The West Throttles Putin’s Propagandists

Photo: Vladimir Putin visited the new Russia Today broadcasting center. Credit: Kremlin.ru via Wikicommons.
Photo: Vladimir Putin visited the new Russia Today broadcasting center. Credit: Kremlin.ru via Wikicommons.

It’s satisfying to see RT and its fellow propagandists get their marching orders, but the West should have acted with greater subtlety.

Last week marked the end of an era in information warfare. On March 1, DirecTV, then later in the week RokuTV, dropped RT America from their services. By March 4, the production firm behind the Kremlin mouthpiece announced the permanent layoff of its staff. Across the Atlantic, the EU banned RT and newswire Sputnik on March 2, forcing RT France to fold.

For over a decade, RT (formerly Russia Today) has been at the forefront of dragging down the quality of media across the world, and no one should mourn its demise. But if the Kremlin-funded network had one message above all else it was that the West is run by hypocrites, and that its values are no more than a fig leaf for its self-serving and Machiavellian impulses. Its ultimate demise — by corporate and supranational regulation — left its propagandists with one final, sour victory.

If 20th century predecessors like Pravda and the Daily Worker evangelized communism, RT and Sputnik have evangelized cynicism. The desire for power explained all human behavior, and information was power. All interactions between individuals were struggles for power between the groups they represented. CNN or BBC Russia were not examples of independent news organizations wanting to hold the powerful to account or to promote democracy, but instead represented “the use of the ‘information weapon’ against the Russian information infrastructure,” according to the Ministry of Defense doctrine. Mikhail Lesin, former Press Minister and founder of RT viewed his role as ensuring, “The defense of the state from the free mass media.” (Lesin died in a Washington DC hotel in 2015, the night before he was due to be interviewed by US officials about alleged Russian state-sponsored murders.)

RT’s purpose was to assert Russian power and leadership and made no attempt to hide this, instead of viewing its open biases (or distortions, Western skeptics would say) as a testament to its integrity. “Not everyone openly admits that they work for their country,” explained Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of RT, “I, unlike many others, said quite openly that we would represent the Russian view of the world.” Simonyan argues that CNN is just an “information weapon” used to further American interests, like RT, its worth measured simply by its utility to the state. “Der Spiegel wrote this,” she beamed in a 2013 speech. “RT, along with Gazprom and the arms trade, is the most effective tool in Russian foreign policy.” The description was a compliment, she said.

Viewing the world as a zero-sum power struggle, with every motive traced back to shady financiers, proved catnip for recommendation engines. By 2012, RT had risen to become YouTube’s most-watched news network, landing major celebrities like Larry King as a host, and major American interviewees like then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Many on the US left came to associate the channel with Trump, but while it lost viewers there, it retained them on the right (other RT properties like Watching The Hawks and RT Underground still made a bid for left-leaning consumers).

Meanwhile, American media began to adopt much of the sensationalism and distrust of objectivity that once set RT apart, undercutting the channel’s uniqueness. After figuring prominently in post-election analysis in 2016, RT America’s impact on the 2020 US election was negligible.

In recent years, English-language RT, while still a major player on YouTube, could only exert influence over conversations on Russia and Ukraine. On issues related to American society and politics, the channel had been relegated to the margins. Last year, American newspapers and TV channels devoted about 2% of their coverage to topics related to Russia or Ukraine, while RT and newswire Sputnik referenced Russia or Ukraine in half of all content, meaning roughly a quarter of all content produced on the region targeting the United States came from RT or Sputnik, according to original research by the authoritarian media monitoring firm Omelas, where the author serves as CTO.

That dynamic changed drastically in the week following the invasion, launched on February 24, when Russian state propaganda, rather than facing off against lone bureaus of American media firms, went toe to toe with the full force of the free press. Of 41,700 articles targeting the United States about Russia or Ukraine in the following week, RT and Sputnik were responsible for only 2,300, or 5%, of the total. The 484,000 engagements (likes, shares, and comments) the outlets garnered represented barely 1% of the 43.5m overall in the United States and, globally, barely a tenth of those generated by Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Twitter account alone (4.1m).

With RT floundering under the weight of serious competition, and with its state sponsor facing severe budget cuts in response to its sanctions-hit economy, RT faced a fittingly ignoble and unheralded death. It is unfortunate that just as proof mounted that an open society could readily handle its enemies in a time of crisis, RT America was gifted a swan song. It was ultimately killed off by government intervention in Europe and corporations acting to achieve government-defined goals in the United States.

These interventions undermine the idea that the war is a battle between open and closed societies and positioned free speech as contingent on the whims of the powerful, just as RT has claimed throughout its existence, and that its surviving and still popular Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and international English outlets will continue to claim. “[S]uch a decision by the EU,” Simonyan wrote on her Telegram channel, “shows who is worth what, and most importantly, what the vaunted European democracy is worth.”

The world is a far better place without RT. But it would be better still without RT the martyr.

Ben Dubow is a nonresident fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on howstates manipulate the web.

March 9, 2022