Russia’s State Media Has a Credibility Problem

The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center report noted that long before invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin was working to make Russia’s internet a powerful tool of surveillance and social control. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Maj. Travis Florio, U.S. Army, U.S. Strategic Command

Russia’s state-sponsored media is in a difficult position. The increasingly unbelievable narratives coming out of the Russian Federation regarding actions in Ukraine have created a credibility crisis for organizations like Russia Today (RT), Sputnik and the Russian News Agency (TASS), among others. The tendency of these supposed news agencies to openly deceive — while expending veracity and integrity capital as if in endless supply — is backfiring. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ukraine, where pretexts for the unjust invasion have gained little traction internationally to garner support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cause. In addition to being largely dismissed by international audiences, Putin’s news agencies are now being censored by companies like Microsoft, Meta (Facebook) and Google.

While the concept of a free press has long been considered crucial to democracy, the same cannot be said for authoritarian regimes. Ideas and news, accessible online, are a potential source of instability for governments like Russia’s, due to the potential for motivating and mobilizing the population in ways that threaten the ruling party. Russia attempts to mitigate this risk by controlling its media with an iron fist, emphasizing its preferred narratives over the truth. While misinformation and disinformation may result in a short-term gain, there are long-term ramifications in the form of lost credibility of the source. Putin’s falsehoods can only survive in information environments that he controls; when his blatant lies are challenged with facts and realities on the ground, reported by trustworthy international news sources, his narrative collapses.

Russian state media credibility
State control over media in Russia is not new. It can be traced all the way back to 1866 and the creation of the Russian Telegraph Agency (precursor to modern-day TASS). Today, it is just one of many state-run media organizations leveraged by the Kremlin to advance its propaganda. RT is another platform that serves as a megaphone for Putin’s messages. Believing he is engaged in a global information war, Putin views long-distance, contactless actions between adversaries as a primary means of achieving combat and operational goals. While this disinformation sleight of hand and bending of the truth may have worked in the past, it is not working today in Ukraine. Simply put, Russian state media is not a credible source of news — and the world knows it.

Source credibility determines the believability of the communicator, based on the receiver’s acceptance of the speaker as trustworthy. Not surprisingly, studies show that greater political persuasion is achieved when the source has greater credibility. Identifying source credibility has been complicated in the internet era due to the potential for context deficits. Even in this complicated news era, Putin has effectively obliterated his credibility, and along with it, the trustworthiness of Russia’s state-sponsored media outlets.

The credibility of Russian news agencies is rapidly diminishing, and has been for several years. This is evident in Ukraine, where years of Russian propaganda oversaturation has resulted in a desensitized population. Only 9% of Ukrainians trust Russian TV; among young people, only 2% even watch Russian TV. This likely helps to explain why Ukrainians have not accepted Russia’s invasion narratives. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 33 countries determined that less than half of adults view Russia favorably across the globe. Americans’ views of Russia are the lowest they have been in more than a decade. It is important to highlight that these polls reflect dissatisfaction with the regime, not the people, of Russia.

Russian state media censorship
Even if Russia manages to repair its damaged credibility, it faces a new problem in censorship. The ability of Russian state media to reach international audiences is dwindling due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Microsoft has removed RT’s mobile apps from its Windows apps and banned advertisements on Russian state-sponsored media. Google has banned downloads of RT’s app in Ukrainian territory and demonetized ads on YouTube. Netflix is refusing to follow Russian laws that require the addition of state propaganda channels to its service. These are all steps taken in recognition of Russia’s continued insistence on forcing its media outlets to report fake news. European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen tweeted recently that Russia’s media machine “will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war,” citing bans of RT, Sputnik and other outlets.

Even RT staff have begun to reject Putin’s narrative and supposed justification for military action in Ukraine. A recent report from “The Guardian” noted: “At least one English-language RT staff member and one frequent RT contributor in Moscow have quit the network in recent days over the editorial position on the war.” According to one RT contributor, there has “been an exodus of staff already” in light of recent events.

Putin’s reliance on using his own media networks to spread disinformation beyond Russia’s borders and to sell his agenda domestically has developed into a vulnerability. Years of false flags, disinformation, misinformation and attempts at causing confusion to create plausible deniability have finally caught up with the Putin regime. The credibility of Russia’s state media is waning, its ability to reach audiences is decreasing rapidly and Putin’s attempts to obfuscate the truth are now met with skepticism globally.

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