Russia's Firehose of Falsehood: Using New Technology to Spread Not-So-New Propaganda | Web version

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October 5, 2016

International Affairs

Russia's Firehose of Falsehood: Using New Technology to Spread Not-So-New Propaganda

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with journalists after a live broadcast nationwide call-in, Moscow, Russia, April 14, 2016

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

To help further its national security goals, Russia regularly employs false and misleading propaganda under the guise of credible news sources. Russian propaganda was highly visible before, during, and after Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. It is disseminated not only in the countries along Russia's border, but in NATO countries as well. It is even present in the United States in the form of RT television and is available around the world via the Internet.

RAND experts Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews write that while Russia's emphasis on obfuscation and getting targets to act in the interests of the propagandist are techniques torn from the old Soviet playbook, Moscow has taken full advantage of technology and media that were not available during the Cold War. These means include the Internet, social media, and professional and amateur journalists and media outlets.

There are four distinctive features of Russia's contemporary propaganda model. First, Russia uses a large number of modes and channels to create a high volume of messages. Second, the Kremlin's propagandists have a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths and outright lies. Third, dissemination is rapid, continuous, and repetitive. Finally, Russian sources lack commitment to consistency. Surprisingly, research in social psychology suggests that this combination of features has the potential to be highly effective for influence and persuasion.

The RAND research provides a number of suggestions for the United States and its allies as they attempt to counter Russian propaganda:

  • Forewarn audiences about the sources and nature of propaganda, rather than emphasize efforts to refute false information.
  • Focus on countering the effects of Russian propaganda, instead of the propaganda itself.
  • Compete against Russian propaganda by increasing the flow of persuasive (and true) information that supports U.S. and NATO objectives.
  • Use various technical means, as appropriate, to eliminate or constrain the Russian propaganda sources.

In a commentary that builds on the report, Paul and William Courtney suggest that the Department of State publish a list of foreign propaganda sources in the same way that it publishes lists of human rights violators and countries that fail to respect religious freedoms. Such a list would be highly contentious, and that very contention would draw needed attention to this issue.

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For questions or to discuss this report, please contact Kurt Card.

RAND Congressional Resources Staff

Jayme Fuglesten
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Kurt Card
Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
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