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Inside Russia’s propaganda machine

July 11, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
For years, the Kremlin and the media it controls have waged a multifaceted information (and disinformation) campaign inside Russia and pointed at its perceived adversaries, including the U.S. As part of our week-long series Inside Putin's Russia, special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin report on the information wars, in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to our week-long series, Inside Putin’s Russia.

For years, the Kremlin and the media it controls have waged a multifaceted information and disinformation campaign both inside Russia, and pointed at its perceived adversaries. And last year, that effort crescendoed here during the U.S. presidential campaign.

Tonight, we look at the information war.

With the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin begin their report in Moscow.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In Russia, whoever controls the media controls the country. And Saturday nights are Sergey Brilev’s. The 44-year-old is an anchor for Russia One. It’s the country’s most popular channel, and it’s state-owned.

Do you think that that means you have a Russian perspective when you report?

SERGEY BRILEV, Russia One: Well, of course there’s a Russian perspective. There is a perspective of your country in any reporting.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Brilev says he doesn’t feel pressure to push the government’s line. During the show we saw, he challenged a government minister about police jailing a former theater director who’s a government critic.

READ MORE: These Soviet propaganda posters once evoked heroism, pride and anxiety

SERGEY BRILEV: I imagine that tomorrow — tonight, after the broadcast, I may have some security agencies, and saying, what does he think he’s saying?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Russian state media have long delivered the government perspective and rallied the public behind it. Brilev denies that’s his job. But he hints at whose job it is.

SERGEY BRILEV: The Sunday program, which is quite conservative in Western terms, ultra-conservative, I would say.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Aggressive, perhaps?

SERGEY BRILEV: Well, FOX News-style.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Sunday night anchor Dmitry Kiselyov is part Sean Hannity, part Stephen Colbert. He’s crass and entertaining, and widely believed to reflect the Kremlin’s thinking.

DMITRY KISELYOV (through interpreter): The American press is driving Trump into a bullfight with no rules. The aim is impeachment. No pretext? It will be created, invented, engineered, exaggerated. CIA staff hackers are hiding behind another name, for example, behind the so-called Russian hackers.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Kiselyov started targeting Russia’s opponents in 2012 after massive protests threatened President Vladimir Putin, says journalist and author Mikhail Zygar.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR, Journalist, Author: That was very important to start hating the enemies. That’s the point when the audience starts believing you.

DMITRY KISELYOV (through interpreter): Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Until 2015, Zygar was the anchor and editor in chief of TV Rain. In a sea of state media, TV Rain was an independent TV island.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR: We have had the reputation of the only TV channel that is trying to make real investigations.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In 2014, TV Rain accused the Kremlin’s chief political strategist of corruption.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR: There was a very short, but very effective campaign against us. I was getting like hundreds of personal messages with people wishing me death. Then all the major networks had direct phone calls from Kremlin and they had to switch us off.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Within one month, their audience dropped from 20 million to 60,000.

Protesters fought to keep them on the air. But targeting critical media is nothing new. In the last six years, the Kremlin targeted 12 critical newsrooms.

Zygar says state TV tries to convince Russians to support their government by replacing reality with a carefully crafted message.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR: Democracy does not exist. Our system is much more stable, because we have much more — much stronger leadership.

DMITRY KISELYOV (through interpreter): Putin is universally accepted as one of the most qualified heads of state on the planet, if not the most qualified.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But this isn’t only about shaping Russian opinion. Kiselyov considers the news a weapon aimed at Russia’s enemies, as he put it in an interview on his own channel.

DMITRY KISELYOV (through interpreter): If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him. Let’s think about what’s better: to kill or to persuade? Because if you aren’t able to persuade, then you will have to kill.

MARGARITA SIMONYAN, Editor in Chief, RT: If the politics of defending your country’s interest is pro-Russian, then probably we are pro-Russian.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Margarita Simonyan is the editor in chief of R.T., formerly known as Russia Today. She says the network reaches 35 million viewers a day in six languages, including American and international channels. It’s state-owned and aimed at foreign audiences as an alternative to channels Simonyan calls pro-Western, CNN and BBC.

MARGARITA SIMONYAN: If you look at any station, you will see that what people are reporting comes from what they believe in, where they stand, their background, what their countries believe in.

And let us be one of the voices in that choir, because when the choir sings just one song, awful things happen, like the war in Iraq.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Critics say R.T. isn’t just another media voice; it highlights conspiracy theories.

WOMAN: The article basically accuses the U.S. of manufacturing this Ebola outbreak.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It describes a Holocaust denier as a human rights activist.

MAN: Russia is a threat to the U.S.’ hegemony.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And a neo-Nazi as a German expert.

MAN: Germany is a country which supports violent Islamism.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The criticism is, again, that you’re trying to confuse, rather than inform.

MARGARITA SIMONYAN: Now, that’s absolutely a lie. We’re never trying to confuse. We’re informing. If we do have people appearing on the air live that are later found out to be Holocaust deniers or anything like that, we immediately put them onto a list of people who are forbidden from the air.

You are telling me that people in the West are seeing us as a threat. Believe me, most of the people in Russia are seeing the West as a threat.

