What It Is, Why It Matters
By Anna Borshchevskaya & Catherine Cleveland
Information manipulation is a key foreign policy tool that Russia utilizes to pursue its anti-Western agenda. Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s main propagandists, describes journalism as a warfare tactic: “If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him.
RT and Sputnik’s Middle East Coverage
The RT and Sputnik websites typically publish brief news articles and occasionally longer op-eds. The quickly published factual articles help shape media opinion primarily through click-bait titles that often editorialize otherwise neutral content.
Meanwhile, the lengthier op-eds and TV segments tend to present more overtly conspiratorial points of view, such as the video segment “The Vatican, the Masons, the CIA, and the Mafia… with Documents, Names, and Records
of Assassinations” or the op-ed “Israel Announces Its Rights; The Crimea Is Ours.” Relying on conspiracy theories to develop a sense of “revealing the truth” is a tactic RT Arabic shares with its English-language sibling.
These conspiracy theories are all the more striking in the context of RT and Sputnik’s overall concern for an appearance of professionalism to gain credibility.
A white paper on reporting during the recent Gulf crisis between Qatar, its neighbors, and Egypt, for example, a report revealed RT’s efforts to present its analysis as drawing on outside experts.
RT identified its sources as academics and analysts significantly more often than did Western media (33% Russian vs. 23% in U.S. media and 16% in British media).
This sense of respectability is also pronounced in RT Arabic broadcasting norms. RT English has adopted a style that often employs sarcasm and irony to suggest holes in a “dominant narrative” increasingly questioned by voices in the countries receiving the broadcast.
By contrast, RT Arabic relies on established media narratives—and specifically those that reinforce an anti-Western perspective. RT Arabic presenter Salam Mufasir, for instance, is representative of RT Arabic anchors.
A former Iraqi journalist who worked for the state press under Saddam Hussein until his removal and forced exile to Moscow, Mufasir hosts the show To Say the Least… with an air of pro-fessionalism and ostensible neutrality.
RT Arabic, as established before, also emphasizes local news and human-interest stories to bolster credibility. This particular programming “has been quite successful,” according to one study.
At the same time, the station sometimes diverges from Moscow’s coverage of other regional and global topics, depending on the Kremlin’s particular interest with regard to each.
Thus, to better understand Russian state messaging in Arabic, it is useful to examine its media coverage of individual countries in the region, the West, and Russia itself.
The following sections examine these topics.
Beyond RT and Sputnik
Russian interest in shaping messaging in Arabiclanguage media likely extends beyond RT and Sputnik and into the broader Internet.
Independent English-language media have thus devoted significant resources to understanding another trend in Russian state media: the repackaging of RT reporting as “independent” exposés not easily associated with the Russian platform.
Three examples demonstrate the potential effectiveness of this tactic. Red-
fish offered itself up as a Berlin-based independent documentary collective dedicated to exposing state conspiracies and hypocrisies internationally, but with an emphasis on Western states.
In the Now based itself in social media: its Facebook and Twitter sites presented content designed to appeal to millennials, parroting popular liberal criticisms of expansionism and U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
And while completely different in design, Inside Syria Media Center had the same intent: to provide pro-Russian and pro-Assad coverage of Syrian events under the guise of impartiality.
This model has also appeared in the Baltics, where the Kremlin funded outlets that appeared independent. In each instance, English language journalists laid bare the relationships between these ostensibly independent institutions and Russian state funding.
It is thus reasonable to assume that these types of “independent media” exist in the Arabic language as well, warranting deeper exploration to confirm specific instances.
Worth noting is that two of the three Russian-sponsored examples—In the Now and Inside Syria Media Center—have a particular interest in Middle East politics.
Moreover, a recent report concludes that in the aftermath of the Syrian regime’s April 7, 2018, chemical attack in Douma, a significant minority of pro-Assad Twitter narratives were “disseminated by a well-coordinated, narrowly focused state actor, almost certainly the Russian Federation.”
