Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists: Forging Dialogue Across Divisions

Reframing Russia is a research project that aspires to reach a better understanding of the dynamics of the intensifying ‘information war’ between Russia and much of the “western” world. As part of this ambition, on November 7th, 2019, we organised a dialogue across what are often conceived of as deep set political and media divisions at the Frontline Club in London. The roundtable debate brought together a high-profile RT presenter, a senior RT executive, a columnist for The Independent, journalists from the BBC and from Sweden’s main public broadcaster, SVT, an ABC reporter, a retired senior British diplomat and an academic from the Alan Turing Data Science Institute specialising in researching populist politics and the detection of  extremist discourse online.

‘Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists’ were chosen as topics that could provide common ground. While Russian disinformation, interference and ‘cyberwarfare’ techniques are often invoked in this context, our aim was to forge dialogue across divisions in what has become a very hostile and conflicted space. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule.

The dialogue was conducted in a calm atmosphere of mutual respect. There were inevitably several sharp exchanges. Some of these adopted familiar, ‘information war’ tones but there was convergence on a surprising number of issues.

A central point of contention revolved around the assertion by one participant—contested by others—that the loss of public trust in journalism and the very failure of current business models for press journalism might ultimately lead to the ‘death of democracy’. The claim, convincingly illustrated, was that traditional journalistic mechanisms for providing audiences with information of the quality and depth necessary for them to develop informed opinion are being fast eroded. As another speaker argued, the impact of emerging phenomena like ‘deep fakes’ is likely to accelerate this process. Others, however, observed that social media platforms facilitate more meaningful audience engagement and help rebuild trust in journalism; meanwhile access to multiple new open information sources aid news gathering and create space for crowd-sourced and citizen journalism, enhancing the quality and breadth of public knowledge. Moreover, it was suggested, popular concerns over limited political and media literacy resulting in widespread failure to detect misinformation and media bias may well be overstated and reflect condescension towards younger audiences.

The debate took a new direction following an intervention highlighting the alleged degeneration of the traditional media sphere into ‘a self-perpetuating echo chamber that has lost touch with its audience’. This bold inversion of the conventional wisdom that ‘echo chambers’ are the by-product of new, online media led the same speaker to claim that the digital revolution into which RT was born has equipped members of the public with an unprecedented choice to ‘mix and match’ the outlets they follow, and to consume hitherto unavailable stories and alternative narratives which are sometimes unjustifiably vilified.

Inevitably, attitudes to fact-based journalism loomed large in the debate. One participant lamented that in the current political climate, ‘we need to present facts and not speculations; but when we present facts, the audience does not care’.  Others cautioned against over-fetishizing facts and the fact that very different versions of the truth circulate. Nonetheless, pressure on journalists and media organisations to deliver news in entertaining ways to capture audiences, both in terms of substance and format, were recognised as intense – often militating against the straight presentations of facts. An important point of convergence was that the vital contextual knowledge needed to make sense of the complexity of international affairs, not least those involving Russia, was often missing. Russophobic and anti-Western narratives, which are equally toxic, circulate with too little question in both Russia and elsewhere.

The latter point was among several which elicited broad consensus, including the following:

  • The tendency to single out Russia as acting in a unique or exceptional way renders representations of Russia in Western public discourse unbalanced, merely fuelling its claims of double-standards and hypocrisy (e.g. not subjecting the likes of Saudi Arabia or China to the same scrutiny in relation to human rights). This was noted by a respected western journalist who did not specialise in Russian affairs.
  • Focusing on ‘Russian meddling’ unduly narrows and distorts analysis of the reasons for the wider decline of trust in mainstream media and elected politicians. Commercial pressures, decreased funding for quality journalism and UK press partisanship offer better explanations for such phenomena. Participants with very different political views including those highly critical of Russia and RT concurred on this point.
  • UK-Russia relations should be viewed in a longer perspective. Negative images of Russia are historically entrenched in the UK where they are more prevalent than in other European countries. British policymakers, journalists and analysts should broaden their view, avoiding ingrained stereotypes which hamper the analysis of specific situations and the development of appropriate policy responses.
  • The idea that ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ are an entirely recent phenomenon is unhelpful. Misinformation, skewed interpretations and the dissemination of complete fabrications have a long history from which lessons can be drawn in order to identify which aspects of these phenomena are genuinely new (those attributable to the reconfiguration of the public sphere by social media, for example).
  • Most facts are open to all manner of contestation, selection, manipulation and reframing. Journalism in Russia as in the UK is a mix of fact-gathering and fact-curation and debate should focus on the appropriate relationship between these principles.
  • In this context, notions of ‘due impartiality’ should not be confused with ‘objectivity’; the BBC definition of this axiom is admirably nuanced, but it leaves too much latitude for individual journalists’ judgement. But we need to be cautious, lest we undermine the criteria by which we consider journalistic practices in contexts where the hand of state control is more apparent.

