At the same time, authoritarian regimes, led by Russia but closely followed by China, have begun investing heavily in the production of alternatives. Because national media is often weak, it has become far easier for channels such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik (a Russian “news” agency) to establish credibility in smaller European markets. But even in larger countries, the Russian use of social media as well as a huge range of online vehicles — “news” websites, information portals, trolls — are beginning to have an impact. Chancellor Angela Merkel tasked Germany’s spy agency with investigating the Russian use of propaganda in Germany after a fake story about a girl allegedly raped by a refugee blew up into a major scandal, thanks in part to a concerted Russian online effort.
The messages have little in common with Cold War propaganda. Russia does not seek to promote itself, but rather to undermine the institutions of the West, often using discordant messages. RT pumps out scare stories about migrants, and also portrays the West as racist and xenophobic. Russian-backed websites promote conspiracy theories — 9/11 was an “inside job,” Zika was created by the CIA — while ridiculing the excellent Western investigative journalism that revealed the ties among Russian politics, business, organized crime and intelligence.
These messages, which are picked up and used by both far-left and far-right political parties across Europe, chime with Kremlin foreign policy goals. The European Union is a particular target, and no wonder: The E.U. has been instrumental in weaning the continent away from dependence on Russian gas and in dismantling the corrupt and exploitative Russian gas-export model in Eastern Europe. NATO, which belatedly is coming to grips with the real threat that Russia poses to some of its members, is regularly cast as an aggressor.