In the mid 1980s, the KGB put together something called Operation INFEKTION.
The idea was to spread the rumour that the CIA had created the AIDS virus. The notion would be spread throughout the world, most frequently in impoverished countries, the Soviet Union sought to influence in the Cold War.
Eventually the rumour spread back to the USA, and for a while, the seed of the idea is planted in people’s minds: the US government is so heinous it would actually create a virus to kill its own people, and people around the world.
This is classic disinformation: the point is not to utterly convince everyone of the truth of any story, but rather to make them think the story is possible: you might not trust the Soviet Union, but can you really trust your own government? Isn’t that a little, well, naive? (This is why RT and others will report on every protest imaginable in the UK and US. It's not that they support your cause; it's that they want to portray your country as fundamentally unstable.)
Russia’s propaganda outlets are still pretty good at this diversion tactic. These days, with Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, what isn’t a straight out lie is often an outrageous distortion: the CIA funds fascists in Ukraine? Hell, why not? Who shot down MH17? Take your pick.
Does it work? Sort of. In spite of low viewing figures in the UK, RT does have some influence, particularly amongst those who don’t see the irony of protesting against the “mainstream media” while sharing videos and articles from the propaganda wing of an authoritarian state.
Depressingly, RT still does manage to get some guests you have heard of. Going Underground, a topical show presented by Afshin Rattansi (formerly of Iran’s Press TV) has recently featured former SNP leader Alex Salmond, for example. The show also regularly features former MP Lembit Opik (also a one-time Press TV presenter). George Galloway has a show on RT. Obviously.
Others are keen to defend the likes of RT as an “alternative” news source. Step forward Dr Piers Robinson, soon to be “chair in politics, society and political journalism at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield” (note, by the way, the difference between journalism and journalism studies. Journalism courses tend to be about how to practice the job, and are generally taught by people who have done it; journalism studies, communications and media studies courses teach people to complain about journalism, and are rarely taught by practitioners. Dr Robinson does not appear to have ever worked in media.*).
Writing in the Guardian, Dr Robinson takes it upon himself to defend Russian propaganda channels such as RT and Sputnik (which has just opened a new Scottish bureau).
Complaining about recent reports on RT’s role in Russian propaganda, Robinson declares: “Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of ‘our’ media is presumed to be objective and truthful.”
Danger, Piers Robinson. “Whatever the accuracy or lack thereof” is a pretty startling way to start here. Essentially Robinson is telling us that no matter what people’s complaints against RT are, they are missing the real point, which is, of course, that some western news outlets aren’t great either.
Robinson then goes on to outline the many faults of media outlets in democratic countries: reliance on government sources, the naked economics of the business, “good old-fashioned patriotism” and the rest. All reasonable criticisms, and all, essentially, disinformation.
Because no one in their right minds actually claims that media in liberal democratic countries are perfect or free from pressures. That is not the aim of people who point to the lies of RT, Sputnik, Press TV and the rest.
Robinson goes on to point to the Iraq war as proof of manipulated media, but the fact remains that there was actually very healthy debate about Iraq in western media at the time: the fact that the outcome was not to the liking of Robinson (and millions of others) is not the same as the press having been manipulated beyond sense.
But this is where politics has been for a long time now: everyone is so convinced that they are self-evidently right, that any hint otherwise must be the result of “sinister forces”, as Unite leader Len McCLuskey had it. This is why we keep getting surprised by events.
With apparently no irony at all, Robinson then outlines how news consumers should avoid being conned. Step 1, he says is to “ to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.”
Step 2, apparently is to watch RT and Press TV, from which “one can gain useful insights and information,” and consider “exploring alternative news and information sites such as Media Lens and Spinwatch.”
There’s a perverse narcissism to this. At no point in his article does Robinson actually address criticisms of RT - indeed he dismisses them out of hand before recommending the channel as useful. But that perception of “useful” is the same as Medialens’s endless deployment of the “only asking questions” line: it's useful in that it tells you what you want to hear, in the same way that Media Lens is only ever asking questions it thinks it already knows the answer to (that answer being “the Neocons”).
I was recently asked if the disregard for truth displayed by some “alternative” outlets reflected badly on Little Atoms. The truth is, we’ve never really seen Little Atoms as “alternative”, or to my recollection described it as such. We may get things wrong, or we may change our minds, but we don’t think we can invent our own realities, as RT and its ilk do.
*Robin Wilde, a graduate of University of Sheffield, contacted the author on Twitter to say that "I just graduated from UoS Journalism, highly practical course. Almost all training, never heard of this Dr. Robinson!." The article has been slightly amended to reflect his comment.