Assessing Russia Today’s role as an “information weapon”
Since September, the Kremlin has been up in arms over the United States’ decision to register Russian state broadcaster RT (formerly “Russia Today”, motto “Question more”) as a “foreign agent”.
Top officials have repeatedly argued that the move violates freedom of speech and journalistic freedom, arguing that RT is simply a news agency producing bona fide journalism, like the BBC or CNN. The protests even reached Russia’s Security Council, in a discussion chaired by President Vladimir Putin and attended by the defense and interior ministers, the heads of domestic and foreign intelligence, and others.
However, statements by RT’s editor-in-chief in 2012–13, covering earlier years, indicate that the station’s mission and philosophy are not journalistic but military, and it serves as an “information weapon” parallel to the Ministry of Defense in times of conflict — including at present.
An analysis of RT’s former and current output confirms this view. It has repeatedly subordinated journalistic standards to Russian government narratives, selectively reporting facts and comments to validate the Kremlin’s portrayal of events. A similar selectivity appears to apply to interviewees.
Taken together, these factors show that RT should not be viewed as a legitimate journalistic outlet, but rather as a propaganda voice for the Russian government. Those who follow RT, and those who are invited to appear on its shows, should bear this in mind.
“The information weapon”
Russia Today was created in 2005, after the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine saw the defeat of pro-Kremlin presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych and the installation of Viktor Yushchenko, the candidate in favor with integration with the European Union. In 2009, the year before it launched in the United States, Russia Today rebranded itself as RT.
RT’s parent company, TV-Novosti, is registered as a state-owned Autonomous Non-commercial Organization (ANO) with the Russian Ministry of Justice. According to TV-Novosti’s official filings with the Ministry, it is almost entirely funded by the state budget, with the exact figure ranging annually between 99.5% and 99.9%.
RT’s editor-in-chief is Margarita Simonyan, formerly a journalist in the Kremlin media pool. In 2012, Simonyan was interviewed by Russian daily Kommersant (archived here), and described the broadcaster’s mission and philosophy in overtly military terms:
Question: OK, and why does the country need it all? Why should I, as a taxpayer, support you?
Simonyan: Well, for about the same reason as why the country needs a Defense Ministry. Why do you, as a taxpayer, need that?
Question: Really? Are we fighting someone at the moment?
Simonyan: Right now, we’re not fighting anyone. But in 2008 we were fighting. The Defense Ministry was fighting with Georgia, but we were conducting the information war, and what’s more, against the whole Western world. It’s impossible to start making a weapon only when the war already started! That’s why the Defense Ministry isn’t fighting anyone at the moment, but it’s ready for defense. So are we.
In 2008, Russia fought a brief war against Georgia, and subsequently recognized the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite widespread international condemnation.
This is not the only time Simonyan has referred to RT’s mission in military terms. In a separate interview with lenta.ru in 2013 (archived here), she again spoke of information in weaponized terms, and highlighted its use in “critical moments”.
Simonyan: The information weapon, of course, is used in critical moments, and war is always a critical moment. And it’s war. It’s a weapon like any other. Do you understand? And to say, why do we need it — it’s about the same as saying: ‘Why do we need the Ministry of Defense, if there is no war?’
She further characterized RT’s mission in non-conflict situations as preparing for “critical moments”, such as war, by winning an audience.
Simonyan: Of course, the Defense Ministry can’t start training soldiers, preparing weaponry and generally making itself from scratch when the war already started. If we don’t have an audience today, tomorrow and the day after, it’ll be the same as in 2008.
The Georgian war seems, indeed, to have been a turning point for Simonyan, and for RT. In her Kommersant interview, Simonyan explained the lessons of the conflict, which was seen in the Kremlin as a military victory but a propaganda defeat.
Simonyan: There weren’t enough, and there aren’t enough, English-speaking talking heads. People who understood how and why they should go on air with CNN, and how to behave in a studio so they wouldn’t get their throats torn out by Western journalists. As a result, Russia looked so pale compared to the Georgians, it broke my heart.
