Kremlin media polarize and undermine democratic processes in Europe using a new form of expansive digital authoritarianism that threatens the achievements of liberal democracies, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel.
Studies about content offered by Russia Today have uncovered reporting framed as an 'evil elite' ruling over 'good people'
Since 2013, almost all European states have been on the receiving end of information operations by the Kremlin in order to influence political decision-making in democratic processes from outside. This is according to the interactive internet tool Authoritarian Interference Tracker developed by the German Marshall Fund which lists the Russian state's interference in other countries in detail. In order to manipulate public discussions, especially in times of elections or referendums, information providers controlled by the Kremlin have purposefully disseminated disinformation, extremely hyperpartisan news and populist narratives. This is not an extension of pluralism of opinion through balanced and objective information that is acceptable in the sense of a free public sphere, but rather illegitimate interference.
These novel disinformation campaigns exploit the increased information overload experienced by people in the digital world. They flood the information space with a multitude of lies, half-truths or absurd news. It is not at all a question of disseminating new knowledge or arguments about an event or aspect. Rather, it is a matter of unsettling citizens as information consumers by intensified "information noise." Facts that have been confirmed are lost or devalued as one of several possibilities.
Russia has been joined by China and other authoritarian countries in carrying out influencing operations in order to manipulate social discussions in democratic states. Under the guise of an alleged contribution to freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, the free possibilities of an "open society" (Karl Popper) are deliberately used to combat it. At the same time, authoritarian states take repressive action against their own national free media and develop into "digital dictatorships." It is a new form of expansive digital authoritarianism that threatens the achievements of liberal democracies.
The political-strategic goal is to undermine democratic processes. This is why the narrative of the "evil elite" ruling over the "good people" making elections are therefore pointless can be found as a continuous theme in the reporting of the Kremlin-funded RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik. Numerous EU case studies on disinformation have proven this. The Marxist narrative of "capitalists" who subjugate the "proletariat," known from Soviet times has thus been replaced and transferred into a postmodern populist version. And as in Soviet times, this anti-elitist narrative is often supplemented by anti-American resentments.
'The undemocratic nature of the Russian system is to be concealed and the power of President Vladimir Putin legitimized'
Another narrative is to ascribe political dysfunction to Western democracies. In a British study on RT and Sputnik published this spring, Gordon Ramsay and Sam Robertshaw of the Policy Institute of London's King's College came to the conclusion that of the 2,641 articles on domestic issues in Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Ukraine, 2,157 articles (81.7 percent) contained frames relating to political dysfunction.
By devaluing democratic processes in Europe, the undemocratic nature of the Russian system is to be concealed and the power of President Vladimir Putin legitimized. Moreover, Kremlin interference in Europe is aimed at weakening political groups and parties that oppose the president's policies and demand sanctions for the Kremlin. Medial support in Putin's media is usually directed at populist parties in Europe or protest movements like the Yellow Vests in France. A recent study conducted by the campaign platform Avaaz documented the extent to which the Kremlin-controlled foreign broadcaster RT has concentrated on the Yellow Vest movement in its French programming.
The rise of populist parties in Europe certainly has a multitude of political, historical, cultural, economic and social causes. But unmistakably, the Kremlin, with its controlled media, acts as an amplifier of such tendencies by spreading populist narratives, polarizing propaganda and disinformation.