“Doing things Differently: Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories” | University of Manchester Webinar

At the end of May, Professor Stephen Hutchings and Professor Vera Tolz took part in an online seminar “Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories”. The discussion explored the sources and spread of conspiracy theories in Russia and the West, assessed their ‘success’ and ways to stem the flow of misinformation. Our University of Manchester colleagues, Professor Peter Knight (English and American Studies), Dr David Schoch (Sociology) and Dr Michael Prentice (Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research), took part in the webinar.

The discussion was part of a new series ‘Doing Things Differently‘, which brings the University of Manchester’s Humanities researchers together to discuss how COVID-19 and lockdown are changing the way we think about society, politics, the environment and everyday life. Watch the recording below.

Lost in Mistranslation: What the Russian Media Actually Said about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Hospitalisation?

By Vera Tolz and Stephen Hutchings

The latest controversy surrounding Russian malfeasance relates to a RIA Novosti report of 6 April 2020 about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation. It has been claimed that this report states that Johnson ‘had been put on a ventilator’ leading the Prime Minister’s spokesman to ‘dismiss the report as “disinformation’. Titles of articles in UK newspapers covering the story include: ‘Boris Johnson’s Spokesman Accuses Russia of Spreading ‘Disinformation’ after Russian State Media Claims the Prime Minister Is on a Coronavirus Ventilator’; ‘Downing Street Slams Russian Reports Saying Boris Johnson is on a Ventilator’.


A simple inspection of the original RIA Novosti article reveals that this representation of the Russian news agency report results from a mistranslation. RIA Novosti indeed reported Johnson’s hospitalisation. Any reference to the treatment he might receive is made with the use of the future tense, rather than reporting something that had been given already. Furthermore, the Russian report does not claim that the treatment will involve a ‘ventilator’. The report is entitled – ‘A Source Says: Johnson Will Be Put on an Artificial Breathing Apparatus’. A further quote attributed to an unnamed source which is embedded in the text states: ‘An artificial ventilation of the lungs will be administered to him’. Again, a basic check of any Russian dictionary will tell you that in the Russian language the medical umbrella term ‘iskusstvennoe ventilirovanie’ (artificial ventilation) applies to both invasive treatment with a ventilator and the non-invasive use of an oxygen mask, which, it appears, Johnson has indeed been receiving. RIA Novosti’s short report clarifies neither the kind of ‘ventilation of the lungs’ Johnson will receive to assist his breathing, nor the specific apparatus via which it will be delivered. In fact, RIA Novosti is one of Russia’s more cautious state media outlets and its coverage actually fits the pattern.

Overall, the Russian media, with the exception of RT UK which targets a UK audience, has understandably and predictably exhibited little interest in Johnson’s hospitalisation. Most of RT’s coverage has been factual but some articles on its web-site question the extent to which statements made about Johnson’s state of health by representatives of the government are consistent and believable. Russia’s main domestic broadcasters covered Johnson’s hospitalisation only very briefly and towards the end of their news bulletins, most of which are devoted to the situation inside Russia. One report on the main domestic TV channel that mentioned the hospitalisation briefly notes speculation in the UK press, particularly the tabloids, that Johnson ‘is likely to be put on an artificial breathing apparatus’. Again, the nature of the apparatus is not specified. The UK tabloids referred to here have, by comparison, been less careful, specifically mentioning the likelihood that the Prime Minister will need a ventilator. The title of a Daily Express article actually declares: ‘Boris Johnson on Ventilator’.

In sum, there is no evidence of any attempt by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health. Given that it was bound to elicit an instant and entirely credible denial, such blatant falsehoods would seem to serve little purpose anyway. The febrile environment in which Russian disinformation, even of the crassest and most pointless kind, is anticipated at every step, and in which rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are therefore sidestepped, generates a mis-rendering of a future-tense verb as past tense, and a misrepresentation of what appears to be a very vague use of medical terminology by the Russian report. This in turn spawns a misleading news story in the Western media requiring an unwarranted rebuttal from a UK government with enough on its hands already. It is in no way the aim of the Reframing Russia project to defend Russian state media, let alone the Kremlin, but the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive and provides the Kremlin with an open target.

COVID-19 Disinformation: Two Short Reports on the Russian Dimension

By Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz

The Challenge to Counter-Disinformation Analysts: A COVID-19 Case Study for Policy Makers and Journalists

The EU’s main task force for fighting Russian disinformation is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself, and so of skewing policy decisions in the EU and the UK, as well as distorting public discourse throughout Europe. Based on EU-sponsored counter-disinformation analysis in relation to COVID-19, our report explains what is happening and why. It does not dispute the need to track disinformation campaigns. However, it argues that this work has to be done carefully, and differently. Earlier experiences point to a more reliable approach, the consequences of not adopting which are highly counterproductive.

