Posts Tagged ‘Russia’


The Russian Firehose of Falsehood

September 1, 2016

I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of publications on Russian propaganda/soft power/deception etc but I’d recommend the newish RAND paper by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews on The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.

They characterise this by four features

1. High volume across multiple channels

2 Fast, continuous and repetitive

3. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘truth’ and

4. Neither is it interested in consistency.

They also connect each of these four elements with discussions in the psychological literature  It’s the third and fourth of these that draw particular attention since they go against what might be thought of as the conventional wisdom on propaganda contests (and in political communications) that consistency and credibility are important.

Their conclusions and recommendations are also important – particularly in the context of discussions of ‘post-truth politics’.  They are sceptical that efforts at rebuttal can work against the volume and speed of the Russian attack as they put it “don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth” – emphasis in original.  While some degree of rebuttal is required they place more weight on forewarning people about the existence of the Russian information effort.  Here what I called the propaganda panic probably serves a role in flagging the presence of the effort.  They also emphasize the importance of focusing on blocking the achievement of the objectives of Russian activities, for instance if the Russian objective is to undermine NATO solidarity focus on supporting the factors that consolidate this rather than on rebutting falsehoods.  There are other types of asymmetric responses that can be used such as full enforcement of broadcasting rules.

Although Paul and Mathews look for explanations of the lack of concern over truth and consistency in the psychological literature an alternative explanation might come from the changing media environment.  In the era of the Second World War or The Cold War information is in relatively speaking in short supply so a piece of news gets raked over and its credibility assessed, the result is the kind of personalized propaganda duel discussed here where recognized individuals get drawn into personalized tests of credibility ‘X said that y would happen.  It didn’t. Why should you believe anything else they say?’  Where there’s a continuous stream of information individual statements don’t get subject to the same average level of attention – for most people they just get replaced by another tweet – after all as McLuhan argued media is an environment.

It’s also worth noting that in a Second World War style duel(you also probably find this in exchanges between Arab radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s)  the protagonists confronted each other directly with the intention of damaging each other.  This is something that under normal circumstances diplomats are reluctant to do or that modern international broadcasters do.


Lobbyists and the Outsourcing of Public Diplomacy

March 12, 2015

At the end of January the Corporate Europe Observatory put out Spin Doctors to the Autocrats: How European PR Firms Whitewash Repressive Regimes

It’s an interesting catalogue of cases of how authoritarian regimes use lobbyists, PR companies or legal firms to exert influence in Brussels or clean up their image in Europe. The instruments employed range from op-eds, straight lobbying, junkets, editing Wikipedia, creating think tanks and ‘friends of’ groups. CEO are calling for tighter regulation of lobbyists both at EU and national levels. One interesting point is that while there are one set of rules in Brussels if you are doing lobbying they don’t apply if you’re doing nation-branding work.

This raises a broader question of when and why countries outsource public diplomacy.   Three, not mutually exclusive, hypotheses

  1. It’s about the nature of the political system. Professionalized commercial lobbying and representation appears first in the US nearly a century ago. An open but complex political system requires specialist expertise. [Francis Fukuyama recently argued for the similarity of the EU system to that in Washington DC.
  2. It’s about limits in the capacity of the state’s representation either in general or to deal with a particular project or situation.   Commercial representation offers a surge capacity with specific expertise. CEO make the point that say PR companies hired by Russia work directly to the Kremlin and not through the MFA hence providing flexibility.
  3. It’s about creating distance between the country and the activity.       An embassy that says we’re great is less credible than an apparently independent group.

Counter-Propaganda in the Digital Age: Introduction

December 8, 2014

There’s something wonderfully retro about talking about counter-propaganda but with the appearance of ISIS and the Ukrainian Crisis it seems like proclamations that Russia or ISIS are winning the propaganda /information /ideas war are and that something needs to be done are all over the place. Counter-terrorism messaging needs to be handed to be taken from the State Department and given to the CIA or we need to bring back the Information Research Department.

I’ve been meaning to write about these issues for some time but there are so many interesting aspects to this I always get stuck. So by way of clearing some mental space over the next few days I’m going to address three questions.

  1. How seriously should we take the Russian and ISIS information offensives?
  2. What can we learn from old skool counter-propaganda in the light of a changed media and political environment?
  3. To what extent does digital actually offer a ‘self-correcting market place of ideas’ and to what extent do we need states and international organizations to take address counter-propaganda challenges.

I’m going to argue that our tendency to see these threats in terms of a seamless information space tends to exaggerate the threat of ‘foreign’ information activities but at the same time to overstate the possibilities of our own.


What the EU Can Learn From the Debate on Rollback, 1947-1954

March 17, 2014

Between the late 1940s and the early 1950s there was an acrimonious debate in Washington around the question of political warfare or psychological warfare against the Soviet Bloc which is documented in great detail in Gregory Mitrovich’s Undermining the Kremlin.  The key issue was how far can we push Stalin through support for anti-Communist guerillas, incitement of political resistance, support for dissidence in the Bloc before we create an unacceptable risk of a major war? The estimate of this distance was rapidly reduced by the development of Soviet nuclear forces.  By the end of the Truman Administration some of the hawks in this debate were jumping ship to join Eisenhower’s campaign for the presidency only for them to be disappointed when Ike reached even more cautious conclusions.  Whatever the public rhetoric of rollback or liberation these ideas were dead in the NSC by the end of 1953 or early 1954 at the latest.  Rollback was dead long before Hungary.  I’m not saying that we’re in the same situation as Truman and Eisenhower were but there’s something quite important that can be learned from this debate.

