Moscow Meddling: Russian State Media and the West
Updated: Feb 25, 2019
Though social media misinformation campaigns organized by the Russian government have penetrated our country’s political landscape in the past two years, little is reported about more overt methods Moscow uses to spread misinformation throughout the United States and the world. Russian news outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, play an important role in disseminating misinformation worldwide. However, RT and Sputnik use the conventional tools of journalism to support the aims and agenda of the Russian government, such as asking non-flattering questions at press conferences or interviewing intellectuals that have negative views of US foreign policy.
Andrew Feinberg, a former American freelance reporter, was hired in late 2016 to be Sputnik’s White House Correspondent, a new position. Sputnik is a state-sponsored news site that heavily resembles Buzzfeed. Like Buzzfeed, Sputnik is a digital, multi-platform news service that appeals to millenials - albeit one that that disseminates state sponsored propaganda. Though Feinberg knew that he was going to have to report the news from the Russian perspective, his interactions with Sputnik’s superiors disturbed him, particularly the senior leadership team of Sputnik’s Washington bureau. Before he was terminated from Sputnik, Feinberg stated that his superiors gave him virtually no leeway in how he would ask questions. Further, Feinberg stated in an op-ed for Politico that his superiors at Sputnik would request he ask questions that would “push a narrative that would either sow doubts about situations that weren’t flattering to Russia or its allies, or hurt the reputation of the United States and its allies.”
For example, when the US Department of State was undergoing budget cuts during the tenure of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Feinberg was told to ask the White House if the budget cuts were due to “corruption” in the Ukrainian government. Additionally, Feinberg was told to ask (on camera) if the US planned to investigate Syrian rebels for a 2017 chemical weapons attack (in which the Syrian government conducted an airstrike on a civilian population). He then was told to ask why the US didn’t send cruise missiles into Iraq to bomb ISIS fighters that had discharged an old chemical artillery shell (that resulted in no casualties).
Feinberg’s Politico op-ed highlights several points that are consistent with the activities of Russian state-run media. First, Sputnik and RT use activist journalism in their questioning of Western government officials in order to highlight perceived hypocrisy of the US government. Secondly, both media outlets report objective news, but with a very pro-Russian, anti-western stance, and broadcasts tend to favor foreign events that are positive for the Russian state. RT, for example, ran significant coverage of Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops from Syria, because that was a strategic win for both Russia and its ally, Syria. Further, RT and Sputnik selectively publish information, omit facts, and on certain occasions, falsify and fabricate information to help promote their narratives.
With the First Amendment protecting free speech in the United States, it is difficult for the US to tamp down on such broadcasts. Additionally, it would be hypocritical for the United States to take steps to actively repress either outlets unless their broadcasts constituted an immediate and overt threat to national security because it would run counter to the first amendment. However, the US government has required both news outlets to register as foreign agents, which is a wise step that subjects both news outlets to scrutiny by the US Department of Justice. The US Department of State and Department of Defense are in the process of creating a inter-agency task force to counter foreign misinformation, but it is unclear what mandate the task force will have. The crucial question is when free speech constitutes a danger to national security. Particularly, why should we allow broadcasts within our own borders if we know that they are agents of a foreign power?
The best way to balance both of these fundamental questions is to continue the current course of action. Because both Sputnik and RT are registered with the Department of Justice as foreign agents, it is possible for them to remain under scrutiny by the US government. Current legal opinions in the United States hold that speech can only be unlawful if it begins to constitute an egregious security threat. If tensions continue to rise between Washington and Moscow, and Sputnik and RT begin to broadcast misinformation that advocates for violence or creates public panic, then the US government and the FCC would have a fundamental duty to pull them off the air. However, until that time arrives, the government must maintain a vigilant watch on RT and Sputnik to ensure that no harm is done to US citizens through the spreading of misinformation.