CounterPropaganda · Information Warfare · Russia

Russia’s Information Warriors Don’t Care If We Disprove Their Lies

Photo Credit: The Economist

Nice article, but the author misses a few key, essential points.

The final conclusion is that efforts to discredit whole sources of news and information should be the sole focus.  Granted, the author did not exclude discrediting individual stories, the quote: “The West should therefore focus its efforts on discrediting entire outlets, rather than disproving individual stories.”  This singular focus approach is most likely the single greatest problem with current counter-propaganda, anti-fake news, and counter-disinformation efforts of the West.  In the first place, the focus is on an effort, rather than an end state or objective.  Second, for any objective, there can and should be multiple efforts to accomplish each.  Our understanding of the human psyche and communications is incomplete, and until we fully understand how they actually, fully interact, we should be using multiple efforts to accomplish our goals.  Furthermore, the computing power needed to account for the almost unlimited variables in most situations exceeds our current capacity.  Sure, we could simplify the formula, but at what point do we accept mediocrity in our work? 

The next big problem I noted is that to discredit a source, one assumes the give-a-crap level of the public has risen to a point where there are notices available that the source is discredited, a la some social media sites such as Facebook.  If the reader is perusing a story on news sites, such as the Washington Post, the BBC, or Reuters, AP, or UPI, or conglomerate news sites such as Google News, NewsNow.CO.UK, or in an RSS feed, the author assumes the reader subscribes or takes the time to learn which sites are nefarious or fake. 

The biggest solution, in my opinion, to countering Russian propaganda, disinformation, and fake news is education, plain and simple – combined with the efforts listed above, and many others.  Social media is a great centralized point to focus warnings from Facebook that a source may not be trustworthy.   Asking for conglomerate news sources, such as Google News, Yahoo, to post such notices would be a tremendous help, as well.  For the sake of national security, we might examine a legal approach to barring serial abusers of our time and efforts to absorb the news.  We might hold conferences, classes, networking events, and even form associations to concentrate our efforts. At the national level, coordinating and synchronizing national efforts of strategic communications, combined with national information strategies that fit within national security strategies are just some of the efforts we might consider. 

At the international level, there are multiple efforts to expose Russian media lies, Russian governmental distortions, and massive propaganda efforts, as noted in the article. Some are limited due to budget constraints, some are as widespread as the volunteers can be found. All are useful, and all should be applauded, nurtured, and supported.  I’ve worked with, corresponded and spoken with many of the leaders and analysts involved in many of these efforts.  Our focus is on cleaning up the information environment, separating the wheat from the chaff, and enabling better sources of information to be more widely available to more people. Obviously, Russia is promoting their alternate reality, and to understand that, read Kennan’s Long Telegram. Quite literally, this is how they think, write, and act, at the national leadership level. 

Sam Skove, good article but your article is way too limited in focus.  I like the way you think. Develop your ideas and try again.  Call or write me if you would like to work on this together.

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Mar 15, 2017

By: Sam Skove, Columnist

The Kremlin has successfully used digital media to stoke conflict in Russian-speaking communities abroad, ranging from Ukraine to Germany. The West and its allies have responded with a variety of measures, chiefly aimed at providing informed counterpoints to Russia’s misinformation. However, one RAND study indicates that merely disproving Russian propaganda may not work, as readers’ of online media often adhere to the first take they see on a given topic. Therefore, if they read Russian propaganda first, that information tends to stay with them, even if they later read more accurate accounts. The United States should therefore seek to not only provide counterpoints to Russian information, but to discredit the source of information itself, thus inoculating readers from its effects.

The Kremlin has most effectively used Russian-language media abroad in the Ukraine crisis and in stoking tensions in Germany’s Russian community. Official media channels, as well as an array of social media bots, heavily promoted pro-Russian narratives during Russia’s annexation of Crimea and later involvement in Eastern Ukraine.[i] While it is difficult to measure their influence, Crimea’s overwhelming vote to join Russia in 2014 was in some part influenced by these claims, which falsely argued that Kiev sought to purge ethnic-Russians from Crimea.[ii] The Kremlin used media to spread false claims again in Germany in January of 2016, when state-run Channel One claimed that asylum seekers had raped a young Russian-German girl.[iii] The claims, which German police eventually concluded were false, led to mass protests by Russian immigrants and even accusations of a German cover-up by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The West and others have sought to respond to Russian propaganda by launching their own Russian-language news sources dedicated to reporting the news accurately and discrediting individual stories. In February of this year, the United State’s Voice of America launched “Current Time,” a Russian-language news channel that will be distributed via cable, satellite, and digital platforms. The news outlet appears to be a serious effort by the United States to improve its counter-messaging abilities, given its 100 person editorial staff and commitment to broadcast 24/7.[iv] The EU and other states also back a range of counter-propaganda groups. One of the most prominent of these groups is StopFake, a Ukrainian news service that exists purely to expose lies promoted by the Russian state-controlled or state-friendly press.[v] The lies debunked by StopFake often seem easily recognizable as fakes—one Russian-language story claimed Ukraine was planning on printing money with Hitler’s face on it, while another stated the Ukrainian president, while drunk, had given an amputee a soccer ball as a gift.

However, a report by the RAND Corporation indicates that successful counter-propaganda focuses on discrediting entire news sources, not just individual articles. According to the RAND study, readers’ first impression of news is often their strongest.[vi] Even if that news is later exposed as false, readers will often forget this and be left believing that the first story was accurate. Indeed, in situations where Russian media outlets completely fabricate their stories, they are automatically the first news a reader has seen on a given topic. According to this logic, Russian propaganda is actually at its most effective when it is completely false, even if these falsehoods are easily exposed.

As the RAND study notes, though, readers are less likely to trust a media source if they are aware from the beginning that it is not credible. Then are, in effect, inoculated against false news.

The West should therefore focus its efforts on discrediting entire outlets, rather than disproving individual stories. There are a variety of ways this might be achieved. Firstly, nations with large ethnic Russian populations, like Latvia or Ukraine, can publicly shame Russian state-run outlets. Britain’s media regulator Ofcom has done this repeatedly in regards to false reporting by Russia’s RT.[vii] Secondly, the West can launch public campaigns that develop readers’ ability to think critically about Russian news sources. These could include online ads that test readers’ ability to tell fake news stories from real ones, for instance, or education programs that teach students how to make sure news sources are legitimate.[viii] While neither of these methods will completely discredit Russian propaganda sources in the eyes of its readers, it will at least be better than focusing solely on providing more Russian-language news sources like “Current Time.”

[i] Lawrence Alexander, “Open-Source Information Reveals Pro-Kremlin Web Campaign” Global Voices, July 13, 2015, accessed November 29

[ii] Peter Hobson, “’Russia Is the Motherland’ – Crimean Schoolchildren on the Annexation,” The Moscow Times, April 29, 2015, accessed March 12, 2017,

[iii] Damien McGuinness, “Russia Steps Into Berlin ‘Rape’ Storm Claiming German Cover-up,” The BBC, January 27, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017,

[iv] Jan Lopataka, “Radio Free Europe, Voice of America Launch New Russian-Language TV Channel,” Reuters, February 8, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017,

[v] Andrew Kramer, “To Battle Fake News, Ukrainian Show Features Nothing but Lies,” The New York Times, February 26, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017,

[vi] Paul, Christopher and Miriam Matthews. “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016, 6.

[vii] Mark Sweney, “RT Faces Ofcom Inquiry Over Turkish Government Genocide Claim,” The Guardian, April 25, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017,

[viii] Katherine Schulten and Amanda Christy Brown, “Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News,” The New York Times, January 19, 2017, access March 12,