‘Public diplomacy, propaganda, and very good PR: Russian (dis-)information post-Revolution to post-fact’

Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, The University of Manchester

British International Studies Association Working Group on Russian and Eurasian Security, on “1917 to 2017: Russia’s unfinished revolution?”, King’s College London, 17 November 2017.

The fine line between public diplomacy and propaganda has been evident in Soviet information politics since the earliest times. Various congresses, solidarity organisations and international labour federations were set up to promote the Soviet world view, and to bolster revolutionary movements abroad. Later, internationally-focused media outlets (such as ‘Radio Moscow’) were established to directly address foreign publics, yet their impact, in the ‘West’ at least, was limited. Nonetheless, Western governments funded a range of equivalent media outlets (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America etc) as well as research into their impact within the Soviet bloc.

 Today, by contrast, the state-funded international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) is the source of massive international concern, particularly in (and about) the Baltic states. Senior ‘Western’ politicians have advocated for appropriate equivalents, with significant funding allocated for counter-information initiatives. However, current hysteria about RT is both unhelpful, and counterproductive. Evidence suggests that RT’s true audience figures (and wider audience impact) are significantly lower than the figures presented by both the channel itself, and by the western defence and foreign policy establishments. RT’s coverage has proven equally likely to achieve international accolades, as sanctions. Most importantly, RT’s talented PR team regularly co-opts the critiques of ‘mainstream’ players to confirm its self-representation as a counter-hegemonic voice.

 To date, RT has proven skilled in adapting to the ‘post-truth’ context, targeting limited core audiences of opposing political orientations, pushing its editorial line more effectively than ‘mainstream’ media outlets. This paper examines RT’s core strategies, how they differ from earlier information politics, and how ‘Western’ politicians and broadcasters can apply this knowledge to more effectively navigate the realities of the ‘post-truth’ media environment.