Anyone who has watched Russia’s English-language propaganda channel RT over the past 10 months would have learned that in Syria, foreign-funded terrorists, Israeli operatives, and American intelligence agents are attempting to destabilize a benevolent, popular autocrat. Take, for example, the ongoing siege of Homs, in which more than 400 people have been slaughtered by Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past week and a half. Rockets and mortar have rained down on apartment buildings, and, according to a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, entire families have been executed inside their homes. Here’s how RT summed up news of the massacre: “Disinformation makes it difficult to establish Homs reality.”
While it’s unsurprising that the network’s coverage of the Syrian uprising would track closely with positions staked out by the Kremlin—for example, when Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the regime, an RT correspondent stressed that the resolution “could have sent an unbalanced signal to all sides of the conflict”—RT hasn’t simply promoted an anti-interventionist or anti-NATO viewpoint. Instead, it has frequently parroted Assad’s narrative by providing a platform for paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists to dispute that civilians are being killed by the regime, accuse America and Israel of being behind the deaths of Syrian civilians, and argue that the government in Damascus is a beacon of tolerance in the region.
It’s tempting to dismiss the channel as a well-funded playground for unsophisticated cranks and Vladimir Posner impersonators. But RT, previously known as Russia Today, has become an online media phenomenon. Its YouTube videos have been viewed 675 million times, and the network claims that its television signal reaches “over 430 million people, or 22 percent of all cable subscribers worldwide.” (By comparison, CNN and CNN International have a combined 32 million video views on YouTube.) In 2010 RT was nominated for an International Emmy for its coverage of Barack Obama’s state visit to Russia.
The channel’s large and fervent online fan club sees the network as a brilliantly subversive corrective to America’s corporate media. Indeed, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, that scourge of government secrecy and authoritarianism, recently announced that he would host an interview show on RT, apparently unbothered by the secrecy and authoritarianism of the channel’s patron in Moscow: the Kremlin.
With Assange’s imprimatur of alternative media credibility, slick graphics, a staff of 2,000 packed with third-tier American and British journalists, and an enormous operating budget, RT is using its increasing influence to warp the truth about Assad’s crimes against the Syrian people.
In 1944, when Germany’s industrialized killing of Jews was at its apogee, novelist and former Stalinist Arthur Koestler published the short essay “On Disbelieving Atrocities” in the New York Times. He wondered why, despite mountains of evidence, plenty of clever people dismissed smuggled photos and chilling firsthand accounts of Nazi crimes as black propaganda. Indeed, Koestler puzzled over the fact that “our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand; the world is open to us as never before, and we walk about as prisoners.”
That was before the Internet. Today, dissidents within Syria—making use of mobile-phone cameras, Twitter, and YouTube—have provided irrefutable documentation of the brutality inflicted on innocents by their government. Much of this information has been corroborated by eyewitnesses, satellite photographs, and independent journalists.
But RT has consistently doubted the authenticity of the evidence. In a recent segment on the “myths and truths about [the] Syrian uprising,” RT correspondent Maria Finoshina explained that viewers should be skeptical of mobile-phone footage because such images “can be used to transform truth, and that can come at the cost of people’s lives.” On the other hand, videos purporting to document the violence of the opposition are screened without circumspection. RT set up the clip: “Torture, booby-trapped cars, machine-guns shooting in the air—RT has come into the possession of a video that deals with episodes of the day-to-day life of members of the Syrian opposition”
Often, RT’s unidirectional skepticism is indistinguishable from real-time denialism. The United Nations figure of over 5,000 Syrians killed since the start of the uprising has “absolutely no basis” in fact, according to frequent RT guest James Corbett, an American blogger based in Japan. Another guest, former FBI translator and 9/11 conspiracist Sibel Edmonds, casually dismissed reports of “so-called massacres.” A recent story on the RT website dismissed Arab League observers in the country as “atrocity scouts.”
According to RT contributors, there’s no doubt that government forces aren’t responsible for the bloodshed. Conspiracy theorist Webster Tarpley, author of the book 9/11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA, told viewers that the current spasm of violence is a “joint production of the CIA, MI6, and Mossad.” British conspiracy theorist Peter Eyre predictably saw the hidden hand of international Zionism at work in Damascus, explaining that the current crisis “was planned back in 1997 by Paul Wolfowich [sic].”
