Russian state TV: a master class in building an alternative reality

NYT investigated how Russia’s most significant state broadcaster, working with the nation’s security services, mined right-wing American news and Chinese media to craft a narrative that Moscow was winning.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stalled, its television propaganda fired on all cylinders. In recent months NYT journalists went through 1000s of emails from Russia’s most prominent state broadcaster to learn how. It was a master class in constructing an alternative reality.

Each day Russian producers sent incredibly detailed lists of memes and media that could be used to undercut the West. Often that included right-wing cable T.V. and misleading memes, like one showing empty grocery shelves in the U.S.

Tucker Carlson was a favorite. “Don’t forget to take Tucker” producers wrote to a state-media journalist in the U.S., pointing to a clip where Tucker warned how opposing Russia and China could end the dollar’s status as a world reserve currency.

Often the bulletins showed incredible attention to detail and knowledge of the U.S. One dug out a local news broadcast from Alabama about drivers pasting stickers on gas pumps with Biden’s face reading, “I did that.” Within days, it was on Russian national news.

Journalists mixed the material with more reliable broadcasts to paint a compelling picture of a world in turmoil without Russian energy. They did the same to script disinformation about U.S. bioweapons labs in Ukraine – for that, they mixed Chinese diplomats with a Roger Stone interview.

Closer to home, they got help from security forces like the FSB, who passed along videos, sometimes demanding they be used without citing their source. Some undercut narratives of atrocities. Others showed terrorists caught trying to attack Russia.

Other emails showed how essential cooperation with Chinese state media was. VGTRK officials planned a birthday present for top Chinese propagandist Shen Haixiong a month ahead of time to get through the Covid quarantines. They sent an album of Russian paintings.

In other cases, officials expressed their anger at Russia’s growing isolation. One crowed about a statement to Latvian threats to ban VGTRK channels, “Quite restrained, but tried to put ironic contempt.” They worried very much about being tossed from Eurovision, for example.

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