US and Russia engage in a digital battle for hearts and minds

The battle over Ukraine extends across the world: Information warfare is quickly evolving as key nations seek to influence public opinion and gain political support.

As during the Cold War, Russia and the United States are the two main combatants. Some efforts are clandestine, but plenty of material is broadcast to the public as each country attempts to, in the words of political linguists, “constrain the power and influence of the other … and win ‘hearts and minds’ … around the world.”

Key government-sponsored media outlets in the current battle are Russia Today, often known as RT, and two U.S. government-backed operations, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

But it can be hard for many people to tell the difference between these outlets and independent news. As a propaganda scholar, I believe citizens of all nations deserve to know how their media have been filtered and when governments are seeking to influence their views.

My colleague Weston Sager and I developed a test for determining whether a particular media outlet is, or is not, a government mouthpiece. We examine key factors such as government control, funding, attribution and its resemblance to news.

At their best, these types of outlets provide official government information – at worst, blatant propaganda. Here’s how the main players in the U.S. and Russia measure up.

Russia Today: Propaganda with some facts sprinkled in

RT is a multilanguage international media broadcaster that claims to be an “autonomous, non-profit organization.” But in reality, it has officially declared to the U.S. State Department that it is an arm of the Russian government.

In lockstep with the Kremlin, RT has supported the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the 2014 Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine and the 2022 Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine.

The outlet has a history of publishing sensationalized and biased articles promoting Russian policies and accentuating the perceived failings of the United States and its allies. For example, in 2015, RT devoted extensive coverage to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not only did this storyline allow RT to selectively showcase people protesting in the United States, it helped further Russia’s narrative that its economic system is superior to U.S. capitalism.

More recently, RT has, without credible evidence, accused the United States of developing bioweapons in Ukraine and testing them on people there.

But this doesn’t mean that RT is “able to dispense with facts all together,” as propaganda often leverages truthful bits of information, nor that it is strictly anti-American. In 2010, for instance, RT published an interview containing accusations that the Republicans were exploiting racial fears ahead of midterm elections. Then RT publicly defended the Obama administration against Fox News host Glenn Beck‘s accusations that Obama was turning the United States into a socialist country. Propaganda works by supporting themes that are in popular discourse at the time. It does not necessarily follow a linear path and may be counterintuitive at times.

In the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, RT was blocked in many nations around the world to limit the spread of Russian propaganda. Nevertheless, RT continues to publish its content, especially in less developed countries where the Russian government is working to increase its international reputation and influence.