Similarly, ostensibly independent but sympathetic outlets can also rely on RT Arabic for content. Comparing two outlets that reprinted the August 2018 article “Washington Warns Tehran of the Biggest Mistake” demonstrates how RT Arabic copy reappears on other Arabic-language websites.
On the one hand, the blog akhbaar reposts the original article as coming directly from RT, while maintaining RT Arabic’s original source attribution of “Reuters.” In contrast, the Lebanese news website aliwaa alters the title and removes any mention of RT itself, yet leaves the body of the text unchanged.
Here, the citation of “Reuters” as a source implies that the content is taken directly from Reuters itself, rather than from RT Arabic. Sputnik’s recent partnership with al-Ahram, and RT Arabic’s earlier-outlined symbiotic relationship with Assad state media, further illustrates that RT Arabic and Sputnik are actively working to expand the reach of their material in the region, and in Egypt in particular.
Moreover, as a recent lengthy report on Moscow’s information manipulation notes, “The range of media which spread the Kremlin’s doctrine, sometimes inadvertently, continues to expand.”
Judging Moscow’s Success
Moscow has demonstrated a consistent commitment to reaching Arabic-speaking audiences, even more than it has sought Western audiences.
This is not to diminish the Kremlin’s emphasis on Western audiences, but the clear emphasis on the Middle East from the beginning is often under reported. But how successful has it been?
And what is the most appropriate definition of success? The overall debate about the success of Moscow’s propaganda and information manipulation is longstanding.
It originates at least in the Cold War and remains relatively unchanged to this day. Accurate assessment remains a challenge.
Statistics on viewership alone, discussed in earlier sections, are not necessarily a good indicator of influence, but they do offer useful insight, as do anecdotal accounts and qualitative studies. Taken together, this information gives a general sense of RT and Sputnik Arabic’s impact.
As noted earlier, the Middle East provides fertile ground for the Kremlin’s agenda—a crucial ingredient for Moscow to succeed. According to the most recent Arab Youth survey, an annual poll of eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds from across the region, 20 percent of respondents see Russia as a top ally, outranking the United States for the second year in a row.
Recent research into information manipulation suggests that propaganda efforts tend to reinforce existing views rather than form new ones, 76 and Moscow’s understanding of extant tropes in traditional Arabic-language media will probably help reinforce pro-Kremlin views, which can only damage U.S. interests.
Yet a site need not be popular to be successful—it must only provide exposure for certain key individuals to certain ideas, which they then recirculate.
Sometimes, the target is a small subsection of total potential viewers: as one lengthy recent report on information manipulation concludes, “The number of viewers doesn’t take into account the nature of those viewers: a message that reaches only 2% of the population could have a significant effect if those 2% are violent and ready to act.”
The Kremlin may not be prioritizing incitement to violence, but if its message reaches elites, it may matter more than reaching large audiences—that is how the Kremlin might define success. Moreover, RT Arabic and Sputnik Arabic output presents a clear point of view: one that directly relates to Moscow’s interests in the region, and one that is easy for readers to understand and in some cases relate to.
Researchers also note that information, whether the reader accepts its validity or not, can help to shape future understanding of events. Social media’s transformation from a personal networking space to a major source of news has also helped to dissociate information from its source.
Moreover, the Kremlin is clearly focusing on social media and the Arab world’s youth bulge, which suggests a longer game with efforts that may pay off in the future.
Whereas print media and broadcasting networks place information within the narrative context of its publisher or producer, individual articles or even summaries of articles—such as infographics—are now quickly and easily shared or republished without the branding of the original user.
This “debranding” can occur organically: a reader citing a statistic online read elsewhere, or guided by an ideological goal; smaller news sources identifying themselves as independent, but reposting articles verbatim from a state source.