Nonetheless, relativistic claims of complete equivalence between media outlets which operate in very different political environments are misplaced. Examples of BBC management standing by its journalists when under severe attack by UK governments are not universally replicable. Dialogue of the sort represented by the discussion at the Frontline Club does not require participants to compromise on points of fundamental principle, to be forced into general accord in the interests of diplomacy, or to lose face; on many points a respectful ‘agreement to disagree’ remained the order of the day.

Indeed, perhaps the key take-away from the event was that, precisely because UK-Russia state relations are stuck at such a stubborn impasse, policy makers and those in the position to influence their thinking on both sides should encourage further initiatives involving actors at the sub-state and non-state levels. Such trust-building exercises could serve as a means of kick-starting the much-needed process of resetting diplomatic relations, if not from the bottom up, then at least from outside conventional channels. There is a valuable role here for discussions under Chatham House rules in which influential figures from opposing positions can come together in open debate, working towards establishing a common agenda, or a common language in which to disagree.

A particularly important place in these forums should be reserved for journalists and newsmakers since they play such a critical role in influencing popular attitudes on both sides, and because mutual accusations of malign interference in the two respective public spheres are driving the diplomatic crisis. That crisis is liable to intensify with Brexit, which may reinforce Russia’s perceptions of British weakness and isolation, whether those perceptions are justified or not. Now, therefore, is the time to act.


See the event photo gallery here.

Healthy Democracy Has no Reason to Fear RT | Opinion

This is the first in a new series of guest blog posts on topics connected to our project. We are deliberately seeking a wide range of views and opinions, and we are encouraging authors to be as open and outspoken as they feel is necessary. Needless to say, the project team neither endorses nor rejects these views, but would welcome any debate they might provoke.


This commentary argues that if Western democracies really had faith in their own values, they would welcome, rather than demonise, Russia’s RT. With RT pursuing its self-proclaimed mission to “question more”, it is difficult to see why confident, healthy democracies should shut the door in its face. Isn’t asking pertinent questions – including about official versions of events – ultimately an indispensable function of the media in a free democratic society? What exactly are we afraid of?

I believe the hostile Western reaction to RT is an example of “something [being] rotten in the state of Denmark”. It suggests that we fear RT because it addresses issues that we would rather avoid.

Below I discuss the salient areas where RT is questioning more and thereby performing the vital function of responsible journalism, while our own media are patently failing us.

The economy

The West’s recent economic growth has been founded largely on money printing, all-round debt creation and the spread of negative interest rates. Mainstream media generally avoid serious analysis of this financial incontinence and its likely terrifying consequences. No-one is asking how all of this is going to end.

RT spells out the nature of the problem and its dire consequences. It makes us aware of the issues that our own media are ignoring.

Globalisation

A democracy’s rational response to the post-Marxist revival of Russia and China would be to welcome them as partners in mutually beneficial economic and security cooperation. After all, have they not just recently overthrown totalitarianism? But the West rejects such a win-win scenario because it regards these mature civilisations as “autocratic revisionists”.

Via its “propaganda arm”, Russia calls for pragmatic cooperation on the basis of genuine equality and mutual respect. Why would we want to obstruct the broadcasting of such a message?

Uncomfortable facts and alternative narratives

Recent years have seen tragic events such as the downing of the MH17 and the alleged poisoning of the Skripals. Western media and establishments have immediately blamed Russia, or even President Putin personally. Depicting the president of a superpower such as Russia as a terrorist is a very serious matter.

Adhering to the standards of professional journalism, RT points to inconsistencies in the official accounts of these events. Apart from helping to establish the truth, this stance shows full respect for the victims of these tragedies.

Then there is the West’s apparent common cause with Ukraine’s extreme nationalists or Syria’s “good terrorists”, all in the name of the struggle against the “autocratic” Putin and Assad. Are we sure that democracies should be enlisting a movement founded by an infamous mass persecutor of Jews and Poles?

And let’s not forget either the simplistic narratives about Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea and “Russian aggression” in general. Alternative narratives of this complex story – including that in 1953 Crimea was illegally transferred to Ukraine by a totalitarian Kremlin – are dismissed out of hand.

In tackling these – and many other – issues, RT steers clear of the simplistic narratives.

RT stands on the side of reason

And what about the West’s excessive political correctness and, more recently, the new-fangled ‘Woke’ ideology? Or the elevation of a troubled teenage environmental activist to the stature of a modern-day prophet?

The absurdities of PC undermine the principles of open society, the foundation stone of democracy, as famously formulated by Karl Popper. And we should recall that no lesser thinker than George Orwell warned against the consequences of language manipulation.

Is the Woke revolution not faux liberalism? Does its mindless radicalism not discredit potentially worthy causes? Legitimate concerns of minorities cannot be satisfactorily addressed by the violation of science and reason. A healthy liberal society can have no truck with obscurantism and the persecution of dissenters.

Once again, RT systematically debunks such damaging excesses. It offers viewers an oasis of sanity amid all the PC madness in the West.

 Military balance: The Sword of Damocles?

Alarmingly, numerous influential individuals believe that the US is invulnerable. That it can fight and win a nuclear war. Obviously, this particular fantasy is extremely dangerous because the conviction of invulnerability can drive the delusional towards triggering the war.

Responding to this mortal threat to us all, Russia has engaged in the rapid and successful modernisation of its defences. Having surged a generation ahead, it possesses revolutionary precision weapons against which the Pentagon has no effective defence.

President Putin is not someone given to empty posturing. An accomplished strategist, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he means what he says. And he has warned that aggression against his country will be met with immediate devastating attack on the West. That there will never be another invasion of Russia’s territory.

More concerning, Putin has signalled that Russia’s posture is pro-active: should the Kremlin conclude that war is inevitable, it would be the first to strike, prioritising NATO’s command centres and missile silos. An entirely rational – not to mention “humane” – calculation: Decapitate the would-be aggressor before he can engage in a planet-annihilating escalation.

But consider this: Russia is prepared to be the first to strike, but no-one knows exactly how far the increasingly reckless West can/will “safely” push it. Where exactly is the point at which the Bear concludes it must start to bite? It will not tell us because the element of surprise is essential to its strategy.

With NATO apparently determined to “experiment” by pushing us all to the brink, we are, indeed, beyond MAD. Besides, accidents and/or mutual misreading of intentions can spark a rapidly escalating conflict at any time.

These alarming facts are either ignored by the Western media or incorrectly presented as evidence of Russia’s “aggression”.

For its part, RT performs the vital service of driving home these shocking truths about the deadly threat to us all.

The West must, indeed, become Woke

Organisations such as RT are dedicated to spreading these vital, multifaceted messages. Far from demonising and excluding them, Western establishments should wake up and listen.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – President Reagan, 12 June 1982, Berlin.

GW

“It’s not me, it’s you.” – Russia’s Perspective on ‘Information War’ | Connell Beggs

Since two Russian nationals were publically accused of committing the Novichok poisoning attack of March 2018 on Sergei and Yuliya Skripal in Salisbury (UK), the case has repeatedly made headlines across the world. The battle of narratives between Russia and the UK has only intensified following the alleged exposure of the suspects’ real identities – military intelligence officers Colonel Anatolii Chepiga and Aleksandr Mishkin. As an example of how hostilities between Russia and the West are played out through the media, the Skripal case has become a subplot in a broader storyline of ‘information war’ that has been simmering away since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

What is ‘Information War’?

Essentially, ‘information war/warfare’ (IW) is regarded as the use of information to achieve strategic aims. IW can be: 1) structural – concerned with operational infrastructure and communication capabilities (as with cyber warfare); and/or 2) psychological – concerned with targeting and affecting (international) public opinion through information.

The term ‘information war/warfare’ has become a central topic of public discussion in both Russia and the West post-Crimea. The charge of state-level engagement in IW has since been repeatedly brought against Russia by Western commentators. Russian elites, however, see the situation differently – instead arguing that Russia is the victim of IW and the West is its perpetrator.

To understand Russia’s actions and adequately assess the threat posed by Russian information activities, an essential knowledge of Russian elites’ perceptions of IW is vital. Here are some of the main characteristics and patterns that are present surrounding their discussions of IW.