Counter-Disinformation with an EU Stamp

As members of a Russian media research project at the University of Manchester we were recently asked to comment on material in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic produced by EUvsDisnfo, ‘the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force’, established by the European Council to respond to Russia’s ‘ongoing disinformation campaigns’. Since it bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided the basis for a series of national and international press articles featuring alarming accounts of how Russia was spreading COVID-19 related disinformation, including in The Daily Mail, The Guardian and Deutsche Welle. EUvsDisinfo’s research material, along with the narrative it corroborated, is acquiring viral momentum.

The EUvsDisinfo analyses consisted of English-language summaries of five Russian media stories promulgating coronavirus conspiracy theories. Whilst examining these five in depth, overall our team looked at more than twice that number (there were 112 in the EUvsDisinfo ‘database’ as of 26 March and more are added each day). Each item was given a headline title and it was with these headlines (not those of the original sources) that western politicians and journalists work. The summaries had clearly been translated from the original Russian in which they were compiled. They came with handy, fact-based ‘disproofs’ of the validity of those stories, and a table providing information about the countries in which they were circulating, their countries of origin, and a link to the original stories, some consisting of broadcast content, others of press articles.

Counter-Disinformation with a Question Mark?

Concerned that the summaries might be overgeneralising about ‘pro-Kremlin media’, we sampled a news bulletin from Russia’s main state-aligned broadcaster, Channel 1, shown on 12 March 2020. Coronavirus led the bulletin which also closed with a related story. Coverage here consisted, however, mainly of neutral accounts of recent developments, with much attention to how other nations were responding (inflected with an implicit suggestion that many were overreacting, but also pointedly dwelling on Western hygiene advice clearly intended for Russian viewers to heed). The closing item was a story about how swindlers across the world, including Russia, were exploiting fear of the virus and selling false, ‘folk’ remedies to gullible people. It concluded with a plea to viewers to turn to professional medical staff for advice. Russia’s generally anti-Western stance finds expression throughout Channel 1, but there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin ‘conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.

The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analysed is troubling. Two of the Task Force’s working methods are particularly problematic.

  1. The Problem of Context

a. From omission …

First, in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media content. One item identified a conspiracy theory claiming that COVID-19 ‘was probably created on purpose at the UK’s Porton Down laboratories’. It was aired on a well-known Russian political discussion show called ‘The Big Game’.  Most importantly, there is no indication in the EUvsDisinfo database that the theory is rebuffed by the show’s co-moderator, who has previously collaborated with the US government. He repeats several times during the programme that he does not believe the conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus. He himself broaches the notion that the virus was not ‘man-made’ (the ‘man-made’ fallacy was implicitly attributed by EUvsDisinfo to the entire programme), but transmitted to humans by an animal species, and footage is shown of the very pangolin to which the EUvsDisinfo’s ‘disproof’, citing Nature magazine, refers when rebutting the ‘pro-Kremlin’ conspiracy theory. Moreover, EUvsDisinfo fails to acknowledge that ‘The Big Game’ is a domestic Russian broadcast intended primarily for home consumption. Channel 1 is also widely available in Russian-speaking areas of the post-Soviet space but to the limited extent that ‘The Big Game’ is part of an overseas propaganda ‘campaign’, it contributes (a) only in very general terms, striving to keep its overseas audiences on board with its pro-Russian, anti-Western agendas, thus maintaining Russian influence in its ‘near abroad’ and (b) working with the grain of popular discourses prevalent in the Russian-speaking environment, but less widespread elsewhere.

Indeed, despite the far greater level of state direction and minimal space for free speech constraining it, Russian television, like its British counterpart, tends to reflect back at viewers their own popular beliefs and fears, along with ideas which circulate in online realms often dominated by Russian nationalist positions more extreme than those of the Kremlin. These ideas infiltrate Russian state-aligned media without the explicit sanction of the Kremlin, or even of Channel 1 executives. Coronavirus and other such conspiracy theories rarely originate in the Kremlin. However, as long as they do not explicitly contradict Kremlin thinking, they are frequently aired in talk shows such as ‘The Big Game’. It is much rarer for them to be circulated in direct form in Channel 1 news broadcasts, though the other state channel, Rossiia, will regularly broadcast news bulletins (particularly those fronted by Dmitrii Kiselev, who is an unapologetic state operative) featuring preposterous anti-Western propaganda. By failing to furnish crucial information about the programme in which it features, the EUvsDisinfo packaging of the Porton Down theory overstates its significance.

b. To blatant distortion …

Another item related to an hour-long Radio Sputnik programme on the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Here, a short exchange between two participants is chosen in which one refers to a particular historical episode and claims that today international companies would use the situation ‘to establish control over Chinese markets’. The other participant, however, disagrees, warning against drawing any historical parallels. EUvsDisinfo’s report is misleadingly entitled ‘Coronavirus is an attempt by the Anglo-Saxons to control China’ and the summary represents the programme content accordingly.

