How to Flood Putin’s “Information Desert”

On March 3rd—a week after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and hours before his criminalized government independent reporting on the war—a Russian-language video started to circulate, offering an eerie glimpse of the era that had begun. In a series of short interviews on the streets of Russian cities, pedestrians reacted to news photos of the devastation in Ukraine of a kind not allowed on official airwaves. A fifty-ish woman wearing cat’s-eye glasses recoiled from the pictures, and declared, “I support Putin.” A young man in a black parka, choosing his words carefully, said, “I would rather not talk about it, because it can be dangerous here. I’d rather abstain. I’m for peace. I don’t want war.” But the most common reaction was a tone of genuine bewilderment as expressed by a middle-aged man in a black cap, who laughed nervously and said, “Putin couldn’t do this. Invade Ukraine?” He peered again at photos of a bombed-out building and of a woman’s bloodied, bandaged face, and added only, “It’s not what they are saying on the news. I didn’t hear that Putin sent troops to start a war.”

The video—which was widely spread, racking up at least sixteen million views—was not the product of local YouTubers or locale on Telegram. It was a piece of journalism by Russian freelancers working for Nastoyashee Vremya, or Current Time, a twenty-four-hour Russian-language television and digital channel that has broadcast from Prague since 2017—and which is funded by the US Congress. Part of a system that traces its roots to the Cold War, Current Time is a product of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in coöperation with the Voice of America, two pillars of the US Agency for Global Media, a branch of the American government that has grown over the decades to encompass five news networks and a technology incubator. (Though it is tempting to assume that these are propaganda outlets—and the Trump Administration attempted to make them exactly that—anyone who has tuned in recently that knows their news programs often cover negative features of American life. Their purpose is more fundamental; as the agency puts it, they seek to provide “unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted.”)

In the decades since the end of the Cold War, Voice of America and its lesser-known partners have struggled, at times, to make a case for their existence. In 2020, the conservative magazine National Review asked why taxpayers were “shelling out $200 million a year for VOA in an Internet age saturated with media sources.” But the war has demonstrated that, for all the reach of citizen civilians and the battlefield coverage cable news, filling the void left for Russian speakers is precisely what publicly funded media and technology are to do. In addition to the clip from Current Time, other Russian videos from US-backed news agencies have attracted hundreds of millions of views. There are clips of Ukrainian citizens upbraiding Russian troops, firsthand testimony of families who were shelled in the city of Kharkiv, and a selection of blatant falsehoods from Putin’s speeches about the war.

The demand for such content has grown in step with Russia’s efforts to isolate its population from access to unfiltered information. Since March 4th, when thema imposed potential jail sentences for Du journalists who deviate from the Kremlin’s line, major independent outlets, including TV Rain and the radio station Echo of Moscow, have shut down. Many Western news organizations have left the country, and the Russian government has blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Yet the more surprising fact is how broadly those efforts are being subverted. One way or another, Russian citizens are tunneling under firewalls to reach publicly funded broadcasters, such as the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. In the weeks after the Kremlin shut down access to VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Current Time, traffic to their Russian content nevertheless doubled, compared with before the war. Their videos recorded at least a billion views on Facebook and other digital platforms.

One reason for the popularity of these US-backed outlets is that they have made strategic choices, since the war began, about which topics are likely to resonate with Russian audiences. They have focused on exposing holes and taboos in official Russian coverage. Daisy Sindelar, the editor-in-chief of RFE/RL, said that was the impulse behind the popular Current Time video of sidewalk conversations. Because the networks are overwhelmingly staffed by native Russian speakers, who are deeply embedded in real-time social media, they can move fast to identify gaps in awareness. “They could see that vast numbers of Russians really appear to overwhelmingly support what they understood Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be,” Sindelar said. “Of course, that was mischaracterized as a ‘limited’ military engagement, or ‘special operation,’ but the support was there, and it was overwhelming.”

To fill other gaps in official coverage, RFE/RL has focused on the critical supplys shortages ordinary Russian citizens. To rally citizens around the flag, government propagandists often focus on the withdrawal of McDonald’s and other iconic foreign brands. “They say, ‘We know how to grow cabbages in our cottage gardens. It doesn’t matter,’ ” Sindelar said. But that obscures how poorly the leadership has equipped the country to survive without critical foreign goods and services. “Russia is already running out of supplies of insulin. They don’t have a pharmaceutical industry that can simply step in and replace the drugs that they import. This is something where I think we continue to provide real value in what is going to be an information desert.”

A particularly sensitive area of ​​foreign coverage has been the numbers of Russian consequences and prisoners of war. Even as Russian media was declaring the campaign a limited incursion, with very few faults captured, these alternative reports featured interviews with troops—their faces blurred to protect their identities. In one clip, a man in uniform says, “We came because of [military] exercises. But we were led to.” Another prisoner identified himself as Alexandr, a driver, and said, “We were just deceived and abandoned.” A third prisoner was a reservist so new to the unit that he wasn’t sure of the number of soldiers in his brigade. It is a pointed angle of coverage: since the First Chechen War, in the nineteen-nineties, the mothers of Russian soldiers have been a persistent source of protests against abuse in the Russian military and the government’s attempts to conceal or downplay the toll of military misadventures.

To get around Russian blockades, foreign-government-backed broadcasters are relying on an array of tools, both high-tech and low. The BBC recently revived shortwave broadcasts for Russia and eastern Ukraine, and the US has launched a satellite channel and is looking into upgrading the reach of its AM broadcasts, in the hope that they will be easier for people to access than shortwave. “Even if Russia does manage to sever connections to the different major Internet backbones, the satellite should still work as long as people have electricity,” Shawn Powers, the chief strategy officer at the Agency for Global Media, told me.

Other approaches have aimed to help Russian speakers hide their identities and get around digital blockades. Apple and Google have reported that more than half of the top twenty most-downloaded apps in Russia last week were virtual private networks, or VPNs, which conceal users’ locations and allow them to leap the digital firewalls that the government has erected around them. “What’s remarkable is the blocking isn’t working,” Powers said. Despite Russia’s efforts to restrict access, Russian traffic to RFE/RL’s YouTube channels, which include Current Time, more than tripled during the past three weeks. “I’d say sixty per cent of people who try to visit our Web sites in Russia today can still do so, even though they’re technically blocked,” Powers said. “I think we’ve assumed for far too long that the Russian government is good at this stuff, and what we forgot is that Russia’s a complicated place, that its Internet is technically a private enterprise—this is not China, these are not quasi -state institutions—and that right now Russia probably has bigger problems to worry about.”

The Open Technology Fund—the incubator under the umbrella of the Agency for Global Media—has also helped develop free VPNs, including nthLink and Psiphon. Moreover, in 2013, the agency invested four hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars in an encryption technology that eventually contributed to the creation of the Signal app. (It is also used by WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype.) I asked Powers how that connected to journalism. The “job is to help insure audiences around the world can connect to the open, uncensored World Wide Web without fear of reprisal,” he said. The encryption tools “also help communicate securely with sources, and help human-rights communicate with watchdogs.”

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