Sopho Kirtadze

Information War: disinformation corrupts the internet in Russia’s favor

The Internet age has been subverted by the ability to easily and quickly manipulate facts, images and people

Mikhail Osokin’s 7 p.m. news broadcast on April 3, 2001 was the first of its kind on Russian television and the last. The channel that aired Osokin’s program, NTV was under attack by the Putin-led government, Osokin said to the camera. Behind him stood the network’s journalists, producers, cameramen and technicians, completely filling the large studio space as part of a dramatic live protest against the channel’s change in management. The network’s staff was uprising against the forced replacement, and arrest, of its owner in favor of a new majority shareholder: Gazprom, Russia’s government-owned and controlled, oil and gas giant. In the following days, a handful of journalists quit on air and at some moments the channel’s broadcasting was symbolically disrupted by footage from the television program “The Law of the Jungle.”

From that day NTV, which stands for Independent Television, was never the same. Controlling what Russians see on television was a crucial step for Vladimir Putin to consolidate power in a country that spans 11 times zones. After NTV, other channels, newspapers, newswires, web platforms and radio stations followed what became a predictable pattern of closings, firings, the occasional murder of a reporter, and shifting ownership that has brought virtually all media with singular exceptions under the government’s control or under partial ownership by a government-controlled energy company or bank.

Today NTV exists only in name but its programming is the kind that can be found on any other government-controlled channel. Militant anti-western rhetoric and fervent patriotism are used to build up the country’s vision of its president as a benevolent leader and the country as a formidable global power. False stories are mixed with real reports in varying propositions and when TV channels are caught lying, the blame is quickly shrugged off with the words, “the West does it too.”

From Ukraine to Syria and even the United States during this past election, the Russian media now has a proven track record of manipulating and twisting information. Western government officials agree this is a threat, but they are left scratching their heads and without a solution. The newly set up “strategic communication” task forces in the EU and in NATO are trying to address the spread of false information from Russia, but the result is a media blitz and increased polarization of news around west and east.

The age of total media freedom that was supposed to accompany the Internet seems to have been subverted by the ability to easily and quickly manipulate facts, images and people. In the age of disinformation, does the sheer volume of messages just give preference to whoever is loudest? Is it possible to confront disinformation without becoming a disinformant yourself? Or does the Russian media in fact offer viewers something they can’t get elsewhere?

Follow this current to find out.

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