These deeply noxious claims are presented unopposed, and RT anchors repeat and amplify them. (I made numerous attempts to speak with RT journalists and the station’s Moscow-based editor, Margarita Simonyan, though no one would comment for this story.) The network’s correspondents also don’t attempt to conceal their biases. When Assad’s troops drove rebels from the city of Deir Ez-Zor, an RT correspondent was on the scene, presumably traveling with the Syrian military, to declare the area “liberated,” informing viewers that the “people are welcoming the soldiers.”
So, what of those throngs of protesters demanding Assad step down? RT interviewed “the sole foreign journalist permanently living in Syria,” a Russian sympathizer of Baathism, who explained the provenance of the “unpatriotic opposition” protesting the government: “You spend five minutes yelling ‘Down with Assad’ in a square and leave with hard cash in your pocket.”
And why would the Syrian population demand the regime’s downfall anyway? The impression gained from watching RT is that Assad is a genuinely popular—even progressive—leader. Lebanese journalist Kamal Wayze says the Western perception of Syrian discontent with the Assad dictatorship is a myth, because Syria has “a solid record on politics, on education, on infrastructure, on investment, so there is really solid support for the president.” The country might not be a model democracy, says RT guest Stephen Lendman, a conspiracy theorist who believes Osama Bin Laden died of natural causes, but Assad “wants reform.” Afshin Rattansi, a host on the Iranian state television Press TV, told RT viewers that the West has coordinated attacks against the country because “Syria has stood up for the human rights of Arab peoples.” Again, all these claims went unchallenged.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War, the act of “questioning” established media narratives was often judged to be a brave act of patriotism. It is widely held that the mainstream media was, in some sense, culpable for the war: It wasn’t the residual shock of 9/11 or a sense that America had unfinished business in Baghdad that motivated American support for the removal of Saddam Hussein, but the New York Times’ erroneous reporting on weapons of mass destruction and the media’s support of the Bush Administration. It was out of this media milieu that RT—and its advertising campaign, admonishing news consumers to “question more”—was born.
RT’s online defenders argue that the network offers an alternative to “Western” news coverage, rather than simply a pro-Kremlin perspective. Which is why, despite receiving funding and editorial cues from a government intolerant of dissent and credibly accused of election fraud, RT’s anti-Western narrative convinces radicals on the right and left and contrarians that it’s the news alternative for those who distrust state power.
A recent RT advertising campaign in the United States juxtaposed photos of Obama and Ahmadinejad (“Who poses the greater threat?”), British cops and yob rioters (“Who is more dangerous?”), American soldiers and jihadists (“Is terror only inflicted by terrorists?”). It’s the same moral equivalence RT stresses between the aggressor Syrian state, with its sophisticated and well-equipped military force, and the ragtag Free Syrian Army. When reporting on the vetoed United Nations resolution, RT’s New York correspondent Marina Portnaya, echoing the position taken by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stressed that there are “two parties in Syria … responsible for the violence. It’s not just one-sided.”
The Russian propaganda machine has come a long way from the leaden propaganda of Soviet Life magazine, the Daily Worker newspaper, and Radio Moscow. Unlike the ideological diktats spread by the Comintern, RT presents itself as post-ideological— a heterodox news source interested in “questioning more” than the West’s commercial alternatives. Moscow’s propagandists cleverly build on the Chomskyian idea, so popular among college students and paranoid radicals, that America’s corporate media subtly “manufactures consent,” acting as a megaphone for the powerful and wealthy. But viewers who fight the ravenous maw of Western imperialism and the profit-driven media by consuming the counternarrative of RT advance not a hidden “truth,” but the crude foreign-policy designs of Vladimir Putin.
So, remember as you watch the “other side” of the ongoing Syrian massacre, presented by RT’s deep bench of crackpots and Western Russophiles, the act of “questioning more” can turn one, in the words of another famous Russian, into a useful idiot.