NICK SCHIFRIN: For the West, the biggest threat in terms of information comes from that building. That is the headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

During Soviet times, the KGB launched deliberate disinformation campaigns, like planting the idea that President Kennedy was killed by the CIA. Today, Western governments accuse the FSB of launching the same kinds of campaigns, except, instead of offering communism as an ideological alternative, they are waging a kind of hybrid war against their enemies, with a new kind of soldier, hackers.

Over the last two years, the Russian military ran online recruiting ads where soldiers put down their guns to fight a cyber-war. In a January report, U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of hacking Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign e-mails and leaking them to WikiLeaks to fuel Russia’s propaganda campaign.

It was designed to — quote — “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

It worked.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX News: The Clinton campaign has now had to deal with more than a week of embarrassing daily revelations, thanks to WikiLeaks.

MAN: Now, these WikiLeaks’ releases have rocked the campaign.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: WikiLeaks has released what appears to be transcripts of paid speeches by Hillary Clinton to Goldman Sachs.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Hacked e-mails became anti-Clinton talking points. And many of those talking points were spread online by fake accounts known as trolls believed to work in this St. Petersburg building.

Forty-two-year-old Marat Mindiyarov used to be one of those trolls.

MARAT MINDIYAROV, Former Troll: Every day, you see a lot of comment at night, and they’re all the same, yes. And it’s exactly the people doing their job. They have their topic. They have a time to do it. They write it, and you see it.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Every day, Mindiyarov would get a document that instructed him what to write. On Christmas Eve, 2014, he was told to — quote — “create a negative attitude about Obama’s foreign policy.”

So he posted photos comparing Obama to Hitler, portraying the U.S. as a fish about to eat the planet and an eagle sharpening his talons. He posted under the headline, “Can the U.S. take Russia out?” on 50 Web sites in 23 cities. And fellow trolls Kiril Ivashkin, Gennady Orlov, Mike Brandon expressed the exact same thought, 600 posts from 70 fake accounts in 12 hours, just one battalion in a sock puppet army manufactured by a handful of trolls.

How many identities will the workers be expected to pretend to be?

MARAT MINDIYAROV: Hundreds. Hundreds. Really, hundreds. I myself maybe had 20, 30. I didn’t count them.

NICK SCHIFRIN: U.S. intelligence says the likely troll financier is Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with catering companies. He’s been dubbed Putin’s personal chef.

Mindiyarov left the factory because he didn’t believe in its product. But he says it’s effective because the stories are succinct and echoed widely.

MARAT MINDIYAROV: Everything is very simple there, yes, black and white, no color, just black and white.

BEN NIMMO, Atlantic Council: Russian propaganda is actually very predictable and relatively simple. And I think of it as the four D’s, which are dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Ben Nimmo is An Atlantic Council senior fellow studying how Russian media, Russian hacking and Russian trolling combine.

BEN NIMMO: You get your own people to write this, but then you pretend it’s not your people, it’s just some do-gooders in Russian society. All the different parts of your machine then amplify it, and what you’re doing is you’re pushing out in a dozen different languages on all the different platforms there are, one story. And what that story is what the Kremlin wants it to be.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In January 2016, it was a fake story that a Russian-German teenager had been abducted and raped by Muslim migrants.

BEN NIMMO: The Russian state TV apparatus repeatedly reporting false claims after the German police had come out and said that there was no abduction and there was no rape.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The fake story helped spark real protests against German President Angela Merkel, a frequent Putin critic.

But even though it was fake, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used it to criticize one of Russia’s top adversaries.

BEN NIMMO: The motivation behind the campaign as a whole was precisely to weaken Merkel by amplifying this very personalized story about crimes committed by, in inverted commas, Merkel’s migrants.

MAN: We investigate the stories misrepresented by the mainstream media.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Last year, the Russian propaganda machine exploited a research psychologist who argued Google was manipulating its results to favor Clinton.

BEN NIMMO: So, this is a gentlemen called Dr. Robert Epstein. He came out with a paper which said that by altering the results of a search engine, you could potentially alter people’s voting choices.

DR. ROBERT EPSTEIN, Research Psychologist: And Google’s support for Clinton is really very strong.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It was quickly debunked. But the different parts of the Russian propaganda machine echoed the story, from R.T., to state-owned Web site Sputnik, to Russian trolls.

BEN NIMMO: This is a classic example in which the different parts of the machine were amplifying each other. What you then had was the claim being picked up by a number of largely conservative media in the U.S.

MAN: It looks like Google is in the tank for Hillary.

DR. ROBERT EPSTEIN: There’s no question about it.

BEN NIMMO: And now you have divorced the story from the source.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Well, you have laundered — you have literally laundered the source.

BEN NIMMO: And in that sense, the source has been laundered. Then candidate Trump said words the effect of Google was rigging its results in favor of Clinton.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Google’s search engine was suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton.

BEN NIMMO: Now, we don’t know where he got that from, but we know that the insertion point for that story was a Kremlin disinformation outlet.

For any purveyor of propaganda, your dream is to have some high-value amplifier amplifying you, especially if you can contrive that in such a way that you are divorced from it.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: How about that? How about that?

NICK SCHIFRIN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Nick Schifrin in Moscow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow, we travel to Russia’s southern border, and ask why so many young Russians have joined ISIS.

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