What’s more, a week before the war, Western PR specialists had already entrenched themselves in Tbilisi. And they worked closely with all journalists, did SMS mailshots, briefings, constantly created news like ‘Russians on the outskirts of Tbilisi.’ And in our country on the eve of this war, there was no special PR office that would deal with the war, no one was hired. We were not going to fight. Russia just realized what it was about too late. It’s as if we suddenly realized that there are nuclear weapons in the world and rushed to develop them. This was the main mistake.
The Kommersant interviewer followed up with a representation of RT as a blunt instrument; Simonyan did not reject the comparison, and indeed, seemed to endorse it.
Question: Have any lessons been learned? Is there an anti-crisis mechanism? Is there any understanding that it is necessary to water, for example, the flower called Russia Today, so that it will grow into a mighty tree, and could be used as an information cudgel at need?
Simonyan: I think so. It seems to me that before this Georgian story, very many people, even in high places, were skeptical, not just about us personally, but about this idea in general. And afterwards, I don’t know any people, at least in high places, who continued to believe that it’s unnecessary. In 2008, it became absolutely clear to everyone why this is needed, why we need such a thing as an international television channel representing the country. This is in itself a lesson. And of course, they began to pay more attention and understand that it costs money.
In the Lenta.ru interview, she expanded on her vision of how the “information weapon” should be used and appeared to confirm that the United States is the principal target. (It should be borne in mind that this was an interview given to a Russian paper, and that the journalist’s question had not been focused on any one geographical area.)
Simonyan: In 2008, [our audience] wasn’t zero, but put mildly, it wasn’t brilliant. Now it would be immeasurably better, on account of the fact that we show Americans alternative news about themselves. We don’t show it to start a revolution in the USA, that’s laughable and crazy, but to conquer an audience. (…) In a critical moment we’ll already have grown our audience, which is used to come to us for the other side of the truth, and of course we’ll make use of that.
Simonyan’s two interviews, given a year apart, are consistent and mutually reinforcing. They portray an organization whose mission is to serve the Russian state as an “information weapon” (or “cudgel”) in times of conflict, and which sees genuine reporting in peace-time as a tool towards that end. They reveal an outlet which views its audience as targets, to be built up in peacetime and “made use of” — in Simonyan’s words — in war.
Simonyan has always rejected the term “propaganda” for her work, insisting that all broadcasters have their particular “message”, and that RT is simply less hypocritical about it. In this vein, she has often cited the BBC Charter, stated that one of the broadcaster’s missions is to “bring British values to the world”, and accused it of British propaganda as a result.
In fact, the BBC Charter is worded slightly differently:
Simonyan’s parallel is false. The BBC Charter focuses on culture and values, not government policies. The values themselves — accuracy, impartiality and fairness — are core attributes of bona fide journalism. The themes focus on the United Kingdom as a whole, not, again, government policies. This is light years away from Simonyan’s description of RT as “waging the information war” on behalf of the Russian government.
Her words also reveal a particular desire for fluent English-speaking “talking heads” to present and defend the Kremlin’s point of view on air — one of the main failings of Russian information warfare in 2008, according to Simonyan.
If in conflict, leave it out
This approach — build an audience in peace, propagandize it in war — explains the paradox of RT’s approach. Some of its coverage has been genuinely innovative, and has won professional prizes, notably its coverage of the “Occupy” movement.
Repeatedly, however — most blatantly in “critical moments” — it has failed to observe basic journalistic standards, targeting perceived enemies of Russia with one-sided coverage, in very much the style of the blunt instrument characterized by Kommersant.
For example, Russia’s occupation of Crimea in March 2014 was clearly a “critical moment”, in Simonyan’s use of the phrase. RT repeatedly ran news bulletins in which the Ukrainian government was accused of atrocities, and in which Ukrainian demonstrators were accused of Nazi sympathies, without providing adequate coverage of the Ukrainian government’s and demonstrators’ point of view.
The role of a genuine news outlet practicing journalism in such a situation would have been to report both sides’ perspectives on the conflict, together with contextual information, such as the actual, small proportion of Ukrainian demonstrators with far-right sympathies.
