The fact that right-wing populist parties copy their rhetorical strategies from the Russian propaganda broadcaster RT is nothing new. But their purpose in doing so certainly is.

A few days ago when the Swiss SVP (Swiss People’s Party) poli­ti­cian Claudio Zanetti inquired via Twitter at #RT and #Sputnik whether an article about media censor­ship in Russia published by was accu­rate, this single tweet exposed the full extent of the comedy curr­ently being staged by the masters of disin­for­ma­tion: a right-wing poli­ti­cian asking jour­na­lists paid by an autho­ri­ta­rian state about the truth regar­ding freedom of the press. What did he want to learn from RT und Sputnik? Whether perhaps it’s true that, as elabo­rated by infosperber, 360 jour­na­lists have died in Russia since 1990? That TV stations have been shut down? That jour­na­lists in Russia are orga­ni­zing a trade union and are not only critical of their own censor­ship and propa­ganda but also fear a possible wave of coun­ter­pro­pa­ganda from Western Europe?

So here is someone who alter­na­tively describes his own country’s public tele­vi­sion as “state tele­vi­sion financed by compul­sory fees,” as a “journeyman’s piece of poli­tical propa­ganda,” or as a “socia­list do-gooder’s medium,” asking a foreign state tele­vi­sion station about the truth. And in so doing, he announces that, nowa­days in Switz­er­land or even all of Europe, you can’t trust your own press when you want to know the truth about Russia; but rather you can trust the state broad­caster of Russia’s autho­ri­ta­rian regime.

The Good of One’s Own and the Evil Other; and Evil of One’s Own and the Good Other

So let’s take Zanetti’s ques­tion seriously and take a look at what RT (German version) reports with regard to jour­na­lism in Russia. First of all: RT has no reports about the rest­ric­tion of press freedom, censor­ship, or the perse­cu­tion of jour­na­lists in Russia. A search with the keywords “freedom of the press” prima­rily calls up articles on the “Western lying press,” press censor­ship in Europe and the Ukraine, the “ideo­lo­gical blind­ness” of the NGO Repor­ters Without Borders, and Breit­bart’s “media alter­na­tive.” In other respects, however, the readings are actually enligh­tening. This is because RT – form­erly Russia Today, a Russian state tele­vi­sion broad­caster founded in 2005 and directed toward audi­ences outside Russia, which since 2014 main­tains a multi­l­in­gual web portal and multich­annel news network on YouTube in Arabic, German, English, French, and Spanish – provides an excel­lent oppor­tu­nity to rese­arch the most current media propaganda.

RT Second Opinion ad campaign

How RT works is shown most candidly by a conver­sa­tion between RT Editor-in-Chief Marga­rita Simonyan and the poli­tical scien­tist Dmitry Kulikov. Both agree that the West is commit­ting “treason against its own values” and that the “fascis­tiz­a­tion in so-called ‘liberal demo­cra­cies’ is advan­cing.” Accor­ding to them, this is reve­aled among other things by the Euro­pean parliament’s initia­tion of a “reso­lu­tion” on the “fight against Russian propa­ganda,” which in “form and content” brings back “memo­ries of a plenum of the Central Committee of the Commu­nist Party of the Soviet Union.” Simonyan further claims that Western freedom of expres­sion is under threat, respec­tively, that the West has long aban­doned freedom of expres­sion. Because, accor­ding to Simonyan, as soon as “a real mani­fes­ta­tion of freedom of expres­sion appears” – meaning media like RT and Sputnik – “that expresses actual dissen­ting thought and diver­gent opinion, they [that is, the EU] start passing such reso­lu­tions and try to stifle us.”

The Medium is the Message

RT always describes its disin­for­ma­tion as a “second opinion” or “diffe­rent perspec­tive,” as a “counter-public sphere” vis-à-vis the “censored” press in Western Europe. Anyone who opposes RT also opposes freedom of expres­sion in itself. However, RT only deploys this stra­tegy for the West; in its reporting on Russia, freedom of expres­sion remains a black hole. Reports on acti­vists fighting for freedom of expres­sion in Russia – such as Ildar Dadin, for example, sentenced to a three-year term in a penal colony for his one-person protests – don’t appear on RT.