In one case, EUvsDisinfo accuses RT’s Arabic branch of itself concocting a claim promoted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that COVID-19 is attributable to US biological weaponry, despite the fact that RT merely reports the claim (albeit without clarifying that it lacks evidence).  Altogether, EUvsDisinfo identified five RT reports that it classified as disinformation. All are from RT Arabic, including one report which denies that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign around COVID-19. EUvsDisinfo includes this in the database on the questionable grounds that its own staff identified examples of Russian disinformation elsewhere.

A still more troubling item related to a conspiracy theory purportedly promoted by Sputnik Latvia (a Russian-language outlet) and claiming that COVID-19 had been designed especially to kill elderly Italians. The article in question, however, was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the coronavirus. Rather than endorsing these theories, the article highlights their idiocy and urges people to give them no credence. This is one of the most significant examples of EUvsDisinfo’s tendency to misread or misrepresent its sources.

When it does identify genuine disinformation authored by Russian state actors, EUvsDisinfo uses its findings in an inflationary manner that seems designed to deceive. Thus, an article from what probably is a Kremlin-sponsored proxy outlet branded to look like a US alt right site, and containing outlandish ‘One World Order’ conspiracy theories regarding international responses to COVID-19, is recorded on the EUvsDisinfo database under eight different headings and as eight separate items, artificially boosting the overall tally of instances of ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’.

  1. The Terminology Problem

A second problem with EUvsDisinfo’s methods is its use of the vague notion of ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’ to mis-associate programmes from state-funded media outlets with random websites without any traceable links to Russian state structures. The latter include, for example, conspirological, far-right sites which are actually critical of Putin. A further item related to the Porton Down conspiracy theory was labelled ‘The coronavirus is a biological weapon created by the UK’. It was promulgated in the Russian nationalist leaning (but hardly pro-Kremlin) Svobodnaia pressa (Free Press). The article’s title – ‘Patent has been found which proves the British trace in COVID-19’ – supports the EUvsDisinfo account of it. Yet a closer reading of the full article reveals that this title is itself misleading. The suggestion that the virus is ‘a biological weapon developed by the British, even if they pursued scientific goals’ is, indeed, quoted in the article, which, for sure, has a strongly anti-‘Anglo-Saxon’ bias and skirts around several conspiracy theories. However the author first presents this quote as originating in online forums, distancing himself from the quote by suggesting that ‘supporters of the claim are not completely sinning against the truth’. He later concedes that the most probable origin of the virus is the animal world, and specifically a bat species considered edible in China. The article is specious and lacks plausibility, but the EUvsDisinfo presentation of it is inaccurate.

The use of poorly defined notions of ‘pro-Kremlin propaganda’ has already prompted calls for the European Commission to halt the activities of EUvsDisinfo.  Parliamentarians and journalists in EU states criticised EUvsDisinfo on the grounds that it violates free speech.  Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation according to the East StratCom’s own definition of the term. Moreover, EUvsDisinfo’s announcement of the change of policy it introduced in 2018 in response to objections to its work is unhelpful, merely substituting the labelling of pro-Kremlin outlets as ‘disinforming’ with references to disinformation arising from the ‘pro-Kremlin ecosystem’.

EU and UK politicians and journalists are relying on EUvsDisinfo’s claims when asserting that ‘pro-Kremlin media have been spreading disinformation about coronavirus with the aim of aggravating public health crisis in the West’.  The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting Western countries with an organised campaign around the current public health crisis – which is not to say that COVID-19 disinformation of Russian, even Russian state, provenance is completely absent from the global media environment.

Reasons for the Problems

Why do we find ourselves in a situation where an EU-funded body set up to fight disinformation ends up producing it? There are two main reasons:

  1. A profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work.
  2. The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to perform the required tasks.

First, EU politicians and journalists’ claims about Russia are too often based on the false perception that the Kremlin controls all Russian media and communication technologies. Russian affairs specialists frequently caution that in Russia, where the internet is policed only partially, there still are numerous news sites that function independently from the Kremlin, and that a propaganda machine centrally coordinated by the Kremlin exists only in the Western imagination. Sadly such messages tend to get lost in the fog of what is increasingly, and problematically, referred to as the ‘information war’.