This debate was asking about how far can we pursue our political objectives before we get a forceful pushback from Moscow.  It’s was  strategy – weighing ends, means, risks and what the other side is likely to do.  In Ukraine and in East generally the EU has essentially set out to erode the Russian sphere of influence without thinking through these connections between ends, means or reactions.   Of course the EU line (and that of the West more broadly) ‘is this is the 21st century there’s no such thing as spheres of interest’.  This is basically the argument about harmony of interests that EH Carr or Bruno Latour have argued against: we pretend politics doesn’t exist and then get surprised when people get upset.

When we look to the East and talk about ‘modernization’, ‘civil society’ etc we are talking about the overthrow of the political systems as they exist.  Randomly pledging support for whoever waves an EU flag is not going to do the job.  As a starting point what is needed is a comprehensive political roadmap that either reached some understanding with Russia on the balance of interests or was backed up by sufficient power compel agreement.  Indeed even if there was such a comprehensive plan I would have grave doubts about the capacity of the EU or the West to implement it.  Given that states can’t coordinate themselves the EU isn’t going to be able to.

A final point. I’m pretty sure that in most Western capitals there is a hope that Putin and his cronies will disappear one day.  I suspect they will but whoever replaces them will still be a Russian leader and will not suddenly see the world through the lens of Brussels.


Russian Media in the Post Soviet Space

January 15, 2014

There’s a minor excitement today after the refusal of the Russian government to grant a visa to David Satter of RFE/RL.  I’ve no idea if there’s a connection but Satter authored a report published last week by the Center for International Media Assistance on The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics

This looks at the impact of Russian media in most of the states on the periphery of Russia.  Satter argues that in most of these countries even including the Baltics Russian media continues to play an outsize role and is frequently used to exert pressure on recalcitrant leaders or to support cooperative ones.  More broadly the popularity of Russian media affects local perceptions of the world. In some countries Russian media seems more reliable than local media outlets that are dominated by authoritarian leaders.

Satter doesn’t think that this is a good thing but apart from a couple of paragraphs in the summary of the report he doesn’t have much in the way of policy suggestions.

Apart from the propensity of Russian operators to make life difficult for those that oppose them there are structural issues at work.  Many people in the post Soviet space speak Russian even if they’re not members of the Russian diaspora and in a situation where an adjacent big country and a small country share a language you would expect the big country’s media to attract a large share of attention because it’s likely to have better programming.  This is basic media economics.   Interestingly Satter points to cases where Western channels have cut deals that appear to give Russian channels a monopoly on their programming in the former Soviet space.  One response would be  Western controlled Russian language entertainment channels but I don’t see that any governments are going to put their hands in the their pockets for that the moment particularly when we can assume that Russia will do its best to keep these channels off terrestrial and cable systems.






The Foreign Office, the Russians and the Scottish Referendum

January 14, 2014

The Scottish independence referendum is getting a fair amount of attention in England but a lot more in Scotland – people outside Scotland often don’t realize that the Scottish media sphere is quite autonomous from the London centric version that we get in England.   On Sunday a Scottish paper The Herald carried a story headlined Cameron’s Plea to Putin: Help Me Stop Salmond – that is Alex Salmond leader of the Scottish National Party.  According to this story someone from Cameron’s office had approached Putin’s office for unexplained assistance.  The source for this report is Itar-Tass which the Herald report points out is usually seen as the Kremlin’s mouthpiece.   The authors of the story then simultaneously question the reliability and sources of the Itar-Tass story (which I haven’t been able to find) while shopping it around to supporters of independence from Alex Salmond down to denounce the underhand interference of the UK government in the referendum campaign.

Given the usual state of British-Russian relations you couldn’t rule out a bit of troublemaking from the Kremlin but from the context given in the Herald piece the story maybe more about trying to make Russia look good in advance of it being chair of the G-8*

In pursuit of unmasking the evil machinations of the British state the [Scottish] National Collective of Artists and Creatives (I couldn’t quite believe that there are still organizations with names like this) has done a freedom of information request to uncover what instructions the FCO has been sending to British embassies which it describes as ‘global lobbying against independence’  (The full set of briefing documents is here). The bulk of  most of which appear to set out the lines to take if anyone asks – but they do show that the FCO is concerned about the potential impact of Scottish independence on the way that they UK is seen.

*Though there does seem to be some questioning of what Russia is doing in the G-8 at all


Egypt and Russia Against Democracy Promotion

February 6, 2012

I’ve raised the question before of how countries try to limit the impact of what they perceive as unwelcome PD activities so I just that I’d connect two recent stories.

Firstly, the announcement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in in Egypt that they will prevent a number of foreigners from leaving the country while they are investigated for interfering in the electoral process through the work of foreign funded NGOs.   In particular the case of Sam Lahood the head of the Egyptian office of the International Republican Institute has attracted attention.   The IRI gets funding from the US congress via the National Endowment for Democracy which originated with Ronald Reagan’s  Project Democracy.  The Egyptian regime sees foreign funded NGOs as a threat is making an effort to restrict their activities.  Given that the NGOs have been operating in a legal limbo they have plenty of scope to do so.

Secondly, there’s the ‘warm‘ welcome the new US Ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul received.  On his second day in the job state television accused him of wanting to foment revolution in Russia and suggested that opposition figures who were visiting the embassy were there to receive instructions.  McFaul is reported as saying that the previous day he had had a warm welcome from Russian officials.  Thus it looks like the media reaction was directed at the public diplomacy element of the job.

In both cases it is the US commitment to democracy promotion activities that drives an element of conflict with the regime.  In the Egyptian case legal harassment is the tool and in Russia the state controlled media becomes a weapon to try and delegitimize foreign PD activities.

There is a broader question of how states manage foreign PD.   The US has the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) passed in 1938 it was intended to regulate the operations of foreign propaganda offices as the Second World War approached.