Ellen Mickiewicz is the James R. Shepley Emeritus Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University
As a social scientist I became interested in the Russian international television network now known as “RT” some years ago, when the momentum started building about “weaponized information” and the key vehicle was said to be RT. On the Hill, in newspapers of high standing, in NATO comments and papers, in certain think tanks, RT is taken very seriously for what is claimed as its capacity to change American and European institutions and the democratic process. As one who has studied Soviet and post-Soviet Russian media for a long time, I was curious about this new source. A much more detailed and broader research study of RT and its assumptions—and Russian politics, both domestic and foreign—may be found in the forthcoming paperback edition of my book, No Illusions: The Views of Russia’s Future Leaders (Oxford University Press). The study is an entirely new first chapter.
This post also represents a new set of observations. It seems to me that as RT’s own arguments and the US intelligence community’s own reports fall short of meeting standards of adequate evidence, it is time to examine why the argument has subtly shifted, yet retained its prominence. My argument is based on a changed standard for judging the “success” of RT. It used to be “impact”; that word is not used. I evaluate impact in terms of persuasion (also not used)—which is what RT is all about. Through the lens of persuasion is a productive method, in my view, to assess RT.
Power and Persuasion
These days the word “influence” to analyze RT (the Russian international news and discussion programs at the heart of Western concerns about “weaponized information”) in U.S. and European press and policy-making circles is, you might notice, replacing other terms, such as “impact”, “effects”, and “persuasion.” Influence is an old word in English, from the 14th century astrological term for an “ethereal fluid from the heavens affecting mankind.” [Oxford Etymological Dictionary] It becomes a medical term, as in influenza, and then at the end of the 18th century in France, it is broadened to include “exertion of power.” That’s still much vaguer than political persuasion, which has specifics that can be analyzed. Influence, as it is being used, is based on assertions, lack of evidence, and minimal context. So, let’s go back to what can be analyzed: persuasion, which has a developed, scientific literature.
Exposure to the material intended to persuade (in this case, RT) is obviously the first piece. Since RT’s claims are backtracking from miniscule audience numbers for offline news and online YouTube videos (by far, coming from other countries with an RT label on top), exposure is also a failing argument. More recently RT claims persuasion is now mainly online in insertions into social media (no precise route or sites given).
But a second element of the scientific study of persuasion is the presence of competing messages and sources. Messages from RT meet a huge universe of online sites crammed with other messages—many emotionally charged and advancing all kinds of views and “information” (real, or one-sided, or made up, or scurrilous, or outlandishly adulatory, or “fake”). The internet is an expanding cosmos, and to make a case for RT’s place in it, analysis must put it in the context of all the other competition trying for persuasion in opposite directions.
How to Win Friends and Influence People [or Not]
Persuasion means attitude change. Unless it can be shown with evidence that a previously held attitude has changed as a result of RT’s message, then we are not talking about persuasion. We all know that increasingly the internet is an “echo chamber” where you pick out sites or “friends” with whom you already agree. That’s not persuasion, but individual characteristics of people going to sites purveying material they already believe.
There are plenty of people in Europe, for example, who have chafed under what they see as American hegemony; others see America as safeguarding their values. Take Sweden, where neutrality is deep in the culture, yet the country has achieved inter-operability to meet NATO requirements, should Russia threaten them. During the conflict in Vietnam, Sweden’s Olof Palme, later to be Prime Minister, made a pro-FNL (National Liberation Front of North Vietnam) speech and marched in a demonstration together with the North Vietnamese ambassador to Sweden: the United States withdrew its ambassador.
Still, RT, telling a story different from the big Western news sources, may have achieved its purpose, they say, if people just don’t know what to think after being exposed to a different—and anti-Western—angle. But that argument falls flat. Attitudes can fluctuate, mainly among people who have less education, less interest in the issues, and less political knowledge. Their attitudes can change just as much if they encounter competing messages elsewhere on the internet, as they are bound to do. They also are much less likely to retain what they consume. They are less likely to vote and also are more likely to go to people they have known a long time and ask them what’s the story.
Finally, standing over all these arguments is one: the credibility of RT, the source. It is proven not only by what they say (mainly the Russian government’s point of view), but also by how Russia behaves and acts at home and abroad. The credibility requirement goes for them and it goes for us, too. But it would be a good thing to tighten up what is being talked about: not the protean, shape-shifting word influence, which can be anything to anybody, but something that can be broken into components and either backed up by or failing the test of evidence.