THE WESTERN DISTRUST IN MEDIA: A FERTILE GROUND FOR RUSSIA FAKE NEWS

“Sold out”, “one-track thinking instruments” or “part of a mediatic-political conspiracy”, media are suffering from a certain bad image in Western countries. The gap between people and their media seems to be bigger than ever. In the distrustful unstable times, one actor is extricating itself: Russia whose ‘alternative facts’ benefit from a more than ever receptive audience.

ANNE-LAURE DE CHALUP

Classical newspapers are suffering from 'alternativ facts' from Russian websites

Classical newspapers are suffering from ‘alternativ facts’ from Russian websites CC BY Alan Levine (Flickr)

“If […] you’re told that I have a double life with Mathieu Gallet [director of the French public radio] or anyone else, it’s my hologram that suddenly escaped, but it can’t be me!” The crowd came to acclaim the liberal candidate to the French presidential elections Emmanuel Macron is laughing and applauding. By few jokes, its young outsider denied the rumor spreading online from the Russian website Sputnik. He is not gay. But the media machine is launched and has like an aftertaste of Cold War propaganda.

Behind this rumor is a man, Nicolas Dhuicq, French Republican MP. He first said that “Emmanuel Macron is supported by a very wealthy gay lobby” and added “that says it all!” An open door to all kind of suppositions directly taken to pro-conspiracy theorists rhetoric.

He was referring to the support of the business man Pierre Bergé who was Yves Saint Laurent [the fashion designer] ‘s lover. Interviewed by the French TV show “Quotidien”, Nicolas Dhuicq seemed confused and not as unequivocal as in his Sputnik interview.

Indeed, The MP is a support of François Fillon, adversary of Emmanuel Macron and by giving the interview to Sputnik, he took a decision with full knowledge of its editorial line.

Sputnik is a multimedia press agency controlled by the Russian State. They have 30 different editions in the world and use local pro-Russian sources to reinforce their points. Nicolas Dhuicq is the perfect example of this Russian strategy. He is secretary of the Franco-Russian friendship group at the Parliament and openly pro Putin and Assad. Thereupon, he went to Syria in order to meet Bachar al-Assad and was quoted as a French expert in RT.

By giving the floor to this French politician with a different opinion about French intervention in Syria, RT, the official Kremlin media shows that different voices exist but are like censored by official media. A way to discredit them and to sow seeds of doubt in French people’s minds.

Conquest of the West media

Sputnik portrays itself as “alternative voices” whose goal is to “tell the untold”. By opening multilingual offices, they want that voice to be omnipresent online. At search engine optimization game, Russian media play a very clever game. Indeed, search engines like Google index websites according to their occurrences online. But what they are spreading is not always based on reliable facts.

The limit between alternative point of view and disinformation is, consequently, blurred. In a speech given in February at the Saint Andrews University in Scotland, Michael Fallon, the British ministry of Defense accused Russia of using “disinformation as a weapon” and to “quite evidently put NATO and the West to the test to destabilize them”.

This “weaponizing misinformation” as Fallon said was at the heart of a European Parliament report led by Anna Fotyga, Polish MEP. She assured in November 2016 that her investigation itself was “also a target of hostile propaganda” from Russia. Indeed, her conclusion confirmed that “propaganda pressure on the EU from Russia […] is growing”, and added “it seeks to distort the truth, incite fear, provoke doubt and divide the EU.”

The warning led to a resolution voted at the European Parliament. They concluded in this way: ” The Russian government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks […], multilingual TV stations (e.g. Russia Today), pseudo-news agencies and multimedia services (e.g. Sputnik) […], social media and internet trolls, to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood”.

And to guarantee the accession of foreign allies, Sputnik and RT spread rumors to discredit their rivals. It was the implicit aim of the rumors about Macron. Indeed, in recent opinion polls, he is the main adversary to Marine Le Pen, the populist and euroskeptical candidate. Kremlin is well advised to support her victory. Indeed, the president of the ‘Front National’ does not disguise her admiration to Vladimir Putin as Raphaël Tresanini presented in “Special Investigation”. In his reportage, he revealed that Kremlin public relations staff call Marine Le Pen “the best propagandist for Russia”. They summarized in one word the Russian strategy, now and for decades: propaganda.

Decades of propaganda

Back in the heat of the Cold War, both the USSR and the USA had recourse to “active measures”, the name given to political disinformation war. A proxy war based on fake news, just like the one we are witnessing nowadays. Indeed, the ‘active measures’ have never really stopped even if the USA asked Russia to end this war after the collapse of the Soviet Union according to the New Yorker. It is the station chief for Russian intelligence Sergey Tretykov who revealed it in 2008. “Nothing has changed […] Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.” And maybe even more now than ever because Russia is weaker than it was at the height of the Soviet era. To get back its power, Russia is using media to spread its influence in unstable Western countries where populist speeches hit a large target.

“Free societies are often split because people have their own views, and that’s what former Soviet and current Russian intelligence tries to take advantage of,” Oleg Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general, who has lived in the United States since 1995, said to the New Yorker.

A strategic position which seems to be admitted by some Russian journalists. Dmitry Kiselyev is one of the most famous television anchor and he is the director of the organization that runs Sputnik. As the New Yorker reports, he conceded that the age of neutral journalism was over. “If we do propaganda, then you do propaganda, too,” pointing the Western journalists.

A populism distrust fertilizer

The Cold War has turned into a global Western russophobia according to Putin’s government. “There is an impression that, like in a good orchestra, many Western countries every day accuse Russia of threatening someone,” Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said. According to Kremlin, the West doesn’t trust Russia and Russian news. A very pro conspiracy stance in the spirit of the distrustful times.

More than ever, people are questioning the so called “official version of facts”. Thus, the alternative versions of news spread by Sputnik or RT benefit from an even more receptive audience.

 

Especially when they are pushing for candidates regarded as non-elite and out of the classical political system like Marine Le Pen in France. The New York Times wrote in August, 2016 that “A prime Kremlin target is Europe, where the rise of the populist right and declining support for the European Union create an ever more receptive audience for Russia’s conservative, nationalistic and authoritarian approach under Mr. Putin.”

People are more and more skeptical towards newspapers they read CC BY Thomas Leuthard (Flickr)

People are more and more skeptical towards newspapers they read CC BY Thomas Leuthard (Flickr)

But this populist right is no longer the only one to openly give a suspicious speech about media. Recently, in France, the Republican candidate François Fillon accused both media and justice of “political assassinations” after revealing his involvement into financial scandals. He was prime minister for five years and does not have the typical “anti-system” profile but with his accusations, he used pro conspiracy languages elements borrowed from Russian officials. By affirming their distrust, François Fillon, Marine le Pen but also left wing candidate like Jean-Luc Melenchon in France are doing nothing else than giving credit to the ones who first warn people against ‘official news’, Kremlin. They also open the door to ‘alternative facts’ and post-truth.

The trap of the deny

In this general distrust, it seems to be more difficult than ever to fight back those fake news. Let them spread presents an obvious risk but try to contain them might even be more disastrous. This is a pervert effect which put the spotlights on the news you are trying to hide or refute. After Emmanuel Macron’s denial, worldwide newspapers were dealing with the homosexuality rumor.

However, at the great displeasure of his public relations managers, the denial was the option chosen by Emmanuel Macron. But he added one little thing to his refutation, humor. In the stage of the Parisian theater, where hundreds of supporters came to hear his proposals for France, he ironized about his supposed love affairs with Mathieu Gallet and other men by making jokes. A way to discredit the ones trying to discredit him.

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