The much-anticipated Office of the Director of Intelligence (DNI) Report—the combined assessment of the CIA, FBI, DHS and others—on alleged attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 election was released on Friday to a combination of uncritical boosting and underwhelmed perplexity. To many, it was further proof of Russia’s involvement in the DNC and Podesta hacks; to others–even to typically bullish Daily Beast–it was remarkably thin on details and evidence.
As the New York Times (1/6/16) noted in paragraph five of their report on the release, “The declassified report contained no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions.” The Guardian (1/6/16) conceded that the report itself “lacks detail.” So what was in it?
Filler, mostly. Indeed, the most bizarre part about the release was that it dedicated considerable effort—approximately 40 percent of the report’s content—to the Kremlin-financed Russia Today cable network. Skimming the PDF, one could easily miss the notation buried at the bottom of page six that this section was, in fact, cut and pasted from a 2012 paper on RT from the Open Source Enterprise, a federal intelligence office “dedicated to collecting, analyzing and disseminating publicly available information of intelligence value” (Secrecy News, 10/28/16).
It’s unclear why the DNI, with a budget of $53 billion, couldn’t borrow an intern from the Atlantic Council or the Institute of Modern Russia or the Foreign Policy Research Institute or the dozens of other think tanks dedicated to hand-wringing over the Russian “information war” to update a crucial section of its hugely consequential report.
A sizable chunk of the report that was supposed to silence skeptics of the government’s claims of Russian involvement in political hacking, then, was an Intro to Marketing-style powerpoint on a modestly funded foreign cable channel. One rarely gets to watch the US government officially engage in media criticism, and the exercise is a useful window into official thinking.
In the report’s worldview, any and all criticism of the social fabric of the United states is seen as sinister propaganda. Seemingly hard-to-deny problems like Wall Street greed and civil liberties abuse get the dismissive “alleged” treatment:
…programming that highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties…
In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of democracy” in the United States.…
…alleged Wall Street greed….
…allege widespread infringements of civil liberties….
A focus on an utterly routine liberal concern like the environmental hazards of fracking is interpreted as a conspiracy with Russia’s oil companies to undercut natural gas:
RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability (5 October).
Same goes for RT’s Occupy Wall Street coverage. The DNI even employs scare quotes for “the ruling class”:
RT aired a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement on 1, 2 and 4 November. RT framed the movement as a fight against “the ruling class” and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations. RT advertising for the documentary featured Occupy movement calls to “take back” the government. The documentary claimed that the US system cannot be changed democratically, but only through “revolution.”
Whether or not these claims are objectively true is never really discussed. The distinction between fact and fiction is unimportant to the US government, and, by extension, to those parroting the report; what matters is, “Does it make the United States look bad?” The implication is that if RT didn’t exist, issues such as “Wall Street greed” and fracking would be overlooked. If true, what does this say about the health of our press?
Would the average American not think our democracy corrupt if it weren’t for the pesky Russians? If an idea we’ve been protected from seems plausible when we’re finally exposed to it, that in itself seems like evidence of a much broader systemic media failure.
Other ideas that the US government thinks are “supportive of [Russia’s] political agenda” are “broadcasting, hosting, and advertising third-party debates” by Green and Libertarian candidates. Serving those who feel underserved, politically, by our corporate media is here a subversive act in urgent need of Washington’s attention.
Clearly, RT’s primary editorial mandate is to be critical of the United States, as Voice of America and USAID’s mandate is to bring criticisms to unfriendly countries that might otherwise go unheard. When Washington does this, it’s seen as a noble enterprise in the service of free thought, whereas Moscow’s similar efforts place RT in the “foreign propaganda” category, viewed as inherently sinister.
In line with the report’s strangely out-of-date framing, the bulk of its criticism focuses on shows like Breaking the Set and Truthseeker that have been off the air for years. While a 2012 analysis of RT could have provided useful background to a broader breakdown of 2016 Russian influence, that it constituted so much of the report suggests it’s largely padding, meant more to scare the readers than inform them.
Key context is also missing from the report. Despite the (wildly outdated) charts showing RT running up the clicks and views, the reality is RT still has a relatively small impact on the average American’s media diet. The chart the DNI uses to show RT’s YouTube reach, for example, isn’t anywhere near correct. While it’s not clear what the 2012 figures were, the DNI’s claim that RT’s YouTube channel has 8.5 times more views than CNN’s and 3.5 times the subscribers is off massively. While it’s true RT does have more YouTube subscribers and views (due, no doubt, to the fact that CNN’s primary media player is its own), it only does so by about 20 percent, not 850 percent and 350 percent, respectively.
According to the Daily Beast (9/17/15), RT programming reaches fewer than 30,000 Americans per day, or roughly 0.3 percent the viewership of Judge Judy (though RT, predictably, disputes these figures). RT.com, according to Alexa rankings, is the 542nd most popular website in the United States. The New York Times, by contrast, is 32nd, FoxNews.com 48th and CNN.com 20th. RT falls a full 100 slots below the official website of the Mormon church.
There could be entire server farms dedicated to storing articles “warning” Americans about the reach of RT and its pernicious effects on our otherwise healthy and liberal body politic. The point of these stories—en masse, if not each individually—is to warn that a creeping foreign enemy is out to trick American citizens into thinking their establishment, and the status quo it maintains, are illegitimate.
It’s not hard to see that RT, like Voice of America, is intended to serve the foreign policy goals of the government that funds it. But the panic of the US establishment in the face of a relatively inconsequential foreign troll says a lot more about its desire to protect its fragile status as the arbiter of information than it does about the menace of Moscow-funded talkshows.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.