Notes From the Margins…

Russia Today and the new Information Wars

  • December 07, 2014
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‘Information’ that supports your side; disinformation that invents, distorts or invents the truth or presents spurious allegations and assumptions as facts; outright lies and propaganda; controlling the flow of information through ’embedded’ reporters and hand-picked pools in order to eliminate ‘inconvenient facts’ or simply prevent journalists from ever seeing them   – all these techniques and methods have long been essential to modern war, and they have become crucial to the murky wars and armed conflicts of the early 21st century.

The essential purpose of such efforts is to attain ‘information dominance’ and make sure that your ‘narrative’ is the one that most people hear, that they keep on hearing it as often as possible,   that you can shape the ways in which these conflicts are represented and perceived by a global audience that now receives information through an all-pervasive mass media that includes 24-hour tv, the Internet, smartphones and tablets.

The best propaganda of all is the kind that you don’t even recognize as propaganda; you simply assume that what you see is what you get; that the journalists and pundits you see are independent of their governments and willing to hold their actions up to scrutiny and ask questions that they don’t to hear; that the journalists, newsreaders and pundits you are watching or listening to have any subjective perspective or ulterior motives or any interest in anything except the plain unvarnished truth.

In the West we often take it for granted that this is what we’ve got, and that our media would never and could never stoop so low as to transform journalism into propaganda.   That is something that other countries do.

The problem is that large sections of the world’s population don’t believe in our inherent truthfulness as much as we do or are tired of hearing our stories.     Now satellite technology and the worldwide web have made it possible for different voices to provide a different perspective,   and even to counter the stories emanating from CNN, the BBC and numerous other outlets, and when it happens our own masters of war are not happy about it.

Sometimes we respond by identifying the source of disinformation as a military target, as NATO did when it bombed Serbia’s television offices, or al-Jazeera’s offices in Afghanistan.     At other times we simply attempt to discredit them by comparing our own exemplary journalistic standards to the crude propagandising that other countries supposedly engage it.

The US did that with al-Jazeera on more than one occasion, and the British government did the same when it banned Press tv.     And now Russia Today is getting the same treatment, as the West moves ever-closer to an all-out war with Russia.   For months, Western media pundits have been shaking their heads in horror at the impact of the new international Russian media on non-Russian audiences.

Last month for example, that august bastion of the truth,   the Wall Street Journal criticized ‘Putin’s disinformation matrix’, which it described as ‘ merely one part of the Kremlin’s aggressive media effort’ that included ‘ mobilizing thousands of online “trolls,” cultivating sympathetic political cranks abroad, and exploiting Western freedom of speech and the Western model of public diplomacy to advance Moscow”s illiberal aims.’

This is a bit rich coming from the uber-conservative WSJ, which never saw an American neocon war that it didn’t like, and which never bothered to question the assumptions on which such wars were based, and which as late as last September had an editorial arguing that Dick Cheney was ‘right all along’ about Iraq and Syria.

These are not guys to speak truth to power – or to give others lectures for not doing so.   And that same month The Interpreter, a web journal run by the supposedly non-partisan   Institute of Modern Russia published a report entitled The Menace of Unreality, which accused Russia of having ‘weaponised information’ through its new digital channel.     The article claimed that

‘Since at least 2008, Kremlin military and intelligence thinkers have been talking about information not in the familiar terms of “persuasion,” “public diplomacy” or even “propaganda,” but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.’

Goodness, can such evil stalk the world?   Indeed it can, because last week the US Congress approved Resolution 758,, which noted that

 ‘the Russian Federation has expanded the presence of its state-sponsored media in national languages across central and western Europe with the intent of using news and information to distort public opinion and obscure Russian political and economic influence in Europe’

There is a lot more where this came from.   Personally I don’t watch Russia Today enough to be able to make an overall comment on the quality of its journalism.   I have seen good things and bad.     Certainly I have never seen any program or report critical of Putin, though I do remember watching the Russian Foreign Minister getting a far tougher grilling from a journalist than I have seen any American or British foreign minister receive from any of our supposedly independent and fearless reporters.

I have also seen news reports that are ‘anti-Western’ insofar as they focus overwhelmingly on negative aspects of European and American society.   So I don’t doubt that such coverage is biased, or even that Russia Today has been conceived in part to project a pro-Russian view of world events to a Western audience.

I don’t see RT – or any other media outlet for that matter – as the ‘voice of truth’.   But it does have a refreshingly wide range of often critical pundits of varying quality,  who remind me what a narrow, limited and safe range of ‘experts’ and commentators the BBC, CNN or Channel 4 News draws upon say.       I have briefly appeared on Russia Today myself on three occasions, and I once appeared on Tariq Ramadan’s show on Press tv.

The Ramadan appearance was in connection with my book Blood and Faith.   I have no doubt that I was of interest to Russia Today because of critical pieces I have written here and elsewhere on Western foreign policy in Iraq and Syria.

Nevertheless   I didn’t say anything that I didn’t want to say or that I didn’t actually believe, and I didn’t see myself as a troll or a propagandist or a supporter of Putin – a politician who I have very little time for as it happens.

