A Reality Check for Russian Propaganda

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America launch a Russian-language news network

The flurries of disinformation and fake news obfuscating the current state of affairs in Russia, and the Kremlin’s activity worldwide, have not created a post-truth world, but one in which some find truth increasingly difficult to promote.

“I think we’ve given up on truth way too easily,” said Amanda Bennett, director of Voice of America. Countering the notion that facts are no longer valuable, she said: “to assume the rest of the world doesn’t understand true things and can’t sort out truth and fact… I don’t think that makes it a post-truth world, I just think it makes it more difficult to get the truth out there.”

“In a global information warzone where fake news and false narratives are the weapon of choice… honest and accurate reporting [is] the best defense against falsehoods,” said John Lansing, director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the majority of the Russian media landscape is dominated by Kremlin-controlled sources. “In this gap, this vacuum of information, Russian audiences only get one point of view,” said Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Consequently, according to Thomas Kent, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “there’s plenty of space for a new voice that is truly independent and not subject to the vagaries of ups and downs in Russia.”

In light of these conditions, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America have partnered to establish Current Time, a twenty-four-hour Russian-language news network. “Current Time is professional and independent journalism for those looking to broaden their choices in a media space dominated by Kremlin-controlled disinformation and propaganda,” said Lansing.

Lansing and Polyakova delivered introductory remarks after which Bennett and Kent joined Irina Van Dusen, director of Voice of America’s Russian service, and Daisy Sindelar, director of Current Time, for a panel discussion to launch Current Time at the Atlantic Council on February 7. Melinda Haring, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert, moderated the discussion.

“Current Time is supposed to serve as a reality check to Russian disinformation,” said Haring.

The network provides coverage of world events, political talk shows, investigative reporting, and documentary-style shows that serve to focus on daily life both within and outside Russia. The US Congress funds Current Time, which aims to reach the 275 million Russian speakers worldwide. 

The target audience of the network is young and middle-aged viewers with an open mind, said Kent. He described how surveys show that many Russian citizens are not only dissatisfied with what they see in the Russian news media, but open and receptive to other sources of information. “We’re offering an alternative,” Kent said.

Not only young Russians, but Kremlin officials take note of Current Time’s reporting. “We know that they watch us at a very high level,” said Kent. 

“In terms of the stories that we produce, we notice that live reporting is really popular,” said Van Dusen, describing how the network is expanding into live streaming on both the channel and its website, while providing simultaneous translations in Russian. This practice gives Russian audiences access to the events as they are occurring with a Russian translation “so they can see for themselves what’s going on.”

The coverage of the inauguration of US President Donald Trump on January 20 underlined Current Time’s commitment to presenting a holistic vision of life in a democracy. “We are trying to bring our viewers a chance to have a view into American life… and we try to do it in the most objective and sincere way,” said Van Dusen.

Bennett described how Russians are “extremely interested in the United States.” As a result, Current Time’s programming is “focused on the part of the American story that we know people are already interested in,” such as education, technology, entrepreneurship. “We’re not pushing people; people actually like [this reporting],” she said.

In particular, Trump presents a unique opportunity for Current Time, “because he is a fascinating person,” said Sindelar, “and he is a surprising person to come to the presidency, but as a political figure, he is less surprising to people in Russia who are used to these kinds of personalities.” Van Dusen said Current Time covers the presidency as it covers everything else, saying it provides an opportunity to explain a great deal about American government and society.

As an example, Van Dusen said that Current Time provided a five-hour Facebook Live feed for Trump’s inauguration, as well as coverage of the Women’s March the following day. The breadth of coverage “gives audiences the feeling that they are dealing with serious, trustworthy, fact-based journalism,” she said.

This kind of coverage has led to Current Time’s unintentional exportation of underlying narratives, which, Bennett said, has a powerful effect on audiences.

According to Bennett, proof of audience faith in Current Time can be determined by engagement on social media, which is the primary avenue for feedback. “People don’t share things they don’t find reliable,” she said. The flow of shared content, or content used to create a conversation, allows Current Time to measure its success not only in audience reach, but also impact, said Lansing.

Though Current Time is funded by the US Congress, Kent said it allows for a wide diversity of opinions. Further, he said, directors make final decisions on editorial policy, providing another layer of insulation from government interference.

As for trust, “if people see that our coverage of Russia rings true to them… they will believe it,” said Kent.

“If they hear Russians in the United States talking about life in the United States for them, that has an authentic ring.” Bennett added: “they find [these stories] much more trustworthy.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts:

Image: (from left) Thomas Kent, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, joined Amanda Bennett, director of Voice of America, and Daisy Sindelar, director of Current Time, to discuss the launch of the new Russian-language network at the Atlantic Council. (Atlantic Council)