With special counsel Robert Mueller’s latest indictments of alleged Russian trolls, Facebook is facing heavy fire from prominent critics at the New York Times, Washington Post, and other legacy media for uncritically spreading Russian misinformation. But the probe's newly lengthened chronology, stretching back well before the 2016 campaign, suggests social-media mischief was only part of a deeper Russian propaganda effort in which those same news organizations were also willing and paid participants.
In 2007, state-owned publisher Rossiyskaya Gazeta launched Russia Beyond the Headlines, a multi-page full-color broadsheet laid out just like a newspaper and distributed, typically monthly, as an insert by some of the most prestigious names in newspaper publishing, including London’s Daily Telegraph, Le Figaro in France and the Italian daily La Repubblica, reaching an audience estimated at nearly 6.5 million readers.
In the United States, the Russian-state media entity partnered with the Washington Post until 2015 and with the New York Times, which confirmed it still bundles the insert into its regular paper. Angela He, manager of corporate communications for the Times, sent an email “confirming that we do run these ads” and that they conform to Times advertising acceptability standards, but declined to elaborate.
Russia Beyond, as the insert was renamed in 2017, serves as a “gateway for all things Russia -- from culture, travel, education, language, ways to do business, and much more.” Only a small disclaimer right below the masthead, in light typeface, explains that it’s an advertising feature.
Russia Beyond paints a picture of a normal country, with normal concerns, including reviews of Moscow’s trendy restaurants and reports from the latest ComiCon. The Russia depicted in its pages isn’t working with Iran and the Syrian regime to slaughter civilians and gas children. Rather, it’s a global actor in good standing, whose citizens don’t understand why the United States and European Union placed sanctions on their country in response to the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
It serves not only Russian national interests, but also the personal power plays of President Vladimir Putin. According to a study by the Institute of Modern Russia, a New York think tank run by Pavel Khodorkovsky, a Russia Beyond insert in the largest German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, featured an article attacking his father, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a onetime oligarch imprisoned and later pardoned by Putin.
“In the words of Ulrich Schmid of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the article is reminiscent of the Russian media’s 'journalistic execution' of Russia’s number one political prisoner," the institute said, referring to the elder Khodorkovsky. "In the article, Khodorkovsky is painted in the darkest colors as a Komsomol apparatchik, cynical businessman, and an interpreter of the Bible.”
So it turns out that, like Facebook, the New York Times and Washington Post were among those taking money to distribute Russian propaganda. How much money exactly? Neither newspaper would disclose financial details. But there are indications it was a significant amount — and far more than Facebook received. In 2008 the Daily Telegraph was reported to have earned nearly 40,000 pounds a month (perhaps $57,000 to $80,000) to distribute the insert. Russia Beyond likely paid several million dollars to the Times and Post combined over more than a decade. By comparison, Facebook was paid roughly $100,000 by Russian-linked disinformation sources during a nearly two-year period.
Facebook may reach more eyeballs, but the Times and the Post deliver the right ones, dropping Russia Beyond on the doorsteps of elite American news consumers, including key policymakers. Bundled within the pages of the country’s two top newspapers, Russia Beyond came with at least the patina of respectability. The Facebook ads, in contrast, appeared in a medium that even minimally savvy news consumers treat with deserved circumspection.
“I have less problem with a clearly marked newspaper section that is obviously sponsored by a foreign government,” said Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, a former Washington Post media critic. “I’m not thrilled to see the Putin regime get that kind of real estate,” added the author of “Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth.” “But as long as it is clearly labeled, I think readers are smart enough to see it for what it is, which is paid propaganda.”
Other establishment media critics made similar assessments. Writing in Slate when Russia Beyond first appeared in the Post in 2008, Jack Shafer opined, “It's a bad sign for the Putin regime if it thinks this expensive PR exercise will elicit anything but laughter from the West.”
A 2017 segment from “Tucker Carlson Tonight” showed that the Washington Post’s own media columnist, Erik Wemple, did not know his paper distributed the insert.
Whether audiences are discerning is an open question. Scholarly research suggests people tend to be far more gullible than skeptical when they encounter new information -- especially if it is from a trusted source.
It is clear, however, that the U.S. intelligence community has a different understanding than Kurtz of how Russian propaganda is received by American news consumers.
The January 2017 assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russian interference in the 2016 elections named several Russian media organizations it believed were responsible for helping elect Trump. The best known was the RT network, an international television network funded by the Kremlin.
Formerly known as Russia Today, RT was forced to register as a foreign agent in 2017. Its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, is identified as a key Kremlin propagandist in the 2017 intelligence assessment and a report issued by the Department of Justice, describing RT as a proxy “of the Russian government.”
Simonyan, as it turns out, is also the editor-in-chief of Russia Beyond. And TV-Novosti, the “autonomous nonprofit organization” that manages RT, took control of Russia Beyond in 2017.
Despite the 2017 intelligence assessment’s grave concern, RT’s U.S. market share is so small it doesn’t qualify for the Nielsen ratings. That is, virtually no one in America watches it. By contrast, Russia Beyond has been delivered to millions of homes.
Nevertheless, Russia Beyond has not been targeted by the Justice Department, which did not respond to inquiries. The Times and Post declined to comment on the nature of Russia Beyond’s role in manufacturing and disseminating Russian propaganda.
It’s not hard to see why the Times and the Post took Moscow’s money. With the rise of the internet, print advertising has virtually collapsed over the last two decades. The irony is that it was Facebook and other social media platforms that really put the print media in a hard place.
Facebook is now worth upward of $350 billion, roughly 100 times more than the Times and 1,000 times more than what Jeff Bezos paid for the Post in 2013. It got that big and rich by swallowing up digital advertising that was supposed to keep prestige media like the Times and Post profitable long-term.
Instead, layoffs and buyouts are a regular occurrence at those publications (a post-election resurgence in reaction to President Trump aside). Digital-based revenue has proven incapable of compensating for the loss of retail and classified print advertising that floated modern newspapers for more than a century. So print publications tried out a variety of alternatives in recent years. One such initiative was to sell the space previously used by, for instance, department stores or automobile manufacturers, to foreign countries.
And that’s when Russia Beyond came into the story. By the time the Post and Times made deals with Russian state media, it was already clear that Vladimir Putin was no friend of democracy. But against the backdrop of the George W. Bush administration blinking at Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, and the Obama White House showing eagerness to reset relations with Russia, the Times and the Post saw nothing wrong with conducting normal business relations with the government in Moscow.
The 2016 election changed all that. Suddenly, anything that touches on Russia or Russia-related matters is cause for immediate alarm — and gives rise to headlines throughout the mainstream press.
After Mueller’s indictments of the Internet Research Agency, two other Russian entities, and 13 Russian individuals, Facebook executive Rob Goldman took to Twitter to offer his own insight.
“I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal,” tweeted Goldman. “The main goal of the Russian propaganda and misinformation effort is to divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us. It has stoked fear and hatred amongst Americans.”
The press pounced on him. Goldman was whitewashing Facebook’s auxiliary role in undermining American democracy. A “prime example of misdirection,” New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose wrote of Goldman’s tweets.
Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum took it a step further, effectively accusing Facebook and other social media of collaborating with the enemy. “They are not accidental victims of Russia’s information war,” wrote Applebaum. “They are its tools."
But what about the media companies that sign Roose’s and Applebaum’s paychecks?
March 9, 2018, 9:35 AM Eastern
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the dollar value of 40,000 British pounds in 2008. Depending on the exchange rate in a given month, it was perhaps $57,000 to $80,000, not $25,000.