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Is Foreign Propaganda Even Effective?

The Russians can dish it out, but don't expect Americans to swallow everything.
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During the Cold War, it became an article of faith among Western policymakers and journalists: One of the most effective ways to discredit the leaders of Communist countries would be to provide their citizens with information from the West. It was a view that was shared by Soviet Bloc regimes who were worried that listening to the Voice of America (VOA) or watching Western television shows would induce their people to take political action against the rulers.

So it was not surprising that government officials in East Germany, anxious that many TV stations from West Germany could be viewed by their citizens, employed numerous means—such as jamming the airwaves and even damaging TV antennas that were pointing west—in order to prevent the so-called “subversive” western broadcasts from reaching audiences over the wall.

After the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, communication researchers studying public attitudes in former East German areas assumed that they would discover that those who had access to West German television—and were therefore exposed to the West’s political freedom and economic prosperity—were more politically energized and willing to challenge the communist regime than those who couldn’t watch Western television.

But as Evgeny Morozov recalled in his Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, a study conducted between 1966 and 1990 about incipient protests in the so-called “Valley of the Clueless”—an area in East Germany where the government successfully blocked Western television signals—raised questions about this conventional wisdom.

As it turns out, having access to West German television actually made life in East Germany more endurable. Far from radicalizing its citizens, it seemed to have made them more politically compliant. As one East German dissident quoted by Morozov lamented, “The whole people could leave the country and move to the West as a man at 8pm, via television.”

Meanwhile, East German citizens who did not have access to Western German television were actually more critical of their regime, and more politically restless.

The study concluded that “in an ironic twist for Marxism, capitalist television seems to have performed the same narcotizing function in communist East Germany that Karl Marx had attributed to religious beliefs in capitalist society when he condemned religion as the ‘opium of the people.’”

Morozov refers to the results of these and other studies to raise an interesting idea: Western politicians and pundits have predicted that the rise of the Internet, which provides free access to information to residents of the global village, would galvanize citizens in Russia and other countries to challenge their authoritarian regimes. In reality, Morozov contends that exposure to the Internet may have distracted Russian users from their political problems. The young men who should be leading the revolution are instead staying at home and watching online pornography. Trotsky, as we know, didn’t tweet.

Yet the assumption that the content of the message is a “silver bullet shot from a media gun to penetrate a hapless audience,” as communication theorists James Arthur Anderson and Timothy P. Meyer put it, remains popular among politicians and pundits today, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Hence the common assertion that a presidential candidate who has raised a lots of money and can spend it on buying a lots of television commercials, has a clear advantage over rivals who cannot afford to dominate the media environment. But the loser in the 2016 presidential race spent about $141.7 million on ads, compared with $58.8 million for winner’s campaign, according to NBC News. Candidate Trump also spent a fraction of what his Republican rivals had during the Republican primaries that he won.

Communication researchers like Anderson and Meyers are not suggesting that media messages don’t have any effect on target audiences, but that it is quite difficult to sell ice to Eskimos. To put it in simple terms, media audiences are not hapless and passive. Although you can flood them with messages that are in line with your views and interests, audiences actively participate in the communication process. They will construct their own meaning from the content they consume, and in some cases they might actually disregard your message.

Imagine a multi-billionaire who decides to produce thousands of commercials celebrating the legacy of ISIS, runs them on primetime American television, and floods social media with messages praising the murderous terrorist group. If that happened, would Americans be rallying behind the flag of ISIS? One can imagine that the response from audiences would range from anger to dismissal to laughter.

In 2013 Al Jazeera Media Network purchased Current TV, which was once partially owned by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and launched an American news channel. Critics expressed concerns that the network, which is owned by the government of Qatar and has been critical of U.S. policies in the Middle East, would try to manipulate American audiences with their anti-Washington message.

Three years later, after hiring many star journalists and producing mostly straight news shows, Al Jazeera America CEO Al Anstey announced that the network would cease operations. Anstey cited the “economic landscape” which was another way of saying that its ratings were distressingly low. The relatively small number of viewers who watched Al Jazeera America’s programs considered them not anti-American but just, well, boring.

You don’t have to be a marketing genius to figure out that in the age of the 24/7 media environment, foreign networks face prohibitive competition from American cable news networks like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, social media, not to mention Netflix and yes, those online porno sites. Thus the chances that a foreign news organization would be able to attract large American audiences, and have any serious impact on their political views, remain very low.

That, indeed, has been the experience of not only the defunct Al Jazeera America, but also of other foreign news outlets that have tried to imitate the Qatar-based network by launching operations targeting American audiences. These networks have included CGTN (China Global Television Network), the English-language news channel run by Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television; PressTV, a 24-hour English language news and documentary network affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting; or RT (formerly Russia Today), a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government that operates cable and satellite television channels directed to audiences outside of Russia.

After all, unless you are getting to paid to watch CTGN, PressTV, or RT—or you are a news junkie with a lot of time on your hands—why in the world would you be spending even one hour of the day watching these foreign networks?

Yet if you have been following the coverage and public debate over the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, you get the impression that RT and another Russian media outlet, Sputnik (a news agency and radio broadcast service established by the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya), were central players in a conspiracy between the Trump presidential campaign and the Kremlin to deny the presidency to Hillary Clinton.

