America has a problem with Russian disinformation – but not in the way that you have been led to believe. ‘Russiagate’ – the name given for allegations that the former American president Donald Trump and his administration were compromised by Moscow and helped his 2016 campaign for the presidency through widespread disinformation campaigns – took American political discourse by storm. However, somewhat ironically, the real Russian disinformation consists of the false stories and allegations leveraged against Russia.
Since mid-2016, these largely uncorroborated and sensationalized stories of nefarious Russian influence and antagonism against America and its people have frequently populated headlines of even the most trusted Western media outlets.
One prime example of this during the heights of the collusion allegations was the Steele Dossier. When looking at one of the dossier’s primary sources in a 2020 investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee found that the main source was a non-Russian employee of the intelligence firm Steele worked for. Moreover, the same investigation yielded that the information the primary source “provided him was second and third-hand information and rumor at best.”
Despite its unsubstantiated nature, the anti-Russia allegations, which consisted of six major claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, that comprised a large portion of the dossier were reported as fact throughout American media.
Like the allegations that comprised Russiagate, allegations of malicious Russian disinformation are almost always proven to be disinformation themselves at worst or shoddy misrepresentations at best. Despite this, they have long-lasting effects. The disinformation on Russia that runs rampant in American media and political discourse, not only misrepresents and harms the relationship between Russia and the United States, but ultimately undermines our democracy and democratic institutions.
While the Mueller Report ultimately found no evidence of collusion between the Trump administration and the Kremlin, those who believed the trend of reporting sensationalized and disingenuous stories on Russia would end were mistaken.
Take for example the allegation that Russia had paid Taliban fighters bounty to kill American in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, this accusation was treated as fact on the campaign trail by President Biden and spread throughout the media without clarification on its unsubstantiated nature. Despite being widely purported as fact, Pentagon officials told NBC that they were unable to substantiate the allegations as early as last November.
Just this April, a fact sheet released from the Biden administration admitted that CIA intelligence on the matter was labeled at only a “low to moderate confidence” level. By spreading this false information, democracy was undermined by willfully misleading the American public and also lowering the credibility of our democratic institutions and their leaders.
The so-called ‘Bountygate’ is not just an isolated instance of how continued disinformation and false stories on Russia have impacted American public thought and opinion. Another of the most consequential and lengthy campaigns of disinformation on Russia is its involvement in Ukraine.
A study conducted by Ru-PAC in 2020 revealed shocking evidence on how disinformation has come to largely characterize the American mainstream media’s coverage of Crimea. When covering Crimea more than 97% of articles by The New York Times and CNN negatively framed Russia’s role in Crimea and 90% failed to mention popular support for reunification. As a result of this disinformation, factual information key to making an informed opinion is largely withheld from Americans. Instead, Americans receive biased and false information towards Russia, actively undermining the ability to make informed political decisions based on factual information, which is central to the functioning of America’s democratic process.
This disinformation has also had measurable impacts on American’s perception of Russia. In an era when building relations with Russia is of utmost importance for global stability, vilifying Russia through spreading false allegations on Russia as fact only does things to weaken this relationship.
A decade ago, only 45% of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of Russia, while this number has risen to a shocking 77% earlier this year. This marked decrease in public opinion of Russia and its correlation with the rise of disinformation on Russia in the American media shows worrying trends for both the integrity of American political discourse and media, and U.S.-Russia relations.
Throughout the American political sphere and media landscape, these sensationalized and largely unsubstantiated stories are treated as fact. Even when they are discredited or walked back – as was the case with Bountygate and the allegations of collusion – the damage is already done.
By receiving false information about Russia presented as fact, Americans are not given the opportunity to form political opinions and electoral decisions based on factual information concerning Russia. Scandals like Russiagate and other examples of malicious disinformation spread throughout American political discourse have damaged the credibility of important democratic institutions, such as the presidency.
Moreover, the effects of rampant disinformation about Russia are not just limited domestically. It also undermines America’s credibility abroad. To uphold our democratic values as Americans, it is imperative that we do not overlook the fallacious allegations towards Russia commonplace in our current political discourse, and instead call it out for what it is: malicious disinformation.