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Sat Mar 26, 2022, 02:58 PM

New Yorker: How to Flood Putin's "Information Desert"

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/how-to-flood-putins-information-desert

non-paywall link:
https://archive.ph/DQwP9

On March 3rd—a week after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and hours before his government criminalized independent reporting on the war—a Russian-language video started to circulate, offering an eerie glimpse of the era that had begun. In a series of short interviews on the streets of Russian cities, pedestrians reacted to news photos of the devastation in Ukraine of a kind not allowed on official airwaves. A fifty-ish woman wearing cat’s-eye glasses recoiled from the pictures, and declared, “I support Putin.” A young man in a black parka, choosing his words carefully, said, “I would rather not talk about it, because it can be dangerous here. I’d rather abstain. I’m for peace. I don’t want war.” But the most common reaction was a tone of genuine bewilderment as expressed by a middle-aged man in a black cap, who laughed nervously and said, “Putin couldn’t do this. Invade Ukraine?” He peered again at photos of a bombed-out building and of a woman’s bloodied, bandaged face, and added wanly, “It’s not what they are saying on the news. I didn’t hear that Putin sent troops to start a war.”

The video—which spread widely, racking up at least sixteen million views—was not the product of local YouTubers or activists on Telegram. It was a piece of journalism by Russian freelancers working for Nastoyashcheye Vremya, or Current Time, a twenty-four-hour Russian-language television and digital channel that has broadcast from Prague since 2017—and which is funded by the U.S. Congress. Part of a system that traces its roots to the Cold War, Current Time is a product of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in coöperation with the Voice of America, two pillars of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, a branch of the American government that has grown over the decades to encompass five news networks and a technology incubator. (Though it is tempting to assume that these are propaganda outlets—and the Trump Administration attempted to make them precisely that—anyone who has tuned in recently knows that their news programs often cover negative features of American life. Their purpose is more fundamental; as the agency puts it, they seek to provide “unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted.”)

In the decades since the end of the Cold War, Voice of America and its lesser-known partners have struggled, at times, to make a case for their existence. In 2020, the conservative magazine National Review asked why taxpayers were “shelling out $200 million a year for VOA in an Internet age saturated with media sources.” But the war has demonstrated that, for all the reach of citizen journalists and the battlefield coverage on cable news, filling the void left for Russian speakers is precisely what publicly funded media and technology are equipped to do. In addition to the clip from Current Time, other Russian videos from U.S.-backed news agencies have attracted hundreds of millions of views. There are clips of Ukrainian citizens upbraiding Russian troops, firsthand testimony of families who were shelled in the city of Kharkiv, and a selection of blatant falsehoods from Putin’s speeches about the war.

The demand for such content has grown in step with Russia’s efforts to isolate its population from access to unfiltered information. Since March 4th, when the Duma imposed potential jail sentences for reporters who deviate from the Kremlin’s line, major independent outlets, including TV Rain and the radio station Echo of Moscow, have shut down. Many Western news organizations have left the country, and the Russian government has blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Yet the more surprising fact is how broadly those efforts are being subverted. One way or another, Russian citizens are tunnelling under firewalls to reach publicly funded broadcasters, such as the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. In the weeks after the Kremlin shut down access to VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Current Time, traffic to their Russian content nevertheless doubled, compared with before the war. Their videos recorded at least a billion views on Facebook and other digital platforms.

more at link above

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