In contrast, the Western Euro­pean press – accor­ding to RT – dances to the tune of a “central power” that “deter­mines what is true accor­ding to poli­tical oppor­tu­nity.” “A future,” says RT’s editor-in-chief, “that George Orwell had urgently warned us against in his work 1984.”

In an adapt­a­tion McLuhan’s slogan, at RT the medium is itself the message. The message is not contained by the indi­vi­dual reports, which are some­times more and some­times less accu­rate; rather, the message is the exis­tence of RT itself: RT was estab­lished as a counter media to the Western press so that in the same move one could describe the latter as a “lying press.”

RT Second Opinion ad campaign

RT also natu­rally sympa­thizes enti­rely in this sense with Breit­bart, which it portrays as an oppor­tu­nity to “‘libe­rate’ the anti-Trump German media market from outside” and “to create” another “counter-public sphere.” In so doing, RT’s jour­na­list has no qualms about compa­ring the libe­ra­tion of the German press from its supposed ideo­logy to the libe­ra­tion of 1945: “Readers by the thou­sands vented their anger about what they view as extre­mely biased reporting. Some even main­tained that the German media land­scape is so uniform that libe­ra­tion from its under­lying consensus could only come from outside like earlier in 1945.”

Even RT’s promo­tional posters insist that RT is the “second opinion.” But these poster campaigns also provide a typical example of a diffe­rent stra­tegy: they criti­cize – some­times quite rightly – the mend­acious justi­fi­ca­tion of the Iraq War by the United States, for example, in order to thereby conclude that RT and Russian policy are the only alter­na­tive. It is precisely this prac­tice that presu­mably ensnares above all many people on the left. With RT, toge­ther with the Russian govern­ment one is supposed to be able to hate Clinton, Merkel, the EU, and neo-liberalism and at the same time forget that Putin’s poli­cies are not left-wing but rather natio­na­li­stic, xeno­phobic, homo­phobic, ultra-religious, corrupt, and authoritarian.

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Rever­sals into the Opposite

RT also makes exces­sive use of the reversal into the oppo­site, a favo­rite rheto­rical stra­tegy of right-wing popu­lists. We can iden­tify at least three func­tions of the reversal into the oppo­site. First, RT wants to be able portray Russia as the last advo­cate of Western values and as a liberal country; and to portray Western Europe – parti­cu­larly the EU – as a Soviet-style dictatorship.

Second, the reversal targets the media itself, whereby propa­ganda is presented as a counter-public sphere and the inde­pen­dent press is alter­na­tively described as the “lying press,” “so-called free press,” or censored press. This allows RT to depict criti­cism of RT itself as an orga­nized threat against the last “counter-public sphere.” With all of these rever­sals, it is no coin­ci­dence that RT has appro­priated a voca­bu­lary origi­na­ting with the non-conformist move­ments of the Soviet period: “counter-public sphere,” “dissi­dent thin­kers,” “new perspec­tives,” etc. are the buzzwords it uses to fuel its govern­mental resis­tance against oppo­si­tion at home and against the West. In the mean­time, right-wing popu­list parties have also claimed this voca­bu­lary for them­selves (AfD as dissi­dent thin­kers, SVP as the oppo­si­tion, etc.).

Third, there is a reversal of “real” and “medial,” because the people who in prac­tice are destroying liberal values are the same people who cele­brate those values in their propa­ganda. This split between medial repre­sen­ta­tion and reality pursued by RT was tested over a long period in the Soviet Union, where “reali­stic” repre­sen­ta­tions of the country in the press always resem­bled a utopian novel. It is a classic example of propaganda.