I certainly didn’t feel ‘weaponised’, and what I find laughable about the condemnation directed at RT is the assumption that Western governments would never themselves use the media to advance their political or foreign policy interests.     According to The Interpreter

‘Russia has hybridized not only its actual warfare but also its informational warfare. Much of the epistemology democratic nations thought they had permanently retired after the Cold War needs to be re-learned and adapted to even cleverer forms of propaganda and disinformation.’

Yes, how unfortunate that ‘democratic nations’ should now be forced by those sinister ghouls in the Kremlin to re-learn the ‘epistemology’ they had supposedly discarded out of the goodness of their freedom-loving hearts, er, when exactly?

As early as the 1989 invasion of Panama, the US military identified information as a crucial theatre of war, and sent only a handpicked pool of reporters to Panama City to report on the invasion – except that they spent most of the war locked in a room which Pentagon-approved video footage and briefings until major combat was almost over.

And it has continued ever since, in Kosovo, in Gulf Wars 1 and 2, in Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror.’   US military strategists have written dozens of articles on   ‘strategic communications’, ‘ public diplomacy’ and ‘information warfare’ and the Pentagon has also ‘weaponised’ information to achieve its aims.

Between 2002 -2008 according to the New York Times,   the Pentagon secretly infiltrated   more than seventy retired military officers into the tv networks to serve as media commentators and act as ‘ message force multipliers’ or ‘surrogates’ in promoting the Iraq War.

Most of these pundits, the Times reported at the time ‘ have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air’ and the fact that these connections were not mentioned when they appeared had created ‘ a symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated.’

The New York Times itself had experience of this kind of infiltration, when the pro-war journalist Judith Miller recycled false information fed to her from the Iraqi National Congress about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program.

Why is that not ‘propaganda and disinformation’?   Yet somehow we are now expected to hold up our hands in horror, because other countries who for one reason or another our governments have designated as strategic opponents,  may be using the media to promote their own foreign policy agendas or simply to counter our own ‘weaponised’ information.

And did I mention Fox News?   Oh very well, if you insist.






  1. B. Wright

    7th Dec 2014 - 10:05 pm

    Governments “who happen to be our enemies”? They are not my enemies. Russia should be our friend and ally and is no enemy. The media is being manipulated into making us think that Russia is our enemy in order to suit Western strategic interests. I have the kind of government that makes friends with governments and other entities that make me feel I don’t need enemies when I have friends like these.

    • Matt

      7th Dec 2014 - 10:21 pm

      Well yes, I agree with you. I think I’ll rephrase that to make the distinction clear.

  2. Nik

    11th Dec 2014 - 12:13 am

    My thoughts exactly! To be honest I would even go as far as to say that _any_ “news-diet” has to consist of western mainstream, Russia Today, Al Jazeera and alternative Internet Media. With the latter it can be tricky since the quality ranges from Alex Jones to Demcracy Now! or blogs like yours, but still, there is no way around the Internet for alternative viewpoints these days.

    The tragedy is, like you pointed out, that our western established and oh so noble, challenging and ever watchful media actually believe so strongly in their impartiality, that it is almost impossible to really talk with a “real” journalist or one of their firm readers (or rather believers). I sort of stopped trying that due to my fear that at some point my head will explode during the argument.

    For me the calculation is simple: RT will never ever miss an opportunity to point out western shortcomings, crimes or mistakes. And as someone who actually cares about the content of our supposed “values” that is exactly the viewpoint I want to see/hear/read rather than have them glossed over or trivialised.

    Of course there are many fools who “eat the soup” just the way that RT and the like “cooked” it but we have the same kind of idiots on “our side”. And yeah of course they never confront the Kremlin with real criticism, but like you said, western journalism doesn’t exactly do a gigantic job at that either. However I have to point out that RT-Showhost Abby Martin openly, on air condemned the russian quasi annexation of Crimea – and kept her job. Compare that to Phil Donahue at MSNBC in 2003 or Chris Hedges at the NYT.

    When it comes to proper criticism the german speaking world has to rely on Satire. Sad but true. There is one show on german public TV, “Die Anstalt” (meaning ‘mental institution’) in particular, which puts the finger right into the wound when it comes to the coverage of the ukraine ordeal by the german mainstream media. The hillarity is priceless, I hope this subtitled video will let you get the gist of it:

    • Nik

      11th Dec 2014 - 12:14 am

      OF COURSE.. the wrong link 🙂

      Here is the right one:

      • Nik

        11th Dec 2014 - 12:15 am

        Wow just wow. Sorry Matt. I think GCHQ has hacked into my fingers. Here, finally, the right link…

    • Matt

      11th Dec 2014 - 9:16 pm

      Good points about Donahue and Hedges, Nik. I agree with what you say about RT’s ‘soup’. And I think your point about critiques of western ‘ shortcomings’ on RT and other networks is dead on. When you see them you’re reminded how rare they are on ‘our’ networks.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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