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In one of those very heated discussions that take place among very good friends on WhatsApp, a friend of mine sent me an article about the most controversial topic in the networks at the moment, Ukraine.
The news published by a Colombian national outlet said: “A video is circulating in social networks showing how a missile hits a residential building in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, in which it was pointed out that the projectile came from the Russian Army, however, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied it”.
The rest of the news item proceeded to explain a plausible reason as to how a Ukrainian missile could have hit a residential building in Kyiv: Ukraine has medium-range anti-aircraft missiles called Buk-m1, following the heat trail of a Russian drone, it hit a civilian building in its path, leaving six people injured and 80 neighbors evacuated.
Ignoring the fact that the primary source was, conveniently, the Russian Ministry of Defense, I was surprised at how quickly a Colombian media outlet had managed to confirm even the type of missile.
What my friend did not know was that I had spoken to a journalist who had been on the scene, who in turn spoke to the authorities who attended the emergency after the explosion.
My source’s version did not agree at all with that of the Colombian media. My contact referred to a Russian light missile and never mentioned any drone. And the Ukrainian authorities spoke of 3 people seriously injured, 150 evacuated, but so far they had not revealed the number of dead.
I really could not understand how a Colombian media could consider the information coming from Russia reliable, while people in Kyiv, Ukraine, were just making an assessment of the situation.
Suddenly I saw that above the text it said “With information from Actualidad RT”, i.e. Russia Today. For those who don’t know, RT is a multinational television company wholly controlled by the Kremlin.
What is RT and how does the Russian propaganda apparatus work?
Although this TV outlet sells itself in a friendly manner and has gone viral for sharing cat videos and other current news—without any political content—to gain airplay on the networks, this site plays a vital role in the Russian propaganda apparatus which is to wash Moscow’s, and particularly Vladimir Putin’s, hands.
Since 2014, RT has played a key role in the Russian war strategy, spreading biased or simply false information. The media plays a key role in Russian military doctrine, its functions ranging from maintaining government support during a conflict, to simply spreading purposefully false information both to avoid bad press and to mislead the enemy.
Maskirovka, or the deception doctrine of the Russian Armed Forces, basically consists of the use of disinformation to achieve state objectives, involving both the dissemination of fake news and the false movement of troops to the front. The goal is to keep the opposing side as uninformed as possible about what is happening from the Russian side.
Although this military doctrine comes from the Soviet era and was used very successfully during World War II, in the world of social networks, press outlets such as RT play a key role.
Former RT anchor Liz Wahl stated in a 2015 interview, “We can confidently say that Russian media has been instrumental in manipulating the information space when it comes to Ukraine,” denouncing the role played by the Russian propaganda apparatus when the conflict was centered on the Donbas.
The narrative of RT and other media has focused on portraying the Ukrainian government and the United States as instigators of the conflict, has tried to draw a kind of (genocidal-like) persecution of the ethnically Russian population by Ukraine. It has also accused the Ukrainian Armed Forces of being solely responsible for violating ceasefires and called Western media claims about Russia’s intentions to annex Ukrainian territory paranoia and anti-Russian propaganda.
The Russian media strongly denied the Kremlin’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and when troops were spotted on the border they dismissed any warning signs as merely a military exercise.
Once Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula, RT and the rest of the propaganda apparatus, changed the narrative and called the invading army a “peace force” that was there to guarantee the results of the referendums in Crimea and the Donbas, or at least that was one of the explanations given by the media to justify the invasion.
“If evidence comes to the ground that is not favorable to the Kremlin, then you have to change your narrative,” says Wahl, who explains that “It’s not necessarily that they are trying to convince the audience about a particular position all the time […] It’s more just trying to start confusion so that people really don’t know what is going on.”
“If they publish competing theories immediately; it takes a while for Western journalists who want to find out the facts to debunk them. Then, they will publish that narrative right away, and by the time it is debunked, it has already created an initial impression, and initial impressions are important,” Wahl concludes.
How does RT intend to cover up for Russia during the invasion of Ukraine?
This shift in narratives was especially evident in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine. One example was the case of journalist Inna Afinogenovna of “Ahí Les Va,” a Latino-targeted opinion channel funded by RT.
A month before the invasion, an incautious Inna was calling the Western media’s concerns about Russia invading Ukraine ridiculous.
A month later, we see an Inna apologizing to her audience, and claiming that Russia was forced to intervene in Ukraine, clarifying that this for both them and the Putin government was the least desirable alternative. In the end Inna says that the statements made in her program are not intended to benefit anyone.
It is very likely that Inna really did not know anything about the invasion, as Russian journalists also rely on official information coming to them from this conflict.
Russia has a Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, which, as its name suggests, is in charge of reviewing and regulating what is being published by the media in the country.
Through a statement, this agency has been informing the press media since February 24 “that when preparing their materials and publications on the conduct of a special operation in connection with the situation in the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, they are obliged to use the information and data received by them only from official Russian sources”.
In other words, Russian media cannot quote independent journalists who are in the area, or sources that do not come, basically, from the Kremlin itself or the Armed Forces, as they would face penalties exceeding 5 million rubles ($45,000) and their materials would be blocked from going online.
For these reasons, information about the war coming from RT and other Russian media is unreliable. In Western democracies, the media are free to choose who to interview or how to present information. If a person does not like one media outlet’s interpretation of reality, they can decide another with a different editorial board. Something basic that is expected where there is freedom of the press.
Economist, writer and liberal. With a focus on finance, the war on drugs, history, and geopolitics // Economista, escritor y liberal. Con enfoque en finanzas, guerra contra las drogas, historia y geopolítica