While the US and now Germany contemplate just how much influence Russia can wield over their electoral systems and media, Fiona Clark looks at how Russia has ensured the West can’t do the same to it.
“No news is true news” may well be the best euphemism for what we read in social media outlets these days. Since Donald Trump was elected as America’s new president, media and political analysts have devoted considerable time and effort in analyzing what’s fast becoming known as the “post-truth” era, asking how this could have happened, and they are pointing their collective fingers at directly at Russia.
Not only, they allege, did Russia hack the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) emails, collaborate with WikiLeaks to release unfavorable emails, and influence the FBI to drop its bombshell about reopening the investigation into Clinton just days before the vote, but it is also the source of untold numbers of false tweets and fake news stories that were systematically infused into social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to maneuver voters away from the democratic candidate.
Estimates vary on just how many tweets and fake stories were released, but some say it could be in the hundreds of thousands, emanating either from Russia’s army of shift-working trolls or the government-controlled news outlets like Russia Today or Sputnik. A group called PropOrNot, which includes researchers with military, technology and foreign policy backgrounds, identified some 200 websites and social media outlets that were routinely publishing tweets and fake stories that they traced back to Russia. They estimate the audience of those sites to be around 15 million and the number of views to be in excess of 213 million. While no one knows exactly just how many eyeballs were attracted, one thing is certain – no outside force will be doing the same on Russian territory.
Over the past few years, the Kremlin has systematically reduced access to free media and external influences in all their forms. This process started about eight years ago with the Kremlin ensuring that its oligarchs took over previously independent media outlets such as, for example, Kommersant, a business newspaper formerly owned by Boris Berezovsky, a Kremlin friend-turned-foe of President Vladimir Putin who criticized the leader until his death in 2013.
More recently, oligarchs who happened to say anything that crossed the Kremlin’s line have paid a high price. The owner of RBK, a media outlet with TV, print and online arms, published stories on the Panama Papers allegations that those close to the Kremlin had moved billions of dollars around in offshore tax-evasion schemes. He quickly found himself under investigation for tax evasion himself.
In 2012, the Kremlin successfully put in place a “foreign agents” act. This law means that any NGO’s – many of which work with media groups or advocate democratic values – must declare if they receive funding from overseas. If they do, they are labelled as “foreign agents.” Many have since shut down.
Two years later the Kremlin passed another law that affected the growing band of bloggers on social media. It has demanded that bloggers who have more than 3,000 followers must register with the country’s mass media regulator, Rozkomnadzor, and allow Russian authorities access to their subscribers’ or users’ information, which must be stored on Russian territory.
This year, in the name of anti-terrorism, legislators passed the Yarovaya Law – a collection of measures that human rights critics say are unconstitutional and infringe upon human rights. This law requires mobile phone and internet providers to store emails, texts and other forms metadata for three years on Russian territory, allow access for government scrutiny and aid in decrypting data if required.
A failure to comply with storage requirements has already seen access to LinkedIn blocked in Russia, and the company is now negotiating to get itself reinstated.
Russia, of course, has its own social-media sites and blogging platforms like Live journal and VK.com, but they’re owned by Kremlin-friendly power brokers and considered to be “controlled” in any opposition posts they may run.
The West has a history of trying to influence public opinion in Russia, but its traditional avenues are outdated and no longer relevant. Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, along with Voice of America – US media outlets designed initially to spread anti-Soviet/pro-US propaganda, have very little audience, and Russia’s concerted anti-Western government-driven campaign means that many people wouldn’t believe what they heard or read on those sites anyway.
And if the West wanted to infiltrate and exert any real influence via social media on Russian territory now, they’d find it very difficult. The doors are firmly closed and the army of trolls that serve the Kremlin’s propaganda machine will be very hard to compete with.
In this arena Putin has clearly has outmaneuvered his Western counterparts, leaving them wondering how they can catch up, how much damage has been done and how they can undo that damage. In this “post-truth” era, that won’t be easy.