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.


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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.

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.