How Dictatorial Regimes Use Money To Infiltrate The Media in Democratic Countries

United States Capitol (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to undermine the United States and its allies through a variety of active measures aimed at influencing and manipulating public opinion. Although the Cold War - understood in the narrow sense of the confrontation between a capitalist and a communist economic system - has ended, the struggle between different political ideologies and ways of life has not. As the Soviet-style centrally planned economic system was abandoned by nearly every country, the ideological confrontation shifted. States like Russia and China have embraced a mixed market economy, yet they have retained an authoritarian political system. 

While capitalism conquered the authoritarian states of the former communist bloc, authoritarianism appears to be creeping into the polity of the US-led "free world". The Republican Party in the United States, for instance, has turned to authoritarianism. According to a Freedom House report, 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Though the rise of antidemocratic forces is caused by a number of factors, such as racism, the influence of money on politics, long-standing illiberal traditions etc., we must also not underestimate the impact of authoritarian regimes' propaganda operations. Putin's Russia famously interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, and he did it again in 2020

But let us take a step back and try to understand how Soviet influence operations in the West worked, because that is the only way in which we can appreciate how much more insidious and dangerous propaganda in the modern digital age is. The following excerpt from the 1984 book "Disinformatsia" describes the Soviet propaganda strategy towards the West:

"For the Soviet Union, active measures constitute a dynamic and integrated array of overt and covert techniques for influencing events and behavior in, and the actions of, foreign countries. These measures are employed to influence the policies of other governments, undermine confidence in the leaders and institutions of these states, disrupt the relations between various nations, and discredit and weaken major opponents. This frequently involves attempts to deceive the target, and to distort the target's perception of reality

"Active measures may be carried out overtly through officially-sponsored propaganda channels, the conduct of diplomatic relations, and involvement in international cultural affairs activities. Soviet means for conducting active measures covertly include a broad range of political techniques. Covert propaganda is employed in an ongoing effort to influence the media in foreign countries, and hence to influence local audiences. In this connection, Moscow endeavors to place Soviet-authored or -inspired articles in foreign publications, either minus any indication of source or with attribution to a non-Soviet author. 

"A second technique, which in the last few years has received increasing public attention in the West, is disinformation. The objective of disinformation ... is to manipulate target persons and groups to believe in the veracity of the message and consequently to act in the interests of the nation conducting the operation. Other covert techniques employed by the Soviet Union include the use of international front organizations, the sponsorship of clandestine radio broadcasts, and the carrying out of agent-of-influence operations. 

"The external operations of the KGB always have fallen into two interrelated and frequently overlapping categories: straightforward espionage (including counterintelligence) and political warfare. In the case of the latter, the KGB employs a diverse range of covert tactics designed to support and supplement overt measures. The coordination between overt and covert active measures is not always apparent ... Covert techniques utilized by the KGB include covert (i.e., falsely attributed) propaganda, agent-of-influence operations, and oral and written disinformation (including forgeries) ... 

"Covert propaganda frequently is used to reinforce themes promoted through Soviet outlets of overt propaganda. This tactic takes two general forms: the clandestine placement of a media item in a foreign news outlet, or the selective replay of an article which originally appeared in a foreign publication. In the former case, the Soviets seek to create credibility for an otherwise implausible argument by achieving foreign placement of the material through a non-Soviet journalist (who may be witting or unwitting of the Soviet connection). In the latter case, the content and meaning of a public statement by a prominent figure or a story from a well-known foreign newspaper are shaped to serve Soviet objectives, and then are replayed through both overt and covert channels. 

"A second technique employed by the KGB involves agent-of-influence operations. The purpose of such an operation is to covertly inject Soviet views into governmental, political, journalistic, business, labor, and academic circles of a foreign country. To accomplish this objective, KGB officers develop relationships with key figures from these influential circles who are willing to collaborate (wittingly or unwittingly) on matters of mutual interest. In return for this collaboration, the KGB will assist the agent of influence in his or her particular undertakings.

"A brief examination of the growth and development over the past two decades of a wide variety of Soviet foreign propaganda outlets provides additional evidence concerning the important role the top Soviet leadership assigns to propaganda. Now coordinated by the IID [International Information Department] ... these outlets include the foreign radio broadcasting system, two news agencies, the prestige press, various publications, and approximately 500 Soviet journalists stationed in foreign countries ... 

