“For Russia, it is easier to achieve political goals by creating distrust in other countries than by building trust in itself. This is why Russian state-funded media are trying to influence people’s attitudes beyond the Russian borders, including in Finland,” says Doctoral Researcher Teemu Oivo, describing the Russian strategy of influencing through disinformation.
Oivo has studied how Finnish counter media use content produced by the Russian state-funded news channels RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and Sputnik. The study analysed content produced by Finnish counter media for the murkut.org news aggregator platform in 2018 –2019. Roughly a dozen websites produced content for the news aggregator on a daily basis, seeking to spread their messages about social and political issues. Six of the sites were comparable and thus selected as the main material for the study.
Counter media are seen as a counterforce to traditional journalistic media. Finnish counter media are eager to spread news from Russian sources because they both feel wronged by the Western mainstream media. Both want to criticise what is happening in the world and society, and to report on the phenomena from their own perspectives.
“RT and Sputnik were established for the needs of the Russian state and, officially, to balance the international media field, which is considered to be dominated by Western media. The channels are almost entirely funded from the Russian state budget; yet they have a lot of operational freedom. RT can even be seen as a success story of a kind since it has managed to gain trust and reputation as an alternative news source. Sputnik is better known as a news agency that produces content in 31 languages,” Oivo says.
News translated for international audiences by RT and Sputnik are widely published as short press releases in Finnish counter media. Based on Oivo’s research material, there is variation in how critical Finnish counter media are towards content from Russian sources.
“RT and Sputnik are often cited as sources without any specific reservations; however, one counter media actually used the term ‘Russian propaganda channel’.”
Covert influence instead of overt disinformation
The content of RT and Sputnik studied by Oivo was not overt disinformation or intentional lies. Much of what these media do can be seen as standard news work, and if the channels manage to establish themselves, the public will take a less critical stance towards them. Indeed, the goal is to covertly influence people’s attitudes.
“The content I studied was neither dangerous nor very harmful. However, it can be seen to add fuel to the flames and to create social distrust, which can lead to difficulties with, for example, safety during the pandemic,” Oivo says.
But what are the motives of the Russian state for creating distrust in its neighbouring countries?
“For Russia, a united West is a more difficult partner to negotiate with than individual countries with which it would prefer to operate and with which it would have a stronger position. Weakening the EU’s unity is profitable for Russia, even if it doesn’t want to directly destroy it. At the same time, there is an aim to tackle the Western media’s criticism of Russia, and to brand it as two-faced.”
According to Oivo, influencing via the media is, to a certain degree, also economically motivated. For instance, the Nord Stream gas pipeline has made Germany an important target of influencing for Russia. Russia is also interested in Finland’s acquisition of nuclear power plants, relations with NATO, and Arctic policy.
“Russia fights on the fronts where it can win”
Russia’s disinformation operations seem to be global, systematic and effective, but are they really?
“Putin’s background in martial arts and his history with the KGB may be reflected in the fact that Russia fights on the fronts where it can win. Causing small nuisance via more or less official media outlets and trolls is cost-effective; however, its impact is difficult to assess. We should also remember that Russia is not the only player in the field,” Oivo points out.
What is the narrative Russia wants to tell the world?
“The ideology of the Russian state is not very unified and coherent, but rather reactive; however, there are some clear national narratives about history and world politics. The basic narrative is that Russia has been a counterweight and balancing force for the West, which plays the role of a good cop on the international arena, although it really just seeks to gain more power. NATO’s eastward expansion is seen as a failed promise, with the West surrounding and isolating Russia.”
Oivo's article on Finnish counter media’s use of Russian sources was published in Media & Viestintä in June. The article (in Finnish) is available online at https://doi.org/10.23983/mv.109862.
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