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Disinformation: ‘Pravda’ May Be Gone, but Now There’s ‘Russia Today’

Russia’s propaganda machine is stronger than ever thanks to cable network RT. Its Syria coverage offers the proof.

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A Feb. 8 dispatch from Syria on RT. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Andrey Popov/Shutterstock.com and Russia Today.)

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.”

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Disinformation: ‘Pravda’ May Be Gone, but Now There’s ‘Russia Today’

Russia’s propaganda machine is stronger than ever thanks to cable network RT. Its Syria coverage offers the proof.