Over the last decade, Russia has had plenty of time and resources to test and perfect its propaganda machine, which has achieved an unprecedented level of maturity, while Western democratic media has been in decline, says Christopher Walker, executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
Christopher Walker, NED nuotr.

That leads to a paradoxical and disconcerting situation, according to him, where the Russian government systematically denies access to alternative information to its own population all the while exploiting democratic rules beyond its borders to transmit its own message and muddy the waters.

How does the Kremlin manage to be so successful on the information front?

If we think about why the authoritarian media systems have been able to make the progress they've made in recent years, there are a number of factors that help explain it. And its not only the fact that a lot of money has been invested by the Russian authorities into their media, the Chinese authorities are doing it as well, as do the Gulf states, Iran has done quite a bit of investment. All of this has happened at the same time that western democratic media has come under enormous stress. So that media in the US, for example, is in a far less enviable position today than it was 5 or 10 years ago in terms of the investment into investigative journalism and the degree of editorial scrutiny that these news outlets can make.

And so in essence you have these trends that have worked very strongly against open democratic media on the one hand, but at the same time have opened the door for authoritarian media to be more effective.

To give an example, if you look at challenges that we face from Russian disinformation and propaganda, you can see them on several levels. One is understanding it in a fundamental way - I think many consumers of propaganda in the US and Western Europe don't necessarily understand who is behind the information they're seeing. Some do, but in many case they don't. They don't understand what the objectives of the information is and if you don't understand, it's very hard to critically analyse it.

The other challenge is that, in the last 10 years or so, since the start of RT, there's been quite a good amount of time available to the Russian propaganda decision makers to trial and error, to figure out what they believe works. And so today we see the Russian propaganda with a degree of maturity. It's more advanced, more mature and that's happened at precisely the same time the western democratic media has become weaker.

Which had two main effects. One is that there is less sound democratic media in, for example, the new democracies. It's very much the case in Central Europe, so in countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia the degree of quality democratically-oriented media has shrunk at exactly the same time as undemocratic propagandistically-oriented media from Russia has increased. And so these trends have been very powerful in recent years and given an enormous advantage to it. In many ways, what we see now is that the western established democracies are playing catch-up and trying to figure out how to respond in a meaningful way to the challenge.

Part of the response is identifying the problem and critically analysing it, but another part of the response is creating content that can adequately provide an alternative. Both in the Russian language, which is an enormous challenge within the Russian Federation and Russia's periphery and Russian communities that are there, but also for russophone communities outside Russia, because they're very significant communities. And for the non-Russian speakers who are consuming Russian propaganda in one form or another.

So you see these multiple tasks that are at hand and they're very complex, they require a good deal of thought but also resources that are needed to respond.

The task seems so huge that it leaves one with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness when faced an adversary that is not burdened by rules and can make decisions fast. What solutions do you see?

I think there is one other dimension to the challenge. As the media landscape has evolved over the last 10-20 years, one of the features we've seen has been the fragmentation of the media space. On the one hand, if you look at the online world and the digital opportunities that are there, they're immense and in many ways they're extremely valuable and very positive. Today we can get access to all sort of information that would gave been unthinkable a generatio ago.

But to come to your point on the advantages enjoyed by a unitary political power that decides to invest into media today. They have a competitive advantage in the media space that is so highly fragmented because they can provide a unitary media voice. So when we think about Russia's propaganda, and it is true also in China's case in many ways, you have official voices that tend to be aligned in a very unitary way with the main TV stations coming out of Moscow as well as the international media platforms that broadcast now in a wide range of languages, including English, Arabic, Spanish. Also online, we see a proliferation of websites that now emerge in Swedish, Polish, languages of South Eastern Europe and these will only grow, because they are relatively inexpensive compared to TV.

Christopher Walker: Democratic media weakening while Kremlin perfects its propaganda
© RIA/Scanpix

So while I think that the challenge is vast, it is not insurmountable and the way to approach it is to divide the challenge into the pieces that are most evident. Of course, in order to solve any problem or meet a challenge, you have to identify it and agree on what the nature and the scope of the challenge is. I think this has been happening, there have been a lot of good minds and people thinking about this issue and how to digest it. Some very thoughtful work done by Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss. Their report, I think, was ground-breaking. Others have been doing it as well.

But I think the one way to think about meeting the challenge, especially online, is to think of the good work that is already being done and how to build on it - and not to reinvent the wheel.

In the sphere of exposing and talking about the nature of the disinformation and the nature of the propaganda, we see projects like StopFake and others like it that are quite good. They can serve at least as start point for building this sort of exposure.

