Russian media outlets present a West that is both all-powerful and crumbling, moralizing and craven – and above all dishonest about Russia.
The newest phenomenon in international politics is Russophobia,” announced moderator and media mogul Dmitry Kiselyov one Sunday on an early June 2017 episode of “News of the Week,” a program on Russia’s largest state TV network, Channel One. It is the new anti-Semitism of the West. The Russians are the Jews of our time.”
His comments enthusiastically echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum the week before. The message is clear: It is the West seeking conflict with Russia; it is the West leading the information war. It is a reversal typical of the worldview constructed by Russian state media at home and abroad: Everything that the West claims Russia is doing is something it is doing itself.
For years Russian state media outlets have fabricated a picture of a manipulative, unfree Germany and Europe plagued by fear and terror. Whether internationally on RT and Sputnik or domestically on NTV, Russia-1, and Channel One, this view structures the opinions of millions of Russians in- and outside the country’s borders.
Fake news in this worldview is an outgrowth of Western media – lies that above all aim to discredit Russia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has even created a section of its website with the sole purpose of “uncovering fake news” about Russia. Russian state media purport to be concerned protectors of the truth – the homepage of German-language RT Deutsch’s website even presents a quiz for visitors to practice telling news from fiction called “Fakecheck: Fact or Fake?”
In March, RT English started an online project to break down news stories into their various components in order to analyze in detail what is purportedly false, including an April survey of RT viewers on their degree of concern about fake news. While the Russian state media stand for the truth and nothing but the truth, Germany, in their view, is the European leader of anti-Russian disinformation. ARD, Germany’s primary public broadcaster, is regularly cited as an example of a corrupt, manipulative TV channel. Again and again, there are Russian reports of complaints over ARD’s “propaganda” and “manipulative news presentation.” The key witness in RT Deutsch’s case is often former ARD news editor Volker Bräutigam, who labels the supposed shortcomings as “institutional.” ARD, he argues, cites only organizations and persons uncritical of the German government. In this way, they’re always on the government’s side, according to a May RT interview with Bräutigam.
RT is a master at manipulating words: When the SPD proposed “forcing” Facebook and Co. to privilege publicly-financed news sources in searches and feeds, this attempt at regulation was labeled “repression.” And when the portal CORRECTIV filed a report on the infamous exploits of a far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician, it was outright “espionage” – with RT Deutsch adding that “they spied on even her bedroom.” In RT’s world, the German state controls both media and the internet, and their “inspectors” violate individual privacy.
If anyone is manipulating elections, it is the other guy, according to a report on RT English, citing a press conference with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. The news that Russian hackers attacked Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team and released their spoils on the internet the night before the election was brushed off as the “usual” empty allegations against Russia. Russian state media claimed the source of this attack was unknown – until Putin explained a month later (in another RT broadcast) that the Russian state naturally did not participate in hacking, but that there may be “patriotic enthusiasts” in Russia who executed such an attack.
Otherwise, Russian media prefer to cite American or European politicians and publications whose statements fit their preferred view – for example, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who claimed that Russian hackers have the ability to interfere in the British elections but that there was no proof they had done so.
While such “news reports” are clearly one-sided, the citation of Western sources paints the illusion of neutrality – much like the sorting of articles barely discernible from one another in style or substance into categories like analysis, commentary, or news feigns a seriousness that is profoundly lacking. The outline suggests independence, yet the contents are deeply steeped in pro-Kremlin propaganda.
One repeated narrative is that Germany and Europe are failed democracies. Millions of euros in contributions to the CDU, FDP, and SPD parties since just the beginning of the year, “irregularities” in the North Rhine-Westphalia elections – this is how the German multi-party system is explained to RT Deutsch viewers. Other European states are hardly portrayed better. Macron and his leadership team were, in the eyes of the Russian media’s election coverage, above all laughable and inexperienced. From Macron’s egging to a former porn star’s inclusion on his party’s list of candidates – there was no embarrassment too small to make headlines in Russia. There was also detailed coverage of Macron’s connections to international business elites, which cynically presented him as their puppet.
Reported costs of institutional corruption and decay across Germany paved the way for claims that the system was collapsing under the burden of refugees. Daily RT Deutsch headlines like “Germany’s Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) Missing Thousands of Fingerprints” or “CDU Gives In: Deportations to Afghanistan Limited for Now” repeatedly suggest that German bureaucracy neither has the present situation under control nor is in a position to crack down if necessary. Late May and early June saw the addition of reports of fake bomb threats in Berlin, planned suicide bombings, and concert cancellations due to fears of terrorism.
The situation is no different across the rest of Europe, according to the Russian media. Every terrorist attack – whether “successful” or not – is documented and analyzed on repeat. The message is that the continent has become a dangerous destination. “Until recently, Europe was considered a peaceful corner of the world, enjoying both peace and prosperity. For the past two years, however, one can no longer claim the Old World is a kind of heaven on Earth,” according to Russian newspaper Lenta.ru, as cited by Sputnik. The impression they are spreading: Terrorism defines everyday life in Europe.
Another focal point is the military, which in the Russian media’s view is Germany’s central institution. For months, reports of its actual and supposed rearmament plans have been growing. Over the past few weeks, readers have been greeted with reports of “secret” plans to purchase “weaponizable drones” (according to German media outlets: rented from Israel); according to another report, due to the supposed phenomenal success of the web series “The Recruits,” the number of military applicants had already grown by twenty percent (according to Germany’s public NDR channel, there has been no measurable change).
At the same time, Russian media reports on every sign of organizational or moral weakness within the German military. The scandal over right-wing extremist Army First Lieutenant Franco A., who had created a fake identity as a refugee and apparently planned to execute a terrorist attack, was naturally a top story across Russian state media. Sputnik reported that the German military attracts right-wing radicals, and even a weekly news show on Russia-1 discussed an illicit shrine to World War II German Armed Forces discovered at an army base during the investigations.
Between Power and Powerlessness
Chancellor Angela Merkel is portrayed as both darkly determined and powerless. The tenor of these reports paints Germany as a fallen world power straying from its US partner. Merkel’s Munich “beer tent speech” and her observation that Europe needs to take its fate into its own hands dominated Russian headlines longer than any Merkel quotation in recent memory.
RT, Sputnik, and Co. read the chancellor on the one hand as convulsively attempting to improve relations with Russia, and on the other as “silently” constructing a European army – under German command, as reported by RT Deutsch, citing Foreign Policy. NATO units in Poland and the Baltic States also receive an inordinate amount of media attention.
In this way, Russia’s media transmit a view of the West in which it agitates against Russia in its media while also challenging it militarily, in which it regularly betrays its own values and is crumbling under the weight of refugees and terrorism. Western values like democracy and freedom of the press are not outright rejected, but rather pocketed and used against the West whenever possible; incidentally, it is only the West that ever betrays these values.
This is how they hope to pull the rug out from under their Western critics. Viewers and website readers are sent a clear message: How can Western politicians claim Russia propagates “fake news” and harms press freedom when they themselves wipe their feet on these ideas on a regular basis? This method leaves, at the very least, traces of confusion behind: Who is right here? Who is manipulating whom? In the end, they hope, viewers should come to the conclusion that there are different but equal versions of the truth out there. If this succeeds, it would be a Russian win that Europe would certainly need to fear.