Tracking Russian narratives on the Foreign Agents Registration Act
The authorities in the United States have approached Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT (formerly “Russia Today”) with a requirement to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Now the United States is similarly investigating Sputnik, the Kremlin-funded online outlet.
RT broadcasters and Russian authorities hit back angrily, alleging censorship and a campaign of intimidation by the United States and threatening “restrictions on US-owned media in Russia, no matter, state or private, in response.”
Russia’s statements were supported and amplified by a number of pro-Kremlin English-language outlets, including some in North America and some which @DFRLab exposed spreading false information in the past.
This article analyzes the main arguments made by the Russian authorities in defense of RT and Sputnik, as well as the network of sites amplifying them.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act
According to the official FARA website, the Act was enacted in 1938. The law is described as:
A disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.
According to the website, registration with FARA obliges an “agent” to file twice-yearly reports on its agreements with, and business for, the “foreign principal” and to label its “informational materials” as provided on behalf of the foreign principal.
While the act requires “foreign agents” to register and to label their publications appropriately, it does not impose restrictions on the content published.
A number of U.S.-based experts have underlined this point. For example, on September 12, 2017, Matt Armstrong — a former Governor of the United States Broadcasting Board of Governors and writer on public diplomacy — wrote that “registering under FARA will have no adverse impact on Kremlin media or its employees to work in the United States.”
In an editorial in the Washington Post on September 20, James Kirchick, an author and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote, “FARA does not in any way circumscribe what foreign agents may say or publish; the law merely requires that the information they disseminate be clearly labeled as originating from a foreign government.”
In a report published by the Atlantic Council — of which @DFRLab is a part — in August 2017, analyst Elena Postnikova argued the case for registering RT under FARA, pointing out:
As a disclosure statute, FARA does not prohibit, edit, or restrain an agent’s ability to distribute information. Rather, it compels disclosure of the origin and purpose of the information to help the audience develop an accurate understanding of the source. In doing so, it does not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.
RT, Sputnik, and the FARA process
It is not the intent of this article to comment on the question of FARA registration and the legal process surrounding it. However, for context, it should be noted that RT and Sputnik are both owned and funded by the Russian government. Each outlet belongs to different state-owned companies, but have the same editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.
In terms of their content, @DFRLab has analyzed their reporting of specific issues on a number of occasions — for example, the presidential elections in France, the independence referendum in Catalonia and the question of “fake news”, and broadcasting standards in the UK.
The first reports linking Sputnik to the FARA process emerged on September 11, 2017, when Yahoo News reported the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) questioned Sputnik’s former White House correspondent Andrew Feinberg and “obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents.”
Yahoo News wrote the meeting with Feinberg, whom @DFRLab interviewed in May, was “part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of” FARA.
Later the same day, RT announced:
The company that supplies all services for RT America channel, including TV production and operations, in the US, has received a letter from the US Department of Justice, claiming that the company is obligated to register under FARA due to the work it does for RT.
RT America describes itself as “the US-based arm of RT”.
Dismiss, Distort, Distract, Dismay
The response from the Russian authorities was swift and bore many of the hallmarks of disinformation. In particular, it made use of the techniques of the “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay,” characteristic of Russian (and other) disinformation campaigns.
These techniques feature attacks on critics or witnesses; the distortion of significant facts; claims of “double standards”; and threats of possible consequences.
RT’s initial response contained a number of these elements. The outlet’s first report on the subject quoted Simonyan complaining of a “war the US establishment wages with our journalists” — a hyperbolic phrase which appears intended to demonize American criticisms of RT.
Simonyan also commented on the implications for freedom of speech, saying, “Those who invented it, have buried it.” Given that, as noted above, FARA does not impose limitations on content, this appears to be either a misunderstanding, or a distortion, of the act.
Simonyan was by no means the only official to make similar accusations. Sputnik’s U.S. bureau chief, Mindia Gavasheli, described the invocation of FARA as part of an anti-Russian “hysteria” and “spy mania” in the U.S.
Later the same day, Sputnik quoted the head of the Russian Union of Journalists as calling the invocation of FARA “just one of the consequences of the general anti-Russian hysteria that now reigns in American society”.
It further quoted the deputy head of the Russian Civic Chamber as calling the move, “intimidation of media representatives who [the American authorities] believe provide the information they do not like, a violation of the principle of freedom to receive and disseminate information.”
And still on the same day, Sputnik interviewed U.S. academic James Petras on the FBI investigation. Petras described the invocation of FARA as “part of an effort to break relations with Russia” caused by “a war in Washington between the pro- and anti-Trump people,” and attributed it to “paranoia” in the “deep state”, a favorite epithet of conspiracy theorists.
Petras also defended Sputnik by arguing that it behaved in the same way as U.S. media such as the Washington Post (the interviewer in fact named CNN in the question).
Sputnik’s interviewer failed to challenge this comparison, even though, unlike Sputnik, the Washington Post is not state-funded, does not have an executive director appointed by the president (as does Sputnik’s parent agency, Rossiya Segodnya), and does not, to put it mildly, routinely defend the current U.S. administration’s policies. This false parallel is a classic example of the distraction technique; Sputnik’s interview amplified the false parallel without correcting it.
There is no doubt that Russia will respond to the FBI investigation in the same way and will check the work of American journalists in Moscow.
Simonyan does not have the power to impose such checks; therefore, her comment should be taken as a warning rather than a direct threat. However, it is a startling comment from someone who, in the same article (incorrectly) accused the U.S. of “killing” freedom of speech, and creates the appearance that defending journalists’ rights is not her primary aim.
Later reactions from Russian government officials largely echoed the commentaries published in RT and Sputnik on September 11. The following day, for example, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the United States of “censorship” and “limiting the media’s field of work” — again, a distortion of FARA’s reporting requirements.
On September 15, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed Peskov’s tone, and said:
The US pressure on a Russian information agency is an obvious violation of the international obligations of freedom of speech and media activity. (…) We reserve the right to respond to the US side’s outrageous actions.
Given that Zakharova represents the Russian government, which has the power to impose restrictions on journalists, her comment can be taken as an implicit threat, rather than just a warning. (@DFRLab holds that the difference between a threat and a warning is whether the person making the comment has the power to make it happen.)
Two weeks later, on September 28, Zakharova hardened her tone and accused the U.S. of “double standards”. In a lengthy response to a media question, she reinforced many of the points which RT, Sputnik, and their commentators made on September 11, including the claim of a “restriction of the freedom of speech — the freedom guaranteed by the US Constitution,” the claim of “regular attacks on the network by western leaders and organisations loyal to them” (including the Atlantic Council), and the warning that FARA reporting “may constitute an actual threat in the current witch-hunt climate in the United States.”
Her envoi was particularly forceful and, again, held an implicit threat:
When fights without rules begin, the law is distorted and used as a tool for ruining a television company, every step against Russian media will have a proportionate response. Washington should figure out carefully who the target of this response might be. The clock is ticking.
On September 29, Peskov said that President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Security Council discussed the issue — an extraordinary declaration, given that the council’s permanent members include the prime minister, speakers of the two houses of parliament, ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs, and the heads of domestic and foreign intelligence.
A statement on the Security Council’s website confirmed the meeting. It listed the main theme as the situation in Syria, especially around Deir-ez-Zor, but added:
The theme of the continuing, and sometimes increasing, pressure on the Russian media in some countries was also touched upon. It was noted that such actions are unacceptable.
The photograph accompanying the statement showed that the meeting was attended by, among others, Valentina Matviyenko, the chair of the upper house of the Duma (parliament), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the SVR intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin.
Russia ranks 148th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2017, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, which stated
As TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate [in Russia] has become increasingly oppressive for those who try to maintain quality journalism or question the new patriotic and neo-conservative.
The sentence is unfinished in the original. A Security Council meeting touching on media freedom is thus all the more remarkable.
By October 1, Simonyan exclaimed hyperbolically:
What they [Washington] have been doing in regard to us is tantamount to driving us out of the country. They put us in conditions in which we cannot work.
Four days later, Russian state news outlet TASS quoted her complaining that RT America staff were resigning en masse and that “it’s hard for us even to hire a stringer [temporary local reporter] in the USA.”
RT reported on the meeting at which she spoke, but appeared not to include the comment on hiring difficulties and resignations in its coverage. Instead, it covered her claim that RT’s lawyers “tell us that if we [RT’s American branch] do not register as a foreign agent, arrests of our employees, seizure of property will follow — absolutely serious things.”
Armstrong, the former BBG governor, responded with a series of tweets pointing out that such potential — and in extremis — consequences could be avoided by registering.
— Matt Armstrong (@mountainrunner) October 10, 2017
register as (IF) req'd then no arrest. Change mgmt structure/do news not scripts = not Foreign Agent thus no FARA /2
— Matt Armstrong (@mountainrunner) October 10, 2017
FARA reg (if req'd)=no change imposed on what you say, how you say it, how you distribute it, despite your claims, but truth aint your thing
— Matt Armstrong (@mountainrunner) October 10, 2017
At the same meeting, Zakharova threatened that Russia, “and the Foreign Ministry in particular,” could respond with a “total broadcast ban” on American media, “including private outlets.” This appears to be not only a threat, but a disproportionate and indiscriminate one. It would, if implemented, target U.S. journalists based on their nationality (or the nationality of their outlet), regardless of their reporting or ownership.
On October 5, Russia’s telecoms regulator, Roskomnadzor, warned CNN (which is privately owned) that it could lose its license over “violations” of registration data. Roskomnadzor’s head was quoted as saying he “wouldn’t like one to draw parallels” with the FARA situation. On October 10, the claims were reportedly dropped; however, RT and a number of Russian outlets quoted him as saying that the regulator was “checking whether a direct or indirect influence of CNN headquarters in Atlanta leads to the company’s Russian broadcast violating Russia’s laws.” He added, “If such violations are detected, we will be compelled to take measures against CNN.”
On October 9, independent Russian-language outlet Meduza reported that a number of outlets under the umbrella of the U.S. state-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network received letters from the Russian Ministry of Justice, warning that they could face restrictions on their activity in retaliation. One of the outlets, Current Time TV, tweeted the letter.
Again, the ministry’s letter appeared not to recognize that registration under FARA is a reporting requirement and does not include restrictions on activity.
A supporting cast
While official Russian voices expressed their outrage at the invocation of FARA, a number of less official commentators spread similar messages on a range of websites in both Europe and North America. Most do not appear to have any formal connection with the Russian authorities; their interest appears ideological. However, they served as an informal amplification network and promoted the narrative of “free speech violation”.
On September 13, two days after the FARA stories broke, a website called Oriental Review ran an aggressive article by an author called Andrew Korybko, alleging “state-sponsored intimidation.” The article was tagged “anti-human rights, Cold War 2.0, information war, Russia, United States.”
Like the RT and Russian government responses, this article attacked the U.S. government as “blatantly violating the most basic tenets of its purportedly ‘sacred’ ideology of ‘human rights’ and ‘free speech’.” It also accused U.S. government-funded media of double standards and government control — in this case, “falsely projecting their own unstated but widely assumed internal arrangements onto their Russian counterparts”.
The author even speculated:
Russia could plausibly — and with full ethical and legal backing behind it — contemplate granting its Russian-based American employees political asylum and potential citizenship because of the state-sponsored intimidation that they might become reasonably subjected to back home.
Oriental Review appears to specialize in anti-American conspiracy theories, such as the claim that the U.S. is “setting biological bombs against Europe.”
Korybko, described as an “American Moscow-based political analyst specializing in the relationship between the U.S. strategy in Afro-Eurasia, China’s One Belt One global vision of New Silk Road connectivity, and Hybrid Warfare,” is by far its most prolific author.
According to the site, he had contributed 285 articles by October 11; all the other contributors listed had produced 210 between them.
Oriental Review is not the only outlet for Korybko’s opinion pieces, however. He hosts a radio show called “Trendstorm” on Sputnik; its October 7 edition again accused the U.S. of a “War on Russian Media” (capitals in the original) and “ stifling Russian media’s right to free speech.” He also contributed editorials to RT in 2014.
The Oriental Review piece did not indicate Korybko’s affiliation with Sputnik or his past contributions to RT.
A number of websites reproduced Korybko’s attack. Prominent among them was Russia News Now, which @DFRLab has repeatedly encountered amplifying false and pro-Kremlin information (most notably the claim that the U.S. was sending “3,600 tanks against Russia”). This outlet attributed the story to another routinely pro-Kremlin outlet, The Duran, whose recent posts include repeated claims of “Russphobia” and “Russia hysteria”, as well as the claim that the U.S. and UK colluded with Hitler to destroy the USSR.
Other significant amplifiers included the Centre for Research on Globalization, a Canada-based conspiracy outlet which also carried the fake tanks story, and ZeroHedge, a site whose largely financial reporting is interspersed with pro-Kremlin, anti-NATO, and anti-EU articles, and whose contributors not only praise anonymous speech, but argue that “you should be suspicious of any speech that isn’t”.
The Oriental Review article and the Globalization version of it, were picked up by a number of other fringe outlets, and shared a few hundred times on social media, primarily Facebook.
One of the sites which shared this narrative was cgsmonitor.com, a “think tank” which @DFRLab originally exposed as a probable fake in January. Subsequent research by Atlantic Council Senior Non-resident Fellow Brian Mefford (falsely listed as a CGS Monitor expert) revealed that it shared various legitimate articles without attribution, and interspersed them with opinion pieces falsely attributed to genuine experts.
On September 15, self-styled “progressive” commentator Stephen Lendman wrote an article headlined “Hostile US actions against RT and Sputnik News”, which was published on his own website and Globalization. This article argued that “targeting RT America through its services supplier and Sputnik News violates the letter and spirit of the [FARA] law,” and suggested this was “perhaps prelude to censoring, then banning both operations in America.”
