How Russia Spreads Propaganda
Mar 15, 2018
Julia Ioffe, foreign policy reporter for The Atlantic, speaks with Russian journalists Galina Timchenko and Alexey Kovalev at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Galina Timchenko was editor in chief at Lenta.ru, the most popular news website in Russia, until she was fired in 2014. After being dismissed, her coworkers issued a statement saying she was sacked to make room for a new Kremlin-controlled editor in chief. They feared the website would become a propaganda tool. Timchenko went on to co-found Meduza, a Latvian-based online media source with the tagline, “The Real Russia, Today.”
At an Aspen Ideas Festival panel in June 2017, Timchenko said the Kremlin, led by President Vladimir Putin, releases disinformation “to spread panic and make you nervous.” Putin does this, she says, using several tools. The Russian Government-backed “RT” television network gives Putin a regular soapbox in his annual “Direct Line” program where he takes questions for hours from Russian citizens. “It’s something like Fidel Castro did,” says Timchenko. RT’s influence, though, may be overstated. While it broadcasts around the world, some American journalists have said the network fudges its ratings. Still, RT has been blamed for meddling in the US election. A US intelligence report called RT Russia’s state-run propaganda machine and said it served as a platform for Kremlin messaging during the American election. RT’s editor in chief denies the accusation.
Timchenko says while “the influence of RT is overstated, the influence of Russian hackers, or a Russian cyber army, are underestimated.” She says Russia was deeply involved in the US election process. Alexey Kovalev, also a Russian journalist, says there's a distinction between Russian troll attacks aimed at the US and trolling inside Russia. "They're barely overlapping," he says. Kovalev writes a blog that exposes Russian propaganda called “The Noodle Remover.” At Aspen Ideas, he said Russian trolls targeting Russians were mostly dormant during the US election. “It’s been mostly on the backburner for the last couple of years."
So how do Russians see President Trump and the investigation of Russia’s involvement in the US presidential election? In January of 2017, when Donald Trump was sworn into office, a Russian news organization reported Trump was more popular in the country than Vladimir Putin. “There was no other country in the world that was so sympathetic to Donald Trump,” says Kovalev. He says people complained the US election was getting more airtime on Russian TV than local elections. Regarding the Russian hack into the US election, Kovalev says Russian officials deny it but they also want to brag about it. “They like the idea that people think they can influence foreign elections.” It’s the subject of many jokes on Russian TV, say Kovalev and Timchenko. And Trump’s reputation in Russia has diminished. Just like Russian propaganda blamed President Obama for everyday Russian problems like trash in the streets, broken windows, and other petty grievances, Trump is is also being blamed. “We still have trash,” says Timchenko, “we still have rocks (being thrown) into windows. It must be Donald Trump.”