As a recent RAND Corporation study notes, first impressions are very resilient according to psychologists, and because propaganda outlets are not concerned with the truth, their ability to publish quickly without fact-checking tends to color the audience’s first impressions.
Moreover, as articulated in the same study, the Kremlin is successful at using so called cluster narratives, which combine contradictory
but multiple arguments through sheer volume and variety of sources. Even if the Kremlin’s particular investment in Arabic-speaking audiences is not yielding a return proportional to effort, consistent investment in social media that reaches Arabic youth suggests this effort can pay off in the end.
Attempts by news outlets to entertain are by no means novel: sensational headlines, lurid photographs, or the scandals of whodunits reflect age-old attempts to rouse interest from media consumers.
Nevertheless, propaganda—unconstrained by the need to separate fact from fiction—will only thrive more in a media environment increasingly driven by the metrics of entertainment value.
This is true in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere. But in the Middle East specifically, this media evolution makes it easier for Moscow’s propaganda to succeed.
The West should not dismiss this influence as inconsequential.
A search for truth underpins all democratic systems, including the recognition that truth can be complicated and have different angles. As noted by Arch Puddington, a distinguished fellow for democracy studies at Freedom House, there is irony in the way certain elements of democratic systems contribute to propaganda and information manipulation.
As he puts it, “Propositions that there is no such thing as objective truth and that history is nothing more than a contest between competing narratives owe their popularity to radical theorists and even some journalists.” This issue marks a rising international challenge.
Indeed, in November 2013 the World Economic Forum warned that “the rapid spread of misinformation online” was a top-ten global trend. Yet each region presents its own unique challenges.
The following are policy recommendations on combating Russian propaganda and information manipulation in the Middle East: and information manipulation in the Middle East:
1- DO NOT DISMISS, OR UNDERESTIMATE, THE THREAT OF RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION IN THE REGION.
Study it. The threat is hard to measure, which only adds reasons to monitor and study it on a regular basis. Such committed study and analysis will be crucial to more accurate threat assessment that can facilitate appropriate responses and more effective communication strategies—ones in which the West is not always on the defensive.
2- INVEST IN BROADER TRAINING FOR REGIONAL JOURNALISTS.
For investigative and citizen journalists, many online educational resources have emerged outside traditional schools of journalism, though these are mixed in quality.
While a number of efforts to educate citizen journalists have developed in the English-speaking world, accessibility and language present barriers to their broader application.
Working both to strengthen existing training programs in the region and to improve access to outside tools can help heighten standards and expectations for media.
3- BROADCAST A CLEAR U.S. MESSAGE TO THE REGION.
One reason for RT and Sputnik’s appeal is its simplicity. Western media is often too afraid to express a clear U.S. point of view, without apologies, whether about the murderous nature of Assad’s regime or the danger of Iran’s subversive activities in the region.
As Russia expert Keir Giles has written, the requirement for Western editorial balance presents a problem: “As a result of this requirement, for example, even a report by a respected diplomatic correspondent explaining the nature of ‘hybrid warfare’ needs to include six paragraphs of Russian denial, claiming that the whole concept is a fabrication intended to discredit Russia.”
Strategic and moral clarity should be the guide.
4- THINK LONG TERM.
Propaganda and information manipulation often have cumulative effects, even as some operations are short term, responding to immediate events, such as stories about the White Helmets.
The long-term challenge is one of combating the slow erosion of values, the creation and sustenance of divisions, the escalation of tensions, and worse. There are no easy answers. The Kremlin is in this game for the long haul. The West should be too.
The authors thank Laura Fredericks and Jude Al-Qunaibit for their helpful research assistance.
Anna Borshchevsk is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. A doctoral candidate at George Mason University, she is also a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Her analysis is published widely in venues such as Foreign Affairs, The Hill, The New Criterion, the Middle East Quarterly, and Forbes.
Catherine Cleveland is a Washington Institute senior fellow and editor of Fikra Forum. She recently received a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago.