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Russian lice. Why the world should ban Kremlin media

From inciting genocide in Ukraine to amplifying racial tensions in the US. It is time to stop the Russian disinformation machine disguising itself as the free media.

It was a long road between August 2014 and February 2022, from the initial ban of Russian state-owned and state sponsored TV channels in Ukraine to the European Union following suit. The Kremlin used these eight years fruitfully: influencing Brexit, spreading disinformation about COVID vaccines, covering its own aggression against Ukraine as a so-called “civil war”. All while the European Union, which includes seven of the top ten World Press Freedom Index countries, has been exhausting every possibility to fight Russian disinformation. 

An example of false narratives spread by Russian state-owned and state sponsored TV channel.
Screenshot from RT / The Guardian

There were dedicated fact-checking platforms, cooperation with social media, new regulations. In addition to media literacy itself, which is incredibly high in Western Europe. Nevertheless, in the end the EU came to the historical decision — ban of the Russian state-owned media. 

On February 27th Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced: «The state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our Union.» Ten months later, in December 2022, the EU not only did not regret its decision but decided to suspend four more Russian channels. 

Now the world should follow. 

In the Army now

Russia Today was founded in 2005 to, at least officially, broaden the world’s view of the Russian Federation. As the authors put it during the presentation, they wanted to be more than ‘communism’, ‘poverty’ and ‘snow’. This approach lasted almost three years, until Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and Russia Today changed its name to obscure connection with its own country. Not at all suspicious of the international broadcaster. 

The new incarnation, called simply RT, lost interest in Russia’s internal affairs and instead found a new passion: anti-Western conspiracies. From 9/11 as the inside job to the CIA standing behind the Arab spring, RT was reaching new heights in disinformation and success. In 2013, this Russian media became the first ever TV channel to hit one billion views on YouTube. 

At the same time came the Gerasimov Doctrine. New head of the Russian Army in February 2013 declared a new strategy of war: «…The informational space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy.» In layman’s terms, the media became another weapon in Russia’s arsenal. 

And the Kremlin wasn’t waiting to deploy it. During the initial attack on Ukraine in 2014, Russian media were working overtime to produce stories of crucified children, Nazis business cards and Russian speaking slaves as a means of payment to Ukrainian soldiers. Anything to justify its crimes (like MH17), divide Ukrainians, blunt international response and establish an informational bridgehead for the full scale invasion to follow. 

In November 2014, Russian TV made an infamous piece about Ukraine soldiers,
who took part in a war because they were promised «two slaves» each.
Screenshot from Pervyi Kanal

In 2022, state-owned media became an integral part of the Russian war effort. They dehumanize the enemy before attacks. Exaggerate success during operations. And then help to soften inevitable defeats, as well as cover war crimes. In Ukraine, it has already happened dozens of times. RT reported about the full blockade of Kyiv and full retreat from Kyiv within four days. Sorry, not a «retreat», but «drastically reduced military activity», as RT put it. Also, dead bodies in Bucha were «killed by Ukrainians/were just actors/were photoshopped», according to RT. The Kremlin has yet to decide. 

In the case of Ukraine, the role of Russian state-owned media is crystal clear because of its Orwellian nature. They literally cannot call their war «war». But the Kremlin’s hybrid battles do not end in Ukraine. RT has almost twenty different bureaus around the world and Putin uses all of them, as well as other Russian media, as a weapon of mass disinformation. 

Lie like a Russian

Spin the globe and you wouldn’t have a problem finding a country where Russia is trying to undermine the government, foster some kind of division or at least spread anti-Western lies. Especially in the Global South.

Here is, for example, some of the Russian informational operations in Africa, put together by Africa Center for Strategic Studies. It includes discreditation of the High Court of Kenya, laying the foundations for military coups in Mali and Niger, promoting xenophobia in South Africa, and interfering in at least four different elections. All in the last three years.

Map of Russian disinformation.
Visualization: African Centre for Strategic Studies

In the Middle East Kremlin media have spent the last few years praising Russian intervention in Syria and fueling already well established anti-Western narratives. Since February 2022, Russian propagandists have only increased their influence in the region. Nadia Oweidat writes for Fikra Forum, an initiative of the Washington Institute: «On Twitter, for example, merely typing «Ukraine» in Arabic (اوكرانيا) yields a slew of overwhelmingly pro-Russian messaging». Another perspective could be found in Deutsche Welle: «In Syria, the pro-regime people all believe the US is firing rockets into Russia and Russia is just defending itself.» RT Arabic generates 50% more content on Twitter than Al Jazeera itself. 

And still, it is not as formidable as the Actualidad RT in Latin America, which has three times more audience engagement than its USA counterparts. Deutsche Welle reports that for establishing its media presence in the region Russia used the 2018 football World Cup. Because why shouldn’t FIFA trust major sport events to authoritarian governments? In the last two years the Kremlin scored in Latin America at least twice — with COVID vaccine disinformation and anti-Western sentiment. The US State Department concluded that the Russian vaccine campaign to promote its own Sputnik V and demonize alternatives «undermines the collective global effort to end the global pandemic.» And as for Russian aggression, according to the Carnegie Endowment, «many Latin American voters believe NATO is as much responsible for the war as Russia». 

In the United States harmful Russian disinformation has a decades long history. In the 1980s, for example, Moscow ran a whole campaign about AIDS, claiming that it was an American biological weapon. This fake was so successful that it caused very real political problems for the US, and what’s much more important, ended up costing thousands of innocent lives. Now the Kremlin is doing the same with coronavirus. All while actively amplifying racial, gun, immigration and LGBTQ+ tensions in the US.

Stop me now

It is time to ban Russian state-owned and state sponsored media. Stop their broadcasting and delete their presence from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other popular social platforms. 

Foremost, the Kremlin media have nothing to do with journalism or free speech. The US Department of State Global Engagement Center calls RT and Sputnik «key instruments of state disinformation and propaganda» and also emphasizes «stark differences» between their goals, transparency, and decision-making processes with those of journalistically independent media. RT, Sputnik, NTV, Rossiya 1, REN TV, Pervyi Kanal — they all are just prolonged arm of the Russian government and, according to the Gerasimov Doctrine, war assets. Banning them is more similar to expelling diplomats or spies, than dealing with the media. 

One of the best known russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov.

Precisely because of that, typical media instruments are so ineffective against Russian state-owned channels. Fighting this kind of disinformation with media literacy and fact checking is as effective as fighting drug syndicates with social ads. Of course, there are public health campaigns, but also heavy drugs are just banned. And nobody finds that patronizing, because it is obvious that private citizens cannot defend themselves against organized crime. 

The Russian disinformation machine also has a centralized structure — everything being planned, funded and controlled by the Kremlin. And its goals and their consequences are criminal. Russian state-owned media literally incite genocide of Ukrainian people

Could you trust the very same outlets to work in your country? «I believe that this disinformation is one of the biggest threats that our democracy faces today […] This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy,» said US senator Jeanne Shaheen already five years ago during «The Scourge of Russian Disinformation» hearings. On the same hearings, senator Cory Gardner stated that Russia’s goal is “to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU.”

And it is not some genius scheme. Russia just took a bunch of state agents and put the label «media» over them for protection. Ukraine uncovered their true nature in 2014, a few years too late, because Russia had already planted its narratives. For the EU it took another eight years and the largest war in Europe since WWII to recognize the scale of the threat. 

Now it is not a question of «if» but rather of «when» the rest of the world is gonna ban Russian disinformation media. Let us all hope that the answer won’t be again «too late».