RT’s behavior was different. According to a ruling by the United Kingdom’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, which is tasked with upholding standards of broadcast accuracy and impartiality, four successive RT bulletins on the Crimean crisis in early March 2014 failed to provide adequate coverage of the Ukrainian government’s point of view, and thus failed to adhere to basic journalistic standards:
Across the four news bulletins broadcast between 1 March 2014 and 6 March 2014, Ofcom noted there was one brief example that could be reasonably characterised as the view of the interim Ukrainian Government being reflected to some degree and with due weight. We did not however consider this was sufficient to balance the many other viewpoints within these news bulletins criticising (some seriously so), or in opposition to, the interim Ukrainian Government and its policies and actions.
This is by no means the only time RT failed in its journalistic duty. In July 2016, Ofcom found RT guilty of similar violations, this time ignoring the Turkish government’s position in interview shows on the plight of the Kurds.
In this case, two successive ten-minute interviews featured pro-Kurdish activists accusing the Turkish government of genocide or ethnicide. The only direct reference to the Turkish government’s stance was a banner at the end of the first interview with a voice-over, which stated RT had contacted the Turkish Embassy in London and received no response.
RT’s explanation to Ofcom included the point that it had not been able to find a comment from the Turkish government, but had included other comments critical of the Kurds. Ofcom did not accept this excuse:
If a broadcaster cannot obtain an interview or a statement on a particular viewpoint on a matter of political controversy then it ‘MUST find other methods of ensuring that due impartiality is maintained [emphasis added]’ (…) The Licensee was still obliged to ensure that due impartiality was preserved by reflecting the viewpoint of the Turkish Government in the programmes but failed to do so.
Ofcom’s rulings show that RT has repeatedly failed the test of impartiality in its coverage of conflicts or disputes in which Russia is involved. Yet another finding concerned RT’s failure to provide balance in its commentary on the 2016 NATO summit. On this occasion, a twelve-minute discussion featured four different commentators attacking NATO, with comments such as these:
Peter Lavelle: This is the backdoor, the ultimate back door for American hegemony in Europe and this is a finger being thrown at Brexit.
Mark Sleboda: France traditionally plays the part of good cop trying to lure Russia into dialogue and accepting the status quo, in particular here in Ukraine and, you know, the new confrontational status, while the US and previously the United Kingdom hammered home the bluster and rhetoric.
Dmitry Babich: I think that it’s like two robbers coming to a house and one of them says ‘Let’s just break in and intimidate the owner’ and the other one says ‘no, let’s first have a dialogue with the owner.’
Rory Suchet: We have a minute group of megalomaniac powerbrokers hell bent on sending us into a third world war.
The only reflection of NATO’s point of view was a caption quoting the Chair of the NATO Military Committee as doubting that Russia intended to invade Europe. On this occasion, TV-Novosti acknowledged that it had violated the obligation to preserve due impartiality, but asked that Ofcom not find it guilty, blaming the violation, in part, on ‘technical problems’:
The Licensee stated that ‘technical problems’ on the day of recording caused pre-prepared ‘caption comments’ to fail to appear on-screen during the recording. TV Novosti said this resulted in disruption during recording, and that the programme required heavy editing afterwards and the comments were then ‘inadvertently omitted’.
Again, Ofcom decided that that explanation was insufficient:
Ofcom did not consider that these factors were sufficient to merit resolving this matter. The breach of the Code in this case resulted, by the Licensee’s own admission, from a series of mistakes that would have been evident to its staff. Ofcom also noted that TV Novosti did not identify the issue itself before or on broadcast.
RT’s violation on this occasion could have been the result of incompetence; however, it fits a broader, and well-established, pattern. In each of the above cases, RT’s coverage was nakedly partial and biased, missing out the voices of the Russian government’s opponents. It reported accusations against Ukraine, without giving the Ukrainian government’s position due coverage; it reported accusations against Turkey, without giving the Turkish government’s position due coverage; it carried attacks on NATO, without giving NATO’s position due coverage.