US Origins, Russian Academic Engagement

The term ‘information war/warfare’ originated in the United States during the Cold War, but only began to appear in Russia in the late 1990s. Despite this, (mostly Russian) academics in post-Soviet space were engaging with the concept long before their Western counterparts. In particular, the scholars Georgii Pocheptsov (Ukrainian, but publishing in Russian) and Igor Panarin explored the concept throughout the 2000s, mainly scrutinising only the West’s information activity and firmly judging it to be IW. Pocheptsov mostly focused on the forms and mechanics of information activity, not originally grounding IW in politics but rather linking it to communication theory, public relations and marketing. Panarin later explored the geopolitical aspects of IW, vigorously driving forward this area of IW study. Panarin, who has strong links to Russia’s government and security services, has been especially critical of the West in his work.

The content of Russian scholarly literature on IW also became generally more anti-Western post-Crimea, suggesting the politicisation of academic output. Fundamentally, whilst Western academics treat IW as a Russian phenomenon, Russian academics have long considered it to be a tool of the West.

From Textbooks to Television

Since the annexation of Crimea, IW has often featured as the main topic of political talk shows, has regularly been brought up on current affairs programmes and has frequently appeared in news programming on Russia’s two main television channels, Pervyi Kanal and Rossiya 1. The media framing of IW closely aligns with the position and rhetoric of the country’s political figures, whose commentaries are prominently reported.

IW is presented on Russian television only as a one-way process – the US/UK-led West conducting an unprecedented and unjustified IW campaign against Russia. Therefore, it follows that these media discussions have been stridently anti-Western in nature – politically, socially and culturally. As the majority of Russians rely mostly on television for their news consumption, the increased frequency of the term across the mainstream media has helped to popularise this interpretation of IW across the country.

(Information) War of Words

 IW also spread to Russian politics post-Crimea. Russian politicians have accepted, adopted and/or commented on the concept far more than their Western counterparts. A number of high-level political actors – including Vladimir Putin – argue that ‘an information war is indeed currently being conducted against Russia in the media,’ but “we [i.e., Russia] are not interested in [information] wars” (Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov). Western accusations are firmly rejected by outright denying any state-level engagement in IW.

A number of non-ministerial members of the political administration have adopted more hard-line rhetoric, in contrast to the relatively diplomatic approach of senior ministerial figures. For example, Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Maria Zakharova posted on social media this year that two former members of the Obama administration, John Kerry and Jen Psaki, were ‘soldiers of the information war.’

As with the Russian media, politicians point the finger of blame firmly at the West. Denials and dismissals are often followed by assertions that the Russian government is legitimately compelled to respond defensively and proportionately in kind to incoming information operations. Clearly, these assertions logically contradict their insistence of non-engagement in IW.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Through the introduction of government policies, various departments within the Russian security forces have recently been expanded and their duties and powers broadened in order to specifically address and engage in information operations. However, state representatives have either been very vague in explaining what such information operations entail, or have completely avoided clarifying. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu described their activity as a continuation of ‘counterpropaganda’, for which he advised that “[Russian] [p]ropaganda must be smart, competent and effective,” as a “harsh and uncompromising information war is being carried out against Russia.”

The country’s armed forces and security services have been receiving significant investments of resources to ‘fight back against […] Western propaganda’ by “engag[ing] in information warfare.” By pursuing a policy of ‘fighting fire with fire’, as they perceive it, political elites admit to Russian engagement in IW, conducted in a way that does not necessarily foreground the truth or facts.

The military has adopted rhetoric that echoes the mood music of the political administration – Russia as the victim, under sustained attack from Western information activities. Interestingly, however, most high-ranking serving military personnel have avoided using the specific term ‘information war’. This is likely to reserve use of the word ‘war’ for conventional cases of armed conflict, so as not to devalue and dilute the term through liberal and inappropriate use. NATO, on the other hand, has discussed IW extensively and repeatedly insisted that the Russian state has adopted a large-scale IW programme.

Despite originating in the USA, the term ‘information war/warfare’ was enthusiastically picked up by Russian academics after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who applied the concept to their own national case. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to usage of the term increasing and spreading considerably, with politicians and the media being the main drivers behind its popularisation. Fundamentally, Russian elites frame the West as the aggressor-perpetrator of IW and Russia as the victim. This perception has become widespread in Russia and has only intensified over the course of the continuing crisis in Ukraine. As a result, polarisation and tension has increased significantly between Russia and the West. In this context, the apparent unmasking of the Russian suspects in the Skripal case is read not just as an example of independent investigative journalism, but a ‘crude provocation’ in the latest chapter of the West’s ‘information war’ against Russia.

Connell Beggs

 

Connell Beggs is a PhD candidate in Russian Studies at the University of Manchester. His research explores the influence and interests of Russian cultural organisations in post-Soviet space.