Cold War No More: The West’s Obsolete Media Diplomacy Towards Russia

Stanislav Budnitskiy is one of the ten 2016 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar, an annual event co-organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and the American Austrian Foundation. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2016 Seminar discussions

Since the unfolding of the Ukrainian crisis in early 2014, Western governments and alliances have been ramping up their communication capabilities to counter Russia’s information campaign and affect the “hearts and minds” of the Russian public, as the Cold War-era public diplomacy mantra prescribes. This media policy is rooted in anachronistic communication paradigms of information scarcity, in which information is limited and logistically hard to access and a hypodermic needle model of media effects that suggests that the receiver passively accepts the sender’s message. Today, there is neither an absence of information—even within Russia’s increasingly restricted media landscape—nor would Russian audiences readily embrace the Western message. Establishing numerous media initiatives in the West to supposedly challenge Russia’s narrative is simplistic, wasteful, and unproductive.

Russian foreign broadcasting was the topic of an engaging debate during the panel on strategic narratives at the 2016 Milton Wolf Seminar. The conversation quickly veered into a Cold Waresque framing of the issue, in which subversive Russian propaganda, which the Kremlin presumably deploys to divide the West and undermine the liberal-democratic order, needs to be countered with objective, truthful, and benevolent information emanating from the European capitals and targeting both Western and Russian audiences. The normative dichotomy of Russian propaganda versus Western information, coupled with an unwavering belief in the power of words to foster regime change in Russia has been the foundation of Western media diplomacy over the past few years. This information policy, however, fundamentally misunderstands the domestic realities of Russian society and politics—and is rooted in theoretical paradigms long discarded by media and communication scholarship.


Russia Learns to “Play the Media Game”                

Over the past two years, Russia’s international media became a media story itself. The Kremlin’s media offensive is said to “weaponize” information—a vague and highly politicized term that nevertheless came into vogue among critics of Russian media efforts—for its geopolitical purposes. Military tendentious lingo aside, Russia has indeed deployed several communication channels to amplify its voice in the global media sphere. Alongside the well-produced media in English and several other languages openly funded by the Kremlin, such as RT television channel (formerly, Russia Today), staunchly pro-Kremlin users—whose connection to the country’s governing regime was quickly exposed—have filled the comments sections of major Western news outlets. In comparison, less than a decade ago during the 2008 Georgia-Russia War, Russia’s overwhelming military domination starkly contrasted with its informational humiliation. Commenting on Russia’s failure to defend its position in global media, The New York Times wrote that, “for all the government’s success at managing the news in Russia, it has seemed ill prepared to press its case internationally,” while the BBC observed that Russians “have not yet learned how to play the media game. Their authoritarian government might never do so.”

Russia’s foreign media apparatus has, in fact, grown as part of a consistent information strategy by the Kremlin that dates back over fifteen years. This policy was first outlined in 2000 after Vladimir Putin’s ascendance to presidency in the “Information Security Doctrine” and the “Foreign Policy Concept.” This two-pronged strategy strove to (1) establish control over the domestic public sphere and (2) construct a foreign broadcasting system to convey Russia’s views and policies to international audiences.

Learning lessons from its war with Georgia, Russia introduced major editorial and structural changes to its international broadcasting after 2008. Editorially, the focus moved from the promotion of a positive image of Russia by telling the world of its successes to a much more systematic and consistently anti-Western, anti-corporate, and anti-establishment narrative of world events from Russia’s standpoint. Tellingly, Russia Today, a sleek television channel at the forefront of Russia’s media efforts, was rebranded into a non-descript RT. By 2014, the global media were already providing alerts of Russia’s “new soft power onslaught” and explaining “how Russia is winning the propaganda war.”


Western “Antipropagandist” Media Diplomacy

Western powers responded to Russia’s post-Euromaidan media surge by creating more media institutions to counter the Kremlin’s message. These efforts were directed at several audiences: the Western world, the Russian diaspora in former Soviet republics, and—the focus of this essay—the domestic Russian population. Although not all of these initiatives materialized, even in theory they provide a glimpse into the logic of the Western political establishment. They betray a presumption that more mediatization and branding are a way to resolve deep-rooted and long-standing social and political issues. This approach lacks nuance; it does not take into consideration Russia’s socio-political context, failing to understand, for instance, the reasons behind Putin’s genuine popularity and the unpopularity of the Western liberal-democratic model among most Russians.

For example, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, and the UK circulated a media action plan for countering Russia’s information among the European Union capitals, which encouraged the European community to “influence behaviour and attitudes amongst key audiences. Not just to increase our ‘brand visibility.” The initiative was meant to sway the opinions of Russian and East European audiences and present EU member states as exemplary democracies. Similarly, the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, under the auspices of the Polish government, launched an online analytical platform in English and Russian called The Intersection Project: Russia / Europe / World, “With a goal of bridging the gap between Russia and the Western world.” The Prague-based Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, administered by the US government Broadcasting Board of Governors, created a Russian-language online multimedia project Current Times that focuses predominantly on the post-Soviet space. Founded with assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, ARU TV, a self-professed “first antipropagandist Internet channel” based in Estonia and broadcast in Russian, gave a platform to Russian liberal commentators. Ukraine (with financial assistance from the US and EU) has been working on establishing Ukrainian Tomorrow, an English language international broadcasting multimedia platform intended to deliver the Ukraine’s first-hand story to the world. These are but a few examples. The very number of newly established media outlets directed at countering Russia’s narrative suggests a set of competing agendas and interests of individuals, organizations, and nations—not a coherent, coordinated, and thought-out policy that could live up to a grand strategy.


Yesterday’s Theory, Today’s Policy

A plurality of voices is a vital sign of a healthy democracy. From this perspective, the flourishing bouquet of Western-supported media initiatives that mushroomed after the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis should be celebrated. However, the rationale behind establishing these outlets is first and foremost geopolitical, not informational: like any public diplomacy institution, these media outlets advance their respective nations’ or regional organizations’ foreign policy agendas. Importantly, this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach also rests on two outdated communication paradigms: information scarcity and a hypodermic needle model of powerful media effects.

Information scarcity presumes that audiences have limited or no access to alternative sources of news. This was the raison d’être during the Cold War for the establishment of BBC and Radio Free Europe shortwave Russian-language broadcasts, which provided some of the very few sources of information behind the Iron Curtain not censored by the Communist authorities. In the present-day attention economy—where information is not simply abundant but overwhelming—getting audiences to pay attention to a particular source or piece of information—rather than simply providing information—is the main goal. Although the media environment in the 2010s is very different when compared to, say, the 1970s, the rationale for these recent media diplomacy efforts remains the same –to fill the void created by Russian domestic censorship and provide information that is supposedly otherwise unattainable.

Russia has indeed demonstrated a pattern of shrinking media freedoms over the past fifteen years. Mainstream television channels and print media fell under the Kremlin’s control within a few years of Putin’s coming to power at the turn of the century. After Putin returned for a third presidential term in 2012, amid a series of online-facilitated mass opposition rallies, the Kremlin turned its attention to shaping the online narrative. In 2016, Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 148 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. Most recently, in May 2016, the editorial board of RBC, the last remaining major independent media holding famous for its investigations into elite corruption, resigned in full after weeks of pressure from the authorities. Alternative information in Russia is decreasingly available—even online, which until recently remained relatively free of direct governmental pressure. As alarming as this trend is, the situation is profoundly different from Russia of thirty years ago.

A myriad of blogs, YouTube channels and videos, niche online and print publications, as well as some larger radio stations and TV channels provide numerous choices to any Russian who seeks alternative or critical viewpoints, from any side of the political spectrum. Admittedly, however, these outlets are not as readily available as government-controlled major television channels, which are only a click away and remain the primary source of news in Russia, even among frequent online users.

The issue then is not so much scarcity of information and lack of access but rather lack of desire among the population to access alternative or critical information. A 2015 survey by CGCS and the Russian Public Opinion Research Center of Russian attitudes towards the internet found that 45% support censorship of online foreign media and 39% of any foreign websites; 42% believe foreign countries are using the internet against Russia and its interests, and 24% think the internet threatens political stability. Respondents also listed the Russian government (42%) and the Russian security service (41%) as trusted organizations for internet regulation.