All these violations were committed at times when Russia was in conflict — in March 2014, with Ukraine; in March 2016, with Turkey, over the latter’s downing of a Russian aircraft. In July 2016, Russia’s relationship with NATO was extremely tense, not least because of NATO’s decision to reinforce its presence in Eastern Europe.
This repeated failure to uphold basic standards of journalism (hence Ofcom’s findings) exposes RT as the very “information weapon” that Simonyan described. Its purpose is to serve the Russian government’s tactical and strategic interests, by attempting to manipulate Western public opinion in ways that benefit the Kremlin’s policies.
It cannot be viewed as bona fide journalism.
The binary approach — building an audience through alternative reporting, then targeting it with propaganda at “critical moments” — also explains the high-profile resignations which RT has endured since the annexation of Crimea.
First, on March 5, 2014, RT America anchor Liz Wahl spectacularly resigned on air in protest at RT’s coverage of the Crimean crisis, and said, “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”
Wahl worked at RT for over two years and framed her resignation in the context of RT’s Ukrainian conflict coverage — the shift from peacetime reporting to blatant wartime propaganda. Later, however, she wrote that even RT’s peacetime coverage was biased.
Wahl: My experience as an RT reporter and anchor was that RT’s main goal is not to to seek truth and report it. Rather, the aim is to create confusion and sow distrust in Western governments and institutions by reporting anything which seems to discredit the West, and ignoring anything which is to its credit.
Three months later, UK-based RT reporter Sara Firth resigned over the network’s coverage of the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. She stated on Twitter that “I’m for the truth.”
I resigned from RT today. I have huge respect for many in the team, but I'm for the truth. pic.twitter.com/mZ1g0R7N0D
— Sara Firth (@Sara__Firth) July 18, 2014
In a subsequent interview, she said that “rule one of the Russia Today style guide is to blame Ukraine, or anything else, rather than Russia (…) It’s scary that it’s genuine RT guidance on how to do a story, and you have to believe it to succeed there.”
In another interview, she described how RT reacted to the news of the MH17’s downing, including by finding parallel cases in which Ukraine could be blamed.
Firth: We were running an eye-witness account that made an accusation against Ukraine and we had a correspondent in the studio who was asked to produce something about a plane that had been shot down at some point in the past and had been the fault of Ukraine.
Firth had been at RT for five years. Like Wahl, she described an outlet whose policy was to denigrate the West and which discouraged questions from its own journalists, even while emphasizing the banner of “Question more”.
Firth: Crucial information is regularly omitted from stories, and often because those in charge are not capable of identifying what makes a strong news story. They’re not interested in fact checking and creating valuable, balanced journalism. Their main agenda is that it fits the narrative. You are actively discouraged from questioning — that isn’t appreciated at all.
She acknowledged the genuine attachment to journalism felt by many of RT’s employees, and the outlet’s policy of giving very young journalists exposure to very high-level stories. However, she said that RT’s own attachment to truth and journalism were subordinate to the wider agenda.
Firth: There are a lot of great journalists there who are fighting for the truth. The truth isn’t exclusive to certain channels — sometimes the truth can happen at RT — but the wider agenda will always find a way of fitting back into a biased narrative — an embarrassing and at times, disrespectful and dangerous narrative.
Firth’s experience explains why some young journalists were first drawn to the channel, then left. RT presented itself as revealing the truth (“Question more!”); but in critical moments, its purpose was to obscure it.
Pick your “expert”
The Ofcom findings on RT’s violations also illustrate another of Simonyan’s lessons from the Georgian war: the need for “English-speaking talking heads”, who could defend Russia’s position on air.
It is significant that the great majority of findings against RT concerned violations of the obligation to preserve due impartiality; only once, in 2015, was RT found guilty of “materially misleading” its audience in a report on chemical attacks in Syria. Rather than misreporting facts, RT relies on the selective use of interviewees and quotes, giving substantial air time to pundits who validate the Kremlin narrative, and little or no air time to its opponents.
The Ofcom findings on Turkey illustrate this policy. RT interviewed three external commentators: Mark Campbell, introduced as an organizer as the “Stop Turkey’s war on the Kurds” demonstration; human-rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, introduced as having flown to London “to present evidence of Turkish atrocities against the Kurds”; and Michelle Allison, introduced as a member of the Kurdish National Congress.
There is no reason to suspect that any of these is anything other than a sincere supporter of Kurdish rights. Nor is there reason to dismiss their claims: serious questions have long been asked of Turkey’s Kurdish policy. However, all three were, almost by definition, fierce critics of Turkey. RT was therefore able to air anti-Turkish programs, simply by asking them for their opinions.
For these interviews to count as acceptable journalism, RT would have had to cover the Turkish government’s stance too. As Ofcom pointed out, it did not.
Multiple witnesses and whistleblowers have accused RT of cherry-picking its interviewees on the basis of their opinions, even at the expense of their credibility. Wahl, for example, highlighted an interview she conducted in 2012 with Jason Adam Tonis, an American supporter of the North Korean regime, on a North Korean rocket launch.
Wahl said that the interviewee was chosen by RT America’s Russian news director, and she only found out his name and affiliation when she was already on air. During the interview, Tonis said that North Korea had only been trying to launch a weather satellite, that more Americans would want to live like North Koreans if they saw what life was like there, and that there was no famine in North Korea, despite the country needing food aid.
Wahl wrote of this experience:
This was the reality of working at RT. The experts we were meant to interview were selected based on his or her ability to deliver the chosen narrative of Western hypocrisy. Sometimes the News Director chose this guest directly. But with time and training, producers learned how to pick sources and interviewees that would gain the News Director’s approval.
Sullum: My general impression is, whenever they have me on, it’s to criticize the American government. Of course, that’s no big surprise because that’s pretty much what I do. That’s how I make my living.
Other commentators interviewed by RT included a far-right Swedish activist interviewed on race issues; a disgraced British lawyer interviewed on legal issues and foreign policy; and a far-right Polish activist (now detained on espionage charges) interviewed on U.S. foreign policy.
Between June 2014 and June 2015, RT conducted six times as many interviews on EU issues with Members of the European Parliament from the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as it did with members of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping, even though the EPP held almost five times as many seats.
On one particularly striking occasion, after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in November 2015, RT even aired a clip from an interview which had been conducted and broadcast by Fox News shortly before, featuring a former U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General criticizing Turkey. Even RT’s own reporter acknowledged on air that this was an unusual proceeding.
Anchor: But I want to leave you with a sort of cherry on top, and it’s not quite often we do this, but there was an interesting reaction in one of the U.S. media outlets. Now Fox News invited a highly-decorated U.S. Air Force general to talk about the incident, and the man lit up their broadcast with this statement.
Interviewee on Fox: So I don’t really trust President Erdogan and what he’s doing. I think we have to be very, very cautious on this. I think it was an overly aggressive maneuver, and as a NORAD region commander we would not use these kind of rules of engagement. That had to be pre-planned, that aircraft wasn’t over Turkish territory long enough.
The visual effect of the RT logo and banner, semi-transparent and superimposed over the Fox News logo, is an enduring, eye-watering image of propaganda war.
The likelihood is that RT took this avowedly unusual step precisely because the officer was a credible, fluent, English-speaking commentator who was criticizing Turkey for its actions. Nowhere in the report, which lasted 13 minutes, was the Turkish government’s viewpoint reflected.
All these cases show a similar pattern: selecting an interviewee on the basis of their beliefs, rather than their credibility, and not providing balancing coverage. This is best seen as RT’s way of addressing Simonyan’s complaint that Russia lacked “English-speaking talking heads” to argue its case.
At critical moments, RT’s support for Russian government positions has become even more explicit, adopting almost identical language to Kremlin statements. This is the most overt form of propaganda, literally propagating the government’s messages in the very same words in which they are given.
For example, throughout March 2014, the Russian government referred to the new Ukrainian government in ways which denied its legitimacy. Some of the terms used by the Foreign Ministry included “the Kiev regime”, “the current ‘Ukrainian government’”, the “current Kiev authorities”, “the people calling themselves the Ukrainian authorities”, and “the coup d’état in Ukraine”.
RT articles used almost identical terminology, such as “the self-proclaimed government in Kiev”, “the Kiev authorities busy with appointing roles in the revolutionary government”, and “the Ukraine coup-imposed government”.
RT’s terminology on the masked soldiers, known in the West as the “little green men”, who occupied Crimea in February-March 2014, also echoed the Russian government’s. As was confirmed the following year, these were Russian special operations forces with their insignias removed; however, at the time of the operation, the Russian government referred to them as “self-defense forces” and claimed that they were spontaneous, local groupings.
This stance was challenged by the Western media. As early as March 2, the Daily Telegraph reported that the men were members of the Russian 810th Marines. A day later, VICE News called them “Russia’s little green men”.
The BBC’s monitoring unit, which has considerable Russian linguistic and cultural expertise, pointed out on March 11 that, “Their guns are the same as those used by the Russian army, their lorries have Russian number plates and they speak in Russian accents.”
Despite this, RT consistently described them in the same terms as the Russian government. For example, an RT America tweet on March 1 referred to “armed self-defense squads”.
— RT America (@RT_America) March 1, 2014
The tweet linked to a video (anchored, ironically, by Wahl), whose caption described “Crimeans” forming “defense groups”, and a reporter who repeatedly described them in those terms, with no reference to the claim that they were Russian.
As late as March 6, long after the true identity of the “little green men” had been discussed in the Western media, RT continued to report them as “self-defense groups”, and to report comments which denied that they were Russian troops. One RT journalist even quoted Crimea’s separatist leader on the issue, without challenging either the source or his statement:
Today, when we talked to Crimea’s prime minister, I asked him this question: ‘Who are all these people? Because the most confusing thing about this self-defense force is that they are wearing quite fashionable uniform, and they are equipped with good weapons.’ He told us that he controls these forces personally, and yes, they have uniform, and they provide all those who want to join these forces with this uniform.
Yet, perhaps the most curious example of mirroring between RT and government rhetoric came after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in November 2015.
In a readout of a press conference posted online on November 25, 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled an incident in 2012 in which “Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was [Turkey’s] prime minister at the time, if my memory serves me, told parliament that a brief airspace and border intrusion could not be a pretext for using force.” He was speaking after a call with his Turkish counterpart, posted at 16:51 Moscow time (13:51 UTC).
The night before, during the U.S. Department of State’s regular briefing (at 1400 EST / 1900 UTC / 2200 MSK), RT correspondent Gayane Chichakyan posed a question using exactly the same quote, reading it aloud from her notes.
Chichakyan: In 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish plane that reportedly strayed into its territory. Prime Minister Erdogan then said, ‘A short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.’ Meanwhile, NATO has expressed its condemnation of Syria’s attack as well as strong support for Turkey. Do you see the inconsistency of NATO’s response on this?
This is not an instance of the RT correspondent quoting Lavrov; his comment had not yet been made. It could be an indication that Lavrov took some of his lines from RT; it could be no more than a case of different groups finding a common source. In the context of the many other times in which RT’s messaging exactly matched that of the Ministry, however, it could also suggest a messaging coordination between the Russian government and RT which reached even into the briefing room of the U.S. Department of State itself.
RT’s behavior, as described above, corresponds with Simonyan’s comments on the “information weapon”, and the need for fluent English speakers to defend the Kremlin position. As such, it subordinates journalism to one-sided reporting and selective interviewing to support the Russian government’s narratives and “conduct the information war”.
A number of conclusions flow from this. First, the U.S. decision to designate RT as a “foreign agent” is entirely appropriate. RT’s mission is a quasi-military one, fighting the “information war” on behalf of the Russian government. Its efforts to build its audience are a part of that larger goal.
Second, what RT does cannot be considered as journalism. Its chief editor’s comments, and its own behavior, mark it as an “information weapon” in both theory and practice, for which journalism is an incidental and instrumental concern, not its raison d’être.
Third, it appears to select its interviewees for their ability to reinforce the Russian government’s narrative, whether or not the interviewees are aware of it. Those who watch RT, those who consider working for it, and those who are approached for interview it, should tread with care.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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