Russia’s fighting a media war, too, with platforms, regulators, and business partners

Most of the international community is treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a gross violation of its sovereignty and international law. (Even the famously neutral Swiss are on board.) But the response being summoned isn’t just about economic sanctions or sending weapons — it’s also happening at the level of media.

There are two major fronts being engaged: the mostly U.S.-owned digital platforms through which Russians and Ukrainians communicate with each other and with the world, and the propaganda machinery Russia has managed to build inside Western countries. The pace of change has been dizzying, but here are a few of the most significant.

The platforms want to stop Russian propaganda outlets from making money.

Propaganda outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) aren’t meant to be moneymakers, but the advertising infrastructure that allows them to generate revenue is nonetheless pushing back. Here’s Facebook:

(It has always been strange, but after the past week, doesn’t it feel absolutely bizarre that so many American cable systems and even radio stations have been happy to take the Kremlin’s money to push out its propaganda? And newspapers’ hands aren’t clean either; to name just one, The Washington Post has for decades run entire print sections of Kremlin- and China-supplied messaging as “paid supplements.” Between 2016 and 2020, China spent more than $12 million on advertorial in major U.S. newspapers, including the Post, the L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal, and even the Des Moines Register. And I haven’t even mentioned the Saudis.)

Here’s a poll found in the ⁦⁦⁦@washingtonpost⁩ that says 49% of Russians don’t oppose web censorship.

— John Ashbrook (@JohnAshbrook) August 3, 2019

Politicians and regulators both apply and feel that same pressure.

In the U.K.:

Labour has called for a ban on the Russian state-backed broadcaster RT, accusing the channel of pumping out pro-Vladimir Putin “propaganda”.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, told MPs that the Russian president’s “campaign of misinformation should be tackled”, starting with moves to prevent RT from “broadcasting its propaganda around the world”.

The English-language channel is regulated by Ofcom, which said on Monday it would prioritise any complaints about any broadcast coverage of Ukraine “given the seriousness of the crisis”.

“All licensees must observe Ofcom’s rules, including due accuracy and due impartiality,” an Ofcom spokesperson said. “If broadcasters break those rules, we will not hesitate to step in.”

In Europe:

The European Union will ban Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday.

Saying that the EU will ban “Kremlin’s media machine,” von der Leyen added that “state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries, will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union.”

“We are developing tools to ban the toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe,” von der Leyen said.

Here in the U.S.:

The Federal Communications Commission is on the hunt for companies it oversees that may have ownership ties to Russia, in a prelude to possible clampdowns following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The internal assessment, which has not been previously reported or publicly announced, was launched this week by FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, according to a person familiar with the matter. It follows mounting scrutiny of Russian-backed programming on US airwaves, social media and other channels as the war in Ukraine unfolds.

Europe refuses to give Russia the cover of cultural exchange.

Throughout the Cold War, cultural diplomacyart exhibitions and concerts, people-to-people exchanges, the Peace Corps, and so on — were used by both sides to reduce tensions and to promote its view of the world. It may seem silly, but decisions like Eurovision booting Russia from its upcoming song contest is a meaningful attempt to block its use of that tool:

“The decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute,” the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said in a statement. The decision to punish Russia culturally for invading Ukraine comes a day after the same group had said Moscow would be allowed to send an act to appear at the next Eurovision, scheduled to be held in Turin, Italy, in May.

Ukraine’s public broadcasting company had asked for Russia to be suspended from the popular contest, which is watched by almost 200 million people each year. But the EBU, which has organized the contest since 1956, had insisted Eurovision was “a non-political cultural event”…

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Friday urged sporting federations around the world to pull events from Russia and Belarus, a Moscow ally that allowed Russian forces to use its territory to attack Ukraine…The Russian Grand Prix has also been canceled by Formula One, while the Champions League final is set to be moved from St. Petersburg. In New York City, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a friend and ally to President Vladimir Putin, was barred from leading performances of the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

Photo of a pro-Ukraine protest in Brussels Feb. 27, 2022 by Bartosz Brzezinski used under a Creative Commons license.

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