The EU and NATO Are gearing up to fight Russia — on the Internet
This article originally appeared at VICE News
One year after the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the European Union and NATO want to step up an information campaign to counter what they've called "false narratives" disseminated by the Kremlin.
On Sunday, Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said there was a "need as a Western group of nations or as an alliance to engage in this informational warfare."
"The way to attack the false narrative is to drag the false narrative into the light and expose it," Breedlove, an American, told a forum in Brussels.
Like the US, most European countries already have state-funded media arms. But the West sees Russia's recent forays into foreign broadcasting as a cynical ploy to spread disinformation, particularly about its alleged involvement in eastern Ukraine. Breedlove contended that Russian government reporting is particularly worrisome because the Kremlin's involvement can be "hidden."
Breedlove asked, "How do we recognize, how do we characterize and then how do we attribute this new employment of the military in a way that is built to bring about ambiguity?"
Last summer, the US began a social media campaign to publicize its version of the events in Ukraine, but Russia was quick to co-opt the American hashtag #UnitedForUkraine to disseminate its own messages. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has reportedly created a special unit to serve as "Facebook warriors" in the online battle against its former Cold War nemesis.
Still, Western diplomats feel their efforts are falling short. Last week, the EU's European Council said that its top foreign policy official, Frederica Mogherini, would spearhead an effort to "challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns." The Council requested that Mogherini assemble by June a plan to enhance Europe's "strategic communication."
An EU official who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity said the plans were still in their nascent stage.
"There have been concerns in Europe for at least half a year to a year that there is not enough independent media coming out, and about propaganda from the Russian side," the official said.
"The EU is not going to start doing its own propaganda," the official stressed. With 28 member states, the bloc has found itself playing catch-up, and merely coming up with uniform messaging is still a problem, the official said. "This is about how all EU member states and the different leaders can better communicate."
Though Soviet-era state-owned news agencies like TASS and RIA Novosti continue to operate, it is Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin's international television network, that has most intensely covered Ukraine — along with other global news stories — outside of Russia.
Founded in 2005, RT is now is broadcast on cable and satellite channels on six continents. RT's web content, which accrues millions of clicks and views on sites such as YouTube, have furthered the Kremlin's reach beyond the wildest dreams of Soviet propagandists.
Much of RT's coverage is local, focusing on the indiscretions of US officials, police brutality in American cities, and other topics along those lines. But the network has devoted prominent coverage to Ukraine in almost every region.
A poll that appeared Monday on RT's English language site asked readers what would happen if Western countries sent arms and troops to aid the Ukrainian government. The possible responses were "Help Kiev spill more blood," "Deter the rebels and end the fighting," "Provoke Russia into escalating the conflict," and deeming the move "irrelevant, since Ukraine is broken."
Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, told VICE News that Russia's propaganda has, in some targeted settings, proven successful — though what exactly the Kremlin is trying to accomplish is still up for debate.
"Russian propaganda is effective because there's some interesting combination of entertainment and regular news with the Kremlin's message inserted," Orttung said. "It's wrapped up in this infotainment mix, and it's very hard for governments to counter it."
Between January 19 and February 19, according to numbers pulled by Orttung and his colleagues, viewers watched videos from RT's main English language YouTube channel more than 10 million times. RT's Spanish service, which has some 350,000 subscribers, enjoyed nearly 5 million views in the same period; their Arabic service drew an audience of 5.46 million. Dwarfing them all was the 20 million views of its Russian-language account, which features the videos that Russian-speaking residents of eastern Ukraine would be most likely to watch.
RT America only had around 1 million views during Orttung's research period, and he said Russian officials understand they aren't going to change the minds of many American viewers about events in Ukraine. But Kremlin-friendly coverage could, for instance, rile up residents in Russian enclaves in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. To that end, EU officials are considering their own Russian-language programs.
Elsewhere in the EU, RT has merely focused on existing societal and political schisms, devoting coverage to anti-EU parties such as Greece's Syriza and Spain's Podemos. For a Russian leadership fearful of NATO's encroachment in its backyard, whatever presence it can muster in those countries is an achievement in its own right, Orttung said. In Spain, for instance, about a third of all video views were of what Orttung and his colleagues deemed human-interest stories.
Arabic coverage likewise tends to feature stories in the Middle East and North Africa, though it can seem to take stances deemed controversial by Western leaders, such as pushing the official line of Russian ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
In an age where internet users expect news immediately, Orttung said RT has in some ways proved more adept at incorporating new technologies than its Western competitors.
"You don't need a huge amount of resources to have videos that go viral, and in fact it's often the low production values that are most interesting and viral," said Orttung. "If you look at these techniques, there's a certain allure to the way they present themselves."