The afore­men­tioned discus­sion between the poli­tical scien­tist and RT jour­na­list reveals yet another typical stra­tegy: displa­ce­ment. For years, Russian state media have described criti­cism of their poli­tical system as Russo­phobia. In 2009, for example, the Russian author Viktor Yero­feyev was charged with “Russo­phobia” by members of the radical right-wing Move­ment Against Illegal Immi­gra­tion (DPNI), founded in 2002, who view them­selves as scent hounds for tracking Russo­phobia (the charge was later dropped).

RT Second Opinion ad campaign

Describing criti­cism of the poli­tical system as Russo­phobia faci­li­tates a subtle displa­ce­ment: criti­cism is thereby read as hatred toward a nation, culture, or ethni­city. RT has fully mastered this ethni­ciza­tion of the poli­tical: it empha­sizes to foreign readers that the criti­cism, which previously was still harm­lessly described as Russo­phobia, is now – in the West – turning into racism: “With universal appr­oval, they [the Western media] are also sliding into a form of racism. Apart from the Russian nation, I know no other nation in the world against which this degree of hatred toward national charac­te­ristics is permitted.”

This is also reflected by the fact that orga­niza­tions in Russia that criti­cize the regime are defamed as “agents” of the West and oppo­si­tion is gene­rally portrayed as paid for or controlled by the West. This is an old secret service stra­tegy, which was also used in the GDR, where it was called PID (political-ideological diver­sion). As the Lexikon der Staat­s­i­cher­heit (State Secu­rity Lexicon) has it, the term arose in 1956/57 in the GDR “when Ulbricht believed he could detect new enemy methods of ideo­lo­gical ‘softening and disrup­tion’ in the conflict with supporters of inner libe­ra­liza­tion.” Those who criti­cized the state were cate­go­rized as “supporters” of PID. This is how they dispensed with any critical confron­ta­tion with their own system.

“Clash within Civilizations”

The displa­ce­ment of criti­cism from the field of poli­tics to those of ethni­city and natio­na­lity is supposed to blind people to the poli­tical instru­men­ta­liza­tion of “cultures” and to the cultural dimen­sion of poli­tics. A poli­tical instru­men­ta­liza­tion of cultures always occurs when, for example, slogans like “clash of civi­liza­tions” (Samuel Huntington) are used to conceal the fact that nations, states, or socie­ties do not first become hete­ro­ge­neous just because of “foreig­ners.” They have always been hete­ro­ge­neous, if one considers that diffe­rences are evoked above all by poli­tical or reli­gious convic­tions and economic dispa­ri­ties, and not by ethnic member­ship – which in any case is a highly fluid category.

While the good of one’s own and evil of the Other usually belong to the rheto­rical arsenal of natio­na­list senti­ment, Russia has now elbowed its way into this favo­rite bina­rism of right-wing popu­list poli­tics and shifted the coor­di­nates: RT is quasi working on crea­ting for foreign readers a good Other or good Foreigner – a flou­ris­hing, cosmo­po­litan Russia – and, on the other hand, depic­ting Western socie­ties – espe­ci­ally Germany – as the fore­court of hell.

RT Second Opinion ad campaign

RT is thereby reac­ti­vating the medial front line between East and West. And Europe’s right-wing popu­list parties are appre­cia­tively shif­ting this front line into the inte­rior of their socie­ties. That is the actual displa­ce­ment we’re dealing with. Right-wing popu­lists are exploi­ting what RT repres­ents in order to stage them­selves in their own count­ries as the “oppo­si­tion” or “alter­na­tive.” The result is a “clash within civi­liza­tions” that is supposed to trans­form demo­cratic hete­ro­gen­eity, which is funda­mental for open socie­ties, into a simul­ta­neously internal and external culture war. At the same, using every instru­ment of propa­ganda and disin­for­ma­tion, these right-wing popu­lists need to mask the fact that the demo­cratic order and liberal ways of life are threa­tened not by refu­gees from dicta­tor­ships but by supporters of autho­ri­ta­rian forms of govern­ment and tota­li­ta­rian factions. Regard­less of where they come from.

Trans­la­tion: Bernard Heise