The political and diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia have been in decline for the past decade. Geopolitical tensions between the two nations increased steadily leading to more and more political propaganda of their respective state media. This is also reflected in their government policy documents. These propaganda efforts resulted in a number of influence operations ranging from coordinated inauthentic behavior to create a false narrative to intentional spread of disinformation to undermine the political integrity of the other side. A recent article by researchers of the University of Sheffield and Bard College examined 135 journalistic pieces of American and Russian state media to better understand how their propaganda is portrayed in both countries. It’s an important contribution to better understand emerging public crisis, appropriate content policy response and future diplomacy.
The period of growing tensions between the United States and Russia (2013–2019) saw mutual accusations of digital interference, disinformation, fake news, and propaganda, particularly following the Ukraine crisis and the 2016 US presidential election. This article asks how the United States and Russia represent each other’s and their own propaganda, its threat, and power over audiences. We examine these representations in US and Russian policy documents and online articles from public diplomacy media Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and RT. The way propaganda is framed, (de)legitimized, and securitized has important implications for public understanding of crises, policy responses, and future diplomacy. We demonstrate how propaganda threats have become a major part of the discourse about the US–Russia relationship in recent years, prioritizing state-centred responses and disempowering audiences.
Make sure to read the full article titled Competing propagandas: How the United States and Russia represent mutual propaganda activities by Dmitry Chernobrov and Emma L. Briant at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0263395720966171
How does the United States influence its own citizens by the ways in which it represents the propaganda efforts of Russia at home? How is American propaganda portrayed in Russia? Contrary to popular belief the United States is actively conducting influence operations to disseminate propaganda in foreign countries and at home. Under the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, known as Smith-Mundt Act and it’s 2012 modernization amendments, the U.S. government is free to extend propaganda efforts to public broadcasters and radio stations foreign and domestic. In Russia, the situation is quite different: state-owned media, strategic use of broadcasting and information technologies are a central feature of the current government. Recent legislation aimed to pressure opposition and restrict freedom of speech and assembly are only surface examples of Russia’s soft power approach in foreign and domestic policy. President Putin defined soft power as “promoting one’s interests and policies through persuasion”, which has translated into Russian public diplomacy initiatives that use a combination of international broadcasting and web-based social networks to engage foreign publics.
Russia’s constitution declares Russia to be a democratic state with a republican form of government and state power divided between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. However, the policy changes introduced by Vladimir Putin have effectively turned Russia’s political system into a particular type of post-totalitarian authoritarianism. Similarly, the United States political system is a federal constitutional republic of checks and balances between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branch. While the United States and Russia differ greatly with regard to their political systems, their respective mechanisms, construction and response to propaganda afford valuable insights for communication researchers.
To start, it is important to understand propaganda and its variation in public diplomacy. The researchers elaborate on the intricacies of finding the appropriate terminology but suggest propaganda to be
“a process by which an idea or an opinion is communicated to someone else for a specific persuasive purpose”
Public diplomacy reaches a step further by extending a state’s policy objective to an international audience through intercultural exchanges, advocacy and international broadcasting. The researchers examined 90 articles by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and 45 articles by Russia Today through a critical discourse analysis in an effort to compare and differentiate between moral representation, reporting on government actions, actors and victims. They then parsed it with threats to national security and national identity. They found that both the United States and Russia view and portray propaganda as an external threat orchestrated by a foreign actor using conflict-related, binary language with no room for compromise. Both countries’ propaganda language widely used scientific and technology metaphors to create an impression of sophistication beyond the comprehension of average Joe. Mere exposure to this type of propaganda is assumed to be enough to rally citizens; actual persuasion was not apparently an objective for either U.S. or Russian state media.
While the United States understands propaganda as a foreign threat against the national security of the West, Russian documents use foreign to clarify the externality of influenced communications or misinformation without specific location labelling in the context of propaganda. The United States often portrays itself as ‘leader of the free world’ with the oldest free democracy whereas Russia is depicted as a morally isolated, neo-soviet autocracy. Russia often diametrically portrays the United States by its flawed political system redirecting the Russian audience to the shortcomings of American democracy and conflicting political leaders. Both the United States and Russia construct propaganda in similar ways using similar elements: (1) they present a national security threat to the state and its international reputation while (2) they reframe domestic political problems as foreign-induced, which then justifies a strong, determined state response. This fear-driven approach to portray propaganda as something that can only be mitigated by a strong government response tends to disenfranchise citizens, induces chilling effects that lead to censorship and undermine civic engagement.
As both the United States and Russia will likely continue to lace state media with its propaganda citizens can learn to be vigilant when interacting with content online, in particular if the overall messaging of the content presents itself in a binary fashion. To counter disinformation, policymakers must better communicate policy solutions and focus on media literacy and education. Lastly, government officials can contribute to decrease propaganda and polarization by reframing their political narrative through an infinite mindset with choices and compassion.