Secondly, the East StratCom Task Force relies on as many as 400 volunteers to trace Russian disinformation. It is impossible to check that hundreds of volunteers possess the qualifications essential for passing judgement on what disinformation is and, if this is identified, for summarising the findings in a credible way. Such qualifications, particularly those certificating the skills needed to interpret the data collected, require lengthy training. According to a Dutch public broadcaster investigation, a single jobless volunteer has been responsible for reporting no less than 25 percent of all EUvsDisinfo’s 3,500 disinformation cases. Such volunteers, moreover, are operating in a post-Soviet space saturated (for very understandable reasons) by anti-Russian sentiments from which they are unlikely to be completely free. By outsourcing vital research to volunteers working in ideologically fraught environments, EUvsDisinfo will inevitably struggle to present reliable, robust findings.

The EU is not alone

The tendency to outsource research which in previous decades would have been carried out by trained experts is not peculiar to EUvsDisinfo. With its budgets severely constrained by years of austerity and its own teams of qualified experts diminished, the UK’s Foreign Office is prone to the same policy, the risks to which were illustrated by unwelcome political scandals surrounding its funding of research carried out by the controversial ‘Institute for Statecraft’. Ironically, the Russian state follows not dissimilar tactics, and its notorious IRA ‘troll factory’ is a case in point. Not only is the IRA an example of state outsourcing, it is now itself outsourcing work to networks across the world. There are three linked problems with this strategy. First, it encourages its beneficiaries to skew their research results to reflect what they believe their benefactors want to hear, exacerbating the second problem of unreliability and inconsistency illustrated by the work of EUvsDisinfo. Together these two problems generate distortions which in turn produce a third problem: the unleashing of a self-renewable dynamic of claims, rebuttals and counter-claims. The Institute of Statecraft scandal furnished rich material for Russian state-aligned media’s own campaign against disinformation.

An Alternative Approach and the Consequences of Not Following It

It would benefit the European Commission to learn from disinformation analysis of an earlier period. In the 1980s, Vera Tolz worked as an analyst at the Research Department of Radio Liberty, a US-funded radio station that broadcast to the Soviet Union. These analysts identified some of the most significant Soviet disinformation campaigns. The Department’s weekly reports were used by Western government officials and the media. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the analysis was the result of appointing qualified staff whose work was systematically supervised and checked for accuracy by researchers with long experience. There was a clear understanding that one’s origin in a particular country, the ability to speak its language and having ‘reliably’ anti-Soviet views did not make one a research analyst. Further lessons on how high-quality, dependable media analysis is produced can be learned from the work of BBC Monitoring whose well-trained experts follow media across the world, including Russia. The UK’s broadcasting regulator, OFCOM, also deploys appropriate expertise, as demonstrated by its rigorous, balanced and nuanced report on RT’s breaches of due impartiality during the period of the Salisbury poisonings crisis.

The European Commission’s reliance on East StratCom is jeopardising its credibility as an evidence-driven policymaker. It is giving valuable ammunition to Russian state media counterclaims that it is the EU itself which produces disinformation. Indeed, RT has launched its own extensive FakeCheck operation which, in turn, has spawned take-down analyses pointing out that ‘the fact checks published by RT usually result in conclusions that align with Russia’s agenda’. Poor quality counter-disinformation initiatives nourish the wider disinformation ecosystem by feeding off one another as disinformation mutates, virus-like, into its antithesis – counter-disinformation – and back again.


Coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Website of RT (formerly Russian Today)

Analysis of RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic carried out by the Manchester University-led ‘Reframing Russia’ AHRC-funded project suggests that it fits with the project team’s overview of RT’s approach to reporting. This overview is based on close monitoring of RT’s output over the last three years (2017-2020). The main features of this approach are:

  • During periods when Russian actions are not under the international spotlight, RT’s coverage is more factually accurate and biases are less strongly pronounced than when it covers issues specifically related to Russia’s policies. Particularly after the sanctioning of RT by OFCOM for its coverage of the Salisbury poisonings, RT International, which provides news in the English language, has become more careful in how it presents controversial news stories. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such story.
  • RT’s coverage becomes extremely biased and borders on disinformation when events which are of particular importance for Russia’s foreign policy agenda and international image are in the spotlight (e.g. Russia’s annexation of Crimea; the Ukraine crisis; and the Salisbury poisonings). Such events take place only occasionally, and should not be used to draw inferences about RT’s ‘typical’ reporting strategies.
  • RT has a tendency to foreground stories that put Western democracies in a bad light. This is consistent with its proclaimed mission ‘to provide alternative perspectives on current affairs’. At the same time, RT also claims to be a regular international news provider. Even allowing for justifiable scepticism about this claim, it should be acknowledged that much of RT’s output is purely factual and consists of aggregations of news reports by leading Western news agencies. Without this approach, RT would stand to lose even the modest audience it currently has.

Our search of RT International’s web-site,* conducted on 24 March 2020, revealed over 300 items, including video clips of news items and web articles, related to COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a Russia-related development, meaning that RT (and the Russian state) have little incentive to initiate a coordinated disinformation campaign around it.

Of the identified RT reports on COVID-19, 23 deal with conspiracy theories, and the overwhelming majority of these amount to rebuttals of western media accusations of Russian conspiracy mongering, or mockeries of conspiracy theories touted by others. Typical examples include: ridiculing a conspiracy theory tweeted by a Hollywood actress; and dismissing as ‘Russophobic’ US State Department accusations of Russian conspiracy-theory dissemination.

It is worth noting how RT International covered claims made by officials in China and Iran that COVID-19 was a US attack on their countries, given that China and Iran are Russia’s allies against the West. RT reported the allegations with a caveat that they were ‘unverified’ and that there was ‘no proof that they could be true’ (see examples 1, 2 and 3). However, RT’s cautionary note was much less robustly phrased than the outright dismissal of the Chinese and Iranian officials’ claims by mainstream Western news providers.

The remainder of the 300 stories were either neutral reports replicated from Western press sources, OR attempts to link COVID-19 to various weaknesses and injustices in the UK and other Western states. Examples of RT International’s use of the pandemic to criticize Western elites and media include: a story about how mainstream media reportedly attempted to pit Trump against his health officials; a report on how Twitter users criticized a prominent Daily Telegraph columnist for xenophobia because of her crude anti-Chinese tweet; an RT web article concluding that in Western societies the tendency inflexibly to follow procedures could actually impede efforts to save lives from the deadly virus. This last example represents a variant on RT’s circumspect approach to disinformation; it targets not disinformation itself but the overly cautious branding as ‘fake news’ of what could turn out to be a genuinely effective treatment. The notion of an excessively risk-averse West poorly equipped to take the bold decisions needed to address the COVID-19 crisis appears to be a theme in RT’s op-ed columns.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that most of the items that use the coronavirus pandemic to criticize Western countries are on-line op-ed articles, rather than reports in daily news bulletins. This is in keeping with RT’s usual strategy of reserving its most savagely anti-Western material for op-eds, with a standard disclaimer at the end: ‘The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.’ The apparent mirroring of western journalistic standards of transparency forms part of RT’s identity as a respectable international broadcaster.

A more questionable practice equating to the populist ‘alt media upstart’ component of RT’s brand image is the provision on its web-site of links to hyper-partisan news sites in the column ‘From our partners’. Such ‘partners’ include mixi.media, a news aggregator of unclear provenance, which uploads material from ultra-right wing US sites, such as RealClearPolitics and Grabien. These links appear alongside links to reports by RT and the Russian state-funded Radio Sputnik. In relation to COVID-19, RT provided a link via mixi.media to a RealClearPolitics article by a US doctor who, at an earlier stage of the pandemic, claimed that the mainstream media were creating an unnecessary ‘hysteria’ around the virus.

RT’s services in languages other than English are often subjected to less scrutiny and appear to feature poorer reporting practices. This applies particularly to RT Arabic (but less so to RT France, which is being very closely monitored by the Macron administration). When reporting the statement by the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to the effect that COVID-19 ‘might be a biological attack’ by the US on Iran, in contrast to RT International, RT Arabic omitted any clarification that there was no evidence for the claim. RT Arabic’s short report, entitled ‘The Revolutionary Guards: Corona Could be an American Biological Attack’, merely quoted from Hossein Salami’s statement.

This is, of course, poor journalistic practice. However, it is different from how the European Commission-funded EastStratCom Task Force, set up to respond to Russian disinformation, represents this RT Arabic report. Here, the channel is accused of itself concocting and promoting the IRG claim. Altogether, EastStratCom identified five RT reports that it classified as disinformation. All are from RT Arabic, including one report which denies that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign around Covid-19. EastStratCom includes this as an example of Russian disinformation on the questionable grounds that its own staff identified examples of Russian disinformation. In every case, EastStratCom’s representation of RT Arabic coverage is misleading. As mentioned above, some of RT’s reporting practices are deficient (e.g. the insufficient provision of contextual information; the inclusion of links to hyper-partisan material), but, in the context of the COVID-19 coverage they are undoubtedly superior to EastStartCom’s own methods (see our separate analysis of EastStratCom’s claims above).

Overall, we see no particular reason to refer RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic to OFCOM. To have any impact, such referrals should be made in the cases of serious, systematic malpractice. There seems to be little evidence of this in the case of RT’s COVID-19 coverage.


* Please note that this analysis is based solely on RT International’s web content. We have not analysed RT’s television and social media output. On the whole, particularly following OFCOM’s sanctioning of RT for its television output during the period of the Salisbury poisonings crisis, RT International’s broadcasts have been more circumspect than its web content.


Council Chamber portrait 1

 

Stephen Hutchings is Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

 

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Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

Maverick minds of the anti-establishment? The personalities behind Sputnik radio | Lucy Birge

Russia’s international broadcasters RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik international have been widely criticised for granting airtime to members of left- and right-wing fringes. Research has identified both far-left and far-right commentary in RT’s news and its presenters and regular contributors similarly range from Slavoj Žižek to Nigel Farage. But thus far there has been little research into RT’s younger sibling, Sputnik.

Sputnik is principally a digital radio broadcaster and multi-media web platform. It was founded in November 2014 following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Sputnik’s two English languages hubs are based in Washington DC (producing five shows) and Edinburgh (producing two). Sputnik’s shows are fairly typical of the “talk radio” genre – discussion of news and current affairs. However, my doctoral research into Sputnik’s English language channels shows how the broadcaster’s content is shaped by a star line-up featuring four key categories of anti-establishment characters:

1. The “lefty”

With only few exceptions Sputnik English-language journalists come from left-wing and anti-racist activist backgrounds.

On the US side, Garland Nixon, co-host of Fault Lines, is a National Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who previously sued the Department of Natural Resources for race discrimination and harassment. Dr Wilmer Leon, presenter of The Critical Hour, is a public intellectual and columnist interested in racial inequality in the United States. Sean Blackmon, co-host of By Any Means Necessary (a phrase famously uttered by 1960’s civil activist Malcom X), is the organiser of Stop Police Terror Project DC, born out of Black Lives Matter.

Brian Becker picture in 2012 . Creative Commons licence: Elvert Barnes

Several more presenters are prominent members of the anti-war and civil rights organisation Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition (ANSWER). Eugene Puryear, Blackmon’s co-host on By Any Means Necessary, is one of ANSWER’s national organisers whilst Brian Becker, host of Loud and Clear, is its national director. Puryear and Becker also have close links to a Marxist/Leninist political party, The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), with Becker being a founding member, and Puryear having been the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2016.

However, radical left-wing politics is exceptionally marginal in the United States. It is hard to see how this kind of Sputnik content could garner large swathes of the American population.

In the UK, however, this political perspective is slightly more mainstream. This is reflected in the choice of presenters.

George Galloway, former MP turned anti-establishment commentator, is Sputnik’s newest left-wing presenter. Galloway is a prolific anti-war spokesman, founder of charity Viva Palestine, supporter of Corbyn and a proponent of Brexit. He is also one of the longest serving figures on RT, having presented Sputnik: Orbiting the World, since 2013. His Mother of All Talk Shows appeared on Sputnik in June 2019, probably intended to build on his popularity on RT.

But where does Russia come in, for Sputnik’s left-wing pundits and anti-racist activists?

Sputnik’s commentators see Russia as a counterweight to American hegemony. Sometimes, this translates to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, as in a Loud and Clear episode marking the Russian Revolution’s centenary. Here Becker and his guest exhibited particular nostalgic reverence for the Soviet Union. Becker’s guest that time was his colleague from Sputnik, ANSWER and the PSL – Eugene Puryear.

2.   The “Whistle-blower”

John Kiriakou at his 2015 release party. Creative commons: Slowking

The Sputnik journalist with arguably the highest international profile is John Kiriakou. The co-host (with Becker) on Loud and Clear, Kiriakou rose to fame as a whistle-blower. He was the first CIA agent to be convicted, and sentenced, for passing on classified information to a reporter, after a 2007 televised ABC interview in which Kiriakou disclosed the CIA’s use of waterboarding, a form of torture, on terrorist captives.

Since his release from federal prison in 2015, Kiriakou has become a prolific anti-establishment voice, orator and author (having written three books). Kiriakou has campaigned for Julian Assange’s release, using his Sputnik show as a platform. He has also discussed the impossibility of Assange receiving a fair trial on mainstream media outlets.

Sputnik’s defence of and support for Assange (who regularly appeared on RT) and Chelsea Manning, brings to mind the case of illustrious whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia. By supporting and employing whistle-blowers including Kiriakou, Sputnik can discuss in detail the failings of the US and its corrupt institutions from an insider’s perspective. The network can also present itself – and by implication Russia – as the defender of free speech, in contrast to the USA.

3. The network friend

Sputnik shows have many repeat guests including other presenters from Sputnik and RT. As well as Galloway’s expansion from RT to Sputnik, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert have built on their long-running RT economics show, Keiser Report, with a similar concept for Sputnik, called Double Down.

But the recurrence of ‘external’ guests in Sputnik is no less remarkable. In particular, John Kavanaugh, the New York based editor of online left-wing “social analysis” platform Polemicist.net appears so frequently on Sputnik’s US based shows, Loud and Clear, The Critical Hour and By Any Means Necessary, that he could almost be described as one of Sputnik’s principal voices. Indeed, whilst Kavanaugh’s Polemicist affiliation appears to indicate a journalistic profile independent of Sputnik, his meagre Twitter following of 654 belies this.

Alexander Mercouris is another maverick media personality with multiple guest appearances on Sputnik’s shows. Mercouris, based in London, is the editor-in-chief of alternative multimedia news platform the Duran. The Duran describes itself as: “a conservative news-media platform that advances a realpolitik position” and Peter Lavelle – host of RT’s Cross Talk – is one of its co-founders. Unsurprisingly, Mercouris is a frequent guest on his show, too. While the fringe media platform has a larger following than that of Kavanaugh’s, its 89.7 K followers on YouTube is still negligible for a global internet platform.

Sputnik so frequently hosts fringe media figures promoting their own material that it acts as a hub in a network of various non-mainstream media publications. The profiles of its few right-wing presenters – and their approach to contemporary journalism – gives further indication of how this works.

4.     The right-wing populist

The two stark exceptions to Sputnik’s left-wing activist presenter model are the right-wing populist personalities Lee Stranahan (US) and Jon Gaunt (UK). Reactionary views notwithstanding, Stranhan and Gaunt are still staunchly “anti-establishment”.

A former investigative reporter for HuffPost and the far-right American Breitbart News Network and a self-proclaimed “populist Republican”, Stranhan has co-hosted the Sputnik US show, Fault Lines, since April 2017. Alongside his Sputnik show, Stranahan sells online courses in citizen journalism, as he claims that the online dissemination of news by everyday citizens is the only antidote to the biased mainstream media. Stranahan promotes a similar line on his website, Populist.TV. With a tagline “making you smarter”, Stranahan uses the website to promote his own journalistic material, including that of his Sputnik show Fault Lines.

Across the Atlantic, Gaunt displays an analogously right-wing populist stance on politics and journalism. He is a supporter of Brexit and Farage’s Brexit party. As with Stranahan, Gaunt has previous experience in journalism. He has presented on BBC London and several BBC regional outposts as well as Talksport , and is also a former columnist for British tabloid paper The Sun.

Gaunt has presented Shooting From the Lip since its launch in July 2018 when the UK’s divisions were laid bare. The show’s name refers to speaking confidently on a subject without possessing expertise or prior knowledge. Together with its tagline, “real opinions for real people”, this clearly establishes the show as a populist platform. Amongst the show’s most controversial guests, is British far right activist and founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.

Stranahan and Gaunt’s appointments demonstrate that Sputnik’s producers are responding to new waves of right-wing populism unleashed by Trump and Brexit respectively. It is notable that Gaunt’s hit the air a few weeks before the left-leaning Hard Facts was axed from the UK service. Crucially though, these personalities are not only railing against the elite, but also, against the practices and dominance of Western mainstream journalism that Sputnik seeks to challenge.

Sputnik: mavericks, markets and memberships

Sputnik actively promotes anti-establishment voices from both ends of the political spectrum. Often these come from activist-type backgrounds whose concern with racial and financial injustices resonates with particular audiences. Sometimes, they have professional experience in more conventional outlets, which makes their criticism of Western mainstream media more credible. Sputnik can then discuss the biases and malpractices of Western mainstream media at first hand. In turn, Sputnik projects Russia as an impartial pioneer of the new digital journalism.

Sputnik is clearly attuned to market considerations: it has commissioned new shows from successful RT presenters; and has included more right-leaning populist content in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, as my research has revealed, Sputnik’s commentators are predominantly left-wing. But how do we account for Sputnik’s left-wing orientation in the USA – a country where such views are extremely marginal?

To me it seems there is a twofold answer. On the one hand, it seems plausible that Sputnik has a harder time attracting right-wing pundits who, in light of Russiagate, may be disinclined to associate with Russian government funded media outlets like Sputnik. On the other hand, Sputnik appears to be establishing itself as a platform for a particular community with shared affiliations and memberships. Whether Sputnik can boast any real impact on these groups, though, my project will endeavour to elucidate.

 

Lucy Birge (@BirgeLucy) is a third year PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Lucy holds a degree in Russian Studies from the University of Sheffield (2012) and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from the University of Cambridge (2014). She has studied and lived in Yaroslavl and St Petersburg, Russia. Lucy’s research explores Russia’s outward projection strategy via its international broadcasting outlet, Sputnik.

