Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, March 13, 2017

News, alt-news, propaganda

In looking for articles that might help illustrate concepts and examples for comparative politics, I regularly look at government-run sources. The main ones are the BBC and Xinhua. BBC has earned a reputation as a straightforward, trustworthy source of factual information. Xinhua carefully presents Communist Party positions, and I try to remember to label those articles for readers here.

I also look at Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned news service that presents news from a "pan-Arab" persepective (some would say "pro-Saudi" perspective and Al Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, which is often seen as promoting Islamist points of view.

I do not actively seek out articles from Russian, Mexican, Nigerian, or Iranian government sources.

As you consider the critique of RT below, remember that the US government operates Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Europe. They are remnants of the Cold War and report with a perspective that represents the US government. (See also Radio Free Asia, Radio y Television Marti, and Alhurra.)

And how does RT affect the news in the US? Is it different from the BBC or Al Jazeera? And how does it connect to social media?

Russia’s RT Network: Is It More BBC or K.G.B.?
The London newsroom and studios of RT, the television channel and website formerly known as Russia Today, are ultramodern and spacious, with spectacular views from the 16th floor overlooking the Thames and the London Eye…

Even as Russia insists that RT is just another global network like the BBC or France 24, albeit one offering “alternative views” to the Western-dominated news media, many Western countries regard RT as the slickly produced heart of a broad, often covert disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about democratic institutions and destabilize the West.

Western attention focused on RT when the Obama administration and United States intelligence agencies judged with “high confidence” in January that Mr. Putin had ordered a campaign to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process…

The agencies issued a report saying the attack was carried out through the targeted use of real information, some open and some hacked, and the creation of false reports, or “fake news,” broadcast on state-funded news media like RT and its sibling, the internet news agency Sputnik. These reports were then amplified on social media, sometimes by computer “bots” that send out thousands of Facebook and Twitter messages…

But if there is any unifying character to RT, it is a deep skepticism of Western and American narratives of the world and a fundamental defensiveness about Russia and Mr. Putin.

Analysts are sharply divided about the influence of RT. Pointing to its minuscule ratings numbers, many caution against overstating its impact. Yet focusing on ratings may miss the point, says Peter Pomerantsev, who wrote a book three years ago that described Russia’s use of television for propaganda. “Ratings aren’t the main thing for them,” he said. “These are campaigns for financial, political and media influence.”

RT and Sputnik propel those campaigns by helping create the fodder for thousands of fake news propagators and providing another outlet for hacked material that can serve Russian interests…

Whatever its impact, RT is unquestionably a case study in the complexity of modern propaganda. It is both a slick modern television network, dressed up with great visuals and stylish presenters, and a content farm that helps feed the European far right. Viewers find it difficult to discern exactly what is journalism and what is propaganda, what may be “fake news” and what is real but presented with a strong slant…

For RT and its viewers, the outlet is a refreshing alternative to what they see as complacent Western elitism and neo-liberalism, representing what the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov recently called a “post-West world order.”

With its slogan, created by a Western ad agency, of “Question More,” RT is trying to fill a niche, Ms. Belkina said. “We want to complete the picture rather than add to the echo chamber of mainstream news; that’s how we find an audience.”…

Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor who was the United States ambassador to Russia during the Obama years, said that RT should not be lightly dismissed. “There is a demand in certain countries for this alternative view, an appetite, and we arrogant Americans shouldn’t just think that no one cares.”

But there is a considerably darker view, too. For critics, RT and Sputnik are simply tools of a sophisticated Russian propaganda machine, created by the Kremlin to push its foreign policy, defend its aggression in Ukraine and undermine confidence in democracy, NATO and the world as we have known it.

Robert Pszczel, who ran NATO’s information office in Moscow and watches Russia and the western Balkans for NATO, said that RT and Sputnik were not meant for domestic consumption, unlike the BBC or CNN. Over time, he said, “It’s more about hard power and disinformation.”…

Probably more important than RT, [Robert Pszczel, who ran NATO’s information office in Moscow] said, are Sputnik and local language outlets sponsored by Russia, like the Slovak magazine “Zem a Vek,” known for its conspiracy theories. Sputnik is the largest source of raw news in the Balkans, he said, “because it’s a free product in local languages.”…

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