putin is probably one of the greatest opportunists in the world, a fact that has been amply born out throughout his career. He is simply making friends with his enemies’ enemies, and keeping a perfect poker face while he does it (something he is very good at). The Putinist regime as a whole has one single goal it has been pursuing for years: to stay in power for as long as possible—an unavoidable consequence of continually looting the state. And since the thieving has become so massive, and so brazenly illegal, there is no peaceful way for Putin and his friends to go. They are painting themselves into a corner.The uncomfortable truth is that anti-European sentiment has been rising across the continent without Russia’s help. Marine Le Pen would have been supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea because it was a popular stance with a subset of the French electorate. For angry French voters, it was an emotional “no”, a way to lodge a protest with Brussels. There was no need to buy her off, as some suggested happened. Similarly in the Netherlands, it would be a mistake to blame Russia for somehow creating discontent with European policy. A subset of voters have never been happy with Brussels, and that number has only grown since successive crises have rocked the continent from 2008 on.Putin gets all of his knowledge about the world from the briefing folders put on his table by his most trusted aides, and so it is quite likely that he is not fully aware of an objective reality as it exists beyond the Kremlin’s walls. This is a huge target of opportunity for manipulators feeding off the federal budget. As noted above with regards to RT, had Putin properly considered independent media reports questioning RT’s performance, RT’s management would probably have suffered some consequences. Instead, he receives reports from Simonyan that bear no resemblance to what is actually going on in the real world. And because budget disbursement can be thought of as a cascading chain process, many many people stand to benefit from such misleading and manipulative reports.The same process is likely to be at work with the financing ultra-right wing politicians in Europe: Putin reads after-action reports about the extremely high impact of expensive conferences, round-tables, and loans to far-Right and fringe parties. He happily therefore lavishes more money on these projects, and large parts of the bureaucracy are made fat and happy.Incidentally, the most notable success—if one can call it that—that Russian money and propaganda has had in Europe recently was the hyping of the case of an alleged rape, by foreign migrants, of a girl of Russian descent just outside Berlin. The sloppily reported story, dripping with innuendo, was blown up not by RT, but by the Russian domestic station Channel One, which is widely watched by the Russian diaspora living in Germany. Small street protests soon followed, but they did not last. As Leonid Bershidsky recently wrote, there is a lesson to be learned here. “Even if Kremlin propagandists believe they are at war [with the West] when they go out and film a segment about the ‘raped’ Russian girl in Berlin, it’s not really war, though it may provoke some misguided Russian-speaking Berliners to take to the streets. It’s just bad, biased journalism that is best counteracted with truthful reporting, not with any counter-propaganda effort, as the German press proved in this particular case.”As a coda, one might add that Putin probably still has not read an accurate account of just how this episode has played out in his daily briefings.Admittedly, much of what we do know about overall propaganda effectiveness is anecdotal at this point. More hard data from the proposed Center for Information Analysis would certainly be welcome. But instead of focusing only on how to counter existing messaging emanating from the Kremlin and going abroad, it might be more productive to sketch out some thoughts on how to promote new ideas that could, and should, be delivered directly to a Russian-speaking audience. Here are three things to think about when considering how best to tackle the problem: Where the message is coming from? What is being said? And who is doing the speaking?The “Where”Ever since Vladimir Putin managed to consolidate control over all the major national media outlets—most importantly in TV and radio—the Kremlin has had a monopoly of delivering information useful to it nationwide. Channel One, Channel Rossiya, NTV, REN-TV, all on a daily basis praise Putin’s success, marvel at his power, and denigrate his Western enemies. To try to compete with this monstrous machine, one would have to have equal access to the audience. This is simply impossible, either for independent media outlets working inside Russia, such as the private-owned TV-Dozhd, or for foreign-run entities, such as VoA and RFE/RL.But Putin’s system, as constituted, has its weak spots as well. The monstrous machine has at its center, as its core, Moscow and the federal government. The rest of the country forms a circle around this core. But the circle is in fact made up of hundreds of points connected to the center—but not to each other. For those who are familiar with Moscow (or have looked at a map of it), it is as if there were no beltway roads ringing the city—only highways starting at Red Square and going to the outskirts.This is precisely why Russian propaganda trumpeting Putin’s achievements is as successful as it is, despite the poor living standards of the Russian people as a whole. Russian citizens living in a region or a peripheral city do not know what is really going on in neighboring regions—they simply do not receive this information. 