By Tara Schoenborn
When reading the news today, it is almost impossible to avoid running into an article about the United States “losing the information war” to Russia’s increasing soft power. For example, there was an article earlier this month in Bloomberg titled “Sanctions-Strapped Russia Outguns the U.S. in Information War,” that details how the BBG and Voice for America are losing in comparison to Russia Today and its propaganda and speculates that if nothing is done, Russia will “win” in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, articles that appear in big name outlets like the Boston Globe and The Atlantic increasingly attack Russia for its propaganda efforts and frantically assert the U.S. needs to respond. However, my question is, does it?
As the West increasingly attacks Russia for disseminating its propaganda, I want to take a moment to discuss then, what is counter-propaganda? Is that not also propaganda? In terms of strict definition, propaganda is “information of a biased or misleading nature, often used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” Russia, through Russia Today and other international broadcasting has most likely engaged in in propaganda, as much of its communication is not transparent and focuses on pointing out flaws in the West, not necessarily promoting Russia, which can be seen in situations like Ukraine or in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. However, when it comes to discussing Western nations “countering” this propaganda, I would argue that the same standards apply, as it would be foolish to say that states don’t use international broadcasting to disseminate their own interests and messages. For example, if looking at this same situation from a Russian perspective, the United States’ Voice of America would be propaganda that must be countered. Furthermore, the U.S. is not necessarily justified in all of this high and mighty talk criticizing Russia Today, considering its own history is dirtied with not transparent, covert action funding propaganda campaigns to protect its interests in other nations, which occasionally led to authoritarian dictatorships that were supposed to be preferred to socialism or communism (i.e. Chile, Argentina, etc.). Therefore, I find it interesting to discuss propaganda and counter-propaganda in terms of international broadcasting and information warfare between Russia and the West, because often times, all nations engage it in because, using a realist perspective, nations are self-interested. Furthermore, most of the true differences are rooted in a difference of ideology – not necessarily absolute fact. Sure, certain factual events can be manipulated and result in propaganda, but what it really boils down to is a difference in beliefs. That is why recognizing this, in lieu of pumping more funds into international broadcasting, will be important in the future of public diplomacy.
With the influx of communications outlets and messages infiltrating foreign publics left and right, any “propaganda” from one side or another is not going to be what ultimately decides which nations gain and lose soft power (this lies in basic communications theory that many people often seek out beliefs consistent with their own). What ultimately will decide which nations will have the most influence will come in the form of how nations are finding other, more innovative ways to use public diplomacy to connect with foreign publics and show that, despite differences in beliefs, they can relate or maybe even that their ideology, beliefs or culture is superior. Does this mean increasing academic exchange? Creating artistic summits to facilitate cooperation and innovation? Using food as a cultural export? Instead of just focusing on how the U.S. should counter Russian “propaganda,” I think that that the emphasis should shift to what else is Russia doing besides engaging in international broadcasting (i.e. its university exchange, scholarship program, embassy representation and centers of science and culture) to leverage its power as a threat to the U.S. How will Russia back up its words/information campaign with action? Or will it? How will it change public diplomacy to fit its own ideological framework needs? In my opinion, this will be the true test to whether or not the U.S. should be worried about Russia’s increasing influence in the future and if it will have the ability to counter it.