While U.S. policymakers worry about the propaganda techniques of ISIS in drawing thousands of Islamists into the fight against the West, America’s adversaries in the Arab/Muslim world as a whole, as well as Russia and China, continue to make inroads into the U.S. media market. Indeed, on Thursday in Moscow, the premier Russian propaganda channel, RT (Russia Today), is holding a conference marking its 10th anniversary as an outlet for Kremlin propaganda. President Obama’s former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is among the speakers at the event.
“RT aired its first broadcast on December 10, 2005,” says the promotional material. “Since then, the geopolitical chessboard has been rearranged and the news media scene welcomed many new voices.” However, these “new voices” are state-funded and controlled, in contrast to the privately-funded and independent news media organizations in the U.S.—which has a First Amendment—and other Western countries. The reference to the geopolitical chessboard being rearranged refers to the influence of government-financed media in Russia, China, and much of the Arab/Muslim world in changing perceptions of the United States.
The scheduled attendance of Flynn at the RT event in Moscow is alarming to those concerned about how the propaganda channel, known as KGB-TV, uses Americans and other foreigners to spread Kremlin propaganda. Flynn, who has also appeared on the Al Jazeera English channel, has been critical of how President Obama and George W. Bush have handled the so-called war on terror. He has also said the leaks of NSA defector Edward Snowden, now living in Russia and being protected by the Putin regime, have put the lives of U.S. military personnel in jeopardy.
The Kremlin channel, which says it reaches over 700 million people in more than 100 countries in English, Arabic and Spanish, is advertising the conference as an event bringing together “prominent politicians, foreign policy experts and media executives from around the world.” RT in the U.S. is carried into tens of millions of homes on major U.S. cable systems such as Comcast.
Russia Today has been described by former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhensky as “a part of the Russian industry of misinformation and manipulation,” designed to mislead foreign audiences about Russian intentions.
Another participant in the RT conference, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, known as Red Ken, recently angered victims of Islamist terrorism by claiming that the July 7, 2005 Islamist suicide bombers in England “gave their lives” to protest the war in Iraq. He is an adviser on defense issues to the British Labor Party’s new Marxist head, Jeremy Corbyn.
Other speakers at the RT event include Max Blumenthal, an anti-Israel writer who is the son of Hillary Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, and Thom Hartmann, who is paid by RT to do a regular TV show and is described by the Moscow channel as “a prominent American progressive intellectual.” For his part, Hartmann has refused to discuss how much money he is being paid by Moscow to reach a liberal audience in the U.S. with pro-Moscow propaganda. In the current presidential campaign he has been promoting socialist Bernie Sanders for president. However, four years ago RT was promoting libertarian Ron Paul for president.
Former RT anchor Elizabeth Wahl, who resigned from the channel rather than report lies, has testified before Congress that during the war in Ukraine, RT was “mobilized as a propaganda tool” and “used as a weapon to manipulate people into believing half-truths and lies, skewing reality in the Kremlin’s favor.” She added, “There was a running joke among some employees about adopting this mindset by ‘drinking the Kool-Aid.’ I saw how employees and viewers eventually drank it all up. It’s the result of being engrossed in an environment where hating America was rewarded.”
Referring to RT, Al Jazeera, China Central Television and other foreign government-sponsored television channels, Jeff Shell, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), has described the “weaponization of information” by America’s adversaries and challengers in a global information war that America seems to be losing. Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment, previously served as chairman of NBC Universal International from 2011 to 2013 and as president of the Comcast Programming Group from 2005 to 2011. The BBG is the parent organization of the U.S.-funded Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, outlets which have been starved of funds since the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Other BBG outlets include the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
S. Enders Wimbush, a former member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and former director of Radio Liberty, has commented on how “our adversaries have raised the quality of their media game significantly.” He says that rather than promote “big lies,” these organizations provide their own “context” for certain facts, in an effort “to explain, to obfuscate, through filters of their own interests why these facts are important, what they mean in the context of their own interests, how they contribute to historical justifications for particular actions, and why they are consistent with their identities, what they seek to achieve, and their visions of the future.”
Wimbush said that “networks like Russia Today, China’s CCTV, and the Middle East’s Al Jazeera have large followings, including increasingly in the United States where all broadcast. Their power is not that they can claim different sets of facts, but in their interpretation of facts in evidence. In a word, context. And their strategies for adjusting the context to resonate with different audiences show growing sophistication.”
Kenneth R. Weinstein, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, points out that these state propaganda outlets are “well-funded” and that RT and other Russian propaganda outlets spend over $1.4 billion annually on propaganda. He cites an estimate from the Columbia Journalism Review that CCTV’s English language efforts will be 19 times the annual budget of the BBC, the world’s largest news organization. He says that Al Jazeera reportedly spent $1 billion to start Al Jazeera English, and the network receives $100 million for its annual budget.
In 2013, Al Gore and his partners at Current TV sold the cable channel to Al Jazeera, financed by the Middle Eastern regime in Qatar, for a price of $500 million. The House Committee on Homeland Security refused to hold hearings into the national security implications of the transaction.
“These differing platforms target specific audiences, especially in the West, seeking to undermine the possibility of a firm and united Western response to current policy crises,” Weinstein said. In recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he added, “Social media and the Internet have proven fertile ground, not just for Russian disinformation but also for spreading Islamic radicalism, free from the more truthful filter of traditional journalism. Through social media, ISIS, itself in competition with other radical Islamist groups, projects a romanticized vision of life under the Caliphate to disaffected men and women in Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Teenagers in Britain, Turkey or Saudi Arabia may follow the dictates of radical Imams on YouTube and abandon the comforts of home for war-torn regions of Syria or Iraq.”
As bad as the situation is, the Federal Communications Commission is poised to allow the sale of major U.S. media properties to wealthy Arabs and Russians, after the ban on foreign ownership is repealed. This means the “weaponization of information” will take a new and ugly turn, with the takeover of more radio and TV stations, and cast into doubt the continued viability of such venues as conservative talk radio in the United States. After all, why would the new Arab, Russian, and Chinese owners of media properties in the U.S. want to give airtime to conservative critics of the anti-American foreign policies of America’s enemies and adversaries?