How to Resist Russian Propaganda on a Tight Budget; Expensive U.S. and EU efforts are no match for a few simple techniques.

File Image of Laptop Computer, Tables and Mobile Device, adapted from image at energy.gov

(Bloomberg – bloomberg.com – Leonid Bershidsky – September 13, 2017)

The awkwardly named European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force provides the latest exercise in futility. The agency, which is part of the European Union bureaucratic machinery, has gathered several thousand examples of disinformation in the first searchable database of its size, a culmination of its work since 2015.

It’s a gold mine for connoisseurs of Kremlin-sponsored narratives. A search for the German chancellor’s name, for example, yields gems such as “Angela Merkel Offers Congratulations on a Child Marriage,” “Angela Merkel is a Fuehrer of the Fourth Reich,” “Angela Merkel Has a Complex of an East German Woman,” “Angela Merkel Took a Selfie with a Suicide Bomber” and “Angela Merkel Is the Daughter of Adolph Hitler.”

After the laughter comes a serious question: How does one debunk that kind of thing? The Task Force certainly tries. In response to the “Fourth Reich” item, published on a Czech-language site, it writes:

“Angela Merkel is a democratically elected leader, any parallel to the Nazi Third Reich is unsubstantiated.”

Game over for those sneaky Russians. Right?

When the independent media decide to wrestle with Russian propaganda, they are doing so with their own money. But this effort is funded by taxpayers.

The Task Force lives off the EU’s strategic communications budget, but it’s unclear how much it spends. In the U.S., there’s a little more transparency: The State Department’s Global Engagement Center was recently authorized to use $60 million to counteract propaganda from Russia and the terrorist Islamic State.

But all that money and effort is being wasted on documenting and reacting to Russian propaganda when the best way to resist it costs nothing at all. It’s a matter of readers like you and me adopting a few simple techniques, which I’m happy to share free of charge.

It’s pointless to fact-check individual bits of Russian propaganda, the way the East Stratcom Task Force does, or the way fact-checking operations do for Facebook. One reason is that fact-checking, predictably, has little effect on audiences whose confirmation biases are stroked by propaganda narratives. A recent Yale University study has demonstrated this with regard to Facebook’s fig-leaf effort. More research is needed, of course, but in a world of echo chambers and general mutual distrust, the results are likely to be similar. Another, more important reason is that Russian propaganda doesn’t try very hard to pretend that it’s fact-based. Even when it masquerades half-heartedly as journalism, it is, in effect, public relations — it tells stories in pursuit of broader communication goals.

A 2016 paper produced for the European Parliament by the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies contains an elegant formula for the Russian communication strategy versus the EU:

“The ‘attractiveness gap’ between Russia and the EU had to be bridged by improving Russia’s standing – mainly through the promotion of the ‘Russian World’ (Russkiy Mir) – but also by reducing that of the EU.”

The Russian propaganda outlets’ “meta-narrative” to serve that goal is, according to the institute, as follows:

“One key message depicts the West as an aggressive and expansionist entity on the one hand, and as weak and verging on collapse on the other. The EU is portrayed as close to crumbling under the combined pressure of the fiscal and migration crises. The Union is also painted as an unwieldy entity EU strategic communications with a view to counteracting propaganda 9 which is incapable of making decisions due to waves of hasty enlargements to the east. These two representations, in turn, feed into forecasts about the imminent demise of the EU, just as the Soviet Union collapsed twenty five years ago.”

The agenda versus the U.S. is similar and, in a way, derivative of the European one. The U.S. needs to be portrayed as pointlessly aggressive, messy and corrupt — not much different from Russia at its worst. As far as the Russian propaganda machine is concerned, the U.S. can’t do anything right, unless it’s playing along with the current Russian policy goals; the best outcome is if the U.S. fails at something or looks stupid. The machine will use anything – actual facts, half-truths, conspiracy theories, raw emotion — within this communication strategy. At the end of the day, it’s not important what it uses — it’s only important to understand the framework.

A lot of the counterpropaganda efforts — like the now-discredited PropOrNot project or the Hamilton 68 project – attempt to document the ragtag distribution network of Russian propaganda. But the average person who retweets RT and Sputnik is, as a rule, not a Russian agent. More likely, they are simply naive or lazy, boosting items that appeal to them without going to the trouble of looking for the original source. That, however, is exactly what one needs to do.

When confronted with a link or reference to RT or Sputnik, remember that they never break news themselves. Always check the links and references within the piece — sometimes they don’t lead directly to the original source, but the chain is never too long. It’s tedious to follow it, but it doesn’t take up too much time, and it never pays to be lazy. In some cases, you’ll find that the original source of information is obscure and untrustworthy; in others, that the Russian propaganda outlet has twisted the original story around; in others still, you’ll simply discover the same story, but written more coherently by mainstream media professionals. Finally, some links will lead to statements from Russian government officials, which you can be certain will be correctly reported. That’s the best possible finding because Russian officials openly convey the meta-narrative to the outlets they control, and the shape of the meta-narrative is useful information for anyone trying to understand the world.

Following the links, or sometimes googling quotes or numbers, is essentially what fact-checkers do before they get to the value-added part of their work, such as confirming that Merkel actually isn’t Hitler’s daughter. But they’re paid to do that part, and you aren’t. All you need to do is decide whether you’re comfortable with the original source rather than the general thrust of the story.

Finally, you need to be aware of the source of that comfort. It can be the source’s reputation in your particular filter bubble, a certain journalist’s known track record, certain details that click with what you know from your training or experience. Facts are not one-dimensional, and every fact-check needs a fact-check of its own; if you’re like most people, you won’t go to such lengths, you’ll go with trust and emotional affinity. To some, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is an authority; to others, he’s an enemy of the free world. Both groups are entitled to their opinions, they just need to ask themselves exactly why they hold them. That question is the one propaganda outlets, both Russian and non-Russian, don’t want people to ask. The answer usually lies in personal experience, and it’s extremely useful to identify it. That’s probably the hardest part of propaganda-proofing oneself — but, on the bright side, it makes one better equipped for intelligent conversation.

Once you understand the transparent Russian communication goals, follow the RT and Sputnik reports to the source and do your bit of soul-searching, you’re safe from Russian propaganda (or perhaps consciously aligned with its goals). There’s no more to it than that; it doesn’t take a staff of civil servants or think-tankers. No media literacy classes or multimillion-dollar counterpropaganda budgets are necessary. You’re welcome.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved. Article also appeared at bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-09-13/how-to-resist-russian-propaganda-on-a-tight-budget