24 hours a day, they only hear state TV saying that Russia is a very prosperous country that has just beaten America in one way or another. What can they conclude? That their city is somehow broken, that their demolished roads and failing bridges, their falling salaries and gutted pensions are an exception—that their mayor or their governor has failed, but not Putin. Just a run of bad luck for them, nothing more.So while it’s nearly impossible to undermine Putin’s sparkling image on the national level, it would not be so hard to show Russians that the rest of the country is as much a disaster as their own neck of the woods. If citizens of Komi knew that life in Mordovia was as poor and miserable as their own, they would probably start to raise questions about Putin’s potency. This approach should be easier to realize, as one would not have to be constantly countering official narratives directly. Instead, one should be targeting a vacuum ignored by the official machinery. In other words, let’s build beltways around the circle.The “What”The majority of Russian voters—that oft-cited 86 percent of the population who are thought, probably incorrectly, to voice full-throated support of Putin—do not tend to respond well to criticism of the Russian President, especially when the criticism comes from a powerful rival such as the United States. They don’t want to hear it because Putin is probably the only respectable thing they have in their lives.A simple, illustrative example: I volunteered in a shelter in DC, and I can confirm that American homeless people get far better food than an average lower-middle- or even middle-class family in Russia. Many of these Russians eat chicken only once a week, even as they save their money for a symbol of middle class prosperity, like a car.A Russian journalist recently wrote a post on Facebook complaining about food prices at an average grocery store in a suburb of Moscow. He posted a picture of the products he bought, which included a pack of blueberries and arugula. As a result, he was pilloried by readers for “living large” and eating luxury food. While a homeless person in DC can demand a gluten-free lunch, a Russian working-class man would happily eat only a turnip and consider it completely normal.Needless to say, regular Russians don’t have the slightest idea how people in America live either. To the extent possible, their eyes should be opened. Let them see how a farmer from Ohio or a sales manager from Philadelphia lives. For my part, I have tried the opposite tack, revealing to my Russian readers that Barack Obama, who is widely hated and mocked by Putin’s media machine, is not a fabulously wealthy oligarch. My own recent piece on Echo of Moscow’s website, titled “Why good Putin hides his daughters and bad Obama does not”, gained more than 200,000 views within a couple of days. In an earlier piece, titled “How American presidents get their millions”, I reported that Barack Obama still pays a mortgage for his house in Chicago. Readers were shocked with disbelief. (Of course, I also mentioned in passing the Panama Papers and the $2 billion connected to Putin…)Russian people have become accustomed to the lowest living standards for centuries. And it is not about food only, it is about health care, education, roads, services. It all amounts to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: to be able to survive in a hostile environment, one had better learn to love it.It’s for these reasons— beyond questions of geographic isolation (see the “where” point, above)—that Russians fail to connect their poor living standards with Putin (or whoever else might be in charge in Moscow). Historically, the Russian people have at best only felt an attenuated connection to their head of state. Democracy in Russia has never existed, and Russia’s leaders have never felt any reciprocal attachment or responsibility to the people either. It can be seen in the modern Russian tax system. People don’t even file their own tax return; the employer deducts the money from their paycheck, and processes all the paperwork. Milton Friedman worried that automatic payroll deductions would make Americans less sensitive to the state taxing them. Most Russians don’t even experience interacting with the state in these matters. No taxation, no representation—to a grotesque degree.This absence of a sense of political responsibility—the lack of a meaningful social contract—also explains why high-profile corruption scandals never seem to make an impact on Russians’ minds. Since people cannot change the behavior of crooked politicians, what’s the point in being worried? Nobody in Russia is ever surprised by a corruption scandal—even the liberal parts of the society, and the intellectuals. The only difference is that the majority is neither surprised nor do they seem to care about it. The intellectual minority sometimes does care—or at least it feigns to.In Putin, Russians simply see a winner who can beat the United States. Putin’s glamorized TV image helps