Christian Caryl

How to Win the Information War against Vladimir Putin

The best antidote to propaganda isn't counterpropaganda. It's access to accurate information.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Let me tell you a little story about Turkmenistan, a country that rarely makes it into the news. (Bear with me, it’ll be worth it.)

Turkmenistan is about as absolute a dictatorship as you can get in the modern world. The current president, who goes by the unpronounceable name of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has reigned unchallenged since 2006. (In the photo above, protester carry a massive photo of Berdymukhamedov during an independence day parade in 2009.) His predecessor for the previous 16 years, Saparmurat Niyazov, was famous for adorning the capital with a big golden statue of himself that turned with the sun. Niyazov, who gave himself the title of “Father of the Turkmens,” also published his own sayings in a book that became required reading for every citizen, and renamed the months of the year according to his own family tree.

Berdymukhamedov doesn’t go quite to the same despotic lengths (though he has been known to order state television, the only kind in Turkmenistan, to broadcast videos of his singing performances). Yet there is no doubt in his country about who rules the roost. Courts, civil servants, and professors are all expected to do the president’s bidding without a second thought. The secret police are ubiquitous. Opponents of the regime can expect to be abducted or tortured. In terms of press freedom, the country ranks 178 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. (Now there’s something to think about as we prepare to celebrate World Press Freedom Day tomorrow.)

All of which is why the recent track record of the Turkmen-speaking journalists of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty deserves some notice. RFE/RL is a U.S.-government funded broadcaster that has the task of providing “surrogate journalism” to autocracies around the world. The mission is to fill the hole left from the suppression of media in those countries (hence the “surrogate” part) by producing solid, professional reporting about them in their native languages that is sent back by radio and the Internet.

The current head of RFE’s Turkmen Service, Muhammad Tahir, has taken this job to heart. (Full disclosure: I worked as RFE/RL’s Washington Bureau Chief for one year, from 2010 to 2011, and Muhammad was one of my good friends there.) Before Muhammad became director, the Turkmen Service was a bit too much like Turkmenistan itself: Its programming featured lots of long, turgid segments featuring Turkmen dissidents (many of whom hadn’t been in the country for years) droning on about the failures of the regime. Fair enough, I guess. The problem was that there wasn’t much in the way of actual news. “It was all about big stories that had nothing to do with people’s lives,” Muhammad told me. “The key was making it relevant.”

Muhammad decided to take a different approach. He invited the service’s radio listeners in Turkmenistan to tell him and his reporters what stories they wanted to hear, and restructured the website to make it more open and interactive. The service set up a toll-free number in Moscow, easily accessible from Turkmenistan, that allowed listeners to call in and leave messages, as well as numbers that people could text to using their mobile phones.

It turned out that Turkmens had a lot of pressing, everyday problems that neither the state-controlled media nor the previous incarnation of the RFE Turkmen Service had really troubled to cover. Listeners started supplying Muhammad’s journalists with tips about breaking stories, sometimes backed up with cell phone video. The RFE correspondents then did their own reporting to see whether the tips checked out, and once a story was deemed solid and newsworthy, it was broadcast back into the country. “This started the feeling that we’re doing something credible, reliable,” Muhammad told me. “And it started to have an effect on people’s lives.” His audience has rewarded the shift in emphasis.

The number of visitors to the Turkmen Service’s website, for example, shot up from a few hundred per day in November 2011, before Muhammad became director, to roughly 14,000 per day by the end of 2013. The number of “likes” on the Turkmen Service’s Facebook page went up from 217 in November 2011 to just over 13,000 today — even though both of these sites remain blocked in Turkmenistan itself. (Many Turkmens now live outside the country’s borders, especially in Russia. So it’s easier for them to get access to the content, which they then share with their families back home.)

So what sort of stories are we talking about? Their sources inside the country told the RFE journalists, for example, that school kids had been sent out to the fields by local officials to pick cotton — in violation of Turkmenistan’s own laws. Not long after the story aired, the powers-that-be relented, allowing the kids to go back to class. There have been many other cases in which government officials have seen their failings exposed to the glare of public scrutiny.

Muhammad’s journalists haven’t confined themselves to doing public service, either: They’ve also been tackled plenty of big, national stories, such as the rising pressure on Turkmenistan’s borders from insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan. The point is that they do far more than before to incorporate feedback from their audience and make sure that their stories are relevant. Needless to say, the Turkmen government has tried to push back in every way it can, ranging from detaining RFE correspondents to cyber-censorship. But for the moment RFE’s journalists are still getting the stories.

So why am I going on about this? It’s simple: The crisis in Ukraine is showing us once again how powerful propaganda can be. Vladimir Putin’s state-controlled information machine is sweeping all before it, using slick, state-of-the-art production values and psychologically sophisticated content to put across the message that Kremlin is simply trying to protect the rights of embattled Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former USSR. To be sure, the reporting involved is often downright nonsensical — but Putin and his cronies have dedicated so much money and resources to the task that the Russian version of reality ends up dominating the airwaves, 24/7. And it’s being broadcast around the region, into Ukraine and beyond.

As Foreign Policy‘s John Hudson reported earlier this week, some U.S. lawmakers apparently now believe that the way to counter Russia’s information offensive is by supplying propaganda of our own. The code for this is “messaging” — in other words, the priority should be on “getting America’s message out.” That seems to be the idea, for example, behind the recent reforms proposed for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the supposedly independent public corporation that oversees Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and other government-financed broadcasters. The logic behind this thinking is clear: “Why are we paying all this money for overseas news when the journalists we’re paying for sometimes say things we don’t like?”

The reason is simple. The people who live in these countries already spend a lot of their lives listening to news pumped out by governments with an axe to grind. And that’s precisely why accurate, professional journalism can have a profound impact — especially when it’s not trying to persuade them of some particular viewpoint (such as “messaging” about the inherent superiority of the American system). The model of surrogate journalism practiced by journalists like Muhammad and his colleagues at RFE (and their sister broadcaster, Radio Free Asia) is exactly the right one. (For the record: I’m also a big fan of the BBC World Service and the BBC’s various foreign-language arms, which have long wooed listeners and viewers in repressive societies like Burma, Iran, and China with their high, professional standard of reporting.)

If you stick to this model, you’ll sometimes end up broadcasting criticism of the United States and its policies. And that’s all for the good — because it will show audiences that the reporters aren’t beholden to a particular line. And, lest we forget, criticizing the government is a fundamentally American value, too.

But we do need to tweak the model a bit. To compete effectively with Putin’s Russia and other autocracies, the United States needs to beef up its efforts dramatically. What the U.S. government currently spends on international broadcasting is a joke. (RFE/RL’s current annual budget is about $95 million, the price of a couple of helicopters.) We need to spend a lot more money, and we need to spend it much more effectively — perhaps by getting the private sector involved. (Looking at you, Google.) The trend in recent years has been more money for bureaucrats and less for journalists, which is, needless to say, getting it ass-backwards. And, to be sure, U.S.-sponsored journalism efforts should use social media far more aggressively, but we also need to find creative ways to challenge the autocrats’ hold on national TV networks, which is usually their most effective tool.

Above all, we need to find ways to let audiences get involved and active, to speak up about the problems of their own societies. That’s important not only because it’s precisely what Putin and other dictators don’t want to allow. It’s also important because this is one of the most elementary ingredients of democracy. If we’re really serious about convincing people of the virtues of our system, you’d think we’d be serious about this.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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