 

Conspiracy, media and politics | Reframing Russia in conversation with Ilya Yablokov

Ilya-Yablokov.jpgDr Ilya Yabokov is a Lecturer in Russian Studies at the University of Leeds, author of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet World, and co-organiser of the Russian Readings seminar series on contemporary social developments in Russia. He talked to Reframing Russia’s Precious Chatterje-Doody about how conspiracy theories can help us understand how people engage with politics beyond their control, and how political and social elites try to manipulate this to their own advantage…

Reframing Russia: People tend to think of conspiracy theories as a pretty niche interest that’s only relevant if you have a particular mindset. But your scholarly work really engages with the idea. So what are the benefits of taking conspiracy theories seriously?

Ilya Yablokov: We tend to think about conspiracy theories as showing a paranoid mentality and something that has no relation to reality, real politics, real issues. On the contrary, conspiracy theories provide us a way to explore current social and political issues, but from another angle. They help us better understand crises that take place in the outside world. Crises that are being considered and reconsidered by people, the common man if you like. So, ordinary people try to reconcile themselves with these big issues and crises by viewing them as a kind of a plot. This means that conspiracy theories are not just problematic, but they’re a method people use to engage with current issues.

RR: So what was it that first brought you around to this topic of study?

IY: It’s a very long story!  I first got into conspiracy theories back in 2005, and that was very unexpected, a very surprising track for me. First, I studied work on American conspiracy theories because of the availability of literature on the topic and facilities to conduct the research. In fact, American conspiracy theories were studied for decades from the early 20th Century, but in Russia because of problems in the study of arts and humanities, there was just no academic work on the topic.  They were actually very popular in Russia in the 1990s, but nobody was investigating them from the academic angle, because of the stigma surrounding conspiracy theories. It was a completely unexplored topic, so I took this as a challenge and published the first book on that.

RR: It’s funny that you mention that the topic was previously so under-explored, because since your book came out earlier this year, it has generated quite a stir. It’s not just the rave reviews from academics, even the public talks you’ve given about the book have been selling out. Obviously, the wider subject is really topical right now: the book basically gives an account of how Russia’s political elite uses conspiracy theories. Could you tell us a bit more about how they do this?

IY: In short, conspiracy theories are a tool for public mobilisation. First, they help to visually create, through various media sources, help to create this image, this image of the majority, the idea that there is a majority of people who support the regime and stand against foreign plots – the general public. Second, conspiracy theories delegitimise opponents, and legitimise the projects of current regime. This has been done for the last 30 years, since the end of the Soviet period, and my book looks at the period since 1991. The third way the current regime uses conspiracy theories is to try and create, temporarily, a certain national cohesion, to create a community of people united by certain ideas – in that case foreign plots against Russia.

RR: I know that conspiracy theories are just one element of your current work. What else are you involved in at the moment?

IY: I’m one of the organisers of the Russian Readings public seminar series at the University of Leeds, and that’s keeping me really busy. We’ve already hosted an event on how journalists can deal with the post-truth age and the major shift in their profession: media going digital. We’re gonna have two more events in March and May next year where we are going to discuss how the media can survive in the digital era (not because of political challenges, but because of financial issues – this is a big problem for all media in the world of how to survive in digital age if they don’t have state sponsorship to pay their bills). The third event will be about ethics in current journalism; how to approach this issue of ethics.

I’ve got a few interesting research projects coming up shortly as well. I have a couple of special issues which should be all finished up: both are about news production in Russia and Central-Eastern Europe. Then I am going to be working on an article about liberal conspiracy theories in Russia; it’s not just the Kremlin or national patriots who use conspiracy theories – I think it’s much wider… it’s a more fruitful project to look at how so-called intelligentsia or liberal opposition think about conspiracy theories. Actually, I’ve been contemplating this project for a while. And then, you have to look at the role of conspiracy theories not just domestically, but internationally. Of course, that’s what we’re working on at the minute for our new book together on conspiracy theories and international broadcasting.

After that, I think, I shall embark upon a big and challenging project about intellectuals and power in post-Soviet Russia. This will include the analysis of the role that various intellectuals play in empowering the political regime in Russia. This will not only include academics, or political technologists like Gleb Pavlovsky (I talk about it briefly in my book), this will also include media elites and writers/musicians/artists. It’s a kind of sociology of elites – and we’ll be seeing how we can expand the concept of adekvatnost that I worked on with Elizabeth Schimpfössl from media elites to elites in general – intellectual and cultural elites. We’ll be working on the nature of political regimes – the Russian regime and authoritarian regimes in general – using this idea of adekvatnost.

RR: It sounds like you have a really busy period ahead! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today and best of luck with all your exciting new projects.

 

Ilya Yablokov’s latest book, Fortress Russia: Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet World, is out now.