Editor’s Note: Suzanne Nossel is executive director of PEN America. She was formerly executive director of Amnesty International USA and deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the State Department. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
RT – the Kremlin-funded news channel formerly known as “Russia Today,” frequently cited as a central gear in Russia’s propaganda machine – is nothing if not colorful. The network is known for declaring the Boston Marathon bombings a government plot, publicly shaming its own journalists if they dare defy the Kremlin line and for featuring American commentators known for conspiracy-mongering.
Now RT can add another ignominious label to its long list: foreign agent.
Following years of hue and cry over the network’s overt pro-Kremlin bias, earlier this month the Department of Justice forced the channel to file under the “Foreign Agents Registration Act,” or FARA, a 1938 law that was initially passed to counter pro-Nazi propaganda and subsequently retooled in the 1960s to publicly pinpoint those lobbying on behalf of foreign interests.
Forcing RT to register as a foreign agent is justified, but isn’t the best way to counter the propaganda the channel – or any other source of disinformation for that matter – puts out. While RT has howled its objections, the network may protest too much. Absent a far wider effort to incentivize and enable news consumers to distinguish serious news and analysis from agitprop, FARA registration or not, the influence of RT and other shady news sources may survive intact.
The problem is that while RT’s FARA registration may make members of Congress and administration officials feel as though they’ve landed a blow in the fight against Russian propaganda, RT’s filing with the Justice Department may well never register with most news consumers. From the looks of things there is no easy way for a consumer of RT to learn that it has filed as a foreign agent. It is not mentioned in the “About Us” section of RT nor flagged on RT stories that appear in Google searches. The same is true of the China Daily News, a media outlet long registered under FARA as an agent of the Chinese government.
News cognoscenti are already well aware of RT’s lineage, but to get through to those who read and believe the network will require more than the fine print in a government filing.
Former FBI Director James Comey put it bluntly in testimony last March before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, saying, “The Kremlin is waging an international disinformation campaign through the RT propaganda network which traffics in anti-American conspiracy theories that rivaled the extravagant untruths of Soviet era Pravda.”
In late October Twitter announced that it would “off-board” all advertising from RT and Sputnik, another Russian-controlled platform, based on its own investigation and on US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the networks had sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 election at Putin’s behest.
Whereas FARA contains an exception for bona fide media organizations, those state-owned entities that have qualified for it – including the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle – have strong layers of publicly visible and reputable independent governance that shield editorial decision-making from government interference.
While critics have been hard-pressed to argue that RT does not meet the criteria for registration under the act, they have rightly pointed out that by enforcing its provisions against the network, the US will likely trigger a wave of retaliatory and copycat measures designed by governments to clamp down on media outlets considered unfriendly. Indeed, the Russian Duma, acting at Putin’s behest, moved swiftly to pass its own version of foreign media registration requirements last week. Russia’s Ministry of Justice has let US government-backed networks, including Voice of American and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) know that they may be required to register under the new act. Russia is also reportedly considering more sweeping bans on the availability of foreign print media.
In some ways, these new measures are old news: US government-backed VOA and RFE/RL have been blocked from broadcasting in Russia for years. The more worrying prospect is that repressive regimes elsewhere in the world – think the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov – are emboldened in acting to foster local distrust of credible international media outlets.
With consumers accessing the vast majority of their news via Facebook and other social media feeds, the likelihood that news of RT’s filing will color the reception of its stories among those who currently tune in seems dim. Tangible indicators of likely veracity – including information about the news source, its track record, ethical guidelines and reporting methods – can be ferreted out only through time-consuming research, if at all. A study earlier this year by the Media Insight Project revealed that consumers are far more likely to evaluate the veracity of a news article based on who shared it than what the source is.
If anything, worries about RT’s influence point to the fact that transparency in American news media consumption cannot come solely, or even primarily, through force of law. Rather, we need Americans to be trained and educated to expect and demand transparency about ownership, editorial control, potential conflicts of interest and internal checks and processes to preserve objectivity and accuracy from the news that we consume. And, if outlets insist on remaining opaque on these fronts, as has RT, we should know to reject those outlets as unreliable.
We should prize voluntary transparency by news outlets, and should refuse to pay for, devote our attention to, do business with and share information from outlets unwilling to be transparent. As primary conduits for news, social media platforms have an essential role to play in equipping and empowering users to get the information they need to make sound judgments about what they’re reading and sharing.
In an open media ecosystem, especially as one as large and freewheeling as the internet, government regulation is never going to be a satisfactory answer for the scourge of fraudulent news or propaganda.
Ultimately, the best defense against fake news and foreign propaganda lies in comprehensive public education on the uses and misuses of media. News literacy curricula in schools and workplaces, easier-to-use reference material tied to news shared online, transparent newsroom policies on subjects like conflicts of interest and corrections and rigorous methods of sourcing and crediting are all essential to enabling news consumers to navigate the information ocean in which many now drown.
It is true that Americans are fiercely independent in choosing what media to consume and credit. But no one wants to be fooled. Rather than consoling ourselves that RT’s motives and loyalties will now be laid bare, the network’s belated registration under FARA is just one more reminder that absent more far-reaching action, purveyors of propaganda and fraudulent news will likely continue to work their will on a populace that is ill-equipped to defend itself.