Not so fake news: How foreign powers use PR to influence western politics
By James Le Grice, Four Communications
Fans of Cold War spy thrillers have had their fix lately. Allegations that Russia hacked the US Democratic Party and diffused fake news to influence the US and French elections, and alleged attempts by the White House to set up a secret line to the Kremlin and obstruct an FBI investigation read right out of a John le Carre novel.
It is hardly news that Russia seeks to influence western politics – this has been the case for decades – but tactics have moved on with the times. Many of the most effective tactics today are less the stuff of conspiracy theorists and more akin to a PR handbook.
The Foreign Policy Centre’s (FPC) latest report, The Information Battle: How governments in the former Soviet Union promote their agendas & attack their opponents abroad is a good primer on this. The report describes the Kremlin’s propaganda strategy of ‘muddying the waters’ in western political discourse, sewing confusion with an ultimate aim of steering opinions towards the positions of the Russian government.
This is primarily achieved not through fake news, but through genuine – albeit selective - news transmitted through state run channels, such as Sputnik and RT. Editorial selection on these outlets gives prominence to stories that depict the West in decay (eg stories on corruption, police brutality, and foreign policy failures) while portraying Russia rising from strength to strength. Language is also carefully crafted, being strategically selective about when ‘rebels’ are ‘terrorists’, when a ‘protest’ is a ‘riot’, and when a ’revolution’ is a ‘coup’.
These outlets also give platforms to figures on the fringes of Western politics, such as ex British MP George Galloway, who would otherwise struggle to have their views covered in the mainstream media. As such, they have carved out a loyal following in the West from those seeking alternative views to what is presented in both left and right wing mainstream media.
However, outlets such as RT and Sputnik have limited credibility given that they are state-run. As Jean-Louis Gassee, Founder of BeOS once said, ‘PR is getting someone else to say you’re good.’ The FPC’s report describes how many central Asian regimes mobilise key opinion leaders in the West to echo their messaging points, in particular around elections. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have all been strongly criticised by legitimate international election monitoring bodies for flawed polls. In recent years, they have sought to limit scrutiny by inviting sympathetic western politicians and academics to act as independent election observers, giving positive comments to the media, while placing severe restrictions on the work of official monitoring bodies such as the OSCE’s ODIHR.
Russia and many central Asian regimes also regularly establish or provide funding for NGOs and think tanks in Europe that put out ‘independent’ policy reports in line with regime positions. In Britain, some provide support to All-Party Parliamentary Groups (cross-party groups of MPs and Lords whose work can be funded by non-Parliamentary sources) focused on their countries, gaining advocates able to speak for their interests in Parliamentary debates.
Finally, the FPC notes that Russia and other former Soviet states have a strong understanding of brand, and regularly use the hosting of international sport and cultural events for their brand promotion. For example, the Azerbaijan government used its hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest to showcase its newfound petroleum wealth, portraying Baku as a Caspian Dubai, and create a smokescreen for ongoing human rights violations. Azerbaijan has gone on to host several other international events since then including the 2015 European Games, the 2016 European Grand Prix and the 2016 World Sailing Championships to enhance its brand.
While fake news and cyber-attacks get all the attention, it is important that PR and public affairs practitioners remain conscious of the way Russia and other foreign powers use proven PR tactics to influence western politics. Shaping opinions is a subtle art and as such the most strategically effective tactics slip beneath the headlines.