"In addition to Radio Moscow, the Soviets broadcast through various regional radio stations, including ... Radio Peace and Progress (RPP), which broadcasts from the USSR to the Third World ... External broadcasts are conducted in over 80 languages and dialects, including Radio Moscow's "World Service" in English ... [A]n unofficial news agency - Novosti Press Agency (APN) - was created in the early 1960s to assist TASS, the authoritative official government voice" (Richard H. Shultz, Roy Godson, Dezinformatsia. Active Measures in Soviet Strategy, 1984, pp. 16-17, 32-33, 27-28, my emphasis).

While the Soviet Union no longer exists, the propaganda techniques it pioneered remain relevant. Vladimir Putin himself, having served for 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB both in the Soviet Union and in East Germany, represents a link between the past communist state and his current one-man autocratic rule.

Soviet propaganda had only a limited effect on Western public opinion due the technological and political constraints of the time. But today several factors facilitate Russia's ability to launch influence operations. The internet has made it possible for Moscow to easily spread disinformation and propaganda on a massive scale. Moreover, US-Russia economic ties and tourism allow state agents or Kremlin-affiliated persons to invest in the US and engage in active measures.

For instance, Marija Butina, who admitted in a US court to being a Russian government agent, "worked with sanctioned Russian businessman Alexander Torshin and Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, to cultivate connections with conservative political leaders in the U.S. Butina and Torshin ultimately obtained such extensive access to the NRA [National Rifle Association] that a Senate report recently found that the influential gun rights group had effectively become a ’foreign asset’ during the 2016 election cycle."

Russian kleptocrats with ties to the Putin regime have been parking money in US real estate for years. According to the Atlantic Council, Russia has "the world’s largest volume of dark money hidden abroad—about $1 trillion—both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its national GDP. An estimated one-quarter of this amount is controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his close associates." One famous example of the dangers such economic infiltration entails is the the acquisition of property by Russian oligarch Dimitrij Rybolovlev, who reportedly purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Donald Trump for $95 million in 2008, which is twice the amount Trump had paid for it in 2004.

The success of Moscow's attempt to sow discord and chaos in democratic countries might have prompted other regimes, especially the Chinese Communist government, to step up or adjust their active measures campaigns. 

Because of the openness of the market in the US and other democracies, foreign autocrats have a simple and effective way of influencing public opinion: they can invest in or acquire media companies.

In February 2019, the popular US-based network community aggregator Reddit received a $150 million investment from Tencent, a Chinese internet giant which is complicit in the Chinese government's domestic censorship and has also been accused of surveilling "sensitive" content outside of China. Some of Reddit's subreddits (that's how topic-related forums and groups are called), such as r/Sino, have become conduits for pro-Chinese Communist propaganda. Such subreddits not only praise the CCP regime, but they ban users critical of Beijing. However, there is no way of determining whether Chinese state actors or their agents are directly involved in the creation of specific content or the management of subreddits. The opaqueness of the internet and of companies' internal structure allows for a wide range of plausibly deniable propaganda strategies.

In June, 2020, Reuters announced that the Russian state news agency TASS, which we have already mentioned above, joined Reuters Connect.

"I’m delighted that TASS and Reuters are building upon our valued partnership by having TASS join Reuters Connect," said Michael Friedenberg, Reuters President.

Sergej Michailov, TASS CEO, said: "This is truly a significant event for us as well as for the entire Russian media market. Never before have any of Russia’s media outlets been presented on the Reuters Connect platform ... News from Russia today is playing an increasingly significant role in the global information agenda, so it is crucial that it is presented as objectively and reliably as possible. Selecting our agency as a partner highlights the reputation of TASS as a source of exceptionally verified news. We are extremely pleased that our cooperation with Reuters has reached a new stage of development."

In 2017 Penske Media Company (PMC) acquired a 51% stake in the iconic American magazine Rolling Stone, and it bought the remaining 49% from Singapore-based BandLab Technologies two years later. PMC is owned by Roger Penske, a Republican donor and Trump supporter, whom Trump called a "friend of mine for a long time." Trump awarded Penske the Medal of Freedom in 2020. PMC received a $200 million investment from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. 

The challenges that democracy is facing may be caused by domestic economic, social and ideological issues, but they are compounded by pressure and interference from dictatorial regimes. It is necessary for democratic countries to understand the political nature of markets and to limit the possibilities for investment from people and groups tied to autocratic regimes.