These figures contradict the techno-deterministic narrative that equates the spread of technology across borders (from the telegraph and the telephone, to the television, to the internet) with the spread of democracy, progress, and human rights. This normative teleology suggests that digital technologies will carry the self-evident truth and bring about an inevitable and irreversible dawn of the global liberal-democratic age: the audiences only need to be exposed to the message to wholeheartedly embrace it. In this vein, the Current Times, for example, claims to “provide objective, exacting, and impartial information, based on facts”—while being fully funded by the US government as part of its foreign policy agenda. This unwavering modernist belief in the very existence and power of objective truth is coupled with a long-obsolete hypodermic needle theories of powerful media effects. Put simply, the theory implies that mass media have a direct and immediate effect on the audiences.

Developed in the 1930s in academia, the theories moved into government during the immediate post-World War II period with Wilbur Schramm’s and Daniel Lerner’s work for the United Nations. However, by the 1970s, communication scholars largely abandoned the idea of powerful media effects. Instead, they advocated active audience models, which recognized the agency of the audience to variously interpret media messaging they consumed. One such theory that complicates a linear understanding of how audiences react to mass media is Stuart Hall’s famous encoding/decoding model introduced in 1973. An encoder is the sender of the message, a decoder – the receiver. The model proposes that, instead of the sender à message à receiver, this process consists of four stages: production of a message, circulation of a message, consumption of a message, and reproduction of a message (what one does after interpreting the message). Hall also suggested that there are three positions in which a receiver can decode a message: dominant-hegemonic (accepting the message), negotiated (partly accepting and partly rejecting the message), and oppositional (rejecting the message). Although communication theory has long discarded theories of powerful media effects in favor of active audience theories, the former continue to underlie much of today’s governmental media diplomacy.

Applied to the West-Russia information contestation, the encoder/decoder model suggests that Western information strategy, where “the truth” simply needs to be broadcast to presumably information-hungry Russian audiences who will then promptly enact political change domestically is simplistic, if not entirely misguided. Even as Russia’s independent media sphere is shrinking under pressure from the Kremlin, the population is no more likely to want or accept the liberal-democratic message originating from Western media outlets—that is, even if they are aware of these outlets’ very existence and are able to access their content.


Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to presidency in 2000, Russia has pursued an increasingly authoritarian media policy. By the mid-2000s, most mainstream television and print outlets effectively came under the Kremlin’s control. After 2012, the online public sphere, too, has come under forceful pressure from the government. Starting with the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, Russian state media have displayed unprecedented levels of bias, outright lies, and misinformation. The gradual dismantling of media freedoms and independent media institutions has come to be one of the pillars of the Kremlin’s political framework and will have dire long-term consequences for the development of democratic institutions and practices in Russia. This dynamic is dangerous and justifiably needs to be criticized by the academic, media, and political communities.

And yet, communicating unsought information from abroad that the Russian population generally rejects is unnecessary, if not wasteful. Still, Western media diplomacy efforts determinedly, if simplistically, take as an axiom that Russians only lack access to “the truth”—that once it reaches them, they will wholeheartedly embrace it. This is simply misguided. Western-based Russian-language media outlets are preaching to a small group of the converted and are completely marginal within Russia’s media and political environment—with no realistic prospects of expanding their reach. In addition, Western media outlets aimed at the Russian public serve as a convenient target for Kremlin propagandists who spin these media’s work as an example of information warfare waged against Russia.

A political change in Russia will come not from foreign-based Russian-language journalists and commentators, whose often radical remarks and opinions raise eyebrows even within Russia’s own liberal circles, but from domestic democratic movements supported by the majority. If and when the change will come is another question, but present-day Western media diplomacy rooted in a misunderstanding of Russia’s domestic socio-politics and anachronistic communication theories will certainly not bring it any closer.


stasStanislav Budnitskiy is a PhD Candidate in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. In 2016, he was a Visiting Scholar with the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a Research Assistant with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Stanislav’s primary research bridges Internet governance and nationalism studies, broadly arguing for critical cultural approaches to digital technologies. His other research interests include cultural globalization, nation branding, mediatized public diplomacy, and Russian media and politics. Stanislav holds master’s degrees in Media Management from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and in Nationalism Studies from Budapest’s Central European University. Stanislav is an alumnus of the IREX Global UGRAD and Stanford US-Russia Forum academic exchange programs. Prior to beginning doctoral studies, Stanislav worked as a freelance journalist and producer for Russian and Western media. Twitter: @sbudnitsky


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