And what we need are organisations in more countries, certainly in Central-Eastern Europe, but also beyond that, that know the local landscape, that understand the local media scene, local politics and are able to describe for their own audiences the nature of the challenge. So these might be local groups.

Another part of this is creating the content that can provide a meaningful alternative that's oriented towards civic issues, news issues. There are many out there, but I would say a part of the challenge today is that so many of the stronger media outlets have been weakened because of the poor economic landscape for democratic media. So we need to think hard how to create online initiatives creating content, that could function in the modern media environment, that can provide an alternative, consistently put their content out there.

And on the television question, it is a very big question, because TV is the most expensive to produce at the level that can compete with the very high production value content. And creating content that can also reach the audiences it needs to reach, which is a very big question, one of the big challenges.

And I think there's a lack of appreciation of these horrible paradoxes that have emerged today where the Russian government will deny independent information to its population on a systematic basis. It will provide, certainly through TV, only information it wants its population to see. At the same time Russia is exploiting the open information space beyond its borders in every possible way to project its information to confuse the information landscape and to muddy the waters.

So we face this dual challenge of confronting Russia's exploitation of open democratic information space beyond its borders while also trying to intercept democratic media and messages within Russia's borders - which even in the age of globalisation, the age of the internet, has become rather effective in censoring and managing information that matters. Entertainment flows pretty easily in Russia, there's an enormous amount of material on information that flows on the internet in Russia, but I think the important question is news about politics, serious news about corruption, that does not get on the airways to a national TV audience.

It's increasingly limited, while still available through newspapers, but independent newspapers in Russia have very low circulations, so they're very marginalized. And online, while there has been more openness in the past, I think it is fair to say that in the most recent period the degree of space for open politically-oriented news and information in Russian cyberspace is shrinking. And that's a deep concern, because so many observers of Russian politics and media believe that even if TV wouldn't be space where independent information could be transmitted, the internet would always make it available. I think there are larger questions about just how true those assumptions are. At least as long as the current authorities are in charge in Russia.

What is your opinion on limiting or even banning rebroadcasting of certain Kremlin TV channels in the Baltic states?

I think it's an enormously complex and sensitive issue for a variety of reasons. It comes back to this nasty paradox that while the Russian authorities deny systematically their own population alternative views, they enjoy the opportunity to transmit their state-controlled messages into democratic societies.

And democratic societies need to think about this issue in a very serious way, because the problem has come upon them in a very abrupt manner, even if the Baltic states have confronted the challenge of Russian TV information coming into their borders essentially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in different forms.

It is fair to say, in the most recent period, this has been a challenge that's reached very severe levels. My general sense is that the Baltic states - just to use this example - have elected to respond to the Russian propaganda and have really tried their best to follow the law and their communications regulations in a very diligent way. And in a very limited and cautious way, so if my understanding is correct, essentially by using communications regulations they've given warnings to the channels about very specific content on very specific programs that they've esteemed a threat to national security. And after a certain number of warnings they said: at this point you have triggered the threshold for these sorts of inciteful programs and therefore there's going to be a temporary suspension. So there hasn't been an outright ban or anything of the sort.

And I think, generally speaking, the guidance for the flow of information should be as wide and open as possible and it should be made available as widely as possible. But it comes back to the larger question that the democracies have to wrestle with, which is - is the information being generated through Russian state media journalism? Is it really designed to create information that is really news that's being produced independently. And I think that understanding needs to be more deeply probed in the democracies so they can make more informed decisions on these very difficult questions on whether to suspend or temporary block information that is deemed to be a threat to national security.

Still, I think the general guidance and the general approach should be to permit and allow as much free and independent media to flow as possible. And to restrict only the media that is deemed a threat to national security.

In democratic societies, like Lithuania is, it is indeed often very difficult to respond to propaganda. While Russia exploits the openness of democracy to attack us, we have to meticulously justify every step we take in defence.

I think right now in democratic societies you have an enormous amount of Russian language content that's generated by Russian state media. So in the US, RT - just to use this example - broadcasts 24/7 on a vast number of cable systems across the country. And of course in hotels around the world. RT is operating as far as I understand with no restrictions whatsoever throughout much of Europe. I think in the UK there's some scrutiny of RT UK channel there, but even so, it's done in a very systematic rules-based way and carefully. So for all intents and purposes, there are no meaningful limits on Russian state media, Chinese state media and other such systems in the democratic media space, while there are extraordinary limits on both domestic independent media in Russia and international alternative media within Russia. So you can draw your own conclusion which standards and principles are being adhered to by the Russian authorities.

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