bolster the average Russian’s dignity among the day-to-day misery that surrounds him in his life. Again, while it may be impossible to defeat the state propaganda’s messaging about Putin directly, it is more than possible to destroy his image piecemeal, starting with the actual terrible state of things in Russia.The “Who”However mismanaged the propaganda efforts abroad are, one cannot deny their effectiveness domestically. To best counter it, it would be smart to pick up some of the machine’s own tricks. One of its most successful ones has been its use of young people.The first anti-Putin protests in Moscow, in December of 2011, in reaction to the Duma elections having been stolen, consisted mostly of those under 35 years of age. What the Kremlin did immediately in response was to bus in hundreds of students from across the Moscow area to Revolution Square in order to stage a pro-governmental rally. (On December 6th, the Revolution Square rally was supposed to confront the anti-Putin grass-roots rally a mile away. I took my video camera and interviewed people at both locations.)Shortly after the rallies, a 20-year-old woman named Sveta, from the small city of Ivanovo, a member of Putin’s proto-fascist Nashi youth movement, was interviewed by a journalist. Asked how life in Russia had improved under Putin, she answered that “we now dress more better [sic]”. The clip quickly became a meme on the Russian internet. But while intellectuals and liberals laughed at her, NTV, one of the nastiest of all the propaganda media outlets, hired Sveta as a TV host. She was the proverbial girl next door—poorly educated, provincial, not terribly pretty. She became a very successful message-deliverer for the Kremlin.Four years later, Sveta was replaced. Her replacement, the now-notorious Lesya Ryabtseva, was a specimen more relevant to the present moment. She was the 23-year-old deputy chief editor of the oldest (and only remaining) liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow. (Full disclosure: I am Echo’s U.S. correspondent.) After working three years at Echo, Lesya unexpectedly quit, and shortly thereafter she appeared on NTV’s show “40 Minutes”. There, she “spilled the beans” on Echo. She called her former colleagues cockroaches, and broadly slandered the Russian opposition in general as hypocrites. Lesya, widely known just by her first name, looked like a credible source of information: young, covered with fashionable tattoos, with career in Moscow, again not too pretty—the perfect girl next door who had made it in Moscow. And she told young Russians, “I have been there. The opposition and liberal circles—they are not worth it.”In contrast, Voice of America or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are reaching an altogether different, and shrinking, audience. Unlike Sveta and Lesya, their reporters and hosts mostly come from the Soviet dissident era. I personally do not know too many people under the age of 30 who would listen to either of these media outlets. The world has changed, and the main technologies that shape our day-to-day life are being created by young people. Mark Zuckerberg is not 52, he is 31. And while it is generally a good thing that the United States tries to satisfy the information diet of aging Russian liberals, they are certainly not moving the needle on counterpropaganda by doing so. The sad truth is that the vast majority of the Russian audience simply does not hear the real voice of America at all.Of course, the final question is “how”—how to get the message delivered, especially considering that the Kremlin is only tightening its grip on media, and is making noises about minimizing the “inter” part of the Russian internet. Mobile apps are currently not being censored, so that’s one option. But authorities could easily crack down, either by blocking IP addresses of various services, or by just putting pressure on Google and Apple to cut off distribution. In China, both Google and Apple have to some degree played ball.And the Russian Parliament, as one of its former speakers once publicly blurted out, is no place for debate. Bills in Russia, sent to the Duma directly from the Presidential Administration, are barely being reviewed at all (as they might be in a normal country). A Russian Great Firewall, mimicking China’s, may appear any day.Especially in autocratic regimes, and in Russia in particular, politics get more brittle during times of turmoil. The instabilities wracking the country today could lead to some kind of turnover in power at the very top—even a revolution. So perhaps the best course of action for the West would be to prepare for a “1990s v2.0”—a moment when a whole geographical region, that used to be a country, becomes more than a hundred million people who find themselves completely unprepared for a new life, with no idea how to organize themselves, or participate in or build a democracy.And beyond being smart about how it communicates with Russians, the West ought to consider how it might invite the largest number of people to study abroad. If a couple hundred thousand young Russians studied in the United States for two or three years, five years later, the impact would likely be hard to overstate. Who knows, had the United States run this kind of program 20 years ago, perhaps Washington would not need to worry about Russian propaganda today.