Putin's troll factories

How Moscow controls access to western media

The World Today Published 31 July 2015 Updated 11 March 2022 2 minute READ

Events in Ukraine over the past 17 months have focused world attention on the extraordinary efforts made by Russia to subvert media narratives and shift public opinion over the cause and course of the crisis.

There are two aspects of this Russian approach to ‘information warfare’: first, the outward-facing campaigns of disinformation and propaganda, designed to blunt or divert criticism of Russian actions already carried out and prepare the ground for further steps in the future; and second, the internal efforts to isolate the Russian population from a true picture of events both in the outside world and in their own country.

These efforts help the Russian authorities promote the notion of a Russia under threat from an aggressive, expansionist West, by preventing domestic media users from measuring against reality.

Foreign broadcasters are under pressure to demonstrate that they can reach Russian audiences, in the way they did during the Cold War, and provide an antidote to the alternative reality presented by Russian state media. But new obstacles stand in their way. In some respects, it is even more challenging for interested Russians to access the full range of information from the outside world now than it was then.

During the Cold War, those living under Communist regimes who wished to hear news from abroad could do so with a shortwave radio. In the period of relative media freedom in Russia that followed, several foreign broadcasters dropped these services and moved to rebroadcasting in major Russian cities, partnering with local FM stations. The BBC World Service, for instance, ceased analogue shortwave transmissions to Europe in 2007-8. But once Russia decided to reduce the penetration of foreign media, those FM rebroadcasting arrangements were slowly closed down.

For Russia, this was part of implementing the requirements of its information security doctrine of ‘securing national information space’, and protecting it against ‘breaches’ – concepts that are unfamiliar for the West. The measures include both overt and more subtle means of constraining and directing the domestic news agenda, in both traditional media and social media.

These measures combine to mean that Russia still manages to influence domestic opinion, despite relatively few restrictions on internet content or the availability of foreign media.

In part, this is because of the limited role of online media within Russia as an independent source of information. Multiple studies have highlighted the dominant role of television in informing Russian society, with internet sources following TV’s lead. And where the online debate threatens to depart from the approved narrative, Russia’s system of trolls and bots comes into play to divert or swamp discussion. Large numbers of salaried ‘trolls’ posting officially approved content and attacking dissenters are augmented by networks of bots, automated social media accounts, which are developing in sophistication to frustrate detection by quantitative and technical analysis.

However, two further distinctive obstacles lie between the Russian internet media user and the outside world, known by their Russian abbreviations of InoSMI and SORM.

InoSMI is a foreign media selection and translation service, widely used by domestic media in Russia and available directly to readers via its own website. It purports to provide direct translations of foreign media coverage, and so gives the impression of providing access to the outside world’s view of events. In reality, both the selection and translation are highly subjective, and skewed to support the approved state narrative on events – so there is a bias towards translation of western media reportage either from sources which are broadly supportive of Russian policy, or conversely, those that criticize and attack Russia, ideally in unreasonable or irrational terms.

SORM is the Russian state system for recording information on internet use. Unlike similar systems in the West, it has always been an overt and publicly acknowledged security measure, and broadly accepted in Russian society as an element of the balance between individual privacy and national security. The paradox is that unlike the Cold War, when it was possible to listen to foreign broadcasts entirely in secret, now it is not possible to access foreign media online without the knowledge of the authorities.

The pressure will continue for external broadcasting services in the West to step up efforts to challenge Moscow’s near-monopoly on news and information in Russia. But given the highly effective systems Russia has put in place to prevent this, western media will need to come up with new ideas to reach the Russian public in the way they wish.