We know Putin deployed his powerful disinformation and propaganda machine against the 2016 American election, that he has continued the assault, and that he will ramp up for our 2018 and 2020 elections. Countering these active measures against our government and society is complex. Due, in part, to the complexity of their assault on many fronts and to the democratic principles of our country. Putin still wins if we break our fundamental values in order to break his propaganda machine. At times it can feel disheartening and overwhelming. That is exactly how it is intended to make you feel. And we can win this. It is will take ingenuity and perseverance —the characteristics have driven this country from the beginning.
One cog in Putin’s well oiled propaganda machine is RT (formerly Russia Today). Much like Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC when they realized the word “fried” had become detrimental to their brand, Russia Today became RT when Russia realized the word “Russia” had become detrimental to their brand. In both cases only their names changed.
We have faced the problem of foreign governments taking advantage of our commitment to free and open speech before and have some tools in place to address this issue. However, they need dusting off and sharpening.
Representatives David Cicilline (D-RI) and Matthew Gaetz (R-FL) and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D) have presented a bipartisan bill to address this fresh effort of a foreign government to insert their agenda into our political discourse. Their bill, which calls for modernization and better enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration act also requires RT to register as a Foreign Agent.
In 1938, Congress adopted the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to address Nazi propaganda activities in the United States. The act requires agents of foreign principals to identify themselves and publicly disclose the nature of their employment. The act aims to ensure that the American people are not misled into thinking that the information disseminated by foreign agents originates from a disinterested source – (Agent of Influence: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent? – p.4)
Taking the 1938 Nazi propaganda example, this means Hitler’s agents were allowed to continue to put forth their rhetoric in the United States. They simply had to label the content disclosing who was funding this information.
FARA is not about content. It is about structure. It is about who signs a foreign agent’s paychecks and who pays their rent. A foreign agent can say whatever they want; they just have to disclose who is paying for it.
Think of this as the information version of the labels on your food, information for you the consumer to make informed decisions. He have copious amounts of information about the food we consume and very little about the information we consume.
Related Links on FARA
- The Atlantic Council’s report on this topic includes an explanation of FARA registration requirements
- To read FARA itself visit this Department of Justice link
Why FARA applies to RT
Again, this is not about content. RT is free to spew as much propaganda and disinformation and skewed reports as it likes. The key here is the fact that the Russian government pays RT’s bills and signs their paychecks. Much like Americans have a right to know their granola bars are filled with fructose they have a right to know that the RT News is a Russian government mouthpiece.
The critical threshold question under FARA is whether a foreign principal directs or controls the person in question. As set forth below, RT’s opaque corporate structure obscures who actually decides its management and editorial policy, so RT could deny that the news organization is controlled by the Russian government within the meaning of FARA. However, there is substantial circumstantial evidence of state control, including RT’s (1) founding and continued control by a Russian state-owned news agency, (2) reliance on the Russian state for 99 percent of its budget, and (3) non-transparent governance structure that—in contrast to other state-funded new organizations like the UK’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW)—allows the Kremlin to influence its policies and operations. Furthermore, there is strong evidence from RT’s past coverage that it engages in “political activities” within the meaning of FARA. (Agent of Influence: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent? – p.6)
Note the difference between RT and BBC and DW. The latter two are not subject to FARA because they have governing boards and funding independent of their respective governments.
What it would mean if RT is required to register under FARA
RT would be able to continue broadcasting any information and disinformation they like. They would simply be required to disclose that the Russian government funds and controls their programing.
What can I do to support this?
Contact your representatives and senators to encourage them to support the ‘Foreign Agents Registration Modernization and Enforcement Act’’
Share this information about RT with people you know. An informed, thinking American electorate is Putin’s worst nightmare.
Call your cable provider and encourage them to label RT as funded by a foreign government, as they label content for mature audiences. Honestly, I would be surprised if they did so on their own volition, but it is important to let them know their customers are aware of this issue and are paying attention.
Thank the legislators that put forth this bill.
Links included in this article
- 2017 Foreign Agents Registration Modernization and Enforcement Act
- Rep Atlantic Council’s report – Agent of Influence: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent?
- Department of Justice information on FARA
photo credit: Zoltán Vörös