In fact, more than half of the much-cited January report on the Russian electoral interference released by U.S. intelligence agencies was devoted to warning of RT’s growing influence in the United States and across the world, referring to the “rapid expansion” of the network’s operations and budget to about $300 million a year, and citing the supposedly impressive audience numbers listed on the RT website.

According to America’s spooks, the coordinated activities of RT and the online-media properties and social-media accounts that made up “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” have been employed by the Russian government to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.”

And in a long cover story in The New York Times Magazine this month, with the headline, “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War,” Jim Rutenberg suggested that the Kremlin has “built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century” and that it “may be impossible to stop.”

But as the British Economist magazine reported early this year, while RT claims to reach 550 million people worldwide, with America and Britain supposedly being its most successful markets, its “audience” of 550 million refers to “the number of people who can access its channel, not those who actually watch it.”

As the The Economist notes, a 2015 survey of the top 94 cable channels in America by the research firm Nielsen found that RT did not even make it into the rankings, capturing only 0.04 percent of viewers, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Board.

The Times’s Rutenberg argues that the RT’s ratings “are almost beside the point.” RT might not have amassed an audience that remotely rivals CNN’s in conventional terms, “but in the new, ‘democratized’ media landscape, it doesn’t need to” since “the network has come to form the hub of a new kind of state media operation: one that travels through the same diffuse online channels, chasing the same viral hits and memes, as the rest of the Twitter-and-Facebook-age media.”

Traveling “through the same diffuse online channels” and “chasing the same viral hits and memes” sounds quite impressive. Indeed, RT has claimed dominance on YouTube, an assertion that apparently caught the attention of the U.S. intelligence community, which noted that RT videos get 1 million views a day, far surpassing other outlets.

But as The Economist points out, when it comes to Twitter and Facebook, RT’s reach is narrower than that of other news networks. Its claim of YouTube success is mostly down to the network’s practice of buying the rights to sensational footage—for instance, Japan’s 2011 tsunami—and repackaging it with the company logo. It’s not clear, however, how the dissemination of a footage of a natural disaster or of a dog playing the piano helps efforts to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.”

It is obvious that the Russian leaders have been investing a lot of resources in RT, Sputnik, and other media outlets, and that they employ them as propaganda tools aimed at promoting their government’s viewpoints and interests around the world. From that perspective, these Russian media executives are heirs to the communist officials who had been in charge of the propaganda empire of the Soviet Union and its satellites during much of the 20th Century.

The worldwide communist propaganda machine did prove to be quite effective during the Great Depression and World War II, when it succeeded in tapping into the economic and social anxieties and anti-Nazi sentiments in the West and helped strengthen the power of the communist parties in Europe and, to some extent, in the United States.

But in the same way that Western German television programs failed to politically energize East Germans during the Cold War, much of the Soviet propaganda distributed by the Soviet Union at that time had very little impact on the American public and its political attitudes, as symbolized by the shrinking membership of the American Communist Party.

Or as media-effects theorists explain the communication process, the intentions of the producer (Soviet Union) and the conventions of the content (communist propaganda) were interwoven in a strategy aimed at influencing the receiver (the American audience). But the majority of Americans, with the exception of a few hard-core ideologues, interpreted the content of the message as pitiful Soviet propaganda, assuming they even paid attention to it.

Soviet propaganda may have scored limited success during the Cold War when it came to members of the large communist parties in France, Italy, and Japan, as well as exploited anti-American sentiments in some third-world countries. In these cases, the intentions of the producer and the convention of the message seemed to be in line with the interpretations of the receivers.

There is no doubt that Moscow, which regarded President Harry Truman as its leading American political nemesis, was hoping that Progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace would win the 1948 election—and had tailored its propaganda effort in accordance with that goal. That pro-Wallace campaign took place at a time when the American Communist Party still maintained some influence in the United States, where many Americans still sympathized with the former World War II ally and a large number of Soviet spies were operating in the country. But then Wallace’s Progressives ended up winning 2.5 percent of the vote, less than Strom Thurmond’s Southern segregationist ticket.

Yet we are supposed to believe that by employing RT, Sputnik, Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of hackers, the Russians could help their American candidate “steal” the 2016 presidential election. Is there any evidence that those white blue-collar workers and rural voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan—the people who provided Trump with his margin of victory—were even exposed to the reports distributed by RT and Sputnik, or by the memes constructed by Russian trolls or their posts on Facebook? (“Hey, did you watch RT last night?”)

Yet the assertion that a “silver bullet shot from a media gun” in the form of Russian propaganda was able “to penetrate a hapless audience” in the United States has been gaining more adherents in Washington and elsewhere. This conspiracy seems to correlate the intent of the Russian government and the content of their messages with the voting behavior of Americans.

In a strange irony, those who are promoting this fallacious assertion may—unlike their Russian scapegoat—actually succeed in penetrating a hapless American audience.

Leon Hadar is a foreign policy analyst, author, and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He holds a Ph.D. from American University, and is the author of the books Quagmire: America in the Middle East and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. He is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, a former Cato Institute research fellow, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Washington Times, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the National Interest.