RT and the Ideological Vacuum in Russia
Upon assuming office, German foreign minister Heiko Maas has been quick to join the worldwide initiatives to keep a sharper eye on Russia’s actions. Since the annexation of Crimea, the plethora of cyber interference efforts and the general concern over Russian propaganda have been blamed for undermining the sense of stability in the democratic world. While there have been a number of inquiries into covert informational attacks, little detail can be found on the real effects of Russian public diplomacy. In fact, plenty of myths surround its international TV broadcaster RT, formerly Russia Today.
Western broadcasting corporations continuously raise concerns over the tools and methods that RT uses, urging the EU and US media to counter the Russian “bullhorn”. One of the first attempts to contain this machine happened in the UK in 2016 when the state-owned NatWest (National Westminster Bank) froze the network’s accounts for several days. The continental response was a pinch more emotional: French President Macron called for a “fake news” ban that would sanction news outlets spreading disinformation, including RT and Sputnik. In November 2017, the United States Department of Justice officially ordered RT America to register as a “foreign agent”. RT’s response to the move followed quickly with the headlines, such as “Meet ‘foreign agent’: Americans in America covering American news for Americans”, sarcastically mocking the hype around the network. Meanwhile in Moscow, Western accusations are presented to the domestic public as little victories if not as tangible examples of the channel’s effective operations abroad.
Indeed, the fearmongering around RT is largely playing into the network’s hands whose main strategy is to debunk the views and commonplace statements of what they call “liberal establishment”. Instead, RT claims to show an alternative perspective on world affairs in order to counter the “Anglo-Saxon information hegemony”. RT was conceived in 2005 in the midst of an unprecedented economic growth period of the country due to the strong oil price. First generation RT journalists, although informed by the network’s aim to promote Russia’s point of view, had rather optimistic views on their role as independent journalists. This also reflects in RT’s quirky setup as a ‘hybrid’ between a state TV channel and a network that claims to be an independent news broadcaster with many of its international employees having little relation to Russia.
One of the main tasks of RT’s early-career ‘journalists of defence’ was to monitor the output of CNN and the BBC, to take notes on the broadcasting style and strategies that would soon be borrowed and re-directed back at the rival channels. A drastic change happened after the revolution in Ukraine that forced the network to switch from a rather ‘laid back’ reporting to hard-line persuasion. Developed out of the Soviet tradition of kontpropaganda (counter-propaganda), RT aims at carefully answering its opponents with the purpose to disprove accusations and delegitimise rivals; the key genre here is satire. This consistent mockery and the ubiquitous negation of any allegation towards Russia hardly indicates a consistent strategy for promoting influence abroad but rather reveals the country as being on the defensive.
Although it at times seems that all the world’s eyes are on Russia, what surprisingly gets overlooked is that the country’s return to Soviet propaganda techniques and the fixation on the collective ‘West’ as a hostile and hegemonic force demonstrates an ideological vacuum. The collective image of the West serves as an orientation point for Russia’s national identity, with the elite discourses being constructed around the understanding that liberal norms are at once an ideal to strive for and a threat against which the country needs to protect itself from.
This article was published in September’s issue (2018) of the Diplomatic Magazine.
Dr Elizaveta Kuznetsova is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) in London. In 2018, she completed her PhD in International Politics with a thesis on Russian public diplomacy with a focus on RT and is currently preparing a book on the topic. Elizaveta has been trained as a TV journalist at Moscow State University and City, University of London.