The information battle examines the ways in which the governments of former Soviet Union (FSU) look to shape international narratives about themselves by using media, social media, advertising and supportive organisations to promote their worldview and challenge the people, institutions and ideas that oppose them. This publication examines the influence of Russian media content in the former Soviet Union and in the wider world. This is delivered through the impact of Russian domestic TV channels reaching Russian speaking audiences in the region, the developing role of the news agency Sputnik and the international broadcaster RT. It examines how these outlets are used not only to promote Russian political narratives but to challenge Western approaches and sow confusion about what is going on in the world. It offers ideas for how independent broadcasters and international outlets can provide effective alternatives.
Despite cracking down on Western backed NGOs at home, the governments of the former Soviet Union are seeking to directly influence the European and US political debate through NGOs, think tanks and lobbying organisations. This publication looks at how to improve the transparency and accountability of such actions. Repressive regimes that use advertising and the hosting of international events to promote themselves, are increasingly being challenged by human rights defenders through the publicity such activities bring. The publication argues that, in what is increasingly becoming a battle involving the use of soft power and information, Western institutions have been losing ground and must take action in order to meet the challenge.
Recommendations To the donor and NGO community
- Fund the creation of new, independent Russian and local language news content, news coordination and dissemination
- Provide increased funding for independent consortiums of investigative journalists
- Support in depth independent survey work in the countries of the former Soviet Union to assess the audience reach of both domestic and Russian media outlets
- Facilitate non-partisan support of Parliamentary engagement on issues relating to the former Soviet Union, including country visits To Western governments and regulators
- Track the spread of misleading and untrue content emanating from Russian sources, working with civil society to rebut it where appropriate
- Actively monitor online threats to Western based critics of regimes in the former Soviet Union
- Strengthen lobbying registry requirements, including looking to expand the scope of the UK’s statutory register and delivering the proposed formal EU lobbying register
- Re-examine the governance structures of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors To international broadcasters · Expand the range of voices asked to provided comment on Western networks · Collaborate with independent partners in the post-Soviet space to develop content
Introduction: A battle for hearts and minds Adam Hug
Events can move a debate quickly. When initially developing the idea for this essay collection in the summer of 2014 , it was clear that the role of media and social media activity originating from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the links between lobbyists and regimes from the region were issues of growing importance. However it would have been difficult to predict the extent to which much of this debate would become part of mainstream political discourse. The 2016 US Presidential Election saw allegations of Russian government directed hacking and the use of social media to influence political debate; the now ubiquitous term ‘fake news’ bandied about to encompass everything from state directed propaganda, to poor journalism or just stories that one disagrees with; and the rise of anti-establishment forces across Europe and the United States who are gaining ground both in the political debate and at the ballot box, who find common cause with political forces in Russia, all make now an important time to address these issues.
The information battle: Soft power tools
Countries in the post-Soviet space using soft power tools to influence the agenda beyond their borders is not a new phenomenon, and the flow of ideas and information is very clearly not one-way traffic with Western countries using these tools in the FSU for decades. This publication examines the ways in which the governments of FSU countries look to shape international narratives about themselves by using media, social media, advertising and supportive organisations to promote their worldview and challenge the people, institutions and ideas that oppose them.
In recent years, governments from the region have sought to influence international and Western debate to encourage investment and or tourism, to increase their international standing (or at least create a perception of enhanced prestige they can package back to a domestic audience) or to deflect or rebut criticisms about their own behaviour. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have been particularly active in attempting to promote themselves internationally in a positive light, while Georgia was an enthusiastic early adopter of Western public relations and lobbying as part of developing a distinctive national brand. Other states, particularly some of the more closed states of Central Asia, have focused more narrowly on engaging with economic stakeholders and Parliamentary groups to attempt to manage the debate on their own terms. Armenia has utilised its complicated relationship with its influential diaspora to counter-balance the influence of rivals with deeper pockets.
Russia, however, has significantly more ambitious goals for its international engagement. As a number of contributions in this publication show, it seeks to proactively change the international ideological and political environment through its use of broadcast media, both through an overt and covert online presence and through its support of organisations and institutions in Europe and beyond that share their values. It seeks to build on and subvert the style of Western values promotion practiced both during the Cold War and its aftermath, but instead of promoting liberal democracy Russia prioritises supporting ‘traditional values’ and ‘state sovereignty’ across the globe. Furthermore, this publication shows that the goal is also to discredit Western behaviour and models of political organisation, in order to blunt Western criticism of their actions on the grounds of hypocrisy and muddying the waters of global discourse through saturating the debate on particular issues with a high volume of ‘alternative facts’.