The Open Lie of RT News

On Tuesday, the Kremlin-backed media outlet RT reportedly received notice of its obligation to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, which would serve to identify it as a representative of the political interests of the Russian Federation. Although this notice has not been confirmed by the Justice Department, the report has sparked new discussion over how to handle the modern propaganda arm of a nation state in a country that legally enshrines the right of free speech. 

In her response, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan signaled precisely the tone her publication would take, referencing ‘the war waged by the US establishment’ against its journalists, exposing their victimization to the ‘starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech’. This theme is one that is tried and true for the Kremlin, and if we don’t respond appropriately, the Department of Justice risks reinforcing one of the more prevalent narratives of the Russian disinformation campaign. 

If you’ve ever wondered why people of different political persuasions can see the same piece of information and come to two completely different conclusions, the answer is ‘narrative’. Narrative is the lens through which people make sense of the world. It’s what people remember about an event when they forget the facts and details, and how they reject the parts that don’t fit the mold. Despite the fact that each of us believes we arrived there through careful consideration, narrative is what shapes our ideology. And narratives are what Russian propagandists push through carefully designed stories to achieve the outcomes they desire.

One of the most prevalent narratives is one in which the United States cynically exploits the principles it purports to hold in order to advance raw self interest. That it has no real dedication to the values it aggressively pushes on the rest of the world, values like representative, participatory governance, the objective application of the law, or freedom of the press. For every time the Kremlin openly accuses the United States of hypocrisy, it reinforces the message a hundred times indirectly. The narrative doesn’t stick if all you do is plainly state it, the only way it achieves its goal is if people integrate it into their own framework. 

Should the federal government expose the ways in which the Kremlin is exploiting these values to advance its interests? Absolutely, which is what they did back in December with the unclassified Office of the Director of National Intelligence report on Russian activities and intentions in the 2016 election. The opposite of this, in which the Kremlin accuses investigative journalists of being foreign agents attempting to influence domestic politics, only has credibility with the people who think the Kremlin’s opinion on public discourse is credible. Everyone else knows it’s a playbook attempt to discredit the messenger. 

But when you make the messenger a martyr, you obfuscate their actual flaws, and suddenly the discussion about journalistic freedom in America isn’t about access to the President, or the frequency with which he casts the press as an enemy of the people, but rather journalistic freedom as it relates to the media outlet of a hostile foreign government.

We shouldn’t try to play their game, because it’s their game for a reason. It’s customized to use their strengths and exploit our weaknesses, and if we try to do the same thing in reverse, it will not only fail but look foolish trying.

It’s a game that can be defanged when it’s exposed, but only when done right. The ability of a bureaucracy to exert pressure on civil society, in whatever form, is the value of a regime which knows it does not enjoy the support of its people and cannot take the risk of allowing that to flourish. The right way to handle RT is not to require it to register as a foreign agent under FARA, but to forcefully undercut the narrative.

To respond to Ambassador Michael McFaul’s question “Why does Bob Dole have to register and RT doesn’t?”, the reason is that in order to properly weight the words and actions of public-facing Bob Dole, we have to know the interests of private-facing Bob Dole. A foreign agent is only influential inasmuch as you are not aware he is a foreign agent. With RT there is no such split identity, because an open lie is not as insidious as a hidden deception.

Since the purpose of FARA is to expose conflicts of interest through transparency, if you didn’t already know what FARA is, hearing the news that RT is now required to register won’t make much of a difference. If you are familiar with it, you likely already know enough about foreign agents, influence peddling, and lobbyists to know what RT does, whose interests it serves, and why. If, however, this is an unfamiliar world to you, then the claim that this is just the US government restricting the rights of journalists because they don’t parrot the right script, simply because their employer is located overseas, may find a tiny foothold in some pre-existing cynicism in your worldview.

It may even make you inclined to defend a media outlet whose only purpose is to represent the Kremlin’s interest to an English-speaking audience, or if not defend, at least go take a look to see what it is the DOJ finds so objectionable. This is a clearly counterproductive outcome, where the defense of a value becomes the defense of a perverse symbol of that value. What’s worse than counterproductive is engendering sympathy and support, not for the value, but the narrative of hypocrisy that gave that perverse symbol its influence in the first place. 

If the Department of Justice instead held a press conference, it should start with something like this:

“Following Russia’s unprecedented attack on our democratic process during the 2016 election, our country is engaging in an important debate. How do we properly respond to the abuse of the very values that undergird our society, the freedom to have and express dissenting ideas, without perpetuating the proliferation of falsehoods designed to inflame and divide? Autocratic regimes abuse the trappings and labels of democracy to paper over their shortcomings as leaders; but it is our ability to have this debate that strengthens us as a country...” 


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