New French President Emmanuel Macron received overwhelmingly positive reviews for saying that Russian state-owned media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik "behaved like deceitful propaganda." Further, he said it with Vladimir Putin standing next to him.
President Macron, however, understated the case. RT and Sputnik are even more insidious. Acting as if they were legitimate news sources and wrapping themselves in the language of principles we hold dear – like a free press and freedom of speech – and often serving as propaganda, they both subvert those same principles and make it harder to distinguish their news from their political goals.
RT and Sputnik are the "little green men" of news, the public face of "grey zone conflict." They are designed to sow confusion and undermine societal norms. Their limited real news coverage allows them to parade their propaganda as journalism. The American and European public and media agencies should loudly call out RT and Sputnik for what they are — and refuse to treat any of their reporting as legitimate.
By way of background, the "little green men" were armed fighters who bolstered Russian-sympathizing separatists in Ukraine. They were something of a geopolitical masterstroke. They managed to give the Russian separatists the strength they needed to spark a full-on civil war, while creating some ambiguity as to whether Russia was directly responsible. As Russia was at least arming the little green men — and probably giving them direct orders — Russia gained leverage in the conflict.
Ultimately, Russia annexed Crimea, a region of Ukraine, and weakened an adversarial neighbor. All while being able to feign innocence.
Russia has mastered aggressive actions that leave ambiguous whether they are acts of war. They prefer actions — like cyber-hacking — that are defined by their ambiguity. As Hal Brands of the Foreign Policy Research Institute put it, grey zone tactics are "conducted in ways . . . meant to make proper attribution of the responsible party difficult to nail down. Grey zone challenges, in other words, and ambiguous and usually incremental aggression."
RT and Sputnik are the media equivalent — meant to provide enough substantive journalism and odes to free speech to give their propaganda the patina of actual news coverage. To give them their due, they have done some stories that, if not Pulitzer caliber, are perfectly adequate. RT’s story on President Trump asking the Supreme Court to uphold its travel ban is ordinary. It wouldn’t be out of place in a rundown of the day’s news. It’s coverage of Elon Musk leaving President Trump’s Economic Advisory Board in protest of the president’s pulling out of the Paris climate agreement is indistinguishable from countless other reports.
RT and Sputnik also attempt to appropriate fundamental principles of journalism. RT’s tagline is "question more," a naked attempt to steal the mantle of journalists’ duty to ask hard questions of those in power. RT’s response to Macron’s charge was equally cynical, saying the French President calling RT propaganda "threatens both freedom of speech and journalism at large." By wrapping themselves in fundamental principles, RT and Sputnik both protect themselves — as if any questioning of their journalistic credibility is an attack on free speech — and sully the good name of skepticism and free expression. After all, how much could the First Amendment be worth if all it does is protect propaganda?
Whenever accused of being propaganda, RT inevitably says the accuser doesn’t provide evidence for his charge, so let’s review. RT has had two journalists quit on live on air, because they couldn’t keep "whitewashing the actions of Putin." They’ve had noted "journalist" Steven Seagal call Putin "one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader, alive today." That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It is always tempting to respond to grey zone tactics by ignoring them, pretending they are small annoyances, and hoping they go away. Yet grey zone practitioners depend on exactly that response. Sweeping it under the rug encourages more aggressive behavior.
Rather, such tactics must be met head on. Commentators and journalists must loudly call out RT and Sputnik for what they are, whenever they get the opportunity. Respectable experts must refuse to appear on RT’s shows or talk to Sputnik’s "reporters." Private entities must refuse to credential them or let them cover events. Everyday citizens must not share or cite RT or Sputnik stories. Some even support kicking them out of the country. I wouldn’t go that far — if only because it would allow them to go to the Russian audience and say "see, America doesn’t really believe in free speech" — but that is hardly an endorsement of their journalism.
Little green men are insidious. They can poison a society. Russia Today and Sputnik are no different.
Neal Urwitz is the Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a defense and national security think tank in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in media and congressional relations, having also worked for Fortune 500 companies on crisis communications and policy matters. He writes regular commentaries on the state of media in America. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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