Despite economic sanctions and an increasing isolation from the world due to its involvement in Ukraine, the Kremlin maintains strong control over Russia and the popular opinion. The opposition is shut down, sometimes subtly through various laws and investigations (Dougherty, 2015), or in a more obvious and bloody way, as with the assassination of well-known Putin critic Boris Nemtsov last February, within walking distance of the Red Square. The current situation is becoming more and more reminiscent of the Soviet era: state-controlled media, political assassinations, a personality cult around the leader, a very tense stand-off with the United States and an involvement in a sort of proxy war against Western influence and NATO.
Nonetheless, there are some differences that go along with our modern world and make this modern Russia different from the USSR. In the words of Svetlana Mironyuk, ex-editor of a liberal news agency, “in the Soviet Union, […] at least there were rules. Now in Russia, there are no rules. You never know where you step and what can happen and what, yesterday, was not a mistake or breaking the rules, it can be tomorrow” (Dougherty, 2015). Svetlana Mironyuk was fired in December 2013 and her agency was shut down outright, “then reorganized as part of a new agency headed by a Kremlin-friendly broadcaster known for his high-voltage on-air presence and frequent rants against the West”. This is just one instance of a direct order from the Kremlin preventing a fair coverage of the news. Undoubtedly, Russia has been presented in a negative light in the Western media since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. However, this can never justify censorship and intimidation in the journalistic world. People in Russia should at least have access to different points of view within their own country.
This is what Putin himself told reporters at a news conference in 2013: “There should be patriotically minded people at the head of state information resources, people who uphold the interests of the Russian Federation. These are state resources. That is the way it is going to be” (Dougherty, 2015). This is about state media, but sadly Putin has also put privately owned broadcast media under his influence (Dougherty, 2015). Putin has different strategies at home than abroad. In Russia, he is shamelessly dominating the media with subtle, and not so subtle methods. The Russian government tends to flood the internet with pro-state messages. Recently “professional trolls” have revealed a lot about their work in Russia. They work 12 hour days, and get paid 40,000 rubles per month (£522) under very strict control from their bosses (Volchek and Sindelar, 2015). They form fake teams of two good guys and one “villain”. They go on various forums and the villain post negative things about the government while the other trolls defend and praise Putin. They do this all day long, writing thousands of comments to influence Russians’ opinions, for them to always see Putin in a positive light. This is a blatant example of how Putin manipulates the Internet and social media for his own benefit.
According to NATO’s top commander General Philip Breedlove, “Russia is waging “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare” (Pomerantsev, 2014). Indeed, Russia is boosting patriotism by fabricating stories, hiring Internet trolls to praise the Kremlin, and it also has an international presence. With the RT (Russia Today) news agency, Putin tries to counter what he sees as the prevailing Western media. He does have a point, the Western media has been dominating for years in news coverage. However, RT is so unashamedly biased and pro-Kremlin that it would be ridiculous to think of it as a credible alternative for news. Putin is playing a game, by enforcing conformity of news at home (the truth comes from the state), and criticizing that same conformity abroad, with what he sees as the mainstream media. By placing Russia as a victim of negative and unfair coverage, he actually uses old American Cold War strategies of manipulation of public opinion (Hooper, 2015). He is attempting to portray a U.S. spin on the news, when he is doing the same thing at home. “To the international audience, the Kremlin advertises pro-Russian coverage as an “alternative point of view” that any truly “free” press should acknowledge” (Hooper, 2015). At least Putin is lucky that no one can really shut down his media empire… It must be acknowledged that RT has found success in criticizing the American establishment, and that is in no way a bad thing. In fact it is necessary. However, it is hard to see RT as a valuable source of news when we know that it is operated by and takes orders from the Kremlin. It is an interesting example of modern state diplomacy and propaganda, but not an unbiased source of news.
This a Cold War for the 21st century and with its growing control of information, so far Vladimir Putin may be winning it.
Crowley, C. “Tit-for-tat: Putin’s Maddening Propaganda Trick”. Time, 1 May 2014. Available at: http://time.com/84843/vladimir-putin-russia-propaganda/
Dougherty, J. “How the Media Became One of Putin’s Most Powerful Weapons” The Atlantic, 21 April 2015. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/04/how-the-media-became-putins-most-powerful-weapon/391062/
Hooper, C. “Putin’s ‘Fair and Balanced’ Propaganda Coup” Newsweek, 3 April 2015. Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/putins-fair-and-balanced-propaganda-coup-319365
Pomerantsev, P. “How Russia is Revolutionizing Information Warfare” Defense One, 9 September 2014. Available at: http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2014/09/how-russia-revolutionizing-information-warfare/93635/
Volcheck, D. and Sindelar, D. “One Professional Russian Troll Tells All”. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. 23 April 2015. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/how-to-guide-russian-trolling-trolls/26919999.html