RT (formerly Russia Today) is an international television network dedicated to giving a “Russian viewpoint on major global events.” Financed by the Russian government, the network was established in 2005 to counter anti-Russian bias the Kremlin claims is common in western media. RT has developed a reputation for airing odd programming that promotes conspiracy theories about the west in order to “stick it to the U.S. from behind the façade of legitimate newsgathering,” according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Giving airtime to conspiracy theorists and idiotic actresses isn’t a new phenomenon, since many domestic media outlets engage in the practice. But RT presents a worrisome case because the Kremlin sees state-funded media as a key player in its efforts to transmit “…self-reinforcing narratives regarding its … relations with the United States.” (p 6) The problem has become so bad, in fact, that Twitter banned RT from advertising on its social media platform in October 2017, claiming that the network’s incendiary ad campaigns during the 2016 presidential election crossed the line.
Promoting Doubt About American Science and Technology
According to the Director of National Intelligence, the Russian government has a vested interest in stifling American technological innovation, especially in agriculture and energy, because it represents competition for Russian firms that provide food and fossil fuels to Europe. RT’s role in this conspiracy is to seed doubts about the safety of transgenic crops, pesticides and natural gas produced by American multinationals. To give their fear mongering a veneer of credibility, the network’s talking heads usually turn to the professionals.
RT’s Collusion with anti-Science Activists
RT promotes the Kremlin’s anti-science narrative by giving radical environmentalists (p 18) a platform from which to spout nonsensical claims about the dangers posed by technologies developed in the west. The network typically treats bloggers from NGOs and the producers of sham documentaries like authorities on important science topics, portraying them as underdogs fighting for transparency. In reality, these activists exists on the fringe and lack credibility with anyone who doesn’t already share their views.
RT’s willingness to broadcast the ramblings of science deniers may seem like nothing but a cheap ploy to boost ratings, an attempt to share “alternative” points of view–indeed as the network itself claims. But the fact that the Russian government also funds anti-fracking protests in Europe soundly refutes any suggestion that RT is merely an alternative news source.
The Organic Lobby: Putin’s Useful Idiots
The state-funded television network has equally gushed about science deniers who challenge the safety of crop biotechnology, giving favorable coverage to Gary Ruskin at U.S. Right To Know (USRTK) for his crusade against GMOs. Critics suspect that Ruskin handed off court documents to RT so the network could run stories about USRTK’s lawsuit against Monsanto in California. The situation raises red flags because RT likely wouldn’t have discovered the obscure court documents on their own, and USRTK has a history of planting news stories to further their agenda.
Ruskin repaid the favorable media coverage in kind by helping RT promote their anti-biotech propaganda on social media and appearing on RT’s The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann. A former host on the defunct radio network Air America, Hartmann lobbed one softball question after another at Ruskin, who took the opportunity to attack scientists who challenge his fear mongering about GMOs.
Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, the trade group that funds USRTK, has also appeared on RT. Cummins joined news anchor Liz Wahl to protest legislation that prevents activist groups from suing biotechnology companies if their genetically modified seeds “pollute” the nearby fields of organic farmers. Cummins didn’t mention that so-called “genetic pollution” can be minimized with modern farming techniques, as many studies have shown, nor that biotech firms like Monsanto will pay to remove their GMOs from fields where they don’t belong.
An outside observer may see RT’s painfully inaccurate coverage and wonder why the network isn’t at all concerned about their credibility. But the outrageous news report with the cliche corporate villain is part of an effective propaganda strategy, says Robert Pszczel, who ran NATO’s information office in Moscow. The story doesn’t have to convince everyone first time around, “so long as it does the job — you start having doubts, and of 10 outrageous points you take on one or two,” Pszczel told the New York Times. “A bit of mud will always stick.”