States run news services of all sorts. There’s the BBC which functions or at least did function as a national news source of record for the country itself. There’s Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the US Voice of America, which fill out the spectrum from the BBC to the public diplomacy model. Russia Today, known as RT, operates nominally on something like the Deutsche Welle model but has leaned in an increasingly propagandistic direction over recent years. RN popped up in the Trump/Putin story because Trump’s top military advisor, retired General Mike Flynn sometimes writes for RT and was hosted last December, along Green Presidential candidate Jill Stein, at Putin’s table in Moscow to celebrate RT’s anniversary.
Most of us know about RT. What I wasn’t aware of was something new called Sputnik News. I’m definitely not the first to write about it. Many others have since it launched in 2014. I just wasn’t familiar with it myself until I started seeing it referenced by various alt-left folks on Twitter. At first I thought it was some US outfit with just an arch name. But no, like RT, it’s produced by the Russian government for foreign audiences. As Foreign Policy put it two years ago, if RT is a Russian mix of Deutsche Welle and VOA, Sputnik News is their propaganda Buzzfeed or maybe more like some combination of Free Beacon and the supermarket weekly world news. It’s punchy, conversant or maybe more more like sorta conversant in all the new-fangled Internetn memes. At least in its American incarnation it’s basically Russian propaganda for millennials.
What’s fascinating about it is how much it plays to post-2012 internet motifs and cliches and how tightly it tries to inveigle itself in US politics.
When I looked over the weekend, here’s a sampling of the first articles I found. Again, this wasn’t the product of scouring the site for US news. What follows is the first article I found and then others I found linked in sidebars to those articles in succession.
Secret File: Confirms Trump Claim: Obama, Hillary ‘Founded ISIS’ to Oust Assad.
Surprise, surprise: it’s based mainly on the aforementioned Mike Flynn. His DIA document proves Trump’s right.
Next I got this.
Democrats: Sanction Russia Because Hillary and the DNC Stole Election From Bernie
From there I got to this article mocking intra-Democratic squabbling about ties to Russia …
Voting for Anyone But Clinton Means You’re Obviously a ‘Russian Agent’
This one is based significantly on quotes and tweets from Glenn Greenwald and Jill Stein. Now to be clear, Glenn wasn’t talking to Sputnik News or writing for them. They’re quoting what he said on Twitter and in his publication The Intercept. So I want to be clear that while I have a well-documented series of disagreements with Glenn, this isn’t Glenn serving as a mouthpiece for Sputnik. It’s Sputnik jumping into a relatively obscure and arcane American debate and amplifying one side of it. There’s a difference.
When I looked at Sputnik’s ‘about’ page they make clear that they rely on local reporters and editors. But notably none of the news articles have bylines. Who writes them? I have no idea. The exception are the opinion pieces like the next article I got to from the ‘Russian Agent’ one: It’s by columnist Finian Cunningham: Political Assassination – the American Way. The ‘deck’ gives the flavor of the article. “Donald Trump has entered a political kill zone. And the American establishment is lining up to take him out. We are talking here in virtual terms – at least thus far.”
Then there’s more cerebral fare: When Will the USA Get Its Own ‘American Spring’? This one is a cobbled together piece based on a recent column by Pat Buchanan. Again the deck: “Commenting on the state of the American presidential race and of US politics more broadly, veteran political commentator Pat Buchanan took aim at a mainstream media’s attempts to crucify Donald Trump for the candidate’s suggestion that the November election might be ‘rigged’.”
What does it all mean? I’m not totally sure. What struck me was the effort to jump so clearly into the US political mix and continue to do so while fairly significant questions about being raised about whether Russia is trying to influence the presidential election in ways considerably more nefarious than just running a clownish website.
More on the Russian goofball propaganda war in my next installment.