I’ve recently had the chance to view two documentaries on a growing concern in U.S.-Russia relations. Many experts agree that we’re behind the curve in addressing it and that it’s more pervasive than we want to admit. The threat I’m referring to is the Kremlin’s sophisticated campaign to spread false information and create confusion and doubt in public opinion through the manipulation of media in the West. The apparent goal is to divide Western alliances and bring diplomacy and economic activities back to a bilateral level, which Putin presumably prefers over conducting business with NATO and the EU.
The Master Plan is a joint Baltic production by Re:Baltica – The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism, Mistrus Media (Latvia), Monoklis (Lithuania) and Allfilm (Estonia) film studios. The screening I attended was held by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank on Capitol Hill. It was followed by a panel discussion with the three Baltic ambassadors to the U.S. and two of the filmmakers. Introductory remarks by the filmmakers and the panel discussion are available for viewing at The Heritage Foundation’s website.
The approximately 50-minute film documents the Kremlin’s evolving use of revisionism and propaganda starting from the end of its war in Georgia in 2008. It shows the use of disinformation as a tool to prime Ukraine’s Russian population for the 2014 invasion and to validate Putin’s actions in the continuing occupation. The parallel campaign in the Baltics is different since the Russian speakers there are less sympathetic to Mother Russia’s influence, but stirring doubt in the veracity of all media outlets there, both Western and Russian-funded, supports the Kremlin’s cause. This applies also to the 100 other countries where Russia reportedly spends $100 million annually on NGOs that spread pro-Moscow messages, whether backed by truth, or more often, not. The film features interviews with several high-profile experts on NATO, U.S. policy and Russian soft power.
The filmmakers warned us before the screening that while it wouldn’t be pleasant to watch, there was also no reason to despair; it’s a problem we know about and just need to deal with. I have to say, I did leave the auditorium with a sense of gloom that has since been compounded by U.S. expert assessments on our lack of preparedness for such a threat. While I don’t think Estonia is in immediate danger of a Ukraine-like invasion, I often wonder how much of the current rhetoric and unstable political climate we witness on the news is fueled by Putin’s trolls.
If the first film left me gloomy, War 2020: Russia’s Information Aggression, by Lithuanian filmmakers Martynas Starkus and Jonas Banys , was more of an assault on my peace-loving senses. It took a flashier, more aggressive approach to drive home a point similar to The Master Plan: the Kremlin has far-reaching fingers that are actively promoting instability and unrest throughout the West through media manipulation. Its interviews focus on former trolls who were in the system, realized what was going on, and then left and were brave enough to speak openly about the manipulation they witnessed.
Both films are compelling and worth the 50 minutes to an hour each to get through them. War 2020 is available on YouTube. The Master Plan unfortunately requires finding a place that’s screening it. My Google searches for a schedule have been unsuccessful, but Re:Baltica’s website seems like the most likely place to check for updates. I’ve e-mailed them for more information and will keep you posted once I hear back.
If these films motivate you to take action, related legislation currently in Congress would benefit from your support. In the Senate, the Countering Information Warfare Act (S.2692) targets deliberate disinformation campaigns by several countries, including Russia and China, to undermine U.S. interests and Western values here and overseas. The House has a companion bill, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016 (H.R. 5181), that centers on a comprehensive strategy to fight disinformation through an interagency approach. A call or e-mail to your Members of Congress would raise their awareness of the issue and could prompt them to put their support behind the bills.
In any case, I recommend the films and am interested in your impressions – hope to hear from you soon!