Stephan Russ-Mohl on where Western ob­servers miss the point of Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Stephan Russ-Mohl di­rects the Euro­pean Jour­nal­ism Ob­ser­va­tory at the Univer­sità della Svizzera Ital­iana in Lugano

Ob­serv­ing Western me­dia deal­ing with pro­pa­ganda, par­tic­u­larly in the Ger­man-speak­ing world, is a strange ex­pe­ri­ence. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan can play it easy: most jour­nal­ists hardly ever deal with their at­tempts to ma­nip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion, as they also hardly ever re­port on the im­pact of ad­ver­tis­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions. Pro­pa­ganda is ei­ther triv­i­al­ized or ig­nored. Ex­perts, among them mem­bers of se­cret ser­vices, re­main be­low the thresh­old of pub­lic at­ten­tion with their warn­ings about the in­flu­ence of pro­pa­ganda. On the other hand, a re­cent study led by a team of re­searchers of Thomas Koch from the Uni­ver­si­ties of Mainz and Munich, shows once more how much jour­nal­ists are sub­ject to “con­trol il­lu­sion”, shar­ing the be­lief that they rarely be­come vic­tims of ma­nip­u­la­tion ef­forts. This has likely changed slightly since the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post and CNN started to ac­tively in­ves­ti­gate the con­nec­tions be­tween Don­ald Trump and his cam­paign staff to the Krem­lin. With “Rus­si­a­gate” and with the Rus­sian last-minute at­tempts to de­nounce Em­manuel Macron’s elec­tion in France, the fear is grow­ing that some­thing sim­i­lar could hap­pen at the elec­tion in Ger­many.

Nev­er­the­less, Western Euro­pean me­dia fo­cus on iso­lated cases. They rarely pro­vide a big­ger picture of how autocrats as well as left and right-wing pop­ulists use disinformation as a weapon. It starts with the me­dia un­der the di­rect con­trol of Putin and Er­do­gan: They reach a few mil­lion peo­ple of Turk­ish and Rus­sian ori­gin in Ger­man speak­ing coun­tries, while crit­i­cal jour­nal­ists are be­ing jailed or even killed back home. It con­tin­ues with fake news and half-truths which are passed on suc­cess­fully to the main­stream me­dia in the Western world. And it ends with trolls and so­cial bots pick­ing up such sto­ries and cir­cu­lat­ing them in so­cial me­dia and search en­gines. The Rus­sian search en­gine Yan­dex is also hyp­ing fake news, while Google and Face­book are at least mak­ing some first mod­est at­tempts to fight disinformation.

Es­pe­cially the in­flu­ence of so­cial bots – of “ro­bots” which are able to write texts, but also draw at­ten­tion to fake news by “lik­ing” and “shar­ing” them – has been dis­cov­ered only re­cently. The pub­lic gets par­tic­u­larly con­fused by the ac­tiv­ity of such bots which are cheap, highly ef­fec­tive and dif­fi­cult to trace. In al­ready strongly di­vided so­ci­eties pro­pa­ganda can re­in­force the split – and this is ex­actly the goal of its at­tacks. In Ger­many the Krem­lin lords also keep ad­vo­cates as close friends. The best ex- am­ple is the for­mer Chan­cel­lor Ger­hard Schröder. He has served as a lob­by­ist for the North Stream pipe­line, and now he has been of­fered a man­date in the con­trol­ling board of the big­gest Rus­sian oil com­pany Ros­neft.

“Rus­sia’s RT net­work – is it more BBC or K.G.B.?”, asks Steven Er­langer in the New York Times. His an­swer is dif­fer­en­ti­ated, but un­am­bigu­ous: “Watch­ing RT can be a dizzy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Hard news and top-notch graph­ics mix with in­ter­views from all sorts of peo­ple: well-known and ob­scure, left and right. But if there is any uni­fy­ing char­ac­ter to RT, it is a deep skep­ti­cism of Western and Amer­i­can nar­ra­tives and a fun­da­men­tal de­fen­sive­ness about Rus­sia and Mr. Putin.” Me­dia an­a­lysts dis­agree over the in­flu­ence RT has. Those who look at rat­ings warn about over­es­ti­mat­ing the in­flu­ence. This is miss­ing the point, ar­gues Peter Pomer­ant­sev. Two years ago, he wrote Noth­ing Is True and Ev­ery­thing Is Pos­si­ble: The Sur­real Heart of the New Rus­sia, a book on the Rus­sian TV and pro­pa­ganda em­pire. Ap­par­ently, RT it is not about au­di­ence rat­ings, but about cam­paign­ing to in­flu­ence fi­nance, pol­i­tics and me­dia, says Pomer­ant­sev.

Look­ing back, Ukraine and the Baltic States were the train­ing field to test the ef­fects of Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda on so­cial me­dia. The ed­u­cated elites in th­ese coun­tries seem to have more ex­pe­ri­ence in deal­ing with pro­pa­ganda than we West­ern­ers – also due to pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences with the Soviet Union. Liga Ozolina of Turiba Univer­sity in Riga high­lights that even jour­nal­ists of Amer­i­can me­dia are by now con­sult­ing Re:Baltica, an ini­tia­tive to fight fake news, to get a clue how to deal with pro­pa­ganda. Sim­i­larly, the Ukrainian project Stop­fake has be­come fa­mous in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Such factcheck­ing sites are by now spread­ing like mush­rooms in the Western world. Their op­er­a­tors have a lot of work to do. How­ever, they are do­ing the ba­sic work ev­ery pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ist is sup­posed to do. Whether they can suc­cess­fully con­tain the ef­fects of pro­pa­ganda, re­mains du­bi­ous. Re­searchers like Wal­ter Qu­at­tro­cioc­chi of the IMT School for Ad­vanced Study demon­strate that it is get­ting in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to en­lighten and to ed­u­cate users of so­cial net­works. Fake news and half-truths of­ten spread faster than the grey-shaded news from se­ri­ous sources and me­dia ded­i­cated to the search of truth. It looks like fake news providers are fre­quently one Pinoc­chio nose ahead of fake news de­tec­tors. In fall, Prof. Russ-Mohl's new book Die in­formierte Ge­sellschaft und ihre

Feinde (The in­formed so­ci­ety and its en­e­mies) will be pub­lished in Ger­many


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