Lendman’s article performed less well, with just over 200 shares, the great majority stemming from the Globalisation post. Its amplifiers included a blog called Peoples Trust Toronto (yet another site which shared the fake U.S. tanks story), which automatically reposted it using a social media posting service called ift.tt, and which earlier shared the Korybko piece.
According to buzzsumo, and to a Google search, Lendman’s article was also shared by a China-based site called 4thmedia.org; as of October 12, the link appeared to be broken. It was also shared by conspiracy site sott.net.
Articles making similar arguments continued through September and into October. A curious piece headlined “Israel’s foreign agents don’t register, why should Russia’s?” appeared on website AntiWar.com on September 16. This was largely focused on the question of Israeli influence, but included the claim that the “Department of Justice can be expected to deploy resources far in excess of the meager 9-person team working in the FARA department in order to finally ‘get Russia’.”
AntiWar.com also argued:
The [RT] network’s slogan, ‘Question More’, and financial resources allowed it to televise stories that US networks, under the perpetual threat of loss of ‘access’ to newsmakers, boycotts and organized pressure campaigns, cannot.
The piece was amplified by sites including activistpost.com, which describes itself as “propaganda for peace, love and liberty” and largely deals with U.S. domestic issues, and russia-insider.com, which largely shares pieces glorifying Russia (including its military) and Putin while criticizing the West. The version shared on activistpost.com was most shared, with almost equal weight on Facebook and Twitter; the version on Russia Insider performed better on Facebook and was barely tweeted.
Russia Insider ran a second, more directly Kremlin-related article on October 3. Headlined “The Decline of Freedom of Speech in America — Russia’s #1 News Anchor (Kiselyov)”, the article provided a transcript of a TV comment by Dmitry Kiselyov, who is both a leading TV commentator in Russia (as pointed out by Russia Insider) and the head of the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, which owns the Sputnik brand. Putin personally appointed him to the latter position; Russia Insider’s piece did not make the link clear.
Kiselyov, in typical style, claimed that “America cannot tolerate freedom of speech.” He added, “America has declared an info war on Russia, but it already feels that it is losing,” and alleged that RT and Sputnik are “now experiencing nothing short of repression in the United States.”
The Russia-Insider article was shared 177 times on Facebook, but otherwise failed to achieve any notable impact; the only other website to pick it up was sott.net, which also shared Lendman’s piece.
One other website played a significant role in backing up the Kremlin’s narrative of American “double standards” and attacks on freedom of speech: the Strategic Culture Foundation (strategic-culture.org). As @DFRLab has already written, the site describes itself as “a platform for exclusive analysis, research and policy comment on Eurasian and global affairs.” Its content is routinely anti-American and pro-Putin.
On October 2, the site ran an aggressive article headlined, “US Cracks Down on RT Trampling Core American Values.” The article read:
The hunchback does not see his own hump. Looks like the US administration under pressure from Congress is doing its best to thwart any attempts to ease the tensions between the two countries.
Eight days later, the same site ran a new article, “Trump Acts Against Russian TV Network Though Congress Hasn’t Passed Bill to Allow Him to.” This article was flawed in a number of ways, notably its linking of Trump with the invocation of FARA, and its claim that the Department of Justice “is taking this action even though the U.S. Senate hasn’t yet so much as taken up consideration of the bill, put forth by New Hampshire’s Democratic U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (and cosponsored by three other Democrats and one Republican), to allow such action.”
This appears to ignore FARA’s existence since 1938.
Neither article achieved significant impact, but both were passed on by other websites and on Facebook and Twitter.
The Kremlin’s response to the invocation of FARA fits into the pattern of earlier disinformation operations. It dismissed the move as Russophobic, distorted its impact as a limitation on RT’s freedom of speech, accused the United States of “double standards”, and issued threats of retaliation.
This aggressive rhetoric does not seem calculated to broker a diplomatic agreement or to convince observers of RT and Sputnik’s independence. Taken with the fact that the issue was discussed at a session of the Russian Security Council, it could indicate a Kremlin perception that a Russian strategic asset is under threat; it could herald a crackdown on U.S.-funded, Russian-language media ahead of Russia’s 2018 presidential election. The narrative could also, in theory, indicate a simple lack of understanding of how FARA works; however, in that case, the quality of Russia’s analyses leaves something to be desired.
Messages supporting the Kremlin’s point of view came from sites which have also featured in earlier studies. These are not uniform in their focus, and should not be interpreted as a formal network; however, they have regularly amplified pro-Kremlin messaging, including clearly false stories, and serve as an informal network, with groups of sites that tend to share one another’s content, and to refer back to key nodes such as the Centre for Research on Globalization.
As such, they indicate one of the conduits through which Russian government narratives can be passed on to receptive audiences.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
Also, follow @DFRLab on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.