Ilya Ponomarev

Russian oppositional politician, Member of Russian Parliament, chairman of innovations subcommittee, one of the founders of Skolkovo Foundation and former vice-president of Yukos Oil Company

Warning: Russia Today May Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

The prolific spread of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) propaganda effort has become an obsession among national security experts, but there is another urgent threat much closer to home.

It may not feature gruesome beheadings or recruitment promises of earthly paradise, but its content is beamed into the homes of more than 85 million Americans, and 600 million people worldwide. And unlike the extremists, they are protected at the very core of US own legal system – by the First Amendment. I am talking about RT, formerly operating as Russia Today, which represents Kremlin’s most ambitious state propaganda effort in history.

This modern day reincarnation of the Cold War’s Communist International (although plagued by conservatives and nationalists) is backed by a budget exceeding $300 million plus a planned 40% increase. The total worldwide reach of this “news” network supersedes CNN, at least according to some boastful claims. Broadcasting in English, Russian, Arabic, and Spanish, and soon French and German, the goal of RT is not to inform, but to confuse, incite, divide, and introduce distrust – not just toward the U.S. government – but generally to spread the fallacy that objective truth does not exist.

The problem is not a lack of awareness. In late February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has described RT as “the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise” by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and one that is spectacularly successful because it is virtually unopposed. Warnings about the spread of the Kremlin’s network are widespread among media and Russia watchers, while Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev of Institute for Modern Russia have aptly described RT as Russia’s “weaponization of information.”

The problem is a lack of consensus about how best to respond to RT.

On the one hand, some administrations have toyed with the idea of using regulatory measures to ban the broadcasts or curb their excesses. RT has been subject to at least six investigations and possible sanctions by the British regulator Ofcom for bias news reporting, most recently for airing the docu-propaganda films The Truthseeker: Genocide in Ukraine and Ukraine’s Refugees. Ideas of freedom of speech, fundamental for Western democracies, speak against such an approach.

On the other hand, there have been calls for budget increases at other state media services, like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as BBC World Service from the UK side. The European Union even tasked Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini to launch a “mythbusters” media program to counter RT’s explosive growth in former Soviet states. But why would Russians listen more to those “enemy voices” and how technically their signal will come to an average Siberian household is still unclear.

Giving credit where credit is due, RT is impressively managed and dangerously smart.

While RT should certainly be made to comply with the law, and while many would welcome expanded programming from VOA and BBC, these two approaches will not work because they misinterpret the fundamental nature of RT as a media outlet instead of a strategic lobbying instrument that is an arm of Russian foreign policy.

Giving credit where credit is due, RT is impressively managed and dangerously smart. Production value is top notch, messaging is pitch perfect for its target audience, and its coordinated social media support by hundreds of paid trolls ensures that its content is constantly pushed and churned through every available channel, which inevitably ends up shaping coverage on normal news networks.

We shouldn’t underestimate the potential harm posed by misinformation. RT leaves mainstream information coverage to myriad of competing media sources and attacks 5% of left-most and 5% of right-most parts of Western society. It gives RT unchallenged influence over 10% of most dynamic and alienated strata at the very core of Western civilization. Actually, it makes more sense to make VOA for those people, because it is them who can supply member to the most radical religious and chauvinist movements; and RT gives Putin the ability to preside them all.

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The network concentrates its coverage on anything disruptive, divisive, or painful inside their target countries, for example the round-the-clock reporting on the Scottish independence vote and the racial tensions and riots in Ferguson, Missouri. RT’s directors had desperately hoped they could help “break” the United Kingdom, and would only be too delighted to create another racially motivated society split in the United States. Of course, these are real news stories deserving of coverage, but RT’s goal has consistently been to exploit social divisions to worsen the conflicts rather than inform the public.

People enjoy RT because it’s entertaining, and it is difficult to imagine how VOA or BBC could ever compete for that audience when they are constrained to reporting real news instead of inventing conspiracies.

Like any good propaganda, it does not work to try to block access to it. RT is impervious to hypocrisy – just two months after the war began in Ukraine, Russia banned Voice of America broadcasts, but when Ofcom raises the prospect of fines for biased reporting, RT capitalizes on it and denounces its “persecution.”

Instead of banning RT or building up competitors, we should stop treating it like news, and treat it like the lobbying tool that it is. The crack down on civil rights in Russia started from introducing legislation similar to US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Current RT sponsors from Kremlin explained how “civilized” it was to make all real Russian NGOs to advertise themselves as “foreign agents” as Jews had to wear yellow David stars in Hitler’s Germany. So why not give them a taste of their own medicine? Let every individual RT program and segment to display a disclaimer announcing the sponsoring government, the budget invested, and the purpose of the lobbying effort on each individual program – exactly how existing US regulations mandate.

When government-sponsored advertorials run in U.S. newspapers, there are clear disclaimers about who paid for the media to avoid potential misinterpretation of the information as real news. The same goes for the health warning labels placed on cigarette packages or the age-appropriate ratings assigned to films, so why not inform the American public about the deeply questionable quality of the information they are choosing to consume?

Let’s avoid the race to the bottom. Let RT continue its perfection of cynicism, but let’s make sure its audience has the opportunity to understand why they are doing it.