Stephen Hutchings, Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester, examines the role RT, the Russian International Television Network, plays in Russia’s ongoing ‘War on Truth’ and offers advice as to how UK security policymakers can address the challenges posed by the television network.
Russia Today (RT)
When the Salisbury poisoning story broke, RT – reputedly the international mouthpiece of Putin’s disinformation operation – soon became embroiled. As sanctions against Russia were considered, OFCOM announced an investigation into RT’s broadcasting licence. OFCOM’s action bolstered the dominant British media narrative towards Russia. This depicted a paranoid but resolute Kremlin directing a monstrous state security apparatus primed to commit plausibly deniable acts of aggression against its opponents, all supported by compliant media acting in coordination with cyber-warriors, human and non-human. This baneful army marches under the banner of Russia’s infamous ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ of ‘hybrid warfare’.
Recently, however, Mark Galeotti, the researcher who coined the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, issued a mea culpa, revealing that he had invented it as a convenient umbrella for a range of practices that, whilst serving similar goals, he had never believed to have been systematically coordinated. What does Galeotti’s admission mean for our understanding of RT? Our research on the Russian media corroborates his position. But it also indicates that conceiving of RT as the passive tool of a unified Kremlin propaganda operation provides a flimsy basis for an effective response to its activities. Here are six reasons:
1.RT calibrates its content for the Anglophone contexts it targets.
This can lead to sharp differences between domestic Russian and English-language coverage of the same events. Last year, the settled domestic media narrative of the 1917 revolution’s place in Russian history was profoundly negative. RT, by contrast, launched an award-winning, multi-platform celebration of the centennial targeting global leftists, for whom 1917 retains positive connotations. Moreover, because of its international remit, RT disarms western audiences by confounding expectations of it gleaned from ‘mainstream media’ sources. Alongside polemical diatribes, sarcastic ‘take-down’s of Russia’s most vocal opponents, multiple conspiracy theories endorsed by unaffiliated ‘experts’ and one-sided ‘debates’ – more Fox News than Fake News – RT ran some largely factual stories on the Salisbury poisoning, and live-streamed UK parliamentary debates on the resulting crisis. The spaces that RT occasionally creates for dissident opinion can seem surprisingly generous. 2018 presidential election candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, was given a free platform for her scathing critique of Kremlin cronyism and repression. On domestic Russian television, she was regularly shouted down. On RT she out-argued her flustered interviewer for nearly an hour.
2. RT must employ native English-speaking journalists
In broadcasting to English-speaking audiences, RT must employ native English-speaking journalists whose anti-hegemonic politics derive from very different conditions than those of its native Russian staff. In 2014, at the height of the Ukraine crisis, RT suffered its own ‘betrayal’ by a double agent when Abby Martin, its star presenter, used her editorial freedom to issue an extraordinary on-air protest against Putin’s seizure of Crimea. Martin, an independent-minded product of the US Occupy Movement, rebuffed RT’s put-down of her protest and remained in post for a year, until she resigned to develop a solo career. It is unhelpful to regard all RT journalists as passive state ‘hacks’ or ‘useful idiots’. Like their domestic counterparts, influential RT presenters are powerful actors with agency. Whilst still subject to the top-down ‘temniki’ system by which news agendas are imposed on broadcasters, such figures have some scope to co-author and reshape those agendas. They see themselves as bona fide members of a global community, as professional journalists rather than ideological foot soldiers. Their online personas are far more rounded than the conformist face they maintain in news broadcasts. Articles in the oppositional newspaper, Novaya Gazeta are often retweeted by RT journalists whose identities are forged across multiple outlets, online platforms and genres, within hyperlinked networks, shaped as much by global cultural trends as by Kremlin prerogatives.
3.RT is multilingual
RT now broadcasts in Spanish, French and Arabic, too, with web presences in Russian and German. There is little evidence of coordination across these operations, even when they cover the same material. The Spanish and Russian components of RT’s 1917 project not only offered conflicting accounts of the revolution; they soon fell into disuse, overshadowed by the success of their English-language equivalent. RT’s linguistic outposts adopt different tactics to survive under local conditions. Threatened with a ban for interfering in France’s elections, RT’s French channel was alone in burnishing its independent credentials by sharing a video depicting ballot-stuffing during Russia’s own recent election.
4.RT is part of complex Russian and global media landscapes
In the Russian media landscape arch Putin-opponent, Alexei Navalny, shares social media space with government trolls, and the full spectrum of political opinion is accessible at the click of a mouse. This, in turn, intersects with a global ecology increasingly overshadowed by the algorithm-driven architecture of Facebook, enabling RT to influence mainstream news agendas from the margins, without the need for mass ratings. We are still investigating RT’s place in this larger ecology. Its domestic role is clearer. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s Editor-in-Chief, has scaled the heights of Russia’s media hierarchy (she now also heads the domestic news agency named, in Russian, after it). Her growing influence undermines notions of the unidirectional movement of Kremlin power from centre to periphery. Simonyan’s perceived ability to translate Kremlin agendas into idioms palatable to global audiences partly explain her rapid elevation. It is, paradoxically, because the Kremlin’s approach to fine-tuning its message for its audiences is so deeply dialogic that of all state-aligned Russian broadcasters, RT both best captures the tone and purpose of official narratives and is most likely to accommodate off-message deviations from them.
5.Western commentators overemphasise RT’s crudely polemical television output
Its real success is on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter where it has grasped how to work with the grain of the decentred and elusive meanings that characterise much of the online world. During the Sochi 2014 Olympics, dissident punk band, Pussy Riot, performed their latest anti-Putin song. They were brutally whipped by uniformed Cossacks, renowned for their zealous commitment to Putin’s ‘traditional values’ agenda. Curiously, it was an RT crew which captured the incident on film, immediately uploading the video to its website. This confused many viewers struggling to decide if RT was endorsing the protestors, the Cossacks or merely hedging its bets.
6.RT is an acutely media-conscious broadcaster
It obsessively scrutinizes what is said about it, allowing others’ views of it to insinuate themselves into its very identity. RT’s Russian-language service recently published an elaborate online satire of British media hysteria over the Skripal poisoning. Barely a word needed changing for the article to have served as a reverse satire on Russian coverage of the incident. This suggests an opportunistic, even parodic, act of mimicry. But parodists sometimes lose all distance from the stereotypes they are targeting – a danger signalled by the audaciously self-parodic poster campaign that RT ran in 2017. The related proposition that RT ‘becomes itself’ only when it is, rather than when it reports, the news points to a feedback loop threatening to spiral out of control.
To address the challenge posed by RT, UK security policymakers should also calibrate their models of Russia’s ‘war on truth’. This would mean four things:
- Recognising that this ‘war’ belongs to a dynamic, reflexive process and avoiding knee-jerk ‘counter-measures’ – like encouraging broadcasting bans – liable to inflate rather than halt it
- Deploying the UK’s own public diplomacy tools, like the BBC World Service, to engage with RT in more dialogic, less dismissive, ways which acknowledge, and ultimately exploit, its agency
- Identifying and properly understanding RT’s audiences rather than assuming them all to be naive dolts
- Addressing those flaws in the architecture of the vast digital realm which enable RT to thrive alongside other neo-authoritarian tools of influence.
RT is not a toxin injected hypodermically into the system. It is that system’s inevitable by-product.